There’s nothing quite like an Iceland road trip and I’d say that driving around Iceland’s ring road was one of my favourite adventures ever!
What you will find is beautiful scenery, friendly people, interesting culture, sometimes challenging conditions and lots of adventure.
I travelled with one of my best friends, Kate, who I met overlanding in Africa in 2009. We hired a campervan from Go Campers, who I would highly recommend, as we wanted the freedom to travel as and when we pleased.
During that time, Iceland quickly became one of my favourite countries in the whole world.
An Epic Iceland Road Trip Itinerary (with things to do & self-drive tips)
When To Do an Iceland Road Trip
You can drive Iceland’s ring road at any time of year but we went in October. The weather was pretty good and we got a good mix of sunshine, rain and snow.
In the summer you will get longer days and ‘better’ weather, but you won’t see the Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights). In the winter, the days are short, meaning you will see less in the time you have and the snow can make travel more difficult (and occasionally impossible), but you have a good chance of seeing the Northern Lights.
The great thing about travelling in October, is that there’s an almost equal amount of day and night, so you can see a lot in a day, but also have a good chance of seeing the Northern lights by night.
Which Direction to Drive Iceland’s Ring Road
We had planned to go anti-clockwise on our Iceland road trip, driving around the ring road, but we actually went clockwise after checking the aurora forecast, which you can see on the Icelandic Met Office website (the white parts are the clear sky, where you are most likely to see aurora activity and the green part is cloud cover), so our plan effectively went out the window.
But, we did pretty much see all of the places we wanted to see (and a few new ones), albeit at different times of day than we might have if we had gone the other way.
Our Iceland Road Trip Itinerary
My ideal Iceland road trip itinerary would go something like this:
- Day 1: Reykjavik
- Day 2: Hraunfosser, Barnafoss & the Snæfellsnes Peninsular
- Day 3: Kirkjufellsfoss, Djúpalónssandur, Hellnar & Arnarstapi
- Day 4: Hvitserkur, Akureyri, Goðafoss & Lake Mývatn
- Day 5: Whale Watching in Húsavík, Ásbyrgi Canyon & Dettifoss
- Day 6: The East Fjords, Jökulsárlón Glacial Lagoon & Vik
- Day 7: Vik, Reynisfjara, Dyrhólaey Arch, Skógafoss & Seljalandsfoss
- Day 8: The Golden Circle
- Day 9: Snorkelling in Þingvellir National Park & the Blue Lagoon
You see, the thing about driving Iceland’s ring road, is that it’s good to have a plan, but it’s even better if you can be flexible, especially if seeing the northern lights is your priority.
This is one of the reasons why hiring a campervan is such a great option, because you can go where the northern lights takes you! But if you are hiring a car and staying in hotels, don’t worry, it will still be amazing!
Where To Stay on Iceland’s Ring Road
We hired a camper van which was great for us. But staying in a camper van is definitely not for everyone. Ours was pretty small (basically a converted car) so we were in very close quarters. We had a little stove, but no bathroom.
So if you do this, you need to go with someone you get along with really well.
There are larger campervans that you can hire, so think about what level of comfort you might need.
Ask your campervan company for a campsite map. Just note that not all campsites are open in winter (some companies have specific winter campsite maps) however, I believe you can stay at most campsites and use the facilities, even if they are technically closed. But you will need to be self-sufficient in terms of food.
There are also plenty of hotels, guest houses, and Airbnb’s, but they are relatively expensive (but everything in Iceland is pretty expensive).
Just for the record – we did a spot of ‘wild camping’ in Iceland. And when I say wild camping, I mean we slept at a rest stop and a couple of car parks. But it is now illegal (as of 2016) to camp anywhere in a campervan other than a proper campsite. It used to be ok, but apparently not now.
How Long To Spend on Iceland’s Ring Road
We spent 8 full days doing our Iceland road trip in late October, with 1 day in Reykjavik, 1 day on the Golden Circle, 1 day on the Snæfellsnes Peninsular and 5 days driving Iceland’s Route 1 (the ring road) – in hindsight, I would have added in an extra day to the ring road.
If I could do it again, I’d try and stretch the whole trip to 9 or 10 days, spending maybe 6 or 7 days on the ring road alone.
5 days on the ring road would have been more do-able in the summer with the longer days, but still would have been quite busy. Especially if you want to spend your evenings relaxing at the campsite.
But if you do only have a week, that’s also fine. You will just need to prioritise.
Driving the entire ring road and doing all of the activities of offer there are is pretty much impossible unless you have weeks and weeks (and a lot of money). The free scenery (waterfalls, mountains, glaciers) and hiking will keep you entertained.
So with all that in mind, here’s my Iceland road trip advice and ring road itinerary, with pictures, tips, and activity ideas to help you plan your own perfect Iceland road trip!
You can easily reverse or adjust based on the time of year you travel and the number of days you have!
Day 1: Reykjavik
We spent a day exploring Iceland’s quirky and colourful capital, Reykjavik. Whilst not really part of the road trip as such, I was really glad we did as we learned a lot about Icelandic culture.
I started our first morning with a cinnamon and apple pastry from the delightful Brauð & Co., whilst my friend Kate went to run a marathon (yes really) and I’d encourage you do the same – Brauð & Co. that is, not the marathon.
The queue is worth it. Then I grabbed a coffee from Reykjavik Roasters, just down the road.
Next, head up the road to the impressive Hallgrímskirkja, the most famous church in Reykjavik where you can go up to the top and get an amazing view over the whole of the city.
It’s open until 9pm in the summer months, but only 5pm in the winter. Sadly, we arrived at the end of the day and missed it, but hopefully, I can help you avoid the same mistake!
Enjoy a little wander down Laugavegur, the main street that runs through the heart of the city and take in all the street art and do a bit of shopping.
In the afternoon, I highly recommend joining the Reykjavik Food Walk like we did, getting a great tour of the city whilst trying 13 of the best local cuisines (more on the tour coming soon) in 6 of the city’s best eateries.
It was a wonderful way to spend a few hours and by the end of it, I was absolutely stuffed (and well informed) so didn’t need to eat for the rest of the night!
From there we went down to the Sun Voyager sculpture at the waterfront for sunset.
Next, we headed over to the Harpa Concert Hall to have a look around and watched the famous one-man show, ‘How to Become Icelandic in 60 Minutes‘, which is a great introduction to the history and quirks of this fascinating island.
Then you can finish off your night with a bite to eat or a drink in one (or 5) of Reykjavik’s many restaurants or bars. Just don’t forget to book if there’s a specific restaurant you want to go to, as many get booked up in the evenings, especially in the high season.
Alternatively, if you have a few days in Reykjavik, you could always book yourself onto a northern lights tour. If you don’t see them the first night, most operators will take you the next night.
- Distance Driven: 0 miles
- Where To Stay: We stayed at KEX Hostel, which is just a few minute’s walk from the main street in Reykjavik, Laugavegur. It’s a stylish hostel with a good bar area. Check out some other great Reykjavik hotels here.
- Top Tip: I’d suggest stocking up on supplies in Reykjavik as Iceland is a very expensive country, so head to Bonus Supermarket and fill your boots. Reykjavik is a great city and I really want to come back for at least a long weekend. As we were driving early the next morning, I didn’t get to experience the famous Reykjavik nightlife. So if you do want to party the night away, leave yourself a buffer day to chill/explore before you head off around the ring road.
Day 2: Hraunfosser, Barnafoss & the Snæfellsnes Peninsular
By the time that we’d picked up our camper van, stocked up on food and I’d taken Kate for breakfast at Brauð & Co. as she’d missed it the previous day (I knew she’d love it and I wanted more), it was almost midday.
Before we left the GO Campers office, we did a quick check of the aurora forecast and it looked as though there would be clear skies over the Snæfellsnes Peninsular that night and around Hvitserkur the following night, so we completely scrapped our plans to go south and headed north instead, taking a detour towards Hraunfosser and Barnafoss, where we had our first glimpse of the waterfalls Iceland is so famous for.
But our main aim was to get near to Kirkjufellsfoss, Iceland’s most iconic waterfall, so that we could try and see the northern lights there. This is slightly off the ring road, but a bit of a must-do!
Not realising wild camping was illegal, we parked up in the car park at the falls, setting our alarm for various points hoping to see the auroras do their thing, but the rain wasn’t letting up so we didn’t see anything sadly.
- Distance Driven: 174 miles
- Where To Stay: There weren’t many open campsites on the Snæfellsnes Peninsular in the winter, but there is a campsite at Setberg Travel Service. If you come in summer, the campsite at Grundarfjörður down the road is open. There are also a few guesthouses and hotels in the town.
- Top Tip: Now, whilst I did like Hraunfosser and Barnafoss, they weren’t my favourite waterfalls I saw in Iceland and as the week went on, I saw much more impressive ones, so you might consider leaving these out (bit too much of a detour) to enable you to spend more time exploring the peninsular itself. Taking this route, you’ll go through a toll which costs 1000 ISK.
Day 3: Kirkjufellsfoss, Djúpalónssandur, Hellnar & Arnarstapi
In the morning, we walked upwards and over the Kirkjufellsfoss waterfall to get the famous picture you see above! At the top there were lots of photographers with their tripods ready. The rain held off for around 15 minutes, just enough time for me to get a couple of good shots before the heavens opened again.
After a quick freshen up, grocery shop and gas top-up in Grundarfjörður, we were back on the road, heading further along the peninsular, through Snæfellsjökull National Park, stopping to take pictures or have a little walk whenever we felt like it. We were in no particular rush today.
We stopped at Djúpalónssandur, one of Iceland’s famous black sand beaches and got out at Hellnar to have a little walk along the coastal path that leads between here and Arnastapi. Here you can see the Arnastapi Sea Arch, Gatklettur Arch Rock and Bárður Snæfellsás.
It was in Hellnar when I discovered just how expensive Iceland could be, finding a bowl of ‘Icelandic Lamb Soup’ for 2500 ISK at Primus Cafe. That’s £18. Wow!
Heading out of the peninsular, we had a longish drive to Hvitserkur where we had planned to spend the night. It was starting to get dark again, but we were on northern lights watch so we didn’t mind, knowing that a bit of night driving would give us a good opportunity to spot them.
We turned off the ring road and travelled down a dirt path for quite a while before coming to the Hvitserkur car park where there were another couple of cars.
We waited and waited however, we didn’t see them this time either.
- Distance Driven: 214 miles
- Where To Stay: I won’t recommend where we stayed as it’s not allowed 🙂 but you can camp at Hotel Hvitsekur and there’s a HI Hostel at Osar nearby. You can find some nearby options here.
Day 4: Hvitserkur, Akureyri, Goðafoss & Lake Mývatn
As soon as it started to get light, we wrapped up warm and headed down to walk on the beach at Hvitserkur to take advantage of the blue hour light. We hadn’t been able to see anything of the beach the night before, but this morning, it was absoloutely stunning.
There is a viewing platform, but if you’re able, it’s a little scramble down the rocks to the beach and we had it all to ourselves, save for another couple who just took a couple of photos before heading back up. It was one of those perfect, fresh Icelandic mornings – cold, but not rainy or windy.
After sunrise, we got in the car and headed for Goðafoss & Lake Mývatn.
Lake Mývatn is a great to explore, with lava fields, the Grjótagjá Cave as seen in Game of Thrones (Jon Snow and Ygritte’s cave) and you can also swim in the Mývatn Nature Baths.
Goðafoss was a beautiful sight to behold and perhaps my favourite waterfall on our Iceland road trip. Or one of them anyway, they were all amazing!
After our wild night, we decided to spend the night at a backpackers in Akureyri, arriving in the early evening. It turned out to be a nice place with cute little shops and very lovely people. One lady even stopped us in the street to ask us some questions for her blog about the town.
We spent the rest of the night drinking hot chocolate, eating, shopping for supplies, and planning the rest of our trip.
- Distance Driven: 208 miles
- Where To Stay: We stayed at Akureyri Backpackers which was lovely. We sat in the bar here planning our trip for a good few hours.
- Top Tip: I really liked Akureyri and it has some great restaurants and bars and a pretty church, but if I did this trip again, I maybe would have just visited Akureyri and then stayed around Goðafoss or Lake Mývatn instead so that we could have fitted more in… but it really depends on how much time you have.
Day 5: Whale Watching in Húsavík, Ásbyrgi Canyon & Dettifoss
Get up early and visit Godafoss/Lake Mývatn if you haven’t already or head straight to the coastal town of Húsavík for a spot of whale watching!
At the time, the town Húsavík wasn’t so familiar to us, but it’s since become quite famous after the success of the film Eurovision and the song Húsavík.
We went whale watching with a company called North Sailing, who do a few whale watching trips throughout the day from March to November. The trip takes around 3 hours and is really amazing.
Even if you don’t see any whales, the view from the bay is spectacular, but luckily for us, we saw 6 humpback whales and a couple of them were right next to the boat, literally within a few metres! My friend Kate said it was (and I quote) “the best day of my life”!
And it did make me giggle that our guide kept calling them ‘humping whales’. For the record, we did not see any ‘humping’ whales.
And to top it off, they give you delicious hot chocolate and a cinnamon bun on your way back to the harbour.
From there we took a brief detour to Ásbyrgi Canyon, where we went for a hike around inside the canyon. We had decided to do a bit of night driving that evening and wanted to see Dettifoss waterfall before dark, so we only stayed an hour or so before moving on but if you have time, I’d definitely recommend hiking to the top as the pictures look incredible.
Arriving at Dettifoss, the sun was low in the sky, but we still got to spend a good hour or so at the waterfall, admiring the sheer force of nature before us.
A bit further on, we pulled off the road at one point and found an amazing pile of earth that was the perfect place to take photos against the amazing sunset. It was the first sun we’d seen in days and the skies were pretty clear so we both had high hopes of seeing the northern lights tonight.
We continued driving towards the Eastern Fjords. Somewhere between Dettifoss and Egilsstaðir, on the Fjarðarheiði Pass (no idea exactly where we were or how to pronounce any of those places), we noticed that the sky was completely clear.
We were in the middle of nowhere, it was pitch black and we could see the stars – PERFECT Northern Lights conditions. So we pulled into a rest stop, set well back off the road and waited. I prepared my tripod and camera and sat in my clothes.
After about an hour, I noticed some faint light on the horizon. I thought it was maybe some light from the sunset, but as Kate pointed out, the sun had set hours ago. I stuck my head out of the car window and looked directly above us, and there was a thin, long, pale grey ‘cloud’, a bit like an airplane jet stream.
I kept my eyes fixed skyward and watched as the ‘clouds’ started to move. Oh my God, it was the Northern Lights. As they had been very pale initially, we hadn’t even realised what we were looking at really, until they started to dance across the sky.
I think both of us had been expecting them to be bright green, but in reality, the auroras can form in many different colours and are a lot paler than they appear in photographs.
I scrambled to get out of the car and braved the howling winds to try and take a photo but I didn’t quite manage it, not able to get my camera to focus. This was my best effort. I wish I’d filmed them instead!
After a while, I gave up, got back in the car, and just watched the spectacle. It was one of those moments I’ll never forget.
The Northern Lights are breathtaking, ethereal, and pretty spooky (especially when you’re alone in the middle of nowhere they are anyway), reminding me of my very small place on this big planet, within this gigantic universe.
- Distance Driven: 199 miles (ish)
- Where To Stay: We stayed in our campervan in a rest area (not allowed now), however, you may want to check out Egilsstaðir Campsite.
- Top Tip: Learn about how to photograph the northern lights before you go – there are loads of great online tutorials. The key is to find a focal point or focus in the daylight. I only figured out how to photograph them properly the second time we saw them.
Day 6: The East Fjords, Jökulsárlón Glacial Lagoon & Vik
We got up at around 5am and set off driving south in the dark, hoping to see more of the northern lights and in an attempt to make it down to the south coast as soon as possible so that we could see everything we wanted to see.
When researching our Iceland road trip, we didn’t find that much on the Eastern Fjords and so had planned to rush through it on our original itinerary, but as soon as it got light, it was clear that we wouldn’t be rushing.
They were absolutely stunning and we ended up stopping to take photos every few minutes. Our favourite place was a black sand beach, which I think is called Djúpavogshreppur – or at least somewhere near there. We spent quite a bit of time here just enjoying the tranquility.
Scenery-wise, the Eastern Fjords were actually my favourite part of Iceland and I wish we’d had a bit more time there. I will definitely return – perhaps in the summer when I can do a bit of hiking.
We passed by the pretty town of Höfn and headed for Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon and Diamond Beach, which lie at the bottom of Breiðamerkurjökull Glacier, part of the larger Vatnajökull Glacier, a huge glacier which lies just off the ring road.
It’s a beautiful and very cool place. We had originally planned to stay here and do a boat tour, but as we’d gotten up really early we decided to continue onwards and stay near Vik so that we had enough time to drive the rest of the south coast and the Golden Circle.
We stopped at the beautiful Svartifoss Waterfall and to do some hiking in Fjaðrárgljúfur, a beautiful, ethereal, and very Instagrammable canyon.
By the time we arrived at Vik, dark storm clouds had moved in above us, it was absolutely pouring with rain (we’d been lucky so far).
So we abandoned our plans to visit Reynisfjara and Dyrhólaey Arch that day.
Due to the weather, we tried to book into the local hostel but it was full, so made an executive decision to skip the area (sorry Vik) and booked into a hostel at Skógafoss waterfall a bit further along the ring road.
This part of the trip was where we messed up and ran out of time. However, I”m going to tell you what I would have done, if I could do it again – add in an extra day.
- Distance Driven: 119 miles
- Where To Stay: The campsite at Vik is only open between 1st of June to 30 October and is very popular. There is a HI Hostel, however this usually books up well in advance. Skogafoss is only a 30-minute drive, so you could easily stay there, visit Skogafoss first thing in the morning and then visit Reynisfjara and Dyrhólaey Arch.
- Top Tip: In the winter, you can also go ice caving around Vatnajökull, or in summer go hiking in Landmannalaugar if you have more time.
Day 7: Vik, Reynisfjara, Dyrhólaey Arch, Skógafoss & Seljalandsfoss
The day that could have been…
In the morning, explore Vik, the beach at Reynisfjara and Dyrhólaey Arch (or you could also go the evening before for sunset if you have time and the weather).
But, we figured that this part of Iceland is so accessible from Reykjavik and it’s only a short flight from the UK, so we would come back again.
In the afternoon, I’d head to Skógafoss, one of the most impressive and famous waterfall’s in Iceland. Just after we arrived, a couple of busloads of people arrived making this by far the busiest waterfall we’d been to and it was a stark reminder that we were close to Reykjavik once again and this amazing trip was coming to an end.
The weather was still a bit crappy, so my rainbow umbrella got another outing. It also proved useful as a windbreak as we walked to the top, shielding us from the icy breeze. But by the time we came back down, the sun was shining!
They say that the weather changes every 15 minutes in Iceland, I can confirm this is true.
In between Skógafoss and our next waterfall, Seljalandsfoss there is a swimming pool called, Seljavallalaug. This is one of the oldest, best, and free hot pools in all of Iceland, just make sure you shower before you get in the pool! 🙂
Our next stop was Seljalandsfoss, another impressive waterfall that you can walk underneath – the umbrella was extremely useful here too and a few people commented on it.
- Distance Driven: 70 miles
- Where To Stay: There are quite a few places to stay near Skogafoss which allows you to beat the bus tours coming in from Reykjavik. Y 30 minutes away from Seljalandsfoss is Hellishólar which has a campsite with toilets, hot showers and a hot tub there are also cottages if you don’t have a campervan!
- Top Tip: If you don’t get a chance to visit Seljalandsfoss in the afternoon, you can always go the following morning – I’ve heard it’s spectacular at sunrise (if the sun is shining that is).
Day 8: The Golden Circle
From here, we kind of took it easy, meandering our way around the Golden Circle, getting out to pet the Icelandic horses. It had snowed so the driving was a bit slow going, although the sun was now shining, creating a perfect winter wonderland.
First, we went to Kerið Crater Lake, then Bruarfoss waterfall, and then to Geysir, where we watched the spectacle of the geothermal springs erupting every few minutes. The crowd whooped as the hot water shot into the air.
Our last stop of the day was Gullfoss waterfall. We walked down the snowy path to get a glimpse of what is often called the most beautiful waterfall in Iceland. People were slipping all over the place, so I was glad to have my snow boots on!
It looked amazing and it was especially lovely as we had a gorgeous, golden sunset too and a rainbow – it didn’t look real. I just wished we’d arrived a few minutes earlier to see it with the sun shining on it, but you can’t win ’em all!
The aurora forecast showed that the skies over Gullfoss would be clear that night, so we decided to stay for a little while and try and see the auroras one last time and we weren’t disappointed. The lights weren’t dancing tonight, but they were there at least and I managed to photograph them.
- Distance Driven: 90 miles
- Where To Stay: We stayed at Skjol Campsite, but there are loads of options around here, both camping and hotels/hostels.
- Top Tip: I would suggest doing the Golden Circle at the beginning of your trip, rather than the end if you can. The Golden Circle and the south coast were the busiest places we visited by far. Basically, we’d been spoilt by everything else we’d seen and by having the north and the east (and most of the west) of Iceland to ourselves.
Day 9: Snorkelling in Þingvellir National Park & the Blue Lagoon
In the morning we headed to Þingvellir (Thingvellir) National Park as today we were going snorkelling in the Silfra Fissure. Luckily, it was only a short drive!
Snorkelling in Þingvellir is a really cool experience (no pun intended) and one that I highly recommend. Where else in the world can you snorkel in glacier water between two continents?
From here the plan had been to drop off the campervan in Reykjavik, get a bus to the famous Blue Lagoon, spend a couple of hours there and then head to the airport as we were staying around there that evening ready for our early morning flight.
However, once we arrived at the bus station, they told us there would be no buses from the Blue Lagoon to the airport as they stop at 3pm, meaning we would have to get a very expensive taxi. So, we decided to skip the Blue Lagoon and got the bus straight to Keflavik.
I guess I’ll have to do it next time (my next trip is gonna be very busy)!
- Distance Driven: 114 miles
- Where To Stay: We stayed at Harmony Guesthouse which was nice and near to the airport in Keflavik (as we had a super early flight), but I would suggest trying to leave on a late night flight, so you’re not paying for an additional night of accommodation. Or if you’re flight is mid-morning, perhaps stay in Reykjavik (so you can experience one last night in the city) and then taking a shuttle to the airport the next morning.
- Top Tip: The moral of the story is – check the transport schedule between the Blue Lagoon, Reykavik and the airport and/or either visit the earlier in the day, or on your way into Reykjavik or arrange to drop your rental car/campervan at the airport, rather than in Reykjavik.
Hope this helps you plan your own epic Iceland road trip itinerary! Let me know how you get on and if you have any additional places/tips to add!
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