Iceland is quickly becoming one of the most obsessed-over travel destinations, and there’s no better way to discover this incredible country than on a road trip! And, despite the impossibly chilly image of winter in Iceland, it’s actually one of the best times to explore: there are fewer crowds, prices drop during the off-season, and it’s the only time the Northern Lights are visible (read more about driving the Ring Road during winter in this post). Here are all the details from the 8-day road trip we took around southern Iceland in December 2016, including driving times, our favourites stops, where to stay, and what activities to book. I hope it inspires you to check out this magical part of the world next winter!
- Drive this route in 6-8 days during winter or in 4-6 days during summer (longer daylight hours and safer road conditions make it easier to cram more in to your days)
- Less than 2 hours of driving each day
- Hire an AWD SUV for around €50 per day
- Activities for €100-200, including horse riding, snowmobiling, Ice Cave Tour
- Restaurant meals around €40-60 per main
- Hotel accommodation from €60-110 per night for a double room
- See nearly a dozen unique waterfalls, including Seljalandsfoss, Gullfoss, Skógafoss..
- Explore the Glacier Lagoons, Fjallsárlón & Jökulsárlón
- Walk along black sand beaches
- Soak in the famous Blue Lagoon
- Ride tiny Icelandic Horses to Eyjafjallajökull Glacier
- Tour through sparkling Ice Caves in Vatnajökull National Park
- Get up close to the brilliantly blue Svínafellsjökull Glacier
- Visit the eerie Sólheimasandur plane crash site
- Ride snowmobiles on Langjökull Glacier
- Drive the popular Golden Circle route
Day 1: Keflavík to Reykjavik/Hvolsvöllur
After touching down in Iceland at Keflavík International Airport, grab your bags and pick up your rental car! We hired a small SUV through Thrifty, which was located right at the airport and offered fairly reasonable rates compared to other companies (it’s still Iceland, though, so expect to pay around 400€ for 8 days). Even though it was winter, we managed just fine with AWD— this saved us some cash that we could turn right around and spend on hiring a portable wifi hotspot from Thrifty. At just 10€/day, this was absolutely indispensable for daily navigation and all those last-minute itinerary modifications that are inevitable on road trips.
Once you have your vehicle, cruise about 45 minutes up to Iceland’s charming capital city, Reykjavik, and spend the rest of the day exploring. With a population of just over 120,000 people, it’s probably one of the small capital cities you’ve ever been to (unsurprising considering that all of Iceland is home to less than 350,000 people), but it is still overflowing with things to do. If your plane lands later in the afternoon (like ours did), however, you may be forced to give the adorable Reykjavik a miss and head straight to your accommodation for the night. To give us a head start for our second day of activities, we opted to stay an hour farther east along the Ring Road than Reykjavik, in the tiny Hvolsvöllur.
Day 1 Highlights: explore Iceland’s capital, Reykjavik
Driving: 2 hours, 140km
Food: Plenty of food options in Reykjavik, plus a cafe at the guesthouse in Hvolsvöllur and the tasty restaurant Gamla Fjosid
Accommodation: Eldstó Guesthouse, 60€ per night for a double room with shared bathroom
More photos: ICELAND ROADTRIP DAYS 1 & 2: SKÓGAFOSS, SÓLHEIMASANDUR & VÍK
Day 2: Hvolsvöllur to Kirkjubæjarklaustur
Following what may have been a relatively tame day settling into the country yesterday, wake up this morning ready for plenty of stops and detours off the Ring Road. Not too far east of your accommodation in Hvollsvöllur, make your first stop at Seljalandsfoss, a 60m vertical drop waterfall thundering over a moss-covered cliffside. If you too are visiting in the off-season, enjoy this gem almost completely to yourself, exploring the network of paths and the mouth of the cave for 360 views of the waterfall. Continuing down the Ring Road, stop off at another spectacular falls, Skógafoss. Whatever your itinerary, you’re sure to see more waterfalls in Iceland than you’ve ever seen in your life, but they are all unique and impressive enough to merit a stop and several dozen photos.
Making your way east again, pull over into the small parking area for Sólheimasandur Black Sand Beach and join the other travellers disappearing across the eerie lunar landscape. The walk is about 4km along the flat sand, after which time you’ll arrive at the site of the famed 1970s US military DC-3 plane crash. It sounds like a morbid spot, but there were no casualties in the crash landing and the wreckage now makes for some incredible photos.
For your final stop of the day, navigate to Dyrhólaey Arch, Iceland’s southern-most point. Follow Road 218 off the Ring Road, which will take you to a stunning viewpoint above Vík’s Black Sand Beach, and then visit the beach itself for more photos on your way back down. Many people choose to spend the night here in Vík, but we found cheaper accommodation an hour further east in Kirkjubæjarklaustur. Depending on the time of year, food can be quite limited in this area, so it’s likely you’ll be stuck paying either €60 for a meal at the hotel restaurant or €20 for a below-average burger from the petrol station if you don’t plan ahead and buy groceries in Reykjavik.
Day 2 Highlights: Two impressive waterfalls, Seljalandsfoss & Skógafoss; Sólheimasandur plane crash; Dyrhólaey Arch & Vík’s Black Sand Beach
Driving: 2 hours, 170km
Food: Only a couple of restaurants in Vík and extremely limited options in Kirkjubæjarklaustur, although everything was closed in winter save for an expensive and very average fast-food stop at the Skaftárskáli petrol station in town and the even more expensive hotel restaurant
Accommodation: Icelandair Hotel Klaustur, €110 per night for a double room
More photos: ICELAND ROADTRIP DAYS 1 & 2: SKÓGAFOSS, SÓLHEIMASANDUR & VÍK
Day 3: Kirkjubæjarklaustur to Hof
Continuing along the Ring Road, make your first stop today at Fjaðrárgljúfur. This striking green canyon, whose serpentine landscape has been carved by the baby blue River Fjaðrá, is delightfully under-rated, so don’t expect to share the beauty with many other people in winter. Even on a grey, rainy day, though, the scenery is staggering and it’s likely to be a fast favourite.
After exploring the many viewpoints and clambering out onto the cliffs, make another quick photo stop at the Foss á Siðu falls before entering Vatnajökull National Park and navigating towards Svartifoss. Follow an easy trail about 1.5km to reach this waterfall, famous for the unusual arrangement of hexagonal basalt columns prominent behind the falls. Even in gloomy weather, Svartifoss sticks out in my mind as one of Iceland’s most fascinating waterfalls (of which there are many contenders).
Now just 30 minutes from the final destination, Hof, visit Svínafellsjökull to get up close and personal with this vividly blue glacier. There are a number of different short walks you can do around the area to take in the glacier views, visit the nearby Visitor Centre for full details. This is one of the most incredible glaciers I’ve ever seen and a spectacular way to wind up another day in beautiful Iceland.
Day 3 Highlights: Fjaðrárgljúfur, a beautiful canyon; Foss á Siðu & Svartifoss, more stunning waterfalls; Vatnajökull National Park & the incredibly blue Svínafellsjökull glacier
Driving: 1.5 hours, 105km
Food: There are a few cafes around the Glacier Lagoon to cater for tourists, although much of the route today is limited to hotel restaurants (expect to pay around €60 per main)
Accommodation: Fosshotel Glacier Lagoon, €105 per night for a double room
More photos: ICELAND ROADTRIP DAY 3: FJAÐRÁRGLJÚFUR, SVARTIFOSS & SVÍNAFELLSJÖKULL
Day 4: Hof to Kálfafell
It’s hard to pick a favourite out of all these incredible destinations, but this would probably be my favourite day of the whole road trip. The scenery as you move into eastern Iceland is simply breathtaking, in particular the Glacier Lagoons that are almost too beautiful to be real and the brilliant blue ice caves that come alive in winter.
Staying at Fosshotel Glacier Lagoon, it’s only a few minutes’ drive to the meeting point for the Ice Cave Tour with Local Guide of Vatnajökull. Our own tour was tragically cancelled the morning of due to flooding, but this tour was highly recommended, and was actually the entire reason I wanted to visit Iceland, so I will most definitely be back. It’s an expensive activity at about €130/person, but I was assured by several friends that it is worth every cent.
If you opt not to book the amazing Ice Cave Tour, spend the bulk of the day exploring the Glacier Lagoons and wandering off-track to search for hidden gems. First, navigate to Fjallsárlón, a lagoon we just stumbled across on our drive to a planned stop at Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon. Standing entirely alone amidst car-sized hunks of bubble gum blue ice (and under an amazing pink sunrise, no less), this was some of the most staggeringly beautiful natural scenery I’ve ever laid eyes on. If you were pressed for time (after the Ice Cave Tour, for instance) I’d even go so far as to recommend Fjallsárlón over the incredibly popular Jökulsárlón— both are stunning, but there’s much to be said for revelling in nature completely undisturbed. If time allows, though, continue up the Ring Road to Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon and walk along the beach as ice bobs out into the ocean.
Depending on how you’re doing on time after the Lagoon, either continue east for more surreal scenery or start making the journey back south. As we backtracked towards Kálfafell, we stopped for photos in the moss-covered Eldhraun Lava Field and then checked into our hotel right before the 4pm sunset was upon us.
Day 4 Highlights: Ice Cave Tour with Local Guide of Vatnajökull (€130); more adventures in Vatnajökull National Park; the stunning Glacier Lagoons, Fjallsárlón & Jökulsárlón; Kviarmýrarkambur; the misty Eldhraun Lava Field
Driving: 1.5 hours, 130km
Food: Depending on the time of year, there may be a few small options around the touristy Jökulsárlón, otherwise you may find yourself stopping again in Kirkjubæjarklaustur to eat mediocre petrol station burgers at Skaftárskáli or splurging at your hotel
Accommodation: Fosshotel Núpar, €90 per night for a double room
More photos: ICELAND ROADTRIP DAY 4: VATNAJÖKULL NATIONAL PARK & THE GLACIER LAGOONS
Day 5: Kálfafell to Ásólfsskáli
Energised by yesterday’s adventures, head out of the hotel for another amazing day in Iceland and travel about an hour to Vík. Although you passed through the town on Day 2 and saw many of the highlights, there’s still plenty to explore in this quaint seaside town, most notably Reynisfjara Beach. This black sand beach is home to enormous basalt sea stacks (the Reynisdrangar) and large hexagonal basalt columns, similar to the ones you saw at Svartifoss on Day 3. The result is an absolutely other-worldly beach landscape that you definitely can’t miss.
If time allows, hang around Vík a bit longer before continuing another 45 minutes along the Ring Road towards Ásólfsskáli. Here, the incredible Skálakot farm offers day trips on Icelandic Horses, the country’s precious little mascots. Even as an (extremely) novice horse rider, the tours are superb and were such a highlight for us. We paid about €150 for our 3-hour ride to Eyjafjallajökull, which was led by an amazing guide (we were the only guests) and featured stunning views of the glacier and the little Vestmannaeyjar Islands off the coast. The farm has since been renovated to offer boutique accommodation right on the property; otherwise, stay right next door to the farm at Country Hotel Anna.
Day 5 Highlights: Vík & Reynisfjara Beach; horse riding at Skálakot
Driving: 1.75 hours, 140km
Food: There are a few food options in Vík and a restaurant near Hvolsvöllur called Gamla Fjosid, which serves expensive but delicious winter specialities
Accommodation: Country Hotel Anna, €110 per night for a double room
More photos: ICELAND ROADTRIP DAY 5: RIDING ICELANDIC HORSES & EXPLORING BLACK SAND BEACH
Day 6: Ásólfsskáli to Geysir
Leaving your hotel at first light (aka 10.30am), travel just under an hour on the Ring Road to reach the day’s first stop, the beautiful Urriðafoss short falls. From here, another 20 minutes will bring you to Crater Kerið, a vibrant crater lake whose red, volcanic caldera makes for excellent photos. Unlike the other natural attractions on this list, there is a small fee (€3) to walk around the crater, but it’s still plenty worth the modest expense. Plus, the funds contribute to conservation efforts in the area, so it’s doubly difficult to complain.
From Crater Kerið, continue 25 minutes NE to another falls, Faxafoss, this one incredibly wide and beautifully blue. Well and truly in the Golden Circle now, Iceland’s most popular scenic route, there are plenty of people around. It’s only a few minutes to the next destination, but expect to see tour buses depositing large numbers of visitors at Geysir, the famous geyser after which all others were named, and nearby Strokkur. Tourists aside, this is still an incredible natural phenomenon, and it’s well worth wandering around the hot springs and watching the piping hot eruptions reach 20 metres every few minutes. And, it is still Iceland in winter, so it certainly isn’t impossible to get a few good shots of Geysir with no one blocking the frame.
After plenty of time at these impressive geysers, visit Gullfoss to wrap up another excellent day on the road. This waterfall is, again, incredibly popular, but for good reason— there is a decent network of paths offering different angles onto the falls, which spill over the cliffs from a split in the River Hvítá. After you’ve seen all of this magnificent waterfall, it’s only a 5 minute drive to your hotel, where you can tuck into a delicious meal and some well-deserved wine.
Day 6 Highlights: Three amazing waterfalls, Urriðafoss, Faxafoss & Gullfoss; Crater Kerið; the steaming geysers, Geysir & Strokkur
Driving: 2 hours, 130km
Food: Now in the Golden Circle, food options are more plentiful, with restaurants both at and near the major hotels in Geysir
Accommodation: Geysir Hestar, €100 per night for a twin room with shared bathroom
More photos: ICELAND ROADTRIP DAY 6: GOLDEN CIRCLE
Day 7: Geysir to Reykjavik
With the Golden Circle down and a day all to yourself, you could explore Reykjavik, even shorten the itinerary by a day, or you could head out to Langjökull Glacier on snowmobiles for a bit of an adrenaline fix. Departing from the Gullfoss car park, Mountaineers of Iceland will drive you up onto the snowy glacier, kit you out in cold weather gear, and then plop you on a snowmobile, all for the (rather steep) rate of €170. Snow or shine, this is an incredibly fun way to spend the day after a week in the car.
After your snowmobile tour, you’ll likely return exhausted to the car park at Gullfoss, drooping from a long afternoon at high speeds. Grab a snack at the cafe if you’re desperate, and then hit the road for what’s bound to feel like the longest 90 minutes of your life. It’s sure to be completely dark by the time you roll into Reykjavik, but the good news is that there are finally a number of food options in the capital. You’ll sleep well tonight!
Day 7 Highlights: Snowmobile riding on the Langjökull Glacier (€180)
Driving: 1.5 hours, 115km
Food: There’s an incredibly expensive cafe at Gullfoss, but a heap of food options once back in Reykjavik, including popular fast-food like Subway, KFC, etc
Accommodation: Route 1 Guesthouse, €85 per night for a double room
More photos: ICELAND ROADTRIP DAY 7: SNOWMOBILING ON LANGJÖKULL GLACIER
Day 8: Reykjavik
For your last day in Iceland, it’s finally time to take in one of the country’s biggest tourist draws, the Blue Lagoon. This iconic hot spring is a 40 minute drive from Reykjavik, en route to the airport in Keflavík, so it makes a perfect stop either to or from your flight. Pre-book your tickets (€50) before arriving in Iceland to ensure you get the time slot you want, and consider paying extra for towel hire at the front desk so you don’t have to pack a soggy towel into your luggage for your flight.
Although the pools themselves were man-made, the Blue Lagoon is filled with natural mineral water, piping-hot as a result of the geothermal activity below the nearby American and Eurasian tectonic plates. As you float around the steamy lagoon, drink in-hand from one of the poolside bars, be sure to give yourself a DIY facial with the abundant silica-based mud, a natural product of the cooled mineral water.
While touristy, the whole experience is undeniably fun and the Blue Lagoon really is the best way to wrap up what has undoubtedly been the trip of a lifetime. After showering off and getting into your plane clothes, it’s less than 20 minutes to Keflavík International Airport where you can return your car and start daydreaming about your next trip to the Land of Fire and Ice.
Day 8 Highlights: Swim in the Blue Lagoon
Driving: 1 hour, 60km
Food: Grab breakfast in Reykjavik and then lunch at the airport on your way home, there are plenty of options
More photos: ICELAND ROADTRIP DAY 8: BLUE LAGOON