When starting to plan our Icelandic vacation we couldn’t decide which region we wanted to focus on. Reykjavik is the bustling city center that most tourists focus their time on. But we were in search of a more nature-centered vacation.
The south has the glaciers and black sand beaches. The east has dramatic mountain landscapes. The north has the best northern lights, seafood, and of course reindeer. Thankfully we didn’t have to choose. The ring road circles the entire island and is 100% the best use of your time in Iceland.
Landing in Keflavik
When our plane landed in Keflavik a blizzard was just beginning on the island. We mentally prepared ourselves for the snowy drive to Reykjavik. Our plan was to check into our hostel and grab a few hours of sleep before exploring for the day.
We got the keys to our rental car at 5 AM just as the wind was picking up to a blustery 90 MPH. The normal 40-minute drive took us an hour and a half. The wind gusts were so strong that the car sensors were registering each gust as a collision triggering all kinds of warning lights on the dashboard. When we arrived at the hostel we slept in the parking lot in the back of our SUV. The winds rocked the car violently enough I was worried it was gonna roll.
Making a break for the warm hostel 15 feet away soaked us to the core. Once inside we learned that all roads on the island had been closed until further notice. Thankfully we had planned to explore the city that day. After thawing out, eating some pastries, and drinking roughly 10 cups of coffee we set out to see Reykjavik.
The Icy Capital
Reykjavik is filled with tourist bars, fancy restaurants, amazing street art, and colorful homes. By U.S. standards the city is small and you can find anything you are looking for simply by walking the streets.
The must do activities; You have to try a cinnamon bun at Braud and Co., visit the iconic Hallgrimskirkja Church, snack on some world-famous hotdogs from Baejarins Beztu Pylsur, and eat the BEST fish and chips I’ve ever had in my life at Reykjavik Fish and Chips.
Also if you happen to be in Reykjavik on the weekend they have an insane market by the water. You can buy some of the famous Icelandic fermented shark and sheeps head jam. We missed out on that, but I don’t think I would have been brave enough to try it anyways.
Drinking is expensive in Iceland but we figured it was worth it to splurge a little bit. We loved the upstairs of Dillion Whiskey bar mostly because it was filled with locals and not tourists. Also, I recoomend checking out the Big Lebowski Bar for some fancy White Russians.
The Golden Circle
Next up on our road trip was “The Golden Circle” before we headed south. The Golden Circle is a small loop not too far from the Reykjavik city center. It’s easily accessible; which means crowded and probably the most touristy part of our trip. That being said, it is completely worth doing and super easy to drive yourself.
The first leg of our Golden Circle journey to Bingvellir National Park was a complete whiteout snowstorm. Fortunately, this kept some of the smarter tourists at bay. At one point we were in a line of cars on the roadway, at a complete stop because the snow had made it impossible to see where the road ended and the tundra began. Several unfortunate rental cars littered the side of the roadway. A pack of sled dogs mushed past in the white blizzard around us. We waited it out and after an hour of very stressful slow driving through the mountains we made it to the top where the sky was blue and the sun was shining.
The rest of the circle was smooth sailing. We saw the meeting of the tectonic plates, Geysir, Gullfoss (foss means waterfall in Icelandic), BEAUTIFUL snowy landscapes, and our first opportunity to pet some Icelandic horses.
We had originally planned to hike down to the Sólheimasandur plane wreck on the black sand beach. Unfortunately, the weather made the 4 km hike impossible so we had to skip it or risk being blown away by the hurricane winds. I’m fairly certain this is something you should only attempt in the warmer summer months when the weather is a little more forgiving. Instead we went to Seljalandsfoss and got to see it right at sunset. I don’t know what it is about falling water that is so powerful and captivating but it is nonetheless.
The southern part of the ring road is dotted with black volcanic beaches, the charming little town Vik, and a long stretch of flat terrain. Most of the landscape is covered with past lava flows twisted into a rough but beautiful surface.
Vik was so small we almost missed it. The entire town is perched on a single hillside and consists of a handful of homes, the cute little church pictured below, and a few gas stations. On the stretch of road past Vik we caught our first glimpse of a glacier. We also saw a brown arctic fox running through the lava flows.
The glacier was electric blue against the neutral tones of the tundra. We found an F2 (un-serviced) road that took us to the base so we could snap some up close pics of the crystal clear ice. The wind gusts at the base of the glacier made it impossible to stand up/breathe comfortably let alone take a decent picture. But even the view from the car was worth the drive through the pot hole filled dirt road.
**I keep mentioning the wind in Iceland and I feel like I should emphasize just how crazy it was. At one point on our journey, we met a girl from Florida who had her rental car door RIPPED OFF by a wind gust when she tried to get out to take a photo. Needless to say, we always kept a firm grip on the door when stopping to take photos.
The weather caused cancellations of many (most) glacier hikes and ice cave explorations. We spent the night in the little fishing town of Hofn while we determined if our tour was still a go. AND IT WAS.
We lucked out and spent most of the next day hiking on top of Vatnajökull glacier. When you get on top of the glacier you can see how truly gigantic it is. This particular glacier is the size of 10 New York cities. There isn’t really any words to describe the experience. It was breathtakingly beautiful and I feel very fortunate to have gotten up close and personal to a glacier while they still exist.
The neon blue ice really stuck with me and was one of the coolest things I have gotten to witness in person.
The ring road between Vatnajökull glacier and Ayukeri was my absolute favorite. I’ll just let the pictures speak for themselves. We saw another arctic fox, countless caribou (reindeer), a harbor seal floating in glacier lagoon (with a full rainbow overhead), and snow-capped mountains. Most of the drive was weaving around black lava cliffs of the the coastline. This part of the road also had a 6 km tunnel that took us straight through the center of the mountains. Being totally honest it was a little unnerving driving underground for so long and knowing that literally, an entire mountain was on top of you.
Lake Myvatn was also along this stretch of the journey. This area is completely different from the rest of Iceland. It is dotted with hot springs boiling from underground magma and areas so acidic it can burn through skin. We visited the geothermal waste area where sulfur bubbled up in black pools and rock formations were spitting smoke into the air. The dirt was clay-like and mineral deposits had turned the soil vibrant colors that looked like acrylic paint dotted along the landscape. The whole area makes you feel as though you are on another planet.
***Game of Thrones fans ~ Many scenes from the show were filmed in Iceland because of the dramatic landscapes. Evan did manage to stumble upon the cave that Jon Snow and Ygritte got up close and personal in (the water was surprisingly warm). The cave looked like a crack in the rocks from above, but when you got a little closer you could see that the gap was wide enough to lower yourself down, and from there were small rock “steps” that led you into this little cave below.
Ayukeri was my favorite city in Iceland. Its nestled in the most northern portion of the ring road surrounded by snow-capped mountains and ice-cold coastal waters. It’s the main hub for whale watching in Iceland. The odds of us encountering a whale in February were slim so we didn’t go on any tours.
We did, however, eat some delicious curry, enjoyed some cheap local beer at the backpackers’ hostel, and kept warm in the many cafes and bookstores. This city was easily explored in one day but it had a very comfortable/casual vibe and we took our time here.
We stayed at an Airbnb farm just outside the city. When we woke up in the morning the sunrise over the mountains was breathtaking. We popped out of bed at 7am to take pictures in the gold and pink light and pet some fluffy sheep.
Every night at around 10 PM while we were in the countryside we went outside in search of the northern lights. Fortunately, we were able to glimpse them on our second to last night. Half the fun was cuddling up with some hot cocoa (for me) and searching the skies for anything remotely green. The Aurora forecast website is surprisingly accurate and super helpful when trying to find a break in the clouds. (Keep in mind, even at low activity your chances of seeing the lights are high if the skies are cloud-free.)
We checked the Icelandic road conditions website the evening before we headed to Snaefellsnell peninsula. And we found that the wind had made the northern mountain roads impassable. We canceled our hostel and instead headed to Hvammstangi, the seal watching city. A big part of Iceland travel is being flexible enough to change your plans on a whim. Because of the weather, if you are someone who has to stick to a strict itinerary it’s probably not the place for you. No seals were spotted, but instead got very drunk and ate some delicious lobster pasta by the sea.
Eventually we did make it to the peninsula, just one day later that we had originally anticipated. We spent all day exploring the bird cliffs of Arnarstapi and scouting for puffins among the various kinds of seabirds. One of my favorite stops here was at a secretive little diner. They sold traditional Icelandic lamb soup, homemade rhubarb crepes, and blueberry Icelandic ice cream. From the outside, it didn’t look like anything special. Once inside the food was delicious, the environment was homey, and decorated with Icelandic artifacts from the last hundred years. Including real whale bones. Even just poking around the eccentric interior is worth the stop.
Coming Full Circle
From here we headed back to Reykjavik for one more night of bar hopping and shopping. As well as a soak in the infamous Blue Lagoon. The lagoon was serene and relaxing, we mud masked and indulged in the swim up bar and it was the perfect end to a long road trip. We booked the lagoon 3 weeks in advance. The only time slots available when we booked were for 6 PM or later so make sure you book this waaaay in advance. Luckily for us, we still got an hour of daylight in the lagoon and got to witness a beautiful sunset. We only paid for the standard entrance ticket which didn’t come with a towel so we stole some unattended ones that had been left behind.
The Land of Fire + Ice
Overall Iceland in the winter was an adventure I will never forget. The ring road took us past every iconic waterfall, falling glaciers, and beautiful port fishing towns. We really got a glimpse of everyday life in Iceland. If you find yourself tempted by the cheap flights (like 300$ round-trip cheap) then read up on how to budget your wintery adventurehand what you REALLY need to pack.