Black sand beaches and volcanic valleys. Imposing glaciers and floating icebergs. Thunderous waterfalls and bubbling geothermal hot springs. This is nature at its most primal. This is Iceland. A land of Earth, Fire, Wind and Water. A place so breathtakingly stunning, so full of wonder and adventure, you’ll never want to leave.
It’s difficult to put into words the feeling you get when you first step out into the wilderness of Iceland. I mean, I’d seen photographs and meticulously planned out the sights and sounds I wanted to experience whilst visiting. But nothing can prepare you for the natural wonders of Iceland – that first peek of glaciers on the horizon, waterfalls creeping through untouched valleys, blissfully silent icebergs heading slowly out to sea or the violent upheaval of stones in vast lava fields. The land itself here tells a story – geologically, culturally, historically – and the story is definitely worth listening to.
We planned our journey for early May, just as the Icelandic spring was kicking into high gear. Right before the busy summer tourist period, this time was fantastic – long, sunny days (Sunrise – 5am, Sunset – 10pm; though it only gets completely dark for a few hours) and mild weather. I knew from the start I wanted to hire a car and travel along the 1332km Ring Road that encompasses the entire island – the convenience of a hire car meant that we had the freedom to explore whichever regions we wanted and could set our own pace (weather pending!). The driving each day was never more than a few hours, and we decided to stay in farm-style accommodation in locations along our route – overall a fantastic way to explore the country.
So here’s our whirlwind 9-day road trip of Iceland – you can also check out our favourite places to stay in Iceland in this post!
Day 1 – Reykjavik
Our flight arrived at Keflavík International Airport at 3pm and we quickly found the rental car kiosk inside the terminal. We decided to go with Europcar and had pre-booked a solid Suzuki Grand Vitara – the bigger 4WD really made our journey in the snow and ice much easier, and the heated seats were a welcomed creature comfort. Remember to check you have sufficient insurance to cover sand and ash damage – Icelandic conditions can be harsh and unpredictable.
We began the 45 minute journey to Reykjavik, enjoying the rugged landscape of lava fields and deep blue sea. Arriving in the city, we found parking near our accommodation (the parking in Reykjavik is timed and a ticket must be displayed; machines take both coins and credit cards). After stocking up with essential supplies we headed down to the foreshore, checking out the Sun Voyager sculpture and the Harpa Concert Hall. We then headed to the top of the Hallgrímskirkja for panoramic views out over the city, mountains and sea stretching out on the horizon. After a quick evening stroll and a tasty bowl of fries at an American-style burger place, we headed back to rest up before beginning our journey.
STAY – For our first night we stayed at Room With A View apartments on Laugavegur, right in the centre of Reykjavik; the location was fantastic – close to shops, tour booking offices and all the interesting sights.
Day 2 – Exploring the Golden Circle; Þingvellir, Geysir, Gullfoss
Iceland is a land of stunning geological wonders; from sweeping glacial plains, active volcanoes, geothermal springs and geysers, deep fjords and highland mountain ranges, every turn presents amazing new vistas to feast your eyes on. The aptly named ‘Golden Circle’ region of South Iceland contains many of these wonders. Stretching from Gullfoss and the geothermally active valley of Haukadalur (with the famous Geyser fields) in the north, and Þingvellir National Park in the south, the area contains many of the most popular natural and cultural sights in Iceland.
We left Reykjavik early, heading north on Road 36 and arriving at Þingvellir visitors centre just after 9am. The rift valley here is one of the highest points of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, and it was here in 930 that the Icelandic parliament (or Alþingi) was founded. The view from the top of the valley is stunning! This is where we started our first adventure – snorkelling in crystal-clear water between two continental plates – read about the experience here!
After our refreshing swim, and a tasty lunch from the rest-stop nearby, we continued our journey toward Gullfoss. On the way we stopped to enjoy the explosive Strokkur geyser, erupting every 20 minutes and sending steaming water up to 40 metres high – get up close, the first time is the most thrilling and you might even get wet! We also got distracted and took the time to hike the trail up along the ridges here – amazing views out over the plains and towards Langjökull glacier make the climb definitely worth it! Further on, the raging torrent that is Gullfoss is not to be missed – this stunning cascade was giving off such a powerful gale that it made it hard to stand in the same spot, a testament to its raw power!
We continued southeast along the Ring Road towards the coastal town of Vik, stopping at Seljalandsfoss just as the orange glow of the late sunrise peeked on the horizon. Make sure to head up and around behind the falls – the view is stunning, even if you do get a little bit cold and wet! Just remember to hold onto the railings – the steps get iced over and muddy, making the ascent a little dangerous.
STAY – We stayed at Ásólfsskáli, a quiet cabin in farmland, nestled in the shadow of Eyjafjallajökull glacier.
Day 3 – The ice-covered south; Mýrdalsjökull and Jökulsárlón
The next day began early, as we made our way to the Arcanum base camp for our snowmobile ascent of Mýrdalsjökull glacier – check out that adrenalin-pumping adventure here! Pricey, but definitely worth it for the chance to conquer the glacier-covered active volcano, Katla, and marvel at the panoramic views.
After the glacier, we checked out Eyjafjallajökull one final time before heading east towards Vik, taking a quick detour along Road 218 up onto the Dyrhólaey peninsula, offering sweeping views of the black sand beaches of the south coast. Arriving in Vik we grabbed some lunch at Halldorskaffi, a local bistro.
The next part of our drive was the first of our nerve-wracking segments – crossing the windy sand plains of Skeiðarársandur. Formed during glacial outbursts (jökulhlaups in Icelandic) caused by volcanic activity, this part of the Ring Road has seen bridges washed away and roads annihilated. But the biggest concern here is the sand itself – winds can reach gale force, literally sand-blasting the paint from a vehicle.
Our reward for reaching the other side of the Sandur plains is spectacular Skaftafell, part of the larger Vatnajökull National Park. Vatnajökull is the largest glacier in Iceland, and one of the largest in Europe. Exploring some of the Skaftafell hiking trails is highly recommended, offering glimpses of the glacial tongues of Vatnajökull. Continuing past Hof is the jewel of South Iceland, and my favourite place we ventured – Jökulsárlón.
Here Iceland has hit the geological jackpot; the Vatnajökull glacier carved out a deep lagoon as it receded, and the resulting icebergs from the glacier’s edge now crowd the lagoon as they float silently out to sea. The wonder as you gaze out over the creeping, lurching, towering pieces of ice is mesmerising. Watch for seals playing amongst the ice flows – I piqued the curiosity of one brave seal who watched me closely for about ten minutes before slipping silently under the ice. Prepare to spend an afternoon, evening and perhaps even a morning here – it’s a photographers paradise!
STAY – Sleep near the Jökulsárlón area at Hali in Suðursveit – a charming country hotel, complete with great restaurant and interesting local museum.
Day 4 – Eastfjords; Höfn to Reyðarfjörður
After enjoying the sunrise at Jökulsárlón we headed to Höfn for a quick breakfast and to check out the town. The drive between here and our next destination, Reyðarfjörður in the Eastfjords was about three hours along scenic coastal roads – I recommend stopping at the many vantage points. Following the Ring Road and taking a detour on Road 96, we emerged from the 6km Fáskrúðsfjarðargöng tunnel with views over the stunning fjord. Surprisingly as we entered the tunnel the weather was mild and the skies clear; emerging on the other side we were surprised to find it snowing and the wind picking up.
We followed the road into Reyðarfjörður as the light snow turned heavy and visibility dropped. We passed through the small town of Eskifjörður and stopped for some supplies at the local supermarket, then continued on for five minutes to the next place we were staying. Arriving just in time before a snow storm hit, we hunkered down in our cabin and emerged a few hours later to enjoy the bubbling boat-shaped hot pot in the snow.
STAY – Our favourite place we stayed during our trip, Mjóeyri was the perfect retreat from the snow, complete with charming wood cabin, sauna, hot pot and stunning location offering fantastic views out over the fjord.
Day 5 – Heading North; Egilsstaðir and Mývatn
We spent the night out on the fjord listening to the gale force wind buffet our little cabin. When we woke in the morning, the weather was still poor – we checked the road conditions – our route was icy, with blowing snow across the road, but still passable (I cannot stress how important it is to check road conditions before you set out!). We packed up the car and prepared to begin the arduous drive.
To say the visibility was poor would be an understatement; as we followed the Ring Road up into the mountain passes of the northeast, it quickly became apparent that we were looking at near complete whiteout conditions. Panic ensued, but we persevered, due in part to our anticipation of the conditions and winter driving knowledge. Out of the swirling snow like an angel a snowplough appeared, its lights cutting through the white, clearing a path and attempting to keep the road open. Passing through the snow-covered town of Egilsstaðir, we soon joined a caravan of other drivers, slowly making journey towards Mývatn.
After struggling for hours we finally arrived in the Mývatn region, greeted by the sulphurous clouds of a vast volcanic field – we warmed ourselves near the bubbling vents and steaming mud as the snow continued to fall. We passed through Reykjahlíð which offered great views of the Hverfjall volcanic crater, and headed down to Höfði reserve to see its amazing rock formations. Unfortunately the roads to Detifoss (862 & 864) were impassable due to snow and ice, so we didn’t chance another difficult journey. However, another wondrous waterfall was close by; Goðafoss, in Icelandic, the waterfall of the gods. The thundering power of the falls contrasted with the eerily silent and gentle fall of light snow.
After a quick return trip to Grjótagjá, a hidden underground hot spring inside a lava tube (we were the only ones there!) we grabbed some delicious dinner from nearby Daddi’s Pizza on Road 848 and headed to our next overnight stop.
STAY – We stayed at the ultra-modern and cool looking Einishús Cottages, fully-equipped with personal hot pots surrounded by snow drifts. Lazing around in the tub as the snow slowly fell all around us made for a relaxing end to a thrilling day.
Day 6 – North Iceland; Húsavík and Akureyri
The next day, the weather had cleared and our planned whale watching expedition went ahead after being cancelled the day before due to inclement conditions on the water. We headed north to Húsavík, the whale watching capital of Iceland. We boarded the ship at 10am, and spent three hours trying to catch a glimpse of the elusive giants of the deep that frequently visit the bay. With the snow getting heavier and the sea getting rougher we were finally rewarded with an encounter with a curious Humpback – she playfully breached a few times next to the boat before we had to return to the harbour. I highly recommend heading up to Húsavík and doing a whale watching expedition – the experience of navigating the Greenland Sea itself is a thrilling one.
After a lovely lunch at Salka, a restaurant just near the harbour, and a quick (long!) visit to the Húsavík Whale Museum, we continued our drive onwards towards Akureyri. Considered the capital of Northern Iceland, Akureyri is by no means a large city – it’s population is only around 18,000 – but it’s a lively community and has all the creature comforts you might need. We stopped for a delicious service station hotdogs (these are amazing pit-stop snacks!), checked out the main street and local sights and continued north on Road 82.
STAY – Our accommodation that night was at the picturesque cabins at Ytri-Vík – each cabin comes with its own hot pot and offers spectacular views out onto the fjord and towards snow-capped mountain peaks.
Day 7 – North Iceland; Ólafsfjörður, Siglufjörður and Hvammstangi
The next day we said goodbye to Akureyri and headed north along Road 82 via Dalvik, through the 3.5km Múlagöng tunnel to Ólafsfjörður, a sleepy fishing village nestled at the foot of mountains. The next stop on our journey took us through the 11km long Héðinsfjörður Tunnel to Siglufjörður, a town previously isolated before the construction of the mountain bypass. Siglufjörður is prone to avalanches, and has elaborate defences built into the mountainside high above the town – we stopped for a quick bite before continuing on Road 76 along the rugged northern coast, only a few short kilometres from the Arctic Circle.
The views of the rugged north coast are not to be missed- the route is full cliff bends and hills and takes around 3 and it took around 3 half hours to reach the Hvammstangi peninsula, passing through Sauðárkrókur and the stunning turf houses of Glaumbær. These grass covered dwellings have been traditional Icelandic homes designed to resist the cold and wind for hundreds of years. I’m still not entirely sure how you cut the grass on a roof though!
We reached the Hvammstangi area and set out on Road 72 to find the elusive seal colonies that reside along the rocky shores. Sadly the seals remained hidden, but we were thrilled to spot an arctic fox (Iceland’s only native land mammal) in the dusk, the streak of white fur and limbs darting away from our car and into a burrow. After enjoying a stunning 10pm sunset, we headed to our accommodation.
STAY – Sleep near Hvammstangi. We stayed at the horse ranch Gauksmýri – complete with friendly Icelandic horses, deliciously fresh cod and warm lodgings.
Day 8 – West Iceland; Snæfellsnes Peninsula
We had breakfast at Gauksmýri before continuing on our way towards our next destination – the Snæfellsnes peninsula. This region in often toted as ‘Iceland in miniature’ – rugged coastline, rolling plains in the shadow of the Snæfellsjökull glacier. We detoured towards Road 59, which turned into Road 54 which circles around the entire peninsula, making a stop at Stykkishólmur (with it’s awesome Volcano Museum) and passing through Grundarfjörður. The scenery here is stunning and you see why it’s such a popular area. We stopped and did a few short hikes in the area, enjoying the return of clear blue skies and warmer weather.
Saying our final goodbyes to glaciers and volcanoes, we headed south on Road 54 towards Borgarnes, stopping for a lunch of traditional Icelandic soup at the Settlement Centre. The town itself is small and quiet, but stay awhile and walk around the peaceful harbour side and enjoy the countryside. We continued onwards to Reykjavik via the smokey Hvalfjörður Tunnel arriving back in the city in the evening time. After an evening stroll and dinner at one of the great restaurants on Austurstræti, we called it a day.
STAY – We stayed at Castle House Luxury Apartments, close to the central lake Tjörnin and close to Reykjavik City Hall and several museums.
Day 9 – Reykjavik and The Blue Lagoon
Our plan for the next day was to go on a dogsledding adventure – sadly unseasonably cold weather had caused icy conditions, injuring the paws of the dogs, so it was cancelled (remember how I said Icelandic weather conditions are harsh and unpredictable?). Not to worry, as we spent an entire morning and most of the afternoon mesmerised at the National Museum of Iceland – the collection of artefacts from the last few thousand years of Icelandic history is staggering, and the audio tour is highly recommended! We even got to have a bit of fun in Viking costume!
We then checked out the Reykjavik Volcano House, which offers two films running over 53 minutes on the eruption on the Westman Islands 1973 and the eruption of Eyjafjallajökull 2010 in South Iceland, and features some stunning videography. Afterwards, it was off to Reykjavik 871±2, a unique museum experience built around the archaeological remains of an ancient longhouse in the downtown area. After a stroll through the Old Harbour, we said goodbye to the capital and headed for our final relaxing stop – the Blue Lagoon.
STAY – We decided to stay close to the lagoon and Keflavík Airport because of an early flight – the Northern Light Inn offered surreal views around the lava fields of the Grindavik area and a good nights sleep.
Day 10 – Saying Goodbye
We emerged into the cold morning and made our way to the airport, hesitant and sad to say goodbye to Iceland. At the terminal we were lucky enough to spot the Icelander plane Hekla Aurora, decorated in the colors of the northern lights – the inside lightning of the plane gives a dazzling mood lighting display of the auroras. As the wheels of our plane left the ground, it was hard not to feel a little deflated. Our trip to Iceland had taken us to amazing locations, we’d met amazing people and had amazing adventures.
Iceland has taken told of our imaginations and our dreams – and we’ll definitely be back!
I hope this itinerary has inspired you to set out on your own stunning Icelandic adventure!
Have you been on a road trip of stunningly beautiful Iceland? What experiences and adventures did you have exploring the land of fire and ice?