After returning back from a 10 day camper van trip around (most) of Iceland I have compiled a list for you to get the most out of your Iceland trip.
Don’t have ten days? Thats okay! This guide will break down how long you need in each area to get the most out of a shorter excursion.
*West Fjords, The Highlands and a portion of Eastern Iceland are not covered in this guide.
If you haven’t already checked out 7 Must Read Tips for Travelling to Iceland I highly suggest to read that post as well for more specific tips on travel, food and tips in Iceland
I don’t know about you, but I am the type of traveller that likes to see the destination, take the photos I would like and leave the area. Depending on the type of traveler you are this guide may be too fast for you. However, if you are trying to cover the entire country in under 10 days I would suggest enjoying the destination but moving to the next one shortly after.
The “Ring Road” otherwise known as Highway 1 is the main highway through all of Iceland and is over 1,300KMs of primarily paved (sealed) road. The speed limit is universal through all of Iceland on paved roads: 90KMH/55MPH.
As a fun side note – Get ready to experience many one way bridges and tunnels while driving throughout Iceland – Be prepared! It is a bit nerve wracking the first time you drive a one way bridge on a busy highway.
Lastly, the ring road can be done in either direction. If I was to do this over again I would likely go counter clockwise (Southern, East, North, West) instead of the traditional route. There is a TON to see in Southern Iceland so working that into your itinerary without missing out is essential.
WEST ICELAND – 1-2 Nights
We had driven directly from Keflavik International Airport to Borgarnes after picking up our rental camper van.
*If you are wanting to avoid the toll booth of 2000ISK through the tunnel to Borgarnes on the ring road (Highway 1) take a right before the tunnel onto Highway 50 which just follows the inlet around some small towns. It is a very pretty detour with some gorgeous waterfalls along the way – I highly suggest doing this. But if you are in a hurry be prepared to pay directly after the underwater(!!!) tunnel
The west is a detour from the ring road but is totally worth it, I promise. Take highway 54 north, keep left and follow the highway 574 to see some raw beauty of Iceland. Depending on the amount of time you have, taking the detours into the little towns on highway 574 is a wonderful way to spend a day.
Be sure to check out the neat black church in Arnarstapi, the rugged coastline and sea lions of Hellnar and West Icelands most grand feature: Kirkjufellsfoss
NORTH ICELAND – 2-3 Nights
There is a lot to see in Northern Iceland and wow, is it ever diverse! Get back onto highway 1 and follow the ring road, there is not a whole lot to see until you hit Akureyri, there are small roadside pit stops to get out and enjoy Icelands landscapes but save your time for the beautiful waterfalls of the North!
There are many detours into different parts of Iceland as seen above. We opted not to do either detour as the weather was turning and we chose to drive directly to Akureyri from West Iceland on Day 2.
If you are planning on taking the detour to Siglufjordur know that there is one way tunnels and be prepared. I would suggest spending a night up in the area before heading back down toward Akureyri if this is the route you decide to take.
Be sure to stop at Goðafoss which is directly off the ring road, you cant miss it!
When you hit the intersection at Lake Mývatn, take Highway 848! It is a beautiful detour with dozens of pit stops with photo opportunities. If you are a Game of Thrones fan it is a must stop: The very popular Grjótagjá hot spring cave lies in this detour off the ring road! Highway 848 will tee back up onto the ring road and you will continue your journey through Mývatn, Blue Lake and Hverarond – All very hot and unique geothermal areas of Northern Iceland within minutes of one another.
Last but not least in Northern Iceland is one of my favourite waterfalls in Iceland – Dettifoss. It is said to be Europes most powerfull waterfall and it most definitely is. It is HUGE and can be reached on the west or east side. We took highway 862 to see the west side of Dettifoss and did not go to the east side. The drive into Dettifoss and through the eastern portion of Northern Iceland is remarkable and truly feels like an entirely different planet.
EAST ICELAND – 1-3 Nights
Although we did not spend much time on the East Side due to a rockslide and flooding shutting down the ring road there is much to be seen here – especially in the summer months. The east is well known for its “puffin haven” in Fáskrúðsfjörður, with a couple small fishing towns just off of the ocean that are a must see. BUT be sure you have gravel protection for your rental vehicle, or drive very carefully. These roads are half gravel / half sealed heading up to the different towns.
We had been forced to turn around and backtrack the entire ring road. With road closures likely lasting the rest of the week we had no choice but to turn around. Without detouring this had taken us much less time than the first time around – but still was a bit disappointing as repeating a full 8 hour drive drive you just did it a couple days ago is not very fun – but neither is getting stuck in a flood, or worse!
SOUTH ICELAND – 2-3 Nights
If you only have a couple days in Iceland. Spend it in the south! Many of Icelands most popular attractions reside in the South and Southeast portion of Iceland. Including the very touristy Golden Circle.
Since we approached this from the Golden Circle first after backtracking, I will be going from east to west on the map.
The Golden Circle – 1 Day
Although very touristy, it is often a hotspot for those who are only in Iceland for a night or two. You can see everything there is to see in the Golden Circle in a day. Everything is fairly close together and well marked. Be sure to fuel up before heading into the Golden Circle as there isn’t many gas stations and the ones that are around are very expensive and very, very busy.
Be sure to stop at Thingvellir National Park and walk along two continents tectonic plates. Very neat. There is quite a few places to see in Thingvellir including a church, a beautiful waterfall Oxararfoss as well as snorkelling in some very cold, yet pristine water through the crack of two tectonic plates. We had only stopped to see the tectonic plates and the waterfall and moved on.
Next stop is Geysir! A geothermal hotspot in the golden circle with many active, boiling mud pots, erupting geysirs and hot creeks. Be sure to stay long enough to see Strokkur erupt.
Stop number three on the Golden Circle is Gullfoss. A beautifully magnificent waterfall. You can see it from the upper observation deck or the lower to gain a better view of the entire waterfall. Be prepared to get wet, Gullfoss is misty on the best of days!
Last stop is Kerid, a red sand volcanic crater lake. It costs 500ISK to enter Kerid and walk around the crater. You can walk to the lake or around the entire crater, it takes approximately a half hour to walk around the crater and is well worth doing.
The remainder of Southern Iceland is quite spread out, be sure to fuel up on gas when you see a gas station, especially as you head further south east.
The first two waterfalls in Southern Iceland are fairly close to one another, Seljalandsfoss and Skógafoss are directly off the ring road and cant be missed. They are some of Icelands most picturesque waterfalls and are a must see. Parking at Seljalandsfoss is not free, a parking meter sits at the front of the parking lot. There is a small vendor selling hot drinks, food and pastries as well as a gift shop there are also free bathrooms all within the parking lot, if you are looking for a campsite nearby there is one directly beside Seljalandsfoss or one across the road on the right hand side.
Much like anywhere in Iceland, be sure to arrive at the crack of dawn to have the waterfalls to yourself (and the best lighting, if your a photographer) these places fill up extremely quick and it can be hard to take a picture without someone in it at these places, which can make for a frustrating experience if you are on a time crunch.
Next is the beautiful black sand beaches of Vik, There is a ton to do here and you could easily spend a night exploring the area. If you have time, can walk a fair distance and are interested the famous plane crash lies on the beaches near Vik and is well worth a visit!
Take a drive down to the black sand Reynisfjara beach to see the beautiful rock formations as well as the vivid black sand beach. Be very cautious getting close to the ocean waves, they are strong and can pull you under. You can hear how powerful these waves are when you are standing on this beach – It is a little unnerving. Several people have died in the last few years, including someone this year.
If you have time, spend a night at Skaftafell National Park and hike to Svartifoss, a beautiful waterfall featuring lava columns. The weather did not cooperate with us either times we passed through this park – so we did not spend much time here. However, in the winter months Skaftafell National Park offers Glacier walks and Cave tours. Well worth the cost if you have the right time of year and money!
Another highlight of the south includes Fjaðrárgljúfur Canyon, it is 15 minutes south of Kirkjubaer on a compact dirt road (Look for a yellow sign pointing to Laki/Holt) and follow the road. You cant miss it! It is worth the drive and the trek to the top. These ancient canyons are breathtaking to see in person. (You may recognize them from Justin Biebers music video – Ill Show You)
Last but not least, the highlight of the entire trip – Jökulsárlón Glacier & Diamond Beach! Although it is a ways away from other attractions it is worth a stop. It is directly off of the ring road on either side of the road and is absolutely remarkable. We spent hours here as I ran around taking shots of every iceberg possible! The icebergs break off of a glacier shelf, into the lagoon and eventually float out to sea, some landing on the nearby Diamond Beach. Spend a couple hours here and see if you can spot the sea lions swimming amongst the icebergs! It is truly a magical place.
South Iceland is where we were able to see northern lights almost every single night we spent in the south – it was an absolute treat to see the northern lights so vividly. They truly do dance across the sky. They feel so close that you can almost touch them!
Lastly, Icelands most well known attraction – The Blue Lagoon!
The Blue Lagoon is a short distance from the Keflavik Airport and is a great first or last stop on your trip in Iceland. Be warned that is VERY expensive, even for a basic admission package which includes admission to the pool and a free silica mask. Be sure to book your tickets in advance – you have to book a specific time slot online. They sell out very quickly and vary in price depending on the time of day.
We did it on the final day of our trip, shortly before heading to the airport. We did not spend a whole lot of time here due to the intense wind and rain on our final day, but enjoyed the time we spent here. There are hundreds of people in the lagoon but it is so large it never seems crowded – there is always a space to sit thats away from the crowds.
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