Iceland is known for its volcanoes and glaciers, its waterfalls and geothermal pools, and of course, the Northern Lights and the Blue Lagoon. With all this beauty to see, planning a trip to Iceland can get overwhelming with options.
That’s why the Ring Road is a perfect way to see what every region of Iceland has to offer. Route 1, known as the Ring Road, loops around Iceland through 1,330 kilometers of scenic highway. You can sign up for tours that traverse the Ring Road, but for more adventurous travelers, renting a car and creating your own itinerary allows for more flexibility to prioritize the sights you’d like to see.
That’s exactly what my boyfriend and I did in August 2018.
While the Ring Road can be completed in as short as a week, it’s best to have at least 10 days so you’re not spending all your time driving and rushing through attractions.
Not sure where to start in the planning process of your Ring Road adventure? Here’s the 11-day Ring Road itinerary that I completed with sights to see along the way. (Note: This itinerary travels the Ring Road in a counter-clockwise direction, but can easily be reversed.)
Keep in mind:
Iceland is a virtually paperless country when it comes to money, and the easiest and most common way to fill your car up with gas is with a prepaid gas card. Purchase one (or four!) at the first gas station you come to, such as the N1. Certain areas on the Ring Road offer few gas stations so fill up whenever you see one.
All good road trips require snacks. Stock up on food and drinks at stores like Bonus, Kronan and Netto. And Vínbúdin is Iceland’s liquor store, with locations throughout the country.
The first day kicked off at the Keflavík International Airport. We grabbed our bags, hopped on a shuttle and picked up our rental car. Then we shed our jet lag with a soak in the Blue Lagoon, an easy 15-minute drive from the airport. One of Iceland’s most popular attractions, it started to get crowded around 10 AM, so we were happy we had gotten there before 9:00.
After the total relaxation of the Blue Lagoon, we headed to Reykjavík, Iceland’s capital and largest city. Reykjavík offers a large variety of things to do, from museums and shopping, to restaurants and bars, so we spent our first day in Iceland exploring on foot and then spent the night at the Storm Hotel.
Our second day in Iceland led us to what’s known as the Golden Circle, which consists of three stops: Þingvellir National Park, the Geysir Geothermal Area, and Gullfoss waterfall.
The first stop, Þingvellir National Park, is about a 45-minute drive from Reykjavík. We strolled between the rift valley of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge and explored the historic area that includes Iceland’s first parliament. More adventurous travelers can snorkel between tectonic plates in Silfra. (We didn’t, but we saw the snorkelers gearing up from the Ring Road as we continued on.)
Next up was the Geysir Geothermal Area within the Haukadalur Valley, the home of the geysers Strokkur and Geysir. While Geysir rarely erupts, Strokkur predictably erupts every five to ten minutes.
The last stop in the Golden Circle is one of Iceland’s most famous waterfalls, Gullfoss. This waterfall is a tremendous sight on its own, but on sunny days it’s even more beautiful surrounded by rainbows.
We made our way back to the Ring Road to find our lodging for the night at Country Hotel Anna in the Hvolsvöllur area. We were about 15 minutes away from the hotel when we noticed cars parked along the side of the road so we pulled over. We were pleasantly surprised to discover we had arrived at Seljalandsfoss waterfall, a stop we were expecting to make the following day.
And thank goodness we were so close to our hotel because Seljalandsfoss has a walking path that takes visitors behind the waterfall, and after that fun detour, we were drenched.
The third day brought us along the south coast of Iceland. Our first stop was another waterfall: Skógafoss.
After climbing the narrow stairs to the top of Skógafoss, we got back in the car and followed the Ring Road to the town of Vík.
One our of our favorite stops of the trip was at the unique Reynisfjara black sand beach with views of Dyrhólaey and Reynisdrangar rock formations and puffins all around.
We spent the night at Fosshotel Glacier Lagoon in between Skaftafell and Jökulsárlón. That’s where we learned that hotels will put you on a wake-up call list for the Northern Lights. Sure enough, at 12:30 AM our phone rang and the receptionist told us the Northern Lights were visible. We quickly got dressed and walked outside to stare at the sky with dozens of other travelers.
This was a busy day with the longest drive of the trip. It kicked off with a hike at Skaftafell within Vatnajökull National Park with several trails for varying skill levels. We couldn’t get enough waterfalls, so we took the Svartifoss trail.
The next must-see of the day was Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon, where we saw stunning icebergs and seals showing off their swimming skills. (You can even take a boat trip around icebergs, but we skipped that. Special tours really add up and get expensive so we had to be selective.)
We then crossed the street to visit what some call Diamond Beach because of the iceberg pieces sparkling in the black sand.
From there we started our way to the Eastfjords. After leaving Jökulsárlón, we soon come upon the town of Höfn, a great place stock up on food, water and gas. There aren’t many places to stop on this long winding drive, but the scenery makes it anything but boring.
After the scenic drive through the Eastfjords, we spent the night at Icelandair Hotel Herad in Egilsstaðir.
Day five brought us north to the Lake Mývatn area.
On the way, we veered off the Ring Road to access Ásbyrgi canyon and Dettifoss waterfall from the south.
There is a lot to see in the Lake Mývatn area, including the Námafjall geothermal area, Skútustaðagígar pseudo-craters, Krafla volcano and the Mývatn Nature Baths. (We ran of out of time and had to skip the nature baths, but we were told it’s a great stop, especially if you didn’t do the Blue Lagoon in Reykjavík).
As we headed toward Akureyri, the capital of the north and our overnight destination, we spotted Godafoss waterfall from the Ring Road (but I have to admit we didn’t stop because it was raining).
We stayed in a cozy Airbnb, where we cooked dinner and did laundry.
Because we spent two nights in Akureyri, we had many options for sightseeing today. We could have continued driving east through the Jökulsárgljúfur part of Vatnajökull National Park to access the Ásbyrgi canyon and Dettifoss waterfall from the north if we hadn’t made the stop there yesterday. Or we could have gone back to Lake Mývatn to visit anything we missed there. Or we could have explored the Eyjafjörður area and climbed the Súlur peak. Or we could have taken a short airplane flight to Grímsey Island for a certificate stating that we crossed the Arctic Circle.
But we ultimately decided to backtrack in a northeast direction to the town of Húsavík and go on a whale-watching tour.
We spent day seven finishing up our time in Akureyri and leaving north Iceland.
We could have taken a straight shot to our next destination by staying on the Ring Road and spending the night in Blönduós.
But we didn’t mind a longer drive, preferring the scenic route. So we headed north off the Ring Road and drove through the Tröllaskagi area, stopping in the adorable village of Siglufjörður for food and coffee.
Then we went south to Hofsós to soak in their popular geothermal pool that boasts almost infinity views. (And yes, it was freezing getting from the locker room to the pool in a bathing suit!)
We spent the night at Hótel Tindastóll in Sauðárkrókur town.
Day eight took us to Snæfellsnes peninsula, where we spent two nights. We had to drive south on the Ring Road and then back north off the Ring Road to get there. It was a happy accident that we traveled around Snæfellsnes peninsula in a counterclockwise direction because it allowed us to pass Kirkjufell Mountain on the way to our overnight stop.
Kirkjufell, coupled with Kirkjufellsfoss waterfall, is said to be one of the most photographed locations in Iceland, and I was thrilled we got to see it on a sunny day.
We spent the first of two nights in an Airbnb in Ólafsvík, stocking up on groceries, cooking dinner and washing more laundry.
There is no shortage of sights to see and tours to take in Snæfellsnes peninsula. We walked along Djúpalónssandur beach, checking out the remnants of a shipwreck in the black sand.
Then we hiked a glacier in Snæfellsjökull National Park, my favorite adventure of the trip and a tour well worth the money.
Then we toured the Vatnshellir cave, an 8,000-year-old lava tube.
During our second night in Ólafsvík, we lucked out and caught the Northern Lights for the second time, viewing it this time all by ourselves on the lawn of our Airbnb.
This was our last day on the road as we made our way back to Reykjavík.
We could have had one last adventure by going through the town of Borgarnes on the way back to the Ring Road and driving a bit further to see two more waterfalls, Hraunfossar and Barnafoss. But by then we were ready to get off the road. We also wanted to explore parts of Reykjavík that we missed on day one. So we headed south and got back on the Ring Road that took us directly back to the country’s capital.
We spent our last night in Iceland at the Icelandair Hotel Reykjavík Marina after walking around downtown, eating great food and experiencing the city’s fun night life.
Time to head home. It was about a 45-minute drive to the Keflavík International Airport with a stop to return our rental car. Then we boarded the plane and scrolled through the hundreds of beautiful photographs and memories we took home with us.