The Iceland Ring Road, otherwise referred to as Road Nr. 1, is the major route that circumnavigates Iceland. The Ring Road is famed for the wide range of unforgettable natural attractions that can be found enroute, but what accommodation options are available along the way, and what is there to see and do in each of Iceland’s four corners?
Iceland covers a total area of 103,000 km² (40,000 sq mi), meaning that its many attractions are found dispersed across the country’s stunning, yet easily differentiable regions. For those looking to see it all, navigating this wild and eclectic landscape is a necessity that will require either a guided tour or the willingness to drive oneself.
Fortuitously, the Ring Road makes both options easy, trailing the island’s coastlines—save for both the Westfjords and Snæfellsnes Peninsula—bringing you to the doorstep of countless points-of-interest, fishing villages and towns. The route covers a total distance of 1,332 kilometres long (828 mi), and is open to travel in all seasons (with the exception of a small eastern passage that is often blocked with heavy snowfall during the winter).
Summerhouses and cottages serve perfectly as a stopover en route, with many visitors utilizing the opportunity to stay in numerous cottages within a single trip. After all, these isolated homes boast an idyllic setting, privacy and range of comforts and amenities. As such, the experience of staying in a cottage often exceeds that of a modern hotel due to its authenticity and memorability. So without further ado, let us explore just what delights, and accommodation options, can found on the Ring Road.
Before Getting On the Ring Road
But, before we hit the Ring Road, let us first look at what can be experienced from your departure point; the illustrious Capital Region. Almost all visitors to Iceland will, at one point or another, visit the country’s charming capital city, Reykjavík. Keflavík International, the island’s only major airport, is located a mere forty minutes away from the city, and only fifteen minutes from one of the country’s major attractions, the Blue Lagoon Spa.
The Blue Lagoon provides, without a doubt, one of the best means of beating jet-lag, immediately serving its clientele a healthy bowl of pampered relaxation. While soothing themselves in these steaming, azure waters, guests are treated to the peninsula’s gorgeous surrounding scenery. Another of the Blue Lagoon’s many drawers is its mineral-rich silica mud, known to be highly beneficial for a healthier skin.
Most guests choose to visit the Blue Lagoon on their day of arrival, or departure, due to its close proximity to the airport. However, competition is high for places, so make sure to book your Blue Lagoon experience as soon as you know the dates of your holiday. Aside from the Blue Lagoon, guests on the Reykjanes Peninsula could choose to visit such attractions as the Bridge over the Continents, Gunnuhver hot spring or the region’s largest lake, Kleifarvatn.
- Find cabins for rent in Reykjanes here
Beginning Your Journey
Reykjavík is as good a place as any to begin your journey along the Ring Road and will, for a day or two, require the majority of your attention. Translating to ‘Smokey Bay’ thanks to nearby geothermal fields, Reykjavík is a city renowned for its unique, yet Nordic culture, fascinating history and gorgeous surrounding nature. This is to say nothing of the eclectic restaurants, cafes and bars that make both dining and drinking downtown a true pleasure.
Impeccably safe, Reykjavík is the perfect city for a nighttime stroll, particularly the area of Grandi, which boasts the Old Harbour, as well as some of the country’s finest cuisine. The city also sports a number of important cultural landmarks, including Harpa Concert Hall, Hallgrimskirkja Lutheran Church and Perlan Museum and Observation Deck, the perfect spot for a citywide view.
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And, whilst in the southwest area, it is highly recommended that guests visit Iceland’s most popular sightseeing route, the Golden Circle. Covering a total of 300 kilometres (186 miles), the Golden Circle is comprised of three major attractions: Þingvellir National Park, Haukadalur Geothermal Valley and the stunning Gullfoss waterfall. Þingvellir is, of course, famed for its exposed tectonic plates, as well as being historically significant, whilst Haukadalur is the one place you can find the sputtering hot springs, Geysir and Strokkur.
Still, with so much to see and do, time is of the essence. And so, let us now begin our trip around the land of ice and fire.
The South Coast
The South Coast is one of Iceland’s most popular sightseeing regions, a fact due to its abundance of glittering waterfalls, black sand beaches and glacial lagoons. Looking to glacier hike? No problem. Fancy paragliding? Not an issue. How about seeing a real-life plane wreck? The South Coast has you covered.
Two staple attractions along the South Coast are the majestic waterfalls, Seljalandsfoss and Skógafoss, both of which rumble over the lip of an ancient sea cliff that stands a towering 60 metres high. Seljalandsfoss is known for its narrower cascade, alongside the shallow cavern that, following a walking path, can be entered for a unique perspective behind the falls.
Skógafoss, on the other hand, is a much wider curtain of water, plummeting directly into a shallow rock pool below. With an observation deck at the top of the falls, it is possible to see and photograph Skógafoss from a number of different angles, making it a particularly beloved spot for shutterbugs.
Reynisfjara black sand beach is another one of the South Coast’s staple stops, in large part due to the iconic rock stack, Reynisdrangar, that overlooks the nearby coastline and the fishing village of Vík í Mýrdal.
A little further along the South Coast, one can find the village of Kirkjubæjarklaustur, itself home to the holiday rental, Garðshorn Cottage. This lakeside property boasts three bedrooms and is able to accommodate for ten people sleeping. It is a useful stopover point for those wishing to split their time on the South Coast into two days, as there are still many major attractions left to be discovered in the region.
Of course, there can be no forgetting Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon, located further along the coast within Vatnajökull National Park (biggest glacier in Europe). Sitting at the base of Skaftafell Nature Reserve, this lagoon is often referred to as “the Crown Jewel of Iceland” thanks to its stunning and ethereal aesthetic. Guests here will have the opportunity to take either an amphibious or zodiac boat ride to get a closer inspection of these icebergs, as well to maybe catch a glance of the curious seals that call the lagoon home.
Only few minutes walk from Jökulsárlón, one will find the Diamond Beach, a volcanic shoreline littered with stowaway icebergs. Because of the incredible contrasts in colour and texture between the ice, ocean and jet-black pebbles, the Diamond Beach is considered something of a paradise amongst nature lovers and photographers. Those looking to stay locally overnight could check out Gerði mountain huts. It is located in the village of Höfn and able to accommodate two people in a single room.
- Find cottages for rent in South of Iceland here
The East fjords of Iceland can best be characterized by its fantastical scenery, though equally, its mystery—because the region sits at the opposite end of the country from the Capital Region, the east is easily overlooked as a “Must See” destination, thus sees fewer visitors than elsewhere. Known to locals as ‘Austurland’, the Eastfjords is the country’s sunniest region, but also its least populated, with only 3.2% of Iceland’s 335,000 strong population calling the area home.
Unsurprisingly, there are a great many attractions to the east, the most dramatic and famous of which is Vestrahorn. The mountain, found on the Stokksnes Peninsula, is one of the region’s many visual treats, providing a ripe example as to just how ethereal, haunting and angular Iceland’s geology can be. Over recent years, Vestrahorn has for good reason become a must-visit spot for photographers and filmmakers, even serving as a backdrop for the 2015 Bollywood film, ‘Dilwale’.
The town of Seyðisfjörður is one of your best bets for staying in the Eastfjords and, thankfully, there are accommodation options to fit. Take for instance the three-bedroom property Einsdæmi, an aesthetically pleasing historical home—it was constructed in 1907—that can sleep 10 people, as well as provide easy access to such local amenities as Seyðisfjörður swimming pool and the Skaftfell Centre of Visual Arts.
Another important spot within the Eastfjords is Lake Lagarfljót. According to legend an enormous monster known only as “The Lagarfljót Wyrm” is said to inhabit its depths—something of an Icelandic Loch Ness Monster.
Nearby to the lake, guests will also find Iceland’s largest national forest, Hallormsstaðaskógur, covering a total of 750 acres, as well as withholding the only village in the country to be entirely surrounded by woodland. Iceland has largely been stripped of its forests—a consequence of the initial settlement period where timber was necessary to facilitate the beginning of civilisation—however, Hallormsstaðaskógur provides an example of what Iceland’s future might be like should afforestation efforts continue to succeed around the country.
- Find summerhouses for rent in the Eastfjords here
Lake Mývatn is famed for its glittering blue body, wealth of nearby natural attractions and alluring volcanic landscapes. Covering a total of 37 km² (14 sq mi), this volcanic lake makes up one of the crucial stops along the popular northern sightseeing route, the Diamond Circle, alongside the village of Húsavík—the whale watching capital of Europe—Goðafoss and Dettifoss waterfalls and, on certain tours, the horseshoe-shaped canyon of Ásbyrgi.
One of the Mývatn area’s most popular sites is Námaskarð Pass, a geothermal area that closely resembles a Martian landscape with its bright red sand and pillars of billowing white stream.
A number of wooden walkways make navigating this area easy, with information boards providing further detail as to the geological forces that make such heated activity at the surface possible. Aside from the otherworldly, sci-fi aesthetic, guests to Námaskarð will also be able to appreciate a number of bubbling geothermal pools and fumaroles, with the strong scent of sulphur ever present in the air.
Akureyri, the unofficial capital of the north, is a stunning and ever-evolving spot that, because of its minute population, manages to maintain the air of a pleasant college town. As good fortune would have it, the Ring Road passes directly through the town, making it an excellent destination from which to take such tours as Whale Watching, or merely to soak in its urban ambience with a streak of souvenir shopping.
Despite its vibrant nightlife, historic old town and cultural treats—the Botanical Gardens and the Aviation Museum being just two examples—it is almost impossible to separate Akureyri from its surrounding fjord, woodland and meadows. Without a doubt, it is one of the best examples of urban development in the country, making getting a cottage close by a true pleasure. Two notable options for holiday rentals include this Luxury cottage, with its modernist architect, sweeping views of Akureyri, hot tub, and BBQ facilities, and the sleek and comfortable Casa Magna holiday home.
But, as the Ring Road dictates, we must continue our journey westward toward another of the north’s attractions, Hvítserkur, a 15-metre high rock stack often referred to as the ‘troll of the northwest’.
Translating to “White Shirt” due to the abundance of guano, or bird droppings, the rock stack makes for an extremely photogenic feature, as well as an excellent spot to observe birdlife. Though you wouldn’t know it, the base of Hvítserkur has been reinforced with large concrete blocks in order to protect against further erosion from the wind, sea and rain.
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Located in the West’s Borgarfjörður district, guests will have a chance to experience two more stunning waterfalls, Barnafoss and Hraunfossar. Hraunfossar is, in fact, a series of mini-falls seeping out from an adjacent lava field, and sports fantastic orange and red rock colouring. Thus, it should come as no surprise that Hraunfossar translates to “lava falls”.
Only a short distance away is the bright blue Barnafoss, otherwise known as “the Waterfall of the Children”. According to a rather creepy legend, a stone walkway or rock arch once crossed Barnafoss’ cascading water, and was often utilised by townsfolks as a means of getting to church and back.
One fateful day, a local woman attending church decided to leave her sons at home—boys being boys, however, they followed cautiously behind her, finally arriving to Barnafoss’ stone walkway. Though details are murky, the boys both fell into the waterfall’s rumbling white water, perishing from the accident, and causing their mother untold grief. In her anguish, it is said that she turned to sorcery in order to destroy the walkway—fairytale or not, the rock arch exists no more.
Deildartunguhver is Europe’s fastest flowing thermal spring, pumping water out at an incredible 180 litres (380 pints) per second. Located in the west Iceland district of Reykholtsdalur, the thermal spring is piping hot—97 degrees Celsius (207 degrees Fahrenheit)—and is thus utilized for heating nearby towns such as Borgarnes and Akranes.
Another of many uses is to heat the tranquil waters of Krauma Spa. In truth, the water is blended with glacial water from Iceland’s smallest ice cap, Ok (rhymes with ‘talk’), achieving a delicate and comforting balance that culminates in two saunas, six geothermal baths and two steam baths. Open the year round, the spa also manages Krauma Restaurant, an establishment dedicated to providing authentic Icelandic cuisine with fresh and locally sourced ingredients.
Those interested in staying in the area could try such rental properties as the two-bedroom Eyjatjörn Cottage, a quaint 45 m2 home built amidst nature, and benefitting from such amenities as an organic vegetable patch, outdoor trampoline and picturesque terrace. Those looking to stay beside Iceland’s lakes and mountains could find no better option than this. Another choice, however, could be Hlíð Cottage, situated close to Akranes on a stunning and scenic hillside, and sporting comfortable accommodation for up to 5 people.
- Find cabins for rent in the West of Iceland here
Following the road south, you will eventually arrive back to the capital, Reykjavík, skipping past the glorious Snæfellsnes Peninsula, with full knowledge that you will one day return to discover its wealth of natural attractions. And so, with the Ring Road having been completed, you can rest easy in the knowledge that you’ve seen the very best that Iceland has to offer.