Driving the full Ring Road may be the ultimate Iceland vacation itinerary, but if you’re short on time, you can still experience plenty of spectacular scenery in the southern part of the country.
Day One: Reykjavik
Start your trip in Reykjavik, Iceland’s capital city. It’s pretty small compared to other capitals, but that makes it very walkable. Most of the main tourist sites are within 10-15 minutes on foot, and it’s an incredibly safe city to walk around in. I didn’t fall in love with the architecture like I have in other European cities – most of the buildings are pretty plain – but a couple do stand out. The Harpa conference hall is pretty by day and night. Try to catch it on a sunny day for the best lighting and views of the harbor, but it’s also worth checking out at night when the glass panels are lit up. I found that the lighting looked better from a little bit of a distance, as the closer I got, the more I could pick out the individual light bars inside instead of seeing the full picture.
Hallgrímskirkja is another must-see building in Reykjavik, and it’s hard to miss. I loved the iconic church atop the hill with it’s striking exterior modeled after the basalt columns present throughout the country. It’s very plain inside, so if you don’t get a chance to enter the church, don’t feel like you’re missing out. You can also take an elevator to the top for 900 ISK, but the line was very long the morning we visited. We stood in line for a few minutes to see how it was moving, and at the rate it was going it would’ve taken us close to an hour to get to the top.
Learn about the country’s Viking history at the Settlement Exhibition, which houses the remnants of an old longhouse dating back over 1000 years. For more Icelandic history, you can head over to the Saga Museum in the Old Harbor area which uses very lifelike wax figures to tell the stories of several heroes and villains. Bonus at the end of the audio tour: a chance to dress up in Viking costumes and weapons to take pictures. (If you’ve never worn full chainmail, you’ll be astounded at the fact that anyone was able to run and fight while weighted down by it.)
This will also be your best chance to sample Icelandic cuisine. Once you’re out in the small towns, restaurant options are limited, and we found that a lot of them had pretty standard American fare. Torfan Lobsterhouse is a great place to sample langoustine (or puffin salad if you’re brave), and right next door is Lækjarbrekka, which offer a variety of food options, including traditional fish stew (mashed potatoes with haddock and onions mixed in). Food in Iceland is incredibly expensive, but if you’re looking for a cheap eat, check out one of the many stands serving Icelandic lamb hot dogs. I don’t eat plain hot dogs very often (and I’m not a huge fan of lamb), but I really liked mine. It had a very satisfying snap to it and tasted pretty much like the ones I’m used to getting at home.
Day Two: Fjords
Depart for the western fjords region. Depending on how early you get on the road, you can make it pretty far into the Snæfellsnes Peninsula and admire the beauty in a part of Iceland that’s much less touristy than some of the other stops on this route. Along the way, marvel at the 6 km-long tunnel under one of the fjords (and make sure you have enough money for the 1000 ISK toll). On a clear day, you’ll be able to see the massive Snæfellsjökull volcano looming at the western end of the peninsula.
This area is sparsely populated, but Borgarnes is a cute little seaside town that has a few hotels, as well as a highly-rated Settlement museum. We opted not to visit the museum since it was 2500 ISK per person, but had a delicious meal in their restaurant.
While you’re in Borgarnes, make time to walk or drive across the bridge out to the dock/breakwater area for great views of the town and surrounding mountains. If you’re lucky enough to have a clear day, the end of the dock is a perfect place to sit and watch the sunset at night.
Day Three: Geysir
Backtrack a little from Borgarnes to pick up the route for the Golden Circle. Coming in from the west, your first stop will be Þingvellir National Park, which contains a spectacular rift valley where the continental plates are spreading apart. It was also home to the Viking parliaments of old. Admission to the park is free, but there is a fee for parking. Stop into the small gift shop for a look at maps of the area and a little bit of the history and then head out to soak up the scenery and history.
There is a path that takes you down between two ridges into the rift valley, and you can see spectacular views of the rivers and small buildings in the distance. If you continue walking, you’ll come across a small waterfall leading to a pool that was used to drown women convicted of various crimes. There are several walking paths to explore, but don’t linger too long because more great scenery awaits you.
Your next stop on the Golden Circle will be the Geysir area. Though Geysir (the English word “geyser” comes from this one) rarely erupts anymore, you should be able to see several smaller eruptions from neighboring geyser Strokkur during your visit. It erupts every few minutes and can reach heights of up to 40 meters high. There are several smaller geysirs and hot spring pools along the walking paths, but make sure to stay on the marked trails. Once you’ve had enough geothermal activity, you can grab a delicious meal in the visitor center across the street.
The last stop on the Golden Circle is Gulfoss, a double-tiered waterfall that sends water tumbling down into a canyon. Start with the views from high atop the gorge, but don’t miss the chance to get up close by climbing down the stairs to the brink of the falls.
Backtrack a little to stay at the hotel Litli Geysir, located right across the street from the Geysir area. It’s less famous than the Hotel Geysir, but offers a better view of the geyser field. We were able to see Strokkur erupting from our room’s window.
For dinner, try the Litli Geysir’s restaurant, or venture a couple minutes down the road to Skjól, a campground/hostel with a restaurant that serves up some pretty good pizza in a fun, quirky atmosphere. Musical instruments line the walls, and rumor has it that if you play a few songs well enough to earn applause, you’ll get a free beer. It’s worth a shot.
Day Four: Road to Vik
Day Four of your journey will be filled with waterfalls. Take the road toward Selfoss to pick up the Ring Road again, and then head east toward Vik. A significant portion of your drive today will be lined with small waterfalls, but the first major one you’ll encounter is Seljalandsfoss, famous for its rainbow and the cave behind it that enables visitors to see the cascade from all sides. Seljalandsfoss is visible right from the Ring Road, and it’ll be hard to miss as you pass by. There’s a large parking area and bathrooms on site, as well.
Once you’ve had your fill of Seljalandsfoss, keep walking across the little bridge and up the path that parallels the cliff side. You’ll pass a few smaller waterfalls, and it will be tempting to turn back, but there’s one more hidden surprise – the “secret” waterfall Gljúfrabúi. It’s easy to miss because you can only see the top portion from in front. In order to view the whole thing, you need to wade through the stream or climb up the rocky outcrop blocking it from view. Both options are a lot of fun, though you will get very wet in the cavern even if you manage to keep your feet dry in the stream.
When you get back to your car, keep heading east toward Vik. The next notable sight you’ll see is Eyjafjallajökull (you may remember this volcano as the one that interrupted European air travel in 2010). There’s a small visitor center and a pull-off area where you can take pictures of it with a small farm in the foreground.
Next up is Skógafoss, one of Iceland’s largest waterfalls. This one is also visible from the Ring Road, and it’s beautiful 200 foot drop is hard to miss. You can’t walk behind this one, but you can get close enough to get soaked again. There is also a staircase winding up to the top of the cliff, but we didn’t think the view from the top was worth the effort of climbing the 429 stairs.
The last stop on today’s route is the famous DC 3 plane crash site. It’s the abandoned wreckage of a US Navy plane that was forced to crash land there in 1973. Don’t feel too macabre about posing with plane wreckage – all of the passengers survived. It takes about 45 minutes to walk out to the wreckage, and it felt even longer than that. When you finally make it to the wreckage, it offers great photo opportunities. The overcast sky on the day we visited, combined with the black sand made my pictures look like black and whites even though my camera was set to color.
If you have time today, you can stop by Reynisfjara, the famous black sand beach nearby, but you’ll want to take your time there and it will be better to visit on the way back to Reykjavik.
Spend the next two nights in Vik, the biggest town in the area. There are a few hotels and restaurants there, which is quite a bit in comparison to the rest of this area. We stayed at a fantastic AirBnB, but the IcelandAir hotel looked very nice when we wandered in in search of breakfast.
Day Five: Jökulsárlón
The drive to Jökulsárlón takes a little less than 2.5 hours without stops, but you’ll want to give yourselves at least an extra hour. You’ll be passing by some cute little waterfalls, and desolate landscape shaped by glacial floods. During the 1990s, floods caused by a volcanic eruption washed away a couple of the Ring Road bridges in this area, and there is a pull-off spot where you can see some of the wreckage left behind.
When you make it to the Jökulsárlón area, stop at Diamond Beach first. The parking lot is located just before the bridge you’ll see. This black sand beach offers stunning photo ops with ice boulders that have been pushed ashore by the surf. It’s a great way to witness the power of the ocean as waves continue to slam into larger ice bergs that haven’t made it all the way to the beach yet.
From here, continue across the bridge to the Jökulsárlón parking area. The beautiful blue glaciers striped by black volcanic ash from long-ago eruptions are mesmerizing as they float in the calm water of the lagoon. There are great paths to walk along close to the water, as well as a hilltop vantage point. There is a small building with snacks, bathrooms, and a gift shop at the back of the parking lot. This is also where the glacier tours meet.
We took an ice cave and snowmobiling tour that was phenomenal. The ride out on the road through the national park is rough, but it’s so worth it. If snowmobiling is too intense for you, you can take tours just to the ice cave or go hiking on the glacier. We went with Glacier Journeys and absolutely loved our guide. Read all about our tour – and stranded snowmobiles – here.
It’ll be late by the time you get back, and there aren’t a lot of places for dinner in the area. If you start heading back toward Vik, Hotel Skaftafell is one of the first places you’ll come across. They have a bustling restaurant that has Vatnajokull beer – brewed with water from icebergs in Jökulsárlón – on the menu. It’s a great way to get a taste of ice from the glacier you’ve spent the day touring.
Keep your eyes on the sky as you head back toward Vik. There is very little ambient light in this area, so if the skies are clear, you’ll have a good chance at spotting the Northern Lights on your way back.
Day Six: Reynisjara and Blue Lagoon
Start the day with an early morning ride along Vik’s black sand beach with an early morning horseback ride with Vik Horse Adventure. This was a spur of the moment choice for us, and was one of the highlights of the trip. If you’ve fallen in love with the Icelandic horses that graze seemingly everywhere, this will be your best chance to get up close to them. It was also the most scenic horseback ride I’ve ever taken.
When you hit the road to head back toward Reykjavik, your first stop will be Reynisfjara. The rock formations and basalt columns are spectacular to look at, but stay well back from the water. Dangerous rogue waves are known to come ashore there and tourists have lost their lives after being swept out to sea. There is a small café there with good food and great desserts so you can fill up before hitting the road.
The drive to the Blue Lagoon will take you 2:45 minutes without stops, but like all drives through Iceland, the scenery will make it pleasant. You’ll spend a while backtracking, so you can revisit some of the waterfalls from day four if you have time.
The last major stop on your itinerary is the Blue Lagoon. Yes, it’s touristy, but it’s also fun. There’s no better way to wrap up your stay in Iceland than by relaxing in the powdery blue water. Be sure to book your tickets in advance to ensure that you get in.
If you have time before an evening flight, you can stop at the Bridge Between Continents, a symbolic bridge that spans a rift canyon between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. If your flight isn’t until the next day, you can stay at a hotel right at the Blue Lagoon, or head back up to Reykjavik for one last evening.
Did I miss anything that’s a must-see in south Iceland? Let me know in the comments.