Iceland will always be a very special place to us. Our road trip around Iceland’s Ring Road was our first trip together, incidentally only a couple months after we met in 2015. Alex had expressed interest in going on a trip around his birthday at the end of January and WowAir (RIP!) was running $200 round-trip flights from Washington, DC, where we lived at the time. Tegan thought “Why not? A vast tundra is as good a place as any to see if this relationship is going to work out.” And the “Why Not Mantra” was born.
A lot of people will tell you that driving Iceland’s Ring Road is an unnavigable mess in the winter time. We’re here to tell you that they’re wrong. If you get nothing else out of this post, we hope our “Iceland Winter Mythbusters” is of use, or at the very least that our photos of Icelandic ponies are cute.
Seriously, Iceland is one of the most ethereal, magical places we’ve ever seen, and we ultimately hope to go back in all seasons. Winter, however, was beyond imagining. It was the best first trip together, and will surely remain in our Top 5 no matter how many places we go.
- Sparkly, snow-capped mountaintops, pink at sunrise
- Fluffy, friendly horses wandering up to greet you, winter coats dusted with fresh flakes
- The flat, straight road to ourselves for 3, 4 hours at a time, with the wind whooshing around the car
- A landscape so varied it changed every few kilometers… Ancient lava fields turning to craggy peaks surrounding us, glacier fields turning to vast fjords, a patch of verdant moss replaced by waves crashing onto a black sand beach
We were warned it would feel desolate, unforgiving even. We read forums warning us that we would be blown off the side of a cliff by cruel and random winds, and that the driving conditions are appallingly bad. We read more forums extolling us to never, for any reason, drive our car onto a glacier (before you scoff, Google it… people do it!) A lot of people dismissed winter in Iceland as not worth it, claiming that you can see snow covering everything in much less remote places than a small island in the Arctic.
The only thing we’ll warn you is that you could drive around this country for the rest of your life and still marvel at the nature, the geography, the sheer momentousness of place that you’ll feel here. The Earth just feels so, so ALIVE here– you don’t want to experience it on a tour bus. And you definitely, certainly will not want to leave. But don’t worry, as for all the logistics, we’ve got your back. Keep reading for all our tips, tricks, and “mythbusters,” for driving Iceland’s Ring Road in 10 days or less. We did it in 9 days.
Our red-eye landed in Reykjavik’s tiny airport at around 5AM. We went directly from the gate to Sixt Car Rental to pick up our car (a rarity for us, as you will see in our other posts!)
Here, we impart our first bit of advice. Tip #1: Add on a GPS rental. You WILL need it. We cannot stress this enough. When the man behind the desk asked, we almost declined: always looking to save a buck or two and remembering our guidebook saying that “the Ring Road is a huge ring! It’s impossible to get lost!” But boy are we so glad we got that GPS. Even though it spent most of the trip telling us to “take the 2nd exit on the roundabout to remain on the Ring Road,” we found Icelandic signs incomprehensible and would have been roundly screwed without it, especially at night.
Once we were all set in our car, a tiny Peugeot that we later nicknamed “Vroom Vroom Car” due to its frankly astonishing amount of pickup, we set out into the pitch black on the road for Iceland’s capital, Reykjavik. And boy, it was definitely dark! In winter those Icelandic nights are no joke, but not too long after, we were able to refute Iceland Winter Myth #1 : “There’s Almost No Sunlight, It’s Not Worth Going.” The truth is, while the sun is in the sky less time than locations geographically south, the spectacular sunrises and sunsets provide for enough daylight to get everything done in a day that you’d like to. Plus the period before sunrise and after sunset has this beautiful glow to it that is a photographer’s dream! While the sun may be high in the sky for fewer hours of the day in the winter, it is still light out for a few hours on either side of this.
Upon arriving in Reykjavik, we spent some time walking around the city and came across Bonus, a grocery store with an adorable pig as its logo. We stocked up on the essentials, and sampled our first Icelandic skyr. Tip #2: You have not lived until you have tried Icelandic skyr. Far more than “Icelandic yogurt,” it is a tangy, protein-rich, delicious snack that fueled us throughout our trip. The trick that makes skyr so great is that it is strained many times making it have no fat and tons of protein. Particular favorite flavors (we tried them all) were: strawberry, blueberry, and especially pear. It even comes with its own spoon! Side note: Tegan almost cried when we came across the Skyr.is brand in Norway several years later– it’s that good, folks.
Things to see in Reykjavik:
- Hallgrímskirkja Church (above right photo): we got there as soon as it opened at 9:30, which was great! We were the only people there, and got to go up to the top and see the sweeping vistas of a sleepy alpine city just waking up for the day by ourselves. Tip #3: Beat the crowds and watch the sunrise here!
- Einar Jonsson Sculpture Park: right by the church, free
- Laugavegur Street: the “Main Street” of Reykjavik, where you can stock up on whatever you need and visit a Visitor Center
- Join a Reykjavik Free Walking Tour at 11AM. Our tour guide was named Marteinn, and we had a fabulous time. This tour will take you to all of Reykjavik’s main sites in about 2 hours, and was a godsend to not have to navigate around ourselves after having just gotten off a plane. Note that these tours are “tip tours,” and you tip your guide at the end. Sites covered include:
- Austurvöllur Main Square & Alþingi Icelandic Parliament Building (where the tour kicks off) & Culture House
- Arnarhóll Public Park
- Menntaskólinn í Reykjavík, one of the oldest schools in Iceland
- Harpa Concert Hall (below left photo)
- Historic Grjótaþorpið district (below center photo)
- Walk by Hallgrímskirkja again
- Tjörnin Pond, a geothermal pond in the middle of the city! (below right photo)
- City Hall
- Many stops for history about the country and the city, its culture, the Icelandic economy, and practical tips for our stay, as well as learning all about elves!
- Hot Dogs: For some reason these were all over the blogs and guidebooks, and even Bill Clinton has apparently enjoyed one. Made from lamb, Alex attests to the fact that they do not disappoint.
- The Old Harbour: beautiful spot to walk around the waterfront, make sure to stop at Solfar Sun Voyager sculpture
- The Phallological Museum: This was an interesting stop, for sure! It certainly won’t be everyone’s cup of tea but we enjoyed it (we think)
We stayed that first night (and the last few nights) at a small guesthouse called Guesthouse Helga, a short drive from central Reykjavik. Our hosts (Helga and her husband) were fantastic, and taught us how to cook a traditional Icelandic salmon that we bought at Bonus. That remains, to this day, the best salmon we’ve ever eaten.
Before embarking on your road trip and leaving Reykjavik behind for a few days, Tip #4: it’s a good idea to stock up on food at Bonus or Netto. We found food to be relatively expensive (though not as expensive as everyone said it would be, especially compared to a big city in the U.S., Mythbuster #2!) everywhere in Iceland, but especially so outside the bigger cities like Reykjavik and Akureyri. Stock up on food that is easy to eat on the road like bread and fillings for on-the-go sandwiches, skyr, nuts, fresh fruit, or other snacks you like. In the winter, it’s too cold for your food to go bad, and it’ll be right there in the backseat when you need it. (Side tip, avoid the lettuce. Ours froze in the car, and thawed lettuce is just sad.)
It’s also a good idea to make sure that Tip #5: your gas tank stays relatively full. Gas is very expensive (up to $7.50 USD per gallon), and can be very hard to find in the countryside. If you feel you’re getting low and see a small town, go ahead and stop because you won’t find many gas stations on the road.
On Day 2, we departed Reykjavik pretty early, in order to get a jump on other tourists going to the Golden Circle, the most touristy thing to do in Iceland and by far the most crowded day on our trip. The Golden Circle is traditionally the first stop on Iceland’s Ring Road. Tip #6: We were glad to see these attractions early, and leave the tourists behind. We hopped on the Ring Road, which took us past the Reykjavik waterfront and out to the 3 stops on the Golden Circle, via Þingvallavegur. It is a short drive away from Reykjavik, should not take you more than an hour or so.
First up was the Continental Divide, in Thingvellir National Park (below left). Iceland’s first Parliament was here, and chieftains formed the first laws and court proceedings here, at the Lögberg. It’s also the site where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates are actively splitting apart– a really astonishing thing to see.
Next was the two geysers at Geysir/Haukadalur, which are neat because they erupt regularly, so you don’t have to wait too long to see them. Strokkur is the bigger one (photo below right.) Make sure you stay behind the guide ropes, as the water is tremendously hot. The English word for geyser comes from the Icelandic “Geysir!”
Next was the Gullfoss waterfall, a massive waterfall sprouting rainbows, light prisms, and vistas galore at the end of the Hvítá River. A concrete path makes it easy to see the waterfall at various points, though we were fairly dismayed at the amount of tour groups going over the ropes to get closer, despite signs warning that the snow tends to avalanche there (yikes, count us out.) Stay tuned, because despite being the most famous waterfall in Iceland, Gulfoss wasn’t our favorite of the ones we saw!
Next, we attempted to visit the Kerid Crater Lake, which is a well-known side attraction near the Golden Circle, but the side road (known as F-roads in Icelandic) proved too much for the “Vroom Vroom Car” and, yikes, we got stuck. We won’t bore you with the details (or relive our embarrassment at having to wait for a burly Good Samaritan Icelander to pass by and pull us out… oops), but suffice to say we strongly do not recommend attempting this unless you have 4WD on your vehicle.
However, we were able to visit another side destination, the Nesjavallaleið Geothermal Plant, which we really recommend. Here, in addition to helping someone else who got their car stuck (what a day…), we were able to explore a futuristic-looking landscape, complete with these strange little capsules that we later learned were hotels.
That evening we stayed near Vik, a popular site for those driving on the southern coast. We stayed in a cozy guesthouse called Guesthouse Hatun, near the famous Reynisfjara black sand beach. On the way, we stopped to see the Seljalandsfoss and Skógafoss waterfalls, located only a few minutes away from each other and a short walk from the road. The drive here is fairly easy as Vik is less than three hours from Reykjavik, and this part of Iceland’s Ring Road is more transited than up north.
Note: another option for something to do here if you have sufficient daylight (we did not) is to visit the iconic Sólheimasandur Plane Crash, the site of a 1973 U.S. Navy plane crash. Tegan’s sister visited on a later trip to Iceland and took incredible, surreal photos.
We departed Vik early in order to make it in time for our appointment to go glacier caving in Skaftafell National Park. We used Glacier Guides IS and chose the “Into the Glacier: Ice Cave and Glacier Hike Tour” option, which was about 5 hours long and fairly economical at about $45 USD each. We had a fabulous time and definitely recommend this activity.
Tip #7: Make sure you bring boots, or rent them when you get there. This would be a very challenging and slippery hike without them, and similarly to the GPS situation, despite initial skepticism (as people who generally never upgrade anything), we were glad we had them. The tour provided ice picks, crampons, helmets, and harnesses. (Note: Don’t let that list make you nervous: we didn’t have to use the ice picks and the harnesses were just for extra safety. Anybody reasonably fit can do this activity!)
After layering up and putting on our various accoutrements, we took off from the base of the Vatnajökull glacier and started an ascent upwards, crunching over fresh snow towards the yawning opening of the glacier. A special treat which is only accessible in winter (Mythbuster, Iceland in winter is boring) is the ability to go inside the naturally-occurring ice caves. These spectacular blue caves form only in the winter, when the glacier’s rivers retreat and the water then freezes. They form in different places each year, so our guide said that they spend a decent amount of time each season finding the best ones. We were a little surprised at how small the cave was (having seen massive ones on oh-so-unreliable Instagram prior to our trip), but being inside was a truly spectacular experience despite the small size.
Hiking on top of a glacier is definitely a memorable thing to do, and Iceland is one of the best places to do it!
After caving, we drove a short way to Jökulsárlón, a glacier lagoon, to see the sunset. This was definitely the highlight of our trip, and remains a top highlight of all our travels before and since. Seeing the varied hues of pink and orange reflecting off the huge lagoon, with floating chunks of icebergs drifting by (and even a seal or two!) was breathtaking. It’s important to mention that the timing here is crucial.
Tip #8: Plan to arrive well before sunset. You will want time to scope out the best place, free of other people or obstacles like road signs, to take photos and explore the area. When the sun starts to set, choose a few locations to get the best angles and directions of sunlight. We initially started out on one side and had to scurry to the other because we changed our mind about the photographic angles. It was fantastic to get to explore around the water’s edge and the beach area before the sun started setting, but the sunset itself has to be one of the world’s best. A lot of people were setting up their tripods and professional cameras, but the view is so spectacular that we got this quality of photo on an iPhone 5! See below for the “before-and-after” sunset effect!
That night, we stayed in Hofn, on a horse farm called Dynjandi Farm. By this point on the trip, you are almost 300 miles away from Reykjavik, which certainly could qualify as “middle of nowhere” territory! Trust us, it couldn’t be more wonderful. We really enjoyed talking with our hosts here, and they shared with us a lot about how Icelandic land ownership works, as well as the challenges, especially in summer, of the (then-new) spike in popularity for tourism on Iceland’s Ring Road.
Coming from the U.S., we were shocked to learn that 95% of Iceland is privately owned. Those gorgeous mountains surrounding the farm? Our hosts own them. What must it feel like to own a mountain? I guess we’ll have to keep speculating. But this leads to challenges when it comes to tourism, as the government isn’t responsible for cleaning up after tourists traversing private land. Iceland also has a well-known law that allows people to pitch a tent and camp anywhere, which has led to a lot of trash and water contamination issues that private citizens have to contend with. So, though it should go without saying… Tip #9: Don’t be a jerk, clean up after yourself. Imagine if someone trashed your backyard and left the mess for you and your family?
That night, we chose to eat out. Our hosts recommended a place in town (it ended up being the only restaurant open in town, so, hard to miss) to sample Icelandic lobster and what they called a “surf and turf,” or, Icelandic venison burger topped with lobster. While the food was tasty, we ultimately don’t recommend eating out beyond coffees or hot dogs in Iceland. It’s just not worth the premium you pay, which is much pricier than what we’d experienced at home and in other places we’ve traveled.
Our hosts made us a fabulous breakfast-in-bed (certainly a first for a hostel, right?) with traditional Icelandic fare: a few types of bread, including a delicious dark bread reminiscent of pumpernickel, as well as cheese and homemade jams and preserves. We then took off for our drive to Egilsstaðir, stopping in lots of places along the way to take photos and explore off the side of the road.
This is where Iceland’s Ring Road gets a bit more challenging, as you’ll spend most of the day winding in and out of fjords. These make for relatively slow progress, but absolutely jaw-dropping vistas. A definite perk of driving around Iceland in winter is the ability to just pull over and wander around and take photos! That evening, we were the only people staying at the guesthouse, Guesthouse Ormurinn, which was a decisively eerie feeling, but we really enjoyed chatting with our host and getting to spread out in the common area. There were all sorts of games, places to sit, and activities that suggested that the place was a madhouse in the summer, but definitely a perk of winter tourism was having the place to ourselves!
Egilsstaðir looked to us like the North Pole, so cozy and warm indoors with the snow piled outside. Be sure to take in the perks of being in a decently sized town (by Icelandic standards) because the next sizeable town you will be in is Akureyri over three hours away.
From Egilsstaðir we drove to one of our favorite places, Myvatn. Myvatn is quite the destination in summer, with tons of outdoor activities to choose from, centered around its gorgeous lake. In winter, it was a total ghost town, with all the shops shuttered and no one there. We felt almost like we were in a movie after an apocalyptic storm, but this made the experience all the more striking. We had all the attractions to ourselves and had a blast clomping around in the fresh snow and walking around. We attempted to enter the “Jon Snow Cave” from Game of Thrones, but there was so much snow blocking it that we chickened out and didn’t go all the way in. This was really the only time that we were disappointed we weren’t in Iceland during a different season, and is something we’d like to go back to see. The entire region around Lake Myvatn is really worth exploring; it’s absolutely fantastic. We saw so many friendly ponies, and the nature is truly spectacular here.
Next, another highlight of the trip: Myvatn Nature Baths, or Jarðböðin við Mývatn! This place was unbelievable. Fresh snow had just fallen, and the venue was surrounded by sparkling snow topping trees and the cozy, cottage-like bath complex. The baths are located in a nature reserve, and are surrounded by the eerie Icelandic landscape. We paid our entrance fee, and went into the separate locker rooms to change.
Tip #10: Bring your own towel, to avoid the rental charge. In order to enter the baths, you must strip totally naked in the locker room and rinse off, and then change into your swimsuit and proceed outside. It was definitely an experience to scurry barefoot through the snow and immediately submerge ourselves into the steaming water! There were maybe 2 or 3 other people there, along with the lifeguard, who was wearing a ski bib and at least 4 layers, in sharp contrast to us in our swimsuits in the water. We think that this was just as, if not more magical than if we went to the Blue Lagoon!
After getting back on the Ring Road, you will eventually pass through a 4-mile long tunnel called (yikes, pronounce this!) Fáskrúðsfjarðargöng tunnel. It will transport you to Iceland’s high plateau, where you can see Dettifoss (Iceland’s highest waterfall) and Godafoss waterfalls, both of which certainly merit a quick visit.
That night, we stayed in Akureyri, a town described in our guidebook as being so far north that it’s “a stone’s throw from the Arctic Circle.” We are very sad to report that this is, in fact, false. While not a stone’s throw away, it does have the distinction of being Iceland’s 2nd-largest city! After having spent the last several days surrounded by ponies and sheep and very minimal civilization, it felt odd to see taller buildings again, but Akureyri was also largely empty as we strolled around, and guesthouse, Apotek Guesthouse, appeared to be, too. In fact, in a strange turn of events (that has not happened to us ever again, sadly), we weren’t charged for our night at the hostel. No one ever checked us in, and our key was left on a front desk of sorts. We left it there when we departed, but we never saw a soul.
Note: Akureyri is very well-known for whale-watching. We didn’t have time to do this (and had a great experience doing a similar tour in our home city of Boston, see link here), but it is an option if you have the time and funds to spare.
Day 6 is by far the longest driving day– around five hours total, so Tip #11: make sure you leave Akureyri fairly early to take advantage of the best vistas as you drive. This is more of a DIY day, where you can drive along the Ring Road stopping as you like for photos or to stretch your legs on the side of the road. If you want to head straight back to Reykjavik if you are in a hurry you can make it back in less than five hours. We chose to detour from the ring road and stayed the night in Olafsvik, a small fishing village about ½ an hour from the Snæfellsjökull Peninsula, at a Guesthouse called Við Hafið Guesthouse, and also visited the town of Grundarfjörður.
We spent the day visiting around the Snæfellsjökull Peninsula, hiking and walking around, stopping often for photos. This peninsula had some of the weirdest landscape we had seen in all of Iceland and it felt simply otherworldly. Tip #12: Keep your eyes peeled here for beautiful places to pull over for hiking and photographs.
A few options that we loved:
- The Búðakirkja Black Church, which makes for a fabulous photograph against the mossy green backdrop and lava fields nearby,
- The site that Jules Verne used as the entrance to the Earth’s core in his classic tome Journey to the Center of the Earth,
- Climb up an inactive volcano and hike around, looking into the crater
- The westernmost point of Snæfellsnes, the black cliffs of Öndverðarnes, where there is a neat orange lighthouse called Svortuloft
- Of course the vistas of Snæfellsjökull volcano are also spectacular
Ultimately, we drove back to Reykjavik and stayed with Helga and her husband again. This concluded our time on Iceland’s Ring Road! Overall, we felt that we had sufficient time in each place, though if you have more time that’s never a bad thing!
Today. we checked off the remaining “must-do’s” in Reykjavik that we hadn’t gotten to when we first arrived, prior to embarking on Iceland’s Ring Road. We had a blast going to Reykjavik’s largest local swimming pool that evening, Laugardalslaug. Tip #13: This is a must-see that is off the beaten path, but totally worth it! It is a total locals-hangout, and felt much more authentic than other geothermal pool and spa options we had seen. It genuinely seemed like normal Icelanders went there at night to steam, exercise, and hang out with friends. It has a large outdoor pool (with heated water), several hot and cold tubs, as well as facilities for kids. It was packed with Icelanders, and we were perhaps the only tourists there.
That night, we also decided to go clubbing in Reykjavik, and had a blast! The clubs were all packed with young people and we had a great time dancing and people-watching. Tip #16: Designate one person as a designated driver. Unlike in other countries, Iceland has a zero-tolerance drinking policy, and you aren’t allowed to operate a vehicle if you’ve had even a sip of alcohol. The police breathalyze people regularly and take this very seriously.
Sadly, today was our last day in Iceland! We returned “Vroom Vroom Car” to Sixt and departed to go back home, after eating as much Skyr.is as we could, of course.
A few notes:
- We did not see the Northern Lights. Mythbuster: Anyone who tells you “you’ll definitely see them! It’s easy!” is lying to you. Even in winter, which is the best/easiest time to see them, it’s a total toss up. For us, sadly, it didn’t work out. We tried every night (especially the nights when we were really far out and away from light pollution), but the cloud coverage was simply too strong. Tip #15: If there’s cloud coverage, it’s probably impossible to see them. We decided that given the percentage of cloud coverage predicted (which we tracked on this great site!) paying for a tour was too big of a risk. We have friends who did and saw them, but also friends who went out 3 nights in a row and saw nothing.
- We did not go to the Blue Lagoon. We felt it catered way too much to tourists and the price point was eye-popping compared to every other thermal bath we looked into. Ultimately, even several years later we are at peace with this decision! We had an absolute blast having Myvatn Nature Baths all to ourselves, and really loved the “locals vibe” of the Reykjavik pool complex Laugardalslaug. Ultimately, the choice is yours– the Blue Lagoon has been popular for years on social media, but, similarly to Szechenyi Baths in Budapest, the tourist hype is a big detraction for us.
- The Icelandic government runs a fabulous website that live-updates road conditions. This site is a godsend, as the government reserves the right to close roads in winter that are too slippery, dangerous, or impassable due to snow or other debris. The site tells you all about the most up-to-date closures, and even lets you map out alternative routes. We had to use it a few times, but overall most of the roads were clear and open.
- It’s easy to just use your credit card here, and in fact, encouraged. While we always stop at our local AAA and order some cash before a trip, you likely won’t need much of it.