A road trip around Iceland’s Ring Road is by far the best way to experience our country’s breathtaking scenery. Massive glaciers, careening waterfalls, bubbling hot springs, fiery volcanoes, and many more natural attractions dot our landscape. Looking at an Iceland Ring Road map, you'll see that the country's highlights are scattered all around the island. Let's take a look at where everything is located so that you can best plan your Iceland Ring Road itinerary for the trip of a lifetime.
Iceland Ring Road general information
Before we discuss all of the things to do on your Iceland Ring Road tour, let’s orient ourselves a little bit. Iceland’s Highway 1, as the Ring Road is officially known, is 1,332 km (828 miles) long. It's a mostly paved motorway with a single lane going in each direction. If you were to drive around it without stopping, it would take you about 16 to 18 hours to complete the loop. This is, of course, assuming that the weather is good, which is a big assumption to make in Iceland.
And of course, you’ll also want just stop along the way to visit all of the country’s incredible sights. A Ring Road itinerary of seven days is the norm for many travelers. If you have time to do a 10-day itinerary in Iceland, that's even better. And 14 days is ideal because it gives you time to really get to know our small Nordic island in depth.
But before you decide on where to go in Iceland, you need to know what there is to see. Let's look at an Iceland map and travel counter-clockwise driving Iceland’s Ring Road as we explore the country’s regions along with the top destinations of each area. While South Iceland gets much of the fanfare, there are plenty of other spots around the island that deserve your time and are worthy of a visit.
South Iceland is the most visited part of the island for road trips. This is due to both its proximity to Reykjavik and the capital region as well as the high concentration of important sights. Many of the most famous and well-known highlights are located in this region. You will see a lot if you stick to just the South Coast, so let's look at all of the attractions it has to offer.
Reykjavik and the capital region
All international visitors fly into Keflavik Airport close to Reykjavik, which is the country’s vibrant and cosmopolitan capital city. From here, you're only about 40 minutes away from The Blue Lagoon, a large geothermal spa. The lagoon and its healing silica-infused turquoise blue waters are Iceland's most visited tourist attraction. If you'd like to get closer to nature, I'd suggest visiting the Reykjadalur hot springs and bathing in Iceland’s hot river.
The Golden Circle Route
One of the most popular day trips from Reykjavik is hiring a rental car and driving the 237 km (147-mile) Golden Circle route. There are three main attractions along Iceland's most famous drive tour. Thingvellir National Park is home to both Iceland's first parliament and the Silfra fissure. This Game of Thrones filming location is where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates come together. It’s possible to go scuba diving in the large, impressive rift in the Earth's crust.
Next up is the Haukadalur geothermal valley with the Strokkur and Geysir geysers and finally Gullfoss waterfall. There are several other stops along the circuit, but these are the main ones.
While The Big Three of the Golden Circle get most of the attention, there are actually almost a dozen other detours you can take on the circuit. Langjökull glacier is a place for snowmobiling and other outdoor fun. The Fontana Geothermal Baths give you another chance to experience Iceland's bathing culture and get warmed up. The Kerið Crater is an extinct volcanic crater that will leave you in awe of Mother Nature's power. And the Sólheimar Ecovillage shows you a simpler, more eco-friendly way of life.
Beyond the Golden Circle
Further along the South Coast, you've got Skógafoss waterfall, which you can climb, and Seljalandsfoss waterfall. This spectacular cascade is called The Beauty because it's Iceland’s most beautiful waterfall. And of course, there's the haunting Sólheimasandur plane wreck site. Continue along Highway 1 until you've reached the gorgeous black sand beach at Vik and Reynisfjara. Just as a quick tip, after Vik you're going to be heading east towards a part of the country doesn't have many gas stations. Fill up to make sure you’re not stranded with an empty tank.
This part of Iceland is also where you'll find the Landmannalaugar hiking area and the Laugavegur trail. The colorful rhyolite mountains and black lava fields of this zone formed thanks to the Ring of Fire in Iceland. The Icelandic Highlands are Iceland's wild interior that you need a 4x4 car or SUV to access.
Vatnajökull National Park
Vatnajökull National Park is Europe’s largest national park and home to Vatnajökull glacier. Highlights of the park include glacier hikes, ice cave treks, and glacier cave exploration at both Vatnajökull and Skaftafell. The Skaftafell section of the park is also home to Svartifoss waterfall. Iceland’s black waterfall has those famous black basalt hexagonal columns that make it look like a big, dark, natural pipe organ.
In the southeastern part of Vatnajökull National Park, you'll find Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon. It’s a small, iceberg-filled lake that eventually flows to the sea. Not all of the ice floes make it, however. Some get washed up and abandoned on the Diamond Beach as chunks of ice scattered across the sand. Some pieces are as large as SUVs.
While the East may not have as many well-known sightseeing attractions as the other parts of the country, it's still worth a visit. It’s got the beautiful East Fjords and those quaint little seaside villages that Iceland is so well known for. You won't find any big, impressive waterfalls in East Iceland, but this is a great place to pass through on your way to the treasures of the North.
Ring Road attractions in North Iceland
There's lots to see in North Iceland and it's a shame that more travelers don't dedicate a little bit of extra time here. Those who do are rewarded with otherworldly landscapes and some of the more memorable features of Iceland's natural beauty. Let's talk about the Diamond Circle route and some of the cities and towns in the North.
Full list of Diamond Circle attractions
The 260 km (162-mile) Diamond Circle route starts in Húsavik. This town is known as the whale watching capital of Iceland and is the perfect place to do an excursion in the summertime. It also makes a great base and stopover for exploring the entire area. So what are the other main stops on Iceland’s Diamond Circle route?
To start with, there's the horseshoe-shaped Ásbyrgi Canyon. According to Icelandic folklore, this is where one of Norse God Odin's eight-legged steeds stepped, which in turn caused the deep imprint which we know as the canyon. The strange basalt rock formations in Vesturdalur Valley are some of the more unusual ones that you'll find in Iceland. And no visit to the Diamond Circle would be complete without a visit to Europe's most powerful waterfall: Dettifoss. This massive cascade is affectionately known as The Beast and was featured in the opening scene of Ridley Scott's film Prometheus.
There's also the Krafla volcanic fields and the Hverir geothermal area with colorful bubbling mud and hissing steam coming from the ground. Be sure to plug your nose as the area smells strongly of sulfur. Lake Mývatn is a turquoise, volcanic lake and the nearby Jarðböðin Nature Baths are an alternative to the Blue Lagoon with fewer people. The Dimmuborgir lava field has some pretty cool rock formations and Goðafoss waterfall played an important role in Iceland’s history. Lastly, the Hverfjall black volcanic crater and Game of Thrones filming location Grjótagjá cave will leave you feeling like you're on another planet.
Other places to visit in North Iceland
Akureyri is considered Iceland's Second City and is the capital of the North. This municipality and the nearby town of Dalvik are where you will find Iceland's best skiing and snowboarding. If you're driving around the Iceland Ring Road in the winter, be sure to stop here to hit the slopes. And regardless of the time of year that you drive the Ring Road, make some time for the Hofsós thermal swimming pool. There's nothing quite so nice as relaxing in a nice hot pool with a breathtaking view of the fjords jutting out into the sea.
Iceland’s West Coast
Finally, we have West Iceland. Most of the things to see in the West do not lie directly on the Ring Road but rather are taken as a detour off of Iceland Highway 1. Much like the east side of the country, the west side is also known for its fjords. The Westfjords region of Iceland is a remote, untouched, gorgeous territory with winding roads and dramatic landscapes. There's also the lovely Snæfellsnes peninsula and its plethora of things to see and do. Many people come to this zone on a day trip from Reykjavik, but there's enough to keep you occupied for a couple of days.
Látrabjarg cliffs are Iceland's most famous bird cliffs for seeing colonies of North Atlantic puffins. Puffin watching is extremely popular here during the summer as the birds come to mate, socialize, and build their nests. Rauðasandur is a reddish pink sand beach, a rarity in Iceland.
Rental cars in Iceland are a great way to see the country, especially the Snaefellsnes peninsula. Your drive on this gorgeous territory will take you to Eldborg Crater, which is a 5000-to-6000-year-old volcanic crater. Walk right up to the edge and peer into this oval-shaped abyss. Just up the road is the Landbrotalaug “hidden” hot pot. It sits behind an old abandoned farm and only fits two or three people. Get there early, as the secret hot spring is not so secret anymore. Continue driving and you'll be able to see the Gerðuberg cliffs of basalt columns from the road.
Another interesting sight on the peninsula is the Budir Black Church. What makes this monument special is that the typical Icelandic architecture of the church is painted pitch black. It's an unusual twist on Icelandic churches, which are usually white with colorful roofs. Rauðfeldsgjá is a beautiful ravine with a hidden waterfall. Interestingly, the area gets its name from one of the Icelandic Sagas, which supposedly took place here.
Djúpalónssandur is a black pebble volcanic beach with the “black pearls” of Iceland and Stykkishólmur is one of those cute little villages you always hear about. This is a good place to spend the night when exploring the peninsula. Vatnshellir is an 8,000-year-old lava tube and cave with colorful walls.
Snæfellsjökull National Park is home to another spectacular Icelandic glacier, and this particular one is very special. If you've ever the read literary classic Journey to the Center of the Earth by Jules Verne, Snæfellsjökull glacier and mountain are the entry point for the beginning of their unbelievable adventures. Finally, you have Kirkjufell mountain and Kirkjufellsfoss waterfall. The unusually-shaped arrowhead mountain juxtaposed with the cascading waterfalls make this spot extremely picturesque. This is probably why Kirkjufell is the most photographed mountain in Iceland.
Your Iceland Ring Road itinerary
As you can see, there's plenty to keep you occupied during your Iceland road trip. From lava fields to whale watching to national parks to ice caves and black sand beaches, the list is endless. When trying to decide how many days to drive the Ring Road in Iceland, take a good look at all of the possibilities that await you.
Also, keep in mind the time of year that you're planning for your trip. For example, in the summer you'll have more daylight hours to do lots of activities, but you won't be able to see the Northern Lights. Winter offers less sunshine but there are activities like glacier cave exploration that you can't do when it's warmer. Weigh your options to see what's the best choice for you.
Top Attractions Around Iceland's Ring Road
With this comprehensive list of everything you can find around Iceland’s Ring Road, it's time to start planning your trip. While you may not have time to see everything, you have a good starting point to help you decide your itinerary. Driving in Iceland and making your way around the island are a once-in-a-lifetime experience, so enjoy it to the fullest.