So you want to visit Iceland, but you aren't sure whether to drive the Ring Road? Although Iceland is a small country, it takes ~18 hours to drive around it, not including stops. If you have less than 9 days, do not even attempt. We circled the country in 9 days but I really believe we needed at least one extra day. Instead, use Reyjavík as your base and do day trips from there.
Table of Contents:
Day 1: Reyjavík and the Blue Lagoon
Pick up your rental car or catch a bus to the Blue Lagoon. Immerse yourself in the milky, therapeutic waters while you enjoy your free beverage and slather a generous heap of white silica mask onto your face. An in-water massage takes it to the next level but is not necessary.
Afterward, check into your accommodation and take a well-earned rest. Later, take a self-guided tour of the city hitting the major sites: Hallgrímskirkja Lutheran church, Harpa concert hall, the Sun Voyager sculpture, strolling along Laugavegur (the main drag) and Austurvöllur (Parliament Square). Don't forget to sample a hot dog from the world-famous Bæjarins bestu stand behind the Radisson where a heavenly mix of raw onions, crunchy fried onions, sweet brown mustard and a remoulade sauce top a lamb (yes lamb!) hot dog. They taste so good, so different, you may as well order two. Time and interest permitting, add in the Settlement Exhibition and the Icelandic Phallological Museum.
Day 2: Golden Ring
Today, your itinerary covers a wide breadth of geology and history.
Start at Þingvellir and get a geology and history lesson. Here you can walk between the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates. If you have the time and inclination, you can also dive the Silfra Pass between the plates but only if it really interests you - you can walk between the plates above water too. Then, shift gears and learn about the coincidental settlement history around Þingvellir. For nearly a millennium, the Alþingi met here. The Alþingi was a meeting of chieftains and elders from all over Iceland that decided laws and settled disputes at this location. See Law Rock and walk past beautiful sites that conceal that they were once sites of executions of a wide swath of “criminals” - from murderers, burglars to woman who fornicated. Walk to the waterfall if time permits, skip if you are tight on time (or are doing this itinerary in reverse and have already seen a lot of waterfalls).
Geyser and Strokkur
Next, visit Geysir geothermal park. Here you will likely not see the original (original as in that's where the word comes from!) Geysir erupt but rather watch Strokkur, a more predictable geyser. The real Geysir is unpredictable and not too active. A ring protects you from the danger of its eruption but you still may find yourself part of the hot spray if you stand too close to it (just ask my dad who exclaimed that he'd been "geysered").
Gulfoss Waterfall and Kerið Crater
Stop at Gulfoss (waterfall). Walk to the lower viewpoint where you can get up close to the waterfall and feel the spray. Finish your day at Kerið crater and marvel at the pop of color in front of you - from the red volcanic rock to the varying shades of green foliage to the aquamarine water inside the caldera.This was a surprising highlight for me.
Day 3: Bogarnes and Skagafjörður Peninsula
One-hour away from Reyjavík, you will arrive to the town of Bogarnes in West Iceland. Here you have the opportunity to learn about the early settlement years of Iceland and also the Sagas of Skalla-Grímjr Kveldúlfsson and his son, Egill Skallagrímsson (who was certainly an interesting character) at the wonderful Settlement Center. This small museum packs a powerful punch and is well worth the money and time to view both exhibits. If you only have time to visit part of it, make it the settlement portion. If you have kids you may be pleasantly surprised at how well this museum keeps their attention. There’s even a part where they get to stand on the bow of a ship as it rocks and simulates what the boat ride may have been like.
Visit Grábók crater if you have the time and the interest. We skipped this crater because we had a couple of additional ones later on the agenda and we needed to make up time.
This longhouse was a fascinating look into how early settlers lived and worked on a farm. The farm owners had their own private room and guest quarters, followed by a series of rooms used as a kitchen and for storage. Workers slept and worked in their beds in a shared dormitory-style room. Often the women (and sometimes men) would sew and the men make rope and tools. The sod roof and walls kept the house well insulated and protected from the elements.
Day 4: Mývatn
There are several sites around the lake and you should spend at least 2 days in the area if you can afford the time. We did not have that luxury and had to skip several sites. Since we had to be selective, we did the unique activities and skipped things that were like other things that we had done (e.g., we skipped Hverfjall crater because we had already gone to Kerið).
Skútustaðir Pseudocraters and Dimmuborgir Lava Formations
Start at Skútustaðir Pseudocraters. These are actually popped bubbles of molten lava but are unlike anything that you've probably seen before. Continue to the Dimmuborgir Lava Formations formed by magma leaking up and solidifying when the area was covered in water. Here, you'll read about the Yule Lads and will even see one of the troll's caves (wink, wink). My daughter was a lit bit frightened and excited at the same time that we may come across a troll. The Yule Lads are 13 mischievous trolls that visit one-by-one each day leading up to Christmas. They each have different personality quirks and are nicknamed accordingly (e.g., "Sausage Swiper" and "Window Peeper"). Children leave out their shoes each night and receive a gift or a rotten potato depending on how good they've been.
Hverfjall Crater, Grjótagjá Thermal Cave,Afterwardwalk-up and Game of Thrones
If you have the time, visit Hverfjall Crater. It's right next to Dimmuborgir and takes about 20 minutes to ascend. Also nearby is the Grjótagjá Thermal Cave which is probably only a must-see if you are a Game of Thrones fan (this is where Jon Snow and Ygritte did the deed).
Have dinner at Vogafjós / Cowshed Café - though pricey, the food is outstanding and where else can you share a wall with cow stalls. I bet you didn't know that you wanted to do that!
Mývatn Natural Baths
The next day, visit Mývatn natural baths if you missed the Blue Lagoon or need to get another rejuvenation. Shortly after the baths is the Námafjall Geothermal area. Even if you've already done Geysir, this is a cool stop. It doesn't have active geysers but it is such a scenic spot to see bubbling water and steam rising from the ground. You can also get closer to the action and it is right off the road (you can't miss it).
Day 5: Húsavík and Whale Watching
This picturesque town has a lot to offer. This is THE place to go whale watching. Minke and humpback whales frequent just off the shore while the possibility of spotting an Orca or majestic blue whale makes it even more of a bucket list item. In all, you can find over 20 types of whales around Iceland and this is the country's whale watching capital.
Afterwards, grab fish and chips at the small walk up stand between the whale watching company storefronts and the parking lot. One plate can easily feed two for $19. There is outdoor and indoor seating just up the stairs.
The Whale Museum in Húsavík is wonderful. It showcases a blue whale skeleton (wow are they huge!) as well as several other whale skeletons that have washed ashore near the town or elsewhere along Iceland. They have a wonderful children's area and the museum itself is extremely child-friendly with things to see and touch.
From the parking lot, walk up the large staircase to the church. If the doors are locked, ask the nice folks in the bookstore across the street (same side) to let you in.
Walk down the street to the Exploration Museum where you can learn about Vikings and astronauts. You may want to call ahead as they had “gone exploring” the day that we were there and were not open during their posted normal operating hours.
We had some extra time in Húsavík and I had seen an advertisement for a new spa (Geosea) earlier in the day. We decided to check it out and found ourselves in heaven. After bathing and changing into our swimsuits, we were face to face with an infinity pool that looked out over the Arctic Ocean. The pools all hovered in the mid 90 degrees and there was a walk-up bar. While enjoying beers and staring out at the ocean, my dad noticed a couple of whales breaching in the near distance. They stayed and played for a long time and we enjoyed every second of it.
Day 6: East Fjords
Dettifoss Waterfall and Egillstadir
Drive to Dettifoss waterfall (1 hour, 15 minutes). Even if you’ve been to Niagara Falls, you will likely be pleasantly surprised to see the volume and veracity of this waterfall. Note that there are two waterfalls - Dettifoss and the smaller, upriver Selfoss co-located. Pay attention to the signs - not the crowd. On a pleasant day, both waterfalls should be observed but in poor weather, make the trip to Dettifoss only. We had rain and sleet the day we went and although I like waterfalls I found myself questioning whether or not it would be worth it. Believe me, it’s worth it even if you have to carry a 3-year old a kilometer back to the car all while he's shouting "I HATE ICELAND!" at the top of his lungs (he doesn't). Fuel up and eat in Egillstadir (2 hours away) and then continue on your scenic drive to Seyðisfjörður (45 minutes further).
Seyðisfjörður is a very picturesque town and was the favorite of our entire party of eight. The small town wraps around a lagoon and the lovely Blue Church (Bláa Kirkjan) caps the end of a rainbow-colored street. On this street, you will find an excellent pub with delicious burgers, a nice hotel restaurant, sushi restaurant, and a couple of gift shops / art gallery. There is a nice lagoon that is easy to walk around and get a feel for the town. This is an artistic town which you will quickly learn. Tvísöngur, just a 15-minute hike up the hillside is a really cool sculpture of sound. Atlas Obscura writes, "Once inside the stark industrial domes, visitors will find that they have each been designed to resonate at different harmonies as the wind blowing in off the cliff rushes through the openings. The collective effect is almost as though the wind itself is playing a giant instrument. The five chambers of the piece are meant to recall the Icelandic musical tradition of quintal harmony, with each dome reflecting a tone in the tradition."
Day 7: East Fjords, continued and Southeast
If you’re lucky, you’ll find accommodations in the Jokulsarlon region which is an hour down the road from Hofn and gets you that much closer to the action the following day. We couldn’t and stayed in Hofn. It is a fine town, with excellent restaurants serving the local humar (langoustine) delicacy, but it would make an even better dinner stop en route further south.
Days 8 and 9: Southeast and South coast
Today's drive is by far the most aspirational. We actually did do this but I would highly recommend adding a day on to your trip because it was a LONG day and the last sites really deserve more time than we were able to give to them because we took our time at the beginning.
Drive to Jökulsárlón lagoon and behold magnificent icebergs that have calved off the Vatnajökull glacier and into the lagoon. Here they continue to dissipate until they are small enough to get washed out to the sea. This lagoon was my favorite stop on the trip. The icebergs are amazing on their own but then to watch seals play around them is just too much.
Some of the bergs that wash out to sea are carried back by the tide to the unmarked Diamond beach just across the bridge and on the opposite side of the street from the lagoon. Behold large white and bright blue chunks of ice on the beautiful obsidian-colored sand. Like the lagoon, this is a great place for photos. Just don't be like the American grandma that rode an iceberg out to sea. It's somewhat funny but also completely embarrassing for the rest of us who try and be good international travelers.
Continue to Vatnajökull glacier and pull over. Walk away from the cars to get a good look at the glacier. You could walk further, but I recommend continuing on down the road.
Fjaðrárgljúfur Canyon was barely mentioned in my guidebook but I found it to be stunning. This canyon was formed millions of years ago by glaciers. When we got there, it was busy but not too crowded. I later found out that the canyon had closed temporarily in 2019 because it was overrun with tourists following a Justin Bieber video that was filmed there. You cannot make these things up.
Fjaðrárgljúfur Canyon, Diamond Beach and Jökulsárlón lagoon
Reynisfjara beach near Vik was our last stop for the day prior to heading to our Air Bnb. It is a lovely black sand beach that has beautiful basalt columns both along the beach as well as just off the shore. It is often rated as one of the most beautiful black sand beaches in the world though the waters that surround it can have quite unpredictable waves.
Day 10: Reykjavik - Last chance for the Blue Lagoon and head to the airport
If you didn't catch it on the front end, the Blue Lagoon also makes a great last stop. Personally, I am glad that we did it first because a beautiful soak in a geothermal spa is pretty amazing at 8 a.m. following a red-eye flight. In retrospect, however, there are so many more natural and amazing experiences to be had in Iceland that I would not have appreciated it as much at the end.
Alternatively, use the last day to see anything that you may have missed around Reykjavik before you head to the airport.
You will find Iceland to be a charming country. It is very family-friendly and easy to navigate. Food costs are particularly high since many things need to be imported. The roads are easy to navigate but the weather can be unpredictable. Give yourself time to do it justice. Wear the appropriate gear and you will be comfortable. Learn the folklore and watch the landscapes come alive. If you like geography and landscapes, you will LOVE Iceland!