Tackle the infamous Ring Road or not? That was the question. We debated our week in Iceland, lured by the idea of driving around the entire island or just hitting the highlights in Reykjavik and the South Coast. On an island the size of Maryland, we really wanted to see as much as possible but also didn’t want to feel rushed around the 828-mile circuit. In the end, we chose the Ring Road. It was spectacular. But, I’ve also included a shorter itinerary that would still be a stunner if you visit Iceland and don’t have a week or more. We visited in the height of summer, taking advantage of long hours of light and mild temperatures.
Here’s what we did:
Day 1: Blue Lagoon and Reykjavik – Since the Blue Lagoon is right by the airport, we stopped there first for a relaxing entry into the island. Book your reservation in advance and plan to spend at least two hours in the warm geothermal baths with your complimentary drink and mudmask. It’s a great way to soak off jet lag or an early flight (ours left London at 6am!) Pro tip: Bathing etiquette is quite specific in Iceland. Read up on how to enter, shower and enjoy the culture.
Reykjavik reminded us of a quirky ski town with lots of colorful cafes and walkable streets with shops and restaurants. After a long travel day, we took a short stroll to see the highlights, including the impressive Hallgrimskirkja church and pedestrian-friendly Laugavegur street. Pro tip: Iceland is expensive, there’s no denying it. To cut down on food costs, we decided to only eat one meal out each day. For lunch, we made sandwiches and bought snacks from the budget grocery store, Bonus, found all around the island. Sometimes we cooked dinner in at our guesthouses, many of which included a kitchenette. For budget dinners in Reykjavik, try the hip food halls Grandi Matholl or Hlemmur Matholl. They offer several fast casual options in very cool spaces with lots of locals and a great variety of delicious food.
Day 2: Golden Circle, joined the Ring Road headed counter clockwise – We started bright and early, driving clockwise around the Golden Circle. It can be busy with tour buses we are told (silver lining to the pandemic, we were there with very few others). We began at Thingvellar National Park and marvelled at the crack formed by the North American and European tectonic plates spreading out between the two continents. Driving further on to Strokkur geysir, we visited the spot that gave geysers their name. Every 5-8 minutes it erupts, giving a stunning show amongst the stinky gurgling pools. Next, we drove up to Gullfoss waterfall. It’s huge and the first of many stunning falls we saw in Iceland. Finally, we visited Kerid, a massive crater with a beautiful lake at its center. We hiked up and all the way around for the full effect.
Connecting onto Highway 1, the Ring Road, we continued driving toward Vik. There are still many sites to see, so I recommend saving the ones closest to Vik for the following day. Our favorite waterfall of the entire week was Seljalandsfoss, where you can walk up to and behind the falls. Pro tip: You only have to pay to park at a few sites, including Seljalandsfoss, but the parking pass is good for the whole day. When you depart, look around and see if you can pay it forward by giving someone that is just arriving your parking pass. We ended our day at Skogafoss waterfall, where there are small hotels and guesthouses, a campground and restaurant.
Day 3: Vik to Starmyri up the east coast – Another packed day full of beauty. We began our morning at Dyrholeay viewpoint spotting puffins and admiring the dramatic coastline from above. Nearby we got down on the black sand beaches of Reynisfjara and marveled at caves and crazy hexagonal basalt formations. Pro tip: stay well away from the water’s edge as it has surprising currents and waves that have killed tourists.
The deep and winding river and canyon Fjaorargljufur (no idea how to say that!) is the next stop and a nice hike to stretch your legs. Further up the highway, the glacier lagoons Fjallsarlon and Jokulsarlon cannot be missed. Calving glaciers and floating icebergs are so close and just across the road is the fascinating Diamond Beach with shiny ice sculptures littering black sand beach (and seals!) If you have the time and budget, we heard great things about the glacier boat tours that get you up close and personal to the icebergs on the lagoon.
The clouds rolled in and we had little visibility during the afternoon, so we couldn’t see Vestrahorn mountain outside of Hofn. But if you catch it on a clear day, be sure to photograph it!
Day 4: Through the fjords to Seydisfjordur and Egilsstadir – Driving north on Day 4 was a long and winding day through the fjords. It was beautiful and calm, but we didn’t make many stops. We did divert down to Seydisfjordur before finishing our day in Egilsstadir. If you have seen the skateboarding scene in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, this is where it was filmed! There’s a pull-off with a pretty waterfall, Gufu, and the town is cute for a quick walk around and lunch.
South of Egilsstadir by the lake, we hiked to two waterfalls, Hengifoss and Litlanesfoss. That night, we enjoyed the public swimming pool, hot tubs and slides in Egilsstadir. Pro tip: Leave your phone in the car when visiting the local pools. Photography is strictly prohibited!
Day 5: Across the top to Lake Myvatn and Akureyri – The drive looked daunting, but actually crossing the top of the Ring Road wasn’t too arduous (I wouldn’t recommend it in winter). Our first stops in Lake Myvatn broke up the day. We stopped at the other-worldly geothermal areas with gurgling geysers and moonscape mountains called Namafjall and Hverir. Then we hiked to the top of Hverfjall crater with gorgeous views of Lake Myvatn. Just in time for lunch we stopped at Kaffi Borgir for homemade soups, sandwiches and Iceland’s famous rye bread that is baked in pots put directly into the boiling geysers. The outdoor area overlooked the interesting lava formations at Dimmuborgir and we hiked through after lunch.
As you round the lake, it’s worth stopping at lookout points for gorgeous views. The Skutustadagrig pseudocraters were our final stop at Lake Myvatn and our last stop of the day was another impressive waterfall, Godafoss. Pro tip: Park on the right side of the falls for the closest view. We continued onto Akureyri for the night. It’s the second largest city in Iceland and Luke’s favorite public swimming pool (the biggest slide!)
Day 6: Adventures around Akureyri – Akureyri is a great hub for whale watching tours, and we also booked in a three-hour whitewater rafting excursion nearby with Viking Rafting. It was awesome! An adventurous, family-friendly activity. If you have more time, Akureyri would be a nice place to spend more than one night. To shorten our trip back to Reykjavik the next day, we stayed in Blondous.
Day 7: Final leg back to Reykjavik – After our busy day of whales and whitewater rafting, we made our way back to Reykjavik stopping at Grabrok crater. We debated a small diversion and were so glad we did, marveling at one more multi-waterfall, Hraunfossar. Worth the detour!
We spent our final night eating dinner in Reykjavik and staying at a hotel near the airport. I was surprised that after more than 1,000 miles I wasn’t really exhausted. Our pace around the island was reasonable and each day was filled with captivating wonders. The hikes to craters and waterfalls exercised our legs so we weren’t too bothered by 2-4 hours each day in the car. The Iceland Ring Road experience exceeded my expectations! It is a dramatic country full of gorgeous scenery, color and natural wonders.
Alternate trip: 3-5 days in Iceland
If you don’t have enough time to drive the entire Ring Road, don’t try to cram it in. There are plenty of incredible sights and activities to see just outside Reykjavik and along the southeast coast. If we had less time, now knowing what we know, here is how I would spend 3-5 days in Iceland:
Day 1: Blue Lagoon and Reykjavik
Day 2: Golden Circle and Ring Road to Skogafoss
Day 3: Southeast to Hofn, saving the glacial lagoons and Diamond beach for the return trip the next day
Day 4: Back to Reykjavik
Day 5: Day trip from Reykjavik toward the northwest visiting Grabrok crater, Krauma thermal spa and Hraunfossar waterfall