The word is out. The number of foreign visitors to Iceland has quadrupled since 2010. Last year, almost 2.5 million visitors came to Iceland. Iceland has become one of the top travel destinations in the world.
Most tourists only come for a few days to take the Golden Circle Tour in the southwest area, and then realize they want to return for a longer trip to drive Iceland’s Ring Road.
We drove our rental car on the Ring Road that circles the entire country and offers up the most amazing vistas at every turn. Plan to immerse yourself in a surreal landscape of 170 geothermal hot springs, 130 volcanoes, 3 national parks, 20 lakes, 269 glaciers, mountain ranges, golden and black-sand beaches, glacial river beds. With 99% electricity produced from renewable sources, this country is an eco-friendly choice for travelers.
It is not surprising that nearly every visitor who leaves the island has the plan to return for a stopover or longer stay with Icelandair. When is the best time to visit Iceland? Locals say anytime between January 1 to December 31.
After a spectacular week driving the Ring Road, we are sharing highlights below on what to see, where to go, stay, dine and spa.
Top Things to Do in Iceland along the Ring Road
Upon leaving the airport, hop in your rental car and head on out to the ring road around Iceland to start your adventure. If you have time on the front end or the back end of your trip plan to spend at least one day in the capitol of Reykjavik. Not only does the city offer great shopping, you can also see the sites like climb to the tower at Hallgrimskirkia Church for views, visit the Sun Voyager sculpture along the waterfront, then continue to see Harpa, the city’s cultural center designed like a modern glass honeycomb.
Our time was spent enjoying the sun and walking the city for the afternoon. If you have the time, don’t miss MATUR OG DRYKKUR for classical Icelandic cuisine with a modern twist. Built in an old salt fish factory, it offers locally sourced food and an ambience that entices your senses. Chef Richard Germain presented platters of Icelandic goat cheese, beets three ways and malt crisp for starters, an entrée of lamb chops with baked potato pureé, kale, smoked almonds and demi-glace, then the dessert finale…Icelandic twisted doughnuts.
As you leave Reykjavik, the west part of the island offers up unbelievable panoramas almost immediately. Gulfoss is amongst your first stop as it is one of the most scenic waterfalls on the island with a great viewpoint. As we made our way north, we visited Thingvellir National Park, and headed to Krauma Hot Springs for a fabulous soak in their five geothermal hot baths. Krauma is Iceland’s newest geothermal outdoor bathing resort with several baths at well-marked temperatures, a cold bath, sauna, steam room. After guests are totally relaxed, they can dine at the Krauma restaurant and terrace. Don’t Miss! Visit the greenhouse next door to Krauma to pick up vegetables that have been grown with geothermal waters from Deildartunguhver, Europe’s highest flowing hot spring.
Lava Cave, waterfalls and a Glacier
Start the day by getting up early to enjoy Viogelmir Lava Cave, known as the mightiest of caves in Iceland at 5,250 ft. Considered the king of the lava caves in Iceland, this highland lava cave is a must stop for anyone coming to Iceland to better understand the volcanic nature of the formation of the island. Horour Mio is an adventure guide and manages The Cave, a family owned business. He informatively described the formation of the lava tube. All guides on the tour are geologists and well educated for even the most sophisticated adventurer.
After visiting the lava cave, stop by the Hraunfossar waterfalls, a beautiful and unusual natural phenomenon that surfaced through the surrounding lava rocks.
We then ventured out to the Snæfellsjökull Peninsula where its glacier is known to be one of the seven greatest energy sources of the world. This is the only Icelandic national park that stretches to the sea. Spend the day hiking on gorgeous trails with steam vents surrounding you and mountains reaching to the blue sky. Stop by Arnarstapi to stretch your legs and go for a walk along the coast where you’ll find basaltic columns and formations that line the sea cliffs. The trip was made even more memorable by a quick photo stop at the iconic Kirkjufell mountain. This location is a well-known filming location for the Game of Thrones.
After a good night sleep, wind your way up north. Along the Ring Road, stop to enjoy the view of local turf houses in Glamaer and visit its heritage museum, and pull over to take photos of the many Icelandic horses that dot the landscape along the way. After a long day, the port town of Akureyri will welcome you with local modern essentials. If time allows, spend a day whale watching out of the northern city of Husavik, and visit Geosea, to relax in geothermal baths that looks out to the sea.
Námaskarð, more waterfalls and an active volcano in Iceland
Our next day brought mixed clouds but good weather held, and we headed out to Lake Myvatn. Along the way, be sure to stop at Godafoss for a photo of the waterfalls. There is much to discover as you drive in and around the Lake Myvatn. Our first stop was to Namaskaro. The geothermal vents and bubbling mud reminded us that Iceland land is alive and changing all the time. Afterward we visited the beautiful black crater of Hverfjall. Just a quick 20-minute hike to the summit and you will enjoy views of the lake and surrounding area. Dimmuborgir, a lava landscape with formations of columns, caves and arches, offers another enjoyable site close by to view the lava fields in the area. It does not get much better than this. Drive further north to see Dettifoss, considered to be Europe’s most powerful waterfall, and Krafla, one of Iceland’s most active volcanoes.
We stopped and had a very special lunch at the dairy farm and local restaurant Vogafjos Farm Resort. Known for its focus on local Icelandic food and the place to eat the most memorable homemade mozzarella made on site – we couldn´t resist a stop. Vogafjos is a 120 year old family owned business that has grown to mixed stock farming, with 120 sheep and about 40 cows and cattle. If you visit Vogafjos Cowshed Café you can see the cows through windows of the cafe. It is also possible to taste the fresh, warm milk direct from the cows. Inside the stable for the cows there is the small café offers tasty food from the farm and local area. We enjoyed the most amazing mozzarella and salad cheese, smoked lamb and fish along with the best carrot cake. The owner, Olaf took us on an unbelievable tour of the resort. We even were lucky enough to see a new born lamb that day as well. Good to note that Vogafios also has a guesthouse and they offer a variety of tours – ice caves, husky experience, craters & more.
To really get an idea of the size of Iceland as well as to see some of the over 125 volcanos, it is best to book a scenic flight. Our afternoon was spent with 2 amazing pilots from Myflug airlines. Our trip over the lake, volcanos and as far south as Vatnajokull National Park was extraordinary. The pilots ensured that we all were able to see the sights and would often circle back to make sure both sides of the plane had a great view.
Black sand beaches, kayaking and a scenic flight along the ring road
Next on the ring road make your way southeast, your next stop is Stokksnes. The black sand beaches and high mountains in the background make for an idyllic setting to rest and enjoy nature. Farther south, the majestic black sand beaches are mixed with diamond ice crystals to form Diamond Beach.
Just a minute away is another natural wonder of the world called Jokulsarlon Lagoon. The lagoon is a favorite stop for anyone visiting the south. We spent the afternoon with Ice Guide. By kayaking on the glacier lagoon, it provides an outstanding experience and a magnificent view of the ice cap. You are up close to the lagoon seals and gigantic icebergs that fill the space.
Just an hour’s drive before you make your way to one of the largest southern cities in Iceland known as Vik. We woke the next day to visit Skogafoss. This is one of Iceland’s tallest waterfalls and a photo worthy stop.
Afterword, we made our way to Bakki airport for another scenic flight over the glacial rivers that make for an outstanding photo of the braided rivers of the southern part of Iceland. Our pilot, Stéfan Arnason from Atlantsflug once again made this one of the most memorable moments during our time in Iceland. We flew over the majestic black sand beaches with views of the glacial braided rivers and out to the island of Vestmannaeyjar. This volcanic island is where Free Willy the whale spent some of his last years being trained to return to the wild. The island is volcanic and as recent as 1973 it erupted.
Owner Þórir Gardarsson shares “Atlantsflug offers sightseeing flights from our stations in Skaftafell all year and Bakki in the summer season, which provide a breathtakingly spectacular view of glaciers, volcanoes, riverbeds and Iceland‘s unspoiled highland wonders. Atlantsflug has been operating since 2004 and is built upon decades of experience flying over the South of Iceland ensuring the greatest sights and highest quality service, comfort and safety.“
Though our trip was very quick, we found that there are so many places to visit along the ring road, and part of the fun is deciding each day what you will do. Make sure you give yourself enough time to explore and do not over plan your trip too much. You might find unexpected delights along the way.
Where to Stay & Dine in Iceland
We highly recommend the Ion Adventure Hotel. When the popularity of going to Iceland started, it usually contained a picture of this luxury hotel. Who wouldn’t want to immerse themselves in a cozy bed in a luxurious outdoor setting. Whether you are seeking a quiet, soulful soak beneath the Northern Lights, a challenging trek across an ancient glacier or a day of fly-fishing in plentiful icy rivers, this is the hotel for you.
You will find some of the best views, exceptional service and fine dining right here just a little over an hour from Reykjavik. The Restaurant Silfra offered modern Nordic cuisine. We enjoyed their signature dish of lamb shank along with a beautifully plated Arctic Char on a bed of creamy barley.
We ended the day with a soak in the thermal baths and a cocktail in the wonderfully modern bar with views of Lake Þingvellir.
A National Geographic Unique Lodge, Hotel Husafel is where quiet luxury meets rugged wilderness on the doorstep of Iceland’s iconic natural wonders. This lodge is located in the heart of some of the sites like The Cave and nearby glacier tours that you will be interested in seeing during your adventure. The rooms are of Nordic design that are simple and beautifully planned.
Silfra Restaurant & Bar at the hotel offers strong regional food culture – pure, simple, fresh and seasonal. We enjoyed locally caught salmon and blue lingcod. The chef’s ability to perfectly cook the fish and beautifully plate each course was not lost on us.
UMI hotel is located by one of the most beautiful mountain ranges in the country. The hotel is only about 150 km away from Reykjavik and 2 km off the Ring road. The location offers a strong connection to nature that allowed us to experience the peace and quiet of the Icelandic countryside. Our only wish was to stay longer.
The hotel offers a first-class restaurant with a unique view of the Westman Islands and the southern coastline with a view of the famous volcano Eyjafjallajökull. Rooms are modern and elegantly designed. ~ $450/night
Dignified and imposing, Hotel Borg overlooks the beautiful square of Austurvöllur, in the heart of Reykjavík. It is conveniently located within walking distance of variety of restaurants, art galleries and specialty shops. The art deco style throughout, is elegantly appointed yet offer san extensive array of modern amenities.
Like the hotel itself, the rooms are decorated in art deco style that is characteristic for the building and appears in even the smallest of details. When designing the rooms emphasis was set on comfort mixed with sophistication. ~ $325/night
Hotel Kea is located in the very heart of Akureyri, next to the iconic church and downtown. Hotel Kea is the only four-star hotel in offering in house restaurant, bar, conference and meeting halls. Rooms are neatly decorated in classical style that reflects the hotel´s history.
The hotel staff welcomed us with friendly service after a long day on the road and an enjoyable beverage. On the first floor is Mulaberg bistro & bar where we enjoyed outstanding service and high quality Icelandic ingredients. The starter course of scallops and local Atlantic shrimp was a delight to the palate. The main entrée of cod on a bed of mashed potatoes was a perfect combination after a long day on the road. Complimentary breakfast is included with each stay and it is quite delicious.
How to Get to Iceland & Travel the Ring Road
Upon arrival in Keflavik airport, stop outside the arrival area and take a moment to view the map that shows you the regions of Iceland (see Resources section below with links for each region) and where all the attractions are located by region. We found it to be very helpful.
There is no better way to arrive in Iceland than to fly with Icelandair. Icelandair is a leading airline offering flights to and from Iceland. It is an attractive option for cross-Atlantic flights, with free stopovers.
You can spend a couple days on the island exploring and then head on to a multitude of cities in Europe. Make sure you allow enough time to enjoy the Saga Lounge where you can relax by the fire place or have a selection of healthy Icelandic food or beverages. Our service in Saga Business Class was made memorable by the attentive service of the flight attendants and the Icelandic focused meal service.
Once you have arrived to Iceland, it is time to jump in a rental car from Northbound. Northbound is an online marketplace for travel services where visitors to Iceland can find and compare prices for various services and Icelandic adventures. Easy to use, we loved our zippy 4×4 rental. A great rental for the ring road adventure.
Currency is the Icelandic Króna
Tourism Sites for Iceland:
Useful Sites for Safe Travel: Check these helpful sites for safe travels in Iceland where you can monitor road and weather conditions, etc.
- Road Conditions
- Drive Safely
- Travel Safely
- Cautionary Note: Always follow signs and warnings throughout Iceland. Stay on marked hiking paths. There are many hiking trails with steep drops, geothermal areas with extremely hot steam and waterways, glacial lagoons with icebergs that can calve and turn without warning, and beaches with deadly undertows.
Written & Edited By: Julie Bishop & Patricia Stone
Photos Credit: Julie Bishop & Patricia Stone
Global Adventuress would like to thank Ion Adventure Hotel, IcelandAir, Hotel Umi, Hotel Borg, Hotel Kea, Mulaberg Bistro and Bar, Myflug Airlines, The Cave, Hotel Husfell, Ice Guides, Vogafjos Farm Resort, Matur Og Drykkur, Krauma Hot Springs, Atlantsflug and Northbound for hosting us during our visit to Iceland.