Working on our new Rick Steves Iceland guidebook, I enjoyed driving the Ring Road all the way around the country (armed with the expert tips of our co-author, Ian Watson). This installment of my Iceland blog series is a “how-to” for travelers interested in tackling one of the most epic road trips anywhere.
Europe’s best road trip circles Iceland, from Reykjavík to Reykjavík, on the 800-mile highway 1 — the Ring Road. Along the way, you’ll see a thrilling chunk of Icelandic countryside, from volcanoes to glaciers, and from charming seafront villages to jagged, lonesome fjords.
Most visitors to Iceland squeeze in a layover of just a few days to get a quick taste. But if you can spare more time, it’s worth investing a full week (or more) in driving the Ring Road. Our Rick Steves Iceland guidebook includes a full 75-page chapter on the Ring Road, with all of the logistical details, a self-guided driving tour of the entire route, historical (and geological) background on the sights you’ll see, and lots of recommendations for our favorite accommodations, restaurants, and services all along the way. But here’s a very quick overview to get you started.
The Ring Road is an 800-mile loop. If you drive at a reasonable pace and take a few worthwhile scenic detours from the main highway 1, plan on about 30 hours of driving. Divide that total by the number of days you have, and it becomes clear that attempting the Ring Road in fewer than five days will be regrettable in retrospect. A week is a more comfortable minimum; a few more days lets you slow down, linger, have time for some longer hikes and other unique experiences.
You can circle the island either clockwise or counterclockwise. While both approaches have their advantages, I prefer the clockwise route — which begins with more modest scenery before crescendoing into the most glorious stretches.
The vast majority of highway 1 is a paved, two-lane road. There are a few unpaved stretches, and you’ll cross many one-lane bridges (where you’ll pause and take turns with oncoming cars — if there are any). But the entire route, and the most appealing detours, can easily be done with a two-wheel-drive car. Unless you want to trailblaze across the interior Highlands, don’t splurge on four-wheel drive. I did the entire Ring Road in a dinky Hyundai and never felt unsafe or underpowered.
Demand outstrips supply, so it’s smart to plan your route in advance and book your accommodations around the Ring well ahead — especially in the summer. Certain areas — such as Lake Mývatn and glacier country in the Southeast — have an especially limited number of beds.
Another solution is to camp your way around the Ring. Several companies rent campervans for roughly the cost of a car rental plus basic accommodations. Iceland has a permissive approach to camping, but — as tourists numbers increase — the old conventional wisdom that you can camp pretty much wherever you like isn’t as true as it once was. Ask locally to be sure you’ve chosen an appropriate place.
Try to break up the drive with overnights spaced about five hours apart. On a quicker loop, plan on several one-nighters in a row. Zipping around the Ring from Reykjavík, I’d overnight in the Skagafjörður area; near Lake Mývatn; along the Eastfjords (ideally in Seyðisfjörður); somewhere in the Southeast (in Höfn, near the Glacier Lagoons, or near Skaftafell National Park); and along the South Coast, somewhere between Vík and Hvolsvöllur. That’s a speedy-but-satisfying six-day, five-night express plan.
With a little more time, I’d definitely add a night to Mývatn, and consider additional nights on the South Coast (freeing you up to linger there, or for a side-trip to the Westman Islands) and in the Southeast (if you want more time for glaciers and hiking). Akureyri (Iceland’s “second city,” near Mývatn) and Borgarnes (in West Iceland, on the way up north from Reykjavík) are also worth considering for additional overnights.
Here’s a quick overview of the Ring Road highlights, traveling clockwise from Reykjavik. Buckle up!
Heading north from the capital, it’s just an hour to the dramatically set town of Borgarnes — facing the steep scree slopes of Hafnarfjall mountain — and its fine little Settlement Center, telling the story of the Viking Age settlers who crossed the North Sea from Norway to settle Iceland.
Continuing north, let yourself be tempted to climb to the top of the crater called Grábrók, with sweeping views across a desolate landscape. Then make good time continuing north, then east, to the Skagafjörður region.
Skagafjörður — a fertile valley leading up to a yawning fjord — has several good countryside, farmhouse B&Bs for an overnight, as well as the charming small town of Hofsós (with its Emigration Center — telling the story of Icelanders who fled to Manitoba and the Dakotas in the hardscrabble late 19th century — and a small but inviting thermal swimming pool overlooking the fjord). But the main sightseeing draw in this swath of Iceland is the excellent Glaumbær open-air folk museum, where you can explore the sod-lined halls, storerooms, and sleeping quarters of a traditional Icelandic turf house.
The quickest way to continue the Ring is to zip an hour east on highway 1 to Akureyri. But one of the Ring Road’s most worthwhile scenic detours is the Troll Peninsula (Tröllaskagi), which loops around the headlands past the end of the Skagafjörður.
You’ll enjoy desolate coastal scenery, and some long tunnels, before popping out at one of Iceland’s most pleasant small towns: Siglufjörður, with its excellent and oddly riveting Herring Era Museum. Tröllaskagi adds a couple of hours’ driving (plus whatever time you spend sightseeing and enjoying Siglufjörður), but that’s time very well spent.
Your next Ring Road stop is Iceland’s second city, Akureyri. With just 18,000 souls, Akureyri would rank as a tiny town in most countries — but in Iceland’s desolate North, it feels like a metropolis. This “mini-Reykjavik” is the place to gas up, stock up on groceries, and — if time allows — see the town church (by the same architect who designed Reykjavik’s landmark Hallgrímskirkja) and take a dip at the town’s lively, sprawling thermal swimming pool complex.
But if you’re doing the Ring in a hurry, keep your Akureyri errands brief, and carry on out of town to the east. After an hour and a half’s drive (stopping midway to see the Goðafoss falls), you reach the shore of Mývatn, a giant, languid lake that anchors a region of intense volcanic activity — past and present.
Mývatn is one of the most enjoyable places in Iceland to simply joyride and explore, hopping out to hike through otherworldly lava formations, see a geothermal power plant, wander a bubbling and steaming field, and simmer in the Mývatn Nature Baths — the simpler, half-price, but just-as-enjoyable cousin to the famous Blue Lagoon. With so much to do here, Mývatn is the Ring Road stop most deserving of a second night (or longer).
Before continuing eastward along the Ring, consider a detour 45 minutes (each way) from Mývatn north, to the pleasant waterfront town of Húsavík. While nothing spectacular, this little town is a popular base for whale watching, and its northerly position increases the odds of seeing more exotic species — such as humpbacks — than what you’re likely to see down in Reykjavik. There’s also a fine little Whale Museum, with full-size skeletons of whales that have washed up on Icelandic shores.
From Mývatn, it’s a long (two-hour) and lonely trek eastward across the Highlands to the Eastfjords. Break up the journey with a detour to one of Iceland’s most spectacular waterfalls, Dettifoss. Seeing Dettifoss takes about 2 hours (including the time to drive off the main road, and the short but scenic hike out to the falls), but it’s a worthwhile investment of your time to stand before a yawning chasm cut deep into a basalt landscape, showered by mist and rainbows.
Arriving at the Eastfjords, spend the night to recharge and prepare for tomorrow’s long drive. While the provincial town of Egilsstaðir is right along the Ring Road and offers a decent range of hotels and services, it’s well worth a 30-minute detour from highway 1 to reach the most appealing stop on the Eastfjords: Seyðisfjörður. This artsy town, sitting at the apex of a dramatic fjord, has a surprising variety of accommodations and restaurants, and oozes with personality — and it’s accessed by one of the most scenic mountain passes along the entire Ring Road, Fjarðarheiði.
The Eastfjords, while majestic, represent the most tedious part of the Ring Road drive. One fjord is breathtakingly scenic. A half-dozen of them, all in a row, begin to get a little old. No tunnels or bridges speed your progress, so you’ll spend the day rounding a headland into a fjord, looking across to the road on the other side of the fjord’s mouth, then driving a half-hour all the way up one side of the fjord, then back down the other. And then repeat. Again. And again. And again.
Curling out of the last fjord, you’ll soon hook around Hvalnes point. A miles-long spit of chunky pebbles — arcing as far as the eye can see across a rugged bay — welcomes you to Southeast Iceland…glacier country. From here, the road is bullied between vast glacier-topped mountains and the North Atlantic. For the next few hours, you’ll get glimpses of Vatnajökull — Iceland’s largest glacier, which drapes over the southeastern quadrant of the country, with a surface area bigger than the state of Delaware and as much water by volume as Africa’s Lake Victoria.
There’s not much civilization in the Southeast, so don’t miss the chance to stop off in the pleasant village of Höfn, filling a peninsula with a busy port and several restaurants specializing in the local delicacy, humar (langoustine — like a giant prawn or a miniature lobster). You could sleep in Höfn, or — to make tomorrow’s drive a little shorter — carry on westward, where good countryside accommodations are strung along about a two-hour stretch of Ring Road.
About an hour west of Höfn is one of the most striking sights in all of Iceland: the glacier lagoon called Jökulsárlón, where glacier tongues dip down into a lagoon and calve off bobbing icebergs. This vast, serene pool puts the “ice” in Iceland, offering an up-close look at chunks of 500-year-old ice on the final leg of their journey to the sea.
And another stunning sight is a one-minute drive away: Diamond Beach, where those icebergs wash up on a black-sand shoreline before being swept out to the Atlantic. This majestic sight — still a five-hour drive from Reykjavik — is enough, on its own, to make you glad you budgeted time for the full Ring Road.
Just a few minutes’ drive farther is a second glacier lagoon, Fjallsárlón — also well worth a look. While you can do boat trips out onto either lagoon, I prefer the less crowded Fjallsárlón.
About a half-hour farther is the turnoff for Skaftafell National Park, offering a variety of hikes. And just past that is the mangled wreckage of a bridge that was swept away in 1996. This is a sobering reminder that all of these glaciers sit on top of volcanoes. And when things heat up, the ice melts, creating giant mountaintop reservoirs of hot water — which can come rushing down the mountain with destructive force. (This is why so many bridges in the Southeast are wimpy one-laners….easy to replace.)
About two hours farther west, at the town of Vík, you approach the craggy, bald, grass-covered mountains of the South Coast — the last leg of the Ring Road, and a popular day trip in its own right from Reykjavik. Along here you can stroll along the black-sand beach at Reynisfjara, hike up to see a glacier at Sólheimajökull, tour the open-air folk museum and see a fine waterfall at Skógar, get a good look at Eyjafjallajökull (the volcano that famously erupted in 2010, halting European air travel), and ogle the stunning Seljalandsfoss waterfall — where (wrapped in a good rain jacket and waterproof shoes) you can actually hike around behind the thundering spray. Just down the road, in the town of Hvolsvöllur, the state-of-the-art new Lava Centre offers an informative look at this region’s volcanoes.
You could blitz these sights, then carry on bleary-eyed the last two hours or so to Reykjavik. Better yet, spend a night on the South Coast to allow time for lingering. With more time, you could side-trip to the Westman Islands (ferries leave from Landeyjahöfn). Or consider a much more roundabout, scenic return to Reykjavik by way of the Golden Circle sights.
Phew! You made it. Clearly, the Ring Road is an unforgettable drive, and a remarkable opportunity to sample the very best that Iceland has to offer. For all of the details — including mile-by-mile commentary, detailed sightseeing and geological explanations, and our favorite hotels and restaurants all the way around — be sure to check out the Ring Road chapter in our Rick Steves Iceland guidebook.
Happy travels! Góða ferð!