Updated: May 18, 2020
Exploring the empty roads, volcanoes, lava fields, geysers, glaciers, fjords and incredible waterfalls in the amazing "planet Iceland"!
Iceland was also for a very long time on our bucket list and is the second place ( after Japan, of course ☺ ) that we would love to return to.
Despite the fact that it looks like a small little island in the middle of the Atlantic, the country is actually pretty big and has so many places to be explored. Unfortunately, we only had 6 days available at that moment and we managed to see just the southern and south-eastern coast, but we`re planning on coming back for the rest, perhaps in a different season as well.
Due to the lack of time, we didn`t do any trekking either, so, this article is going to focus pretty much on doing a road trip in Southern Iceland in just 5 days!
But first, let`s get to know planet Iceland!
Iceland is a Nordic island country in the North Atlantic, with a population of around 350 000 and an area of 103,000 sq km , making it the most sparsely populated country in Europe. The capital and largest city is Reykavik. Reykjavík and the surrounding areas in the South West of the country are home to over two-thirds of the population.
Iceland is volcanically and geologically active. The interior consists of a plateau characterized by sand and lava fields, mountains and glaciers and many glacial rivers that flow to the sea through the lowlands. Iceland is warmed by the Gulf Stream and has a temperate climate, despite a high latitude just outside the Arctic Circle. Its high latitude and marine influence keep summers chilly, with most of the archipelago having a tundra climate, similar to Patagonia.
The country has a road that circles the whole island called Ring Road. Doing a road trip in Iceland essentially means going on this road and if you have an all wheels drive, you could do partially the inside of the country as well.
This Ring Road is accompanied by different small towns and points of interest where people stop by to visit. But don`t worry, here is Iceland, everything is a point of interest and you`ll want to stop every 5 minutes to take a picture!
There are several airlines operating into Iceland. Icelandair and Wow Air are two of the most important and if you are from Western Europe or USA, you might even get a direct flight. We had a combination of Ryanair and Wow Air and it took us one day to get there and another day to come back. But it definitely worth it.
In terms of visa, all visitors to Iceland must carry a passport which is valid for at least 3 months from the return date.
Nationals of EEA (European Economic Area) countries need not apply for a visa. Also, being a party to the Schengen Agreement means that U.S. citizens may enter Iceland for up to 90 days for tourist or business purposes without a visa.
Anyway, you should double check all this information, as we are obviously not an official source.
When to go
Iceland has something to offer in each season but the main difference is daylight hours, Northern lights and road accessibility.
The most popular season is from May to September, the typical summer months.
June and July are the months of the midnight sun, which may sound wonderful but expect a few nights of troubled sleep. By August, the nights begin to darken.
The Northern Lights appear from September until April – but February to March, and September to October – particularly around the equinoxes – are the best months to see them.
If you want to drive bear in mind that many minor roads – especially in the mountains – are closed from late September to June ( and sometimes early July ) due to snow and ice.
While winter can be a spectacular time to visit, temperatures can drop as low as -30°C, particularly in northern Iceland, with December to February being the iciest months. Wind chill can make apparent temperatures feel even lower. From late November through January, the days are particularly dark.
We went there at the beginning of July and it was absolutely amazing. Although the temperature is rarely above 15 and the weather is changing a lot in a short time, we thought that summer is one of the best times to visit. The only downside is that Northern lights cannot be seen.
Accommodation or camping ?
Well, accommodation in Island is very expensive, mostly during the peak season.
Reykjavik has decent prices for accommodation but the conditions are not exceptional. However, once you get out of it, the prices explode.
The good news is that there is another popular way of spending the night in Iceland: camping!
And to be honest is not only 'another' way but is THE WAY!
And when we say camping, we don`t necessarily mean camping in a tent but rather in a camper van.
Being such a popular thing, there is a wide range of offers and rental agencies on the market.
Some of the vans can be quite expensive, but the good thing is that they come fully equipped and this is going to be your home for the duration of your stay.
There are 2 types of vans: the basic camper van and the motor home.
The first comes with an extendable bed, linen, separate heating system, portable stove and various cutlery and pots. It has basically what you need but nothing extra. The advantage is that is much cheaper.
The motor home is exactly what it means. Is a home with own bedroom and shower and everything but the prices are super high in Iceland for these kind of vans.
We opted for a small Dacia Dokker van and we were super happy with it. For us it was everything we needed and being smaller was easier to drive and park.
Our rental company was called Wild Campers and they provided a very good service. The main advantage is that they pick you up and drop you off in Keflavik airport and they work every day. And I`m saying this because we were supposed to land on a Sunday evening and most of the rental companies have their business hours up to 6 pm and some of them don`t even open on weekends!
We found this rental company through Northbound platform. Northbound is essentially a website which provides car rental and tours and usually gives the best options. At least for cars.
Now I suppose you are wondering where to camp, right?
Well, unfortunately, camping in Iceland comes with a few restrictions and you should stick to going to a campsite.
New conservation legislation came into effect in 2015 with the following rules for camping outside of campsites:
-- Along public routes in inhabited areas, you may pitch a traditional camping tent for one night on uncultivated land, provided there is no campsite in the immediate vicinity and the land owner has not restricted or prohibited access, passage or stay within the area by means of signs on gates and walking paths.
-- Along public routes in uninhabited areas, you may pitch a traditional camping tent on privately owned land or national land.
-- Away from public routes, you may pitch a traditional camping tent, either on privately owned or national land, unless otherwise indicated in special rules which may be applicable to the land area in question.
Unfortunately, camping sites are not cheap either and they basically charge you for each service separately ( shower, electricity ) but if you plan on camping for a longer period, you should consider buying a camping card, which gives access to over 40 campsites. However, additional services must be paid anyway. We know, it sucks! ☹
But in the wild, where is no campsite,you can stick to the rules above.
As you would have probably heard, food in Iceland is also super expensive. Mostly if you eat in a restaurant. Typically, 2 decent sandwiches and 2 coffees would cost at least 40 Euros.
But, if you are choosing a camper van for staying, doing some storage would probably be the most convenient and the cheapest option. Plus, you get the best view while eating: the nature.
The best way to do this is to fill up in Reykjavik and then maybe some refills as you go. Bonus and Kronan are known for being budget supermarkets and even if they don`t have such a big selection, they fulfill one`s basic needs.
As for the restaurants, would be nice to try at some point some local salmon and other types of fish.
Hit the road
As we were mentioning before, a road trip in Iceland means basically doing the Ring Road and then according to time availability, different F roads ( which need a 4x4 ) and various trips around ( trekking, walking etc ). The rest of the roads are in a very good conditions and they have a lot of indicators so it`s impossible to get lost.
The whole Ring Road would take at least a week driving and then add another 2 -3 days for stops, photography, sight seeing and so on. So let`s say around 9 or 10 days.
We only had 5 days, therefore we did just the southern coast. However, we are planning to come back for the rest!
From what we were told, at least during the peak season, the North coast tends to be less touristic than the South coast and tends to receive less visitors.
And, after seeing quite a lot of tourists at the most popular places, we tend to believe it!
Our 5 day road trip started in Reykjavik and finished in Keflavik.
We arrived in the evening, picked up the car in the airport, then spent the night in Reykjavik in a guest house. The following day we did our fill up in Bonus supermarket, then hit the road towards East.
Day 1: Reykjavik -- Vik ( 179 km, Route 1 )
Points of interest on the way: Seljalandsfoss waterfall, Gljúfrabúi waterfall, Skogafoss waterfall, Drangshlíð, Skogar Museum and Solheimasandur Plane Wreck, Vik, Reynisfjara beach with the Basalt columns, Dyrholaey.
Seljalandsfoss and Gljufrabui waterfalls are just next to each other. Seljalandsfoss is very well known for walking behind the waterfall.
Skogafoss is an impressive 200 ft tall waterfall which was once one of the Iceland`s sea cliffs.
Solheimasandur plane wreck belongs to US Navy and crashed in 1973. Getting there involves parking the car on the designated parking along Route 1 then walk for 4 km ( one way ) to the wreck. Lately, the wreck gained a lot of popularity on Instagram and now is super crowded. When we saw the crowds walking on the completely flat terrain we decided to skip this part.
Vik is a small town with a population of only 318 people. Its main symbol is the church and the black beach Reynisfjara with the famous basalt columns and Dyrholaey which is just next to it.
Day 2: Vik -- Höfn ( 279 km, Route 1 )
Points of interest on the way: Eldhraun lava field, Fjaðrárgljúfur Canyon, Skaftafell National Park, Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon, Fjallsarlon Glacier Lagoon, Diamond beach, Hofn.
Route 1 literally passes through the lava field so you won`t miss it. Fjaðrárgljúfur Canyon is on the left as you go towards Hofn, on a side road. Fjaðrárgljúfur is a 2 million years old canyon which has a walking path and panoramic views.
Jokursalon and Fjallsarlon look pretty much the same, but is nice to check out both. However, Jokursalon seems to be busier in summer.
Day 3: Höfn - Breiðdalsvík - Höfn ( 330 km, Route 1 )
Points of interest on the way: Stokksnes and Viking Village, Lækjavik, Djúpivogur town, Teigarhorn Natural Monument and Nature Preserve, Hvalnes Nature Reserve Beach, Eastern fjords, sightseeing in general.
Unfortunately for us, this was a rainy day with poor visibility, but the bits we could see through the clouds were spectacular. In fact, we think that this was the most beautiful part from all our trip!
As you go, you you`ll have the mountains on one side and the Atlantic ocean on the other and the road looks epic in between the two. As you move towards East, you`ll start entering the fjords which look spectacular!
After exiting Hofn, in few kilometers there will be a small road to the right which goes to Stokksnes. On the way, there will be the Viking Cafe and Viking Village. There are entrance tickets to go to both the village and Stokksness beach.
The replica Viking village was created for a film that was never shot and is now open to visitors. Built in 2010, the set is located on the land of a local farmer. The scenery around the village looks just epic and is a very nice location for taking pictures.
Further to the East, the area around Hvalnes Nature Reserve is also very epic. Laekjavik coast is also a landmark you may want to see.
Djúpivogur is a small fishing town and the southernmost district of the east. If you have some more time around the area and the weather is nice, these are some things you may want to try: go bird watching, visit Papey ( with puffins and seals ), climb the mountain Búlandstindur, try the homemade cakes at Langabúð and try the glorious fish at Hótel Framtíð.
Day 4: Höfn - Laugarvatn ( 439 km, Route 1, 35,37 )
This was the longest driving day but the the fact that it doesn`t really get dark outside makes it easier and we didn`t feel too tired.
The good part of coming back on the same road is that you can check out some of the points that you missed on the outbound. There are no other additional points of interest apart from Fontana Geothermal Baths next to Laugarvatn.
Day 5: Laugarvatn - Botnsdalur - Rejkavik ( via Akranes ) ( 158 km )
Points of interest: Geysir, þórufoss, Öxarárfoss, Thingvellir National Park, Glymur Waterfall, Rejkavik.
Initially, we planned the route like this because we wanted to hike to Glymur Waterfall. In the end, we gave up the idea as we realized the hiking trail was too touristic. We did only the first part of the hike. Anyway, the waterfall is about a hour hike back to see the falls. Known as Iceland’s highest waterfall at 198 meters, Glymur is a nice sight to see. At least from what we read. ☺
If you don`t want to do the trail, you could just visit any of the other points of interest from Thingvellir National Park or Geysir.
On the way back, we stopped at Bjarteyjarsandur for some home made food. They also provide accommodation.
Must try geothermal pools
Initially we were not so sure about trying one of these pools but we did some research anyway. After trying it, we must say that is a definitely MUST DO activity while in Iceland.
As you would have probably heard, Blue Lagoon is the most famous one and is the one we tried. And to be honest, it completely deserves its title because the experience is really unique! The light blue, milky waters are the perfect 38-39°C temperature, and this attraction has been named 'The Top 25 Wonders of the World' by the National Geographic.
Although the water itself is fully natural, and full of rich minerals such as silica and algae, the lagoon didn't form naturally. It appeared by accident in 1976, caused by a man-made construction.
However, bear in mind that the lagoon is usually pretty crowded and it`s better to make the booking online at least 3-4 days in advance. Also, make sure that you show up at the booking time. Once inside, you can enjoy until the lagoon closes.
Tip: it`s better to go later in the evening ( 9pm -10 pm ) and stay up to closing time.
If, for some reasons, you cannot go to Blue Lagoon, there are few other options available:
Myvatn Nature Baths ( close to Akureyri ) - similar in texture and has the same blue colour as the Blue Lagoon. This is northern Iceland's answer to the South's famous spa, and it is just as, if not more, appealing.
Secret Lagoon ( close to Flúðir, about 100 km from Reykjavik ) - one of Iceland's oldest swimming pools, dating back to 1891.
Krauma Bath Resort ( in West Iceland, about 100 km from Reykjavik ) - is the newest member on this list, as it was only opened in late 2017. This modern spa is located right next to Europe's most powerful hot spring, Deildartunguhver, where it gets all its hot water from.
Fontana Geothermal Baths - located right next to Laugarvatn Lake, about a ninety-minute drive from Reykjavík. Like the Secret Lagoon, it is also situated near the Golden Circle. It was our second option after Blue Lagoon.
Reykjavík is the world’s northernmost capital, with a population of only 123,000. Despite it`s small size, Iceland`s capital is a vibrant cultural and design scene, with a lot of shops, galleries, tours, bars and pubs to explore.
Ideally is to just walk around the city and sense it`s Scandinavian flavor.
Some of the places you might wanna check out are: Hallgrímskirkja Church, Harpa Music Hall & Conference Center, Sólfarið Sculpture, Tjörnin, Laugavegur, Saga Museum.
What to expect
Iceland is one of the most unique and complex countries in the world, so, be prepared to not be able to see everything. Sometimes because of the lack of time, other times because of weather or just simply because the distances can be long.
Try to prioritize what you want to do first and then see how it goes. Relax and enjoy everything.
For the same reason we couldn`t see the Golden Circle, Thingvellir National Park, the plane wreck or Glymur Waterfall. But that`s ok.
Be prepared for bad weather, cold temperatures, wind, low clouds, poor visibility and rain. But when all these pass, be prepared to see some of the most breathtaking views in the world!
Next, we invite you to inspire yourself from our gallery.
Gear used: Samsung OM- D M5 ( 12 mm, 25 mm, 75 mm ), Samsung NX - 1 ( 16-55s mm ) and DJI Mavic Air drone.