Iceland is every traveler and photographer’s dream. It has it all: otherworldly scenery, untouched nature, hidden waterfalls, and the kind of remoteness that makes you feel like an explorer. It’s become a very popular tourist destination and while some famous landmarks can get busy, it never felt crowded to me. At several places we were the only ones around and were able to enjoy the desolate landscapes that made us feel like we were on another planet.
This is a 5-day road trip itinerary for those who don’t have a lot of time but want to get a feel of the country and see some of the best it has to offer. After my trip I was certain that I would be returning one day.
When to go
Iceland is a great year-round destination. In the summer the days are long and the weather pleasant, all the roads are open and it’s a great time to explore the whole island. However in the winter Iceland truly looks like the land of ice and fire, with landscapes that look like you’ve stepped beyond the Wall in Game of Thrones. An extra bonus is that you have a good chance of seeing the Northern Lights.
We went in March which I thought was a perfect combination of sufficient daylight hours and snowy landscapes. We also saw the Northern Lights 3 out of 4 nights, which was pretty magical.
- Renting a car is a must for this itinerary and the best way to explore the country. Keep in mind that in winter months the highland roads are closed but the main roads are open. While renting an SUV may be preferable, we had no trouble getting around in our sedan.
- Iceland is basically a cashless country. Bring your debit or credit card and you’re good to go. The only time we needed cash was when we visited a hot tub where payment took the form of leaving cash in a bucket.
- You can find many cheap flights to get you there, but things get pretty pricey once you land, with the food being especially expensive. I would recommend bringing snacks from home or getting groceries from supermarkets rather than eating out every meal.
- Book accommodations ahead of time. AirBnB and hotel options are limited and can book up quickly.
Day 1: Arrive at KEF, visit Blue Lagoon, explore Reykjavik
Aim to arrive as early as you can. We flew on a red-eye with WOW Airlines and arrived at Keflavík International Airport at 5am. Pick up your rental car from the airport and head straight to the Blue Lagoon. It’s only a 20-minute drive away and you’ll get your first glimpse of the surreal landscape of Iceland.
The Blue Lagoon opens at 8am in the winter and 7am in the summer months. The benefit of getting here early is that it’s not nearly as crowded and you’ll enjoy the vastness of the geothermal pools in peace. Is it touristy? Yes. Is it worth it anyway? Absolutely yes. Pre-booking is required so make sure to get your tickets online here.
Give yourself about 4-5 hours to enjoy the lagoon. Don’t forget to walk around the outside after as the lava fields around it are just as beautiful.
Drive to Reykjavik after and check-in to your hotel or AirBnB. Spend the rest of the day exploring the capital city.
Head to Hallgrimskirkja church and climb up the tower for a view of the entire city. After that walk along the water and admire the futuristic Harpa Concert Hall and the Sun Voyager sculpture. For dinner head to one of the many restaurants near the harbour. We ate at Seabaron which is known for its lobster soup and grilled seafood.
Don’t forget to stop by a supermarket and stock up on snacks for your upcoming road trip.
Day 2: Kerið Crater, Waterfalls, Dyrhólaey, Black Sand Beach, Stay in Vík
Get up early because today is a jam-packed road trip to Vik filled with some of Iceland’s most famous sights.
Stop 1: Kerið Crater
Kerid Crater is about 55 minutes outside of Reykjavik and definitely worthy of a quick stop. Park at the lot and walk around the entire crater. In March the lake was frozen but still a beautiful turquoise that contrasted against the reddish volcanic crater. Spend about 30-45 minutes here.
Stop 2: Urriðafoss (Waterfall #1)
Drive another 30 minutes and you’ll arrive at the first waterfall stop of the day: Urridafoss. While it’s a beautiful spot, it’s not exactly a “must-see”. So if you’re short on time this would be the waterfall to skip.
Stop 3: Seljalandsfoss (Waterfall #2)
The next stop is Seljalandsfoss, one of Iceland’s most visited waterfalls. Even though there may be tons of people here, you can still find plenty of spots to enjoy the view in peace. Wear a raincoat because you can walk all the way behind the waterfall and be ready to get a little wet.
This is a good place to rest for lunch. If you didn’t bring any food, there’s a small cafe where you can get some snacks and a warm drink.
Stop 4: Skogafoss (Waterfall #3)
A short drive from Seljalandsfoss is another famous waterfall: Skogafoss. You can walk almost right up to the falls if you’re prepared to get soaked. There’s also a path beside it that will lead you to the top of the waterfall.
Stop 5: Kvernufoss (Waterfall #4)
Hope you’re not tired of waterfalls yet because I’ve saved the best for last. This hidden waterfall is just next to Skogafoss but has none of the crowds. Park your car outside of the Skogar Museum and head east. You’ll come across a fence with a ladder thrown over it. Cross the pasture (if you’re lucky you’ll see some Icelandic horses) until you arrive at a valley and stream. Follow the path along the stream and you’ll arrive at Kvernufoss. This was probably my favourite waterfall in Iceland.
Stop 6: Dyrhólaey
After getting your waterfall fix, drive 30 minutes to Dyrhólaey. From here you’ll have stunning views of the Icelandic coastline. To the east you’ll be able to see the black lava columns of the Reynisfjara black sand beach – your next stop.
Stop 7: Reynisfjara Black Sand Beach
Reynisfjara is an iconic black sand beach in Iceland, with two distinctive lava columns rising from the crashing waves and huge basalt columns on the beach. It’s the type of landscape that makes Iceland feel like another planet.
Last stop: Vík
Spend the night in Vik or the nearby area. We actually couldn’t find a suitable AirBnB in the small village and ended up staying an hour east of Vik, which was fine as it saved us an hour of driving the next morning. Don’t forget to look up at night and see if you get lucky with the northern lights.
Day 3: Fjaðrárgljúfur Canyon, Skaftafell National Park, Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon, Stay inHöfn
This will be a pretty active day so get your hiking shoes on and start as early as you can. You’ll be making your way from Vik to the town of Höfn. If you stayed in Vik, the drive is about 50 minutes to the first stop.
Stop 1: Fjaðrárgljúfur Canyon
This is a dramatic canyon spanning a length of 2km and up to 100m deep. After parking in the designated lot it’s an easy walk to the canyon. You can walk along the rim and enjoy the views or head down into the canyon itself. When we went the trails were quite muddy, so have a pair of sturdy waterproof shoes on hand.
Stop 2: Skaftafell
Drive for an hour to reach Skaftafell, an area of the Vatnajökull National Park. There are numerous hiking routes here and you can enjoy stunning views of glaciers, mountains, and waterfalls. We chose to do two short hikes here: one to see the Svartifoss waterfall and the other one to see the Skaftafellsjökull glacier. Both of these hikes start at the Skaftafell Visitor Centre. Expect to spend about 4-5 hours here.
Stop 3: Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon & Diamond Beach
This lagoon is definitely a highlight of any trip to Iceland. It’s fascinating to watch the icebergs float around with occasional seals making an appearance. Across the road from Jökulsárlón is Diamond Beach, where you can find large pieces of glistening ice lying around a black sand beach – you can probably imagine how it got its name.
Last stop of the day: Höfn
Spend the night in Höfn, a fishing town about an hour drive away from Jökulsárlón. There are quite a few restaurants here. We ate at Pakkhus and I would highly recommend it. Make sure to get the langoustines because they were delicious.
Day 4: Stokksnes, Hoffell Hot Tubs, Fjallsárlón Glacier Lagoon, Stay in Flúðir
Today you’ll be starting your drive back east towards Reykjavik with some stops along the way. It’s a more relaxed schedule so if there’s anything you missed on the way out or want to revisit, today is your chance. A couple of options if you have extra time today: the DC3 Plane Wreck near Vik, or a glacier hiking / ice cave tour in Skaftafell.
Stop 1: Stokksnes
Start your day by heading to Stokksnes, a peninsula just 20 minutes west of Höfn. When you get to the parking lot you’ll see a small visitor centre where you can pay the entrance fee. After paying you can continue driving to the main attraction: a black sand beach with otherworldy dunes and a stunning view of the Vestrahorn mountain. Standing on these dunes and taking in this view without another soul in sight was probably my favourite moment of the entire trip.
Stop 2: Hoffell Hot Tubs
No trip to Iceland would be complete without enjoying one of the many natural hot springs. Hoffell Hot Tubs is located in Hoffell, just 30 minutes away from Stokksnes. The facilities here are quite good, with clean and warm changing rooms as well as toilets. There are 5 tubs with varying temperatures, when we went 2 of the tubs were too hot to get in comfortably, but the other 3 were just perfect.
Stop 3: Fjallsárlón Glacier Lagoon
This is a lesser known glacier lagoon just east of the more famous Jökulsárlón. The scenery is quite different and it’s definitely worth a visit. We made it here just as the sun was starting to set and the light was glorious.
Last stop: Flúðir
Stay in the village of Fludir or around it as it’s close to the sights you’ll be visiting tomorrow. This is also where the Secret Lagoon Hot Springs are. It’s a great place to end the day if you can make it before the closing time of 8pm.
Day 5: Golden Circle, Depart from KEF
Today you can explore the Golden Circle before heading back to the airport for your departure. This is a popular tourist route near Reykjavík that covers 3 main sights: Gullfoss, Geysir, and Þingvellir National Park.
Many people visit this area at the beginning of their trip. We saved it for last because our flight was departing late afternoon and we didn’t feel comfortable driving the long distance back from Höfn on the same day. If your flight is much later you could spend Day 2 exploring the Golden Circle and push back this itinerary by one day.
We set aside 4-5 hours to drive this route. However a few of us were not feeling well this morning so we actually didn’t end up going. Below is our planned itinerary for the day.
Stop 1: Gullfoss
Drive 30 minutes from Flúðir to Gullfoss. This is the most visited waterfall in Iceland and for good reason. It consists of two cascades and drops dramatically into a canyon. There are a few different viewpoints and trails around the waterfall. Some are weather dependent and may be closed in winter.
Stop 2: Geysir
This is only a 10-minute drive down the road from Gullfoss. It’s a geothermal area which consist of geysers that shoot up water due to volcanic activity. The great Geysir itself is fairly inactive, but there is another geyser which shoots up every 7-10 minutes.
Stop 3: Þingvellir National Park
From Geysir it’s a 50-minute drive to Þingvellir National Park. The park is most notable for sitting in a rift valley between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. When you visit the park you are literally in between continents. One of the coolest things you can do is go snorkelling or diving here in a rift between the two tectonic plates. If you’re interested make sure to book a tour ahead of time.
Þingvellir National Park is just over an hour away from KEF Airport. Depending on when your flight is you can either head to the airport right away, spend some time in Reykjavik, or even visit the Blue Lagoon again.
If this is not the end of your time in Iceland, then lucky you. The rest of the country looks just as spectacular and I can’t wait to explore it one day.