Iceland’s roaring waterfalls, exploding geysers and lunar landscape are all closer than you think. With strong tailwinds you can be in Reykjavik in about five hours. The recently launched direct flights from Pittsburgh on WOW air (starting at $99 each way with three price levels) make for quick trips as well as fun layovers if you’re heading to Europe. It beats changing planes in New York—especially since WOW air offers stopover options that cost little or no extra to book. (Read more about what to expect when traveling on WOW Air here.)
My husband and I met up in Iceland with a friend flying in from Newark (also on WOW air) and it wasn’t long after we arrived that we started plotting a return trip. There’s a lot of incredible scenery and things to explore, and a friendly vibe everywhere. It was good to know we wouldn’t have to pack everything in on this one trip since returning is easy.
WOW air’s friendly and efficient crew—decked out in retro, jet set magenta uniforms—makes the overnight flight smooth. Something about traveling to a new place along with a bunch of other first-time visitors made it even more fun.
Based on current schedules, all the flights from Pittsburgh arrive in Reykjavik around 5 a.m. What to do at that hour? Many people make their way directly to The Blue Lagoon to spend a few hours while waiting to check-in to an Airbnb or hotel.
Floating around in the geothermal pools with breakfast cocktails makes for a perfect soft landing in Iceland. The Blue Lagoon is located a short drive from the airport. It’s a popular stop that you can—and should—book ahead online before your trip. There are busses at the airport that will take you directly there, and later, on to Reykjavik if you don’t have a car. It’s a great place to start or finish your trip by soaking up the experience. Luggage check is available.
How much time will I need?
It’s easy on just a day or two stop in Reykjavik to see some incredible sights. If you make the city your base, spectacular waterfalls, glaciers, volcanoes and geysers are all within a 90-minute drive. The Golden Circle, a scenic loop filled with some jaw-dropping sites, can easily be accomplished in a day. A longer trip all the way down to Vik along the south coast can also be a day trip. It’s possible to do both excursions on a self-drive tour or use any of the wide variety of tour options offered. If you’re a Game Of Thrones fan, production for Season 7 returned to film on the island this year. Tours to some of the show’s famous sites are some of the Iceland’s most popular.
Booking a night (or more) in areas outside of Reykjavik offers the chance to check out more places without having to worry about shuttling back. Based on recommendations, we headed to the Snaefellsness Peninsula breaking up our six-night stay in Reykjavik with one night out of the city.
Just over two hours from Reykjavik, The Snaefellsness Peninsula juts out along the west coast. Locals call it “Iceland in a nutshell” because it has a little bit of everything: glaciers, calderas, waterfalls, rugged mountains, lava fields and incredible beaches.
If you’re lucky to have even more time, you’ll be able to fill it easily. The Ring Road (Route 1) winds around the circumference of Iceland in an 800-mile route that offers a chance to take in many of the country’s very different regions. Many suggest 10 to 14 days to really make the best of this trek. The weather and the time of year you are traveling can obviously have an impact.
What about Reykjavik itself?
Reykjavik is a very manageable city with a walkable town center lined with restaurants, bars, interesting coffee houses, colorful buildings and unique shops, giving it a welcoming feel. Airbnb, hostel and hotel options make it possible to stay right in the heart of things. Tourism is big here, but it’s not hard to break away from the touristy spots.
The Hallgrimskirkja, the largest church in Iceland, sits at the top of the hill in the city center and has an observation deck with views of Reykjavik and the surrounding mountains. It’s a striking, modern cathedral and popular photo spot. There are also several museums, exhibitions and the stunning Harpa concert hall worth exploring.
If you’re the kind of person who likes their nightlife to creep into the morning, you’ll be pleased. Many bars and clubs in Reykjavik stay open until 5 a.m.
Tips for making the best of your Iceland adventure
The I heart Reykjavik blog is a great travel guide filled with many useful details including great advice for renting a car and other logistics. Car rentals are pricey (We know of one recent traveler who got a great deal renting the lower-cost Sad Cars which are used.) The self-drive guides with maps are a great place to start when planning your trip.
Do your homework on car rental insurance. Storms, gravel, volcanic ash, and sand can all cause damage to your car. Wind strong enough to rip off your car doors is real.
Iceland is expensive, even outside of Reykjavik. This is especially true when it comes to food and drinks which is why it’s a good idea to stock up on booze at the airport’s duty-free shop.
If you’re staying a few days and have access to a kitchen, consider hitting a grocery store for basics including provisions for your day trips. Bonus is Iceland’s discount grocery chain and a good place to stock up. There’s one right in the heart of Reykjavik.
One reasonably priced ($4 or so) and readily available food option is hot dogs, known here as pylsurs, which are a big deal in Iceland. They’re made of lamb and served on a steamed bun with raw onions and crispy fried onions, ketchup, a sweet brown mustard and remoulade. The Huffington Post says it might be the best hot dog in the world and offers a place to try it. (We did and it was quite tasty.) Almost every gas station market has lines of people waiting for their pylsurs.
While it’s possible to cut down on some expenses, don’t miss out on the excellent restaurants and bars—the experiences are really worth it.
No need to worry about cash. Credits cards are welcomed everywhere. Also, tipping is not expected, nor is there any place to put a tip on the charge slips you sign.
Beware: weather can change on a dime and strong winds kick up a lot. Be prepared for all four seasons in a day, including snow in some areas in June. Rain gear, gloves, hats and layers are essential—and don’t forget your bathing suit for the Blue Lagoon and Iceland’s numerous hot springs and public pools.
If you start exploring a little earlier in the day you can get a jump on the convoys that form with tour buses and sightseers. This is especially true for the Golden Circle drive. Another way to avoid traffic? Hit the furthest destinations first and work your way back.
Download the AppyHour app for a handy way of navigating happy hours in Reykjavik.
Wi-fi is available in almost every hotel, restaurant and bar, even at some roadside gas stations. Google Maps worked well offline, but an old-fashioned road map is not a bad idea.
Hot springs and pools are popular all over Iceland. Check out hotpoticeland.com for useful guides and maps.
The Blue Lagoon website video is worth checking out in advance to learn everything you need to know about the geothermal pools.
Got a connecting flight through Reykjavik?
The low fares continue on WOW air as you fly through to Europe. A round-trip flight from Pittsburgh to Dublin cost NEXTpittsburgh‘s publisher $550 in late June, peak time for travel. And the connection through Reykjavik is easy coming and going, she reports. Read more about what to expect when traveling on WOW Air here.