This blog is part two of a two-part series about 5 day trips from Reykjavik, Iceland. The first part focuses on the Golden Circle, South Coast, and Snæfellsnes Peninsula. To read part one, click here.
Contrary to popular opinion, you don’t need a 4WD vehicle to drive around Iceland, even to hit the major attractions. You do, however, have to stay off the roads marked as F-Roads, because they require a 4×4 rental car and are a challenge to drive on. During our visit, we rented a small compact car to hit all the attractions listed in this post. People staying in Reykjavik will also appreciate the benefits of a smaller car, as some of the streets and parking spots in the city are very narrow.
The Golden Circle
After the Blue Lagoon, the Golden Circle (which is comprised of three major attractions) is the ultimate marketed image of the Icelandic countryside. Don’t confuse the Golden Circle, a route in southwest Iceland hitting major tourist spots, with the Ring Road (Rt. 1), which loops the entire country.
The three major attractions on the Golden Circle are:
- Thingvellir: 23km east of Reykjavik it is Iceland’s most important historical site and a place of distinct beauty. A UNESCO World Heritage site since 2004, it’s the location of the world’s first democratic parliament, established by the Vikings in AD 930, and also has amazing views of the continental rift.
- Geysir: the original hot-water spout after which all the other geysers are named. This geyser shoots an impressive plume of hot water 15 to 30 meters into the air every f5 to 10 minutes. Make sure not to stand downwind, unless you want to take a shower when the Geysir erupts.
- Gullfoss: translates to Golden Falls, this is Iceland’s most famous waterfall, dropping 32m while creating a lot of mist before running away into a canyon of the Hvítá river.
It takes about four hours to drive the Golden Circle from Reykjavik. If you leave your hotel early in the morning, you can extend your Golden Circle drive by a few hours to also incorporate a trip to the Secret Lagoon and Kerid Crater.
- The Secret Lagoon is a more rustic and much smaller hot spring than the Blue Lagoon, but is possibly even better for relaxing because of its remote location. You can rent towels at check-in, but you can also bring your own.
- Kerid Crater is a dormant volcano with a crater lake that features striking aquamarine colored water from the minerals found in the stark black and deep red rocks found in this area. You can hike around the crater in about 15 minutes, and can hike down to the lake as well. There is a small entrance fee of 400 ISK (about 3 USD) to help the landowners preserve and protect the crater; after all, it is on privately owned land.
South Coast from Reykjavik to Vik
From Reykjavik, head south on Rt. 1 towards Vik. Along the way, you can stop to see some of the world’s most beautiful waterfalls up close. Make sure you have the appropriate clothing with you — a rain jacket (we’ve used these on several trips: men’s / women’s), sturdy hiking boots, and waterproof hiking pants.
Some of the best waterfalls along the South Coast are:
- Seljalandsfoss has a 60 meter (197 foot) drop, but the most interesting aspect of this waterfall is that you can hike behind it to get an entirely different view.
- Gljüfrafoss is another waterfall that is worth seeing and only a short walk from Seljalandsfoss. The 40 meter (131 ft.) high Gljüfrafoss is hidden behind a huge cliff which faces outward, but you can reach it by climbing a little bit and wading through a small river. You’ll end up getting a little wet from the waterfall itself because you sort of walk into it instead of behind it.
- Skogafoss is one of the biggest waterfalls in Iceland, with a drop of more than 60 meters (197 ft.) and a width of 25 meters (82 ft.). You can walk right up to the waterfall, but be prepared to be drenched.
As you continue your drive along the South Coast drive on Rt. 1, make sure to stop at the lookout for Eyjafjallajökull Erupts. From this spot right off Rt. 1 you can see the snow covered volcano that caused thousands of flight cancellations across all of Europe in 2010 in the distance.
Another sight along Rt. 1 is the Reynisfjara Black Sand Beach near the small fishing village of Vik in the very south of Iceland. It’s home to some impressive rock structures that make for some pretty great photographs.
If you have time, drive 74km or roughly an hour back west on Rt. 1 to Landeyjahöfn to take the ferry over to Heimaey, the main island of Vestmannaeyjar (Western Islands), an archipelago off Iceland’s south coast that was formed by underwater volcanic eruptions. The sailing takes about 35 minutes, parking at the ferry in Landeyjahöfn is free, and you can book your ferry tickets online directly with Eimskip, the company that operates the ferries. We recommend booking ahead of time and as early as possible, especially if you plan to travel during the summer months.
Heimaey is the largest and only inhabited island of Vestmannaeyjar. The island has 2 volcanoes, Helgafell and Eldfell. Eldfell last erupted in 1973, destroying some 400 buildings. You can hike the other volcano, Helgafell, through the lava fields from Eldfell and then climb to the top. While you are on the ferry between the island and the mainland, zoom-in with your camera between islets to snap photos of the many bird colonies found in this area, including Puffins.
The Snæfellsnes Peninsula is a gorgeous portion of Iceland that is less travelled than all the other sites mentioned earlier. The peninsula, located northwest of Reykjavik, is great for bird watching and fjords, volcanic peaks, sea cliffs, golden beaches, and lava flows all make for a diverse and fascinating landscape. The Snæfellsnes Peninsula is 100km (62 miles) long and on its western part you can find the Snæfellsnes National Park that includes a glacier, bird sanctuaries, and lava fields. All the sights listed below are within the national park.
- Londrangar: an easy stop for some nice pictures of rough sea cliffs that are home to birds. You will notice some of the cliffs in the distance look like an old castle.
- Djupalonssandur is a stunning black sand beach featuring a 1948 British shipwreck. Also, read up on the signs about the four lifting stones used by fishermen to test their strength.
- Svörtuloft Lighthouse, a very bright orange lighthouse that is in stark contrast to the black lava sea cliffs. It can get very windy in the area, but we were there on a sunny day and were able to eat our lunch at a picnic table next to the lighthouse. One word of caution, the road to the lighthouse is a very (very) bumpy dirt road. We made it with our small compact car but if you are not comfortable driving on dirt roads then we would advise against taking the car all the way to the lighthouse. In this case, you might be better off parking the car at Skarðsvík Beach and walking from there. The walk is 4km (2.5 miles) long and will be on the same rocky dirt road as if you would be driving. On your way to the lighthouse, make sure to stop at the black and yellow sand Skarðsvík Beach.
We hope you enjoyed our series about the 5 best day trips from Reykjavik. If you’ve visited Iceland, let us know your favorite sites in the comments.