Our southern Iceland itinerary: Tips for a week in Iceland

Keen to float amongst glaciers, walk under waterfalls and gaze at volcanos (hopefully not as they erupt)? Regular readers should guess straight away that I’m talking about the country I’ve most recently fallen in love with: Iceland.

Southern Iceland itinerary

I still have so much to tell you about Iceland. This week not one but two people have got in contact asking for advice for where to go with about a week to travel in Iceland, so I thought I should share my short version of an Iceland itinerary straight away.

Short Iceland trips: Avoid the Ring Road

The “thing to do” when you head to Iceland is to drive the Ring Road. It’s a convenient highway circumnavigating the country and with a length of about 1,300km (800 miles) it might sound like something you can do in a week or so (especially if you’re used to driving in a flat, straight-roaded country like Australia).

Personally, I think even two weeks is too short to have a really enjoyable Ring Road trip. And if you’ve only got about a week – perhaps plus a few days in Reykjavik – then I suggest doing a sub-section of the Ring Road like we did. I was so, so tempted to plan an entire Ring Road trip but looking up the driving times made me realise we would spend a lot of time in the car, which isn’t great for anyone but especially not for a five-year-old. And I’m glad we didn’t.

Our southern Iceland itinerary

Instead, I pinpointed several “must sees” for us and figured out a route that involved retracing our tracks to a certain extent but with different stops along the way. It meant we only really had one day with a whole lot of driving, and the rest were much more relaxed. This would be especially important, I think, if you are there out of peak summer – we were lucky that it was light all the time and there was no weather to hinder our progress – but at other times of year this would be a real issue.

Day 1: Reykjavík to somewhere near Jökulsárlón

We had flown into Keflavik at midnight (still sunny!) and picked up our rental car at the airport. We spent the night in an airport hotel and then got on the road the next morning. As tempting as Reykjavik was, we skirted around it and hit rural Iceland as soon as we could.

On your first day in a new country, everything is exciting. I love that! We snacked at a bakery in Selfoss; visited the supermarket in Hella (pretty dodgy fruit and veg); and took our first photo of an Icelandic rubbish bin there too. But our first tourist stop was at Seljandsfoss, a massive waterfall that you can walk behind if you’re happy to get a bit damp. (Planners: It’s about 120km east of Reykjavík, or 170km east of Keflavik airport.)

Seljandsfoss in southern Iceland - part of a week-long itinerary in Iceland

Seljandsfoss in southern Iceland

The glacier lagoon at Jökulsárlón is nearly three hours further on (about 250km east of Seljandsfoss). My theory was that this would be our big driving day, and as it happened, our jet-lagged son fell asleep in the car (a rarity!), so we just kept driving. If he’d been awake, we would have stopped at a few spots along the way just to take pictures – the landscape kept changing and was amazing – but we knew we were coming back that way.

There are lots of places to stay in the vague area of the glacier – we ended up at Vagnasstadir, about 25km east of Jökulsárlón, which meant we got to drive over the bridge that crosses the lagoon and get a first look at the amazing glacier chunks heading out to the sea – that made us pretty excited about the next day. I also looked at staying in Hof or Skaftafell, both a bit closer, but I booked too late to get good accommodation there.

Day 2: Cruising the glacier lagoon and seeing Skogafoss

Jökulsárlón is on the agenda for many a tourist in Iceland but with very good reason: it’s astounding. There’s plenty to see and photograph from the side but taking a cruise either in an amphibious boat or in a Zodiac is the way to see even more.

We got our time zones muddled and arrived an hour early (you can’t use dawn to figure out the time in Iceland in summer!) which turned out to be a total blessing, because we could wander the black beach and its glacier chunks with hardly anyone else there. This was a relatively “warm” summer day, though, yet even our thermal underwear and thick coats weren’t quite enough – so come prepared.

All of us took the amphibious boat – it was fabulous, and the guides were great – and then my husband went on the Zodiac tour as well (kids have to be over 10 to join it – so we warmed up with a hot chocolate in the cafe instead).

Glacier Lagoon at Jokulsarlon, southern Iceland

Glacier Lagoon at Jokulsarlon, southern Iceland

Reluctantly, we eventually tore ourselves away from the glacier and headed back west. We stopped at several random spots to take photos of the really unique landscapes – with fields of purple lupines here, and weird green mossy lava fields there – it was just amazing!

We stopped for lunch in the village of Kirkjubæjarklaustur (about 120km west of the glacier lagoon) – it’s little, but had a tasty restaurant and a small supermarket (more less-than-stellar fruit and veg, which I was fast realising was a norm!).

After lunch, it was a short 100km drive to Skogafoss – yet another totally incredible waterfall. I was pretty jealous to see that there were people camping in tents with a perfect view of it! (Then I remembered that would get *really cold*!).

We then spent the night in a grass-roofed cottage near Hvollsvöllur, at the foot of the (in)famous volcano Eyjafjallajökull. I think staying anywhere near here or Hella (the next town) is a good stopping point, or even back in Vik, further east.

Day 3: Icelandic Horse World (and more tips)

We were ready for a bit of a lazy day by now (after having a hectic few days in London and still getting over jet lag from our long haul flight from Australia) and were staying near Hvollsvöllur for another night, so what we did isn’t necessarily what I’d recommend for others.

A friendly foal at Icelandic Horse World in southern Iceland

A friendly foal at Icelandic Horse World

With one exception: even if you think you don’t care about horses, take a look at Icelandic Horse World! It’s a local stable and not quite as grand as its name, but they were so welcoming and showed us around the whole place, and those horses – wow! I am totally not a horsey person but they were just gorgeous. (Check out #2 on this list for more details.)

If I was heading further afield I’d also recommend the Black Beach near Vik, which looks amazing, or heading a bit more of the beaten track there to the Dyrholaey Lighthouse too.

Day 4: Iceland’s Golden Circle

From the coast, we could sneak up inland to the Golden Circle, without having to get back to Reykjavík (a short section of the road was gravel, but this is certainly not uncommon in Iceland). Everyone (or so it feels) who’s having a short stopover in Iceland’s capital heads on a Golden Circle tour, so this day did feature a few too many crowds but of course it’s all relative and had nothing on the crowds we’d battled in London a few days earlier.

First stop: Geysir. In case you didn’t know, we use the word “geyser” in English precisely because of this geyser called Geysir in Iceland! (I’m guessing there aren’t too many words in English that we’ve borrowed from Icelandic.) Geysir itself erupts less frequently so the one everyone watches is Strokkur, which shoots water around every ten minutes – short enough to even persuade a five-year-old to stay and watch.

Strokkur geyser erupting at Geyser in Iceland

Strokkur geyser erupting at Geysir in Iceland

Not far from here is the second big Golden Circle attraction, Gulfoss. It’s a massive waterfall and you can climb down to get very close to it – I took dozens and dozens of photos.

Finally (after a nice lunch in Laugarvatn – a place I’d like to go back and stay in) we headed to Thingvellir, as recommended by my first Icelandic friend Kári Gíslason. It’s a very special place for Icelanders, where the first parliament was founded, and the site of various other historically significant moments for the country. And incredibly scenic, just as everywhere else in this amazing country!

Staying anywhere near here for the night would be great – we headed to an amazing designer Airbnb house near Borgarnes.

Day 5: Snaefellsnes Peninsula

Borgarnes was an interesting town to stop in. Depending on where you stay, you might get here via a pretty amazing underground tunnel (we snuck in via some gravel back roads and didn’t discover the tunnel until our return trip).

After Borgarnes our next sightseeing stop was at the Gerduberg basalt columns. I don’t know if we were just lucky or if it’s just that bit too far from the Golden Circle that many tourists don’t come, but for most of our visit here we were the only ones. It’s one of those amazing places that you can barely believe nature would create.

Now this isn’t exactly what we did – we slowed it down and had an extra day – but what I’d recommend from here would be a drive along the southern section of the Snaefellsnes Peninsula and stopping at towns like Arnarstapi and Hellnar – the small fishing harbours at Arnarstapi captured my attention and the views from lunch at Hellnar were amazing. You may want to drive around the entire peninsula or cut through at some stage to see the northern side.

Harbour near Anarstarpi on Snaefellsnes Peninsula, Iceland

Harbour near Anarstarpi on Snaefellsnes Peninsula

We spent the night in my favourite place in Iceland – our little hut on Kirkjufell, just outside of the town of Grundarfjördur, on the north. As if Iceland hadn’t already impressed me enough already, I just fell in love with this place and dreamt of coming back to spend several weeks just in that very hut.

Day 6: Back to quirky Reykjavík

It’s not too far to get back to Reykjavík from up here (around 200km), and made much faster by the shortcut through the underwater tunnel which we’d missed on the way up by going more inland. It cuts off a big chunk of driving, is an interesting experience in itself (it goes deep, deep, deep … and then up, up, up – kind of freaky, I found!).

Reykjavík is compact and small as capital cities go so find some accommodation within walking distance of the city centre (we had a great Airbnb apartment a reasonably short walk from the middle of the city).

If you leave early to start this day, you’d probably have time to check out some of Reykjavík’s sights – but we spent our first afternoon just strolling the immediate neighbourhood, checking out the supermarket (fruit and veg was marginally better here in the city) and planning out our next few days.

Day 7: Exploring Reykjavík

I wasn’t really expecting to love Reykjavík, feeling that I’d already given my heart to rural Iceland – I wasn’t really in the mood for urban life. Of course, I liked it much better than that and would be very glad to spend more time there.

Reykjavik highlights, Iceland

Highlights of Iceland’s gorgeous capital, Reykjavik

We actually spent three days in Reykjavík, so depending on how long you have, you might choose from some of these activities …

  • Take a puffin tour – we loved the little cruise that took us out into the harbour (giving us a great view of the Harpa concert hall as a bonus) and I especially liked that they’re pretty responsible tours in terms of not getting too close and disturbing the puffins (10 million of whom call Iceland home. That’s 25 puffins for every Icelander!).
  • Go up the top of Hallgrimskírkja – that famous church of Reykjavík which you’ll recognise straight away – you’ll also recognise the views from the top, because every visitor to Iceland, myself included, takes that photo of the colourful buildings of Reykjavík!
  • Eat an Icelandic hot dog at Baejarins Beztu Pylsur (Town’s Best Sausages, translated!) – the original stand dating back to the 1930s is not far from the Harpa. I know it sounds weird but just trust me on this, these hot dogs are truly amazing!
  • Swim in a local swimming pool – if you haven’t come across any of these on your rural travels (we didn’t, as our accommodation was often kind of out of the way) then do it in Reykjavík. It doesn’t matter what time of year, the Icelanders know how to set up an amazing swimming pool with all the right “pots” of hot water there too. Quite the local experience!
  • And finally, combine your airport trip with half a day at the Blue Lagoon geothermal spa. It’s very touristy but very well-run and has so many visitors for a reason – it is super-relaxing and just plain fun. There are well-organised transfers so that you can get picked up by bus in Reykjavík, spend some hours at the Blue Lagoon and then continue on a bus to the airport in Keflavik. Great for feeling relaxed on the plane, especially if you have a long flight ahead.

And if you have longer in Iceland …

Oh my goodness, I wish for your sake that you have longer in Iceland. I want to go back and spend a couple of months there! If you have, I’d say, an absolute minimum of two full weeks (and no young kids with you), then the Ring Road would be great – but three to four weeks would make it even better. Some of the things I would love to see in the future include:

  • The northern lights – unfortunately, the downside of being there in mid-summer with no darkness means there are no northern lights.
  • Vestmannaeyjar – aka the Westman Islands – off the south coast. I’ve read about them in several travel narratives and they sound fascinating – especially the still-visible remains of a huge volcanic eruption in the 1970s.
  • Flatey – another island – this one on the west coast, amongst a bunch of other islands.
  • Lake Myvatn in the north, another great place to have a thermal bath, and a place I’ve seen such gorgeous photos of.
  • Húsavík in the north, which seems quite a popular destination as a lovely town but also because whale watching is really good here.
  • Dettifoss, another waterfall, but a really impressive one by the sounds of it – it gets called the most powerful waterfall in Europe.

And beyond that, I’d just love to spend more time relaxing into the Icelandic way of life, going swimming regularly, eating lots of skyr (that amazing local version of yoghurt) and maybe a few more Icelandic hot dogs too.

Comments

  1. This is fantastic, thank you! Iceland has long been on my bucket list, and I’m finally heading up there sometime in 2015 when I do my long-awaited European backpacking trip. I love these tips and will definitely keep them handy.

  2. Hello Amanda,

    What an amazing site. We’ve been to Iceland but not when the waterfalls were roaring. It was pretty cold but quite magical. I would’ve love to see more green.

    The Glacier Lagoon at Jokulsarlon is one of my most favourite places! xo

    • Mine too Rene! I think Iceland is the kind of place you have to return to at different times of year to get the full experience. Well that’s my excuse for being desperate to go back, anyway!

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