How do Icelanders travel in Iceland? Do you want tips from an Icelander for your ring road trip? Find local tips about attractions and restaurants on a medium budget in Iceland here.
I'm born and bred in Reykjavík. I've travelled quite extensively around Iceland and consider myself pretty knowledgeable about the country and its attractions. I've also written a lot of articles about the natural attractions of Iceland here on Guide to Iceland.
But in August/September of 2016, I drove the ring road of Iceland in a completely different way then I have ever done it before.
There's a lot to write about, so I've sectioned this up in three parts, this first part covering arrival in Reykjavík & south Iceland.
- Here you can read part two: Local travels the ring road around Iceland: South to east Iceland
- Here you can read part three: Local travels the ring road around Iceland: Northeast to Reykjavík
I've done the Icelandic ring road a few times before (at least twice with my parents and once hitchhiking it in a weekend to catch some music festivals on the other side of the country). But this time, I went as a tourist - renting a car, booking accommodation and following an itinerary (that I made myself). Now, I'm not rich, but I also like to indulge from time to time, so here you can read about a budget/medium-budget travel plan around Iceland in 8 days.
When is best to travel around Iceland?
Normally when I've driven the ring road I've done so in summertime (June, July or early August), when the nights are bright and you just bring a tent along and camp in a nice camping spot when you feel like it. (That's how you do proper budget traveling in Iceland - there are campgrounds every few km!) Maybe I'd follow a rough plan, but with the possibility to improvise around it in case the weather is especially good in one place.
However, in late August 2016 my (somewhat elderly) English 'in-laws' (I'm not married, but 'in-laws' is shorter than 'my boyfriend's parents') came to visit Iceland for the first time. They came from the 26th of August until the 4th of September. 10 days in total, enough to do the ring road in 8 days, with a day to spare for arrival and departure date. It's always good to spend the first and last day in Reykjavík, just to get your bearings.
After consulting this a little with my boyfriend, we decided to show them around the country as much as possible, and perhaps we'll take it more easy next time they come. It was getting a little late in the year for camping, and besides, they are both around 70 years old and not accustomed to camping, so we booked accommodation all around the country in advance. Additionally, we don't have a car, so we had to rent a car.
So here's how a (somewhat) knowledgeable Icelander chose to do a tourist trip of Iceland, combining main tourist attractions with some favourite stops and hidden gems.
Arrival date in Reykjavík, Iceland
The centre of Huldufugl's maze, with the tree of life: Yggdrasil. Picture by Elísabet Ingólfsdóttir.
When you arrive in Iceland, you arrive at Keflavík airport, a 45 minute drive from Reykjavík. There are frequent buses from the airport to Reykjavík, but I borrowed my parent's car to go and pick my guests up.
My 'in-laws' arrived on a Friday afternoon. We wanted to take it easy, and after having picked them up from the airport the four of us went home where I cooked them some Icelandic trout.
We had booked a rental car for the following morning, but the rental company called me up and asked if I wanted the car delivered that same night, so I could leave as early as I wanted the next day.
My go-to car rental company is IceRentalCars. I live in Reykjavík city centre and don't have much use for a car normally as I can walk or bike wherever I need to go, and I can often borrow a car or get a ride with someone else if I'm leaving town. However, when I want to go for a couple of days out of the city (or such as in this case, for 8 days) then I need to rent a car.
I've rented a car from IceRentalCars a few times in the past couple of months since I moved back to Iceland from London, and they're always in a good mood, happy to help, deliver the car to my doorstep, have great prices and really nice and clean, brand new cars. Talk to Viktor there, he'll sort you out with a car and a smile on his face!
I wanted a slightly large car so we'd have ample space for the four of us + all the luggage, so we booked an automatic Peugeot 308 Station Wagon. Since we weren't planning on any highland tracks, then this car served us fine on the main roads and occasional gravel roads.
Picture of myself and my boyfriend outside the entrance of the Maze of Yggdrasil by our company Huldufugl. Picture by Elísabet Ingólfsdóttir.
After having the car delivered to our front door, my boyfriend and I showed off the maze that we've spent the majority of the summer building to his parents. The maze, built by our art company Huldufugl, was right by the harbour and next to The Travelling Embassy of Rockall, where there were free lectures, workshops, art exhibitions and concerts for the whole summer of 2016. So they caught some live music as well.
Since the maze and the embassy were a temporary structure, I'd advise other tourists to look up what's going on in Reykjavík when they arrive (you can ask at a tourist information desk, such as Guide to Iceland's information booth at the City Hall). There might be some interesting theatre performances in Tjarnarbíó or Iðnó, live music in one of Reykjavík's bars or café's, gallery openings or special events.
First day of travel: Golden Circle and hot river
For the first day outside of Reykjavík we planned on hiking to Reykjadalur valley to bathe in a hot river, before driving the Golden Circle and ending up by Úlfljótsvatn lake where my parents were building a gorgeous summer house.
We drove to the higher start of the hike, to walk down towards the hot river. This is a shorter way to the river, and an easy one to hike down (not as easy on the way back!) As you are driving towards Hveragerði from Reykjavík, you'll need to turn left onto a gravel road towards Ölkelduháls (it's not in the best condition, and you'll need to take it very slowly in a 2WD car!) The road to the lower start of the hike (by Hveragerði) is much easier to drive.
Reykjadalur valley hot river is getting more and more popular, so now there are some wooden paths along the riverbed, and pretty much impossible to have the whole river to yourself. However, you'll meet plenty of fun travelers, that either hike there on their own or are a part of a hiking tour or a horseback riding tour.
I'm not going to include a photo of us half-naked in the river here, but I promise that it's very comfortable to soak in the warm water! You can control how hot you want the water depending on where you enter it, the higher up the stream the hotter it gets!
After bathing in the river for about an hour, enjoying some chocolates we brought with us and some cold water (be sure to bring cold water with you, the hike and the hot water will make you thirsty!) the 'in-laws' and my boyfriend then hiked down to the parking lot where most people hike from. I hiked back up the steep hill to the car and met them down by Hveragerði parking lot.
I had wanted to go to Stokkseyri and have lunch at Við Fjöruborðið, one of my favourite restaurants in Iceland, but we had left the city quite late and none of us were particularly hungry. So we carried on towards Gullfoss and Geysir, making a rather long stop at the crater Kerið. The crater Kerið now charges a small (500 ISK) admission fee (the only natural attraction in Iceland to do so), so we wanted to make the most of it and took our time walking around the crater and down to the lake, in absolutely glorious sunshine (the sky looks white, but that's just because my iphone can't deal with both blue sky and blue crater!).
Next up was Gullfoss waterfall, an obligatory stop for first-time tourists in Iceland (but not actually close to being my favourite waterfall, I've perhaps visited it too many times already). Following Gullfoss we made a stop at Geysir, watching the geyser Strokkur erupt a few times before continuing our trip.
It had gotten late, and boyfriend's parents had to meet up with my parents, so we decided to leave the national park Þingvellir for the next visit.
We ended the day with both sets of parents, a couple of bottles of wine, a lovely lamb bbq, with minke whale sushi as a starter. The sky was clear and bright, but the northern lights didn't decide to show up.
Second day of travel: Waterfalls + South Coast
We woke up to blue sky, no wind and glorious sunshine!
After a little soak in a hot tub and a small breakfast, we headed towards Ljósafossvirkjun Power Station, where there's a really great interactive exhibition about electricity in Iceland. It's free of charge and open every day from 10-17 in summertime.
I had wanted to check out an Ethiopian restaurant in Flúðir called Minilik, but they were closed for holidays so I'll have to go there another day.
I don't know what they put in their cucumber salsa, but it is highly addictive. Again, we were graced with glorious sunshine, and ended up spending a while there eating, chatting and tanning.
We said our goodbyes to my parents and the four of us continued our trip.
I was a little over-ambitious and decided to drive the Þjórsárdalur valley, on roads 32 and 26, before heading to all the attractions in the south.
We stopped at the beautiful waterfall Hjálp (Help), before finding out that there was absolutely no way that our car could drive the gravel track to Háifoss waterfall, and we didn't have enough time to hike it. You DEFINITELY need a 4WD to drive to Háifoss, or spare 2-3 hours. I hadn't checked if it was a 4WD road in advance, as for some reason I thought it wasn't.
Road no 26 is mostly gravel, and we were getting a little bit of rain, so the drive took us a while. We stopped by the beautiful Þjófafoss waterfall - and admired the gorgeous scenery - but this meant that we had hardly any time to enjoy the many attractions of the south coast.
We made a 45 minute stop by Seljalandsfoss and Gljúfrabúi waterfalls but then drove right past Seljavallalaug hot pool, Skógafoss waterfall, DC planewreck, Dyrhólaey and Reynisfjara black beach. Another daytrip to do for their next visit. There are simply too many places to see in Iceland to be able to cram them all in during just an 8 day trip!
We had booked dinner in Suður-Vík in the town of Vík at 7pm, so we were pressed for time. The dinner was lovely, and they offer a selection of currys, which is unusual for a restaurant in the Icelandic countryside. The fish of the day was great (normally the fish of the day in any restaurant in Iceland can't go wrong!), however, I wasn't a fan of the fish soup as it's a clear soup and I'm more in favour of creamy seafood soups. Definitely a good place to stop for some food though!
After dinner we continued to my most anticipated accommodation of the whole trip: Þakgil camping site. Now, we weren't going to camp, instead we had booked a mini cabin for the night. I didn't look into all the details when I was booking (as I was booking accommodation and looking up restaurants for the whole week) - but I was pleasantly surprised to see that the mini cabin had both a kitchen corner and a bathroom (no shower though). Communal showers were in another house.
Although the cabin was nice, that's not the main appeal of Þakgil - it's the location and surroundings that are out-of-this world. First you need to drive 14 km from the ring road to get there (all gravel, some of which is not in the best condition - but still passable for any type of car). I was driving it for the first time, and it was pitch-black by the time we were driving there, so it took me 40 minutes to drive it. We arrived around 22:30 but the lodger was happy to point out which cabin was ours and have a little chat.
After putting our bags inside, we sat outside in our sleeping bags watching the starry night sky in total silence, hoping for the auroras to come out and play (sadly they didn't).
- Read more about Þakgil and nearby Remundargil canyon here
Luckily we had some northern lights later on in our trip! The following day we headed further east as you can read about in the second part of this blog.
- Here you can read the second part: Local travels the ring road around Iceland: South to east