Volcanoes, geysers, thermal springs, glaciers – these are just a few of the incredible feats of nature awaiting you in Iceland, the largest volcanic island in the world. Iceland has gone on to become one of the top destinations amongst adventurers. Some stay just a few days, while others sometimes even plan several weeks here. Those of you who’ve been to Iceland already know that as soon as you start falling for its spell, you just want to see as much of Iceland as you possibly can in the time that you have.
If you want to explore the whole of Iceland and really take in as much of the nature and culture as you can, then you’re in luck. I’ve gone ahead and created the ultimate Iceland itinerary for a road trip around Iceland, using the famous Route 1 ring road as its basis. Using this, you’ll be able to plan the perfect holiday to Iceland and enjoy what will truly be an unforgettable adventure. Believe me – you won’t regret it!
The Ultimate Iceland Road trip
Good to know
The best time to visit Iceland | Rental cars in Iceland
Reykjavík | Golden Circle | South Coast | Vatnajökull | Eastern Iceland | North Coast
Insider’s tip: West Coast | Snæfellsnes
What you need to know before travelling to Iceland
The best time of year for an Iceland road trip
So, you’ve decided on a road trip around Iceland. Good choice! But now one pressing question remains – when is the best time of year to visit Iceland? This really depends on what you want to see while you’re there. During the summer months from June until August (the peak season), you’ll encounter mild temperatures and long days, yet during the colder months from October until march, you’ll not only have the opportunity to catch a glimpse of the Northern Lights, but also avoid the huge crowds of tourists that come to Iceland during the summer. However, this time of year also sees road closures, which could be a slight spanner in the works for you while you’re there. I’ve put together a nifty little table below to give you a quick overview, but for more in-depth information and advice, I’d recommend checking out my Travel Calendar below!
Iceland during the summer
- Longer days, up to 20+ hours of visible sun during the summer solstice
- Comfortable temperatures
- Ideal for hiking
- Whale watching possible
- Optimum road conditions
Iceland during the winter
- Shorter days
- Cheaper prices
- Possible to see the Northern Lights
- Ideal for glacier tours
- Possible to visit ice caves
- Few other tourists around
The best time to visit Iceland
Driving and car rental in Iceland
Once you’ve decided which month you’re going to travel in, the next step is to find a good deal for car rental. But it’s not just about finding a good price – insurance will be something to think about, and you’ll have to read up a bit about the rules of the road in Iceland too.
Some useful vocab:
- Stans! – stop!
- Hætta! – danger!
- Blindhæð – blind summit
- Óbrúaðar ár – un-bridged river (4×4 territory!)
- Einbreið brú/göng – single-lane bridge/tunnel
I’ll start off by saying that Iceland is unfortunately not the cheapest country to rent a car in. But don’t worry too much about that – if you take the time to look around and compare prices, you’ll be able to find a fantastic deal in no time. If you travel in the winter, you’re best looking at a 4×4 vehicle. Even on tarmacked roads, mountain passes can still be icy or snowed over somewhat during the winter, so it’s best to err on the side of caution.
Since a roadtrip is a popular way of seeing Iceland, it’s best that you read up on the rules of the road to avoid any sticky situations. I’ve compiled a list of some handy things to remember when driving in Iceland,
- Headlights have to be switched on at all times, even during the day – this is the norm in Scandinavia! If you don’t, you’ll see a lot of drivers flashing you to let you know yours are off.
- Driving off-road in Iceland is illegal. No matter how tempted you are to cut across or try and get a cool vantage point, stick to the paved routes.
- When driving in urban areas such as Reykjavík, the speed limit is 50km/h. Once you’re outside of a town, speed limits increase to 90km/h on asphalt roads and 80km/h on gravel tracks.
- Road names beginning with F may only be traversed by 4×4 vehicles (i.e. mountain roads).
Insider’s tip: Before you set off, I really recommend downloading the 112 Iceland App. Using this app, emergency services will be able to locate you in rural and remote areas should you get stranded. You can check it out here!
Find cheap rental cars here
In regards to insurance in Iceland, comprehensive insurance is usually included in the price quoted, though be sure to double check by looking at the fine print. It’s recommended that you go for a more expensive variant without personal contributions, which means that you won’t have to fork up in case something does happen. You should also look at underbody and tyre protection as well as insurances against damages caused by stones, rock or even ash storms. It might sound a bit drastic, but with all of this you’ll be fully kitted out during your Iceland road trip.
Once you’re on the move, stick to paved roads as much as you can, though some stretches of the Route 1 ring road will be gravel tracks in particularly rural areas in the east. Off-roading is illegal in order to protect the environment, so stay to the path. And of course, speed limits must be obeyed – there are plenty of speed cameras around and the fines in Iceland can be rather hefty!
The Iceland Road Trip
Reykjavík – the northernmost capital city in the world
Our road trip begins in Reykjavík, the capital of iceland. Once you’ve landed at Keflavík Airport, you have just a 50km drive to Reykjavík. Ensure in advance that you can pick up your rental car directly from the airport, since that will save you spending money on the bus transfer to the city.
Approximately 120,000 – 130,000 people live in Reykjavík, whose Icelandic name roughly translates to “Bay of Smokes”. You’ll find museums, universities, shopping streets, impressive churches (such as the Hallgrímskirkja) as well as political establishments such as the Icelandic Parliament. The result is a lively, cosy city that’s well worth getting to know. I can also really recommend the nightlife in Reykjavík as well – really soak up that urban atmosphere, as the rest of the road trip is going to be completely different! Reykjavík also serves as a great base for tours to the nearby lava fields and craters, or you could even go for a dip in the Blue Lagoon.
On the move in the Golden Circle
The Golden Circle is probably the most famous route of all in Iceland. It profits from easy accessibility from Reykjavík – and it’s where you’ll be heading next after your stop in the capital. The Golden Circle offers tourists the opportunity to essentially experience Iceland in a nutshell, with all those iconic natural phenomena present here. Perfect for those with only a few days in the country. The main sights of the Golden Circle are the Þingvellir National Park, the Haukadalur geothermal field (home to the iconic Geysir) and the Gulfoss waterfall, though you’ve also got bucketloads of smaller sights such as the Kerið crater lake to explore too. Remember that this part of Iceland gets extremely busy in the summer months due to the high number of tourists that come here. This stretch of the road trip from Reykjavík to Kerið is just 170km, so it’s easily done in a day.
Guru Tip: Don’t miss out on the fantastic Silfra rift. It’s essentially a gap between the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates that’s submerged beneath the sea – so you really can go diving between two continents! If you’re a passionate diver, this is a bucket-list experience!
South Coast Stop 1 – Waterfalls and black beaches
The next stop on the road trip is the southern coast of Iceland, where you’ll find impressive waterfalls, an infamous volcano and the famous black beach of Reynisfjara. The first 85km lead from Kerið to the Seljalandsfoss waterfall, one of the most famous in the entire island. You can actually stand behind the water due to the concave shape of the cliffs behind it. It really is such a unique vantage point, and the sunshine and water result in fantastic shows of colour. Close to Seljalandsfoss is the famous volcano and glacier, Eyjafjallajökul. The name might ring a bell – it was this volcano that unleashed that huge ash cloud when it erupted in 2010 and pretty much grounded all of Europe’s air traffic in one fell swoop. If you want to get up close to the glaciers, then it might be worth looking into a guided volcano tour. You’ll be able to see the huge ash fields that were left behind after the eruption.
Along the way to the black beach, you’ll pass the Skógafoss waterfall, which is a whopping 25 metres wide. Another 12km from Skógafoss and you’ll be very close to the Sólheimasandur, the wreckage of an abandoned DC aeroplane that looks as if it really is in the middle of nowhere. The wreckage dates back to 1973, when a US Navy plane ran out of fuel and was forced to make an emergency landing. Everyone on board survived the incident luckily, and today the surreal scenes of the metal wreckage and the sprawling black sands really is otherworldly. The perfect place for a photo!
Once you’ve checked out the wreckage, continue on to the last stop of the day – the Reynisfjara beach. The black sands, mighty cliffs and powerful waves make it one of the most beautiful beaches in the world. You could then go on to spend the night in Vík í Mýrdal, the southernmost point in Iceland.
South Coast Stop 2 – Hot springs and canyons
Once you’ve spent a night in Iceland’s southernmost village, it’s time to continue on – this time a little further inland. It’s 120km until the next stop, Landmannalaugar, an area of outstanding natural beauty. The rugged landscapes and hot springs exemplify what it is that makes Iceland so magical. While you’re there, park the car and strap on your hiking boots – the Laugavegur is a fantastic route that leads you past awesome such as the Rainbow Mountains. The full length of the Laugavegur takes several days to do, but it’s worth taking a day to enjoy a lovely hike exploring the countless valleys and ridges.
Once you’re back in the car, it’s another 95km from Landmannalaugur to the Fjaðrárgljúfur Canyon. It’s situated close to the commune of Kirkjubæjarklaustur, so see if you can find some accommodation options in the area. The Fjaðrárgljúfur canyon is 200 metres long and up to 100 metres deep, and the moss-covered cliffs are stunning. You’ll get some fantastic photos taken here.
At the foot of Vatnajökull
The road trip now leads from Kirkjubæjarklaustur along the south-east coast to the Svartifoss. The Iceland name, “Black Falls”, drives from the striking black basalt columns that surround it. The waterfall is at the foot of Vantajökull, the largest glacier in Europe. The nearby Skaftafell National Park serves as a starting point for glacier tours which lead you across the sprawling ice plains of the glacier. Check out Morsárfoss, the highest waterfall in Iceland at 227 metres, or take a tour through the impressive Vatnajökull ice caves. Just be aware that tours through the ice caves are only possible during the winter, and they aren’t exactly cheap either. But believe me – the views are worth every Euro!
On the way to Höfn, the largest town in the south-east (by Icelandic standards), you’ll pass the Jökulsárlón, the deepest and most beautiful lake in all of Iceland. The deep blue shades of the ice and the ochre tones of the sunset are just incredible to see together. You really can’t miss a sunset here!
Eastern Iceland – magical fjords await
The eastern regions of Iceland are some of the least touristic areas of the island – but it doesn’t meant that it’s not worth exploring! Quite the opposite in fact. You won’t find the typical sights here, but you will be greeted with wonderful landscapes and views that will enchant you time and time again. With rugged fjords sheltering sleepy fishing villages, the drive from Höfn to Egilsstaðir, the largest town in east Iceland, really is a proper feast for the eyes. The next 230km of the roadtrip will lead you along the fjords to the town of Reyðarfjörður, which shares the name of the fjord it’s situated in. It’s definitely worth using the place as a stopping point – the many wooden huts here can be rented out and you’ll more than likely find one on websites such as Airbnb. With a bit of luck, you’ll have a good chance to spot the Northern Lights in this region of Iceland during the winter. It’s an experience that instills a sense of freedom and awe – you’ll never forget the first time you see them.
While you’re in the region, you should pay a visit to Lagarfljót which is close to Egilsstaðir – it’s said that there are some dark and mysterious monsters living in the lake there. In fact the whole country is just steeped in myth and legend. The Icelandic sagas of old tell of the exploits of Norse gods, intrepid adventurers and brave warriors, and sometimes you can really see how the breathtaking nature and otherworldly auroras inspired these tales of old. Did you know that many Icelanders believe that small, elf-like creatures live on the island? In fact whenever a new structure is built, they have to ensure they it’s not disturbing elf territory…
The far north of Iceland – water, sulphur and lava
From Egilsstaðir in the east, we now head to Akureyri in the north of Iceland. Before we get to Iceland’s fourth largest town however, it’s time we stopped off at some incredible sights along the way. After around 160km you’ll reach Dettifoss, one of the most powerful waterfalls in Europe. Fed by the Vatnajökull glacier, the Dettifoss is a part of a larger network of waterfalls that cascade along the water’s path. Eventually the melt water flows into the Arctic Ocean.
Be sure to stop off at Námaskarð, a pass that’s home to loads of thermal springs and steaming craters due to the activity from nearby Krafla volcano. From there, the road trip continues to Mývatn lake, a super idyllic spot that features lush nature and large biodiversity. Nearby you’ll find the Mývatn Nature Baths, a man-made lagoon that’s naturally headed by geothermic processes. Think of the Blue Lagoon, but in miniature! And that’s not all you can do here. Why not hike through the surreal landscapes of the Dimmuborgir lava fields, bathe in the thermal springs of Jarðböð, or visit the Grjótagjá cave where Jon Snow and Ygritte enjoyed some cosy moments together in Game of Thrones?
Insider’s tip – the Westfjords
If you still haven’t satisfied your cravings for adventure, then you should head to the westernmost reaches of Iceland. This region, known as the Westfjords (the sticky-out bit to the north-west of the island), is filled with hundreds of fjords and breathtaking valleys that shelter beautiful village and all sorts of secrets. Since the Westfjords are out of the way of the ring road, most tourists don’t make the effort to venture up here, but it would be such a shame if you miss out on this beautiful corner of Iceland. Turn off Route 1 and head towards the Vestfirðir peninsula. One thing you just have to visit is the Dynjandi waterfall – made up of several streams, the cascades fan out as they tumble down the basalt and in my opinion, it’s probably one of the most unique and most beautiful waterfalls you’ll ever see. During the summer you could pitch up for the night at one of the many campsites or journey further north to the town of Ísafjörður. It’s even possible to do horse riding tours and get to know the lovely Iceland ponies that live here. I’m sure a little adventure on horseback will be a welcome change to the car!
The Snæfallsnes Peninsula
The last destination on our Iceland round trip is the peninsula of Snæfellsnes, which roughly translates into English as the “Snow mountain peninsula”. Even if you’ve never heard of this place, you just have to check it out. Why, you may be asking? Simple answer really – this peninsula truly is a miniature version of Iceland. In fact the sheer beauty of the region has led to the entire peninsula being designated a national park. You’ve got countless hiking opportunities where you can explore hidden black-sand beaches such as Djúpalónssandur, delve into fjords such as Malariff, or even admire the Kirkjufell mountain, which I’m sure many of you will probably recognise already. With a bit of luck, you might even be able to spot some beautiful little puffins too!
The return to Reykjavík
Snæfellsnes is just 200km away from Keflavík Airport, so it’s the perfect last stop during any tour – and a worthy end to what will have undoubtedly been a truly unforgettable adventure. For the route I’ve suggested, I’d give yourselves anywhere from 10 – 15 days, depending on how much time you want to spend in each region. But even if you just have a week, that’s still plenty of time to really get a feel for Iceland and let that magic sink in. Once you’re back at the airport, you can simply drop your rental car back off, relax in the terminal and board your flight back to Ireland. Piece of cake!
If you’re feeling inspired by Iceland, then I’ve got some more fantastic articles below which are bursting with handy tips, recommendations and advice. Who knows – maybe I’ll see you there!
Get inspired by Iceland!