Photo: Macaela Mackenzie
Touching down in Iceland feels like landing on another planet. Or maybe in Game of Thrones. (Which is actually pretty accurate since the show is filmed there.) Before I'm even off the runway, I can see why Iceland is one of the most Instagram-worthy places on earth—the rocky black volcanic terrain meeting the deep teal arctic waters are ripe for snapping. But it's the time you'll spend off your phone that makes a weekend in Iceland such an unforgettable getaway.
As a country, Iceland is wild and cozy all at the same time. With a total population of 334,000 (that's about the size of St. Louis), you could easily spend all day hiking through vast volcanic valleys without seeing a single soul. But hit up a pub in Reykjavik and it quickly becomes apparent that this is the kind of place where everyone seems to know each other and cheer each other on.
This year, Iceland made history by qualifying for the 2018 World Cup—the smallest country to ever make the cut. In celebration, Icelandair launched Team Iceland Stopover, a series of 90-minute experiences (think hikes and under-the-radar hot springs) designed by Team Iceland football players that you can use for inspiration or book with a guide. Either way, you'll definitely get in the local spirit. (Related: How to Plan an Active Honeymoon Without Sacrificing Romance and Relaxation)
Here are four things not to miss over a weekend in Iceland.
Catch the big game.
Even if you don't typically spend Friday nights watching soccer games, it's worth making an exception in Iceland—this is the place to be in Reykjavik. Because the country is so small, walking into the stadium might feel more like walking into a high school game than into a pro league match. But this is exactly the reason why you should go.
First up, you're close to the action—we're talking about the ability to see the competitive grimace on the players' faces as they go head-to-head. Even if you're not well-versed in the game, it's hard not to get sucked into each nail-biting attempt on goal. It's intense, infectious, and awesome. Meanwhile, while up in the stands, expect some serious spirit and prepare to get your Viking cheer on.
Hike Thingvellir National Park.
If you think you've been on some cool hikes, prepare for your bar to be raised. Thingvellir National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site, sits in what's called a rift valley, nestled between volcanoes and glaciers. This land marks the divide between the Eurasian and North American continental plates—so, you can literally walk from Europe to North America in a day. Even though it's a valley, the terrain is rough, streaked with "rifts" (aka rocky ravines) formed by the shifting continental plates. (Related: These Two Women Are Changing the Face of the Hiking Industry)
If you're even more of a thrill-seeker, you can actually go snorkeling while you're there. It's one of the only places in the world where you can dive between two continents (and actually touch North America and Europe at once.) Yes, the water is freezing (don't worry, you'll be in a dry suit), but the water is fed by glacier springs meaning it's among the most crystal clear bodies of water you'll ever see. In fact, you can drink right from it. Refreshing AF.
Have a "Healthy Mary."
With all that hiking, you're bound to work up an appetite. (And a chill—as my driver told me, the weather in Iceland is prone to change every five minutes and he wasn't kidding. Bring lots of layers and rain gear.) Iceland has no shortage of amazing cuisine (Freshest. Seafood. Ever.) but for a more veggie-friendly option, Friðheimar farm is the spot to warm up.
Inside a sprawling greenhouse filled with rows of tomatoes, you can recharge with a "Healthy Mary"—green tomato, cucumber, honey, lime, and ginger—and a serving of green tomato apple pie. Compared to the stark landscape outside, the farm-meets-restaurant feels like stepping into a greenhouse somewhere south of the equator.
Sweat like a local.
Blue Lagoon gets a lot of attention—for good reason. The geothermal spa has been dubbed one of the 25 wonders of the world (and it makes for a killer Instagram). But to score some off-the-beaten-path travel points, head to a local favorite hot spring. (Related: Crystal Spa Treatments Are the Latest Beauty Trend You Need to Try)
Laugarvatn Fontana, about an hour outside of Reykjavik, is a wellness-focused watering hole where you can soak in the local culture while soaking in the geothermal waters. Historically, the hot springs have played a major role in Iceland's culture, bringing communities together to swap stories and recharge.
Part of that tradition is maintaining the geothermal bakery. Because there are so many hot springs that bubble up through the rocky soil, you can literally use the ground as an oven. Yes, seriously. Locals make "lava bread," a coffee cake type of bread that's buried underground in a metal pot for 24 hours to bake. The steaming loaf that emerges from the earth is best served with butter.