Circling the scenic island in a week is feasible. You just need careful and efficient planning, long time ahead of your trip. A lot of driving is also involved. Best season to visit Iceland is summer (July-August) but it’s also high season. Hotels and guesthouses can be fully booked months in advance (even over a year in some cases)… Prepare to pay big bucks if you want decently comfortable accommodation, no luxurious resorts here but luxurious price tags (the Scandinavian way…). To get the best of your Icelandic trip, you will also need to rent a 4WD vehicle, as many roads in the highlands (marked as F-roads) are simply forbidden to 2WD vehicles (some of them are more or less accessible with standard vehicles, but you won’t be covered by the insurance in case of a problem if you decide to go despite the interdiction!). Also note that in June (and possibly even in early July) some roads can still be completely closed depending on how bad the previous winter has or hasn’t been. To be sure, plan your trip for late July or August (the downside being less daylight and darker nights). Renting any vehicle in Iceland is pricey (extra insurances are required because of the hazardous road conditions plus possible sand and/or ash blasts that can severely damage cars) and renting an SUV is very pricey. But again, it’s the only way of seeing every corner of the island (most of them being totally worth the price). Thepickytraveller doesn’t recommend renting a vehicle from Sixt, as they are located away from the terminal building and their customer service never replied to complaints regarding a malfunctioning A/C…
Landing at Keflavik airport in the afternoon, surrounded by lava fields. Iceland is a sparsely populated and rather small island, away from everything (but conveniently located between North America and Europe). The airport feels more like a regional airport than a modern international one, with nothing else than Icelandair’s B757s. First impression is bewildering, and it surely isn’t going to stop there… In fact, it’s only the beginning of a long series. Time to head towards Reykjavik (roughly 45 minutes away from the airport) for dinner at the very good Fish Market restaurant.
Daylight time in Iceland is very long in summer, which gives you plenty of time to head for the famous Golden Circle after dinner. Located approximately 100 km from Reykjavik (40 km for the first site of Thingvellir), the Golden Circle is a concentrate of what Iceland has to offer. The 3 places (Thingvellir valley, Geysir site and Gullfoss waterfall) are close to each other and easily accessible with any vehicle. Not Iceland’s most impressive sites, but good enough to get an idea of what to expect next. Thingvellir is where North American and Eurasian tectonic plates meet (the rift is clearly visible!). Geysir site features many different geysers, the most famous one being Strokkur which erupts every 10 to 15 minutes (so you are sure to see the spectacular phenomenon). Finally, Gullfoss is a beautiful and easy to reach waterfall nearby. First night at Hotel Gullfoss, next to the waterfall. Totally outdated, but all the basic comfort you need is there.
Took the F35 road from Gullfoss towards Hveravellir in the highlands, but the road was closed right after the junction to Kerlingarfjöll (road F347). A deep and hazardous-looking ford on the F347 prevented thepickytraveller from accessing that site too… But driving those roads (tracks would be a better suited word) is a unique experience on its own.
After having to make a U-turn and driving backwards it was time to take the rocky F225 road to Landmannalaugar, one of Iceland’s most beautiful sites with colourful mountains, hot springs and lunar landscapes of endless ash fields on the way. Distances are long to travel, as you need to drive carefully at low speeds.
Back on the main 1 road (also known as the Ring road) eastbound, turn left on road 249 to admire the delicate Seljalandsfoss waterfall.
If you are equipped with a 4WD vehicle, continue to road F249 and penetrate the beautiful valley of Porsmörk. The road is very bumpy and has a lot of quite easy fords to cross (be very cautious though, the depth varies a lot according to climatic conditions and it’s recommended to wait for a local to cross, then just follow him). You will be very close to Eyjafjallajökull where the volcanic eruption that dramatically grounded air traffic in 2010 took place.
Get back to the Ring road and continue east to reach Iceland’s southernmost (and statistically rainiest) town of Vik, featuring a famous beach of black sand. After Vik you pass through the lava fields of Myrdalssandur, all covered with thick moss. Second night at Hotel Nupar, before Skaftafell national park. Comfy modern Scandinavian hotel, nothing to be excited about. Nothing to complain about either.
Now you are very close to Iceland’s (and Europe’s) biggest glacier: Vatnajökull. A glacier walk from Skaftafell is highly recommended! Interesting and very rewarding. In summertime you won’t be able to enter the deep-blue ice caves (water levels are too high) but you will get a glimpse of them from above and hear the water streams flow underneath your feet. You will also learn how the glacier’s edges constantly change (come a week later and the landscape is going to be completely different) and drink water thousands of years old. Don’t venture on the glaciers by yourself, you won’t be properly equipped and it’s very dangerous for the neophyte. In Skaftafell national park you can also hike to Svartifoss waterfall with beautifully geometrical basalt formations, but if you are on a tight schedule choices have to be made…
A short drive away from Skaftafell is another of Iceland’s most popular sights, the Jökulsarlon glacier lake. Very impressive with its blue icebergs. The ocean is on the other side of the road, with a beautiful black sand beach (if you missed the one in Vik, try not to miss this one).
After Jökulsarlon the Ring road heads northeast and north after Höfn, until Egilsstadir. Not a lot to see on this leg of the trip (ok, weather was particularly shitty at time of visit…). Third night at Icelandair Herad Hotell, in line with the other Icelandic hotels visited so far… Not far from Egilsstadir you can drive to Seydisfjördur and have a comforting fish soup at Bistro Skaftfell. Seydisfjördur also is the gateway to Faroe islands.
After Egilsstadir, the Ring road turns west and leaves the coastline. Before the amazing area of Myvatn lake, take road 862 or 864 on your right to Dettifoss (Europe’s most powerful waterfall). Venturing on the F88 road to Askja on your own is not recommended as it will take you many hours and some fords may be too dangerous to cross with a standard SUV, even though it seems to be a must-see place… Many tours are organized with big engines (buses mounted on tractor wheels) but you will basically need to sacrifice a whole day of your trip for that and apparently it’s a long and bumpy ride.
Now prepare for maybe Iceland’s most incredible site: the area around lake Myvatn. Geothermal activity is prominent and diverse here. The first place to visit is totally mesmerizing. Boiling mud pools of Hverir cannot be missed (you will spot the crowded parking from far on the Ring road). Hissing noise of pressurized steam coming from inside the Earth together with bubbling mud and stinging odour of sulfur are difficult to describe with words. Stay strictly on the marked paths, the ground is soft and you surely don’t want to end up boiled in mud…!
Other top sights around lake Myvatn include the geothermal baths of Jardbodin vid Myvatn (a smaller and less famous version of the Blue Lagoon), the big black crater of Hverfjall that can easily be climbed, geothermal site of Namafjall, Viti crater with its turquoise water, and of course the volcanic lake Myvatn itself. Don’t miss the remains of an eruption from 1984 to feel the still hot rocks…! It’s a pity lake Myvatn’s location is so remote. You can always fly to the close-by city of Akureyri if you don’t want to drive all the way there from Reykjavik.
Fourth night at Hotel Reykjahlid, the first and only interesting hotel during thepickytraveller’s visit to Iceland. On the shore of lake Myvatn and settled in an original looking house, Hotel Reykjahlid’s rooms are charming and bedding is very comfortable. Tea, coffee, cookies and fruits are available all the time in the dining room. The hotel feels more like a nice guesthouse.
West of lake Myvatn you quickly arrive to Godafoss waterfall site (worth a stop) and then Akureyri (Iceland’s second biggest town after the capital), where you can easily spend an hour or two.
Then there isn’t a lot of top sights for a while, just beautiful Icelandic landscapes instead. In Dalvik you can take a whale watching tour. No guarantee of seeing the whales (chances are good to see at least one though) but the tour itself is nice, held by real fishermen and with some real sea fishing (those poor cods are so easy to catch…). The boat also passes off the Hrisey island and its picturesque village. From Dalvik you can also board the ferry to the remote island of Grimsey, the only place in Iceland on and slightly above the Arctic Circle (on the north side of which you can experience midnight sun in summer and polar endless nights in winter). Warm up with one of Iceland’s best fish soup at Kaffihus Bakkabraedra in Dalvik!
Fifth night on the country side near Vatnsnes peninsula (seals can easily be seen on its coastline) and right before the Westfjords, at Daeli Holiday Farm. Back to the old-fashioned style…
Not sure on how to feel about the Westfjords. Roads are narrow (thepickytraveller lost his left mirror during a close encounter with a camping car…), very curvy, driving on them is time-consuming and will cause you many cold sweats. Let’s say that if you have visited Norway and its fjords, it may be wise to skip them. The only problem being Latrabjarg bird cliff (Iceland’s best place to see lots of puffins and other seabirds). This amazing remote spot is also Europe’s westernmost point (on a clear day Greeland’s coastline can be seen from there) and it’s located in the Westfjords… The red sand beach of Raudisandur is also near Latrabjarg, but very difficult to access (it involves rolling up your trousers and crossing some ice cold water by foot…).
Sixth night at Fosshotel Westfjords in Patreksfjördur, in the same league as Icelandair Herad Hotell in Egilsstadir.
To cut off some driving take the ferry boat from the Westfjords to Stykkisholmur on the Snaefellsnes peninsula, it’s a nice way to relax for a couple of hours. The ferry stops at Flatey, a small island with only a handful of permanent inhabitants and tourist crowds in summer, for only a few minutes. So stay onboard and enjoy the surroundings from the deck (to properly visit the island you would need to wait for the next ferry and spend many hours on the tiny island).
Snaefellsnes is a beautiful peninsula with an emblematic volcano at its tip, that could be called Iceland’s Mount Fuji and seen from Reykjavik on a clear day. Visit the national park around the volcano and the peninsula’s coastline. You can also try the famous dried shark meat in Bjarnarhöfn, with surprisingly very little odour but a very pronounced (and awful) taste… One of Iceland’s only few luxury hotels is also located on the Snaefellsnes peninsula: Budir. Thepickytraveller tried to book a room at it over a year in advance and it was already fully booked… Seventh night at Langaholt, totally overpriced with ugly decoration and poorly soundproof rooms.
Already time to head back to Keflavik for a last night at the Blue Lagoon close to the airport, before an early morning flight the next day. It’s highly recommended to book a room at the Blue Lagoon’s Silica hotel. It will not only grant you access to the Blue Lagoon, but also to a private lagoon totally reserved for hotel guests (much less crowded than the main lagoon!). Dinner at the Blue Lagoon’s Lava restaurant is also recommended for a last fine dining experience on this amazing island. Not far from there you also have a last chance to experience boiling mud pools and geothermal activity at the Seltun site.