We are back from our amazing, way too short, epic road trip in Iceland! We spent four days driving the south coast from the airport to Höfn & back. Our pace of driving was perfect, especially with Iceland’s summertime midnight sun. One big takeaway we learned is that even though Iceland looks small on a map, it’s actually a huge country! It took us, on average, 30 – 45 minutes longer to get places than what Google maps estimated. So make sure you leave yourself plenty of time if there’s somewhere you have to be. Below is our itinerary, along with suggestions of stops along the way.
Day 1: Keflavik Airport through the Golden Circle to Hella
Time with stops: 11 hours (including
getting slightly lost taking a small detour through Reykjavik on the way)
Verdict? A lot of driving for the first day, but manageable. We were pretty tired & actually sat in the car for a 20 minute power nap at one point, but we are glad we headed straight out to explore, rather than staying in Reykjavik the first night.
Highlights: Once we picked up our car at the airport (plane landing to when we were in our car, including stopping to freshen up: about 90 minutes), we were on our way. I was determined to only use paper maps for navigating this trip & we soon were lost, thanks to a missed turn near Reykjavik. That, coupled with morning “rush hour,” being pretty tired & a little hangry from not having breakfast, made things a bit challenging until we found our way.
After visiting Þingvellir, we stopped at Laugarvatn Fontana for an early lunch. We had hoped to enjoy the hot springs here, but were worried we’d never get back out on the road because we were so relaxed. So we settled for two huge bowls of soup & beautiful natural surroundings instead. As we discovered during the rest of our trip, places to stop for lunch are few & far between, so Laugarvatn Fontana is a good option along the Golden Circle route (the visitor center at Geysir also offers a number of dining options). Both Geysir & Gullfoss were a crowded, tour bus zoo, so we were happy check them off the list & move on. Our last stop for the afternoon was the Secret Lagoon, which was the perfect introduction to Icelandic hot springs bathing. We made our way from there onto our hotel in Hella (the excellent Stracta Hotel) & settled in for the evening.
Day 2: Hella to Höfn
Time with stops: 12 hours
Verdict? Our longest driving day – such an incredible experience going through so many different landscapes! We stopped a decent number of times to break up the trip, but the drive from Vik to the Iceberg Lagoon is a long (almost 270km) & barren one – make sure your gas tank is full.
Highlights: The day was packed with some of the south coast’s most well known sites: the Seljalandsfoss & Skógafoss waterfalls, the soaring cliffs dotted with puffins in Dyrhólaey, the amazing Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon (& nearby black sand beach) & the small fishing village of Höfn. We stopped in Vik for sandwiches & Skyr from the N1 station for lunch (there were also sandwiches for sale at a pop-up cafe at Seljalandsfoss, which would have made for a nice picnic at Skógafoss). The midnight sun really worked to our advantage on this day, since we had plenty of time to explore. The day was capped off with an excellent dinner at Kaffi Hornid in Höfn before curling up in bed at the Seljavellir Guesthouse (our favorite hotel of the trip) to watch a documentary on Abraham Lincoln in Icelandic (yes, seriously).
Day 3: Höfn to Kirkjubæjarklaustur
Time with stops: 11 hours (with stops)
Verdict? Less driving & more activities was the name of the game today. Three relatively short drives compared to covering quite a long distance the previous day made the driving seem easy.
Highlights: We did two glacier-related organized tours on day 3, both of which were excellent: kayaking in a glacier lagoon & hiking up a glacier. Lunch at the Skaftafell Vistors Center is a good option (& really the only option in the area). After dinner at Hotel Geirland, where we sadly watched Iceland lose to France in the Euro Cup quarterfinal game, we went for a little walk to explore the surrounding area & managed to meet some very friendly Icelandic horses, explore a beautiful waterfall & find the mystical Cathedral Floor (which, despite being on the road to the hotel, no one who worked at the hotel had ever heard of). Our room at Hotel Geirland had the most stunning view.
Day 4: Kirkjubæjarklaustur to Reykjavik
Time with stops: 6 hours (with stops)
Verdict? Saying good-bye to the south coast & heading back to the city was a bit jarring for the senses, but the drive was easy. The last mountain you cross on your way into Reykjavik – just past Hveragerði – is a doozy!
Highlights: Day 4 was our “clean up day,” where we stopped to see the sites we had missed on our first trip through. This meant soaring basalt columns in Reynisfjara &, perhaps the most spectacular site of the trip, a 4km hike out to the crashed plane on Sólheimasandur beach!
Once we were back in the city, we dropped our bags off at our hotel, returned our car at the BSI bus station (a great alternative to having to drop your car off at the airport) & headed out to explore. By pure coincidence, we ended up being in town the day the national football team returned & the city was going nuts! We bought Iceland flags & joined the 30,000 person crowd for the parade & victory celebration. Our hotel for the night, Centerhotel Plaza, wasn’t great, but our nearby dinner at Hofnin was one of the best of the trip.
Day 5: Reykjavik
Our last morning in Reykjavik was spent strolling around the colorful, very pedestrian-friendly capital city. It felt very Scandinavian compared to other European capitals we’ve been to (granted, a limited number) & it was wonderful being in the city on a quiet weekday morning, as Icelanders made their way out for their morning coffee & headed to work – we felt very removed from the tourist craziness. We stopped at Kaffitár, popped into a bookstore & enjoyed launch at The Laundromat Café (which was recommended to us by almost every person I know who has been to Reykjavik – & rightfully so). After grabbing a quick ice cream, the Flybus picked us up at the hotel to head to the airport.
Resources that helped us plan our trip
- Almost all our accommodations & our rental car were booked through Extreme Iceland‘s self-driving tour. They were extremely (pun intended) helpful in answering all my questions & developing an itinerary that fit our schedule. If we go to Iceland again, I’ll probably book things on my own, but since we don’t do many road trips, it was helpful to have someone suggest the pacing of the trip. I’m already eyeing a return trip to hit up the west fijords!
- Bradt’s Iceland Guide Book, written by my friend & fantastic storyteller, Andrew Evans was always by our side throughout the planning process, as well as on our trip. We picked our restaurant for dinner every evening from the book & it never failed us. We used the 3rd edition, but the 4th will be out soon! I looked at a lot of guidebooks before our trip & this was the best.
- A good road map is essential. I picked up a Michelin map at my local Barnes & Noble in the months before the trip & it was helpful in planning our routes (& side detours). I would strongly advise you to buy a good map, either at home or in Iceland, & not just depend on your phone, GPS, or the little map the rental car company gives you. Somehow we ended up with a map partially in French!
- Social media was, of course, endlessly helpful. Travel writer & guidebook author @WheresAndrew answered my questions day & night. @jamestomaslong & I got to know each other on Twitter & this Iceland ex-pat sent me a three page email with suggestions. My friend & digital nomad @kitwhelan recommended the glacier hike we did. Countless others offered random pieces of advice to my many questions, thoughts & worries.