DRIVING THE RING ROAD IN ICELAND: how to plan a two week itinerary

Driving the Ring Road in Iceland: Planning your road trip

Arguably the worlds best road trip: driving the Ring Road in Iceland. The Iceland ring road is, as the name suggests, a circular road officially known as ‘route 1’. The 1332km (827 mile) road takes you on a lap of the island offering spectacular views of lava fields, volcanoes, geysirs, icebergs and glaciers. You’d be hard pressed to find a country more picturesque and driving the ring road in Iceland showcases the spectacular landscape beautifully.

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Driving the Ring Road in Iceland

If you’re planning on driving the ring road in Iceland, your first decision is direction: clock wise or anti clockwise. There’s no right or wrong here. Ultimately we elected to go clockwise. We were heading into Autumn and the south stays warmer just a little longer.

If you have a trip to Iceland planned you may also be interested in Plan a trip to Iceland: everything you need to know for the ultimate trip to Iceland.

Driving the Ring Road in Iceland: How long does it take?

Of course Iceland is a destination where more time will always be rewarded. However, I recommend a minimum of ten days driving the ring road in Iceland. If you are driving the ring road in Iceland with children, consider a longer trip if you can spare the time. Iceland offers so many experiences that will appeal kids of all ages and long days spent in the car may test the patience of younger travellers. Travellers visiting Iceland with children may also be interested in Iceland with kids and Travel with kids.

Road trip Iceland Atlas Introspective

The following itinerary should suit solo travellers, friends, couples and families, alike. However, those driving the ring road in Iceland without children may be interested in the more adventurous activities on offer: multi-day hikes, visit to the highlands or guided tours on glaciers.

Driving the Ring Road in Iceland: Pre-book or wing it?

Travellers driving the ring road in Iceland in the off-season may be able to chance an open schedule. But I wouldn’t risk it in the Summer. During the high season, most guesthouses run at full capacity and the distances between villages can be great. Regardless of when you are driving the ring road in Iceland it’s worth booking a hire car beforehand. It’s cheaper to pre-book and there’s the added convenience of collecting a car at the airport on arrival.

Read on for an overview of our 13 day itinerary driving the ring road in Iceland, our ‘must see’ sites and where we stayed.

Driving the Ring Road in Iceland

Day 1: Reykjavík, Southwest Iceland

Car Hire

Journey to the Centre of the earth Atlas Introspective

Fly to Reykjavík, collect hire car. You can read more about car hire in Plan a trip to Iceland.

We booked ahead with Blue Car Rental. Overall, I was happy with the company, however we did get a flat tyre whilst on the road which was the result of a leak in a previous repair. Unfortunately, our policy didn’t cover repairs to tyres which was disappointing, but it clearly stated in the contract and wasn’t an expensive repair job.

So on that note, it’s worth checking the spare tyre before you leave Reykjavík, and keep an eye on the overall condition of your car. It’s better to pick up on any issues early and when you’re in one of the bigger towns. Blue Car Rental have an office conveniently located near the international airport, just a few minutes walk from the arrivals gate. Pick up your car at the airport if you can to save the cost and inconvenience of catching public transport or a taxi to town (it’s about a 45 minute drive).

Our hire car for the trip was a Kia Ceed sportswagon (manual/ diesel). The vehicle came with all the mod-cons (seat warmers, cd player, usb ports) and was suited to the conditions driving the ring road in Iceland. It had ample boot space which easily fit our luggage: two suitcases, stroller, portable cot and a few bags of groceries.

Laugabjarg Guesthouse

After renting our car we checked into the Laugabjarg Guesthousefor two nights, then we explored Reykjavík.

Reykjavík

Viking art sculpture Reykjavik Atlas Introspective

My first meal in Reykjavík was a culinary highlight and set a high bar. The Bunk Bar, is a hostel, bar & cafe, serving local street food. I had the ‘mussel salad’ with a local beer. The mussels were fresh served with dressing as rich and salty as the North Atlantic.

We spent the rest of day browsing shops and taking a stroll along the seaside promenade. Reykjavík is a small city by European standards and is easily explored on foot. Allow plenty of time to wander, people watch and absorb the cities unique style.

Day Two Golden Circle, Southwest Iceland

Those planning on driving the ring road in Iceland are urged not to overlook the ‘Golden Circle’ easily completed in a day trip. Reykjavík is the perfect base to drive the ‘Golden Circle’, which is about 300km and takes between 4-6 hours. There are many tours of the ‘Golden Circle’ for those not keen on driving.

Geysir 2 Atlas Introspective

Álafoss and Lopapeysa

As you leave Reykjavík stop at Álafoss. The best Icelandic souvenir is a locally-made Lopapeysa. You can read more about buying Icelandic sweaters in Plan a trip to Iceland. I purchased a lopapeysa at Álafoss as they had a great range, were cheaper than most tourist boutiques and all garments were handmade by locals. The turnoff to Álafoss is on the way to the Golden Circle and well sign-posted.

The Golden Circle

The three main stops on the Golden Circle are Þingvellir, Geysir and Gulfoss waterfall. Þingvellir is the site of Iceland’s first parliament. It’s also the location of the divergent margin of the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. As you drive through the rift valley spare a thought for those responsible for road maintenance.

The Geysir region is not the only place in Iceland to view such a natural wonder, but it is the location of the original geysir for which all others were named. This geysir erupts every 5-10 minutes so there’s no excuse not to get the perfect shot.

Of the three sites, Gulfoss (Golden Falls) was the most spectacular. Gulfoss is a double cascading waterfall and if you’re lucky the sunlight hits the mist just right to create a rainbow halo.

Return to Reykjavík

After Gulfoss waterfall drive down route 35 which passes through Reykholt and then rejoins the ring road just outside of Selfoss. Simply follow the ring road back to Reykjavík.

JF selfie Atlas Introspective

The Laundromat Cafe is a great spot to stop for a meal and pop on a load. The Laundromat is located downstairs, so put the washing on then take a seat upstairs to watch the world go by with a cold beer.

Day Three The Iceland Ring Road: Snæfellsnes Peninsula, West Iceland

We officially started driving the ring road in Iceland on day 3. The ring road took us to the Snæfellsnes Peninsula in West Iceland. This region was made famous as the setting in Jules Verne’s novel ‘Journey to the Centre of the Earth’. We couldn’t resist extending the drive to include a lap of the peninsula.

Our lodging for the night was a cottage overlooking the sea: Guesthouse Hof. The isolated cabins were a welcome sight after two days in the city and we enjoyed a sundowner in the outdoors while our son collected rocks.

Grundarfjörður and Stykkishólmur

If I’d had more time I would’ve liked to spend more time in Grundarfjörður, a fishing town wedged between the mountains and the sea. Stykkishólmur would make a good place to stop for lunch but if you’re just passing through be sure to call into the Bonus supermarket to stock up on food. No visit to the region would be complete without seeing Snæfellsjökull. Discover for yourself if this is the gateway to the centre of the earth.

“Descend, bold traveller, into the crater of the jökull of Snæfell, which the shadow of Scartaris touches before the Kalends of July, and you will attain the centre of the earth. I did it”

Jules Verne, Journey to the centre of the earth
Journey to the Centre of the earth Atlas Introspective

Day Four Akureyri, North Iceland

Day 4 involved driving 4-5 hours driving the ring road in Iceland with little to stop and see along the way. We rolled into Akureyri late afternoon, picked up some supplies for dinner and checked into our accommodation. We booked The Hall Holiday home which had great views of the town and the airstrip which runs straight through the middle of the fjord. It was a large property (I believe it sleeps 12) and was a bit wasted on our small party of three but it was a great house with lots of extra touches: bbq, jacuzzi and double shower. The owner doesn’t live on site, so make contact before arrival to arrange a handover.

Day Five Mývatn, North Iceland

Akureyri

Akureyri is Iceland’s second city. We spent an hour shopping in town and discovered a wide selection of Icelandic children’s stories in many languages which made delightful gifts for friends back home.

Mývatn

My husband is a Geophysicist so I knew that Mývatn, was going to hold a special fascination for him. With this in mind I allocated a two night stopover in this highly volcanic region. But one night is fine for those on a tight schedule. We stayed at Vogafjós Guesthouse, cottages on a local farm near Lake Mývatn. Even if you are staying elsewhere, I suggest stopping for a meal at ‘The Cowshed’. They serve a traditional Icelandic hlaðborð (Smörgåsbord) for breakfast, along with milk fresh from the cows and local produce. Lunch and dinner is also on offer and is slightly more expensive than you’ll find in most cafe’s but it’s worth it.

Waterfall selfie small Atlas Introspective

Dettifoss waterfall

That afternoon we headed out to one of the most visually striking waterfalls we’d see while driving the ring road in Iceland: Dettifoss waterfall. You may recognise it from the opening sequence in the film ‘Prometheus’. Dettifoss, like many sites in Iceland doesn’t have fences, boundaries lines or warning signs to spoil the view. You can get pretty close to the action & secure some amazing photos. But remember that your safety is a personal responsibility.

We stopped for dinner at Gamli Bistro which was quite popular among other visitors. Reindeer burgers were the evening special but I went with lamb soup- a traditional Icelandic cuisine. While you’re in Mývatn be sure to try the Geysir bread or Rúgbrauð, baked underground for 24 hours by the geothermal heat.

Day 6 Mývatn, North Iceland

The Mývatn region is geologically fascinating. Expect to see bubbling mud pots, tephra bombs, volcanic craters and fumaroles that scent the air with that (now familiar) waft of egg. And surrounding it all: rivers of solidified black lava that looks like the surface of another planet.

Lava field Geysir Atlas Introspective

Hverfell Tephra Ring

The morning started with a brisk walk up the Hverfell tephra ring. At the summit you can take in a wide view of the area. From here either continue on foot to Dimmuborgir or take a short drive to see the ‘Dark Castles’. Follow nature paths which lead you through an amazing lava field which has formed natural windows and caves. In September the Autumnal foliage lit the park up in the most beautiful burnt orange. But if you visit in late November/ December keep a lookout for The Yule Lads the Icelandic folk people of Christmas.

Hverir

Iceland’s geothermal activity is displayed in all it’s glory at Hverir. Discover mudpots, fumaroles and cracks in the earth that steam like a kettle. There are roped off areas to guide you to the safest path. Watch your step- the ground will literally melt the soles of your boots.

“The communities and countries best at using energy to optimize a microclimate for human life are also the ones whose people have the longest average lifespans. Canada, Sweden, and Iceland – places with inhospitable winter weather – are frontrunners in sustaining human health and life”

Christ Hadfield

To eat on a budget while driving the ring road in Iceland, the cheapest meals are service station hot dogs and Margherita pizza. Not the healthiest diet but there are times when you must consider the girth of your midline or your wallet. Diffuse the guilt with plans to hike tomorrow. Daddi’s Pizza, a short walk from the Vogafjós cottages, serve tasty, budget friendly pizzas and draws tourists and locals, alike.

The Aurora Borealis

Hours later we caught our first green flicker in the night sky: the Northern Lights. I had wanted to see the Aurora Borealis my whole life and although September is not the most reliable time of year to see it, we were in luck. Travellers from all over the world stumbled out of their cottages into the sharp cold; Lopapeysa over pajamas, smiling as curtains of green lit up the sky.

Aurora Borealis Atlas Introspective

Day 7 Seyðisfjörður, East Iceland

Movie buffs will be familiar with the long-boarding scene from ‘The Secret Life of Walter Mitty’. It was shot on the winding road that leads to Seyðisfjörður and was definitely worthy of the big screen. Waterfalls, ice caps and that view as you descend the mountain on hairpin bends.

Seyðisfjörður

If I had the opportunity to do my trip over, I would have spent another day in Seyðisfjörður. An artistic and unassuming village with colourful cottages set on a tranquil fjord. A couple of the restaurants only served food during the Summer. So perhaps this town that’s in its element during the warmer months. But if, like me, off-season travel is more your thing take a walk around the town, admire the work of the local artisans and stop in for lunch at the Skaftfell bar/bistro. Some places call for a ‘to do list of must-see’s, others are best enjoyed with a leisurely walk. This is one of them.

Egilsstaðir

We headed out of town to spend the night at Ekra Cottages, 30km north of Egilsstaðir. There are only two cottages on the family farm, and so you get a taste of the isolation rural Icelanders experience. The hosts were fantastic and the two bedroom cottage was the best we stayed at during our stay in Iceland. Modern, cosy and with plenty of ammenities.

Hiking to glacier Iceland Atlas Introspective

Day 8 Höfn and Stafafell, Southeast Iceland

Höfn & langoustine

After lunch we headed to Stafafell Cottages which was conveniently located right off the Iceland ring road. Not the most modern cottage we’d stayed at. But a warm and dry place to rest your head.

Day 9 Skálafell and Jökulsárlóna, Southeast Iceland

I had made reservations for Guesthouse Skálafell, not realising how close it was to Stafafell Cottages (around a 30minute drive). In retrospect I probably would recommend Guesthouse Skálafell over the Stafafell Cottages. The cottages are modern, they offer breakfast and there are hiking trails to explore throughout the farm.

After days of only glimpsing glaciers we were thrilled to discover a hiking trail that led directly to a glacier. We set off expecting a one hour and a half round trip. But at the summit of the mountain, glacier just within sight, the weather changed. Despite reading about the unpredictability of Icelandic weather, it still takes you by surprise. Lesson learned: get advice from locals before heading out alone, check the weather and prepare for dramatic weather changes.

Jökulsárlóna

After a shaky descent we piled into the car to visit Jökulsárlóna. The Iceland ring road literally takes you over the glacial lake, filled with icebergs that are the most incredible blue. You can view the beauties either from the left or right of the bridge. I loved walking next to the icebergs on the volcanic beach. Nothing sets off the blue of the ice more than the backdrop of black sand. Allow a few hours here, you’ll want to take your time.

Icebergs in ocean Iceland Atlas Introspective

Day 10 Skaftafell National Park & Úthlíð, Southeast & Southwest Iceland

Vatnajökul glacier

After days of chasing glaciers, we finally got our wish. Off the Iceland ring road, just before Skaftafell National Park we visited the Vatnajökul glacier. Take the short drive down a gravel track to a hiking trail that takes you close enough to the glacier to hear the cracking, dripping and groaning ice.

A plaque as you enter memorialises two missing German tourists and serves as a warning to the dangers posed if you choose to step on the ice. If the call of the wild beckons you further, book a tour with a knowledgeable guide.

Skaftafell National Park

Further along the Iceland ring road is the entrance to Skaftafell National Park. You could easily spend a day or two here exploring the hiking trails or taking a tour. We chose to hike to Svartifoss, the highlight of the national park. Svartifoss features black columnar basalt, a rare rock formation of hexagonal pillars. This is an easy hike along an established trail and is about an hour and a half round trip.

Waterfall Iceland Atlas Introspective

Úthlíð

After our hike we had a long drive ahead of us due to a booking error. If you are following my itinerary I suggest you aim to stop in Vík as this sets a better pace. Unfortunately we had to press on to Úthlíð, 45minutes outside of Selfoss. The staff at Úthlíð were very hospitable, and the cabin was lovely.

Day 11 Selfoss, Southwest Iceland

After covering so much ground the previous day, the long stretches of driving were behind us. Úthlíð cottages were fully booked and so we headed to Vatnsholt Bed and Breakfast, another lodging outside Selfoss. The staff were kind enough to upgrade us to a larger room to accommodate our sons cot, free of charge. Incidentally if you are staying in Selfoss this is a great base to revisit the Golden Circle.

Day 12 Reykjavík, Southwest Iceland

The trip was drawing to a close and we began preparations to return home. Most Icelandic service stations have free car washes so give your car a wash before returning it to avoid a cleaning fee. You can also submit your VAT receipts for a refund. You can read more about VAT refunds in Plan a trip to Iceland. We spent our last night at the Capital-Inn as it was close to the airport and we had an early flight the following day. If you don’t mind sharing a bathroom, the rooms were enormous and very comfortable.

Day 13 Farewell to the Iceland Ring Road

Return hire car and head home. Finally, don’t forget to post your VAT refund receipts after clearing customs as evidence of leaving the country.

*******

Fiona Iceland Atlas Introspective

A thirteen day itinerary offers a comfortable pace for driving the ring road in Iceland. An amazing destination for a road trip, and a country I can’t wait to return to.

Incidentally, you may notice that I didn’t include a visit to the Blue Lagoon. Two words: Pube Lagoon. Google it if you must. But it was enough to put me off.

You may also be interested in Plan a trip to Iceland and Iceland with Kids.

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