Iceland road trip: The ultimate Iceland self-drive itinerary

With its abundance of natural phenomena, picturesque surroundings, ever-changing scenery, and just as many lovely goats and sheep as wonderful people, Iceland really is a must-visit destination. If you want to bear witness to the very best of what Iceland has to offer, you’re better off getting a rental car and driving a full circle of the island rather than setting your sights on just one place. Synonymous with epic road trip vibes, Iceland’s Ring Road loops the nation in a full circle around the nation’s uninhabited highlands, making it a must-do road trip for travellers in search of breath-taking scenery. Follow the famous Ring Road, and you’ll bump into most of Iceland’s best-known attractions, which include the waterfalls of Skógafoss and Seljalandsfoss, the dramatic cliffs of Dyrhólaey, and the Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon. Thanks to the Ring Road, navigating the natural wilderness of Iceland is easy, even in the face of unstable weather conditions and freezing temperatures. Best of all, you can travel around the Ring Road at your own pace, setting aside as much time as you like to soak up Iceland’s mind-blowing natural attractions. In this guide, we detail some top tips for those planning on completing a full circle of the Ring Road or just a part of it.

Tailor Made Journey

Tailor-Made Iceland: Explore the Land of Fire & Ice

Discover a land of black-sand beaches, cascading waterfalls and lava-carved moonscapes as you track whales off the coast of Reykjavik, witness the eruption of Strokkur geyser, delve into the heart of Langjokull glacier and soak in the therapeutic Blue Lagoon.

Landmannalaugar, Iceland | Photo: Jon Flobrant

The epic Iceland road trip: The Ring Road

Iceland’s Ring Road – also known as Route 1 or Þjóðvegur 1 – promises travellers the trip of a lifetime. At 1,328 kilometres in length, the Ring Road is the longest road in Iceland, connecting all the nation’s major cities and towns. It also passes by, or at least gets very close to, many of the island’s most famous natural wonders, including Lake Mývatn and its lunar landscapes, the Goðafoss waterfalls, the magical Snæfellsnes Peninsula, and the Þingvellir National Park.

Our full-circle Iceland road trip takes you on an unforgettable adventure along the extended ring road, allowing you to see the beautiful west fjords region as well as places that include the village of Vík, the spectacular Mývatn area, and the charming town of Akureyri. You’ll also take in views of black sand beaches, towering volcanoes, incredible icebergs, otherworldly rock formations, and so much more.

The Ring Road itself starts and ends in Iceland’s capital, Reykjavik, and circumnavigates the island near the coast. Despite being a main road route, the Ring Road – in most sections – consists of just two lanes, sometimes even one when crossing bridges. If you follow our Iceland road trip itinerary, you’ll be able to spend time in many fantastic destinations to take part in activities such as whale watching, ice-caving, mountaineering and hiking. Depending on the time of year – and if you’re lucky – you might also spot the magical Northern Lights. We’ll also suggest a few detours that take you to attractions further inland.

Photo: Rory Hennessey

Photo: Matthew Brodeur

How long is the Ring Road in Iceland?

In total, the Ring Road in Iceland covers a distance of 1,328 kilometres or 825 miles. To put that into perspective, Iceland’s Ring Road is the equivalent length of the route from Penzance on the southwest coast of England to John o’Groats in the far north of Scotland. Those from across the pond might better picture the distance of Iceland’s Ring Road as the same as the distance from Charlotte in North Carolina to Boston in Massachusetts.

Due to the Ring Road’s length, we recommend setting aside at least seven days to complete your Iceland road trip. Some bus tours complete the drive in about a week, so you might want to extend your stay if you want to take detours, discover certain places in more detail, or explore some of the more remote areas. Bear in mind that unpredictable snowstorms are far from rare and will likely force you to take a break from driving. Also, the speed limit on most sections of the Ring Road is 55 mph, or 90 kmh. If you’re caught speeding, you may face a hefty fine, but why would you want to rush this spectacular road trip anyway? Given that you’ll frequently be stopping and starting as well as spending the night in many places, you’ll probably want to dedicate ten days to your Iceland road trip, with seven of those days reserved for driving.

Photo: Luke Stackpoole

Photo: Bechir Kaddech

Best time to drive the Ring Road in Iceland

The majority of visitors to Iceland choose to drive along the Ring Road during summer, when the midnight sun provides plenty of daylight for long-distance driving and all-day sightseeing. However, while more challenging, winter road trips are indeed possible, and they’re becoming increasingly popular.

While driving conditions are, admittedly, best in summer, the winter months have plenty to offer visitors. You’ll still be able to see all the island’s natural highlights, made extra beautiful with a coating of white snow and frost. During Iceland’s colder months, you can walk on top of glaciers, try snowmobiling, or treat yourself to a relaxing dip in a geothermal pool. Winter also provides the best opportunity to catch a glimpse of the Northern Lights. However, while Iceland’s winters are undeniably inviting, we should point out that visitors should take extra care on the roads. Familiarise yourself with safety precautions before visiting; unseen ice and snowstorms can prove hazardous. If you can, rent a 4×4 vehicle for a boost of safety and comfort during your Iceland road trip.

If you’d prefer to drive along the Ring Road of Iceland when weather conditions are enviable, the iconic midnight sun is in full bloom, and whale sightings are almost guaranteed, then you might want to plan a summer trip, but be aware that peak season often sees price increases on everything from flights to accommodation and rental cars. You might also have to jostle with crowds at the island’s most famous attractions, and you can expect the roads to be busier (although being stuck in traffic is hardly a bad thing in the picturesque nation of Iceland).

June, July and August are the busiest months for tourists, when the days are at their longest and the weather is at its most predictable. For better value prices and a little more space, consider booking your trip in the shoulder seasons, which run from March to May and September to October. Snowstorms can still appear out of nowhere, but the days are long, and the Northern Lights can be seen as late as April on a clear night. March marks the beginning of Iceland’s whale season, and road diversions are rare the closer you get to summer. Winter brings the best chance of seeing the Northern Lights, but winter driving in Iceland requires skill, patience and experience – it isn’t recommended for the inexperienced.

Iceland | Photo: Sead Dedic

Where to stay on the Ring Road

Outside of Reykjavik, the Ring Road in Iceland is sparsely populated, which means accommodation options are often limited. Most major towns along the route are home to a handful of bed and breakfasts, guesthouses and Airbnb’s. You’ll also find international-style hotels in major settlements such as Akureyri.

We should point out that accommodation options can fill up quickly over summer, making it essential to plan overnight stops in advance – particularly if you’d rather not spend an arm and a leg for the privilege of a good night’s sleep. If you’re travelling on a budget, you might consider camping, or you could rent a campervan to combine accommodation and transport into one package. You might want to browse hotels on Booking.com to find the best deals. Alternatively, for a spot of luxury and refinement, check out our guide to the best places to stay in Iceland. 

Deplar Farm | Photos: Eleven Experience

The ultimate Iceland self-drive itinerary

If you want to drive around Iceland, following the Ring Road is the obvious choice. Seven days is enough to get a glimpse of Iceland’s highlights, but if you can spare a few more days, you can cram activities such as hiking, horseback riding, rafting and whale watching into your trip, not to mention stops at waterfalls, lave fields and glaciers galore. On one morning, you could be walking by steam vents and bubbling mud pools and geothermal areas. A few hours later, you could be exploring fjords or pristine green landscapes.

If you’re more interested in Iceland’s natural landscapes than the city life of Reykjavik, you could rent a car from Keflavik International Airport and follow the Ring Road clockwise or counter clockwise, though we recommend the latter so that you can see some of Iceland’s highlights – such as the Golden Circle – without having to wait days. If possible, rent a four-wheel-drive vehicle, especially if you want to take detours further inland or attempt the road trip during winter. If you plan on sticking to the Ring Road, you might not need to splurge on a 4×4 given that the entire route is well-maintained. Bear in mind that even in summer, snowstorms can appear suddenly, and tourists visiting during the peak season have a habit of suddenly swerving to the side of the road to take in the view.

You’ll need to confirm your car rental well in advance if you want to avoid steep prices. Avoid trying to drive down snowed under or closed roads – rescue services cost a small fortune. Also, keep your eyes peeled for wildlife on the Ring Road, and do not – under any circumstances – travel without insurance. By following our Iceland road trip itinerary, you can start and end in Reykjavik or depart for the Ring Road straight from Keflavik International Airport. Given that you’ll need at least seven days and ideally more to complete your Iceland road trip, we’ve detailed our itinerary in stages rather than days.

Seljalandsfoss Waterfall | Photo: Robert Lukeman

1. Golden Circle + Blue Lagoon

The Golden Circle is a 300-kilometre or 190-mile route that’s not technically a part of the Ring Road, but it’s a fantastic jumping off point for an Iceland road trip because of how many top attractions you’ll see as you complete the loop. Alternatively, you can end your trip here, using the nearby capital of Reykjavik as a place to rest up before heading back to Keflavik International Airport. We recommend getting the Golden Circle and the Blue Lagoon out of the way before embarking on a road trip along the Ring Road. That way, you can see some of Iceland’s most famous highlights alongside crowds of tourists before venturing off to more remote pastures.

While following the Golden Circle, which can be completed in the space of a day, you’ll be able to see attractions including the Thingvellir National Park, the geysers at Haukadalur and the Gullfoss Waterfall. Within the Thingvellir National Park, you’ll find the site of Iceland’s first Parliament. You’ll also be able to stand at the point where the tectonic plates of America and Eurasia are slowly drifting away from each other. Popular activities including diving in between the plates at Silfra. You can also spend a lot of time hiking the trails. At Haukadalur, you’ll see geysers that shoot boiling water 40 metres into the air over 100 times a day – though you will have to put up with the distinctive smell of eggs. The Gullfoss Waterfall cascades from a height of 100 feet, producing thick mist as well as rainbows in the process. The Blue Lagoon, which you can visit first or last due to its proximity to Reykjavik and the airport, is a geothermal spa located in a lava field, offering a unique relaxing experience that’s not to be missed.

Gullfoss Falls | Photo: Mahkeo

Blue Lagoon | Photo: Jeff Sheldon

2. South Coast to Vik

The south coast of Iceland, unsurprisingly, attracts tourists in their droves thanks to being home to national natural treasures such as the Vatnajökull National Park and the awe-inspiring Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon, which is deservedly nicknamed ‘The Crown Jewel of Iceland’. While following the south coast, you’ll be driving along the Ring Road itself, though still within relatively close proximity to Reykjavik, hence the region’s popularity.

Your first stop will be the Seljalandsfoss Waterfall, which drops from an impressive height of 200 feet. A short hiking trail leads you behind the immense cascade, though be prepared to put up with a lot of spray. If you want to take photos of the waterfall without the spray, climb the hill on the right of the falls, though do be careful to mind your footing on its slippery surfaces. After Seljalandsfoss, you can drive to the Skógafoss Waterfall in a matter of minutes. The Skógafoss is about the same height as Seljalandsfoss, though it’s much more powerful, wider and frequently produces colourful rainbows, which you can admire from the viewing platform that’s accessible by a wooden stairway. Both waterfalls are framed by the Eyjafjallajökull volcano – the menace that halted international flights when it erupted in 2010.

Vik is Iceland’s most southerly village and an ideal place to rest up for the night. It’s also incredibly photogenic, being nestled between black sand beaches, rugged sea cliffs and glacier-topped mountains. While you’re here, you might want to soak up the surrounding nature by taking part in popular activities that include Jeep tours, hiking and paragliding.

Vík | Photo: Jose Llamas

Jökulsárlón | Photo: Dan Cook

3. Vik to Hofn

After spending the night in Vik, you’ll follow the Ring Road (Route 1) along the east coast to the small town of Hofn. The drive from Vik to Hofn only takes a few hours, but you might want to dedicate at least a couple of days to exploring this region of outstanding beauty. Along this stretch of the route, you’ll find charming fishing villages, green valleys, a reindeer-filled forest, toppling waterfalls, jagged peaks, narrow fjords, geothermal hotspots, and so much more.

First, you’ll visit Skaftafell, which forms a part of the vast Vatnajokull National Park. The must-see attraction here is Svartifoss, nicknamed the ‘Black Waterfall’ due to the basalt rock that gives it its colour. Adventurous types can venture deeper into the national park to join a guided ice-caving tour to explore the Vatnajokull Glacier (available from October to March). After hiking around the national park, you’ll continue on to the Jokulsarlon glacial lagoon, where you’ll see icebergs making their journey across the lagoon, from the glacier to the ocean. Embark on a guided boat tour to see the glacier up close. From the lagoon, it takes about an hour to drive to Hofn, home to one of the only large supermarkets outside of the capital, Reykjavik.

If you can dedicate at least two days to exploring this easterly region of Iceland, we recommend stopping by attractions including the famous site of the Sólheimasandur Plane Crash on Sólheimasandur Beach, which has become an iconic photography destination since the 70s. The nearby wild and rugged Reynisfjara Beach is famous for its black sand, created by the mixing of ocean water and lava. Another must-visit attraction is the Fjaðrárgljúfur Canyon, which has been formed as a result of over 9,000 years of corrosion. Follow the walking path above the canyon to snap the best photos – and to avoid wading through the water that meanders through the canyon. If snapping photos of your Iceland road trip is a priority, don’t forget to explore the blue-tinted Magical Crystal Ice Caves beneath the Vatnajökull glacier. You’ll need to hire a guide to keep yourself out of danger.

Svartifoss | Photo: Tomas Trajan

Vatnajökull Glacier | Photo: Mark Olsen

Mr. Hudson highlight image

The drive from Hofn to Mývatn takes you into the middle of nowhere, where Eastern Iceland is defined by its untamed wilderness of black-sand coastlines, rocky mountain peaks, and very unpredictable weather

Hofn, Iceland | Photo: Norris Niman

4. Hofn to Mývatn

The drive from Hofn to Mývatn takes you into the middle of nowhere, where Eastern Iceland is defined by its untamed wilderness of black-sand coastlines, rocky mountain peaks, and very unpredictable weather. Along this stretch of the Ring Road, you’ll find barely any towns – or people for that matter – but you will find yourself weaving in and out of spectacular fjords. You’ll also drive through the mountains via the four-mile long Fáskrúðsfjarðargöng tunnel to the barren but beautiful highlands of Iceland, which look particularly impressive when covered in a blanket of snow over winter. If you’re visiting in winter, you might want to stick to the Ring Road unless you’re driving a 4×4 that’s capable of remaining glued to frost and snow-covered trails.

After departing from Hofn, your first stop will be in the small town of Egilsstadir, which lies in the heart of the epic Eastfjords – a symbol of Icelandic beauty. Visit the town’s local museum to learn more about its history. When you leave Egilsstadir, you’ll follow the Ring Road by glacial settings and epic lava fields to the town of Mývatn. If you can add a couple of hours to the drive, take a detour along Route 864 to Detifoss, Iceland’s most powerful waterfall. The view of the waterfall is impressive, almost as much as the sound of 132,000 gallons of liquid rushing by you each second. Most visitors view the falls from the west, though the east side offers better photography opportunities (please be careful on the slippery rocks). Once you arrive in Mývatn, you’ll want to head directly to the Mývatn Nature Baths after checking into your hotel. The Mývatn Nature Baths are similar to the Blue Lagoon, though with far few tourists.

Mývatn | Photo: Philipp Wuthrich

Mývatn | Photo: Joshua Earle

5. Northern Iceland: Myvatn to Akureyri

Visitors to the north of Iceland are blown away by the region’s staggering cultural and natural wonders. While driving from Myvatn to Akureyri, you’ll see secluded fjords, active volcanoes, rustic fishing villages, thundering waterfalls, and bubbling hot springs. But the north’s most tempting lure is the 250-kilometre circuit known as the Diamond Circle, which is home to some of Iceland’s most otherworldly landscapes. There are five key destinations that must be visited along the Diamond Circle: the picturesque Goðafoss Waterfall (which looks especially striking with the Northern Lights shining above at night), The Dettifoss Waterfall, which is Europe’s most powerful, the unearthly landscapes of Lake Mývatn, the crescent-shaped Ásbyrgi canyon, and – last but not least – Iceland’s whale-watching capital, Húsavík.

Surrounded by volcanoes, Lake Mývatn is famous for its biodiversity and geothermal activity. Head to the east of the lake to see the rock formations of the Dimmuborgir Lava Field. Hiking, bird watching, and sightseeing at the steaming fumaroles and boiling mud pits of Námafjall Hverir are popular activities at the lake, though you may need to spend the night here to see everything this wonder has to offer. After visiting the lake and its surrounding lava fields, you’ll be ready to hit the road again, though you’ll be following Route 87 to Husavik rather than taking the Ring Road. While you’re in Husavik, you simply must embark on a whale watching trip to see Humpbacks through to Orcas in the bay. You can learn more about the conservation of whales at the Husavik Whale Museum. From Husavik, you’ll travel along the Ring Road to the Godafoss Waterfall, which spans a width of 100 feet. From there, you’ll drive to Akureyri to spend the night in Iceland’s Arctic capital.

Akureyri | Photo: Ludovic Charlet

Godafoss Waterfall | Photo: Claudio Buttler

6. Akureyri to Borgarnes

Known as Iceland’s Capital of the North, Akureyri may be a relatively small town, but it’s brimming with entertainment, cultural and art venues. Colourful houses line the steep streets that descend from the hills into the friendly town centre. And with red, heart-shaped stoplights, even the traffic lights highlight that town’s cute friendliness. In Akureyri, you’ll find a host of museums, one of the nation’s most popular swimming facilities, and the world’s most northerly botanic garden. While you’re here, take a flight over the Bárðarbunga Volcano and gain an insight into the eruptions that threw the entire globe into chaos. For more nature, jump on a boat and head out into the fjords to search for humpback, bottlenose and minke whales.

After spending the night in Akureryi, it’s time to drive to Borgarnes, which takes about four hours without stopping. However, we’d advise setting off early in the morning so that you can make time to explore the Snæfellsnes Peninsula, home to the most photographed waterfall in Iceland, the Kirkjufellsfoss, and the charming Búðakirkja Black Church that lies in a lava field. In Borgarnes itself, you can learn about the Norse seafarers that settled the island centuries ago at the Settlement Centre. When you’ve finished exploring the region and the Snæfellsnes Peninsula, you can drive onwards to Reykjavik in about an hour.

Húsavík | Photo: Davide Cantelli

7. Back to Reykjavik

The final destination on our Iceland road trip itinerary is Reykjavik, the world’s most northerly capital city. Colourful buildings, wild nightlife, eye-popping design and creative people make spending a few days in Iceland’s vibrant capital more than worthwhile. The city is also surrounded by nature, skirted by beaches, and it’s safe and welcoming to gay travellers. If you aren’t interested in spending time in the Snaefellsnes Peninsula, we recommend driving to Reykjavik from Borgarnes the previous night to see the highlights of the capital. You’ll find plenty of fantastic accommodation options in Reykjavik to make the most of your stay.

During your time in Reykjavik, you’ll want to simply stroll the streets to soak up the street art and modern architecture. The city’s most iconic example of expressionist architecture is the Hallgrímskirkja Church, the nation’s tallest church. You can take in panoramic city views by taking the elevator up to the church’s top floor. Also, look out for the giant mechanical pipe organ and the detailed statue of Leif Eiríksson. If you’d rather listen to music than dance to it, watch a performance at the Harpa Concert Hall – the Iceland Symphony Orchestra plays a weekly show. Don’t forget to check out the natural geothermal Tjörnin Pond in the city centre, which attracts visitors that include ducks, geese and swans in addition to travellers, romantic couples and picnicking families. Last but not least; if you didn’t visit the Blue Lagoon on your first day, now’s the time to head over. It’s not a natural lagoon, but this human-made pool offers visitors a mineral-rich warm bathing experience thanks to being fed by surplus water from a nearby geothermal powerplant.

Photo: The Retreat at Blue Lagoon

Photo: Chris Turgeon

And that concludes our Iceland road trip! To complete this itinerary, you’ll need seven days at the minimum, though ten days or more would be better. If you don’t have the time to drive around Iceland’s Ring Road, find out how to make the most of five days in Iceland. 

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Kirkjufell, Iceland | Photo: Jeremy Bishop

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