I got my planning game on for this trip, as we only had 8 days to discover all the beauty Iceland has to offer. Luckily, the sun was on our side for more than 20 hours a day in early August. We used this abundance of daylight to drive the entire Ring Road, along with venturing out to the Westfjords.
Day 1 | The Golden Circle
We arrived in Keflavik International Airport around midnight. After picking up our rental car, we were ready to use those few hours of twilight to get some sleep. Our booking at a guesthouse near the airport thus turned out to be a great idea. The midnight sun already proved its first advantage a few hours later: waking up early would never be a problem during this trip. Although our excitement probably had a share in that too.
We decided to tackle the most touristy part of Iceland first. The Golden Circle is a 300-km loop starting in Reykjavik, which covers Iceland’s most visited attractions. Early in the morning, we headed straight from our guesthouse in Keflavik to the first stop: Þingvellir National Park, once upon a time Iceland’s political center. More than the ancient Parliament itself, it’s the background setting that makes Þingvellir memorable. The park is located at the crossing of two tectonic plates, which comes with a dramatic landscape.
A short drive from Þingvellir lies Kerið crater. Definitely worth a visit on a sunny day, when the crater lake turns bluer than blue.
After a windy stroll around the crater, we had lunch among the tomato plants of Friðheimar farm. The tomato soup and bread buffet was delicious, as was the Bloody Mary with fresh tomato juice. We started the day prepared for wind and rain, only to find ourselves sunbathing surrounded by tomato plants a couple of hours later. Even on a cold sunny day, it would still feel like summer thanks to the glass construction of the greenhouse.
Next on the Golden Circle was the Geysir area, with a number of geysers erupting as they see fit. Our tomato soup almost found its way out when the smell of rotten eggs was blown into our faces for about 20 minutes. One by one we cracked and gave up on the Great Geysir, without witnessing an eruption. Luckily we got rewarded with an eruption of Strokkur instead.
A five-minute drive from the geysers takes you to Gullfoss, an impressive waterfall and the first of many to come on this trip. Before tackling the last piece of road to our stay for the night, we indulged in a typical Icelandic snack: skyr is a low-fat dairy product that comes in many flavors, somewhat comparable to Greek yoghurt.
We spent the night at Lindartún Guesthouse, quietly tucked away in the Icelandic countryside. In addition to cozy rooms, there is a welcoming terrace and a very well equipped kitchen. We had some pre-dinner drinks at the terrace, surprised to see how high up the sun still was. After dinner we found it to be just as clear outside as before – only much colder. Nothing that a glass of red wine couldn’t handle though.
Day 2 | Fimmvörðuháls hike
Today we were exchanging the Ring Road for slightly rockier surface. We had left off the day before at a short drive from Skógafoss waterfall, the starting point of the Fimmvörðuháls hike. This 30-km hike from Skógar to Þórsmörk takes you through a variety of extreme landscapes, one even more astonishing than the other. In summer months, Nordic Adventure Travel schedules a bus that leaves in Þórsmörk at 8 PM and takes you on a bumpy ride back to Skógafoss. I highly recommend staying at the Skógafoss camp site after the hike, as you can roll straight from the bus into your tent. Plus you get to have your morning coffee with a great view of Skógafoss. If you didn’t bring any camping gear like us, you can book a fully-equipped tent through Airbnb. This may feel like cheating at first, but that feeling quickly disappears when you come back from the hike to find your tent ready to dive into.
After a breakfast of champions prepared by our hostess, we took off with destination Skógafoss. We stopped by Seljalandsfoss on the way. Of all the waterfalls we’ve seen in Iceland, this was my favorite one. We parked at the Skógafoss campsite around 10h30, which gave us less than 10 hours to complete the hike or be stuck in Þórsmörk. With the latter in mind, we started hiking at a steady pace. The hike can be roughly divided into three parts. The first part winds up past 27 waterfalls and could have easily served as a Game of Thrones set. It was tempting to stop at each waterfall to take pictures, as each one seemed even prettier than the one before. But the thought of spending a night under the stars – how beautiful that might have been – kept us going.
We reached the gate to the second part of the hike around 13h00. The gate is a wobbly wooden bridge that takes you over the river. What follows is a desolated and rocky landscape, leading up to the snow-covered Fimmvörðuháls pass. We decided to take some weight off our backpacks and have lunch; we would reach the snow soon and could use a little power break from all the climbing.
Shortly after that, we found ourselves plowing through snow fields between glaciers Mýrdalsjökull and Eyjafjallajökull. This landscape couldn’t have been more different from the first part of the hike. The contrast between snow and black volcanic sand just seemed out of this world. Every once in while we had to take cover from a volcanic sandstorm, but other than that I found this to be the easiest part of the hike. Just before the transition into part three, we passed the lava fields created by the eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano in 2010, when Europe’s airspace was largely shut down.
It was the third part of the hike that made me wish I would never have gotten off the Ring Road. The whirly descent into Þórsmörk was stunning, but you do have to be willing to put your life at risk to see it. I vaguely remembered reading something about a rope in other blog posts, but it clearly didn’t have me worried. The rope is supposed to get you down past a cliff, as the path suddenly stops and resumes a couple of meters lower. That might have worked if the rope had actually been attached to the cliff; now it was just hanging loose, serving as wall decoration rather than support. Although I do admit not to be very fond of heights, this situation would have given the chills to anyone with joie de vivre. And it was not over yet. After two hours of happily hopping down the beautiful valley, the finale came: the cat’s spine. The comparison is straightforward: you feel like you’re walking on the spine of an enormous cat. By now there was only a five-meter stretch between us and completing this amazing hike, so we took our chances. If we would have started the hike in Þórsmörk on the other hand, I’m pretty sure I would have turned back around with my cat’s tail between my legs.
We arrived at the Básar huts around 18h30, well in time for the bus pick-up. You can also opt to hike further down to the Volcano huts; they offer dinner and the bus also makes a stop there. Truth is that even the best meal in the world couldn’t have motivated me to walk the two extra hours to get there. Stiff, sleepy and almost back in Skógar, we had to change busses at Seljalandsfoss. This would have been a pain in the ass, if it wasn’t for the beautiful light surrounding Seljalandsfoss at this hour.
Back at the campsite we were clearly not the only ones craving to wash the cold sweat off, as the wait for a hot shower was more than an hour. Luckily, there was wine and a joyful group of Canadians to help us process this eventful day in the meantime. This was definitely one of the most memorable day hikes I’ve done so far, as it feels like you’re crossing through different countries during one and the same day.
Day 3 | Southeast and East Iceland
As we were not exactly traveling camping proof, we had to be inventive to put breakfast on the table. I got coffee at a restaurant down the road and yesterday’s lunch was recycled into breakfast. Avocado toast and cappuccino’s with a view of Skogafoss, here you go! As we didn’t advance much the day before, a stretch of almost 500 km awaited us today. However, we would be able to stretch our legs regularly at the many beautiful stops along the way.
First stop was the black beach of Reynisfjara. Before getting all the way down to the beach, we drove up the Dyrholaey peninsula. From here you get a good view of the Reynisdrangar, the basalt sea stacks towering out of the sea just off the Reynisfjara coast. It’s also a good spot for puffin-watching, although there’s no place to get closer to these cuties than the Látrabjarg cliffs in the Westfjords. A ten-minute downward drive gets you face to face with the basalt giants. After a short stroll on the crowded black beach, we left for some more Ring Road.
One hour later, our car was having as much trouble driving up to Fjaðrárgljúfur as we had pronouncing it. But getting past the bumpy gravel road was highly rewarding. Out of nowhere appears a lush green canyon with a river running through it. One of these places you keep taking pictures because the view seems to get better with every step you take.
Another stretch of Ring Road led us straight into Vatnajökull National Park, named after the largest glacier in Europe. The view we had for lunch at the Visitor’s centre was very promising, but time prevented us from getting deep into the park. We did do a short hike up to beautiful Svartifoss, which only left us longing for more.
Last stop of the day was Jökulsárlón, a large glacier lake. The lake only added to the long list of beautiful and extremely photogenic places we got to see today.
But the adventure wasn’t over just yet. We still had to drive more than three hours before reaching Stora Sandfell Cottages, pretty high up in the Eastfjords. A thick mist completely surprised us near the end and almost had us driving into a fjord. We were so shaken up that it took us a while to locate the cottages, ringing at some old lady’s doorbell instead. But when we finally found it, we quickly forgot about the trouble getting there. The hostess was the cutest Icelandic lady, and the cottages were even cuter! It felt as we were stepping into a little fairy tale house. The cottage was small but surprisingly well equipped, so that we even managed to cook a proper dinner.
Day 4 | North Iceland
Before driving North, we ventured out East to pay a visit to the prettiest of the Eastfjords: Seyðisfjörður. The winding road that takes you over the mountain pass and down to the water should be beautiful on a clear day. As Mondays never come easy, the latter wasn’t the case. Seyðisfjörður did manage to keep its charm despite the mist, which gave it a Twin Peaks feel. Funny enough, we discovered later on the trip that the crime series ‘Trapped’ was actually filmed in Seyðisfjörður.
Heading up North after our morning coffee, we were gradually welcomed into an out-of-this-world landscape. Out of a dry and deserted area suddenly arose Detifoss, the most powerful waterfall of Iceland and even Europe. Not nearly as beautiful as the waterfalls we’d seen so far, however not less impressive.
Next on the stranger things tour was Krafla’s Víti crater, a huge cyan stain in a Mars-like landscape. However, the most surreal place of this trip was yet to come. Just across the road lies Hverir geothermal area, consisting of sissling mudpools and steaming hot springs. I would recommend going on an empty stomach, as the persistent smell of rotten eggs doesn’t exactly promote digestion. The Mývatn natural baths were just around the corner, and that wasn’t necessarily a good thing. The baths leave your skin soft as silk but smelling of… rotten eggs. Before completely losing our appetite, we left after less than an hour bathing. Not worth the money in my opinion, especially when you consider the natural, secluded and free (hot)pools that were yet to come.
Today’s landscape didn’t come close to yesterday’s beautiful scenery, but was remarkable to say the very least. All these sights are part of the Diamond circle, the lesser known Northern equivalent of the Golden circle. Last stop before hitting the road to Akureyri was Goðafoss. You know what they say – two waterfalls a day keep the doctor away!
The road to Akureyri brought us back to Planet Earth, with clear blue skies overlooking the snowcapped mountains. The second biggest city of Iceland feels like an average European town, but comes with good options to sample some of Iceland’s cuisine. We treated ourselves to a delicious four-course North-Icelandic menu at Strikið. Iceland had one more surprise for us today: when we drove to our B&B, we crossed a heart-shaped traffic light!
The hearts appeared as a consequence of the finance crash in Iceland in year 2008, when there was a need for some positive thinking and to put emphasis on what really matters.
Day 5 | Road to the Westfjords
We started the day with a delicious homemade breakfast, prepared by our lovely hostess at Guesthouse Baegisa. The guesthouse is part of a farm at a short drive west from Akureyri. It’s beautifully located between meadows and mountains.
We embarked on the long but scenic stretch of road that would leave us into the heart of the Westfjords. The Westfjords is one of the most gorgeous yet untouched parts of Iceland, as only 10% of tourists in Iceland makes it there. Maybe the curvy gravel roads at dizzying heights have something to do with that. As if five hours of driving weren’t enough, we took a detour around the spectacular coastline of Tröllaskagi peninsula. Unfortunately the sun decided to stay in Akureyri, so the detour wasn’t as rewarding as we’d hoped. A dive in the heated infinity pool of Hofsós was a relaxing break from all the driving, although the view wasn’t exactly infinite on this grey day.
After being chased away from our picknick spot by cows, we headed straight for Country Hotel Heydalur. We made it to our destination pretty early as compared to previous days, so we could just relax the rest of the day. The stunning surroundings of Country Hotel Heydalur create the perfect setting to do so. At a ten-minute walk of the hotel lies a natural hot pool – and that is to be taken literally, as the temperature of the water easily passes 40 ºC. Secluded hot pool, beautiful nature, friends, sun and gin tonics – no wonder this turned out to be one of my favorite spots of the entire trip!
Day 6 | Westfjords
Our morning coffee came with a little surprise! First stop of the day was Litlibær, a little farm in the middle of nowhere that sells coffee and waffles. While we were having our coffie outside, we hear what can only be the sound of a whale! Visual confirmation came in the form of a huge tail popping out of the water. No pictures as we didn’t see it coming, but that was the best part about it.
We’d gotten used to some pretty amazing road trip scenery, and today was no different. The Westfjords have you driving in and out of fjords all the time, passing cute fishing villages on the way. We saw an arctic fox in Súðavík, got pastries from Gamla Bakaríið in Ísafjörður, then crossed the 6-km long one-lane tunnel to Flateyri where we had our daily picknick.
Next stop was Dynjandi waterfall, rightfully one of the Westfjord’s main attractions. Although we’d seen many beautiful waterfalls by now, we were still amazed when arriving at the foot of the impressive cascade. A short hike up brings you to the main fall, passing six smaller waterfalls on the way.
The roads to and away from Dynjandi could definitely use some guardrails, but we knew by now these aren’t popular in Iceland. Happy to be back at sea level, we took in beautiful fjord views from the heated Reykjafjardarlaug pool. Like a fata morgana it appeared right next to the road, nobody guarding it but with locker rooms and a perfectly kept temperature. Jump for joy!
We stocked up on groceries in Patreksfjörður before heading further into no man’s land. The road to the Látrabjarg cliffs is long but doesn’t require a 4×4. On the way, you pass by Breiðavík – not sure whether to call this a town as it only consists of a church and a hotel. However, it’s a very beautiful place!
The Látrabjarg cliffs are the most Western point of Europe and known for great bird-watching. The latter wouldn’t usually have me drive the extra mile, but when the birds are puffins things change! Unless you want to be challenging their diving skills, it’s best to lie down on the grass to get them up close. When you do, you really get face-to-face with the posing cuties.
If we thought Látrabjarg was the end of the world, we hadn’t made it to our cabin for the night yet. We got to stay in the most remote out of all Hænuvík Cottages, which even had a gate to nowhere. The cottage lacked all comfort, but the peacefulness of the location made up for that.
Day 7 | Snæfellsness peninsula
We had one stop left in the Westfjords before sailing off to Snæfellsnes peninsula. It takes a serious detour and many hairpin bends to get there, but the red beach of Rauðisandur makes it worthwhile.
Unfortunately we didn’t have time for a beach walk, as we were boarding the 12 o’clock ferry from Brjánslækur to Stykkishólmur. The ferry lands you with car in the heart of Snæfellsnes peninsula in about three hours. Perfect occasion to sit down, relax and try some Icelandic beers.
Stykkishólmur is a small fishing town at a short ride of Kirkjufell mountain, Snæfellsnes’ most photographed attraction. The latter did steal some of its charm, as the place was rather crowded. Although we might have been slightly biased by the remoteness of the Westfjords.
Time to stretch our legs on a short but stunning hike along the coastline between Arnarstapi and Hellnar. We parked the car in Arnarstapi and walked to Hellnar and back in about an hour. Halfway, we had a delicious coffee break in the cute Fjöruhúsið café near Hellnar.
On the way to Reykjavík, we stopped for one last hot spring experience in Landbrotalaug. By now we could definitely cross hot pools off our typical Icelandic list, but something else was still missing: pylsur or hot dogs! Every gas station in Iceland has a fully equipped hot dog stand, so that’s where we asked for “one with everything”. This is how our car looked after 2600 km of Icelandic roads:
Day 8 | Reykjavík
Our final day in Iceland was devoted to exploring its capital. Iceland didn’t want to let us go without one rainy day, so that’s what we got in Reykjavík. We were planning to discover the city through its food and drink scene anyway, as the attractions are limited. We stayed in KEX hostel, which is located in an old cookie factory. It has a very hip(ster) feel to it, and offers a healthy breakfast buffet.
Reykjavíks main landmark is the Hallgrímskirkja church. For a good view of the city’s colored houses, you can take a lift to the top of the church.
The rain provided a good excuse to advance our culinary tour. We started with a tasting flight of Icelandic beers at local brewery Bryggjan Brugghús. The next stop actually included food, as we tried the delicious lobster soup of Sægreifinn. It’s a tiny eatery in the harbor that has waiting times of over an hour at lunch time; we were lucky to arrive just before that. Our main course had us cross the Old town to Messinn, a top choice for seafood. We tried several of their savory fish pans, all local catches but without the local prices. On the hunt for post-lunch coffee, we took a stroll along Reykjavíks main shopping street Laugavegur. No big chain stores here, but rather hip boutiques and artsy bars. A side street brought us to Kaffi Vinyl, where you pick the music out of boxes filled with vinyl records. We rounded up our tour with bubbles from KEX bar’s happy hour menu.
For those wondering whether we skipped Iceland’s most popular attraction: we could not. Although we feared the sharp contrast with the past week’s remoteness, a first visit to Iceland didn’t feel complete without a dip in the Blue Lagoon. Our reservation was at 20:00, avoiding the biggest crowds. The Lagoon turned out to be a great final stop before taking our 6 AM flight back home. Soaking in the silky waters, we looked back on our amazing journey through this extremely beautiful country.