48 Hours in Iceland: Making The Most of Your Stopover

Iceland – the land of ice and fire – is an incredibly beautiful country and has been steadily gaining popularity over the past few years (no doubt helped a fair amount by its use as a location for filming in Game of Thrones).

With thundering waterfalls, scenic national parks and magical geothermal spas, Iceland is a not-to-be-missed destination and with IcelandAir and WowAir opening up new routes and providing amazing stopover opportunities, the small Nordic island is now easier (and cheaper) to visit – even if you only get 48 hours in Iceland!

 Disclaimer: this article contains affiliate links which help me to keep on running this blog and provide tips to you! The links cost you no extra (and in some cases save you money) and provide me with a little bit of income so I can blog more for you. So I mean, if you hate my blog, feel free not to click 😉 

The Basics

Iceland is a small island located in the North Atlantic and the capital is Reykjavík, situated on the western coast, the northernmost capital in the world. With a population of only around 330,000, they are one of the most sparsely populated countries – with a population density of just over 3 people per square kilometre they have, along with Australia, Namibia, Western Sahara, Mongolia and Greenland, the lowest population density in the world.

They are part of the EEA (not the EU) and Schengen Area, and they DON’T use the Euro. Their currency is the Icelandic kronur (ISK), and €1 is approximately 126 kronur (£1 = 139 ISK, $1 = 108 ISK), as of Sept 2018.

The language is Icelandic and a few basic phrases to get you around include:

Good day – Góðan daginn (goh-than da-yin)

Hello (informal) – Halló (hall-oh)

Please – Gjörðu svo vel (gyoer-dhu svoh vell)

Thank you – Takk fyrir (tack fih-rihr)

Yes – Já (yah)

No – Nei (nay)

Do you speak English? – Talarðu ensku? (ta-lar-dhu en-sku?)

Goodbye – Bless! (…bless)

Cheers! – Skál! (scowl)

Most staff in restaurants/bars/hotels/stores tend to speak very good English, but it’s always handy to have a few phrases at hand! I found that locals are always pleasantly surprised if you know a few words.

Recommended language apps: Lingopal Icelandic LITE (free), Icelandic Dictionary by TopOfStack Software (free)

 

Getting to Iceland

Iceland is becoming more and more accessible thanks to the national carrier, IcelandAir, and budget carrier, WowAir, opening more and more international routes departing from and going to Reykjavík.

Cheap flights to New York via Iceland - 48h in Iceland stopover! How to spend 48 hours in Iceland.

WowAir offers flights to New York with stopovers in Iceland

A few other airlines also serve Reykjavík, but these are limited: Delta Airlines (to and from JFK), EasyJet (to and from UK airports – London Luton, London Gatwick, Bristol, Belfast, Manchester, Edinburgh; to and from Basel, Mulhouse-Freiburg and Geneva), Norwegian, GermanWings (to and from Cologne), SAS (to and from Oslo), AirBerlin (to and from a variety of German airports, plus some others) and Austrian Airlines (to and from Vienna).

 

Cheap flights from UK to Iceland - 48h in Iceland stopover. If you only have 48 hours in Iceland, read on to find out what to do in Iceland!

Cheap flights from UK airports to Reykjavík! (via Skyscanner)

There are also domestic flights throughout Iceland, as well as flights to Greenland and the Faroe Islands.

It is also possible to travel by ferry from Denmark, although this is a weekly service and it takes two nights. It goes via the Faroe Islands and goes to Seyðisfjörður on the east coast.

I have flown with both WowAir and IcelandAir and they were both great experiences. I flew to New York with IcelandAir and that was when (on my return) I spent 48h in Iceland as my stopover.

Have you flown to Iceland or within Iceland? Have you gone by ferry? Tell us in the comments!

Getting Around Iceland

Reykjavík is really quite small and is easy to walk around, although some sights are a little further out and it is therefore easier to go by bus. I will cover more about getting around the capital in Day 2 – a day in Reykjavík! For this 48 hours in Iceland itinerary, there is more than enough to keep you occupied!

In this article I will only cover taking tours (where you will be shuttled to each different place by coach) as I feel that this is much easier when only in Iceland for a short period of time! However, if you are spending slightly longer in the land of ice and fire, you are better off getting a rental car like Michaela did (and check out this incredible 50 stop road trip of Iceland!), touring by bike (ONLY if experienced in this area!) or hitchhiking. You can also travel by plane within Iceland, for example to Akureyri and Husavík in the north or Seyðisfjörður in the east.

(Important article regarding visiting Iceland – what you should know when visiting!)

There are also long-distance buses serving a large amount of Iceland, but these are often just as expensive (or more so) than flights. BSI is the bus station in Reykjavík (not to be confused with the Gray Line bus terminal, which is only for Gray Line tours!) and you can catch a variety of buses from here, such as to AkureyriSeyðisfjörður and Reykjanesbær. There is luggage storage (1,000 ISK per item per day or 1,500 ISK for ‘odd shaped items’ such as bikes or skis) and a lovely café – if you do eat there, get the meat stew (around 1,590 ISK including soup, self-serve salad, soda and coffee) as it is absolutely delicious, super filling and great value for money (approx £11).

Day 1 – Golden Circle Tour

For your first day, I recommend a tour and the tour that I recommend is the full Golden Circle tour. Yes, it’s touristy. Yes, it’s a classic, but YES it is worth it!

We did the Golden Circle Classic tour with Gray Line Iceland and our guide, Ástþór, was absolutely amazing.

Recommended Tours: Gray Line Iceland – Golden Circle ClassicReykjanes Peninsula and Golden Circle (longer tour and does not include Fákasel)

Here is what you will be doing on the Golden Circle tour…

Þingvellir National Park

Þingvellir (pronounced ‘Thing-vet-lihr’) National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site located in south Island. Here you will find the longest running parliament in the world (established in 930 AD) and amazing landscapes due to it being located on the border between the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates. After large numbers of settlers began to arrive in Iceland in the 9th and 10th centuries, a seat of ‘government’ was established here, in Þingvellir.

In 1662 Iceland swore allegiance to the King of Denmark and the government/council at Þingvellir was used only in a judicial form and Þingvellir itself was the site of many executions. It then became a symbol of national unity and independence during the struggle for independence and it was used as a seat of government in some form until the late 18th century, when the main government moved to Reykjavík.

 

Girl standing in Þingvellir National Park in Iceland - things to do with only 48 hours in Iceland

 

Gullfoss

Gullfoss, or ‘golden waterfall’ is an incredible 32m high double waterfall on the south coast, about a ten-minute drive from nearby Geysir. In the summer, due to heavy rain and glacial runoff, it is the largest volume waterfall in Europe! It is truly magnificent for photos and just generally for watching and admiring the power of nature.

There are lots of people but you can find a few spots away from the crowds. DO NOT cross any barriers (they are mostly just cordoned off with rope but we saw one idiot someone almost fall while having their photo taken right on the edge after climbing over the barrier. However, I like to think of this as Darwinian evolution, AKA survival of the fittest. Or most intelligent.

The café at Gullfoss is excellent, albeit pricey (but this IS Iceland and a very touristy spot), and I definitely recommend the lamb soup. Don’t forget to take warm clothing, especially a windbreaker! It can get pretty breezy up here as it is fairly flat and, in certain places, there is a fair amount of spray coming off the falls.

Gullfoss Waterfall in Iceland Summer - things to do with only 48 hours in Iceland

Geysir

Geysir is where we get the English word ‘geyser’ and the hot spring here is the original namesake. Geysir itself no longer erupts (aside from after major earthquakes), but the nearby Strokkur Geysir erupts approximately every five minutes and really is a sight to behold! Just be careful that you’re not standing downwind…

The temperature of the water in the eruptions is around 125 ºC and water in the streams and in inactive geysers can be around 80 – 100 ºC, so don’t go testing the temperature unless you’re a huge fan of second-degree burns (you really shouldn’t be).

The Geysir field is an amazing place to observe the incredible natural phenomena and Icelanders are extremely proud of it. Barriers are minimal which provide for great photo opportunities and excellent viewing, but if you are with small children or idiots like the guy who almost fell into the waterfall, please take care and make sure you keep an eye on them (or hold their hand) at all times!

 

Faxi*

Faxi, aka Vatnsleysufoss (you can see why it’s referred to as Faxi), is a gorgeous smaller waterfall along the Golden Circle route. Located on the Tungufljót river, it is a popular fishing spot due to an abundance of salmon.

If you are self-touring Iceland, there is a well-recommended restaurant called Vid Faxa next to the fall. It is located in an area with the incredible name of Bláskógabyggð, which I challenge you to try to pronounce. I’m totally kidding, you won’t manage it. Unless you’re Icelandic, then that’s cheating.

Girl visiting Faxi waterfall in Iceland - things to do with only 2 days in Iceland

*not included in all itineraries, we only visited as we had extra time after Þingvellir.

Skálholt Church

Skálholt is incredibly important in the history of Iceland as it was the spiritual centre of the country from around 1000 AD, when Christianity was made the de jure religion of the island. It remained so for approximately 700 years, until someone had the bright idea of moving it (the spiritual centre, not the region or church) to the capital city.

In the 17th century a wooden church, larger than the current 20th-century structure, was built at Skálholt, although the medieval church was the largest ever built on the site. The modern cathedral you now see was inaugurated in 1963.

Skalholt Church in Iceland - things to do with only 48h in Iceland

Fákasel

Fákasel Horse Park is an amazing place where you can meet the gorgeous Icelandic horses (do NOT refer to them as ponies), eat amazing food and you can also ride the horses here if you wish. Unfortunately, it was raining when we visited and so the usually friendly and curious horses were looking a little miffed at being outside in the rain.

Fakasel Horse Park icelandic horses - things to do with only 48 hours in Iceland

 

Looking for an even more intensive tour? Head off on the 10 hour South Iceland tour and see spectacular waterfalls, impressive volcanoes and an enchanting black sand beach.

Have you done the Golden Circle tour? Tell me in the comments!

 

Day 2 – Reykjavík

Eat & Drink

Café Loki (Lokastíg 28)

Café Loki is a must-visit when coming to Iceland! I have been here twice now and the food is still great (and in some places… interesting). With items on the menu ranging from mashed fish on rye bread and smoked lamb on flatbread to fermented shark and ram’s testicles, there will be something for everyone (including a very pleasant lamb soup). Well, unless you’re vegan. Then potentially not.

Located just across from Hallgrímskirkja, it’s a great place to end up for dinner after a day of sightseeing. You have to try the fermented shark at least once (and if you order it and don’t eat any, you will be berated by the waitress, which is highly entertaining to watch), although maybe don’t inquire as to the process of how it’s made until after you’ve tried some…

I recommend having the Icelandic Plate II followed by the amazing Skyr (a type of yoghurt) and caramel sauce pancakes. Loki also offers an intriguing rye bread ice cream, and don’t forget to try Brennivín (an Icelandic schnapps), also referred to as ‘the Black Death’!

Súfistinn (Laugavegur 18)

A four-floor bookshop with a lovely café on the top floor serving delicious coffee and a good variety of loose leaf teas as well as some impressive cakes (definitely recommended). An excellent place to grab some amazing Icelandic crime novels (an incredible new addition to the dark Nordic crime genre). My favourite author is Yrsa Sigurðardóttir if you need a starting point!

For more great coffee in Reykjavík, check out Crystal’s round up of her favourite coffee shops!

Bæjarins beztu pylsur (Hafnarstræti 17)

With a name that literally translates to “town’s best hotdogs”, you know you’re in for a treat. It is now a chain that has been in continuous operation since 1937 and, rain or shine, there will be a queue for these delicious (and cheap) hotdogs.

Request one ‘with everything’ (fried onions, sauerkraut, mustard, mayonnaise and ketchup) and you’ll be very content. At 420 ISK (less than £3) they are also a great budget option!

Eating hotdogs in Reykjavik, Iceland - things to do with only 48h in Iceland

You can see who was too hungry to wait for a photo… *cough* dad *cough*

Micro Bar (Vesturgata 2)

Now it’s time for a pleasant drink and Micro Bar is a great place to go to get your fix of excellent Icelandic beer. You can get a ‘taster tray’ of five or ten beers from Icelandic micro-breweries at 1,800 ISK for five or 2,800 for ten. The ‘tasters’ are approximately 125ml each and are a great way of trying out a variety of Icelandic brews.

Just mind that it’s tucked away in a corner of Vesturgata and is easily missed if you are careful! You can find details, plus lots of photos, of the Icelandic beer we tried over at my dad’s Instagram.

View over Reykjavik city

View over colourful Reykjavík by Michael of thisfpplanet

See & Do

Hallgrímskirkja (Skólavörðuholti)

Hallgrímskirkja, or ‘church of Hallgrímur’, is the largest church in Iceland at 74.5m tall. The church is named for Icelandic poet and clergyman, Hallgrímur Pétursson and was designed by architect Guðjón Samúelsson in 1937, with the design to resemble the basalt lava flows in Iceland’s landscape. It was a controversial design at the time and took 41 years to build, being finished in 1986, and Samúelsson never saw his design come to life. It is one of Reykjavík’s best-known landmarks and is visible through the city.

The church is free to enter, but if you wish to take the lift up the tower to the observation deck there is a charge of 900 ISK (around £6). On a clear day the views are incredible, especially around sunset! The tower is open in the summer months 9am – 9pm and in the winter months 9am – 5pm.

Hallgrimskirkja in Reykjavik Iceland

Hallgrímskirkja by Michaela of thisfpplanet

Culture House (‘Þjóðmenningarhúsið’, Hverfisgata 15)

This building previously housed the National Library and has been home to a variety of different museums throughout the years.

Since 2015 there has been a permanent exhibit called ‘Points of View’, which is based around the visual history of Iceland, showing different depictions of things like religion and volcanic eruptions. An incredibly interesting museum and only 700 ISK for adults, except on Wednesdays when it is free.

National Museum of Iceland (Suðurgata 41)

The National Museum costs 1500 ISK (around £10) for adults, 750 ISK for students and senior citizens and is free for under 18s. It is the oldest museum in Iceland at 153 years old and has incredible exhibitions around the history of the nation, from the Settlement to present day.

The museum is closed on Mondays and is open in the winter months 11am – 5pm and in the summer months 10am – 5pm.

Höfði (Fjörutún)

Höfði (pronounced ‘Hoef-dhi’) House is best known as being the location for the 1986 Reykjavík Summit meeting of presidents Ronald Reagan (USA) and Mikhail Gorbachev (USSR), which was effectively a step to ending the Cold War.

There is also a local legend that the house is haunted by the spirit of a young woman and accounts state that she is either a drowning or suicide victim. Some locals say that the house is located on a Viking burial site. So watch out if you hear any odd noises while visiting…

Photo of Hofdi House, Iceland - How to spend 48 hours in Iceland

Photo courtesy of _skynet via Flickr

Harpa (Austurbakka 2)

Harpa is home to the Icelandic Symphony Orchestra and, aside from incredible performances, also houses some incredible photography exhibitions that seem to be ever changing! The architecture is also very interesting and it’s a great place to escape the wind/rain/snow (or all of them) for a little while. Free to enter.

You can also sometimes observe open rehearsals for only 1900 ISK! Tickets for performances (plus comedy shows and more) can range from around 2,500 to 7,500 ISK. Tickets available at harpa.is.

Harpa concert hall symphony orchestra night Reykjavík Iceland - How to spend 48h in Iceland

The beautiful Harpa lit up at night (credit to Christina of Happy To Wander)

 

Sleep

Hlemmur Square

When I organised a week in Iceland for my university photographic society, we stayed at Hlemmur Square. I definitely recommend it for both the hostel and hotel.

Hotel rooms range from 19,000 ISK to 42,000 ISK per night and hostel beds from 2,800 ISK to 5,400 ISK per night depending on room size/season. 

Airbnb

Airbnb is a great choice in Iceland and we stayed in a lovely one bedroom flat only five minutes from the centre of Reykjavík and were hosted by the lovely Hekla. It’s often a cheaper choice but do check how far out of the city centre the house/flat is!

Click here for £25 off your first Airbnb booking! New customers only. 

For more suggestions on things to see and do when travelling Iceland on a budget, check out Global Brunch’s article 15 Tips to Help You Explore Iceland For Less!

 

Girl talking a selfie at Gullfoss in Iceland - How to spend 48 hours in Iceland

Cheeky selfie at Gullfoss with my snazzy new SJ4000 action cam!

Have you been to Iceland? Where do you recommend to sleep, eat and adventure? What should a traveller not miss in Reykjavík? Tell us in the comments!

Don’t forget to share on Pinterest/Facebook/Twitter!

Iceland in 48 Hours - Making the most of your stopover! What can you do with 48h in Iceland? Click to find out more!

Travelling to Iceland? What can you do with 48h in Iceland? Read what Penelope did on her 48h stopover in Iceland - geysirs, waterfalls, amazing food and more!

 

Visit Iceland - must-see sights in Reykjavik and beyond! What can you do with 48h in Iceland? Geysirs, waterfalls (including Gullfoss) and more.

Visit Iceland - must-see sights in Reykjavik and beyond!

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28 Comments

  • Reply
    Laura
    September 21, 2016 at 9:21 am

    Really enjoyed reading this post! I’m going in December cannot wait!!! Can’t wait to try everything you recommended especially the lab soup 🙂
    http://Www.therealboni.wordpress.com

    • Reply
      Penelope
      September 22, 2016 at 8:28 am

      Tell me how you enjoy Iceland! The lamb soup is perfect for winter. Have a great trip!

  • Reply
    Joy Sheehan
    September 28, 2016 at 7:19 pm

    This is absolutely perfect because I’ve been trying to plan my next trip abroad and Iceland is a major possibility! Loving this post and the inspiration and tips that are in it!

    • Reply
      Penelope
      October 14, 2016 at 1:28 am

      I totally planned it that way 😉 I look forward to hearing how your trip goes!

  • Reply
    Erika Bisbocci
    September 28, 2016 at 8:40 pm

    It is definitely possible to fit a lot of Iceland’s highlights in 48 hours, though more time is always nice. Though limited in time, an Iceland stopover sounds like such an incredibly convenient way to explore the country, especially since the airfare is usually just as cheap if not cheaper than a ticket that goes directly across the pond. Beautiful photos of the day you spent exploring the Golden Circle 🙂
    Erika Bisbocci recently posted… Hiking with Komodo Dragons: Komodo and RincaMy Profile

  • Reply
    Naomi
    September 28, 2016 at 9:56 pm

    This is a great guide as Iceland is usually included in trans-atlantic stopovers. I hope to visit there one day too, even for 48 hours would be great already!

    • Reply
      Penelope
      October 14, 2016 at 1:28 am

      Definitely – IcelandAir and WowAir have some amazing deals for it right now, such a good opportunity! I hope you get to go soon – tell me when you do, I’d love to hear about it!

  • Reply
    Perrisha
    September 28, 2016 at 10:35 pm

    Iceland is on my bucket list! With all this info, I’m definitely bookmarking this post. 🙂

    • Reply
      Penelope
      October 14, 2016 at 1:27 am

      Yay! Tell me when you go and what you do – I’d love to hear about your experiences!

  • Reply
    sabrina
    September 28, 2016 at 11:02 pm

    Wow! I desperately want to visit Iceland! It’s on top of my list for when I will be back to Europe. Bookmarking this, thank you! And oh! love the design of your blog! 🙂

    • Reply
      Penelope
      October 14, 2016 at 1:27 am

      Tell me what you think when you visit – I’d love to hear what you did and how you found it! And thank you so much, that means a lot <3

  • Reply
    Jaye Shields
    September 28, 2016 at 11:35 pm

    This past year almost all of my friends have gone to Iceland! Guess I better jump on the wagon 😉

    • Reply
      Penelope
      October 14, 2016 at 1:27 am

      Haha I think you should! Go while IcelandAir and WowAir have amazing deals 😉

  • Reply
    Marie
    September 28, 2016 at 11:41 pm

    Wow, great post! Thank you for sharing. As for many others, Iceland is one of those places I REALLY want to visit! All of the pictures are just stunning, and it looks like a paradise on earth. I never realized that some of the natural sights in Iceland were so close to Reykjavík! I always assumed that you would have to go for at least a week to really be able to see anything besides the city – so it’s cool to see that you were able to do so much in just 48 hours! 🙂

    • Reply
      Penelope
      October 14, 2016 at 1:26 am

      It’s amazing and yeah – really not that far from the capital, it’s great! I hope you get to visit soon 🙂

  • Reply
    Nicole Janeway
    September 29, 2016 at 8:42 am

    This is a fantastic comprehensive review!! I love your detailed take on everything from language to literature. Thanks for the recommendation of Yrsa Sigurðardóttir – you can never have too many crime novels 🙂

    I’m glad you enjoyed your time with Greyline but I have to admit I had the opposite experience. Our tour guide was TERRIBLE!! She was the least charismatic person I’ve ever met and she was saying things on the tour that we knew to be untrue – like the fact Icelandic horses have four gaits when in fact they are famous for being the only breed to have five

    Also, I liked your picks for museums and things to do on Day 2. I recommend adding Einar Jónsson sculpture garden (maybe on a future trip ❤️). It’s right by Harpa, free, and breathtaking.

    • Reply
      Penelope
      October 14, 2016 at 1:26 am

      Oh really? I’m surprised about that with Gray Line – this is the second time I’ve used them in Iceland and they’ve been amazing both times! I’ve done about six tours with them in total, I’m sorry you had a bad tour guide, that really sucks!

      And you’re welcome for the book recommendation – I love them!! Thanks for the tips too!

  • Reply
    kathy
    September 29, 2016 at 1:15 pm

    This is great. It takes me back a few years when I was travelling in Iceland. Thank you for the memories. My favorite part was the Geysir’s. I remember standing there with my camera waiting to catch the perfect opportunity to take a nice photo 🙂

    • Reply
      Penelope
      October 14, 2016 at 1:24 am

      Haha yes!! There’s something about catching that perfect moment when it erupts!

  • Reply
    Adrienne Justine
    September 29, 2016 at 9:41 pm

    Wow Iceland is so beautiful. I really hope to go there one day 🙂 Your photos are incredible. I had no idea that GOT was filmed there. So cool !

    • Reply
      Penelope
      October 14, 2016 at 1:24 am

      Thank you! You’ll absolutely love it – it’s amazing.

  • Reply
    Alex | Life Well Wandered
    October 19, 2016 at 1:05 am

    These pictures make me want to go to Iceland so badly! It’s been on my list for ages so I hope I can go soon!

    • Reply
      Penelope
      October 19, 2016 at 4:14 am

      Yay!! I can’t wait to hear what you think of it.

  • Reply
    Chelsea
    October 24, 2016 at 8:00 pm

    I’ve been wanting to go to Iceland so bad! So this just pushed me to finally book a trip

    • Reply
      Penelope
      October 30, 2016 at 12:32 am

      Ah yay! That’s amazing! Let me know how it goes. Enjoy it!

    • Reply
      Penelope
      December 29, 2016 at 4:33 pm

      Ah that’s amazing!! Feel free to get in contact if you have any other questions that I haven’t covered here. You’ll have an incredible time!

  • Reply
    Vacations with Mom
    November 15, 2016 at 10:54 pm

    Great recap of what to do on a brief trip to Iceland. And I enjoyed the rye bread ice cream, too. I went back for seconds the same day! 😉

    • Reply
      Penelope
      December 2, 2016 at 10:20 am

      Thank you! I like your style of travel, haha – seconds are always a good idea!

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