Iceland has one main road: Route 1. This ring road goes all around the island and from it are smaller roads and routes that lead you to fjords, towns, peninsulas, the highlands and many other attractions. But what are the best attractions you can find along and by Route 1 itself?
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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 sheep, cows, birds and horses!
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 sea, lakes, glaciers, hot springs, small villages, fjords, islands - all dotted with birds, sheep, cows, horses and reindeer.
South Iceland Attractions along Route 1
The southwest of Iceland is mainly flat, green farmlands - with the occasional rivers and mountains. That includes the Hvítá river, which is popular for rafting, and Hekla volcano - that can be seen from the ring road. Also Mýrdalsjökull and Eyjafjallajökull glaciers, the sources for dozens of waterfalls and the home to one of Iceland's most popular hiking route, the Fimmvörðuháls. On a clear day, you can see all the way to the Westman Islands from the ring road in the south.
Main attractions in southwest Iceland include:
1. Hveragerði: 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 hiking tour or horseback riding tour to Reykjadalur - or walk it on your own! Hveragerði is only a 40 minute drive from Reykjavík.
2. Seljalandsfoss: A beautiful waterfall that you can see from the ring road but is actually a 100 metres off the ring road. It's possible to walk around the waterfall as there is a big cave behind it. One of Iceland's most popular attractions! From Reykjavík it takes about 2 hours to drive to Seljalandsfoss (without stops).
3. Skógafoss: A big, impressive waterfall just a little bit further than Seljalandsfoss. Also the start (or end) of a known 1 day hike called Fimmvörðuháls (that takes you to Eyjafjallajökull volcano!) Skógafoss is only about a 20-25 minute drive from Seljalandsfoss, so around 2,5 hours away from Reykjavík. On the way from Seljalandsfoss to Skógafoss you can go off the ringroad towards Seljadalur to bathe in a pool in the mountainside called Seljavallalaug. That's a little detour as you'll go off the ringroad and from the parking space you'll need to walk for about 15 minutes to reach the pool.
4. Dyrhólaey (visible from the ring road but to get there it's a tiny 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 and home to thousands of puffins!
5. Vík: A quaint little town with a view towards Reynisdrangar, by one of the prettiest black beaches in Iceland. This is the last town in the south until you reach Kirkjubæjarklaustur, an hour drive away, so stack up on gas!
The southeast of Iceland contains wide stretches of sand with glacial rivers running through it. 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 Vatnajökull, Iceland's (and Europe's!) biggest glacier.
Main attractions in southeast Iceland include:
1. Kirkjubæjarklaustur: A very tiny little town, with about 150 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 Kirkjugólf or venture a little further by car off the ringroad towards Fjaðrárgljúfur, a gorgeous canyon that's perfect to explore on foot. From Reykjavík it's a 3,5 hour drive to Kirkjubæjarklaustur 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. Skaftafell: Formerly a national park on its own by the roots of Vatnajökull but now a part of the Vatnajökull national park. This area is surprisingly green and lush even though it's right next to a glacier! You can for example go on a short hike to the waterfall Svartifoss (Black waterfall) that's surrounded by dark basalt columns that lend the waterfall its name. Skaftafell is another hour's drive from Kirkjubæjarklaustur, or about 4,5 hours away from Reykjavík (not including stops!).
3. Jökulsárlón: A big glacial lagoon, one of Iceland's most visited tourist attraction. Big blocks of ice break from the glacier and float around in this lagoon until they make their way out to sea. The coastline is dotted with big chunks of ice, and sometimes you see seals playing in the water. If you walk down to the coastline you can see waves playing with big chunks of ice dotted around the black sandy beach. Jökulsárlón is a 45 minute drive from Skaftafell - or around a 5 hour drive from Reykjavík.
Note that it will probably take you longer to drive during wintertime, when the roads may be icy and the visibility poorer.
East Iceland attractions along Route 1
The east of Iceland is characterised by rugged mountains and beautiful fjords. Pretty much every fjord has a town and everyone has a favourite 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 may close due to heavy snowfall. So make the most of visiting east Iceland in summertime!
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 - but do not despair! There is still plenty to see.
Main attractions in east Iceland include:
1. The town of Höfn. Höfn is another hour's drive from Jökulsárlón and is a small fishing town - but the largest in the area. They are known for their langoustine and in summertime hold a 'lobster festival' (Humarhátíð á Höfn) in June or July where you can taste incredible langoustine (Icelandic lobster). In 2016 this festival takes place between the 24th and 26th of June.
2. Numerous mountains, fjords and beaches. Álftafjörður (Swan-fjord) is very pretty, especially when flocks of swans gather there. And if you stop in Hvalnes, you can get this view of Eystrahorn mountain:
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 the nature.
4. Hallormsstaður Forest: The largest forest in Iceland. Iceland has hardly any trees, so seeing a forest is quite unusual in its own right! When you reach Hallormsstaður Forest you've made it halfway around the country, it's about an 8 hour drive from Reykjavík (not including stops), or about a 3 hour drive from Höfn.
5. Egilsstaðir: The largest town in the East of Iceland, right next to the forest (a 20 minute drive) and to Lagarfljót river, where rumours are that the Icelandic 'Loch Ness' lives: The Lagarfljot Worm. If you drive a bit further (off the main road) you come to Atlavík - a popular place to camp by the lake. It's also worth driving to Seyðisfjörður from Egilsstaðir, a 25 minute drive one way along road no. 93.
North Iceland attractions along Route 1
The north of Iceland is quite mountainous and holds many of Iceland's most notable natural attractions, such as Dettifoss and Ásbyrgi (both of them in the northeast but off the ring road - well worth the extra drive though!) After an hour and a half's drive from Egilsstaðir toward Mývatn you'll have a gravel road to your right leading towards Dettifoss. 30 km on road no. 864 brings you to Dettifoss (the driving may be slow, depending on the condition of the road). Ásbyrgi is an additional 30 km down the same road.
Main attractions in north Iceland include:
1. Mývatn: A stunning lake in the north of Iceland with rich vegetation and birdlife and stunning surroundings, filled with hot springs and caves. From Egilsstaðir it's a 2 hour drive to Mývatn - or if you drive the north way round from Reykjavík it's around a 6 hour drive.
2. Dimmuborgir: Right next to Mývatn, 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).
3. Mývatn Nature Baths: The North's answer to the Blue Lagoon, a natural lagoon where guests can bathe.
4. 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, Hlíðarfjall. Akureyri is about an hour's drive from Mývatn, or around 5 hours from Reykjavík.
West Iceland attractions along Route 1
There's not a big chunk of the ring road in the west part of Iceland. The west part of Iceland is mainly off the ring road, such as the Westfjords and Snæfellsnes peninsula. Nonetheless, there are a couple of places worth stopping for.
Main attractions in West Iceland include:
1. Borgarnes: A pretty town that's just a stone throw away from Reykjavík. Often a mandatory stopover on the way north for a hot dog and an ice-cream.
2. Esjan: A mountain overlooking Reykjavík, that takes less than 2 hours to hike (up).
3. Reykjavík: 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!