In August 2014 I took advantage of IcelandAir’s stopover program to spend a long weekend in Iceland on my way from Greece home to Washington. Here’s what I did:
How I Got There
IcelandAir offers free stopovers in Iceland on flights between the U.S. and Europe. You can stay for up to 7 nights without having it affect the price of your ticket. It’s easiest to plan and book this directly on the airline’s website, rather than using something like Kayak.
Where I Stayed
Kex Hostel: a super hip hostel in a converted biscuit factory, this felt like something right out of Brooklyn. It was industrial-cool, with things like a magnetic wall of words and vintage atlases that you could browse on worn in couches. The rooms were standard hostel-style; bathrooms were small individual rooms. No embellishments, but safe and relatively clean. The hostel’s main space centers around a bar that’s loud and crowded at night — a hangout spot for locals as well as travelers. Location is great — a 2 minute walk from the main drag.
Day 1: Reykjavik
Sandholt Bakery: I went to this little bakery and sandwich shop on Laugavegur every morning. There was always a line, but it was worth the wait. The breads were freshly baked and delicious, and they had an area with table seating + WiFi.
Hallgrímskirkja Church: I have absolutely no idea how to pronounce this one, but it’s one of the top things to do in Reykjavik. You can climb to the top of the brutalist-style building and get that classic view of Reykjavik from above, with colorful houses and rooftops laid out before you.
The Icelandic Phallological Museum: Yup. If you didn’t realize that Iceland’s a quirky little place (most of the population believes in fairies), you’ll figure it out when you get to the Penis Museum. There are preserved genitalia from all sorts of animals, large and small, plus phallic artwork, some volcanic condoms in the gift shop, and a strange assortment of penis casts from the Icelandic handball team. Don’t miss this, it’s worth an hour of your visit. (And bring cash, it’s cash only.)
Laugavegur: The main drag in Reykjavik is full of shops and quirky bars. I popped into Hrim, which was a sort of Nordic version of Anthropologie’s home section; Vinbenid, an Icelandic candy shop; and myconcept, an eclectic retro-chic shop.
Prikid: This corner spot is one of the oldest cafes in Iceland. I stopped for a beer, but it was packed with folks of all ages eating lunch.
Harpa: This prismatic waterfront concert hall is a photographer’s playground. The glass exterior reflects light both inside and out. I didn’t see a show, but spent over an hour here photographing the amazing reflections, colors and architecture. I could’ve spent the whole day here.
Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur: If there’s one thing you eat when in Iceland, make it the hot dogs from this little stand near the Harpa. They serve hot dogs topped with ketchup, sweet mustard, remoulade, fried onion and raw onion (order one with all of that), and have been called the “best hot dogs in the world.” Bonus: it’s one of the most budget-friendly things you can eat in Reykjavik.
Harbor: The harbor is a nice place to wander; aside from the Harpa and hot dogs, you’ll find colorful old fishing boats, a market, some hotels and restaurants and a handful of kiosks selling bird- and whale-watching trips.
Kex Hostel Bar: This place is packed at night — not just with travelers or hostel guests, but with locals, too. I was able to grab a seat at the bar in the afternoon and read/people watch for a while.
The Loft: The rooftop bar of this hostel has a great view of all the Laugavegur action. You don’t have to be a guest to come here, and they also have live music.
Laundromat Cafe: It’s a bar. And a laundromat. Because nothing in Iceland can just be a plain bar, apparently. They also had a pretty impressive library of color-coded books, and an overall hipster vibe.
Tíu Dropar: This cozy little bar is a favorite among local musicians (which seems to be everyone in Iceland). People might just show up with musical instruments or hop on the piano; the whole (small) bar will quickly get involved with the jam session.
Lebowski Bar: As the name suggests, there’s a Big Lebowski-themed bar in Reykjavik.
Chuck Norris Grill: Chuck Norris has a restaurant in Iceland.
Day 2: The Golden Circle
Kolaportid Flea Market: Knit wool Icelandic sweaters … and hats, and scarves, and a lot of other things. Hakarl fermented shark, which Anthony Bourdain declared the worst thing he’s ever eaten. I wasn’t about to try that, nor did I want to eat horse or whale (also for sale here), but I did notice that it’s cheaper here than at a restaurant.
Cafe Paris: Instead of eating fermented shark at the flea market, I had my one main sit-down meal here. The menu was familiar dishes (salads, burgers, pasta), not so heavy on the Icelandic specialties. (Yes, only one real meal over the weekend — Iceland’s expensive!)
Golden Circle: This is the essential tourist circuit to three of Iceland’s most visited and most accessible natural sights: Thingvellir National Park, Gullfoss waterfall, and Geysir hot springs. To save time, I did the afternoon version of the tour. It still lasted about 7 hours, but gave me the morning to explore Reykjavik more. I think the shorter tour was still plenty of time to see everything, though it did start getting dark and we didn’t get back to Reykjavik until 10 or 11 p.m. I booked with Reykjavik Excursions because their website was easy. The customer service wasn’t great, the on-bus WiFi didn’t actually work, and the guide wasn’t very helpful, but it was an easy way to see these sights. I had already booked when I arrived, but my hostel recommended Gray Line instead.
Thingvellir National Park: This national park is celebrated as the site of the first Icelandic parliament. The more interesting claim to fame, in my opinion, is its position between two tectonic plates. You can actually see where the European and North American plates are moving apart, and a new Icelandic continent is forming. You can even scuba dive in the continental rift, though I didn’t try it.
Gullfoss: This large triangular waterfall is one of the most popular sights in Iceland. The views from above are impressive, but make sure you walk down to the pointed area to see the water cascading all around you. Watch out: there’s lots of mist — your camera lens will probably get wet.
Geysir: Ever heard of a geyser? Well this is the namesake: this geothermal fountain gave geysers their name. The actual Geysir geyser doesn’t erupt very often, but nearby is Strokkur, which shoots about 100 feet in the air every 10 minutes.
Blue Lagoon: Iceland’s most famous sight, this geothermal pool is the color of antifreeze and stays warm even when the temps plummet. The Blue Lagoon is near the airport so it’s best to tack it on when you arrive or depart (you can coordinate transportation through Reykjavik Excursions). I went in the morning before my afternoon flight home; you can read how to visit the Blue Lagoon here.