by Sanará Travelers Michael and Shelley Anderson
Everyone else is doing it, so you should too. We figured Iceland would be a cliche trip, with all of the Icelandair commercials, every Instagram blogger’s Northern Lights or Blue Lagoon photos, and the fact that most of our friends had it on their recent or upcoming trip list. But, this is definitely not the situation to take the road less traveled, at least not until you get to Iceland.
The first decision of any Iceland trip is whether to stick to the south coast or to circle the island on the ring road. The ring road, AKA route 1, is a 2 lane highway circling the entire island. You will probably read plenty of places that you need 10+ days to make the ring road worth it. Don’t listen. To drive the ring road is about 828 miles without detours. Do some math, and with the average speed limit of 55 mph, that’s roughly 15 hours of drive time. Split between 8 days, just under 2 hours a day. YOLO.
Of course make sure you consider time of season. Winter is going to be tougher given the snow and less daylight. But if you’re going during peak summer season, or even the shoulder season like us (we went early May), don’t think twice.
Day 1: Golden Circle
Most the flights from the United States are overnight, so we arrived around 6:30 am, grabbed our rental car, and were on our way. On our way to the Golden Circle, we stopped in Reykjavik for some coffee and breakfast. There is no shortage of awesome coffee spots in town, so take your pick (we loved Te & Kaffi). We then swung by the grocery store to stock up before getting out of the city. The Golden Circle is a few hour detour off the ring road hitting some of the South’s most popular spots. From Reykjavik, start with Þingvellir (Thingvellir) National Park where two tectonic plates of the mid-Atlantic ridge come together. Then head on to Geysir and shortly past that Gullfoss, the first of an endless number of Icelandic waterfalls. If time permits swing by the Kerid Crater or Secret Lagoon (not so secret anymore). We stayed the night on a farm outside of Hella, near where the Golden Circle meets back up with the Ring Road.
(3 hours of total drive time)
Þingvellir National Park
If time permits:
Snorkeling Silfra in Þingvellir
Reykjadalur Steam Valley (it was closed to allow for vegetation regrowth for us)
Day 2: The South
Despite being one of the most popular parts of Iceland, get ready for some serene countryside. Start the day heading east towards Vik. Keep an eye out for Icelandic horses and on the way stop at two more of Iceland's most popular waterfalls, Seljalandsfoss and Skogafoss. If you’re up for a short hike and a swim, detour down a dirt road to Seljavallalaug, a geothermally heated pool somewhat hidden on a mountainside. Continuing towards Vik stop a hike around Dyrholaey and then get your cobalt column and black sand beach pictures in at Reynisfjara beach. Just heed the waves. That night you can settle in the town of Vik, or opt for another countryside cabin north.
(2.5 hours total drive time)
Take your raincoat and a waterproof camera for some pictures behind Seljalandsfoss
Scale the stairs of Skogafoss for some killer views
Hike or drive to the lighthouse at Dyrholaey
Pose for some cobalt rock pictures on Reynisfjara beach
If Time Permits:
Hike the high country above Skogafoss for more waterfalls and canyons
Take a ferry to Vestmannaeyjar and try to see some puffins
Day 3: The Southeast
If you thought you had Iceland’s landscape nailed, you were wrong. The scenery on this day varies wildly and is some of the most beautiful it has to offer. Start off heading up the east coast on the ring road. First up is Fjadrargljufur, where you can run around the canyon like Justin Bieber in his music video (unless you are lucky like us and it’s closed for snow melt). Then continue on through black sand beaches, lava fields, and tons of moss covered lava rocks until you hit Skaftafell national park. Leave some time for picture stops on this drive. In Skaftafell, there are endless miles of hiking trails. Combine the glacier and Svartifoss for a nice 5 mile round trip (directions are easy to get at the visitor center). Then continue on the ring road past some more glaciers, until you reach more glaciers, and then finally the infamous Jokulsarlon glacier lagoon. Leave yourself plenty of time for pictures, or a boat ride, before crossing the street to the ocean side for “diamond beach.” Hofn is an easy drive from here with plenty of places to stay the night.
(3.5 hours of drive time)
Skip around Fjadrargljufur like the Biebs
Skaftafell national park and hike to Svartifoss
Snap some pics in Jokulsarlon glacier lagoon and diamond beach
If Time Permits:
Hike the glacier in Skaftafell National Park
Take a zodiac boat through Jokulsarlon if time permits
Day 4: The East Fjords
Most of this day is driving and exploring towns, but after the first 3 action packed days, it is a welcomed break. Drive up the coast on route 1 towards Egilsstadir. Most of the drive will be on the coastline in and out of Fjords, but there is an option to bypass a few of them and take a gravel road through a mountain pass (Google maps made us do it, but I wouldn’t recommend it in a car). Each Fjord has its own fishing town, so pick a few and make some stops to check out the local life on the way. We chose Djupivogur and Seydisfjordur. If you’re staying in Egilsstadir, drive an hour north to the marina at Borgarfjordur Eystri if you want to see puffins. It’s a puffin sanctuary with a boardwalk that lets you walk feet from hundreds of them and their nests. This was by far a highlight of the trip and the only easy way to see puffins without taking a ferry. We settled in a cabin on a beautiful farm just north of Egilsstadir.
(5 hours of drive time with detours)
Explore Seydisjordur fjord to see an awesome little fishing village
Make friends with the puffins at the Borgarfjordur Eystri marina
If Time permits:
Explore the town of Egilsstadir
Day 5: The North
On the drive to Lake Myvatn on the ring road the scenery gets wild. It’s less green and glaciers, more martian. If time permits on the way to the lake, detour to Dettifoss and the lesser known Selfoss a short hike away. Continue on towards Myvatn and once in the area your options are endless. Drive to Krafla crater for some pictures, enjoy the smell of the boiling mud pits of Hverir, play Jon Snow and climb into Grjotagja cave, walk “beyond the wall” through the lava chimneys of Dimmuborgir, play man on the moon at Hverfjall crater, and explore the blue waters of Lake Myvatn (yes those are Game of Thrones references). That evening, have a nightcap at the Myvatn Nature Baths, a less famous Blue Lagoon with a better view. We stuck around the area and stayed at another farm with tons of sheep and horses, but you can push on to Akureyri or Husavik if you’re looking for a town.
(3 hours of drive time)
Dettifoss and Selfoss for some great waterfall scenes
Krafla crater, Grjotagja cave, Hverfjall crater
Soak in the myvatn nature baths under the late night sun (open until midnight)
If Time Permits:
Brave the smell of Hverir mud pits, walk through Dimmuborgir
Husavik is the whale watching capital of Iceland
Day 6: The West and Snaefellsnes Peninsula
This ends up being the longest drive of the trip, but at the expense of giving more activity time on the other areas of the island. There are not a ton of things to do out here unless you have days to wander into the west fjords. Start the day with Godafoss waterfall and follow that with a stop in Akureyri for some coffee. Then buckle in for the long but beautiful drive to Snaefellsnes peninsula. We stayed in a cabin on the peninsula.
(6 hours of drive time)
Day 7: Snaefellsnes Peninsula
Plan your route and explore the peninsula first this day. Stop one was Kirkjufell Mountain and waterfall (an Instagram favorite) on the north side of the peninsula. Then heading south, stop in Arnarstapi for some ocean cliffs including Gatklettur. If you’re in the mood to hike through a canyon, stop at Raudfeldsgja. Then start inland towards Reykjavik stopping at Landbrotalaug hot pot for a warm dip if the crowds are away. Finish the day getting into Reykjavik and exploring the town which can easily be done on foot in an afternoon. Pick any of the numerous Reykjavik hotels for the night.
(2.5 hours of drive time)
Get your Instagram story started with Kirkjufell
Find the arch of Gatklettur
Explore the town of Reykjavik
If Time Permits:
Take a dip at Landbrotalaug hot pot
Hike the canyon of Raudfeldsgja
Day 8: Blue Lagoon and Depart
Our flight out Iceland was around 5pm, so we opted to make the stop to the Blue Lagoon after getting breakfast and walking around Reykjavik a little more. Blue Lagoon is on the way to the airport making it a good stop either on arrival or before leaving. To answer a few questions: yes it’s touristy, yes it’s expensive, yes it’s beautiful and warm and makes your skin feel like butter, and no you aren’t going to skip this part of the trip just because it’s gotten too commercial. So take a dip, grab a snack, and relax in your robe before leaving this peaceful and beautiful country.
Things we learned:
If you want to do the trip in 7 days, you can. We would cut out Snaefellsnes peninsula or not spend a night in Reykjavik to make this work.
Everywhere takes credit cards, even the bathrooms. We never traded currency and we were fine.
Caveat to the above, some gas stations take credit cards inside and some only take cards with pin numbers. For these you can buy a gift card inside and use it at the pump. Or find another gas station.
Food at restaurants is ridiculously expensive. Food at the grocery stores isn’t. Depending on your budget, finding places to stay with kitchens can save a ton of money. We ate out once the entire trip. Other than that, we cooked all our dinners and ate lunch on the go in the car to save time. There are also grocery stores in most towns, so although some have more selection than others you won’t be stuck without options.
Yes, you can drink the water.
Bathrooms cost money, but most popular attractions have them and they are very well kept.
The sun never sets on a badass, or in Iceland in the summer. This makes it way easier to plan without worrying about losing daylight, and some of the best light for pictures is late at night.
Download the Google map (Google instructions if you need to) of Iceland before you go and you can use navigation without using data.
Have some music ready for the road trip. We downloaded our playlists from Spotify to play offline before leaving (premium feature only unfortunately).
The locals are incredibly friendly and want to share their beautiful country with you, so please respect it and them.
For more travel inspiration, visit sanaratravels.com/blog.