Five of the best road trips in Iceland

Driving is the best way to explore Iceland. From serpentine fjords in the north to smoking volcanoes and calving glaciers in the south, there are weeks’ worth of natural spectacles to take in.

The black sand beach at Stokksnes, beneath Vestrahorn mountain in southeast Iceland.

Photograph by Getty Images
By Jamie Lafferty
Published 24 Aug 2021, 06:07 BST

It can be easy to forget while in metropolitan Reykjavík, but despite its rapid development over the last decade, Iceland is still a very sparsely populated country. For a beautiful reminder of just how empty most of it is — and how unspoilt — jump in a car and head out on a road trip. From serpentine fjords in the north west to smoking volcanoes and calving glaciers in the south, there are weeks’ worth of variety and distractions. Stock up in a supermarket before setting out, plan your route properly and it won’t be long before you realise that driving is undoubtably the best way to explore Iceland.

1. The Golden Circle

It may be synonymous with mass tourism, but there’s a good reason the Golden Circle is so enormously popular. Starting in Reykjavík, the 155-mile loop can be comfortably driven in a single day, allowing you to get back to your plush hotel in the capital in time for dinner. Many people choose to take their time, however, especially as there are so many attractions along the way. The highlights for many are the beautiful Thingvellir National Park, home of some world-renowned trout fishing and the Silfra dive site, and the sensational Gullfoss, or golden falls, a multitiered waterfall that thunders into a canyon, shooting out rainbows like fireworks.

2. The Westfjords Way

Thanks to the arrival of the Dýrafjarðargong Tunnel, it’s now possible to complete a satisfying loop of the Westfjords. The route remains rather higgledy-piggledy thanks to the region’s astonishing topography, but it’s now much more accessible for a two or three-day loop. The experiences are remarkably varied for this sparsely populated area, from open-air hot spring bathing to the downright weird Museum of Icelandic Sorcery and Witchcraft. Settlements — and so petrol stations and supermarkets — are few and far between, so plan accordingly before setting out. If you find yourself hungry along the serrated north coast, look out for the excellent Litlibaer cafe.

3. The Arctic Coast Way

Though only christened in 2019, the Arctic Coast Way has been a vital artery for North Iceland for decades. For tourists, the idea is to start or end in the village of Hvammstangi and follow the eclectic coastline of seven peninsulas — each with their own characteristics and charms — ending 560 miles later at Bakkafjörður in the east of the country. The length of the trip is likely to hinge on how long you spend in Iceland’s second city of Akureyri and how many days (if any) you have to wait for optimal whale-watching conditions in Husavik just north of there. 

Read more: How to explore Iceland's Arctic Coast Way 

4. The South Coast

There are so many attractions along Iceland’s south coast that it runs second only to the Golden Circle in terms of traffic. The competition is incredibly stiff, but Skógafoss may well be Iceland’s prettiest waterfall, while nearby you’ll want to stop at the black beach of Reynisfjara, the rear of which is guarded by imposing basalt cliffs. Continuing east, the fantastical Jökulsárlón is similarly unmissable — this glacial lake has icebergs drifting out to sea like a ghost fleet of ships, though some break apart before that, their remnants washing up on Diamond Beach. Ideally take two days to reach the fishing village of Höfn from Reykjavík, then turn back or commit to the Ring Road.

5. The Ring Road

This is the big one, the mother road around the entire nation. A trip circumnavigating Iceland could take as much time as you have spare. From a practical point of view, most drivers try to complete it in under 10 days, and while that would allow you to cover the greatest hits, it wouldn’t allow for much delay or detouring. Taking in the southern coast, as well as the Arctic Coast Way and the Golden Circle, it also gives you the chance to visit East Iceland, a region that very few travellers explore. Expect scenic fishing villages, yet more fjords, and a sense of exploring the unknown.

Discover more stories in our Iceland travel guide

Published in the September 2021 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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