A Two-Day Layover in Iceland In Winter
Despite its remote location, Iceland is extremely easy to visit. It might lie in the middle of the North Atlantic, between Greenland and Norway, and just south of the Arctic circle, but it makes for a superb stopover point when traveling from North America to Europe, or vice versa.
Moreover, both of Iceland’s airlines offer passengers the opportunity to include a free layover in their trip. These layovers can last between one day and a full week. I’ll get to that in more detail at the end of this article. First, let’s take a look at why Iceland—at first glance a rugged and uninviting place—is such a fantastic destination.
Why Should You Visit Iceland?
- 1 Why Should You Visit Iceland?
- 2 Major Highlights Within Easy Driving Distance from Keflavik/Reykjavik
- 3 Golden Circle
- 4 Þingvellir National Park
- 5 Brúarfoss
- 6 Geysir
- 7 Gullfoss
- 8 Faxi Waterfall
- 9 Reykjanes Peninsula
- 10 Blue Lagoon
- 11 Reykjanes Geopark
- 12 Garðskagi Lighthouses
- 13 Suggested Itinerary for a Two-Day Layover in Iceland in Winter
- 14 Practical Information & Advice
Iceland had been floating around the top of my travel wish list for years before I actually went there in the beginning of this year. I’ve always been attracted to northerly destinations, having cycled around Scandinavia a few years ago and lived in New England for two years. Iceland was just a naturally obvious destination for me.
There are many reasons why I think it’s a great place to visit, whether it’s during a two-day layover in Iceland or for an actual vacation. Iceland is a country of contrasts. You’ll find glaciers and geysers, volcanoes and waterfalls, the northern lights and the midnight sun. Its landscape is almost otherworldly, consisting of expansive lava rock plains, barren mountain ranges, black beaches and steam rising from fissures.
Iceland has one of the world’s most extraordinary natural features. It’s the only place on earth where you can walk on/between the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, the very meeting point—separation point would be more precise—of the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates. Add to that numerous imposing waterfalls, huge glaciers and, in winter, the aurora borealis, and you’ve got yourself a truly unique destination.
On top of that, Iceland also has a vibrant culture. The result of centuries of isolated existence, Icelandic culture is distinct and rich in folklore, legends and sagas. It’s a nation of poets and writers, musicians and architects. And everything reflects back to Iceland’s magnificent nature, from the subjects of songs to architectural designs.
Major Highlights Within Easy Driving Distance from Keflavik/Reykjavik
All these features, natural as well as cultural, combine to make Iceland one of the hottest destinations in the world right now. Tourism is booming, more than a million of visitors flocking to this North Atlantic island nation each year. (To put that number into perspective: it’s more than three times the country’s population.)
I strongly recommend that you visit Iceland as well. It’s fantastic. Personally, I only spent two days there—on a layover between Europe and the United States—but that was enough to make me want to go back again. Although a two-day layover in Iceland is plenty of time to get a feeling for the country and see some of its major highlights, there will still be so much more to explore.
This article, however, is mainly about things you should do during a two-day layover in Iceland, so let’s get to that.
Iceland’s one international airport lies in the town of Keflavik, a half-hour drive southeast of Reykjavik, its capital. It lies basically on the south western most point of the country. That might seem like it could make it difficult to get anywhere interesting, but the opposite is true, actually. There are plenty of fascinating places within easy driving distance from Keflavik International Airport and, therefore, from Reykjavik as well.
Without question Iceland’s most popular tourist attraction is the Golden Circle. Located in South Iceland, one of the country’s many regions, the Golden Circle connects three of Iceland’s main attractions—Thingvellir National Park, Geysir and Gullfoss.
Because of its proximity to Reykjavik, this loop drive is done by hundreds of thousands of people visiting Iceland. It’s really where you should start your visit. If you only have a day-long layover, this is what you should focus on. Even though it takes in three amazing attractions, it doesn’t take more than one full day to complete.
Þingvellir National Park
When driving the Golden Circle in a clockwise direction, starting in Keflavik or Reykjavik, the first point of interest you’ll hit is Þingvellir National Park (anglicized as Thingvellir). Its name is a combination of the Icelandic words Þing, meaning parliament, and vellir, meaning plains.
The national park encompasses what’s arguably the most important place in the history of Iceland. At Þingvellir, the oldest still existing parliamentary institution in the world was founded in 930. This was where the AlÞing met every year, a gathering where the Lawspeaker proclaimed new laws and where disputes were settled. In the year 1000 in Þingvellir, Christianity was adopted as Iceland’s official religion. Many centuries later, in 1944, this was the site were Iceland became an independent republic.
In addition to this significant human history, Þingvellir has more to offer. It’s been a national park since 1928 because of its remarkable geologic and volcanic features. This is one of the world’s best places to see continental drift, the separation of two tectonic plates. At Almannagjá (Everyman’s Gorge in English), you can literally walk between two continents.
Þingvellir also lies on the shore of Þingvallavatn, Iceland’s largest lake. The Öxará river runs through Almannagjá on its way to the lake, creating a beautiful waterscape on the way. The river tumbles into the gorge at the Öxarárfoss, one of the prettiest waterfalls in this part of the country.
This unique combination of historic sites and exceptional nature is why Þingvellir National Park is a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site.
On the way between Þingvellir National Park and the geysers of Haukadalur, you’re encouraged to take the time and make the effort to see Brúarfoss. Although it can be a challenge to locate this waterfall, it’s—in my opinion—the most beautiful waterfall on the Golden Circle.
Consisting of hundreds of tiny falls and cascades, Brúarfoss features wonderfully blue water and can be admired from a bridge across the Brúara river. Getting to that bridge involves locating a small parking area on a dirt road and some hiking. In winter, you’ll definitely need a 4WD vehicle to get there.
I personally had some trouble finding the parking lot, but eventually did manage to get there. When driving on Route 37 toward Geysir, you’ll have to turn left onto a dirt road called Brekkuskógur. This road leads to an area of summer houses. Don’t be put off by the sign saying “private property”, as you can, in fact, continue onward.
After passing two sizeable boards with a layout of the summer house area, you should notice a small sign on the lefthandside of the road that points toward “Brúara”. Follow the sign and after a minute or two, there will be a tiny parking area on the left side of the road. Park there, hit the hiking trail, cross a small wooden bridge and follow the sound of the waterfall. Once you reach a second bridge, you’ll realize that the effort to get there was absolutely, totally worth it.
Brúarfoss ended up being my number one favorite place that I visited during my two-day layover in Iceland. The biggest reason for that was the fact that I was completely alone. I didn’t see anyone else during my half hour or so at the waterfall.
The next stop is Geysir in a geothermal area known as Haukadalur. The Great Geysir is what all other geysers in the world are named after. It has, however, been dormant since 1916. Luckily for visitors, though, the rest of the area is still very active.
There are numerous small hot springs, bubbling mud pools and steam vents. The current major attraction in Haukadalur is Strokkur, the world’s most reliable geyser. Located a few minutes’ walk from Geysir, Strokkur erupts at regular intervals of eight to ten minutes. It’s a massively popular place, complete with gift shops, hotels, a visitor center and a large parking lot.
Despite the hordes of tourists that visit the area, it’s an absolute must for any first-time visitor to Iceland. I recommend spending about an hour there, which gives you plenty of time to witness and photograph a handful of eruptions, as well as explore the area a bit further.
The third main attraction on the Golden Circle is Gullfoss (Golden Waterfall in English). Like Geysir, this destination is also flooded by day trippers. It’s overwhelmingly popular, but with good reason. Gullfoss is one of Iceland’s most spectacular waterfalls.
Actually made up of two huge waterfalls dropping into a narrow gorge, Gullfoss is said to be one of Europe’s most powerful waterfalls. You can admire this mighty waterfall from two viewing platforms. When visiting in winter, though, make sure to dress warmly. When I was there, it was ridiculously windy, the wind blowing countless tiny droplets of water toward the platforms. This made it quite hard to take good photos—when pointing my lens at the waterfall, it got soaked in mere seconds.
The Faxi Waterfall is another of the couple of less-visited places on the Golden Circle, just like Brúarfoss. It lies just off the main road and is not on the itinerary of bus tours from Reykjavik. It does make for a scenic stopping point, though.
More information about the Golden Circle and its attractions is found here.
The Reykjanes Peninsula is the most southwestern area in Iceland. It’s where Keflavik International Airport is located. It’s also the location of the world-famous Blue Lagoon. Besides those two places, there’s a lot more to explore in this relatively unknown region.
The Blue Lagoon is one of the most well-known and most visited tourist attractions in Iceland. This spa is located amid the lava fields in Grindavik, its mineral-rich waters claimed to help cure certain skin diseases.
This is not a natural spa, though. It’s man-made, the water coming from the nearby geothermal power plant Svartsengi. Even though it wasn’t opened to the public until 1992, the Blue Lagoon has been featured in several movies, documentaries and TV shows. It’s grown into one of Iceland’s star attractions.
If you want to visit the Blue Lagoon, you have to make reservations beforehand. Tickets aren’t sold at the door. I, personally, didn’t visit the Blue Lagoon during my two-day layover in Iceland. I did drive by, though, but not having a pre-booked ticket and my focus laying on other attractions in the area, I decided to skip it.
The Reykjanes Geopark was the main reason I dedicated a half-day to the Reykjanes Peninsula. This peninsula is a geothermal hotspot and the only place in the world where you can see the Mid-Atlantic Ridge rising up above sea level. This uniqueness is why it’s a UNESCO Global Geopark, indicating the area’s enormous importance.
The Reykjanes Geopark occupies a fairly large area and is dotted with no fewer than 55 of points of interest. In this landscape characterized by lava fields, tuff mountains, shield volcanoes, craters and hyaloclastite ridges, the greatest attraction is the Bridge Between Continents. This bridge is exactly what its name indicates—it literally connects two continents, spanning the gap formed by separating tectonic plates.
At the Reykjanes Peninsula, there are more lighthouses than villages. These beacon buildings dot the entire coastline and you can get up and close to many of them. My favorite one—or, rather, two—is in the small town of Garðskagi on the northwestern tip of the peninsula.
The Old Lighthouse in Garðskagi is exceptionally picturesque, set on a concrete platform surrounded by dark rocks and water. The New Lighthouse, located behind it, is the tallest one in Iceland. There’s also a nice sand beach and several tidal pools popular with numerous species of birds.
More information about the Reykjanes Peninsula can be found here.
Suggested Itinerary for a Two-Day Layover in Iceland in Winter
Before we continue with this itinerary, let me say that this is the exact itinerary that I laid out for myself during my two-day layover in Iceland. You can, of course, play around with this and create your own. However, I do recommend that you include all destinations that I did. I had an absolute blast during my time in Iceland and enjoyed each and every place I visited.
You’ll most likely arrive in Iceland in the morning or early afternoon. If that’s the case, you should allow at least two nights in Iceland before continuing your journey to your final destination. The lay-out of your visit would then be something like this: arrival – one afternoon and evening – overnight – whole day – overnight – one morning – departure.
You will spent that first afternoon in Iceland by picking up your rental car (see below) and driving to your accommodation (also see below). Focusing on the Golden Circle during this short layover, you’re encouraged to book a place to stay that’s on or near it. This allows you to spend the maximum amount of time actually exploring, instead of driving.
Consider that first afternoon and evening as time to get settled, to get as close to your priority destination(s) as possible. In the morning, you should get up before sunrise—which isn’t all that early anyway, if you’re visiting Iceland in winter. When I was there, in late January, the sun didn’t rise until about 10.30am. Make sure you’re at your first destination by sunrise. This will most likely be Þingvellir National Park. Spend an hour or two exploring this amazing national park before continuing onward to, in this order, Brúarfoss, Geysir, Gullfoss and the Faxi Waterfall. Along the way, you’ll also see plenty of Icelandic horses galloping and grazing in fields, making for excellent photo opportunities. The sunset in late-January was just before 5pm, which gives you about six and a half hours of daylight to complete the Golden Circle. This is plenty of time.
Spend the night at the same accommodation and, the next morning, rise early again and head back toward Keflavik International Airport. Depending on when your flight is, you’ll have some to a lot of time to explore the Reykjanes Peninsula. I didn’t have time to visit the Blue Lagoon, but if you do, I definitely recommend that as well. If not, do what I did and simply go for a leisure drive across the lava plains of the peninsula. Don’t miss the Bridge Between Continents and the lighthouses in Garðskagi. Drop off your rental car at the airport, which is only about fifteen minutes from Garðskagi.
Practical Information & Advice
First of all, even though it’s winter in Iceland, that doesn’t mean it’s extremely cold. During my visit, it was wetter than it was cold. I brought all my warmest clothing, but didn’t bring any rain clothes. So, here’s my most useful tip: bring a raincoat when visiting Iceland in winter.
Iceland’s two airlines—WOW Air and Iceland air—allow you to include a layover into one leg of your trip without any extra fees. This layover can last between one day to about a week. It’s a great way to break up your journey between Europe and North America.
There are many car rental companies in both Keflavik and Reykjavik. One of the cheapest, however, is SADcars. All their vehicles are second-hand vehicles, which is why they can keep their prices so incredibly low. I had a 4WD vehicle, which was in excellent condition and perfect to get around on Iceland’s icy dirt roads in January. A 4WD is necessary if you’d like to do some off-the-beaten-track exploring.
There’s plenty of accommodation found in the southwestern part of Iceland. From Keflavik and Reykjavik to the Golden Circle region, you’ll find numerous hotels, hostels and guesthouses. I stayed at Ljósafossskóli Hostel, a large hostel housed in an old school building, located about thirty minutes from Þingvellir National Park. This hostel’s location near the Golden Circle was absolutely ideal for visiting this popular region.