Visiting Iceland has often been compared to landing on Mars. The tiny island nation, with its endless moss-covered lava fields, milky-blue hot springs, and vast red and black sand beaches, feels like a Sci-Fi novel come to life. One of 2018’s most popular travel destinations, Iceland’s otherworldly beauty has inspired everyone from Bjork to Nobel Prize-winning writer Halldor Laxness, who once described it as a place where “the glacier meets the sky, the land ceases to be earthly, and the earth becomes one with the heavens.”
Just a five-hour flight from New York City, the country’s popularity with tourists has soared thanks to low-budget flight options, Icelandair's expanded stopover packages and the influence of social media, its tourism more than doubling from 2010 and 2017. Most travelers stick to the major attractions, like the Blue Lagoon and the Golden Circle, but there’s so much more to see on this mysterious and ecologically diverse island.
The best way to explore Iceland is by car, particularly an all-weather 4x4 model, taking a once-in-a-lifetime road trip along the country’s legendary Ring Road. Ambitious travelers can do the full route, which traces the entire country, in one week. Or you can meander, happily, making the most of the area’s many breathtaking detours.
Driving The Ring Road and Renting a Car in Iceland
Iceland’s most famous and well-trafficked highway, the Ring Road, or Route 1, offers drivers the chance to see a full range of geographic wonders, from snow-rimmed calderas to eerie sulfuric fields, often just minutes apart. While Route 1 is, mercifully, plowed year-round, it’s best to check the weather report frequently, and plan for rest stops since gas stations are rare in rural areas. Outside of Reykjavik, Iceland’s major cities include Akureyri, Egilsstaðir and Hofn and Vík í Mýrdal, areas containing the bulk of the country's formal accommodations, although you may find rustic b&bs scattered along the way.
After touching down at Keflavik Airport, we recommend Sixt and Hertz for your car rental since both companies have desks and check-out spots in the main arrival terminal, providing for a seamless experience. Download a Google map of the Ring Road in advance, or choose a car with GPS, a lifesaver in the more rural areas. Iceland’s weather is notoriously unpredictable, so don't skimp on insurance, which can range from standard coverage to “volcanic ash” protection. Wind gusts can reach 65 mph, so be particularly careful opening and closing car doors. As one rental agency told us, their vehicles are frequently returned “with the doors blown off.”
But don’t let this scare you--half the thrill of road tripping is experiencing nature at its wildest.
Reykjavik to Akureyri
Since many flights from the U.S. to Iceland are overnighters, we recommend using day one to relax and unwind. The Retreat at the Blue Lagoon, a newly opened, ultra-private hotel and spa, offers exclusive access to the country’s most famous thermal baths just a short drive from Keflavik Airport. Shake off post-flight jitters with a breakfast buffet of fresh local salmon and organic cheeses before settling into the spa to try “The Ritual,” a series of all-natural treatments meant to detoxify the mind and body using silica, algae, and minerals. Afterward, sip an aperitif in the hotel's cavernous underground wine cellar, carved from the area’s volcanic rock. Return to the hotel’s world-class restaurant, Moss, to feast on a 7-course tasting menu of langoustine, and tender lamb with mustard seed and Mother’s Broth. There is also a full vegan menu offering leeks with sunchokes, wild mushrooms, and hazelnuts or Beetroots with basil pesto and local herbs.
For your first full day, drive to Reykjavik to take in the modernist Harpa Concert Hall, a collaboration between Danish design firm Henning Larsen Architects and Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson, and be sure visit the glass-domed Perlan, and the Hallgrímskirkja Church Tower, whose futuristic design is an homage to Iceland’s many natural basalt columns. Visit the historic wharf area of Grandi for world-famous Icelandic hot dogs and wander the area’s emerging arts districts, filled with galleries, workspaces, artisan clothing shops and galleries.
From Reykjavik, take a detour to the Snæfellsnes Peninsula, known as “Iceland in Miniature” for its diverse geography, which ranges from glaciers and volcanoes to the Lóndrangar basalt cliffs, home to nesting puffins and birdlife. More adventurous travelers can visit Vatnshellir Cave, or “the lava tube,” in which visitors descend a spiral staircase to explore the rich subterranean world. Instagrammers will want to visit Kirkjufell, Iceland’s most photographed mountain, which sits next to the magnificent waterfall Kirkjufellsfoss.
If you want to stay close to the Ring Road, other detours include Deildartunguhver, Europe's highest hot spring, and the impressive Hraunfossar, or 'Lava Falls,' a series of mini-Niagras that will awe even the most jaded traveler. On your way to the north, stop by Kolugljúfur Canyon, a series of Middle Earth-looking waterfalls, or visit the Icelandic Seal Center to commune with some of Iceland’s furriest residents. Rest for the night at Icelandair Hotel Akureyri, which offers fine dining, fjord views, and convenient access to a series of year-round swim park.
From the north to the east, Akureyri and Lake Mývatn to Egilsstaðir
Akureyri may seem remote, but this only enhances the city’s laid-back charms. One hundred kilometers below the arctic circle, it still has a mild climate and the charming atmosphere of a ski-town. It is also one of the best places on earth to spot humpback whales, and in October, in nearby Skjálfandi Bay, you can observe nesting puffins.
Driving from Akureyri to the east, stop at Goðafoss waterfall, the mysterious gates of Dimmuborgir (the Dark Fortress), and the imposing lava rock formations of Dettifoss Waterfall, previously featured in the Ridley Scott sci-fi epic Prometheus. The crown of the north is Námaskarð, an otherworldly, geothermal mountain pass carpeted in red sands and punctuated by steaming, sulfuric fumaroles, set against the barren plains. On this route, you’ll find the thermal baths of Mývatn, which offer a less crowded, though also less-luxurious, version of the Blue Lagoon.
You can also hike Lake Mývatn's ethereal landscapes, formed via volcanic explosions more than 2000 years ago, and wander the volcano crater of Hverfjall, the caldera of Krafla, or the crater Víti (or “hell” in Icelandic), once thought to be the gateway to the netherworld.
From Mývatn, spend the night in the historic town of Húsavík, the “whale watching capital of the world” according to locals, or visit Egilsstaðir, the largest city in the east, said to be "home" to the lake worm, or Lagarfljótsormurinn, the Icelandic equivalent of the Loch Ness Monster.
Egilsstaðir to Hofn, Southeast Iceland
From Egilsstaðir, drive through the Hallormsstaðaskógur National Forest, the largest wooded area in Iceland. This will be the most scenic leg of your trip as you maneuver winding fjords and sharp peaks before descending into the fertile farmlands and meadow valleys of the coastline. The landscape will again change as you approach the Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon on the border of Vatnajökull National Park, which offers tourists a chance to play arctic explorer without leaving their well-heated cars. Rent a kayak, go cave exploring, or ice climb on the many glacial peaks.
On the nearby velvety black sands of Diamond Beach, large chunks of ice have floated down from the glacial tongue, dotting the inky shoreline with clear "gemstones."
Stay overnight at the ultra-modern, fortress-like Fosshotel Glacier Lagoon, a 4-star hotel located between Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon and Skaftafell Nature Reserve. Or, if you’re looking for something more rustic and a chance to experience true Icelandic culture, book a night at the Hali Country Hotel, the former home and farmstead of Icelandic writer Þórbergur Þórðarson (1888 – 1974). Today it houses The Þórbergur center, a fascinating museum filled with tidbits of Iceland’s fascinating history.
Hofn to Vík í Mýrdal
The windy southern coast is home to some of Iceland's wildest and most fascinating natural wonders. At the Skaftafell Nature Reserve, hike Fossaleið (Trail of Falls) and Hundafoss to the majestic Svartifoss (Black Falls), a towering row of black basalt columns set in a fairytale forest.
Once In Vík, venture out to the Reynisdrangar rocks from the town's black beach to explore the gorgeous Dyrhólaey cliff, which offers 360 views of the glaciers, ocean waves, and the nearby Reynisfjara. Later, park your car and take a hike to Skógafoss and Seljalandsfoss, dual waterfalls nestled in between the glaciers Eyjafjallajökull, Mýrdalsjökull, and Tindfjallajökull.
Head to Seljavallalaug, one of Iceland's oldest swimming pools, for a soak, or stop by Reykjadalur, a steaming geothermal valley that cuts through the mountains above the village. In the peaks above Hveragerði, observe (but don’t touch!) the vast lava fields, which locals say are best experienced on the back of a pony-sized Icelandic horse.
The Golden Circle
While many take advantage of summer's Midnight Sun to visit the Golden Circle, this breathtaking six-hour tour is a must-see year round. The most popular attraction by far is Þingvellir National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the closest Scandinavia has to providing a safari adventure. Here, you can snorkel the Silfra fissure, an underwater gorge where two tectonic plates meet, and one of the most treasured diving spots in the world. Then, visit the Geysir Geothermal Area to witness 'the Great Geysir,' a world-famous hot spring in the Haukadalur Valley. Though it can be a bit shy these days, the nearby Strokkur Geysir is said to erupt every 10 minutes, shooting water 98 ft into the air. If you haven’t gotten your fill of waterfalls, visit the Gullfoss Falls, or Golden Waterfall, on your way to the town of Flúðir to soak in the Secret Lagoon.
If you have extra time, stop by the incredible crater Kerið, formed 6500 years ago. Its oval shape cradles a stunning azure lake, surrounded by rocks adorned with shocking reds and oranges, making this striking area a popular backdrop for concerts.
You may want to end your road trip by taking advantage of Reykjavik's booming bar scene with a craft beer or artisan cocktail, flipping through the pages of the Reykjavik Grapevine to scout the best of the evening's concerts and performances, or sample a bit of the local nightlife. But if you're like us, you may want to choose to save that to capture the flicker of the Aurora Borealis dancing across the sky in a blaze of glory, a dramatic ending to a startlingly beautiful trip.