Most layovers are inconvenient and annoying wastes of time, but airlines out of Iceland, like WOW Air and Iceland Air, are working to change this.
To boost business and tourism, Icelandic airlines are offering travelers the opportunity to add free or dirt-cheap extended layovers to their trips.
For example, in November 2016 after three weeks in the United Kingdom, I stayed over in Reykjavik for three days of exploration.
But this year when I was planning my three weeks in Italy, I knew I couldn’t afford an extended stay in Iceland. But since the flight schedule would give me a 10-12 hour layover on each end of the trip, I decided to see if I could explore enough of Iceland in a day to make it worth venturing out.
Spoiler Alert: I most definitely did!
I arrived at Keflavik International Airport around 4:45 AM (or almost 1 AM back at home in Philly) and headed straight to Avis/Hertz. My biggest concern about exploring for the next 10 hours was the rental car process, but to my pleasant surprise it was incredibly smooth. By sunrise, I was cruising through miles and miles of open road, passing hilly fields and beautiful blue rivers.
After about an hour on the road, I arrived at my first stop, Þórufoss or Thorufoss (pronounced Thor-oo-foss), an off-the-beaten-path stop along the Golden Circle, Iceland’s most popular tourist route.
Conveniently located just off of Route 36 with a parking lot and no hiking required, Þórufoss was a perfect stop for my “Iceland in a Day” road trip.
The falls drops about 50 feet and is approximately 100 feet wide. Visitors can climb down the bank to get a closer look or to walk along the river. I decided to stay put though because the bank was pretty steep and muddy, and I didn’t want to risk an injury since I was alone and had limited time.
Héraðsskólinn Boutique Hostel
Shortly after getting back on the road, I realized I had made a pretty big mistake in my road trip plan — I knew where I wanted to get lunch but had forgotten about breakfast. Hungry and nowhere near a restaurant, I pulled up Google Maps on my phone and looked for hostels along my route. I was hoping they’d be serving breakfast to their guests and wouldn’t mind an extra customer.
I found the Héraðsskólinn Boutique Hostel located right down the street from the Laugarvatan Fontana Geothermal Baths. Originally designed by Iceland’s most well known architect, Guðjón Samúelsson, Héraðsskólinn served as a school from 1928 until the early 1990s. The staff was friendly and welcoming, and the dining room had a fun but classy schoolroom theme with a beautiful view of a lake out back.
I paid about 18000 K ($20) to help myself to a cup of tea and their breakfast buffet (breads, sandwich meats, cheeses, hard boiled eggs, jams, muesli, yogurt, and some veggies). It was also a nice opportunity to warm up, rest and read a bit, and use the bathroom.
Vigdalaug Hot Springs
Feeling refreshed after a nice relaxing breakfast, I drove down the street to check out Laugarvatan. I knew it wasn’t opening until later in the morning and that I didn’t have time to stick around for a soak in the geothermal pools, but I still wanted to take a look and see how it compared to the Blue Lagoon.
It’s smaller and much less showy, but these may actually be arguments in favor of visiting, not against. So if you find yourself in that region of Iceland, as opposed to way down south by the Blue Lagoon, I would definitely recommend stopping by for a relaxing dip.
After driving past Laugarvatan, I went next door to check out Vigdalaug, a small hot spring that stars in Icelandic sagas. According to local legend, when Iceland converted to Christianity in 1000 AD, chieftains chose to be baptized here in the warm waters, as opposed to in the ice cold waters of the neighboring lake.
Armed with Google Maps and a pretty descriptive blog post from Unlocking Kiki, I was pretty confident I would find it easily. I was wrong.
The directions took me off the main road and onto a gravel road winding through what seemed to be a partially completed development of vacation homes.
The little blue dot on my phone’s map let me know I was close, but still there was nowhere to pull over/park and no trails in site. As I drove back and forth through the development, I passed two or three couples who confirmed they were also trying to figure out where to go. Eventually, we joined forces and went off in search of Bruarfoss together. About 5 or 10 minutes later, we found ourselves triumphantly standing on a bridge over the falls. The hunt was completely worth it!
Geysir and Strokkur
The Geysir Hot Spring Area is home to the “original geyser” and the one that all other geysers are named after. Iceland’s Geysir is the first geysir to be documented in print with known activity as far back as 1294. While it still remains active today, it does not erupt often and is known to go years without erupting.
However, there are about 10 to 12 other geysers, big and small, at this site with the largest being Strokkur. While I was there, Strokkur was erupting every 5-10 minutes and reached heights of about 50-60 feet.
I probably spent about 15 minutes walking around and looking at the different geysers. If time wasn’t limited and it wasn’t raining, I may have stayed a little longer but overall I didn’t feel rushed.
Across the street from the geysers is a nice rest stop with a gas station, bathrooms, souvenir shop, and restaurants.
After getting my fill of geysers, I was off to the last stop of the Golden Circle: Gulfoss Falls. Unfortunately, the rain was picking up, so I didn’t spend too much time at Gulfoss. The falls were massive and, besides Niagara, easily the largest I have seen.
The road and parking lots are situated above the falls providing a nice clear view in to the ravine. I imagine it would be breathtaking on a clear, sunny day. If you get a nice day, make sure to give yourself more than the 5 or 10 minutes I spent here.
Friðheimar has large greenhouses with artificial lighting used to grow tomatoes throughout the dark Icelandic winters and set up within the greenhouse atrium is a small cafe serving up warm drinks, tomato soup and fresh breads.
I had been looking forward to the experience of lunch in this cozy spot, but besides about four hours of sleep on the plane, I had been going for 24 hours and the dreary rainy day was not helping my energy level. The last thing I wanted to do was fall asleep driving, so I power napped for about 20-30 minutes in the car, and then rushed inside to see if there was time to eat.
Unfortunately, a tour bus had just arrived and there was a long line for tables. I still had one more stop on my to do list for the day and wanted to make sure I got back to the airport with plenty of time, so I chose to just go for a quick walk through the greenhouses and purchase a cup of soup to go. It was fresh and delicious.
Kerið Crater Lake
The final stop of my road trip that day was Kerid Crater Lake. By this point, I was definitely running low on time, but it was right on the main road, so I quickly parked, paid my 400 ISK (just under $4) and ran up the trail to get a view of the crater.
Kerid crater is believed to have been formed when a cone volcano erupted, ran out of magma, and collapsed in on itself.
Steep slopes surround most of the crater, but one side has a more approachable incline allowing visitors to walk down and into the crater to the water’s edge. After soaking it in and snapping a few photos, I was off to the airport.
My flight for Italy was scheduled to leave at 5:30 PM and my goal was to return the rental car by 3:00 PM. It ended up being closer to 3:30. I knew I still had plenty of time, but I was feeling rushed: “What if there is a problem when I return the car? What if there is a backup with airport security?”
But things couldn’t have been smoother. Everyone was friendly, kind and helpful including the rental car company employees, the airline representatives, and the security agents. I found my way to my gate with time to spare.
So is it worth turning your layover in to a road trip around Southern Iceland? Can you see enough in 10 hours to make it worth it?
Of course, if you have the time and money to stay longer in Iceland you most definitely should, but if your schedule or finances do not allow you to extend your layover know that you can still go on quite the adventure with even just a few hours.
I rented the car with Avis/Hertz for just under $75 for the day and spent about $35 on gas (this would have been cheaper if I had filled up before coming back to the airport).
All in all; after breakfast, lunch, entrance to the crater, and snacks at the airport, I spent less than $150 for all of that day’s adventures.