Last September our family of 5 (our two kids, ages 12 and 22, my husband and my Mom) went on a roadtrip around Iceland in 7 days. While it might be too packed an itinerary for many, we were very happy with how we planned our time in Iceland. Experiencing the many sides of Iceland – even if briefly – by circling around the Ring Road– was a unique and very worthy experience. We saw lush greenery of the South, the rugged shoreline of the East, minimalistic tranquility of Akureyri in the North, stylish sophistication of Reykjavik in the West. Our trip included a slow travel day as well – spent floating in 3 (!) different geothermal lagoons* while adjusting to the time difference and celebrating a milestone birthday.
*In fact, we visited a geothermal spa EVERY day of our trip (but one) and some days we experienced not one but two spas! Those spa visits (here is the spas blog post) restored our energy and made us feel relaxed at the end of the long travel days.
Here is our around Iceland 7-day road trip itinerary breakdown by day:
Day 1: Silica and Blue Lagoons
Driving: From Keflavik Airport to Blue Lagoon: 15 miles
Hotel: Silica Hotel, Grindevic
Iceland is known for its geothermal spas, and I highly recommend visiting a geothermal spa on a first day of your Iceland trip while you fight off the jetlag fatigue. (Iceland’s most famous Blue Lagoon is only a 20 minute drive from the Keflavic airport). We took this concept up a level and spent our entire first day (and morning of the second day) floating in the geothermal pools of Blue Lagoon and its sister Silica Lagoon (in nearby Silica Hotel). It was an amazing way to spend my milestone birthday with entire family.
But first, we picked up our rental car at the Keflavik airport, drove to Silica Hotel in nearby Grindavic but then stayed put for the next 26 hours as we swam in Silica and Blue Lagoons, went on walks on the surrounding lava fields and even climbed Thorbjorn Mountain. There are several dining options (casual and upscale) at the Blue Lagoon so you can be entertained as well as well fed for at least one full day without needing your car.
Day 2: Fagradalsfjall Volcano and Reykjavik
Driving: From Grindavic to Reykjavic (35 miles)
Hotel: Room with a View Hotel, Reykjavik
After morning soak in Silica lagoon, we were ready to start the explorative portion of our trip. Today our family of 5 “split” into two groups: the ladies headed to Reykjavik for a 3-hour walking tour with Luka of Raven travel and the boys went on a 4-hour hiking trip to then active Volcano Fagradalsfjall which was located near Grindavic .
Luka was not only a knowledgeable guide, but an extremely helpful local resource- he helped us with dining, parking and other suggestions all over Iceland. Being a self-driven group, it felt great to have a contact on the ground we could reach out to with any questions.
While the ladies explored the capital on foot, the boys were picked up at Silica Hotel by Trolls Tour/booked via Guide to Iceland tours for a private 4-hour hiking tour of Fagradalsfjall volcano. At the time of our visit, this volcano had been actively erupting for almost 6 months and although the flow did not come to a full stop for 2 more weeks following the tour the boys did not get to experience an “active” lava flow up close on the day of the tour. They still enjoyed their guided hiking experience with their guide Cora and convenience of the “door to door” private tour, not to mention father-son bonding!
On the way to Reykjavic they also stopped at Seltun geothermal area.
When we got reunited in the evening, we went out for casual dinner at Reykjavic Street Food (it offered tasty reasonably priced soups served outside) on Skólavörðustígur (aka Rainbow street). With the famous Hallgrimskirkja Church in the background, Skólavörðustígur Rainbow Street is definitely a one of the most recognized locations in Reykjavik.
We finished the day at Laugardalslaug public pool.
Additional Stops to Consider: If you’re not afraid of heights, you can climb to the observation tower of the Hallgrimskirkjaand Church to admire a beautiful panoramic view of Reykjavik.
Note on parking in central Reykjavik. Due to our hotel’s location directly on the car-free Laugarvegur street (Reykjavík’s main shopping street) parking (and luggage “shlepping”) was a bit challenging. Take a note of the conveniently located parking garage: (right across the street from Hilton Canopy Hotel) Hverfisgata underground parking garage.
Day 3: Golden Circle
Driving: From Reykjavik to Selfoss (via Gulfoss waterfalls): 122 miles
Hotel: South Coast Hotel, Selfoss
Golden Circle is a must day on a first timer’s Iceland agenda as it includes three of this country’s most famous natural wonders positioned within 10-45 mins drive to each other: a powerful waterfall, a geyser park, and a historic national park. Other nearby attractions could be easily added to the day based on your preferences; we added a geothermal spa experience and a walk around Kerid volcanic crater lake on the way to our hotel. Here is a time stamped photo essay to help you plan your own Golden Circle day:
9 am: Leaving Reykjavik
From the Geyser Park there it’s only 10mins drive to
The Spa was just 30 mins from our hotel in Selfoss and 20 mins from
8:30pm Arriving in South Coast Hotel Selfoss
Additional Stop to Consider: Tomato Farm for lunch/mid-day drinks (open 12-4 daily). They do not serve outdoors outside of summer months.
Day 4: South Coast to Jokulsalron (Glassier) Lagoon
Driving: From Selfoss to Hali: 228 miles
Hotel: Hali Country Hotel, Hotel
This was the most intense travel day of the trip (and the only one without a spa experience). Still, I would not say we were rushed in any of the spots, although Vit did not “make” it to dinner- but Vit goes to bed early at home as well! Here are the photo stops of the day with the time stamps.
9 am: Leaving Selfoss
There is also Skogafoss Waterfall about 15mins drive (on your way to Black Sand Beach) which we chose to pass (If you have time, be sure to walk the waterfall hike from this stop with 20+ other waterfalls).
We did stop at Solhemajokull (ice) Lagoon (which was unplanned but intrigued us from the road). It was an impressive sight amidst the lush greenery of the south coast!
From there it was about 40 mins to the Black Sand Beach.
Everyone (and the signs!) warns you about the killer waves and it takes away from the experience for me. I was happy to be safely back in the car, although the blackstone formations rising from the ocean do make great photo opportunity!
Fjaorarglijufur Canyon is a 30 mins (total) detour if you are driving from Vik to Jokulsalron Glassier Lagoon (our destination of the day) and we tried hard to make sure we have time to get here. From Fjaorarglijufur, it’s 1.5hr push to Jokulsalron.
After the tour we walked to Diamond Beach while continuing to admire the floating glaciers. The sight is magnificent and we were lucky to experience it in the sunset glow and then a bit after, as the fog settled in.
Around 8pm we were ready to drive to the Hali Country Hotel, just 15 minutes away. It is actually a working farm and they serve wonderful food. The rooms are simple, but the sight with my morning coffee- with ocean on one side and mountains on the other- was nothing but ordinary.
Day 5: East Coast, Lake Myvatn
Driving: From Hali to Lake Myvatn: 296 miles
Hotel: Fosshotel Myvatn (our second favorite hotel on this trip)
Today we did not have that many sites to check off our list. Just the two, actually: Spa Vok on lake Urriðavatn in Eglisstadir (3 hours into our 5-hour journey to our Lake Myvatn hotel) and Dimmuborgir park of lava formations (and Trolls) near Lake Myvatn. But our car journey through the East was an adventure of its own: we passed ragged shoreline, drove through the rainbows and climbed some scary mountain edges.
We reached Lake Myvatn around 5pm and headed to Dimmuborgir. The (well-marked) “Church Circle” walk took about an hour.
We continued our Lake Myvatn explores the following morning. This evening was reserved for hotel dinner (pricy but tasty) and covid self-tests for coming back to the US. (While I took my day even further in nearby Spa Myvatn to complete my Spas around Iceland project). When we thought the day was over, we got a knock on the door to see the Northern Lights right outside our hotel room.
Day 6: North. More of Lake Myvatn; Akureyri
Driving: From Lake Myvatn to Aukurey: 75 miles
Hotel: Key Hotel Akureyri
Lake Myvatn is a protected natural reserve with unique geothermal landscapes and diverse water birdlife. There is an entire day of activities that could be planned exploring the area. We did not have to go far for our first experience of Lake Myvatn- by having coffee with a view of it right in front of our hotel. (with its stylish Nordic minimalism, Fosshotel was our second favorite hotel of the trip).
Our second Myvatn experience of the day was Skútustaðagígar pseudo-craters (product of volcanic eruption some 2,300 years ago) that are very easy to visit, right off the main road around the lake.
We also briefly stopped at Hofdi peninsula to experience Icelandic birch forest.
We had an amazing lunch at Vogafjós Farm- probably the best on this trip-with pretty much everything made on site: several kinds of cured fish, cheese, bread and meat. The farmers at the farm Vogar by Vogafjós smoke their own trout from Lake Mývatn and make their own rye bread (in hot springs in Mývatn).
Before leaving the area we stopped at Grjótagjá grotto – yet another Game of Thrown filming location (you pretty much need to get down to your knees to get though it so only the two most fit people in our group visited).
From the Grotto, it took us a bit over an hour to reach Akureyri (last 20 minutes or so – spent in the underwater tunnel!).
Additional Stop to consider: Goddafoss Waterfalls, right off the road to Akureyri.
In Akureyri, the so called Northern capital of Iceland, we walked to the harbor, visited the world’s northernmost Botanical Gardens (be sure to try merengue covered in chocolate cake in their stylish café) and relaxed in a nice public pool in the evening.
Everything is within walking distance in this town, but walk to the Gardens (past the Church) and then to the Pool is a bit uphill. The pool has 4 hot tubs of different temperature (all hot) and two lap pools.
We found this town at the base of the Yjafjordur (fjord) very charming. We had dinner waterfront on the outside terrace of Strikid restaurant. It was not a particularly warm (or dry) evening but in the midst of covid circa 2021 we wanted to return home without delays so felt safer eating outside. The restaurant was willing to accommodate us with a bunch of blankets.
Additional Activities to Consider in Akureyri: there are whale watching tours offered at the Marina.
Day 7: West Coast, Back to Reykjavik
Driving: From Akureyri to Reykjavik: 246 miles
Hotel: Hilton Canopy Reykjavik
In the morning we went for an early walk towards Akureyri Opera house to get to know the town a little more.
There was a five hour drive back to Reykjavik ahead: we left Akureyri around 9 am to have time for another spa visit and nice dinner in Reykjavik on our last evening in Iceland.
To break up the drive and experience a bit of the Western Iceland we stopped at Grabrok craters (easily found, just off route 1) some 90 minutes away from Reykjavik.
By 4 pm we were soaking at (then) newest addition to Icelandic spas- Sky Lagoon overlooking the Ocean.
For dinner we chose Fiskeladig Fish Company restaurant. It was recommended by our Guide Luca (they were all booked for the evening but were able to serve us outside- which worked our great). The meal turned out being an amazing food experience and a true celebration of our last evening in Iceland- festively presented, fresh ingredients, interesting combinations.
After dinner we walked to the Old Harbor but on a Tuesday night the area did not seem as lively as we expected.
Day 8: Morning in Reykjavik. Flight Home
Driving: Reykjavik to Airport: 30 miles
Hilton Canopy hotel was wonderfully positioned just off Laugarvegur street and next to that same parking garage we had so much trouble finding during our first stay in the city at the beginning of the trip. Our flight back to Boston was at 5 pm so we had time for a sculpture walk towards the Harpa Opera House then all the way back (and up) to the Hallgrimskirkja Church while stopping for snacks and souvenirs along the way.
Tips for Planning Self-Drive around Iceland’s Ring Road:
- For Covid related requirements check Iceland’s state website before your trip.
- Best time for a self drive road trip around Iceland is April through October (self drives are not recommended in winter).
- Plan your travel days to arrive at your destinations for the night before dark. Roads are not always well lit so you need to exercise caution in certain areas (especially on the one-lane bridges!)
- It rains almost daily in Iceland, so be prepared with weather appropriate clothing and shoes.
- If you plan to visit geothermal spas, throw a quick drying towel or two in your luggage as many spas charge towel fees.
- If eating outside is your priority during the pandemic, you may want to plan the trip in summer or early fall when weather allows it.
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