According to many Iceland is one of the most beautiful places on earth. No wonder it tops the bucket list of so many travel enthusiasts. Is it on yours yet? It better be after reading this article!
Being the second largest island in Europe (Great Britain is No.1), Iceland has a lot to offer. It’s the perfect place for the road trip of a lifetime! Get ready to be amazed by Iceland’s rough and untouched scenery of stretched plains, glaciers, geysers, icy mountains, waterfalls and volcanoes. And of course Island’s pride: the magical northern lights!
The best way to discover Iceland is per rental car. It’s the perfect way to determine your own route and pace. Be sure to pack some (warm) layered clothing and a good pair of walking shoes! Also stick to the traffic rules, because the fines can be very high.
Plan ahead of all the places you want to visit, because hotels and excursions can be quickly sold out. To see all of Iceland beauty it’s best to spend two weeks. To give you an idea of which highlights you must see on your road trip, we’ve created this list for you.
5 road trip ideas
1 | Reykjavik
Keflavik International Airport – Reykjavik (51 km)
The most northern capital of Europe is a very modern and colorful city. It’s basically Iceland’s only real city because 60% of Iceland’s inhabitants (over 200.000) live in Reykjavik! From Keflavik International Airport it’s about a half hour drive. It’s possible to see Reykjavik in one a day. Most visitors want to get on the road anyway to see Iceland’s nature.
In Reykjavik, you can find a mixture of culture, history, architecture, and leisure meat. For example, e you can visit the Hallgrímskirkja, a modern church standing in the heart of the lively centre. If you take the elevator to the top, you can enjoy the beautiful scenery of the city, sea and snowy mountain peaks in the distance.
Along the main street, Laugavegur, you’ll find many (expensive) shops and restaurants. Sometimes decorated with creative street art. After Japan, Iceland is the most expensive destination for a holiday! Reykjavik has a vibrant nightlife, but alcohol can be very expensive. If you do want a drink, try a shot of Brennivin, a traditional Icelandic drink made out of potatoes with a strong cumin flavor. Skál! (Cheers!).
Within walking distance from the center, in the district Miðborg, stands the Höfði cottage, where in 1986 the US President Reagan and Soviet Union president Gorbatsjov almost ended the cold war during the Iceland Summit. On a sunny day, you can go to Nauthálsvík, Reykjavik’s beach, with an artificial hot spring. Reykjavik’s harbor is an excellent starting point to take an excursion like a whale safari.
2 | Driving the Golden Circle
Reykjavik – Þingvellir National Park – Geysir – Gullfoss Waterfall (230km)
After visiting Reykjavik it’s an easy drive to one of the most famous roads in the world: The Golden Circle. Along this road are Iceland’s three best-known highlights, all located near the main road: Þingvellir National Park, geyser Geysir, and Gullfoss Waterfall. Being so popular, the Golden Circle can be very crowded with tourists and tour companies. It’s also best to drive it in the summer because in the winter the road can be quite challenging.
Þingvellir National Park is one of Iceland’s three National Parks. It’s the exact place where the European and American continents drift away from each other. This causes cracks in the landscapes, with sometimes more than 100 meters deep! Also, the nature in the national park is absolutely beautiful.
Geysir is one of the first discovered geysers in Europe and is found in the geothermal area in the Valley of Haukadalur. It can erupt up to 70 meters high, but this rarely happens. Don’t be disappointed though, neighbor friend geyser Strokkur does erupt every 5 to 10 minutes about 30 meters high.
Because there’s so much volcanic activity below Iceland’s crust, the groundwater get’s pushed out with brutal force. The water and steam can easily reach a temperature of 200 degrees. So how tempting it may be, don’t touch the water or steam!
In Iceland, they use the hot steam and water to generate energy. It’s not only clean energy but also inexhaustible. That’s why all across Iceland are several power plants. Icelandic people also use the hot water and steam to bake one of their specialties: ‘fire bread’. If you want to see how they make it, visit a geothermal bakery.
Gullfoss (means Golden) Waterfall is one of Iceland’s most beautiful waterfalls. Standing close to it, you’ll understand why. With enormous force, the water pours down into the 30 meters deep crevice. You can view the waterfall from two platforms.
Of course, you can take as long as you want to drive the Golden Circle. Including all the three main highlights it will probably take you around 3-4 hours. If you have more time on your hands also take a stop at Efstidalur (an Icelandic farm with homemade ice cream), the waterfall Faxi, Skálholt Cathedral, Kerið (a 55-meter deep volcanic crater filled with water) and the Hellisheiðarvirkjun (The Geothermal Energy Exhibition). Adding these stops you can create a full Golden Circle.
3 | Driving South Iceland
Reykjavik – Seljalandsfoss – Eyjafjallajökull – Skógafoss – Reynisfjara
A drive to Reynisfjara takes about 3 hours without all the stops, so it’s best to book a hotel in advance to stay the night. Here you have an amazing view over the coast, black beach and you might even see the northern lights!
Along the road to Reynisfjara you’ll cross two waterfalls and a volcano. The first waterfall Seljalandsfoss is a very special waterfall. You can walk behind it (only in the summer) but for a unique view and picture!
Next up is the volcano Eyjafjallajökull. Try to pronounce this difficult name as Eejafjatlajeukel. When you dissect the name you can discover its meaning: Eyja (island), fjalla (mountain) and jökull (glacier). It last erupted in 2010 and large parts of Europe were fully shut down because of the thick ash clouds. Nowadays it’s perfectly safe.
The second waterfall found along this road is Skógafoss and it’s best viewed from above. Next to the waterfall is a stair, be climbing it you can reach the top with a great view over Iceland. While driving to Reynisfjara you can take a stop at Kirkjufjara beach, nearby Dyrhólaey. From here you’ll have an amazing view over the black beaches surrounded by high cliffs.
If you want to expand your road trip a visit to the Vestmannaeyjar, an archipelago under Iceland. From Landeyjahöfn you can take the ferry. A fun excursion is the ‘Ribsafari’, a speed boat taking you along the different islands.
4 | Driving South East Iceland
Reynisfjara – Fjaðrárgljúfur – Vatnajökull national park: Skaftafell – Jökulsárlón (213 km)
From Reynisfjara it’s about 69 km to Fjaðrárgljúfur. A giant canyon which is 2 kilometers long and is 100 meters high. You should have no fear of heights when looking down. Along the canyon a hiking path is laid out, providing you a great view over the green gorge and the small river down below.
Next stop is Skaftafell in the Vatnajökull national park. You can only visit this place by foot, which is good to know upfront. Most visitors are here to see the 20 meters high Svartifoss waterfall (about 1-1.5 hour walk). But you can also visit the glacier Skaftafellsjökull (1-hour walk) or to see Sjónarnýpa (1-1.5 hour walk) from where you have great views over the Skeidarársandur (a wide black lava sand surface), the Skaftafellsjökull and the Hvannadalshnúkur (highest mountain on Iceland).
Jökulsárlón is a beautiful glacial lake and definitely one of Iceland’s highlights. This lake exists since 1948 as a result of global warming and retreating movement of the glacier. It’s 18 square kilometers wide and 260 meters deep. The entire lake (depending on the time of year) is full of floating ice blocks. When you’re lucky you might see a seal popping its head out of the sea. During wintertime, the lakes freeze completely, ideal for snowmobile trips. This unique landscape was also often used as film set: A view to kill, Die another day, Tomb Raider and Batman Begins.
5 |The Blue Lagoon
Reykjavik – Blue Lagoon (48 km)
To complete your stay in Iceland you must visit the Blue Lagoon. A world famous and also most visited geothermal bath in Iceland located in an old lava field. While the outside weather can be very cold, the water is about 39 ℃. The color of the water, bright light blue, is caused by the minerals and silicates. This would also have a healing effect. The silica mud, which is free of charge, you can put on as a mask.
The Blue Lagoon can be very busy, so if you want a more private swim, visit the hot spring in the evening. Also, don’t forget to pack your own towel and slippers to save yourself some money. If you wear any jewelry it’s wise to take them off to prevent any discoloration. You can easily spend all day here relaxing before your flight back home….
What car to hire in Iceland?
Car hire in Iceland can be quite expensive. This is because part of the Icelandic roads aren’t paved and you’ll need a car that can handle those roads. Therefore it can pay off to visit a comparison website like EasyTerra to compare all the available car hire options.
You don’t necessarily need a 4WD to drive Iceland unless you visit Iceland in the winter or you want to drive the interior. A medium sized, 2WD, the car should be enough if you stay on the main road. There are plenty of petrol stations along the way, so you don’t need to worry about that. You do have to be 20 years or older to rent a car in Iceland.