Iceland is the type of place that you could spend weeks exploring without ever getting bored. Unfortunately most of us only have limited time to see this insta-famous island. So how do you fit everything worth seeing into just a few days in Iceland? You pick one part at a time and do a self-drive tour aka a road trip. The South Coast of the island is the perfect starting point. It has plenty to offer and can easily be reached from the airport thanks to the Ring Road.
These are 10 stops you definitely should not miss off your road trip itinerary if you’re heading to Iceland’s South Coast: a wild mix of natural beauty, geothermal activity and plenty of sights that are guaranteed to make your jaw drop.
Reykjavik is the Iceland’s capital and the ideal spot to start off your road trip. Have a walk around town to check out some of the street art, visit one of the many cathedrals & churches or experience its legendary nightlife. Starting your trip in Reykjavik also makes sense if you’re planning a self-catered stay, as you can stop at a supermarket (BONUS is a great budget option) before you head on to the ring road. Don’t worry, you will be able to find shops along the way as well, but the supermarkets in Reykjavik have a bigger selection and tend to be cheaper as well.
Once you’ve soaked up the atmosphere in the trendy capital and have your rental car loaded with local delicacies head to the Golden Circle. The Golden Circle is not to be confused with the Ring Road that takes you around the island. It’s a route that connects three of Iceland’s most visited tourist attractions. One of the reasons it’s so popular is that it’s within easy reach of Reykjavik, which means the whole route can be done as a day trip. But don’t let that stop you from spending more time in the area.
Take the Ring Road out of the city and head North until you get to a roundabout, then take the exit on to Route 36. Stay on this road until you reach the Pingvellir National Park.
2) Pingvellir National Park
This national park has a rich history and was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2004. Why you ask? It was Iceland’s first national park and is home to the world’s first democratic parliament, the Alping built by Vikings in AD 930.
There is an official car park from which you can wander down into the park, but make sure you have cash on you as this is pay and display. The toilets (200ISK) and tourist info, where you can learn more about the area and grab a coffee (450ISK) are located right next to the car park.
If you continue driving a few minutes you will come across another, smaller car park which is free to use. Stop there, follow the hiking path and you will reach a place called Stekkjargja. Although it looks peaceful today, this spot has a particularly dark past. In the days where witch hunts and beheading people was an acceptable punishment, the punishment for theft was hanging. It is believed that Stekkjargja, the rift was the place where 9 men were hung over the years.
The next stop on the path is the Öxararfoss, the first of many waterfalls you’ll see in Iceland.
There is plenty more to explore in the area if you have the time, like the Pingvallakirkja (one of Iceland’s first churches) or Pingvallavatn (Iceland’s largest lake).
Continue driving for 49 minutes (61km) along Rt 36, Rt 365 and finally Rt 37 until you reach stop number two on the Golden Circle route: the Geysir. There is a free of charge car park where you can stop and leave your car. Once you’ve crossed the road you’ll notice steam coming up from everywhere because there is not just one but in fact multiple geysers and hot springs in the area.
The Geysir is the original, the mother of all geysers. One thing I didn’t realise when I went is that it rarely erupts due to tourists blocking it with rocks trying to set it off. Isn’t that sad? Unfortunately that is the reason why the majority of tourists seem to completely ignore the once so impressive Great Geysir and instead divert all their focus on to its neighbour. Strokkur might not be the original, but it is crowned the world’s most reliable geyser with eruptions no further apart than 10 minutes. But don’t just stop there, have a wander around and take a closer look at all the different hot springs and geysers. This truly is a geothermal wonderland.
Once you leave the Geysir, the next stop isn’t far. Follow the Rt 35 for 10 minutes and will arrive at Iceland’s most famous waterfall, the mighty Gullfoss.
While Gullfoss has an impressive 32m drop, the island has far more unique waterfalls to visit. Which brings us on to number 5.
In order to get to the Seljalandsfoss you have to follow Rt 30 South from Gullfoss until you hit the Ring Road. Take the Ring Road East and continue driving until you see signs for Seljalandsfoss. The drives takes approximately 1.5 hours.
Seljalandsfoss really is a beauty and the best thing is, you can walk behind the falls. Be prepared for a shower though. Make sure both you and any gadgets you might carry are wearing a waterproof.
My tip: If you’re visiting Iceland in the summer wait until late evening to head to Seljalandsfoss. There will be fewer crowds and no tour buses meaning you don’t have to stand in line and a free view for pictures.
If you don’t mind camping, this is the perfect place to spend the night. There is a campground with kitchen and showers where you can pitch your tent just down the road from the Seljalandsfoss. You’ll be sleeping right next to a waterfall and waking up to the sound of water. Sounds too good to be true? Honestly, I’m not making it up.
The Skogafoss is one of my favourite waterfalls in Iceland. Not only did the sun finally come out when I arrived and produced a beautiful rainbow over the fall, but it’s the land behind the falls that made me feel like I’m on top of the world. If you continue walking after getting to the top, you will find a stunning scenery and countless waterfalls.
7) Dyrholaey – Arch & Lighthouse
Dyrhólaey is just a 30 minute drive away from the Skogafoss and absolute must-see. This small peninsula is without a doubt amongst my favourite spots in Iceland. Not only do you get to see the lighthouse and a giant lava arch, but this spot also offers some stunning views of the outrageously spectacular natural scenery Iceland is known for. The black lava arch has given the peninsula its name Dyrhólaey, which means the hill island with the door hole.
My tip: Schedule a visit to Dyrholaey around sunset and prepared to be blown away (both literally and figuratively).
When you get to Vik you well and truly are in Southern Iceland, as Vik is the southernmost town on the island. While that alone might not be reason enough to include it in your road trip itinerary, the famous black beach is! It might not look like your typical beach, but the contrast between the white foam of the sea water and the black sand is what makes it so attractive.
If you’re visiting Iceland in the summer you’ll find beautiful pastel coloured lupines wherever you go in and around Vik. The purple species is most common and reminds me of lavender fields. This plant fascinates me as it manages to grow on just about anything in the rough weather conditions of the island. Lupines are not just there to please the eye though, the Icelandic people have made the flowers into tea for decades. It’s said to have medical and health benefits. Which makes it hard to believe that Icelandic nature conversation activists are fighting a war against these beautiful purple lupines. The plant was imported to Iceland from North America in 1945 to stop topsoil loss, but the invasive lupine is now destroying other more delicate flowers and threatening the distinctive woolly moss in Southern Iceland
Drive along the Ring Road for a little over 1.5 hours and you will notice a glacier that looks like it’s flowing towards the road. That is Skaftafell, part of the Vatnajökull National Park.
Park your car at the visitor center and head to Skaftafelljökull. The easy 30 minute walk will take you along a marked trail right to the bottom of the glacier.
The visitor center is also a great starting point for a hike to the nearby Svartifoss, a waterfall that features contrasts as much as Iceland.
One stop you definitely should not miss on your road trip through Iceland is Jökulsarlon, the famous glacier lagoon. It only takes one glance at this otherworldly natural sight to understand why so many films have been shot here.
I get excited about ice and snow at the best of times but the combination of this giant glacier and the floating icebergs at Jökulárlón sent me into a whole new state of happiness. This place is just surreal. As you walk closer to the lagoon and the glacier you can feel the temperature drop with every step you’re making. If you manage to take your eyes of the floating giants, make sure to look out for seals. Every now and then they playfully pop their heads up.
Depending on how much time you spend in each place this itinerary should fill between two and five days. Remember that the weather in Iceland can be pretty unpredictable, so it pays to estimate the time between stops generously.
Want to know more about Iceland? Check out Iceland on a budget: 15 tips to help you explore Iceland for less!
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