Iceland has one main Ring Road, otherwise known as Route 1. How long does it take to drive Iceland's Ring Road? What are the best attractions you can find along Iceland's Ring Road? What are the best attractions to visit on a detour from Route 1? Are the attractions open during COVID-19? Are the attractions open during COVID-19?
Iceland has one main road that encircles the island. This is known as Route 1, or the Ring Road.
If you are unfamiliar with Iceland, the concept of a country with only one main road may be baffling.
Here are some facts about the Ring Road which will give you a better idea of what we’re referencing throughout the article:
Taking the Ring Road in Iceland is the best way to travel as it is the one road in Iceland that is continually maintained and cleared of snow in winter. This road will quickly take you away from 70% of Iceland’s population who live in the Reykjavik area. This is good news for those who are wanting to explore the Ring Road during COVID-19.
Fortunately, Iceland is still open to visitors from approved countries, and they have worked hard to contain the virus with community guidelines and frequent testing. Some of the top safety protocols involve social distancing, which is relatively easy to do along the ring road.
With the majority of the attractions on this list, COVID-19 hasn’t affected them at all. They are out in nature, away from most of the population, and easy to find without a guide. Nature has not been closed by COVID-19. Waterfalls are still flowing and beautiful, the Northern Lights are still dancing in the sky throughout the winter, and the gorgeous landscapes are still very much there for you to take in.
You will, however, likely encounter some changes throughout the local businesses. Strict community guidelines limit how many people can gather at one time, which impacts restaurants, hotels, shops, museums, tours, and more. When a 2-meter distance cannot be maintained, masks are required. However, business owners are working hard under the local health authorities’ guidance to sanitize surfaces, keep gathering numbers low, and keep everyone safe.
Although these gathering limits may seem like a downside of visiting during COVID-19 it actually provides you a unique chance to travel with a much smaller, more intimate group than usual.
The route also takes you past many great attractions and offers plenty of options for detours around the island, which allow you to explore hidden gems.
Driving in Iceland brings a unique set of challenges. The roads may not be what you are used to; some roads may be more narrow, and there are some blind summits and narrow passes.
Take your time and stick to the moderate speed limits, and you will give yourself time to respond to any challenges.
Theoretically, it is possible to drive around Iceland in 15-16 hours, given the road conditions are good and you don't get stuck driving behind a slow tractor.
It is, however, recommended to take at least a week to do it in spring, summer, or autumn.
There are simply so many sights along the way that you'll want to make frequent stops. As well, this way you can explore the countryside on foot, on a bike or even on horseback.
With this in mind, you might want to take 10-14 days to fully enjoy a trip around Iceland’s Ring Road. This kind of time frame is essential for travel to Iceland in winter (October-March).
During this time, you need to be more flexible with your time and take at least 10-14 days to drive the circle.
In winter, there's always a chance you may need to drive through a snowstorm. The roads may close down so you'll have to wait in one location for 1-2 days or you may get your car stuck in the snow and spend hours digging it out.
On top of that, the days in Iceland are much shorter in wintertime and you may not want to navigate the icy roads in darkness.
While the Northern Lights appear frequently in winter, their light is unlikely to be bright enough to light your path.
If you have more time to enjoy traveling around Iceland, then you can add in some longer hikes or explore sections of Iceland that are off the Ring Road, such as the rural Westfjords or the impressive Icelandic Highlands.
Note that in order to explore the Icelandic Highlands you will need to rent a 4WD car and the Highlands are only accessible from late June until September.
Note that although many attractions in Iceland are just by the Ring Road, there are also some main attractions in Iceland that are not.
Moreover, the Ring Road does not include most of the fjords in East Iceland, the Snaefellsnes peninsula, the Westfjords, or the Highlands.
It also passes by popular towns, villages, and attractions in North Iceland, such as Husavik, Asbyrgi, Dettifoss, Siglufjordur, and Hofsos.
On the following list, these attractions will be recommended as detours, but to reach them you will need to add additional time to your journey.
Unlike in most countries where the main roads are big highways with multiple lanes, the Ring Road in Iceland is a fantastically picturesque 2 lane road with impressive views all around.
Make sure you drive on the right side of the road and watch out for animals in the fields next to the road.
Just driving along the Ring Road, without taking any smaller routes, supplies you with fantastic scenery.
Iceland has hardly any trees so on bright days the view from your car stretches endlessly towards fields, picturesque farms, waterfalls, mountains, beaches, the North Atlantic sea, lakes, glaciers, hot springs, small villages, fjords, islands - all dotted with birds, sheep, cows, horses and reindeer.
The Southwest of Iceland is mainly composed of flat, green farmlands, with the occasional rivers and mountains, including the Hvita river and Hekla volcano, which can be seen from the Ring Road.
Off the Ring Road, you can take half a day to drive the Golden Circle and then join the Ring Road again by the town of Hveragerdi. Take in the incredible sites of Thingvellir National Park, Gullfoss waterfall, and Geysir Geothermal Area before continuing on your journey.
The Southeast of Iceland contains wide stretches of sand with glacial rivers running through it.
On the sands, you can see an overturned bridge as a reminder of one of the glacial floods that happened in recent years, with a background view of Vatnajokull, Europe's largest glacier.
Vatnajokull National Park takes over most of Southeast Iceland and is by far the largest one of the National Parks in Iceland.
When driving in South Iceland, we recommend booking the ash, sand & gravel car insurance as your car may get damaged on windy days.
Photo from Hot Spring Hike to Reykjadalur Valley
1. Hveragerdi: A cute little town filled with geothermal activity and the starting point for a hike to Reykjadalur, where you can bathe in a hot river.
You can join a horseback riding tour to Reykjadalur or walk it on your own.
Hveragerdi is only a 40-minute drive from Reykjavik.
On a clear day, you can see all the way to the Westman Islands from the Ring Road in the south.
To reach the Westman Islands however you'll need to drive to Landeyjahofn and take a ferry across.
3. Seljalandsfoss: This is one of Iceland’s most popular attractions.
A beautiful waterfall that you can see from the Ring Road but is actually 100 meters off the Ring Road.
It's possible to walk around the waterfall during the warmer months as there is a big cave behind it.
From Reykjavik, it takes about 2 hours to drive to Seljalandsfoss (without stops).
A 10-minute walk from Seljalandsfoss will take you to a hidden waterfall called Gljufrabui.
You need to tiptoe over a few rocks in a river to get inside the canyon, but the view is worth it.
4. Seljavallalaug: On the way from Seljalandsfoss to Skogafoss you can go off the Ring Road towards Seljadalur to bathe in this warm pool in the mountainside.
That's a little detour as you'll go off the Ring Road and from the parking space, you'll need to walk for about 20 minutes to reach the pool.
5. Skogafoss: A big, impressive waterfall just a little bit further than Seljalandsfoss. It is also the start (or end) of a known 1-day hike called Fimmvorduhals (that takes you to Eyjafjallajokull volcano).
Skogafoss is only about a 20-25 minute drive from Seljalandsfoss, so around 2.5 hours away from Reykjavik.
6. DC3 Plane Wreck: A plane wreck can be found on the black beach in South Iceland. But in order to get there, you will need to park by the Ring Road and then walk for 45-60 minutes (one way) to it. So this is going to be at least a 2-3 hour detour if you decide to take it.
It's often quite windy and cold on the beach, so be sure to wear warm clothes and good hiking shoes.
7. Dyrholaey: Another attraction that's visible from the Ring Road but to actually get there it's a little drive off the Ring Road.
Cliffs by the sea with a lighthouse on top and spectacular views from the waves crashing on black sandy beaches, over green fields up to the glaciers in the distance.
Spectacular birdlife lives here and the area is home to thousands of puffins.
8. Reynisfjara: The famous Reynisfjara black sand beach is a short detour from the Ring Road.
Though visiting this beach is on the bucket list for many travelers, Reynisfjara does have dangerous sneaker waves that have been known to sneak up on unsuspecting people.
We urge people to stay far away from the waves, about 30-50 meters, and admire the strong forces of nature from a safe distance.
9. Vik: Vik, or Vik i Myrdal, is a quaint little village of 300 inhabitants with a view towards Reynisdrangar sea pillars, by one of the prettiest black beaches in Iceland.
This is the last village in the South before you reach Kirkjubaejarklaustur, an hour's drive away, so stack up on gas.
1. Kirkjubaejarklaustur: A very tiny little town, with about 120 inhabitants, named after a convent that stood there in Catholic times.
The town has a great camping site and romantic hiking paths and is a good base to explore the wonderful nature surrounding it. For example, go on a little walk to Kirkjugolf or to Systrafoss waterfall.
From Reykjavik, it's a 3.5-hour drive to Kirkjubaejarklaustur if you are going straight (perhaps longer depending on road conditions, weather, and of course how often you stop your car to take pictures).
2. Fjadrargljufur: A gorgeous canyon that's perfect to explore on foot once you're there, but it's a little driving detour from Kirkjubaejarklaustur.
Fjadrargljufur featured in the recent Game of Thrones series, with dragons flying through the canyon.
3. Skaftafell: Formerly a National Park in its own right, Skaftafell is nestled at the base of Vatnajokull and is now considered part of the Vatnajokull National Park.
This area is surprisingly green and lush even though it's right next to a glacier.
You can go on a short hike to the waterfall Svartifoss (“Black Waterfall”) which is surrounded by dark basalt columns that lend the waterfall its name.
Skaftafell is another hour's drive from Kirkjubaejarklaustur or about 4.5 hours drive from Reykjavik (not including stops).
4. Hofskirkja Church: This beautiful and picturesque church is made out of turf and is situated just by the Ring Road between Skaftafell and Jokulsarlon glacier lagoon.
The core of this church was built in 1884 and it is the last church in Iceland to be built in this turf house style.
5. Jokulsarlon: A big glacial lagoon, Jokulsarlon is one of Iceland's most visited tourist attractions.
Big blocks of ice break from the glacier and float around in this lagoon until they make their way out to sea.
It’s possible, also, to see seals resting or playing on the large chunks of ice.
Jokulsarlon is a 45-minute drive from Skaftafell or around a 5-hour drive from Reykjavik.
Note that it will probably take you longer to drive during wintertime when the roads may be icy and the visibility poorer.
Also, in wintertime, you will have the option to go on an ice cave tour from Jokulsarlon.
6. Diamond Beach: The coastline right next to Jokulsarlon, just on the other side of the road is dotted with big chunks of ice.
If you walk down to the coastline you can see waves playing with big chunks of ice dotted around the black sandy beach and the ice glistening like diamonds.
This area is called Breidamerkursandur, but it has been crowned the “Diamond Beach” due to the fact that the appearance of the ice against the black sand makes it look like diamonds have washed ashore.
The East of Iceland is characterised by rugged mountains and beautiful fjords. Pretty much every fjord has a town and everyone has a favorite fjord or mountain that they claim is prettier than the next.
Some parts of East Iceland are hard to access during wintertime, as some mountain passes close due to heavy snowfall. Summer is the ideal time to visit East Iceland.
However, most of the fjords are not by the Ring Road.
The Ring Road excludes some of the best bits of the East and most of the fjords need a little extra drive, so if you want to explore Iceland's East in more depth make sure you add a couple of days to your schedule to zig-zag along the fjords.
If you don't have the time for that do not despair - there is still plenty to see in East Iceland that is in close range of the Ring Road.
Here are the main attractions in East Iceland:
1. Hofn: The town of Hofn is an hour's drive from Jokulsarlon and is a small fishing town (the largest in the area).
Hofn is well-known for its langoustine and in summertime hold a 'lobster festival' (Humarhatid a Hofn) where you can taste incredible langoustine (Icelandic lobster).
2. Vestrahorn: Possibly the most photographed location in East Iceland, Vestrahorn is a breathtaking mountain.
Despite the East being filled with numerous mountains, fjords, and beaches, Vestrahorn still captivates all those who set eyes upon it. The long flat beach and relatively calm waters help photographers to capture stunning reflections of the mountain in the water.
In the vicinity is the beautiful Alftafjordur (Swan-fjord), where flocks of swans gather. Also, to either side of Vestrahorn are another couple of spiky mountains, Eystrahorn and Brunnhorn - each competing to be more picturesque than the next.
3. Reindeer: The East part of Iceland is the only part of the country where you can find wild reindeer.
They were originally imported to the country but some of them either escaped or were let loose and now they roam wild in nature.
Here you can see them posing in front of Brunnhorn, or the Batman mountain.
4. Egilsstadir: The largest town in the East of Iceland, right next to the forest (a 20-minute drive) and to Lagarfljot river, where rumors are that the Icelandic 'Loch Ness' lives: The Lagarfljot Worm.
If you drive a bit further (off the main road) you come to Atlavik - a popular place to camp by the lake.
5. Hallormsstadaskogur Forest: A short detour off the Ring Road brings you to the largest forest in Iceland.
Iceland has hardly any trees, so seeing a forest is quite unusual in its own right.
When you reach Hallormsstadur Forest you've made it halfway around the country. It's about an 8-hour drive from Reykjavik (not including stops) or about a 3-hour drive from Hofn.
Photo by Regína Hrönn Ragnarsdóttir
6. Hengifoss: A stunning waterfall that requires a 2-hour hike to reach, on the banks of Lagarfljot lake and with views towards Hallormsstadaskogur.
It is the third highest waterfall in Iceland (after Glymur and Haifoss) and stands at 128 meters tall.
It is surrounded by rocks that are basaltic strata, layered with red clay in between them, giving the waterfall a rather distinctive look.
7. Seydisfjordur: Another detour that's worth doing is to visit the village of Seydisfjordur.
This colorful and artistic village is situated in a fjord that's by many considered to be one of Iceland's most beautiful fjords. Additionally, you'll find a world-class sushi restaurant here, perfect for Japanese cuisine lovers.
This is where the ferry Smyril Line docks, connecting Iceland to both the Faroe Islands and Denmark.
Seydisfjordur is a 30-minute drive one way along road no. 93 from Egilsstadir.
The North of Iceland is quite mountainous and holds many of Iceland's most notable natural attractions.
However, a large portion of the attractions in the Northeast, such as Dettifoss, Asbyrgi, and Husavik require a detour off the Ring Road.
After an hour and a half's drive from Egilsstadir toward Myvatn, you'll have a gravel road to your right leading towards Dettifoss.
Drive 30 km on road number 864 and you will arrive at Dettifoss waterfall (the driving may be slow, depending on the condition of the road).
Asbyrgi is an additional 30 km down the same road.
If you're wanting to go whale watching, then you shouldn't miss out on visiting the whale watching capital of Iceland, Husavik. That town is a 40-minute drive on road number 87 and 85 from Lake Myvatn.
Here are the main attractions in North Iceland:
1. Myvatn: A stunning lake in the North of Iceland with rich vegetation and birdlife and stunning surroundings, filled with hot springs and caves.
From Egilsstadir it's a 2-hour drive to Myvatn, or if you drive the north way round from Reykjavik it's around a 6-hour drive.
2. Dimmuborgir: Right next to Lake Myvatn, Dimmuborgir is an area filled with dramatic rock formations and caves and often referred to as a gateway to Hell.
Perhaps that's why the Norwegian metal band Dimmuborgir chose this name (the translation is Dark Cities).
Dimmuborgir was used as a location in the Game of Thrones series, during the scene where Lord Commander of the Night's Watch, Jeor Mormont, led a group of Night Watchers through the snow North of the Wall.
3. Grjotagja: A hot spring inside a cave, Grotagja was featured in the Game of Thrones series (where Jon Snow and Ygritte get intimate).
It is forbidden to bathe in the water as the temperature is too unpredictable and can be extremely high, but it's a beautiful place to visit nonetheless.
4. Hverfell/Hverfjall: A dramatic volcanic crater just east of Lake Myvatn that is popular for hiking.
With a diameter of a kilometer and a depth of 140 meters, it is, in fact, one of the largest explosion craters in the world.
5. Myvatn Nature Baths: The North's answer to the Blue Lagoon, Myvatn Nature Baths is a natural lagoon where guests can bathe.
This natural lagoon is the ideal location to watch for the Northern Lights in winter or bask in the late-night midnight sun during the summer months.
6. Dettifoss: The most powerful waterfall in Europe is a detour off the main Ring Road. This is well worth a visit on any visit to Iceland.
You can either drive to a parking lot on the waterfall's east side along road no. 864, or you can drive to the west side along road no. 862.
From Dettifoss you can also walk towards Selfoss waterfall. This is at least a 2-3 hour detour with the drive and the walk to the waterfall.
7. Asbyrgi: A lush and green valley that's shaped like a horse's shoe.
Asbyrgi is also accessible on the same roads that lead to Dettifoss waterfall and is only possible on a detour from the Ring Road.
8. Husavik: A picturesque town on the North Coast of Iceland, and widely regarded to be the best location to go whale watching from.
From Lake Myvatn, it's about a 40-minute drive to Husavik, and if you add a whale watching tour to your trip then those usually last around 3-4 hours.
9. Godafoss: A stunning waterfall that's right by the Ring Road. Godafoss shouldn’t be missed when travelling between Akureyri and Lake Myvatn.
The name means 'Waterfall of the Gods' and derives from when statues of Iceland's Norse gods were thrown into the waterfall when Iceland decided to take Christianity as its religion.
10. Akureyri: The ‘Capital of the North’, this town is situated in a beautiful fjord and has a great swimming pool, a pretty church, good nightlife and the best ski resort in the country, Hlidarfjall.
Akureyri is about an hour's drive from Myvatn or around 5 hours from Reykjavik.
There's not a big chunk of the Ring Road in the West of Iceland. West Iceland is mainly off the Ring Road, such as the Westfjords and Snaefellsnes peninsula.
Nonetheless, there are a couple of places worth stopping for along the Ring Road itself.
A short detour from the Ring Road in West Iceland is to visit Reykholt and Hraunfossar waterfalls that are well worth a visit.
Here are the main attractions in West Iceland:
1. Snaefellsnes Peninsula: A peninsula that's often described as ‘Iceland in Miniature’ as it contains all of Iceland's main features in one compact location.
These landscapes include a glacier that's also a volcano (Snaefellsjokull), lava fields, waterfalls, picturesque mountains such as Kirkjufell mountain, sweeping views of beautiful coastlines with both black and white sands, caves, and fishing villages.
The Ring Road does not include the Snaefellsnes peninsula, but it's well worth it taking an extra day or two to discover what this part of the country has to offer.
2. Westfjords: The Icelandic Westfjords are truly stunning, and the most remote location in Iceland.
Here you'll find dozens of gorgeous fjords, the stunning Dynjandi waterfall, the red beach of Raudasandur, countless hot springs to bathe in, rural villages, and the westernmost tip of Europe: Latrabjarg bird cliff.
The Ring Road passes by the Westfjords, resulting in them becoming more remote than the rest of the country.
If you plan on visiting the Westfjords, it's advisable to add another 3-5 days to your journey.
Please also note that the Westfjords may not be accessible during the darkest winter months due to heavy snow.
3. Deildartunguhver: Europe's most powerful hot spring, but not one you'll want to enter.
Deildartunguhver is only a short 15-minute drive from the Ring Road.
4. Reykholt: Not to be missed by any history buffs, Reykholt was the home of Snorri Sturluson, one of Iceland's most famous writers and poets from the Viking age.
A short detour from the Ring Road, about a 20-minute drive, or simply 5 minutes further than from Deildartunguhver.
5. Hraunfossar and Barnafoss: Some of the most stunning waterfalls in Iceland are the lava waterfalls Hraunfossar that trickle-down directly from underneath a lava field.
They are located only 35-minutes from the Ring Road, along the same road that goes to Deildartunguhver and Reykholt.
6. Borgarnes: A pretty town that's just a stone throw away from Reykjavik.
Often a mandatory stopover on the way North, where travelers can enjoy a hot dog or ice cream.
7. Mount Esja: A mountain overlooking Reykjavik that takes less than 2 hours to hike up.
8. Reykjavik: The country's capital, filled with restaurants, art galleries, shops, nightlife, museums, and everything you'd expect to find in a capital city.
And that's the entire circle of Iceland.
You can choose between driving the circle yourself or going on a guided tour. Taking a bus from one place to another is not a good idea since the buses often only run once or twice a day and you'll want to be making a stop every 30 minutes or an hour.
By driving the circle yourself you'll have more flexibility and privacy and can choose how long you want to spend at each location.
In summer this means you could be enjoying the sights until the middle of the night (since the nights are bright). But in winter you will want to get to your accommodation before it gets dark, and then look up in the sky during cloudless nights in search of the aurora borealis.
Only drive in Iceland in winter if you are extremely confident with driving in snow and icy conditions. Iceland’s road conditions change regularly and it’s crucial to keep up to date - always with drive safety first.
The weather conditions in winter might contain a snowstorm or two and then you'd be better off joining a guided tour.
If you don't trust yourself to drive in the summertime, or simply want to get some local insight into the sights and attractions, then again you can choose to go on a guided tour.
A 10 day guided tour of the Ring Road is also a great mix of free time in the city of Reykjavik and a guided tour of the Ring Road.
You'll be able to find a variety of Ring Road itineraries, ranging from 7-14 days in summer and from 10-12 days in winter.
If you're on a budget, be sure to check out all the budget self-drive tours.
However you choose to do it and whatever you decide to visit along the way, touring the Ring Road in Iceland is an unforgettable experience. There are numerous attractions along the way, but these are our hand-picked best attractions by Iceland’s Ring Road. Share your memories of visiting Iceland in the comments below.