Tracing its roots back to the Vikings, explore the capital of Reykjavik with its cultural offerings, multiple cafes, and a close-by jaunt to the Blue Lagoon. For dramatic nature, explore the Westfjords, Northern fishing villages, and Southern black sand beaches. For such a small country, Iceland offers a big punch!
To sum it up, visiting Iceland is an adventurer’s dream. Now you may be wondering, how can one see it all in one trip? The best way is to rent a car and go on a road trip. Route 1, nicknamed the Ring Road, is a paved two-lane road that connects the whole country together.
Know before you go:
While this itinerary covers the full length of the Ring Road (that’s 1332 km or 828 miles!), you can choose to extend or shorten the trip in any way you like - as well as going either clockwise or counterclockwise. Be that just doing the famous Golden Circle or driving the full length of the Ring Road, driving out East or West first, each corner of this Nordic island nation has a unique stop to experience.
Rent a car: This is essential for any Iceland trip - rent your car from Reykjavík airport or the city centre. You'll need the total freedom to explore Iceland. Curious about what car to rent or where to start? You can get more information here.
Driving Clockwise: If you start the Ring Road trip clockwise (starting from Reykjavik heading towards Snæfellsnes Peninsula), there will be fewer crowds than counterclockwise. However, the sights (as spectacular as each one in Iceland is) are less flashy than that of the spots that come near the later half of the itinerary. Depending on how much energy you have near the end of completing the Ring Road, the more action-packed part of the itinerary is definitely in the later-half.
Driving Counterclockwise: If you start the Ring Road trip counterclockwise (starting from Reykjavik then going South-west) you will see the most iconic spots of Iceland first, like destinations in the Golden Circle. The few stops and days are packed with things to do! However, a downside to this is that it’s also the most popular route for day-trippers, and for most people in general. Prepare for much bigger crowds to start the trip with if you’re driving the Ring Road clockwise.
Best Season and Weather: The best time to make this roundtrip is in springtime, summer, and autumn, as the roads might be less accessible in wintertime due to deep snow. If you travel in April or September, you even have a good chance of seeing the northern lights. For any season, it's always a good idea to pack warm clothes (sweaters, knits) as well as a rain jacket as Iceland's weather can change at a sudden notice.
Looking to make a big road-trip out of Iceland - camper van included? There is an 8-Day Self Drive fully equipped camper van available as well as a shorter 4-days camper van that has everything you need for a home on the road in Iceland. These options can be more economical depending on your budget as you'll have your own mini Iceland hotel with you, wherever you drive.
Stop 1: Reykjavík - Day 1
The glorious capital of Iceland has it all - Reykjavík is filled with architectural treasures, restaurants where you can try Icelandic cuisine, and multiple fun bars where you can drink like a Viking. Especially on Laugavegur, one of the oldest streets of the city, you’ll find it all. We’re talking about restaurants, boutiques, and the heartbeat of the city’s nightlife. It’s fun to just walk down this main street and see what the pulse of Reykjavik is like.
Then within walking distance is Hallgrímskirkja, a Lutheran parish church that is designed with inspiration from Thor’s hammer! If you look at the building you’ll be able to see how the hammer’s handle is standing up, connecting the architecture to Iceland’s Norse mythology. Another landmark connecting Icelandic history is the Sun Voyager, located on Reykjavík’s waterfront. As an art piece, it’s also connects Icelandic culture from the past to the future, as it faces out into the water and mountains in the distance. As you walk down the waterfront, the Harpa Concert Hall and Conference Centre is a glass honeycomb building that has become a poetic setting for Reykjavík’s cultural scene. Architecture lovers like us would find the building mesmerizing throughout the day, as the honeycomb design reflects different shimmers of light depending on the sun’s ray.
As Iceland’s biggest city, you’ll come to realize really quickly just how safe it is as well. You can walk around easily without worry, and everything feels within reach without having to take any sort of transit (if you want to see the various corners of the city that is). Reykjavík also marks the beginning of your trip - either self-drive or tours to places like the frozen surface of the Solheimajokull glacier. Whichever path you go from here, you can't go wrong with starting yoru adventures!
Where to Stay in Reykjavik:
Budget - Central Guesthouse Reykjavík
Mid-range - Reykjavik Downtown Hotel
Luxury - AVA Apartments
Stop 2: Snæfellsnes Peninsula - Day 2
Today begins your Ring Road journey! As you drive out of Reykjavík, you may already spot your first Icelandic horses in the rolling countryside. Keep an eye out for them, as there are plenty of spots throughout the country where you can pull your car over and go up close to pet them! The Icelandic horses are their own special breeds, resembling the sizes of ponies.
As you embark on this country-wide road trip, one of the main places you’ll first encounter is Snæfellsjökull National Park. Consider it a detour as it’s off the Ring Road, though it’s worth the visit for its cliff-sides at Hellnar View Point, and glacier-topped volcano. It’s also one of the three National Parks in Iceland! In the peninsula, there’s the lone black church, Budirkirkja, that stands amongst a wide field with mountains looming in the background. It may feel eerie but definitely leaves you contemplating how massive Iceland is to explore, even though it looks small on a map. These places make up the whole Snæfellsnes Peninsula - which is like already like a bite-size taste of Iceland and what’s to come on your Ring Road trip.
Continuing back on route 1, you’ll reach Kirkjufellsfoss, your first of many noteworthy Icelandic waterfalls! Kirkjufellsfoss’ distinctly shaped peak mountain with panoramic views of waterfalls makes it another serene spot to take in the country’s beauty. It really does feel like the waterfall combines the best of both worlds: the crescendo of water with a backdrop of a rugged green mountain to sum up what this country’s nature is all about.
Total Distance: 230 kilometers / about 3h40 minutes
Where to Stay in and around Snæfellsnes Peninsula:
Budget - The Freezer Hostel & Culture Center
Mid-range - Kirkjufell Guesthouse and Apartments
Luxury - The Bookstore Family Apartment
Stop 3: Northern Iceland - Day 3
This is the start of Northern Iceland, a vast area with tons of Icelandic natural beauty to take in. First, you’ll see Hvitserkur, which is this 15-meter tall basalt rock formation standing firmly from the water. Does it resemble a dragon? Or more of a rhino? You be the judge! Down the route is Glaumbær Farm & Museum. It’s an open museum that is a heritage site made of 13 turf farmhouses, allowing you to peek into how life was back in 18th-19th century Iceland. This is a spectacular way to imagine how the people of this land lived amongst all the harsh weather conditions, how they cultivated life here to make this island theirs.
Towards the end the day, you’ll base yourself in Akureyri, the largest town in northern Iceland. It may feel like this has been the closest thing you’ve been to civilization the whole day, as Northern Iceland has been long continuous stretch of driving. But this is only one of the main towns up here! This is a great place to rest and explore gems like the Akureyri Church and Lystigarður Akureyrar.
Akureyri Church has prominent pillars that make it distinctive and look like it pierces through the skyline. Designed by local state architect Guðjón Samúelsson and built-in 1940, the Lutheran church contains a huge 3,200-pipe organ which adds to its marvel.
Lystigarður Akureyrar is a botanical garden that is only 50km south of the Arctic Circle - so expect some plant species that you won’t find anywhere else! With over 7000 species of plants, the entrance is also free to wander in and explore them.
Total Distance: 205.4 kilometers / about 2h45 minutes
Where to Stay in Akureyri:
Budget - Hafnarstræti Hostel
Mid-range - K16Apartments
Luxury - Hotel Kea by Keahotels
Stop 4: North Iceland - Day 4
Are you ready for another action-packed day? Continuing in the north of Iceland, this region is filled with out of this world nature and today will be back to back with them!
Arriving at Goðafoss, you’ll see that it’s a huge stretch of a waterfall at 12 meters high and 30 meters wide! Just hearing the rumbling of the falls makes you think of crashing thunder, that’s how loud it is! Don’t forget to check out Geitafoss, which is another hugely stunning waterfall just within a few steps of the Goðafoss. If you get a bit of water splashed on yourself from the running falls, that’s Iceland’s way of freshening you up.
Following the Ring Road, you’ll reach the shimmering milky blue waters of Mývatn, a large volcanic lake. The landscape looks alien, if only it was possible to find water on Mars then this land is what it could look like. Though here in Iceland, life surrounds it with plenty of birds flocking all around the lake. Nearby is Mývatn Nature Baths, where you can have a pitstop to soak in the hot springs from the lake. If you need a spa day, this would be the perfect place to feel the warm mineral-rich waters. And when we say warm, we mean that the water’s temperature is actually 36 – 40°C!
In the area is also Hverir, which adds to the otherworldly feeling of Iceland. It’s a geothermal spot that stands out for earthy pigments with glooming mudpools and thick steam. Walking around Hverir, you’ll see bubbling fumaroles (which are like vent holes from the depth of Earth) and geothermal springs. That smell that you just got a whiff of? It’s not actually rotten eggs but sulfuric gas. The whole sight is astounding and a place that makes you feel as connected to the planet as it’ll feel far off from it.
In the same region is Grjótagjá, now iconic for where they shot the hit HBO series Game of Thrones, but has long been a cave filled with naturally heated water. Fans of the series would recognize that this is where Jon Snow and Ygritte were! You can take a peek inside, but no swimming is allowed due to it being private property.
After we’ll drive off route 1 for a bit to see Dettifoss and Selfoss Waterfall - two plunging waterfalls that run from the glacial river of Jökulsárgljúfur canyon. While Iceland may be filled with waterfalls, it doesn’t feel as repetitive probably due to the various characteristics of each one. There’s just something about the vertical drop of gushing water set in such a diverse natural landscape that makes you feel in awe each time.
Total Distance: 134 kilometers / about 2h15 minutes
Where to Stay in Mývatn:
Budget - Skútustadir Guesthouse
Mid-range - Dimmuborgir Guesthouse
Luxury - Hlíd Cottages
Stop 5: Eastern Iceland - Day 5
Eastern Iceland has the oldest fjords in the country. Fjords are formed long ago by a glacier to create these long almost snake-like inlets with tall cliffs on each side. Coursing through the inlets is a river - making fjords a sight to admire.
Eastern Iceland is definitely quieter than other parts of the country. With a few fishing villages along the way and valleys that stretch beyond the horizon, it really shows a slow down way of life here.
A stunning sight is Stuðlagil Canyon with its basalt columns jut out of a winding river like long horizontal rock slices. It almost resembles long plaques of dragon scales, dark and stacked on top of another. To reach the canyon, you’ll have to drive off route 1 for a bit until you reach the small town of Egilsstaðir. Then continue your drive down road 923.
After exploring the canyon’s beauty, head back onto the Ring Road to Rjúkandafoss. While it’s not as huge as the other waterfalls you’ve seen so far on the trip, it’s still worth the quick walk to stretch out your car legs.
Then make your way to Borgarfjörður eystri and find yourself in awe of the vastness of this village in the middle of the fjord. If you’re here during the summer, it’s considered to be the best place to see Puffins. There’s beautiful wooden houses people still live in all over this small town, and one can’t help but to wonder what it would be like to grow up in a place so remote yet connective to the country’s natural beauty.
To end the day, drive to Seydisfjordur, a quaint village known for its rainbow brick road leading up to a known for its petit pastel church. It’s a much better version of the yellow-brick road if we’ve ever seen on. The town of Seydisfjordur is also known for its art scene - having attracted many creatives over the years. There are murals on buildings, plenty of cafes to chat up with locals, and a cultural centre that has a rotation of contemporary art exhibits.
Total Distance: 204 kilometers / about 3h5 minutes
Where to Stay in Seydisfjordur:
Budget - Seydisfjördur Guesthouse
Mid-range - Hotel Aldan - The Bank
Luxury - Hotel Aldan - The Old School
Stop 6: South Eastern Iceland - Day 6
IIf you ever wondered what translucent blue icebergs look like - and even get a chance to touch them yourself, Jökulsárlón Iceberg Lagoon is where you’ll get to experience such wonder. The lagoon is made up of shifting icebergs, and you may even see some seals! This is where you also have the opportunity to do a glacier-walking tour, where you strap on some mighty boots and step your way through the massive blocks of ice.
Across the road is Diamond Beach, a black sand beach where the icebergs from the lagoon drift out in chunky fragments. You can sit on them, go up close to them, and just stare in awe of these iceberg pieces that had drifted ashore. You’ll also notice a shift in the itinerary now, the more south we start to head the more people and tourists you will start seeing again. Jökulsárlón Iceberg Lagoon and Diamond Beach are both definitely where we started to feel how popular of a destination Iceland is (well deservingly so!).
Down the road is Fjallsárlón, a lake of floating ice and tranquility. These large pieces of ice come floating down into this lake from Vatnajokull, which is Europe’s largest glacier. There's a whole world within the glacier that you can explore, with Vatnajokull ice cave tours that takes you into the frozen natural wonder. Then, as you drive further on the Ring Road, Svartifoss will greet you with a 20-meter waterfall surrounded by slender hexagonal basalt columns. The next spot will be great for getting out to take a stroll on the black sands of Reynisfjara Beach. This beach comes with a sublime view of jagged rocks coming forth from the sea. Becare of the winds! Since you’re on just an open beach, depending on the weather the gust can be quite strong and sweeping across the sand.
When you’re ready, trek to the plane wreck on Sólheimasandur. This is a remnant of a US Navy aircraft from 1973 that crashed onto the southern coast of Iceland. All crew members survived and were rescued, and what’s left now is the wrecked plane for you to explore! While the plane wreckage is a sight to behold, the walk there and back is barren and can feel tedious - it’s 40 minutes to 1 hour of walking one way. It’s truly in the middle of nowhere so double-check if seeing the wreckage would actually interest you, and if you have enough time. To spruce things up, you can coupled this exploration with an ATV Expedition of the black lava beaches - which would definitely add a thrill to your adventure.
Wrap up the day with some of the most magnificent waterfalls in the country, Skógafoss and Seljalandsfoss. Skógafoss is dramatic as it is majestic, with water cascading down from the height of 60 meters! Then down the road is Seljalandsfoss, where you can walk up and around behind the falls - so get ready to get a bit of a splash on yourself.
Total Distance: 246 kilometers / about 3h19 minutes
Where to Stay in and around Skógafoss:
Budget - Hotel Kverna
Mid-range - Guesthouse Skógafoss
Luxury - Hótel Skógafoss
Stop 7: The Golden Circle and Blue Lagoon - Day 7
Ah, Iceland’s famous Golden Circle. The Golden Circle is like your favourite band's best hits album - the classic songs that get replayed often, the ones that are what the band is known for. Known for being close to Reykjavík, a lot of people do day trips from the city to these stops that make up the Golden Circle. You can break this trip up and explore the Golden Circle as a day trip on an all must-see tour or continue with it as part of your Ring Road trip.
The first stop is the Kerid Crater, which is reachable by walking down a plight of stairs to its turquoise water. The crater is over 3000 years old and now over time has filled up with water, becoming a scenic lake. Then there’s Gullfoss Falls as the next stop, a beloved waterfall located in a canyon. This marks the final waterfall of the trip! Or if you do the Golden Circle first, then this would be the first waterfall of the trip. Either way, it’s a momentous mark to these steep rushes of water.
Of course, being the Golden Circle, the impressive sights don’t stop there - as nearby Geysir Hot Springs is a reckoning to explore. The geothermal field has geysers that actually erupt every 10 minutes, shooting water as high as 30 meters in the air. Yep, it’s as impressive as it sounds! It’s like watching mother nature having a real-life talent show on rotation.
To round off the Golden Circle, head to Thingvellir National Park. A historical site as well as a national park, it’s where the world’s oldest existing parliament was since 930AD. Between the natural lake to the rift valley that was torn by shifting tectonic plates between North America and Eurasia - you can spend your time in Thingvellir National Park hiking and even scuba diving! If you don’t feel comfortable scuba diving, you can actually see the same sights with snorkeling. Yep, it is just as cool as it sounds - and easy to join a snorkeling tour that takes you quite literally, between continents in the Silfra Fissure. You’ll have to don a dry suit with very thick gloves. It’s still freezing for your hands and especially your lips (the only thing that's not covered) - but that’s an adventure in itself!
As a bonus, to end your Iceland Ring Road trip, submerge yourself into the legendary thermal waters of the Blue Lagoon. It’s an outdoor spa hosted in the natural lava-shaped landscape that will soothe every muscle as it is a beautiful location itself. While we were a tad worried that this would be too commercialized, it was a real treat. Especially the in-water mask bar where you’d swim up to get a mixture of silica and algae clay for a face mask. After a huge Icelandic road trip, this was hats off a great way to kick back and relax. Get your tickets to the Blue Lagoon (including free drink and towel) here.
A free alternative to the Blue Lagoon is Reykjadalur Valley. It’s a bit of a hike out along a gravel trail, to then reach a waterfall that accumulates into a river. Across the river are lush areas of green grass with hot springs and mud pools all throughout the valley. While these hot springs are too boiling to dip in - but cool to see, the hot river has the right temperature to lounge in! The walk to the Reykjadalur Valley takes about 45-60 minutes.
Then end your trip in Reykjavík, back to where it all started.
Total Distance: 327 kilometers / about 4h32 minutes
Where to Stay in and around the Golden Circle:
Budget - Guesthouse Vatnsholt
Mid-range - 1A Guesthouse
Luxury - Stracta Hotel Hella
What's a road trip without veering off the main map and uncovering the gems off the beaten path?
While the Ring Road and its many epic sights won’t require you to stray too far off route 1, if you have more time or want to mix your itinerary up, these are some notable worthy detours to check out:
- Laugavegur - One of the most beautiful hikes in the world that goes from the Landmannalaugar geothermal springs to the Þórsmörk nature reserve. Imagine yourself up-close to white glaciers and rolling red and gold hills. The trail is 55 kilometers, so those who go often embark on making it a 4 hiking day trip.
- Pakgil - A log cabin campsite that’s actually along the Ring Road. If you need a rest, this is a stunning site to kick back within a hidden canyon. From this campsite you can do a 1-day hike as well, walking up the canyon to a waterfall and the frosted whites of a glacier - which is a vast contrast in climate from the campsite.
- Keldur Turf House - time warp back into Viking times and explore well-preserved homes of Iceland’s past.
- Vestmannaeyjar - an archipelago and town off the coast of Iceland that’s reachable by ferry for a 1-day excursion. It’s a unique experience to see an island that was fully covered in lava from a volcanic eruption that happened underwater. From here, you can see thousands of puffins! It’s really a traditional small town with the Eldheimar museum that details the volcano.
- Húsavík - a small town famous for its whale watching tours. Catch a boat out into the water for a sight-seeing adventure! Also check out the beautiful wooden church in the centre of town. Bonus if you’ve watch Netflix’s Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga movie starring Rachel McAdams and Will Farrell. It’s partially set in Húsavík with a catchy song dedicated after the town too!
Map of Iceland and the Ring Road
Want to see all the stops and destinations planned out?
Check out a map of the itinerary here: