I remember watching Ben Stiller skateboard down this remote, quiet, winding road in the hit film, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, and wondering where the hell is that?
There was nothing, not a tree, a house, a sign of life, for miles on end. The middle of nowhere. The end of the road so to speak.
It looked and felt like somewhere from another planet and I instantly and instinctively wanted to go there.
Iceland’s growing popularity
The Walter Mitty movie played a big role in putting Iceland on the international travel map. Fast forward three years and the country is riding a wave of popularity. Tourism numbers have increased dramatically in recent years and with Iceland’s low-cost carrier, WOW Air, now flying regularly to multiple cities in the US, tourism is set to take off a whole lot more.
It’s taken me longer than I’d hoped to get there but it was certainly worth the wait.
It’s an extraordinary country. Blessed with magnificent natural features from powerful waterfalls, massive glaciers and stunning fjords to black sand beaches and geothermal mud baths, geysers and spas.
It’s renowned as the land of fire and ice – harsh, remote, snow-capped mountains and glaciers juxtaposed with volatile volcanic activity.
It’s also a country on the move. So many of the main attractions we visited were undergoing construction work to accommodate growing visitor numbers and there were new hotels and apartments being built around the country to keep pace with the increasing crowds.
Getting started – what to do in Iceland
So, what’s the best way to approach Iceland?
Should you race around the Ring Road, Iceland’s main road that circles the island, to see as much of the country as possible? Or should you focus on one part of the country and explore in detail?
I wanted to do a multi-day hike in the Highlands and concentrate on one area but this wasn’t possible in early June. Many of the roads to the interior are closed because of snow until later in the month when ‘summer’ arrives and the high season begins.
Driving Iceland’s Ring Road, Route 1
That’s how we ended up doing an 11-day road trip around Iceland’s Route 1, the Ring Road. If you stick to the main drag the Ring Road is about 1300 kilometres, but you’ll likely end up covering about 2,500km with side trips and adventures.
The big decision is which way to travel – clockwise or anti-clockwise? Many of the most popular highlights are in the southeast, not too far from Reykjavik. I wanted to tick these off early – bang for your buck straight up – so we drove anti-clockwise. If we had our time again, I’d head off in the opposite direction.
Plan your itinerary early
You’ll need to work out your detailed itinerary well in advance. It’s likely you’ll be staying in different accommodation every night and because places book up quickly so you need to get in early. One thing you don’t want to be doing is driving around at the end of the day looking for somewhere to stay.
Even with 11 days to explore, we had a full itinerary. At times, particularly early in the southeast, I felt like we were on a tourist trail, stopping off at one popular, ‘must-see’ sight after another with not much time to get out, take mini hikes and explore a little off the beaten track.
Car rental for your Iceland road trip
We hired a 4WD and I strongly recommend this. It’s more expensive but worth it. There are quite a few gravel roads and they’re much more comfortable in a larger 4WD vehicle. We saw plenty of travellers in teeny tiny cars and I would have hated driving on unpaved rides in something so small. We had a brand new Toyota RAV4 from Blue Car Rental which was great.
The benefit of a larger 4WD is that you’ll have plenty of space to put luggage in the boot and throw day packs, jackets, etc., onto the back seat where they’re easily accessible to whip on and off when you’re getting in and out of the car (a lot).
Also, I’d recommend paying extra for sand and ash cover. In some parts of Iceland if the wind whips up, your car could get covered in sand and volcanic ash which would be a costly nightmare.
Iceland weather: what to expect and what to wear
Weather in Iceland is so changeable even in the warmer months. We had sleeting rain, strong winds, freezing temperatures and whiteouts in June.
Even the car rental companies warn you to be careful opening car doors in strong winds as ‘Damage caused by the wind blowing up the door’ is not covered by insurance. It happens.
The weather can certainly slow you down and may mean you need to change your plans on short notice. Don’t be fooled by all the blue sky photos you see of Iceland!
It might seem like it’s stating the bleeding obvious to say you need decent cold weather gear in Iceland but the temperatures and the conditions can be extreme. If you want to get out of your car and enjoy the scenery even in very cold, wet conditions you will need proper waterproof pants, a waterproof/windproof jacket, good waterproof gloves, a beanie and some decent, sturdy boots. You’ll be walking in sand, mud, gravel, rocks and rain.
Cost of an Iceland road trip: food and accommodation
Be warned: Iceland is furiously expensive. I was gobsmacked by the cost of things, even knowing that it’s an expensive country. Many travellers book self-catering accommodation and stock up at the supermarket so they don’t have to dine out.
For me, trying the local restaurants is one of the joys of travel so there was no way I was going to cook every night of my holiday!
Accommodation is expensive. There’s just not a lot of it so the cheaper options book out well in advance. We stayed in a mix of hosted and independent Airbnbs, upmarket hostels and standard hotels. We paid the equivalent of $AUD200 (very cheap by Icelandic standards) to close to $AUD400 per night, way more than we would normally pay for a night’s accommodation.
Our 11-day Iceland road trip itinerary: where to go and what to do
- Days 1 & 2: Reykjavik
- Day 3: The Golden Circle
- Day 4: Eyrarbakki to Vik
- Day 5: Vik to Höfn
- Day 6: Höfn to Seyðisfjörður
- Day 7: Seyðisfjörður to Akureyri
- Day 8: Akureyri to Hvammstangi
- Days 9 & 10: Stykkishólmur and the Snæfellsnes Peninsula
- Day 11: Snæfellsnes Peninsula to Keflavik
Days 1 and 2: Reykjavik
Iceland greeted us with wild, wet, windy weather.
It looked grey and bleak as we flew in and after landing at Keflavik airport in the capital Reykjavik, it was so windy crews couldn’t attach the flybridge to the aircraft. Even getting the stairs in place was a challenge. As we sat waiting impatiently inside the plane, you could feel the aircraft being buffeted by the wind, literally shaking from side to side. I’ve never experienced anything like it.
Reykjavik is a small, picturesque harbourside town on the west coast of Iceland. It’s hard to convey how remote parts of the country are but consider this: Iceland has a population of 330,000 and two-thirds live in Reykjavik.
There’s a strong design focus in the city with some impressive architecture: the stunning harbourside concert hall and convention centre, the Harpa, with its multicoloured glass façade (try and book a show); the landmark Hallgrimskirkja church which provides a focal point for the city and the shiny glass dome-shaped Pearl (Perlan) museum which offers panoramic views of the city.
Take a free walking tour around Reykjavik to get an insight into Icelandic history and culture. Despite walking in drizzling rain and very cold temperatures our guide was fun, informative, passionate about his homeland and even sang for us!
Where to stay in Reykjavik:
- We stayed at Room with a View apartment hotel. It was a self-catering apartment perfectly positioned smack bang in the city centre.
Where to eat and drink in Reykjavik:
- Culture Centre café – after several hours exploring Reykjavik in the rain we stopped here and savoured the best hot chocolate ever, plus a deliciously warm and large chocolate chip cookie. Yum.
- Sandholt café – a very popular breakfast café. Two coffees, a cinnamon roll and some granola and yoghurt in a plastic container cost the equivalent of $AUD40. Ouch!
- Fish restaurant – loved, loved, loved this home-cooked style food. Steamed fish and veggies, hot apple pie. Highly recommend.
- Essensia – a stylish, modern Italian restaurant not far from the Harpa. We had the best-ever grilled whole sole fish here, sourced from Iceland’s Westfjords.
- Te & Kaffi – great coffee on the main street of Reykjavik.
- Bravo pub – on the main street, good to try a local Gull beer, keep an eye out for Happy Hour.
- Kaffibarinn – one of the oldest bars in Reykjavik that has lots of character and plenty of locals.
Day 3: The Golden Circle
This is considered THE thing to do in Iceland if you only have a few days. The Golden Circle consists of three major attractions that are within striking distance of Reykjavik. You can easily see all of them in one day.
First stop is Þingvellir (Thingvellir) National Park, about 40 kilometres from the capital, where Iceland’s (and the world’s) first parliament, the Alping, was created in 930. Þingvellir means ‘Parliament Plains’ and many major events in Iceland’s history took place in this historic site. It’s a beautiful, peaceful, contemplative place looking out over Lake Þhingvallatan.
Yet it’s also a place of earth-shattering change. The Northern American and Eurasian tectonic plates intersect in Iceland and at Þingvellir they are gradually being torn apart, causing massive fissures or canyons in the landscape. This means you can literally stand between two major continents.
Next stop on the Golden Circle is the Geysir hot spring area, where Iceland’s geothermal core puts on a dramatic show. Spitting, bubbling, boiling water explodes from the earth high into the air. The big geyser, Geysir, doesn’t erupt very often these days but stand by Strokkur and every five minutes or so boiling water will gush and hiss from the ground, erupting into the air to a height of about 30 metres.
The third attraction in the Golden Circle is Gullfoss, or Golden Waterfalls, one of the most impressive of many stunning waterfalls in Iceland. You can walk right up to the edge, soak up clouds of water spray on your face and feel the force of the water thundering down the rock face into a deep, narrow crevasse below.
If you have time you could also drop by the Kerið (Kerid) volcanic crater which is on the way to Selfoss. You have to pay to view this attraction and while you can walk around the perimeter of the crater and climb down to the lake within, I was underwhelmed.
Where to stay:
- Avoid Selfoss which is very industrial and head off the Ring Road to Eyrarbakki to spend the night in a quiet, seaside town. Walking along the rocky, volcanic foreshore we discovered there is no land, only deep blue sea direct from Eyrarbakki to Antarctica more than 15,000 kilometres to the south.
Where to eat in Eyrarbakki:
- There aren’t too many options for food. We were a bit frightened by the cost of the local Rauda Husid, or Red House restaurant but were very pleasantly surprised. Order the fabulous fish soup with local langoustines, the cheapest meal on the menu – you get a free top up and won’t go home hungry.
Day 4: Eyrarbakki to Vik
We had booked a glacier walk at Sólheimajökull for today but it was cancelled due to wild, windy weather. There were travel warnings for driving the Ring Road where the wind was estimated to be up to 120km/h and the danger of volcanic ash storms was very high.
Instead, we took a detour up to the Hekla Volcano, which apparently is due to erupt any day now (!) and it was the eeriest place we went in Iceland. It felt so remote, almost dangerous, and I felt vulnerable driving into this bleak, black landscape where nothing seemed to survive. We only got out of the car very briefly because it was so windy but in the summer you can take a guided hiking tour of Hekla.
Next stops were two famous fossar (plural of foss): Seljalandsfoss and the 60-metre high Skógafoss. At Seljalandsfoss you can walk behind the waterfall – be prepared to get very wet and mind your step as it’s very slippery – then stroll over to the smaller Gljúfrabú waterfall nearby.
At Skógafoss you can walk right up to the waterfall on the ground level, then head up hundreds of stairs to view it from the top. There’s a trail that runs along the source river and is the beginning of the Laugavegur hiking trail to Þórsmörk and Landmannalaugar, often named as one of the best hikes in the world.
On the road between the fossar you’ll find the infamous Eyafjallajökull volcano which erupted in 2010 bringing global travel to a grinding halt. It’s worth a stop. From the photos on roadside information boards you can easily identify houses that were right below the erupting volcano, surrounded by the ash cloud and which still stand today.
While we couldn’t climb the Sólheimajökull glacier we went for a look-see anyway. It’s a short walk from the carpark and café to the glacier and even in the rain, it’s a stunning sight.
Where to stay and eat in Vik
- We stocked up at the supermarket and cooked our own food in our self-catering Airbnb apartment.
Day 5: Vik to Höfn
Day 5 dawned as another wet one and so we discovered Dyrholaey and the black sand beaches of Vik on a fifty shades of grey kind of day. I hadn’t really seen black sand beaches before and was very taken with how dramatic and bold they looked.
Thanks to the weather our day didn’t quite go according to plan. We had to pocket our daily list of ‘things to see and do’ as we needed to buy some proper wet weather pants for JJ, my travel partner. He’d sworn blind that his outdoor pants were waterproof but after a couple of days of having soaked wet duds sticking to his skin, he wanted to get the real Icelandic waterproof deal. Two hundred dollars later … we recovered with a real espresso coffee at a hilltop café overlooking the fog-shrouded Vik cliffs.
From Vik, there’s a fair bit of very beautiful ‘nothing’ on the Route 1 drive: wide open landscapes, vast tracts of black volcanic sand and rock, snow-capped mountains, glimpses of glaciers and kilometre after kilometre of moss-covered lava from the devastating Laki volcano eruption in the late 18th century.
We detoured off the Ring Road to check out the Fjaðrárgljúfur canyon which is a few kilometres in along a potholed gravel road. The canyon is striking: the glacial blue water snakes down between sheer moss-covered walls that soar about 100 metres high. You can walk along the top of the canyon and get dangerously close to the edge.
Unfortunately, we ran out of time to visit Skaftafell National Park because it was getting late in the day and the one thing I absolutely did not want to miss was Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon.
I was so looking forward to visiting Jökulsárlón and it absolutely lived up to expectations. It’s exquisite. We stopped at the western end of the lagoon (before crossing the bridge where most tourists head) and spent some time wandering around the water’s edge, soaking up the serene atmosphere and enjoying the beautiful evening light. There’s a very chilled vibe in this place. The waters are very still and the silence of nature is therapeutic.
Once you cross the bridge it’s astonishing to see how the small icebergs slowly get caught up in the current and flow down the narrow channel that leads to the black sand beach and then out into the Atlantic Ocean.
While we were disappointed to miss Skaftafell, we were on a high after Jökulsárlón. We were also glad we took a quick peek at the other glacier lagoon in this ‘hood, Fjallsárlón, which is just before Jökulsárlón and a lot less crowded.
Where to stay in Höfn:
- We stayed at the Hotel Edda Höfn which was probably the most expensive accommodation of our ten-day Iceland trip and functional at best. The room was very small with no facilities like a kettle or fridge. We did have a view of the harbour and the glacier in the distance.
Where to eat in Höfn:
- Höfn is famous for its langoustines (lobsters) so we headed to the best restaurant in town, Pakkhus, which overlooks the harbour and the large fishing boat that caught our dinner. We each downed a plate of deliciously grilled langoustines, washed down with local beer and Chilean wine! Turns out it was one of the best meals we had in Iceland and by far the most expensive and indulgent. The main courses alone cost about $AUD90 each!
Day 6: Höfn to Seyðisfjörður
When describing Iceland you tend to run out of words and really, they simply don’t do the place justice. But it’s a spectacular and incredibly picturesque drive along the mountainous East Fjords from Höfn to Seyðisfjörður.
Our only stop along the way was the small fishing town of Djúpivogur which has recently been named the first Cittaslow or ‘Slow Town’ in Iceland. It’s part of the global ‘slow movement’ whose ethos is all about slowing down the pace of life and focusing on quality, not quantity.
With only 400 residents in Djúpivogur, it certainly seemed pretty sleepy and slow-paced to us.
We popped into the Langabúð museum café, housed in Djúpivogur’s oldest building, to refuel on coffee and scrumptious local cakes before taking a slow cruise around town to discover the 34 eggs sculpture, the Eggs at Merry Bay. Each egg represents a different bird species from the surrounding area. The artwork was created by well-known Icelandic artist Sigurður Guðmundsson and is visually impressive.
It was a stroke of genius on my part to skip the town of Egilsstaðir which lies on the Ring Road and head straight to Seyðisfjörður, one of the prettiest villages in Iceland. The colourful homes, the cute church, the snow-capped mountains all add up to picture postcard perfect.
But it’s not a journey for the faint-hearted. It’s a steep mountain climb up and down into the fjord and when we visited, the mountain was obscured by thick, low-hanging cloud, bringing visibility to almost zero.
We crawled, heart in mouth, along the winding road at a snail’s pace, barely able to see a few metres in front of us, terrified that we might slip over the edge into an icy, snow-laden ravine below. It was our scariest experience in Iceland.
But the long heart-stopping drive paid off. Seyðisfjörður has ‘got it’. It’s where the boat arrives from Denmark and the Faroe Islands and it’s one of the filming locations for the popular Icelandic crime series, Trapped. We had such a fun time there even though we stayed less than 24 hours.
We made two excellent decisions: staying at the Post Hostel and heading to the local pub. We nestled into a cosy corner of the pub, ordered some barbecued cod with baked potato and sat back to enjoy a few beers and wines. The atmosphere was pumping – a European Champions League soccer match was playing on the TV upstairs and the locals were raucously hootin’ and hollerin’ throughout the game.
Where to stay in Seyðisfjörður:
- The Post Hostel is in the old post office building, a very clean upmarket hostel not far from the town centre. Our room had an ensuite plus there’s a very well-equipped shared kitchen and dining area.
Where to eat in Seyðisfjörður:
- The pub is called Kaffi Lara – El Grillo Bar. Definitely recommend it for good, honest home-style food.
Day 7: Seyðisfjörður to Akureyri
The drive to Akureyri reinforced just how sparsely populated this country is.
The landscape changed dramatically from the steep mountains and deep fjords peppered with tiny coastal villages to an inland route traversing dark rock and black volcanic terrain. From the bright blues of the fjords to the rusty browns and stark blacks of a lookalike lunar landscape. It reminded me of the eeriness we felt on our way up to the Hekla volcano a few days earlier.
I had done a lot less planning and research for this part of the trip but generally following other travellers is a good guide! We didn’t see many buses in this area like you do around the Golden Circle but the closer you get to Lake Myvatn the busier the roads get.
Dettifoss, hailed as the most powerful waterfall in Europe, is in this northeast neck of the woods. The catch is it’s 26 kilometres off the Ring Road along a gravel road. We saw one car with a flat tyre.
There are two entry points to Dettifoss, one on either side of the falls. The entry we took is considered the more adventurous approach as there’s not a dedicated track or viewing platform. You have to scramble over jagged rocks to reach it. In fact, I was pretty amazed at the lack of protective fencing at high points all throughout Iceland. That’s also part of its charm.
In all honesty, I was underwhelmed by Dettifoss. I thought other waterfalls were a lot more spectacular and much easier to access. I’m not sure the time we spent getting there was worth it. You be the judge.
What I did love is Godafoss, a beautiful waterfall right on the Ring Road, and Hverir, the geothermal area that lies at the bottom of the Námafjall mountain. It’s a bare, barren landscape with gurgling mud pools, smoking, steaming fumaroles which emit stinky sulphur gas and dusty red earth like on Mars.
Krafla is also nearby, which includes the Viti crater and a geothermal power station. I regret we missed this on our trip as it’s only seven kilometres off the Ring Road.
Just around the corner from Hverir are the Myvatn Nature Baths, a less crowded alternative to the Blue Lagoon. We dropped by for a look-see – there’s no way we were paying almost $AUD60 for a dip – and had some lunch at the restaurant instead.
From here, it’s a beautiful drive around Lake Myvatn and into Akureyri which is the second largest town in Iceland. Yet with a population of only around 18,000, it’s tiny. If you don’t have time to drive around the island, you can fly in from Reykjavik to explore this northern area of Iceland.
Where to stay in Akureyri
- We had a wonderful hosted Airbnb stay in Akureyri. It was in an artists’ residence a short stroll from town. Our host Samuel was delightful and extremely helpful.
Where to eat in Akureyri
- Samuel suggested we try Rub 23, which he says is the best restaurant in town. It was fully booked so we ended up at another of his recommendations, the Backpackers Café. The food was good, the chocolate cake enormous.
Day 8: Akureyri to Hvammstangi
On a stunning drive around the northern fjords we passed through the coastal towns of Dalvik, Ólafsfjörður and Siglufjörður, another filming location for the Icelandic series, Trapped.
There’s a seven-kilometre-long, dark, one-lane-wide tunnel to reach Siglufjörður which I found a bit unnerving when big trucks headed straight for you from the opposite direction. There are small bays throughout the tunnel where you can pull in to allow oncoming traffic to pass.
It was wonderful exploring this part of Iceland. There were hardly any other tourists here, the roads were quiet and we stumbled into the pretty little town of Hofsós where we enjoyed some deliciously sweet Icelandic pancakes at a harbourside restaurant.
It was a rude shock when we rejoined the main road, Route 1 (the Ring Road) which was teeming with traffic travelling at high speed. It was such a relief to get off again for our overnight stay in Hvammstangi.
Where to stay in Hvammstangi
- We stayed at the self-contained Hvammstangi cottages which were very small, very basic and functional. The double bed was tiny and not very comfortable. I’d try elsewhere.
Where to eat in Hvammstangi
- The best part of this area was the Geitafell restaurant, our favourite dinner in Iceland. It’s a long, slow 27-kilometre drive on a gravel road to reach the family-owned restaurant but it was a wonderful experience. You might be lucky to spot some seals along the way. It was early in the season the night we were there so the restaurant was quiet. The owner came over and chatted to us and told us how his wife had made the rhubarb cake and his daughter the Skyr cake. The seafood soup was to-die-for. Don’t miss Geitafell!
Days 9 and 10: Stykkishólmur and the Snæfellsnes Peninsula
With Stykkishólmur and the Snæfellsnes Peninsula we unwittingly saved the best till last. We absolutely loved, loved, loved this part of Iceland. It’s so incredibly beautiful and Stykkishólmur must be the prettiest village in all of Iceland.
It was the highlight of our 11-day Iceland adventure, capped off by the experience of a lifetime, hiking the Snæfellsjökull glacier. You can read all about our glacier hike here. Snæfellsjökull was immortalised in Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth and on a good day, the snow-covered volcano can be seen from Reykjavik 120 kilometres away.
Stykkishólmur and the nearby town of Grundarfjörður both featured in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. Driving around the peninsula is a wonderful tour of discovery exploring towns such as Arnarstapi, Hellnar, Hellissandur, Rif and Búðir.
From Stykkishólmur you can catch the car ferry to Flatey Island and the Westfjords. We tried so hard to fit this into our itinerary but just couldn’t make it work. Next time for sure.
For a relatively small part of the island, the Snæfellsnes Peninsula packs a real punch and I would not miss this region of Iceland for anything.
Day 11: Stykkishólmur to Keflavik
We cancelled our planned kayaking trip on the fjord off Stykkishólmur as the wind was strong and the temperature icy. Instead, we moseyed our way back to Reykjavik along route 54.
Visiting the Settlement Centre in Bogarnes was the highlight of the day. The centre has two exhibitions: one, the famous Iceland saga of Egil Skalla-Grimsson and two, the story of how Iceland was discovered by the Vikings. Each exhibition is brought to life by wonderfully crafted wooden figures and artwork, accompanied by an audio guide.
Icelanders are incredibly proud of their history and the Icelandic sagas – stories of the early years of settlement – are deeply ingrained into the Icelandic psyche and integral to who they are. It’s really worth spending some time to understand and appreciate their stories.
We spent our last night at a BnB near the airport as we had an early flight the next morning. Be warned: we arrived at the airport at about 4am and it was chockers. People everywhere. All checking into WOW air flights headed for Europe.
The verdict on our Iceland road trip
There’s a lot of getting in and out of cars on a road trip like this. Because we had a strict itinerary and had to be at a certain place each night, we didn’t have much time just to explore and wander outside of visiting the main attractions. The bad weather slows you down as well so it’s good to have a few days up your sleeve to work around that.
I wish we had a couple of more nights around Vik in the southeast and around Myvatn and Akureyri in the north. That way we could have done a few more half day hikes and explored the towns we stayed at a bit more. We generally got to our hotel at night and left the next morning, yet the towns we stayed at are interesting destinations in their own right.
It’s a cliché to say, ‘We’ll be back’ after you’ve had a fantastic holiday. But the reality is, there are so many places to visit in this world that despite best intentions, chances are you’ll never return. I’d like to think that’s not true for Iceland as I have a list of things I still want to do and see:
- The Laugavegur trek and the Highlands
- The ferry ride from Stykkishólmur to explore the Westfjords
- Skaftafell National Park and the blue ice caves
- And the Northern Lights which appear in the colder, winter months.
I’m yet to meet a person who hasn’t been totally enchanted and fallen in love with Iceland. It really does cast a spell on you.
If you need a little more inspo, you can see more of our droolworthy Iceland pics.
I’d love to hear about your experiences in the comments below. Or if you have any questions I’d be happy to help if I can.
Some useful links:
- Safe Travel Iceland http://safetravel.is/
- Icelandic Met Office, http://en.vedur.is/
- The Icelandic Road and Coastal Administration, http://www.road.is/