Drive the Iceland Ring Road

We’ve just completed our 7-day trip to Iceland! If you’re planning a vacation here for 7 or more days, we highly recommend you rent a car and drive the Ring Road (aka Route 1), a circular road around the country. Yes, it can be a bit hectic (we ended up driving almost 2,000 km with all the detours), but it’s a great way to see the highlights of the country. Many people stick to the capital, Reykjavik, and do daytrips from there, but you’d seriously be missing the best parts of Iceland. Here’s how we spent our 7 days.

For our full picture gallery click here.

Additional articles on Iceland can be found here and here.

Day 1: Snaefellsnes peninsula

We landed in Reykjavik just before midnight so we opted to stay near the airport our first night (tip: The airport is in Keflavik, a whopping 50km from Reykjavik). On our first morning, we drove north of Reykjavik to the incredibly scenic Snaefellsnes peninsula on the west coast. We visited the fishing villages on the north, Stykkisholmur (where we hiked up the small mountain Helgafell and made 3 wishes, as per tradition) and Grundarfjordur (where we took pics of the photogenic mountain, Kirkjufell). We then drove to the south coast of the peninsula, where we did the popular coastal hike from Arnarstapi to Hellnar. We overnighted at Stadarhus Countryside Guesthouse just north of Borgarnes off Route 1, which is actually a horse farm.

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Town and harbour of Stykkisholmur

 

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Kirkjufell Mountain

 

Snaefellsness Iceland
On the hike between Arnarstapi and Hellnar on the Snaefellsnes Peninsula, Western Iceland

Day 2: Drive north to Akureyri

On day two, we drove north to the second largest Icelandic town, Akureyri. We knew there were few interesting stops on the way (although the scenery is nice), so we left early to have a free afternoon to explore the cool and scenic town with a nice waterfront. You only need an afternoon to explore the town, but there are more amenities here than anywhere else outside Reykjavik, so it could be a good base for exploring the north-east of the island if not driving the entire Ring Road.  We stayed at FE Accommodations, which was comfortable although rooms can be small.

Akureyri Iceland
Main shopping street in Akureyri

Day 3: Explore Myvatn on way to Egilsstadir

On day 3, we drove east from Akureyri to Myvatn Lake, where there are several cool sights to explore. After driving around the scenic lake, we hiked up to the top of the Hverfjall crater and walked all around the rim, where we could look out onto the Dimmuborgir lava formations. We hiked around the steam fissures and bubbling mud pools at Leirhnjúkur. After much debate, we took a pass on the Myvatn Nature Baths as we still had a couple of hours drive to Egilsstadir – but if you’re looking for a Blue Lagoon alternative up north, this is it.  The downside is it costs ~$40/person to get in – like many things in Iceland, it seems the prices keep going up as more tourists come to the island.

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Climbing up the Hverfjall volcano

 

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Bubbling mud and hot pools at Leirhnjukur, Myvatn region

Day 4: Eglisstadir to Hofn

Rather than take the Ring Road, we decided to follow Route 92 and Route 96 out and then along the east coast to Hofn.  We had heard this part of the Ring Road wasn’t in great condition, and we found the smaller highway to be in great shape and very scenic. Hofn itself is a small town surrounded by amazing scenery: snow-capped mountains and the ocean.  It is big enough to have some amenities, including restaurants, hotels, and grocery stores.  There is also a great walking trail right along the waterfront, so you can stretch your legs after a long day of driving.  We stayed at the Hotel Jokull just outside of town, which was modern and comfortable, although the restaurant only had a set menu for ~$60, so you will be better off eating in Hofn.  (Tip: Supply in this area is limited so book your accommodations several months in advance!).

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East coast scenery between Egilsstadir and Hofn

 

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East coast of Iceland

 

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Waterfront in Hofn, admiring the view

Day 5: Hofn to Hvolsvollur

The highlight of this leg of the road trip was visiting the Glacier Lagoon, Jokulsarlon. The glacier is constantly breaking apart and releasing icebergs of all sizes that then drift down the lagoon and out a channel towards the ocean.  We saw multiple icebergs break apart, flip over, and crash into each other just in the hour or so we were there.  This was definitely one of the highlights of our trip. (Tip: There is no need to pay for one of the expensive boat tours of the lagoon, unless you enjoy wearing lifejackets or zodiac rides given everything can be easily seen from shore for free, and there are several trails and walks along the lagoon.)

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Glacier Lagoon

Our next stop was Skaftafell in the Vatnajokull National Park, the sight of another famous waterfall, Svartifoss, which can be reached on an easy 30-minute uphill trek from the visitor centre.  Additional hikes can continue on from there, giving great views over the national park, the mountains, and the coast. We continued on to Vik, which has little more than a gas station, then on to Hvolsvollur (1 hr drive west past Vik) where we stayed at the Hlidarbol Farm Guesthouse.

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Svartifoss (Black) waterfall

Day 6: The Golden Circle

For many people visiting Iceland but not driving the Ring Road, a tour around the Golden Circle is their only chance to see mountains, waterfalls, geysirs, and craters.  We first stopped at Kerid to walk around a volcanic crater.  While the crater itself is great for some pictures and an easy walk, we found one disappointing development – they were charging admission.  Granted it was only $4 each, but the sight provides no facilities and just gives you access to a 15 min walk around the crater. This natural attraction used to be free, so we’re worried this an indication of things to come in Iceland as they realize there is money to be made.

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Kerid volcanic crater in the Golden Circle

Our next stop was at Geysir to see the, you guessed it, geysers. Admission is still free (or voluntary at least), and you get to see the original geyser that gave all other geysers their name.  Unfortunately, it doesn’t erupt anymore, as tourists have thrown stones into it and ruined it for everyone else.  Right beside it is another geyser, Strokkur, that erupts every few minutes.

Continuing on the Golden Circle, we stopped at Gullfoss, another famous (justifiably so) waterfall for some pictures and great lamb soup at the visitor centre (tip: it actually is great, and comes with a free refill – share with a friend ;))

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Gullfoss waterfall in the Golden Circle

Our last stop was at the Thingvellir national park, where the continental plates of North America and Europe are slowly pulling apart, leaving a canyon that widening by several millimeters each year. (Tip: Unless you’re a budding geologist, if you’re short on time, you can miss this stop without too much hesitation).

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North American and European continental plates drifting apart

In Reykjavik, we stayed at Guesthouse Helga, which is outside the city centre, but rooms were spacious and it was very clean.

Day 7: Reykjavik

Finally, a day not driving.  Having a day at the beginning or end of the Ring Road is great, if you haven’t seen Reykjavik before. It’s a small city centre, but has a nice path along the waterfront and a central shopping street with plenty of shops and restaurants.  Like everywhere else in Iceland, everything is ludicrously expensive, so we generally just window-shopped.

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Reykjavik waterfront

 

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Harpa performance venue on the Reykjavik waterfront. One of the most prominent landmarks

 

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Hallgrimskirkja Church, Reykjavik

What would we do differently?

With hindsight, there are a few things we would do differently if we could replay this trip.

  1. Not bother with a full day in Reykjavik. A half-day is sufficient, and if you miss it entirely, it’s not going to be the end of the world
  2. Spend an extra day in the Myvatn region. There is so much do to here – hiking, the nature baths, waterfalls, great scenery, whale watching trips…  We didn’t get to see everything since we had several hours of driving to do on either end, and wish we could have been in the area longer.
  3. Spend an extra day on the Snaefellsness Peninsula. This region was beautiful, with plenty of hiking to do and towns to visit.  Granted, this was an extra day we just didn’t have.

 

Overall, 6-7 days is a very short amount of time to see Iceland, but we’re glad we did the Ring Road rather than followed other people’s suggestions to just do daytrips from a couple of bases.  Some of the most beautiful, and least crowded, parts of the island are not a short drive from Reykjavik or Akureyri.  If we had an extra day or two, it would have been perfect, but such is life!

 

4 More Tips for Travelling to Iceland

  1. Cost saving – Pack some staples and snacks like tea, protein bars, and granola bars. This will come in handy along the road. Also bring a refillable water bottle and refill anywhere in the country – bottled water is very expensive. The most affordable food by far if you plan to eat out is hot dogs at the gas station restaurants. You can go to the Bonus or Netto grocery stores and stock up on skyr (yogurt-like cheese that comes in several flavors) for a cheap and healthy snack.
  2. Entertainment – Bring your ipod and a car cable so you can listen to tunes on your road trip. While radio stations are good in the capital, reception is extremely dodgy through most of the country. It also wouldn’t hurt to download some TV shows or movies on your laptop as we found we didn’t get very many stations where we stayed.
  3. Driving – Don’t drive like a moron in Iceland. Seriously. It’s unbelievable how many people we saw stopping their vehicles on a highway, not fully pulled over – so they could take pictures. If you wouldn’t do it on a highway at home, don’t do it here.
  4. Gas stations – Only pull over for gas at stations that have a store. North American credit cards don’t work at any gas station pumps in the country so you’ll have to run into the store first to authorize your card and second to pay.

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