My husband Ben and I had the best time in Iceland this July. If you, too, enjoy hot springs, camping, and puffins, or you’ve been wanting to see for yourself what the hype is all about, feel free to use our itinerary.
Fly to Iceland with WOW airlines. Stretch out in XXL seats. Don’t get caught sleeping with your mouth open unless you really trust your seatmate.
Stock up on beer and Brennivín in duty free.
Get a brand new rental car–a white Hyundai hatchback will do nicely, but make sure you remember which white Hyundai hatchback is yours each time you try to get in. Make sure it has a navigation system since you’re directionally challenged. Frowning at that National Geographic Adventure map every few minutes isn’t fooling anyone.
Pick up miscellaneous camping gear at Iceland Camping Rental, find a cafe in Reykjavík, get some caffeine in your bloodstream, text everyone that you’re alive and well, and get groceries at Bonus.
Leave for Þingvellir National Park and marvel at how quickly your surroundings turn lush and magical. Set up camp and make dinner while trying not to inhale too many gnats.
Take a late evening stroll to Öxarárfoss, a beautiful little waterfall actually created by the Vikings back in the day.
Fortify yourself for snorkeling in 2 degrees Celsius water in Silfra, where you will snorkel between the North Atlantic and Eurasian tectonic plates. (Can you observe signs of tectonic activity from dry land? Sure. But you’ll never know what it’s like to drink glacier water and swim in it at the same time.)
Tour Þingvellir (aka Thingvellir), where Viking chieftains from around the country assembled and held the first parliament. If you’re lucky, your Icelandic tour guide will be moved to sing a few verses of a patriotic song.
Continue your tour of the Golden Circle, stopping at the Geysir Hot Springs area, featuring mud pots, steaming pools of water, and of course a geyser that erupts every several minutes.
You’re only 15 minutes away from the next marvel, Gullfoss–a very impressive two-tiered waterfall.
Spend a leisurely morning at Gamla Laugin (Secret Lagoon) in Flúðir, a naturally heated swimming pool built over a hundred years ago. It accommodates multiple buses of tourists and has a modern cafe without sacrificing good vibes and rustic charm.
Hike around Kerið, a volcanic crater lake, where the legendary Björk performed on a raft while the audience sat on the slope.
Stock up on groceries again at Bonus in Selfoss (we probably should have joined a member rewards program) and follow the Ring Road in a counter-clockwise direction. Set up camp at the site of the iconic waterfalls Seljalandsfoss and Gljúfrafoss. Both falls are unique in that they are impressive yet approachable–walk behind Seljalandsfoss, and work your way underneath and around the rock that obscures the bottom part of Gljúfrafoss (the “Hidden Waterfall”). Don’t worry about getting the perfect photo and enjoy the splendor.
Visit the black sand beach called Reynisfjara near the seaside village Vík and check out Reynisdrangar, dramatic basalt columns that looks like The Devil’s Postpile in Mammoth, California. The crowd thins out as you continue walking down the shore, but beware of rogue waves if you choose to do any rock scrambling.
On the way to Skaftafell, you’ll pass otherworldly lava fields covered in a uniform layer of dried lichens for as far as you can see. Don’t pass up a small but beautiful canyon called Fjaðrárgljúfur. It’s a short detour from Ring Road, and a trail takes you along the ledge of the canyon all the way to the waterfall at the end.
You might think you’ve seen all you can possibly see in one day but you’re just getting warmed up. This is summer in Iceland and the sun doesn’t go down for several hours.
Once you get to Skaftafell National Park, you have a plethora of hiking trails to choose from. A relatively ambitious activity that would take some advance planning is a guided glacier walk, or you could do what we did and hike a trail that takes you very close to a glacier, which is pretty neat.
End the day with a trip to Jökulsárlón, a peaceful lagoon filled with icebergs floating towards the sea. Some formations are Gatorade blue and others are streaked black with volcanic ash. Stay awhile and absorb the subtlety and the drama of the place. Keep an eye out for seals and for precariously stacked icebergs that are liable to crash down at any moment.
Drive to Höfn, and you’re now in southeastern Iceland. The big ticket attractions are less concentrated once you’ve left the southern region, but the driving becomes even more scenic as the Ring Road follows the in-and-out curves of the fjords. In this small harbor village, fill up on some seafood and walk along the waterfront.
Enjoy the relatively long drive to Egilsstaðir, where you’ll find a popular campsite and hostel.
If there’s one must-see town in the east, it’s Seyðisfjörður, situated on the water. With a rainbow colored path leading down the main “street” to an adorable sky blue church, it’s a highly photogenic locale. Burn off some road trip snacks with a steep hike above the town, passing a few waterfalls and checking out the interesting art installation Tvísöngur, which is essentially a cluster of echoing concrete domes. Pick out some hand knitted souvenirs in one of the craft shops before moving on.
The next destination is a fjord called Borgarfjörður eystri, which has one of the most laid-back and appealing campsites in Iceland. It’s also a five minute drive to a wonderful puffin colony called Hafnarhólmi. I suggest you visit at different times of day to experience the area in different lighting and because puffins might congregate in larger numbers at certain times. (We saw dozens in the evening and hundreds in the morning the next day.)
After your second or third visit to the puffin colony, each visit more captivating than the last, get ready for another relatively long drive to Mývatn. Stop at the incredibly powerful Dettifoss, taking the route that leads to the protected side of the falls if tourists standing inches away from certain death makes you squeamish.
Stop by a geothermal area called Hverir, where overpoweringly thick, sulfur-scented steam greets you at the parking lot. The bubbling mudpots and steaming fumaroles are delightful to see close up.
The area’s major campsite, Bjarg, is situated on the shore of the volcanic lake Mývatn, boasting an idyllic background that admittedly is somewhat hard to enjoy in the rain. Fortunately, most campsites have indoor kitchen areas and this one is no exception.
After dinner, visit the Mývatn Nature Baths, known as the Blue Lagoon of the North, and in my humble opinion the best Blue Lagoon of them all. (Full disclosure: we skipped the most famous one, near Reykjavík). Relax in luxury, have a lifeguard bring you a beer, and gaze at the surrounding landscape until closing at midnight, when you’ll have the whole place almost to yourself for awhile.
The Nature Baths may be the ultimate highlight of Mývatn, depending on whether or not you’re a huge Game of Thrones fan, in which case another hot springs competes for #1. The water filled cave Grjótagjá used to be a popular bathing spot, but the hot spring itself is now off-limits to the public. Now, it is known for being the location of a steamy scene involving Jon Snow. (I’m not a GOT fan myself but it was pretty cool.) From there, hike on over to the humongous crater called Hverfjall, which measures over a kilometer across at the rim.
Another sight worth seeing is Dimmuborgir, a lava field where jagged, towering rock formations and caves inspire stories about trolls.
Continue one of the final legs of the Ring Road trip, stopping at Iceland’s second largest city, Akureyri. There is plenty of shopping, dining and drinking to do in town, not to mention an interesting church and botanical gardens to explore. However, we spent most of our time at Hamrar, another awesome campsite featuring a ropes course and other remnants of a kids’ sleep-away camp.
One more fantastic hot springs experience awaits you. Set the GPS to Hveragerði, not far from Reykjavík, completing your circumnavigation of the island. From a convenient parking lot near the campsite, a trails leads up and along the springs river, with green rollings hills and steam rising up everywhere you look. After passing several boiling pools, you’ll come to the part of the river, marked with partitions to change into your bathing suit, where the water is just right for a soak.
Spend the day in the capital doing whatever your heart desires. The National Museum has a fascinating collection of artifacts from the Settlement Era as well as religious art and contemporary objects. You can even try on traditional women’s riding garb (it’s very cumbersome).
While going out is expensive anywhere in Iceland, there are happy hours to be found all over Reykjavík, and we even chanced upon some free live music. Find the locals’ favorite hot dog cart for a relatively cheap snack.
For dinner, definitely go to The Sea Baron restaurant in Old Harbor for lobster soup and salmon skewers. There were probably ten ingredients total in our meal and it was perfect.
Squeeze in one more activity, or just find a good breakfast spot, and begin your journey home.