As some of you already know, my ‘proper’ job is working in Product and Development for a Scandinavian tour operator. This entails doing research and going to Scandinavia to meet activity suppliers, check hotels, try local food and find out the best things to do in any given area.
One of the highlights of my job (apart from conversing with the occasional handsome Viking) is going to Iceland and hiring a car with my colleague once or twice a year to keep our knowledge and Icelandic program up to date. Even though it seems impossible, I always manage to fall deeper in love with this country each and every time.
After several of these trips, I’ve accumulated some useful information over the years that I think you’ll find helpful for your own travels. To showcase this, I’ve put together a travel itinerary for Iceland to give you some guidance on where you should go on your very own road trip.
Thingvellir/Golden Circle: 2 nights
After picking up your hire car from Keflavik airport your journey begins eastwards to Thingvellir. I suggest spending time here first (or perhaps somewhere like Hella or Selfoss) instead of Reykjavik because I think you should finish your trip in the capital city.
On your first evening you’ll probably just want to settle into your accommodation and explore some of the nearby scenery depending on what daylight you have left.
On your second day it’s all about exploring the Golden Circle route. Comprising most famously of Thingvellir National Park, Geyser Area and Gullfoss, I always describe these three attractions as a microcosm of Iceland because it includes a National Park, an erupting geyser and an epic waterfall – the essential components of Iceland’s staggering landscape. Bonus sightings on the route include Oxararfoss and Kerid Crater.
Even if you were only in Iceland for 48 hours and using Reykjavik as your base, I’d encourage you to embark on the Golden Circle as a day trip.
Vik/Black Beaches: 1 night
Today you will make your way to Vik, passing several attractions on the way, including Seljalandsfoss and my personal favourite; Skógafoss, also known as ‘curtain waterfall’.
Iceland’s southernmost town is Vik, and it also happens to be its prettiest too. Nestled at the bottom of a lush valley overlooking the ocean, you couldn’t ask for a more picturesque setting to spend the night.
Geology nerds will freak out at the ‘fingers’ of basalt rocks that eerily jut out of the sea and can be seen from almost anywhere in Vik. To get a better look, I recommend going to the nearby black beach where you’ll also discover caves and super cool basalt columns.
You also shouldn’t leave this area without driving to Dyrholaey – a 120 metres high promontory where a startling arch-shaped rock emerges from the sea.
Accommodation: There’s not that much in the way of accommodation in Vik but Icelandair Hotel Vik is definitely the best and has gorgeous views of the ocean.
Skaftafell/Jokulsarlon Glacial Lagoon: 2 nights
From Vik you take the drive eastwards towards the area of Vatnajökull National Park which encompasses Skaftafell and many other too-good-to-be-true sights, including the almighty Jokulsarlon Glacial Lagoon – one of Europe’s most incredible natural wonders.
As soon as I saw the icebergs emerge my jaw dropped to the floor and hung down long enough to catch the tide. Even the seals were giving me a funny look! Wait, did I mention seals? That’s right. You might be able to spot them lounging around on a few icebergs – very much like a Rubenesque figure on a Chaise Lounge.
I suggest spending two days around Skafkafell so you can also go hiking, and catch a glimpse of the enigmatic waterfall of Svartifoss which is hidden inside the National Park.
Another place you shouldn’t miss is Svinafellsjökull, a glacial tongue of Vatnajökull.
Accommodation: Again, accommodation is quite sparse in this region but I would say the newly opened Fosshotel Vatnajökull comes out top.
Egilsstaðir/Fjords: 1 night
Breaking up the drive between south and north Iceland is Egilsstaðir in the east. Egilsstaðir is located next to Lagarfljot river, where Iceland’s very own Lochness monster reportedly lives.
Before reaching your accommodation you will pass the harbour town of Höfn, famous for its lobster, so much so in fact, it has an annual lobster festival. This is a good place to stop for something to eat before reaching your final destination.
In this region you should explore Selkogur Forest and visit Hengifoss, Iceland’s third highest waterfall. If you visit during the summer months there’s a strong chance of seeing puffins especially at Borgarfjördur Eystri, a small community surrounding the harbour and home to a large puffin colony.
Accommodation: For a cosy place in a stunning location, look no further than Guesthouse Egilsstaðir. It’s also voted no.1 on Trip Advisor for this area. It’s more basic than some of the other accommodations I’ve listed but that’s because there are no luxury accommodations in this area as such, however the quality is very good.
Mývatn/Akureyri: 3 nights
I love North Iceland! Akureyri is commonly known as the ‘Reykjavik of the North’ since it’s the second largest urban area in Iceland with a population of 18,000 (still minuscule by most standards!).
Huge street art in Akureyri.
However, instead of staying in Akureyri I would suggest having nights in Mývatn because the scenery is out of the world (seriously, like another planet). You can always have a day trip to Akureyri, it’s got some cool shops and cafés for you to peruse for a few hours. But the highlight of the north really is the whole area around Mývatn and the lake, it’s made up of some of the strangest, trippiest, most captivating landscapes I’ve ever seen.
Must-see place around Mývatn
- Godafoss –Also known as Waterfall of the Gods, this is one of the prettiest waterfalls in Iceland. For photo opportunities it’s definitely worth walking to each side of the waterfall to get different perspectives.
- Dettifoss –To experience the wrath of Mother Nature go to Dettifoss, reportedly the most powerful waterfall in the whole of Europe!
- Dimmuborgir – A world of its own; a park filled with bizarre lava formations. Dimmuborgir has inspired much Icelandic folklore, it is believed this is where the earth connects with the infernal regions.
- Hverir Geothermal Area – There’s a high chance that you’ll smell this place before you even see it! Hverir is a large field of bubbling mud pools, fumaroles and sticky red soil. This is easily one of my favourite places in North Iceland.
- Hverfell – This volcano can be seen from miles away: broad, conical, black and shaped in a stereotypical cone, Hverfell demands attention. You can hike to the top of the crater for 360 degree views of the surrounding area.
- Grjotagja – Entering through a crack in the ground, stop off for a few minutes to climb down into this low-ceiling tunnel harbouring a clear-blue steaming pool. However, unless you’re here in the winter, the pool is too hot to jump into during the summer – enter with caution!
- Viti Crater – Translating to Hell’s crater, this explosion crater formed in 1734 by a massive eruption in the Krafla volcano, known as Mývatnseldar that lasted for five years.
Accommodation: I’ve stayed in a few hotels in Mývatn and the quality isn’t as high as in South Iceland, however, I can say Hotel Laxa is the nicest, and Sel Hotel Mývatn is also good with a nice view of pseudo-craters. In the region you might also want to look at cabin accommodation, I saw quite a few but I’ve not personally stayed in any myself so I’m not able to make a sound recommendation I’m afraid.
Snesfellsnes Peninsula: 1 or 2 nights
It’s a long drive, so set off early from Mývatn and head southwards to the Snesfellsnes Peninsula in West Iceland; a strip of land elbowing out into the North Atlantic Ocean.
The place is filled with humongous mountain ranges on one side and the ocean on the other; you’ll never get bored of the scenery. Signs of rough seas and strong winds shape the landscape. Craggy, wild and brooding – think of the sea clashing against the Yorkshire Moors and create the scene for yourself.
My favourite place on the peninsula is Djupalonssandur, everywhere you look are reminders of Iceland’s volcanic origins – expect black beaches and bizarre rock formations.
Most people stay in the picturesque harbour town of Stykkishólmur where you will find brightly painted buildings overlooking skerries and rocky islets. Recently, the town was featured in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty where bizarrely it was masquerading as Greenland!
Nearby Stykkishólmur is Grundarfjörður where the Shark Museum (Bjarnarhöfn) lies. If you dare, try the Icelandic delicacy of hákarl, better known as rotten shark. If you want to know whether I managed to swallow the stuff, you can read my earlier post.
Perhaps the most iconic attraction on the peninsula is the much photographed Kirkjufell mountain. Though if it’s foggy you’ll have to keep an eye out for it.
It’s also worth pointing out that you can get a ferry up to the West Fjords from Stykkishólmur, passing the tiny island of Flatey en route.
Accommodation: What’s my favourite hotel in the whole of Iceland? It’s a tough call, but Hotel Budir on the Snesfellsnes Peninsula takes the crown. It’s stylish, elegant and boasts incredible views.
Reykjavik/Reykjanes Peninsula: 2 nights
After one or two nights exploring the Snesfellsnes Peninsula set off in the morning southwards towards Reykjavik where it’s time to enjoy city life after nearly two weeks of absorbing the countryside.
En route to Reykjavik you must make a detour to Husafell to see one of Iceland’s most beautiful waterfalls – Hraunfossar. The name of the waterfall translates to ‘Lava Falls’. From Husafell you could also go on a trip inside a glacier… taking you through various ice tunnels after travelling by a massive trunk made for snowy conditions. It’s rather exciting!
It’s also worth stopping off at Borganes to visit the Settlement Centre which traces the roots of the Iceland Sagas. However, if that doesn’t pique your interest, the café and restaurant might – the food is very good!
Once you arrive in Reykjavik, the essential things you must see are Harpa Opera House for its incredible architecture, the main street of Laugavegur and Hallgrimskirkja Church – not forgetting to purchase a ticket for access to the top floor for a fantastic panoramic view of the city. For more information on things to do see my Top 10 Reykjavik post.
Reykjavik has a really eclectic array of cafes and restaurant, many with their own charm. I really recommend trying the seafood, highlights include langoustine at Icelandic Fish & Chips and the lobster soup at Seafood Baron. And for some truly Icelandic food go to Cafe Loki, it’s located directly opposite the church so you can’t miss it.
If you’re looking to incorporate life in the city with wildlife, join a whale-watching tour, an activity which departs several times a day from the harbour.
To finish up your trip drive along the stunning shore of the Reykjanes Peninsula. This coastline is extremely exposed to the elements, few things make you feel more alive than standing atop volcanic cliffs and feeling the vibrations of the waves crash against your feet. It’s an experience I hold vividly in my memory and close to my heart.
Just like Hverir geothermal area in North Iceland you can find the South’s equivalent at both Seltun and Gunnuhver. From a distance you should know you’re getting close when you catch sight of plumes of smoke rising from the ground, it’s a rather common sight in Iceland but one that always builds my excitement nonetheless.
Got a few more nights?
Ok, let’s carry on…
The Pretty Fishing Village of Siglufjörður
Instead of spending three nights at Mývatn, you could spend two nights there and one night in the small village of Siglufjörður.
The small yet perfectly formed village of Siglufjörður was once known for its silver sea with its abundance of herring, thus giving it the nickname ‘Herring Town’. The golden age of herring lasted just over 100 years, from 1867 to 1968, leading to an economic boom and Siglufjordrur was at the forefront of this boom. Often, the herring from this one town alone provided more than 20% of the country’s total export income.
Though there is no longer any herring, its heritage has been wonderfully preserved at the charming Herring Museum.
Nearby is Hofsos, a popular place to go if you want to soak in a pool overlooking the ocean, but the real attraction is the huge expanse of basalt columns stretching all along the coastline. Surprisingly, very little has been written about these basalt columns so you heard it hear first!
Accommodation: I had the pleasure of staying in the brand new Siglo Hotel, and I would recommend it to anyone, it’s already winning awards and is easily the best hotel in the North Iceland. Easily. Just look at the pictures…
West Fjords: 2 nights
The one place I’ve yet to visit is the West Fjords, it’s the the most remote area of Iceland as well as the least visited. Approximately only 3% of visitors to Iceland visit here in spite of its many attractions.
The greatest pull for visitors to travel to this hard to reach place are the Latrabjarg bird cliffs, thousands of puffins arrive here during the summer along with guillemot, razorbills and fulmars.
You shouldn’t miss Dynjandi either, often cited as the most beautiful waterfall in Iceland by Icelanders.
Lastly, don’t forget…
To get out of your car! Personally I always have the urge to jump out of the car every five minutes and I’m sure you’ll feel the same. Go for a hike or a walk because nothing will bring you closer to nature. But whilst we’re in nature let’s always remember to be respectful of her.
I wouldn’t say mountains are particularly steep in Iceland but be careful when walking on volcano rubble. I recommend investing in some decent walking boots.
Lastly, don’t forget your camera, your inner photographer will never forgive you if you did.
Fly with – Icelandair or you might be able to find more affordable tickets with EasyJet or Wowair.
Hire car – Avis
Get more information at – Tiny Iceland and my Iceland archives – theculturemap.com/category/iceland
Prefer to let someone else arrange everything for you? – Taber Holidays
What to wear – See my packing list
Best time to go – All year round, but I particularly love the summer months for its endless hours of sunlight. But if the Northern Lights are your focus, go between September – March.
I hope you’ve found this itinerary useful, let me know if you have any questions!