Iceland, land of the epic rainbows and magical hot springs. A beautiful country with an ever changing landscape, from dry volcanic flats and dramatic mountains, to lush green hills bursting with waterfalls and vast fields of wild flowers. Iceland, for good reason, has been the hot destination on everyone’s list for the last few years, but it shows (in the wallet specifically) especially at high season in July. Including the astronomical hotel prices, the food costs were quite high, and you can expect just two sandwiches from the gas station to set you back almost $30. (The common gas station is Nesta, and decently healthy sandwich options, energy bars, and green juices are available. This comprised all of our lunches unless otherwise specified).
That being said, it was worth the price of admission. We fit as much as we could (all the highlights) in 6 days along the south coast, and we are excited to share it with you here:
6 Day Road Trip Itinerary in Iceland
EVENING ARRIVAL | Overnight in Reykjavik
We arrived to the Iceland late at night (it was still light out with an orange glow on the horizon at 1am!!) where we picked up our rental car. Keflavik, the international airport, is about 45 minutes from the city center. If you arrive late and hungry, consider grabbing something to eat in the airport as there are many options serving as late as 1am (I don’t think I’ve ever seen an airport so busy so late at night), including an organic juice and coffee bar with snacks right by the rental car counter.
As the hotels in Reykjavik were quite expensive we decided to stay in a high concept hostel with a great bar and restaurant called Kex. In July, two beds in a shared dorm of six will still set you back $150/night, so you may want to consider taking advantage of the epic camping the country has on offer. There is a campsite in the Reykjavik city center, and hitchhiking is a very common way for budget backpackers to get around.
If you are planning on staying in hotels, and you are planning on coming in July, book as far in advance as possible as we booked at the end of May and many places were already full.
GOLDEN CIRCLE | Overnight in Reykjavik
Gullfoss Waterfall, Golden Circle, Iceland
After your day of travel, allow yourself a leisurely morning before setting off on your first excursion, a drive around Iceland’s Golden Circle, east of Reykjavik.
Once on the road, you should allow yourself at least 4-5 hours for the complete trip. Points of interest on the route are: Thingvellier National Park, where it is possible to scuba dive between the tectonic plates of North America and Eurasia (or simply take in the view and explore the old Parliament area), Geysir Hot Spring (great pitstop with awesome cakes and coffee across the way as well), and Gullfoss Waterfall.
Return to Reykjavik for dinner and exploring the downtown area. We recommend Forréttabarinn for Icelandic tapas style dining in a trendy atmosphere. Reservations available online here.
BLUE LAGOON + WHALE WATCHING | Overnight in Reykjavik
Enjoying the Silica Mud Masks at the Blue Lagoon
For our second day* we booked ourselves a morning at the iconic Blue Lagoon. You must book tickets in advance. We booked about a week before our trip, and only 7am and 9pm slots were available. We booked 7am, which actually worked out in our favor as we got to enjoy the lagoon before it got too busy, and once you’re in, you can stay as long as you want.
There is a swim up bar, and you are allowed 3 alcoholic drinks per wristband. However, should you so desire, there is a way to cheat the system. If you bought a ticket that includes your first drink free, and your first free drink is alcoholic, it doesn’t count, so you can get as many as 4 alcoholic drinks.
We enjoyed the 30 minute in water relaxation massage (managed to score a cancellation on arrival), but I ultimately don’t think it was worth the price. We ate lunch at their restaurant, Lava (table reservation is included in some tickets). The food was good, although not memorable, but it was a fun novelty to eat in a restaurant in our bath robes.
After the Blue Lagoon we drove back to Reykjavik for a 3 hour whale watching tour with Elding. Elding provides warm jump suits to wear, there’s a bar on board, and they close out the tour on the ride back to Reykjavik with a great live music performance from a local musician.
It wound up being a beauty of an evening, and while we went for the whale watching (and saw minke** and humpback whales, as well as many birds), we wound up rainbow watching. We were gifted with the most epic rainbow we’ve ever seen, and this photo simply does not do it justice, as it went across the whole bay in a complete arch.
Depending on your tour time, you can enjoy dinner before or after. We recommend the restaurant at Kex Hostel. I enjoyed an amazing panfried ling (like cod) with toasted almonds with a side of cauliflower that I’m still thinking about. Reservations available online here.
*Depending on your flight time, you may want to stop here on your way to or from the airport as it is on the way.
**One important point Elding makes is that whaling (killing whales for food etc.) isn’t as traditional in Iceland as many would like you to think, starting only in the 1940s. These whales are being over hunted, the minke whale specifically, and you should not eat whale meat or support restaurants that serve whale meat, while in Iceland.
LANDMANNALAUGAR | Overnight in Reykjavik
Along with visiting the Blue Lagoon, I was really committed to enjoying some natural hot springs while in Iceland. In my research I stumbled upon Landmannalaugar. Accessible only a few months of the year, this volcanic mountainous area is stunning in its beauty. You can only reach this hot spring/camp ground/hiking area in a 4×4 vehicle. If you haven’t rented a 4×4 as your primary vehicle (we did not) you can book a private or semi-private jeep tour, or, the most economical option, is to take a special 4×4 bus (which we did). We went with Landmannalaugar Tours, who we were very happy with.
They pick you up directly in front of the Harpa Concert Hall at 7:30am, and you will arrive around 11:30am at Landmannalaugar with at least one pitstop for toilets and snacks along the way (where you can and should buy your lunch to take with you).
Once there you will have until 6pm to enjoy the different hikes in the area. For day trippers there is a 2 hour hike, a 3 hour hike, and a 4 hour hike. We chose the 3 hour option, which is a loop in the middle, as we were told it had the best views. We went counter clockwise, and I’m glad we did because while there was a very steep ascent (which would have been much gentler coming from the other direction) it was also very dusty and slippery which would have been much scarier (and harder on the knees) going in the opposite direction.
After our hike we had time to soothe our tired muscles in the beautiful natural hot spring at the camp site. There are some limited food options available in a bus cafe on site, including beer which you may want to purchase to take with you into the hot spring.
The bus returns you to Reykjavik around 9:30pm. This is a good opportunity to check out the famous Baejarins Beztu Pylsur hot dog stand for dinner, as it is only a 5-10 minute walk from the Harpa bus stop and open late. While we enjoyed them, they didn’t blow us away. However, it is an iconic foodie stop for Reykjavik (everyone from Anthony Bourdain to Bill Clinton has eaten here), and I encourage you to try them and decide for yourself.
ICONIC WATERFALLS + VOLCANIC BEACHES | Overnight in Vik
This is the morning you leave Reykjavik for good to drive along the south coast to the town of Vik. Before you hit the road, you may want to stop at Sandholt, for beautiful French pastries and coffee (also open early if you’re desperate for coffee before the Landmannalaugar bus ride).
After about an hour and forty-five minutes of driving, you will come to your first stop, the iconic Seljalandsfoss Waterfall, that you are able to walk behind. Prepare to get soaked, you may want to have a rain poncho on hand. If you walk to the left of Seljalandsfoss about 1/4 mile you will also be able to see the hidden Gljufrabui Waterfall which descends within a gorge. A cafe on site serves sandwiches.
In another 25 minutes drive east, you will come to Skogafoss Waterfall. Make sure to climb the stairs to the top, and think about bringing your lunch with you as there is a hike at the top which follows all along the river valley.
When you’re done, another 10 minutes up the road is the spot where you can park your car to visit the Solheimasandur Airplane Wreck Beach. There is about a 4km walk one way, all flat, to the beach. We decided to forgo this stop, but if you’d like you can get some amazing photos of the 1970s US Military plane wreck sitting in the middle of a desolate black sand beach.
Another further 20 minutes onward, just before Vik, is Dyrholaey Peninsula. It’s protected land where it’s possible to see puffins, and if you take the dirt road up to the light house you can get incredible views of the surrounding area.
At this point you may want to check into your hotel before dinner. We stayed at, and can recommend, the Hotel Dyrhoalaey, which has comfortable rooms and an excellent breakfast.
After checking in you should drive into Vik for dinner. It is probably the most scenic area in all of Iceland with it’s rolling green hills and endless wild flowers in summer. We enjoyed a delicious dinner at Halldorskaffi.
After dinner I encourage you to make one more stop at the Reynishveri Basalt Column Beach, which is on the way back to the Hotel Dyrholaey from Vik, so that you can see the beautiful beach and volcanic basalt columns without the crowd. If you’re just too tired, it can be your first stop in the morning.
GLACIERS + LANGOUSTINE | Overnight in Hofn
Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon
Today is all about glaciers. Once you hit the road in the morning, it is about a 2 hour drive to Skaftafell National Park where you can go glacier walking. You can either take an easy, one hour, self guided walk to the glacier, or even sign up and pay to get a tour to walk on the glacier itself (requires special equipment). There is also a one and half hour hike to a waterfall as an option. We recommend getting lunch here as there is a cafe with plenty of seating, as well as a food stand serving fish & chips and bbq ribs.
After lunch, it is a 45 minute drive to Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon. I never knew glacier lagoons were even a thing before this trip, and it’s amazing to see the bits of glacier floating in the water like shards of unpolished aqua sea glass. If you’re lucky the beach may even be dotted with geometric fragments of glassy ice, like intricate sculptures that have washed ashore. Also, while we did neither, it is possible to take a boat tour, or even go snowmobiling.
Finally, an hour further along the road is the fishing town of Hofn, your stop for the night. We stayed in Lilja Guesthouse about 20 minutes west of the town as everything closer was fully booked.
After checking into your room, you should head to Hofn dinner. Hofn is considered the langoustine capital of Iceland, and it is the speciality of many of the restaurants. We ate at, and loved, Pakkhus, and receiving a generous heaping platter of deliciously tender, buttery langoustine felt like a perfect way to spend our last night in Iceland.
RETURN TO REYKJAVIK | Fly Home
Today you make the 6 hour drive back to the airport for your evening flight. We ran out of time, but if you have it you should make one last detour first thing in the morning about 20 minutes further east of Hofn to Stokksnes, a dramatically beautiful and otherworldly beach we are sad to have missed. It’s about a 1km walk from the parking lot to the beach itself.
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Carina Covella is a writer and currently working on her forthcoming memoir, Love Dogs, detailing her six month transformational journey from Hollywood through India. Carina graduated from Barnard College, Columbia University cum laude with a degree in Art History. She also attended the Sorbonne in Paris and studied opera at the Manhattan School of Music through the university exchange programs. Until recently she lived in Mill Valley, California with her wonderful Welsh boyfriend Anthony in a house nestled in the trees, but now they’re off on a two year adventure around the world. When she’s not writing or traveling, she loves to cook for her friends and family.