Discovering Iceland is like a magical adventure. This fairytale island has a variety of landscapes, which makes you wonder if all of that is even real. From volcanic plains, geysers, giant waterfalls, extensive nature, colorful hot springs, rainbows and of course the mesmerising Aurora Borealis: the Northern Lights. In Iceland you’ll meet all the elements in one place: earth, (frozen)water, fire and wind. But before you go off and visit Iceland, here are some tips to make your road trip go nice and easy. And most important: unforgettable!
1. Take your time, but plan wisely ahead
Depending on the time you have in Iceland, you’ll have to make some choices. You simply cannot see all of Iceland because it’s so big. If you have a week to spend, you’ll have about enough time to drive around the southern part of Iceland. If you want to travel longer distances, it might be a good idea to book a domestic flight. In many cases this is faster and cheaper!
Be sure to plan your route up front and be realistic. The time of year, the weather, the amount of daylight and the road conditions may slow you down. Also book your car, hotels and excursions in advance, especially in the high season they can be sold out quickly.
Iceland has many quirky attractions that you may not have thought of, so be sure be plan for those as well.
2. Visit Iceland during October to March
If you want to see the northern lights, plan you visit during the cold winter months, anywhere between early October up to March. This natural phenomenon is a beautiful light show surprisingly caused by the sun. But to see the lights it has to be a clear, cold, cloudless and pitch dark winter night (that also means possible snow and ice on the roads). Because the sun barely sets during the Summer (June to August), chances are small to see the lights. Best place to see it? Drive up to the north, to Lake Myvatn. In the southern and west part chances are also smaller. Best time? Between 22:00 – 03:00, due to the high solar activity.
3. Rent the right car
Because Island is so extensive, the distances between towns and many attractions can be quite long. So the best way to explore Iceland is by rental car. A car allows you to see a lot more and you can determine your own route. On the way you can stay overnight in various places. And explore the attraction nearby the next day!
Car hire can be quite expensive (as is almost everything in Iceland) as the competition is high. So be sure to book your car in advance on a comparison website like EasyTerra and see what cars are available. If you’re not visiting Iceland in the winter and you’re only planning to drive the main paved roads, a regular two wheel drive is sufficient. When you’re planning to do the complete opposite: riding on gravel, dirt, snow and ice: do rent a 4WD. You’re going to need a car that can handle (wintery) rough situations. You can check the road conditions real time at Vegagerdin.
Save yourself some money by renting a diesel car because gas is more expensive. And don’t worry if you ran out, because there are plenty of service stations along the way. Do keep in mind, Iceland has very strict rules and high fines regarding to alcohol use, traffic – and speed violating. To rent a car in Iceland you must be 21 years old. To drive a 4WD you must be 23.
4. Pack the right clothing and gear
The weather in Iceland can change quickly, so pack warm and layered clothing. Must haves are a thermo shirt/pants/socks, a warm hat and gloves, a fleece sweater and a waterproof jacket. In the winter it’s of course wise to bring a thick winter coat. Also don’t forget to pack your hiking shoes because some hiking is acquired at most attractions. Never go on the road without a telephone, credit card, GPS, (a downloaded) map, warm clothing, drinks and food.
5. Drive at least one of these roads
#1: Drive the Golden Circle (±270 km – 167 miles)
Because it’s the ideal road to take when you don’t have a lot of time on your hands, it’s the most popular region amongst tourists. But it’s absolutely worth it. You can complete the ‘circle’ within a day. If you don’t want to feel rushed, drive it in two days (with a stop overnight). Starting from Reykjavik it’s a 45 minute drive to the first stop (Kerið).
Officially the Golden Circle has three stops: Gullfoss, Geysir and Þingvellir National Park. You can expand your road trip adding these others spots:
● Kerið: a huge crater lake filled with blue water. Formed by a volcanic explosion 3000 years ago.
● Skáholt: in this little town the first cathedral of Iceland was built. You can still visit the cathedral! It’s a peaceful place with a great view.
● Faxafoss: a beautiful wide waterfall. A lot of tourists skip this waterfall and go straight to the bigger ones, so this one can be quite intimate.
● Gullfoss: Iceland’s most famous and biggest waterfall. Gullfoss means golden waterfall, because the water often creates rainbows.
● Geysir: an inactive geyser in Iceland’s most geothermally active area Haukadalur. Although Geysir is no longer active, it’s little brother Strokkur is. This one erupts every 4 to 8 minutes.
● Þingvellir National Park: one of Iceland’s three national parks. This one is known for the fracture line between the tectonic plates of Europe and America. They slide apart 2.5 cm each year. In the park you can also find Iceland’s largest lake, more beautiful waterfalls and lava fields.
#2: Drive the Diamond Circle (±260 km – 161 miles)
The Diamond Circle is located in northeast Iceland and is less known than the Golden Circle. Like the Golden Circle, the Diamond circle takes you along several highlights of Iceland:
● Mývatn: Iceland’s third biggest lake that never completely freezes because of the underground resources. In and around the lake you can find over 115 kinds of birds! Nearby are:
○ Námaskarð: an area filled with steaming sulfuric mud and hot springs.
○ Dimmuborgir: also known as Black Fortress, an area with dramatic shaped lava cliffs and pillars, ideal for a hiking trip. Don’t forget to take a photo at the ‘hole’.
○ Hverfell: take a hike to the edge of this 2500 year old volcano. From up there you’ll get a great view over Myvatn.
○ Krafla: a volcano which last erupted in 1984. Nearby is the impressive geothermal Krafla power plant. This power plant generates all the green energy for the entire country.
● Húsavík: This charming town is the best place to go on a whale watching safari. In the harbor boats go out daily to spot the whales. (Best sightings are in the summer).
● Dettifoss: Europe’s most powerful waterfall. It’s 44 meter high and 100 meters wide. A very impressive sight.
● Ásbyrgi: a 3,5 km long and 1,1 km wide horseshoe shaped canyon. Legend tells the gap was created when Sleipnir, a eight-legged horse of God odin, accidentally set foot on earth and left a footprint here.
6. Take a dive into the ‘hidden’ thermal baths
It’s a short drive (about an hour) from Reykjavik to Iceland’s number 1 attraction: The Blue Lagoon. A geothermal bath located in the middle of lava fields, known for having a healing effect. Most tourists visit this bath after their arrival in Reykjavik. The availability is limited so pre-booking is required. Some say your stay isn’t complete without a visit to the Blue Lagoon, therefore it can be very crowded.
But Iceland is filled with dozens of hot springs, and most of them are free! The entrance fee of the Blue Lagoon starts at 6100 ISK, about $58. To find all the other (geothermal) swimming pools, you can check out Hotpot Iceland.
7. Try Iceland’s ‘cuisine’
The old Icelanders had to do a lot of effort to find food. So what they could find to eat, they made ready for consumption. One of those meals is kæstur Hákarl, meaning ripened shark. Nowadays a national delicacy. Not every restaurant serves it, because it has a strong and penetrating smell. It’s is available in most supermarkets, but you’ll have to be a daredevil to try it.
A less smelly delicacy is Icelandic national drink Brennivin, made of potatoes with a strong cumin flavor. But no worries they also serve normal dishes, most of them made of ingredients found locally: sheep (kindakjöt) , lamb (lambakjöt), different types of fish (fiskur) served with potatoes (kartöflur). Also don’t forget to try the Rúgbrauð, a sweet, dark rye bread baked by the warmth of the earth. Or have Skyr, it’s a kind of soft cheese looking like yoghurt. It’s a low fat, nutritious and very tasty. Ideal for breakfast or dessert!
8. Go on an unforgettable excursion
Complete your stay and go on one of the many thrilling excursion Iceland offers you. You can go:
● horse riding on an Icelandic horse (Mývatn) or dog sledding (Reykjavik)
● go spot Iceland’s wildlife on a whale safari (Reykjavik, Dalvik, Husavik), orca safari (Snæfellsnes) or puffin safari (Ingólfshöfði)
● take an exciting snowmobile ride (Mýrdalsjökull, Langjökull, Vatnajökull) or quad ride (Reykjanes)
● go inside a volcano (Thrihnukagigur), ice cave (Vatnajökull) or lava cave (Lofthellir, Leiðarendi)
● go explore the underwater world by snorkeling and diving (Silfra)
● or view Iceland from above in a helicopter tour
Have you ever been to Iceland? What tips do you have?