An epic 10-day adventure of otherworldly awe? Or a long weekend of discovery? We’ve distilled the highlights into two expert travel itineraries for Iceland. No worries — just go with the flow…
Don’t be fooled by the name. Iceland may be a wild, glacier-crowned island, but it’s far from frigid or inhospitable. Wry locals are as warm as their woollen jumpers and the landscape steams with geysers and hot springs. Its capital, Reykjavík, is a high-energy hub of creativity, and the country’s food scene is blossoming. As well as the infamous fermented shark (hákarl), which is best ignored entirely, you’ll find a new generation of young chefs is putting a sophisticated spin on local ingredients in restaurants that rival Scandinavia’s best. If you know where to look, you’ll find a nature documentary’s worth of wildlife, from mink to minke whales. There’s also blood-chilling Viking history, spooky Norse mythology and plenty of geothermal activity — which means exploding geysers, outdoor hot pools and steamy, super-luxe spas. There are any number of ways you can tackle a trip here, but the big question is: ‘How long have you got?’ If it’s just a few days, you’ll want our ‘Reykjavík and the Golden Circle’ tour for a slice of city action and a taste of Iceland’s wild, weird landscape over a long weekend. And if you’ve got longer, try our Route 1 road trip, which will take you around the whole island ticking off its most spectacular sights. Either way, strike now while the island’s hot…Reykjavík and the golden circle
First visit? This three-night trip combines the capital with a self-drive tour of handy geological treats, says Alex Allen
Raw nature: Blue Lagoon & Golden Circle
Black waves lashing at a basalt-peppered beach; a lone church looking out over a landscape of volcanic rubble — and that’s just what you’ll see from the plane window as you descend into Iceland’s Keflavík airport. For the full ‘moon landing’ experience, rather than heading straight into the urbanity of Reykjavík, rent a car and speed half an hour south to the Blue Lagoon. Approaching along a road rolled flat through a moss-furred lava field, you’ll spot clouds of steam billowing from a cluster of silvery buildings. One of these is the Retreat, an out-of-this-world stunner of a hotel where you should spend your first night. Inside you’ll find rooms that combine stylish, Scandi minimalism with cave-like cosiness. Access to its vast spa — and hotel residents’ own private section of the lagoon — is included, too, so get up early the next morning for a soothing soak before check-out
At Geysir, fumaroles bubble and billow like the set of a B-movie horror
Day two is all about the Golden Circle — a compact loop of three major geological sights: Thingvellir National Park, Gullfoss waterfall and the Geysir hot springs. You can take a basic group bus tour for about $90pp, but being able to stop on a whim to gawp at the landscape or follow signs for hand-knitted souvenirs make self-driving the best way to go. Ignore what the sat nav will tell you, and instead of heading north, via Reykjavík, strike out south, via the fishing town of Grindavík. This route is far quieter and more scenic — a rolling backdrop of vast gravel plains, foil-sheet lakes and stumpy peaks dip-dyed in neon green. Things get more dramatic at your first stop, in Thingvellir National Park, where you’ll hit a ridge that rises out of the landscape like the spine of a book. This is the Almannagjá ravine, where the Eurasian and North American plates meet in a rocky seam. It’s also the siteof the world’s first parliament — the Althing, founded around 930CE. Don’t miss Oxarafoss waterfall, which roars like the echoes of a thousand Viking voices.
By now you’ll be hankering for some lunch, so before heading an hour east to the Geysir Hot Springs — the second stop on your Golden Circle itinerary — make a pit stop at Friðheimar, a geothermally powered indoor tomato farm and restaurant. Watch docile bumble bees drone past as you slurp down bowl after bowl of delicious all-you-can-eat tomato soup with freshly baked bread.
At Geysir, fumaroles bubble and billow like the set of a B-movie horror. There are several geysers here, from ones the size of a witch’s cauldron to those blasting tower-block-high columns of steam into the air. But Strokkur is the most active, going off every three to four minutes, as if playing to the whooping crowds.
The final stop on the tour — 10 minutes down the road — is Gullfoss, a waterfall of knee-buckling scale. In full flow, it can funnel about 1,400 cubic metres of water per second over its 200-metre-wide crest — making it one of the largest falls, by volume, in Europe. Warm up with a coffee in the visitor centre before the two-hour drive back to Reykjavík, where you should check in at the CenterHotel Midgardur — at the quiet end of the central Laugavegur shopping street.
City scenes: ReykjavÍk
Iceland’s capital is best explored on foot. With the playful street art, tucked-away boutiques and offbeat museums, a cross-town walk feels more like a treasure hunt than a trek. But you’ll want to load up on a good breakfast first. Brauð & Co, a bakery just off Laugavegur street, is where you can watch sheets of dough turn into custard-filled buns or blueberry and liquorice rolls in the hands of the bakers. Fill a paper bag with a selection and head up the road to Hallgrímskirkja, the iconic church that looms over the city like a concrete rocket. The lift ride to the top of the steeple costs $9, but it’s worth it for the sight of Reykjavík’s colourful houses laid out like spilt Lego. From here it’s a 20-minute walk to the National Museum of Iceland, where you’ll find the country’s history told with brilliantly preserved artefacts, including grisly Viking remains.
Making your way back into the centre, don’t miss the black building that houses Fischer, a quirky concept store owned by artist Jónsi of the Icelandic band Sigur Rós. You’ll find beautifully packaged products, from perfumes and candles to teas and tinctures.
Reykjavík’s food scene has come on loads in the past few years. At Skál!, for instance, chef Gísli creates pretty, delicious and reasonably priced dishes from seasonal, local ingredients, such as braised lamb ribs with smoked buttermilk and celeriac.
Kids will love walking beneath life-size models of blue and humpback whales at the Whales of Iceland exhibition by the harbour, the poignant tales of Iceland’s fishing communities at the nearby Maritime Museum are more for parents.
Icelanders love a drink and you’ll find locals doing plenty of it at Bryggjan Brewery (bryggjanbrugghus.is). The food here is good, but better at next-door Matur Og Drykkur, where you should order the ‘from sea’ tasting menu — the creamy mussel soup is wonderfully warming. Next day, a steamy morning dip at Sudhöllin public swimming pool is the perfect pre-flight tonic.The route 1 drive
Looped by the Ring Road, aka Route 1, Iceland makes for a top driving tour — especially in summer, when roads are ice-free and the midnight sun shines. Sarah Marshall maps it out
Working clockwise from southwesterly Reykjavík, your first stop is ‘Iceland in miniature’, the Snæfellsnes Peninsula, which packs some of the country’s highlights — rugged coastlines and panoramic mountain trails — into a 90km stretch. Roads are even emptier as you go north along fjords where surf fizzes on black-sand shores, trolls lurk in crevices and fishing villages revel in nostalgia. Then, over on the east coast, mighty waterfalls and iceberg-strewn lagoons conjure end-of-the-Earth drama. Here’s how to distil the best bits into a 10-day drive.
Snow and sand: Snæfellsnes
Leaving Reykjavík, mountains grow taller and waterfalls crash harder as you head north along Route 1, turning west onto the 54 at Borgarnes and continuing to Snæfellsnes. The two-and-a-half-hour drive is an arthouse movie epic: mossy, mineral-studded lava fields sparkle with lurid colours, and lone houses are spotlit by sunrays blasting through the clouds.
A backbone of snow-streaked peaks stretches along the peninsula, ending in the dome of Snæfellsjökull, a dormant volcano and glacier. Although it is possible to summit on a guided tour, be prepared for a 7-12-hour scramble, armed with an ice axe. Instead, admire the view from the romantically remote Hótel Búðir.
Replicate Jules Verne’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth (it was set in this volcano) by descending 200 metres into Vatnshellir Cave, an 8,000-year-old lava tunnel easily accessed by a spiral staircase (visits only with summitguides.is). Highlights of the 45-minute tour are two coiling rock towers created by an expulsion of gas — and a huge phallic stalactite guaranteed to cause sniggers.
Go for a hike following trails along the coastline. From fishing village Arnarstapi, a key trading port in the 18th century, walk down to the immense stone sculpture of guardian troll Bárður Snæfellsás, and take a right-hand path to Hellnar (2.5km each way). Photograph volcanic monoliths jutting from the surf, then refuel on Icelandic cod ’n’ chips at Arnarbaer Restaurant. Further west, black-pebbled beaches Djúpalónssandur and Dritvík also demand to be snapped. Strewn pieces of rusted metal are the eerie remains of the Epine trawler, wrecked in 1948, and a collection of granite boulders recalls days when burly fishermen measured their might by lifting the stones.
It looks solid, but Iceland’s landscape rocks and rolls with life forms, and folk artist Lúðvík can reveal where the ‘hidden people’ of local folklore hide. His studio, Liston, in Grundarfjörður, is full of stones crafted by their ‘inner spirits’ — and even if the art leaves you cold, a chat with the bearded boho will spark a smile. Meet more offbeat local characters at nearby slow-food restaurant Bjargarsteinn House of Food, where witty chef Gunnar Gardarsson and his wife, Selma, can explain how their 110-year-old wooden house was transported 140km intact to the waterside on wheels. Brave the sour fizz of fermented shark from their drying shed — or play safe with blue mussels harvested in May and June.
Hiking heaven: Húsafell
Vikings plundered most of Iceland’s forests, but there are still swathes of wind-stunted birch trees in Húsafell, an outdoor playground of hiking, biking, horse-riding and running routes around forests, canyons and crystal-clear rivers. To get there, drive back along the 54, join Route 1 at Borgarnes and head inland for about 50 minutes on the 50 and 518, where valleys of golden hair grass gaze up at big skies. Signposted, self-guided trails start at the visitor centre, ranging from a 45-minute ramble amid the remains of ancient settlements to a challenging seven-hour glacier ascent.
A 10-minute drive away, Hraunfossar’s impressive wall of waterfalls stretches for a kilometre as they crash into the Hvíta river, with platforms set at key spots. Stroll for a few minutes in the opposite direction, however, and you’ll find a steep, muddy path to the base — perfect for those wide-angle shots. Even more dramatic is Barnafoss, a narrow channel further along the river, where fast-flowing water has carved tunnels and bridges.
But that’s nothing compared to the 180 litres of boiling H2O spurting every second from Deildartunguhver, the most productive hot spring in the world. Skip the scorching source and take a civilised, scenic dip at sleek geothermal bath and restaurant Krauma, moving between pools cooled with glacial water, ranging from 37°C to 42°C.
Northern exposure: SkagafjÖrður
The northwest is still far enough off the tourist radar to feel like a new discovery. Here, you’ll find easily accessible waterfalls and geological oddities just as nature made them — without a safety rope or platform in sight. Leave Húsafell and, after reconnecting with Route 1, drive north for 90 minutes through mounds of volcanic rubble, heading inland along gravel road 715 for 10 minutes to Kolufoss. It’s the waterfall that explorers dream of: raw, rugged and mostly people-free. Cross a bridge straddling the zigzagging Kolugljúfur gorge, then climb down rocks to sit in spraying distance of rainbow-generating cascades.
Further north along the Vatnsnes Peninsula, via a 30-minute drive on Route 1 and the 716, is Borgarvirki, a volcanic outcrop with head-spinning views of silky lakes and rust-red valleys sloping to the sea. Wooden steps lead to the fortified basalt walls, which may once have served as a fortress. You can delve deeper into the past at 1238 The Battle of Iceland, a new interactive museum in Sauðárkrókur on the neighbouring fjord. Based on the script of the Sturlunga Saga, it recounts one of the area’s bloodiest battles, with a VR room to indulge Game of Thrones-type fantasies. War weary? Only sweet dreams are in store at cosy 19th-century Hótel Tindastóll, one of Iceland’s oldest wooden houses, with a spring-water-filled hot tub.
History and humpbacks: HÚsavÍk
Looping around fjords, hugging clifftops and diving into tunnels, this stretch of the route is a rollercoaster ride. Take the 76 towards Hofsós and continue past turf-roofed houses to Siglufjörður, once the heart of Iceland’s herring industry. Housed in reclaimed wooden buildings filled with artefacts and ‘climb-aboard’ fishing boats, the excellent Herring Era Museum takes a rose-tinted look at the blood, sweat and fish scales shed until the late ’60s. Luckily, any unpleasant odours have been replaced by the smell of coffee from harbourside bistro Hannes Boy; rev your engine with a caffeine shot and catch of the day.
One of the largest towns in the north, Akureyri will seem like a metropolis, the novelty of traffic lights exaggerated by their heart-shaped stop signals. For an urban fix, explore the bright facades and artistic graffiti along Hafnarstræti, and continue east along Route 1 for 35 minutes to Goðafoss — ‘waterfall of the Gods’. A stairwell leads to the base, but hop across the bridge instead: the view is better, and you won’t get wet. Continue north on the 845 and 85 to Húsavík (40 minutes), book into the Fosshotel Húsavík for two nights and explore the area — it’s magical.
Humpback sightings are a cert during peak season from May to September and you may even spy their flukes from Geosea’s infinity pools. This clifftop super-spring uses seawater heated by volcanic rocks — the bathing is said to be good for skin conditions, and being immersed in nature is sensational for your soul.
Diamonds and ice: east coast
The south may have its Golden Circle, but there are precious routes in these parts, too. Taking the 85 and 87 south from Húsavík, drive to Lake Mývatn (50 minutes), part of the Diamond Circle, to pick through a landscape of craters and fizzing vents. Returning to Route 1, head 20 minutes east to reach Hverir, a plateau of bubbling mud pools, and if the stench of rotten eggs (from the sulphur) gets too much, climb Námafjall mountain for breath-reviving views. While you’re in the area, scale the perfectly circular Hverfjall crater and peer into an ashy abyss.
Rejoining Route 1, take the 864 north an hour to hear the thunder of Europe’s most powerful falls, Dettifoss. Explore both sides, each a 15-minute hike from the car park — east is lower and less busy, but only open from May. Then drive two hours east on Route 1 to lake-view Hotel 1001 Nott.
Make a 30-minute detour to harbour town Seyðisfjörður to see its garish crazy paving, then loop back and take the 953 to reach Klifbrekkufossar, a tier of waterfalls plunging into the remote fjord — the best views are from the car. Cross back over Route 1 for a phenomenon rare in Iceland: a forest with tall trees. Hike through the towering birches of Hallormsstaðaskógur, Iceland’s largest forest, and continue across Lagarfljót lake to Hengifoss, a 128-metre cascade of water in a stratified rust-red canyon, reached via a one-hour hike. Soak up cliff views on the three-hour drive to Höfn, ready for your final day.
A graveyard of baby icebergs bobbing in a blue-green lagoon, Jökulsárlón is a film-location favourite. Arrive at dawn for the best light (allow an hour’s drive) and hop over the road to Diamond Beach to admire icy jewels sparkling on onyx-dark sand. The road skirts Vatnajökull National Park; it’s 50 minutes to Svartifoss, where water pummels over volcanic columns, and a further hour and 45 minutes to black-sand Reynisfjara beach. Stop at Skógafoss (it’s on the way back to Reykjavík) for one last splash, ducking behind rainbows and a wall of water where, legend has it, trolls and treasures lie…
Credit: The Sunday Time sTravel Magazine / News Licensing . Photos: Getty Images
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