Iceland’s Ring Road circles the entire country and includes many of Iceland’s main attractions. It also gives many opportunities to get off the beaten path. It can be a perfect self drive tour if you prefer to go at your own pace. Or you can be led by an expert guide, who will delight in sharing their own experiences and favourite spots. One things is for sure, by the time you finish the Ring Road you will have ‘seen’ Iceland. Read on to get some helpful hints and tips.
SPOILER ALERT: take your time, there’s lots to see and do!
It’s important to note that the below hints and tips are just as useful if you are booking a self-drive itinerary or a private ring road tour. You might hear many Icelanders call this trip the ‘grand tour’. By the time you finish this blog you’ll see why we love this nickname for the ring road. Whichever style of trip you decide to take, get in touch with us and we can help put together an incredible itinerary for you.
When should I travel Iceland’s Ring Road?
In short, between May and September is best.
If you try to travel in the winter season you may have to deal with bad weather days and low light. In the warm summer months you are less likely to encounter poor driving conditions and more likely to see everything in the daylight, with up to 24 hours of sunlight to play with.
May is the cheapest month for room rental. It’s also the quietest too. It can be a little chillier in May but the weather tends to be rather pleasant. One drawback is that many of the highland roads won’t be open yet.
June has the longest days with 24 hours of light each day. So, if you are hoping to see the midnight sun, then this month is for you. Both May and early June also coincide with the lambing season. Not to be missed.
July and August are the two warmest months and generally the best weather. The puffins and whales hit their maximum number around this time too. The only drawback for July and August is that this can be the busiest time of the year in Iceland, and the accommodation prices reflect this. However, with the entire ring road to discover you’ll forget all about other tourists once you’ve left the city and travelled in the remote parts of the north and east.
September is a wonderful time to travel. Aside from being a little quieter than summer, the reason many of our guests take the risk with the weather at this time of year is the fact that the Northern Lights are visible on a clear night. Warm weather during the day and Northern Lights at night, sounds good to me. If you are looking to spend your entire night among the stars then perhaps check out our friends at Cosy Campers who recently released a comprehensive guide on Northern Lights hunting. A cosy campervan and a Hidden Iceland itinerary is a great combination for any self drive itinerary.
How long will it take to go around the ring road?
We recommend at least 6 days. Ideally more as that would be moving pretty quickly. There’s plenty to see and do! But that could easily be extended to over 2 weeks if you have the time and money.
That’s 6 days to travel by the way. It doesn’t include arrival day or departure day. And, you may want to spend a bit more time in one location than you think if a particular activity catches your eye. For example, a glacier hike on the south coast will use up most of your day and it’s unlikely you’ll want to travel too far after such an adventurous activity. Or if you get some fantastic weather in one area, it can be hard to move on.
Remember, getting around the island as quick as you can shouldn’t be the goal. It’s around 1300 km of straight driving. You could do it in 2 days if you really wanted to. But where’s the fun in that? Take your time!
INSIDER TIP: Don’t skip the touristy spots just because they are touristy. Iceland is far less busy than you would believe so don’t expect other tourists to spoil the view. Many people race past the south coast and the Golden Circle to reach the more remote spots in Iceland. But before you do that, ask yourself the question, why are these places so popular? Perhaps there’s a good reason for it.
READY, SET, GO… and recover from your flight. In our opinion, there’s no rush to get on the ring road after a long flight. Whether your flight is arriving early or late I always recommend taking it easy on arrival day. Spend the night in Reykjavik and take in the cityscape. Your group’s designated driver deserves it before the big adventure!
If you can’t check into your hotel right away, a stop at the Blue Lagoon makes for a great detour from the airport. Still, if you just want to get some much needed rest, one of our favourite Reykjavik hotels, the Reykjavik Residence, offers consistent early arrival prices. Alternatively, you can make use of their secure storage room, access to a private changing room with shower, a comfortable quiet lounge, and great breakfast.
If you are set on doing a little sightseeing on arrival day then the Reykjanes Peninsula has plenty of stunning location you can visit on your way from the airport. This area technically isn’t part of Iceland’s Ring Road but many of our guests add this area on at the start or end of the trip. Why not? It’s right near the airport anyway and has some incredible sights. Feel free to seek ideas from our wonderful semi-private tour of the area, in which we visit the amazing Lava Tunnel, only a 30 minute drive from the city.
Where do I start Iceland’s Ring Road?
Just remember, the ‘Ring Road’ is just that…a road. Don’t confine yourself to only checking out the attractions near it. I’m sure you’re keen to make some headway.
Some people go north to begin with. The benefit of this is it gets rid of one of the longest driving days right away. Some people go south first. This allows you to get right into the thick of it with glacier hikes and volcanoes. Nevertheless, my suggestion would actually be to start by going off the Ring Road into the famous Golden Circle. The first tourist spot is only 45 minutes outside of Reykjavik and is a pleasant way to get used to Iceland’s winding roads and scenery.
The Golden Circle
Here you’ll meet the largest groups of fellow tourists, which is always good to get out of the way. However, don’t let the crowds stop you from witnessing the bellowing of Gullfoss or the regular eruptions of Geysir. In addition, you can find absolute quiet in the busy Golden Circle by snorkelling in the crystal clear water of Silfra Fissure with Adventure Vikings. After that, you can look to complete your self drive tour by getting tips from our Golden Circle: Platinum Tour. Enjoy an amazing lunch at Friðheimar Tomato Farm and a dip into the relaxing Secret Lagoon.
Don’t be fooled by the lack of driving on this day. It’s action packed and could end up being one of your longer Ring Road days of activities, so make sure your hotel for the night isn’t too far away. Aim for the south coast, near to the Golden Circle at the end of the day. The wonderful Hotel VOS, or Skálakot showcase farm life in ideal locations. Skálakot Manor Hotel also offers fantastic horseback riding tours for all levels in the surrounding south coast landscape.
How many days should I spend on the south coast?
Over the past decade the South has gone from being a farmland to becoming Iceland’s strongest fort on the tourism front. The knowledgeable locals adapted quickly and the variety of activities on offer is endless. You can, for instance, pause your Ring Road exploration for a few hours to join Activity Iceland on their highland super jeep tours. They’ll take you into the colourful and dramatic Landmannalaugar, or across multiple glacial rivers into the highland oasis of Þórsmörk.
Meanwhile, zooming on a snowmobile with SouthCoast Adventure across the infamous Eyjafjallajökull glacier is a great way to witness the highlands from on top of a glacier. On a clear day, a large part of the south coast and even the Westman Islands are visible from the ice cap.
Optional Island Excursions
And speaking of the Westman Islands, do spend a day there too! Hidden Iceland goes there on the Volcanic Westman Islands Tour. The day is filled with excitement and fun, along with wildlife (did we mention puffins and whale spotting is great here too).
Another island experience, but a lot more exclusive, is a stay at Traustholtshólmi. On the private island you’ll overnight in a charming Mongolian Yurt. You can help with the nets when catching wild salmon, harvesting vegetables, picking wild herbs, and participating in a fireside feast. An escape to simpler times if there ever was one.
Phew, that sounds like a lot. If you chose to do everything I mentioned above, that’s 3 days already. Add in the normal tourist sites, mentioned in the next section and that could be 5 days. So pick your favourites from above if you have a time budget.
What makes the south special?
We haven’t mentioned volcanoes much yet. But the south coast is the place to visit for every volcano enthusiast. As you drive between black beaches and waterfalls you’ll pass by several volcanoes and lava fields. These include Eyjafjallajökull, which caused quite the stir in 2010. You can snowmobile on this one with SouthCoast Adventure. Then there are the highly active Hekla and Katla volcanoes. And the enormous lava field Eldhraun, that came into being after one of the most catastrophic eruptions in modern history.
Seeing the craters from above with Norðurflug helicopter tours absolutely unforgettable and there is no better way of grasping the scope of the aftermath of an eruption. But you don’t have to take to the air to learn all about the volcanic nature of Iceland. You can learn all about it at the impressive and interactive Lava Centre, as well as the one of a kind Icelandic Lava Show, where you can experience hot molten lava up close.
My recommendation is that the south coast, despite its popularity, should be enjoyed slowly. Save the long drives for other parts of the country.
What is there to do in the Vatnajökull National Park (South East)?
As you get to the south east on Iceland’s Ring Road you’ll start to see the Vatnajökull National Park. This park hosts the largest glacier in Europe, which covers about 8% of Iceland’s surface. Moreover, in 2019, the National Park became a UNESCO World Heritage Site. On the way there don’t forget to visit the gorgeous Fjaðrárgljúfur canyon!
In the Vatnajökull area you can stay at the premium Fosshotel Glacier Lagoon, our top choice on most private tours. However, there are also more cosy options, like the wonderful family run Lilja Guesthouse were we stay on our Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon 2 Day Tour. Waking up with views over a glacier is a rare treat.
Besides the obvious stops at the National Park, such as Skaftafell Nature Reserve and Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon, do go and meet up with the wonderful people of Local Guide of Vatnajökull. This dedicated small company has a great team that will take you on amazing glacier hikes in their “backyard”. During the hike you’ll learn all about this ancient giant. As the glaciers keep changing and shrinking in size I believe it’s important that today’s generations get to know and appreciate them.
Why are the Eastfjords so quiet, despite all the incredible sights?
To be completely honest, the Eastfjords are so quiet due to the distance from the capital. It’s as simple as that. This area is often where many people try to make some headway when it comes to driving? That’s not because there’s nothing to see. It’s because the drive itself is absolutely breathtaking. Every twist and turn of the coastal road brings a new cliff face, scarred volcano or distant glacier. Not to mention the black sand beaches and impressive coastline.
The central hub of the east is Egilsstaðir. There you’ll find the charming Lake Hotel, a great base for exploring all the local attractions. On the one hand, you have winding roads that take you to the colourful and picturesque Seyðisfjöður, or the highly isolated Borgarfjörður Eystri. Meanwhile, on the other, you have the inland destinations, such as Hallormsstaðaskógur forest, Hengifoss waterfall, and the historical Skriðuklaustur, which are no less alluring. Furthermore, the Central Highlands are also easily accessible from here, but little visited from the east.
If you decide to dedicate a day or two in the east, and make Egilsstaðir your base for a night or two, in less than an hour you can be in the middle of nowhere in every direction. Still, the true highlight of the Eastfjords, in my opinion (aside from the drive), is a visit to the Wilderness Centre. I was fascinated by their wilderness and folklore exhibition and the isolated farm is unlike any other accommodation in Iceland.
What is there to do in the North East?
Drastic alterations in the landscape take place as you drive Iceland’s Ring Road from east to north.
At first, the drive takes you through a large wilderness area. Imagine a whole lot of nothing, except a vast open landscape. However, this ‘nothing’ can still be quite something, especially after the steep mountainsides of the east. As you drive, the ash-filled flatland eventually makes way for more volcanic activity.
Before you enter the geothermal area, make sure to take the detour to Dettifoss. This is one of Europe’s most powerful waterfalls. Before you can even see the waterfall the great noise and mist announce its presence. After that, go straight to warm up in the stunning Mývatn Nature Baths, before seeing the surrounding diverse attractions. The multi-coloured, Hverir hot pots and acid rivers are worth walking around too. If you have time perhaps check out the Viti volcanic crater where you can walk around and peer into the milky, water-filled hole.
Whale Watching to end the trip!
Whale watching in the north is on many Ring Road lists. Therefore, if you plan to go to the whale watching capital of Húsavík, do consider the carbon-neutral whale watching tour with North Sailing. There are many overnight locations to choose from in the north, which is packed with wonderful accommodation. Personally, I’m a big fan of Skjaldarvík. This guesthouse is family run, with lots of character and in a beautiful setting. Moreover, it’s close to the delightful Hauganes village, another favourite location for going whale watching in Iceland. Enjoy the quiet and soak in the sea side hot tubs after angling for your dinner of cod!
Is that the end of Iceland’s Ring Road?
If you are staying for a week in Iceland now is probably the time to end your Ring Road tour. In half a day you can drive back to Reykjavík, stopping off at a few nice spots on the drive down like the hidden, Glanni Waterfall. You could even make it straight to Keflavik Airport if time is not your friend, though it is a long day of driving.
However, if you have more days to spare I would recommend picking at least one peninsula to explore. Choose between Snæfellsnes (1 day), Tröllaskagi (1 day), or even the Westfjords (3+ days).Thousand metre cliffs, crashing waves and incredible unspoiled terrain awaits you. The views and local attractions are incredible. You can also seek inspiration from the Arctic Coast Way to really get to know the high north.
If you need advise on how to plan your Iceland Ring Road trip or if you think a guided tour is better suited to your group please get in touch with us.
Hi, I am Guðrún Valdimarsdóttir, a member of the Hidden Iceland team. I come from a family of guides and travel enthusiasts. Exploring Iceland is a huge part of my home culture and self-identity. I couldn’t be happier getting to share my passion with others.