Icelandic tourism has skyrocketed in recent years and it’s easy to see why. Iceland has a unique mix of accessible (and Instagram perfect) beauty for more casual travelers as well as extremely rugged and inaccessible sights for those who crave adventure. The unusual landscape is impossible to replicate elsewhere and the country has invested heavily in making Iceland tourist-friendly.
Despite the surge in tourists, Iceland’s small population and condensed ‘high season’ allows visitors to enjoy the country without feeling overcrowded. We visited in early May when daylight hours were abundant, yet the weather still cool. Our 6-day road trip focused on all the major sights along the south side of the country, yet we never found a single place to be crowded. Read on for Iceland tips and our 6-day itinerary!
But first…. some general Iceland tips:
Food: Yes, food is expensive, but as long as you set your expectations appropriately it’s not bad. We tried to minimize the number of times we switched Airbnbs so we could cook more. This is especially important for vegetarians as Iceland is not very vegetarian-friendly outside of Reykjavik. Once you pass the town of Vik (south coast), food options, in general, become limited. You do not see restaurants and gas stations often so it’s smart to keep extra food and water in your car at all times.
Driving: Driving in Iceland is pretty easy in the summer months (with no snow). Be wary of car rental places trying to sell you very expensive insurance, if you plan on sticking to the main highway (commonly referred to as the Ring Road), you’ll be fine.
Tours vs Self-Guide: There is any and every type of tour option available in Iceland. We decided to risk a self-guided trip for the entirety of our stay and are very happy we did. All the attractions were easily accessible and it was nice to go at our own pace. Also, it was great to strategically plan our stops opposite of when we knew tour busses would be there (for instance, doing the Golden Circle backward from what most tours do and going to the black sand beach at night).
Our Itinerary Outline:
Day 1: Arrival / Reykjavik (night in Reykjavik)
Day 2: Snæfellsnes Peninsula (night Reykjavik)
Day 3: Golden Circle (night in Reykjavik)
Day 4: South Coast (night near Vik)
Day 5: South Coast (night near Vik)
Day 6: South Coast / Reykjavik (night Reykjavik)
Day 7: Departures
Most flights from the U.S. arrive in Iceland in the morning. We flew in and headed straight to the famed Blue Lagoon (which is closer to the airport than to Reykjavik). We kept a separate tote bag with Blue Lagoon essentials (swimsuits, extra clothes) so we didn’t have to rummage through our luggage on arrival. The Blue Lagoon itself is very large and due to the steam, it often felt like we had the place to ourselves. Towels and swim slippers are included with the basic ticket price (yes, you can sneak multiple towels) and the locker rooms have showers, dressing areas, and locking lockers. There’s also a restaurant, shop, and hotel on site. The standard ticket also includes a face mask and drink (both of which can be retrieved in the lagoon at walk-up bars). Entry to the Blue Lagoon is timed so it’s better to purchase tickets in advance (also it’s cheaper the further in advance you buy). Some people say the Blue Lagoon is overpriced, which it definitely is when compared to other Icelandic hot springs, however, all the facilities are top-notch so we thought it fair for the price.
After a recharging morning in the lagoon, we made our way to Reykjavik where we ate lunch at Hraðlestin (a very yummy Indian restaurant), settled into our Airbnb, did a large grocery haul, explored the town, and cooked dinner.
On our second day, we did a road trip around the Snæfellsnes Peninsula. Here’s a map link for our route. The route was a little over six hours of driving, but with all the beautiful landscapes and stops it didn’t feel tedious at all. This was another instance where having our own car was an advantage. Some of the common tour stops were not appealing to us so it was nice to pick and choose different stops based on our interest. People usually visit the peninsula to see the glacier, however, since we knew we’d see something similar later in our trip we decided to skip the traditional main attraction.
On the peninsula, we stopped at Kirkjufellsfoss (‘foss’ = waterfall) which looks straight out of a fairytale. This is a more popular stop and thus I’ve read it can get touristy, however, in the morning it was devoid of people. Next, we stopped at Svortuloft Lighthouse, a bright orange lighthouse along a beautifully rugged coastline. The road to get there is a bit tough but it was worth it. Also, no one else was there!
Next up was lunch in the town of Arnarstapi. This sleepy fishing village has a couple nice food options but more excitingly is a great base to hike from. After devouring pizza we worked off those calories with a hike across a lava field and towards the shoreline.
Back in the car, we continued our loop to Rauðfeldsgjá Gorge. The walk up to the gorge is a little steep, but once there you can walk into the gorge (just make sure you have proper footwear!).
Our final stop of the day was Búðakirkja – the isolated black church. This is more of a quick photo stop as the church is a distinct focal point in the otherwise barren environment.
The third day was all about the famed Golden Circle. This route is known as a mini-Iceland as it takes you through a lot of different landscapes that can be found throughout the country. Here’s the link for our map of the day. The total driving time is about 3.5 hours if you’re coming from and ending in Reykjavik.
Our first stop of the day was Kerið Crater. Note there is a 400 krona entry fee (around $3). Here you can walk along the top of the crater and take a path down to the crater base, which has a lake. What makes this stop so intriguing is the beautiful colors along the crater walls. It felt like I was on a completely different planet!
Next, we stopped at Friðheimar, a farm, for lunch. This place is fantastic! It’s mostly a tomato farm and their restaurant is within a greenhouse, making for a wonderful atmosphere. All the food is tomato-inspired and we loved everything we ordered. Try to make a reservation in advance as it was very crowded around lunchtime. After lunch, we walked around the greenhouse, explored the store, and enjoyed free tea and coffee. This was the perfect place to warm up and get energized for the rest of the day.
We then continued on to Gullfoss, one of the most iconic waterfalls in Iceland. It’s not hard to understand why – these falls are mighty! The waterfall has two drops and you can explore both from every angle. We started at the top and worked our way to the bottom of the falls. This is a place where waterproof clothing comes in handy – especially if you want to get up close to the falls (which I’d recommend!).
Following Gullfoss, we stopped at Geysir, aka the OG geyser (it was the first described geyser known to modern Europeans). Apparently, the English word geyser derives from Geysir. One erupts every few minutes which is fun to see and we also walked around the geothermal area to see some of the less active hot springs. Afterward, we decided to stop for ice cream at Efstidalur II, a hotel/restaurant. The ice cream is made on-site using their own cows (which you can see from the ice cream parlor) and it was super tasty!
The last item on today’s list was Þingvellir National Park, where the Mid-Atlantic Rift is above sea level. It’s pretty cool to walk along the literal edges of North America and Eurasia! There’s also the opportunity to go diving, but we stuck with hiking options departing from near the main entrance. Also, for any Game of Thrones fans, Þingvellir is a filming location!
On our fourth day, we left Reykjavik behind and drove along the south coast of Iceland (map of the day’s itinerary). Total driving for the day was just under three hours and all the main attractions are right off the highway (Route 1). Our first stop of the day was Seljalandsfoss, a 60-meter waterfall that we were able to walk behind (another important day for waterproof clothing!). Note, parking near the falls is 700 krona (around $6).
We then walked 550 meters where there was another waterfall within a gorge. It was very cold and wet walking into the gorge but it was an amazing experience to stand within the falls.
Next up was lunch at Heimamenn, a little cafe off the road with affordable (and good) pizza. We then arrived at Skógafoss, which I swear I’d seen on my Instagram at least a hundred times already. However, that didn’t spoil the magic of it in real life. We stopped at the base of the waterfall and just listened, enjoying the noises and the mini rainbow reflecting off the water. We then climbed the stairs (about 350ish) to see the view from above. We kept walking along the river and saw a couple more mini-falls as well as a very picturesque valley.
To wrap up the day we ended at Reynisfjara, the famed black sand beach where our cabin was. Our Airbnb host’s family had owned the land next to the beach for ages and he built a couple cabins with unbeatable views of the beach. We were the closest you could legally stay to the beach and it was an unforgettable experience. It was especially useful for timing our visits to the beach as we could see when it was crowded or not!
This day was a continuation of the south coast and total driving was just under six hours (map). Our first stop of the day was Skaftafells Park, where we enjoyed views of Vatnajokull glacier. It was a chilly morning so we opted out of some of the longer hikes and glacier treks. Instead, we did a couple short hikes that allowed us to see the base of the glacier.
We then continued driving towards glacier lagoon. Driving through lava fields and miles of uninterrupted nature, this is where Iceland starts to feel more otherworldly. After struggling to find lunch options, we eventually arrived at Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon. The lagoon is formed by naturally melted glacial water and it’s constantly growing as giant chunks of ice crumble from the shrinking glacier. These icebergs slowly melt and drift out to sea, where they are sometimes drawn back onto shore. This has created what is known as Diamond Beach – a nearby black sand beach that is often littered with pieces of ice.
Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon offers a few boat tours where you can get really close to the icebergs and see some wildlife. We opted to enjoy the views from shore and we were still able to see many seals and get great photos. Diamond Beach was just across the road from the lagoon and extremely expansive. It is also fairly dangerous and freezing so do not get too close to the water. We heard several cautionary tales of people getting swept into the cold waves in their pursuit of the perfect picture (it’s never worth it!).
We then headed back to our cabin, stopping in the town of Vik for groceries. After dinner in the cabin, we headed onto Reynisfjara Black Sand Beach and enjoyed some people watching, as well as explored the enormous basalt stacks.
Our last full day in Iceland brought us back to Reykjavik. But before leaving the south coast, we stopped at Vik’s church to get sweeping views of the town and the coastline. We then stopped at a lookout point on route 218 (road to Dyrhólaey). This little peninsula has incredible views of the Icelandic coastline, including a lovely view of Reynisfjara.
Driving back towards the capital, we made a stop at the Sólheimasandur plane wreckage site. In 1973, a US Navy DC plane crash-landed at Sólheimasandur. The plane is still there and now you can visit the site and explore the plane. The only caveat is that the plane sits on a black sand beach that’s a 40-minute, very windy and monotonous walk from the main road. There’s sometimes a shuttle bus that will take you to the site for a fee, but we opted for the full experience of walking (on the way back to our car, we opted to take the shuttle). The plane was an eerie sight, and it was interesting to be able to walk in and around the plane without restrictions (vs seeing it in a museum).
Back in Reykjavik, we walked Laugavegur, a major shopping street, and explored several cool boutiques. We ended the night with dinner at Hlemmur Mathöll – a food hall with a range of food options.
I just couldn’t leave a new place without doing a walking tour! In the morning, prior to our flights, we did a walking tour of Reykjavik and learned some very interesting history and facts about the region (tour company). I don’t know about you, but I certainly didn’t learn much about Iceland in school, so it was great to finally add context around where we were visiting.
And that’s a wrap on our southern Iceland vacation! I know there’s more to Iceland, but I’m very happy with the length of trip, trip cost, and variety of experiences we had in our 6 days. Hopefully, this article is useful for any future Iceland visitors!