Following an endless stream of eye-popping photos on social media, Iceland is surely at the top of nearly every traveler’s destination list. Its unparalleled beauty and otherworldly landscapes are not to be missed, but the most important questions for anyone seriously contemplating making the journey should be "How do I plan for travel in a cold country with more sheep than people?" and "What route should I take to hit all the must-see sights?" In this post, I will answer these questions and more.
First things first: you will need to decide how many days to spend in Iceland, and in my humble opinion, you are selling yourself short with anything less than 10 days. (I know, I know. Not all of us can get 10 days free. So, if you only have a few days to explore, hit the highlights by sticking to the south and the Golden Circle.) I have created an interactive Google Map showing my route with top sights pinned with photos to help you plan your own Iceland adventure!
Top considerations should be time of year, gear, and transportation. You can catch every fabulous sight, but without proper planning, your frozen eyes will not be able to enjoy its full beauty. During the peak tourist season (June-August), you will have more sunny days, but this benefit will be offset by huge crowds, high prices, and you will miss the elusive Northern Lights! I went at the end of September when it was more overcast, but I had most of the sights to myself as if Mother Nature had created the waterfalls just for me. This was great for photos, free of tourists! Also, you will be able to catch the Northern Lights most nights (aurora forecast here), and what’s a trip to Iceland without the Northern Lights?
PRO TIP: No matter when you travel, waterproof all of your clothing! Due to daily misty rain and strong wind, you should have a waterproof or water-resistant layer of everything (gloves, hat, jacket, pants, boots). Without this, you will be soaked and freezing, which is sure to make the trip much less enjoyable.
Transportation is key in Iceland, so go straight to either a camper van or car rental. The camper van is more expensive but will offer the most independence, save you time and money on accommodation, and they are rugged enough to venture down many unpaved roads. Transportation will likely be your biggest budget item in Iceland, and I personally used the budget option Sad Cars. It’s exactly what it sounds like, but I cannot say enough good things about the staff and the care with which the cars were maintained. The next time I make the trip, I will absolutely use them again, and they have far and away the best prices in the country. Ours was tiny but reliable and easily made it over the many unpaved portions of our journey.
PRO TIP: Splurge a little and get the rental GPS. The last thing you want is to get lost in a sparsely populated country. Plus the rental GPS will have local information like gas stations (read: lifelines) and food.
Dining out in Iceland is expensive, and there are very few options outside of larger cities. For this reason, make sure you stop at a Bonus (Iceland's most common grocery store) to buy supplies for the road.
Clockwise or counterclockwise on Ring Road: that is the question! I personally went clockwise and was happy with that choice, but if you want additional flexibility in your schedule, you may choose to go counterclockwise. By doing so, you retain the option to add in or cut out the West Fjords by utilizing shortcuts to make up time in the back end of the trip (albeit at a cost of missing some wonderful scenery).
PRO TIP: I never travel without my Lonely Planet travel guide, but I also carried this National Geographic all weather map. I cannot emphasize enough how crucial this particular map was. The information was spot-on and included nearly all of the major stops.
One of the most asked questions when planning an Iceland route is whether or not the West Fjords are worth it, and my answer is a resounding YES! Cutting off the West Fjords can save at least a day and a half of travel time, but you will miss some of the most stunning views in the country. It is beautifully isolated, especially in the shoulder season, and driving in and out of the fjords is a magical journey. There is a vast array of geography ranging from volcanos to canyons and highlands to valleys, and there is nothing quite like driving along a cliff with the crystal clear fjords glistening below you. I can’t tell you how many times I pulled over to snap pictures. Most of the roads are unpaved, but trust your GPS because as long as you are not traveling in winter or at night, they are easily passable. Also, catching the West Fjords means you can enjoy dining and whale watching on a ferry ride over from quaint Stykkisholmur, and you can catch the Dynjandi Waterfall, which is simply incredible. In the West Fjords, I recommend sleeping surrounded by mountains in the beautiful waterside town of Isafjordur.
PRO TIP: Gas stations are few and far between in Iceland, but nowhere is this more true than the West Fjords. Fill up at every opportunity!
View my interactive map to see the route I used and stand by. The northern half of Iceland is much less explored than it deserves, and I have pinned some fantastic stops along the way including the gravity-defying Hvitserkur rock formation, the fascinating Myvatn geothermal region, the mystical Godafoss waterfall, and Dettifoss – the most powerful waterfall in Europe.
In the East, the serene town of Seydisfjordur is a must-see with its sky blue chapel set against the velvety green mountains. The drive into town is as thrilling as a roller coaster as you descend from the only place the Ring Road crosses the windswept highlands. The town is surrounded by waterfalls on every side, and I personally recommend you stay at the Nord Marina Guesthouse. The accommodations are fabulous, and all I can say about the view is look at the picture! Lean over the pier and be astounded by the crystal clear water and all the cold water fauna (starfish, jellyfish, cold water corals and the occasional dolphin!). For all of these reasons, an Iceland trip would not be complete without a layover in Seydisfjordur.
The next stop south is Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon. This jaw-dropper is right on Ring Road, and I would recommend timing your arrival near sunset to maximize the visual drama. Don’t forget to cross the road and see where the icebergs, pounded by the Atlantic, wash up on the black beach like blue diamonds. After a cold afternoon at the lagoon, some warm relaxation is in order, and I know just the spot. The Hof 1 Hotel, right below Skaftafell National Park, sports a fabulous view, excellent dining, but most importantly, free sauna and spa access!
Vik and the surrounding area is, in my opinion, Iceland’s crown jewel. The incredible Black Sand Beach is just a stroll from town, where you will get Instagram-worthy shots of the unique rock formations. Take a short drive west to Reynisfjara to watch the Atlantic pound the basalt columns with astonishing ferocity, where daredevils can walk on the natural rock bridge over the roiling white water. This view is best at dawn when soft light hits the black beach. Nearby, head to the Dyrholaey lighthouse to see the iconic arches of Iceland’s southernmost point. From there, the drive west is dotted with sights like Skogafoss and Seljalandsfoss and, for adventurers, the Sólheimasandur Plane Crash (see this post with detailed instructions on how to locate it).
PRO TIP: While I passed on visiting Landmannalauger, if you intend on hitting it, you need to plan for an extra day and either utilize a tour or drive a vehicle with proper clearance. Talk to your rental company to ensure your vehicle can make it.
Back near Reykjavik along the traditional Golden Circle route, you can be shocked by Geysir, stand in awe of Gullfoss, and walk among tectonic plates at Pingvellir National Park. And, of course, no Iceland trip would be complete without a stop at the Blue Lagoon.
View my interactive map for recommended routes and sights as well as photos of each location that I took along the journey. With planning and early mornings, the trip is completely doable in 10 days, but if you prefer a more leisurely pace, consider adding an extra day or two. Hopefully this information will help you plan an incredible trip, and I’m thrilled to personally answer any questions you may have on my Instagram @redheaded_nomad. Happy travels!
*I am not receiving any benefits or professional endorsements from the products or services linked in this article.
By: Talor Stone