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BY KERRI McCONNEL
Iceland itinerary 8 days
Do you love landscapes that are ever-changing? How about those that are incredibly contrasting? Can you imagine being able to see amazing waterfalls one minute and the next age-old glaciers that have made their way down towards sea level?
How about lava-like rocky formations and crystal clear streams? Throw in some thermal steam rising up into the air from underground caverns and you’ll start to get a sense of what it’s like to be on a road trip in Iceland.
Iceland has fast become one of the world’s great tourist destinations. People all over the world are taking the opportunity to get a cheap flight from airlines taking advantage of this demand and interest.
I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again. Driving is one of the best ways to see Iceland. Fortunately, it’s also easy enough to drive here, although you might want to check out these tips for how to drive in Iceland. Iceland is made for road tripping, and for us, we wouldn’t have wanted to do it any other way.
This is an outline of our Iceland self-drive itinerary in a campervan with some of the key locations included. Like always though, road trips are for doing it at your own pace, in your own style. These are just suggestions of some of the great places we found along the way, and a couple of places that you definitely shouldn’t miss.
Itinerary – main destinations
Check out some of our highlights in the video below
Useful things to know before your road trip
Which way should you drive on a road trip around Iceland?
This is a question we pondered and researched for quite some time. Having now driven the Iceland Ring Road, we can categorically say that it makes no difference whatsoever whether you drive in a clockwise or anti-clockwise manner.
When planning your route, you may like to think of the following:
- If you are hiring a vehicle, the best place to pickup and drop off is Reykjavik. Vehicles may be brought across on a ferry into Seydisfjordur from Denmark or the Faroe Islands, but this wouldn’t be the norm for most visitors to Iceland.
- There are a lot of places to see and stop at in the south and towards the east coast. Doing these early in your road trip could be an advantage as opposed to the end of the road trip when you may be feeling more tired.
- Check the weather. You might have mapped out a plan to head west first, but the weather forecast might make heading east first a better option.
- I’ve seen some suggestion that heading anti-clockwise gives the passenger a better view. Everyone gets a “better view” in Iceland as the landscapes are visible everywhere you look.
I can’t stress enough the need to be well prepared for any road trip in Iceland. Read this comprehensive guide first to ensure you have everything covered off.
How many days do you need to do a Ring Road trip in Iceland?
The best answer is “as many as you can”! The more time you have, the greater the opportunity to take it more slowly. Iceland is full of fjords and other hidden spots that you really need time to drive out to all the ends of the peninsulas. There’s also the interior of the country to traverse.
However, most people don’t have months to do all of this and some parts of the country are only accessible by road during certain times of the year.
As a result, most visitors to Iceland will do the Ring Road road trip. If this is all you will ever do in Iceland, it’s still worth making the effort.
I would say 10-12 days would be perfect for a short road trip. This would bring down the distance required to be travelled each day. We weren’t able to see the Westfjords during our eight-day trip but you could definitely get it done in ten days. Of course, if we had driven more and stayed in some areas for a lesser amount of time, we could have included it. We just didn’t want to rush.
What is the best season to do a road trip in Iceland?
Summer of course, or the shoulder seasons just around it. I say this because it is when there is plenty of daylight and the weather is better. This makes it easier to drive, easier to see all the sights and you can spread your time in the outdoors across a broader time period. Driving in winter would be more treacherous and it’s dark all the time, so it’s more difficult to see. Each to their own, but this would always be our choice.
Is hiring a campervan expensive in Iceland?
Yes, it is. More expensive than anywhere else we’ve ever hired from before. But, this is Iceland and everything is expensive! We were able to save money by travelling this way and foregoing hotels and restaurant meals. The food isn’t that exciting in Iceland (outside of the capital of Reykjavik) so I wasn’t keen to pay stupid money for things we could cook better in our camper.
As you will see from the running costs at the bottom of this article, the vehicle was economical and didn’t cost much more than the initial hire cost to run.
We got a really good rental deal at Car Rentals in Iceland, but there are plenty of other vehicle hire companies around.
Do you need to organise the road trip?
Whether you have every route planned out before you arrive or whether you plan along the way will depend on your personal style and risk preferences. We planned out some key locations in advance, more so to plan our overnight location. It also helped us to sanity check whether we could do the Ring Road, without rushing, in eight days.
Each day, however, we just went wherever we wanted to go, so there was plenty of freedom.
Day 1 Iceland road trip
Reykjavik to Seljalandsfoss (via the Golden Circle) – South Coast
In a country packed full of incredible places to see, the Golden Circle is probably the most well known and definitely some of the most visited locations. It would be difficult to find a tour operator who wouldn’t include the Golden Circle as part of their own itinerary.
Located roughly 1.5 hours from Reykjavik, the Golden Circle includes the Thingvellir National Park, the Gullfoss waterfall and the Geysir. Being so close to Reykjavik means you could consider doing this at the end of your road trip, before heading back into the city. It’s a very easy drive.
We chose to do it first because we were so excited to see a big Icelandic waterfall and the geysers.
Easily one of the most popular waterfalls in Iceland, Gullfoss is nothing short of spectacular. Flowing along the Hvítá river directly from the Langjökull glacier, it delivers its full force over two stages. The first, an 11-metre drop is striking enough, but it is the larger 21-metre fall where the powerful water shows off the most. With the water pounding into the canyon below, it provides quite a scene.
Ever since I visited Auckland in New Zealand many years ago, I’ve been fascinated by thermal activity, even though the smell of the sulphur is usually quite noxious. Here at the geysirs, I didn’t feel that the smell was overpowering at all, which is saying something given I have an allergy to it.
Whilst Geysir is another of the places visitors love to see, it is famous for having given the name geysir to such natural events all around the world. Geysir is mostly inactive now, however, the nearby Strokkur and Litli-Strokkur make up for this lack of action, putting on a constant display. Every ten minutes or so, boiling hot water shoots up into the air.
Whilst the Golden Circle is very touristic, it’s a part of Iceland that no-one should miss.
Day 2 Iceland road trip
Seljalandsfoss to Jökulsárlón – South Coast
The Seljalandsfoss waterfall is spectacular. It was here where I first realised how accessible the waterfalls in Iceland were. There’s no need to go hiking to see this giant 60-metre waterfall. It is visible from the Ring Road and the side of the car parks at the front gives an indication of how many people come to see it.
Here, you can walk behind the waterfall and experience the full force of the might of the water. You’ll get very wet here, very fast, so it’s a good idea to wear a waterproof jacket.
It’s timely to note that there are waterfalls everywhere in Iceland and unless you are here for quite some time, it won’t be possible to see them all. Whilst this one is close to the road, others require more of a drive or a hike to get to them. Others require 4WD vehicles to reach them, even in summer.
A little further up the road is Skógafoss, another 60-metre waterfall. There are steps that lead up to the top of the gorge, providing a different perspective of the waterfall from above. The force of water in these falls is absolutely mind-blowing.
Showing us that there is a different type of scenery at every turn, we saw more waterfalls, more glaciers and so much magical countryside. One minute it rains like a one-in-a-thousand-year storm, and the next minute it’s all blue skies and fluffy white clouds.
As we left the black sands of Reynisfjara and kept driving, we came across a sign indicating a glacier was nearby. It was also at this point I felt like a kid going to a theme park for the first time. There’s so much to do but you eagerly want to get on that first ride for fear of missing out.
I felt like this all the time in Iceland. Every time I saw something amazing, I wanted to stop the car and get out to look at it. It didn’t take too long to realise there is quite literally a waterfall at every turn, a glacier that you can get up close to and thermal activity popping up around the land that surrounds you.
Still, this was my first glacier here. I had no idea what was coming up later in the day, so we detoured off the Ring Road and went in to see the Sólheimajökull Glacier.
The great thing about the glaciers here is that the “tongues” have crept so far down the mountains that accessibility to them all is very simple. It allows for a close-up of these incredible natural wonders, without having to go on a tour, put on crampons to go walking on them, or even spend a lot of money. Of course, doing those activities are great, but if you can’t afford it or simply don’t have the time or inclination, glacier watching can still be done.
A quick detour off the Ring Road near Skatafell brought us to the base of the Sólheimajökull tongue.
Reynisfjara Beach is a black sand beach located near the southern town of Vik. We arrived here on an angry, moody grey-sky day with the black sand complementing it perfectly. More rock than sand, the beach was made following the flowing of lava into the ocean. When the heat of the lava met the cold of the ocean, it was turned instantly into small pebbles.
The other string to this beach’s bow are the vertical basalt columns, sitting on the water’s edge. The craggy shoreline, full of the remnants of previous volcanic eruption gives visitors plenty to explore.
This beach is also home to what are termed “sneaker waves”. So named because they can sneak up on you, the ocean produces random waves, outside of the usual flow. They have been known to drag many an unsuspecting (or deliberately stupid) person out into the water. Unfortunately, the threat is real with several tourists having lost their lives here in recent years. The solution is to never turn your back on the waves and don’t treat it like an adrenaline activity.
We stopped in as many small villages along the way as we could. There’s not much to them but it’s good to be able to spend some money in them if you can. Nearby this small town was a “mini Gulfoss”, proving there are waterfalls everywhere.
The changing landscapes keep you occupied as you are driving and it is along this stretch that we really notice some extreme contrasts. Here flat, black plains of nothing extend as far as the eye can see in both directions. There is no life. Trees are virtually non-existent all over Iceland.
Then we hit the glacier areas big time! At every turn, they are everywhere. We’ve reached the area of the Vatnajökull glacier, where its tongues reach down almost in every direction, down towards the ocean. It is just breathtaking.
Jökulsárlón blew us away. With the ice-blue icebergs floating in a lagoon in front of an enormous glacier, sliding ever so slowly down into the water, I couldn’t believe my eyes. Doubling our excitement was the sight of large pieces of ice breaking off the icebergs and being pushed out to sea by an aggressive current. To see an ocean with icebergs bobbing around it in was just magnificent.
Across from the Jökulsárlón lagoon lies Diamond Beach, so named because the pieces of ice that have broken off the icebergs litter the black sands. This is a fantastic location to watch the strong current bring the ice out from the lagoon and into the ocean.
Day 3 Iceland road trip
Jökulsárlón to Seydisfjordur – East Coast
This is one of the more well-known glaciers. Since it is also the starting point for many tours, the area gets really busy. However, it is yet another example of how you can view a glacier by yourself with walking tracks taking you up to the bottom of the tongue.
As we approached Höfn the rough Atlantic coast gives way to rolling green flats. A very small fishing town but actually one of the largest and worthy of a stop if you have the time. There are also a few good restaurants here.
Djúpivogur is also another small fishing village that is great for poking around in.
Fellabær (on Lake Lagarfljót)
There is a never-ending supply of great locations to stop and have a break or a bite to eat. Lake Lagarfljót has bridges at both ends allowing for a beautiful drive around it. For us, it was a peaceful spot for pull up for a lunch break.
Despite having to drive over a mountain that was in a complete white-out, even in summer, the town of Seydisfjordur is worth the diversion. Most people would continue along the Ring Road, bypassing the town. As the entry point for ferries from Europe, there’s a little more activity here than some of the other small towns you’ll see. There’s also a beautiful church and a great pub. The houses here are all very pretty too.
Day 4 Iceland road trip
Seydisfjordur to Akureyri – North Coast
Today was the largest day of driving for us, but the kilometres were still quite small. Smaller than we are used to anyway. Even if you are not, at 340 km it’s not a huge amount of driving time. It was a great day for watching the changing landscape and to just take it all in.
Along the way, we detoured into Dettifoss, another must see if you are up in the north. Dettifoss is a magnificent waterfall in a canyon and the most powerful in Europe. The waterfall can be accessed from the eastern and western side. The best access is on the western side and the road is also better too. The eastern road is gravel.
This is a massive geothermal area and this one was very stinky! I spent the whole time with a scarf over my face to keep the fumes out. It’s a great area to experience all manner of activity, especially boiling mud and thermal steam.
My favourite city in all of Iceland, by far. The largest town outside of Reykjavik, it’s the heart of northern Iceland and home to some of the most beautiful landscapes and buildings. There’s a lot of history here also and plenty of self-guided walks to help you learn all about it.
Day 5 Iceland road trip
Akureyri to Hvammstangi – North Coast
Akureyri is worth spending as much time as you can allow. Having arrived the day before, we decided to make the most of this beautiful town, before spending the rest of the day driving. It was a public holiday today so driving was really the best option.
Hvammstangi to Hvalfjarðarvegur – West Coast
Although you can be lucky to see seals on any of the Icelandic coastlines, one of the best viewing opportunities is on the Vatnes Peninsula, north of Hvammstangi. If you can time your visit for low tide, you will have a much greater opportunity to spot some furry seals.
This part of Iceland is full of beautiful lighthouses. In Arkanes, they have not one but two. One is still in operation, and the other one is one of the oldest concrete lighthouses in Iceland. We went for a walk up the largest one to get a view out over the ocean.
Day 7 Iceland road trip
Hvalfjarðarvegur to Grindavik – West Coast
We spent the day in the Reykjanes Peninsula, an area full of thermal activity, power plants, rugged coastlines, rocky beaches and lava landscapes. In particular, we were interested to spend some time in the Reykjanes Geopark observing and learning more about nature’s work.
We also crossed the bridge that connects the European and North American continents. This area lies on one of the world’s major boundaries. Year by year, these two tectonic plates move slightly further away from each other.
A beautiful little village with an even better lighthouse. There’s also a nice restaurant and cafe here, with an outdoor deck. Underneath the restaurant, there is also a museum.
Day 8 Iceland road trip
Grindavik to Reykjavik – West Coast
We deliberately stayed in Grindavik to be close to Reykjavik in order to get the vehicle back to the depot in time and to make our way to the airport. It’s always been a deliberate action on our part to be close to the final destination on the evening before, to exclude as many things that might occur outside of our control as possible. eg traffic jams.
It also means we are relaxed and calm upon our return and seems to just make the whole hiring process much easier. We also had a booking for the first opening time at the Blue Lagoon for 7 am. Our location was only a few minutes down the road.
Breakdown of cost and distance travelled
How to get to Iceland
For most people, the best way to get to Iceland is to fly. There are various options for doing so and there are many easy connections from European and North American airports. We got a cheap flight from London directly into Keflavik Airport.
Where to stay
There are many hotels in Reykjavik to use as a base prior to commencing your road trip. We chose to stay at a self-contained apartment. Check out the reviews and photos for places to stay in Reykjavik on TripAdvisor.
These tiny fishing villages are usually missed when visitors only come to see the main highlights of Iceland. Follow our itinerary around the east coast of Iceland for some beautiful locations. The north of Iceland has a striking contrast of incredible waterfalls and geo-thermal landscapes. Visit Akureyri, Iceland's second largest city and one of the prettiest you will find here.
East fjords Iceland - driving the Ring Road from Jökulsárlón to Seyðisfjörður
North Iceland highlights - The natural wonders of Dettifoss Falls and Lake Mývatn
Visit Akureyri - Self-guided walking tours in Iceland's second largest city
These tiny fishing villages are usually missed when visitors only come to see the main highlights of Iceland. Follow our itinerary around the east coast of Iceland for some beautiful locations.
The north of Iceland has a striking contrast of incredible waterfalls and geo-thermal landscapes.
Visit Akureyri, Iceland's second largest city and one of the prettiest you will find here.
Kerri now travels regularly with her husband, Stirling, where eating great food, drinking quality beer and wine, and cooking international foods are integral to their adventures.