What are some of the most popular attractions found on Iceland’s South Coast? What activities can visitors partake in here? How long does it take to travel from the capital, Reykjavík, and is it possible to travel the south all year? Read on to find out all you need to know with this Ultimate Guide to the South Coast of Iceland.
Iceland’s picturesque south coast is among the most popular regions for visitors to the country.
Those travelling along this strip of scenic coast will be privy to nearly endless dried lava fields, awe-inspiring cliffsides and quintessential fishing villages. To this day, visitors consider South Iceland to be the ideal spot for hiking, paragliding, Super Jeep tours and sightseeing, among other activities.
Many people chose to explore the south in different ways, either through guided tours or self-drive tours, yet few are disappointed by the plethora of sights, sounds and experiences they uncover here.
Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon is widely considered the end of the South Coast. Situated four hours and 22 minutes drive away from Iceland’s capital, Reykjavík (on a good day with clear roads), meaning that, without stops, you’ll be driving for nine hours in total if you decide to head there and back in one day.
This is doable in the summertime, though it’s likely you’ll feel pressed for time and will have to skip over some of the other southern attractions. If looking to head out that far, it is recommended to spend a couple of days on the South Coast, making an overnight stop somewhere like Hvolsvöllur or Höfn. For that reason, Höfn is included in this list, although it is a part of Iceland's East.
There are also numerous other attractions in the south part of Iceland that aren't a part of the coastline, such as the popular Golden Circle sightseeing route that includes Þingvellir National Park, Gullfoss waterfall and Geysir geothermal area.
Following are only the main attractions along Iceland's South Coast, from the westernmost attraction of Reykjadalur valley to the easternmost one of Höfn, but the south of Iceland has so much more to offer.
Translated to “Smoke Valley” but should, in fact, be "Steam Valley", most people connotate Reykjadalur to the highly-popular, soothing hot river that runs through the area, a result of the region’s geothermal underbelly.
The valley, however, should be celebrated in its own right; hillsides of a lush green are intercut with numerous trickling streams and waterfalls, as well as dotted with countless hot pools and geothermal springs.
The valley is located beside Hveragerði, a town of approximately 2500 people known for the locals’ friendliness (if you have any trouble finding your way into the valley, somebody will be around to point you in the direction.) Hveragerði is, roughly, a forty-minute drive southwest from Iceland’s capital city, Reykjavik.
After reaching Hveragerði, visitors will drive straight through the town until they arrive at the gravel road that leads up to Reykjadalur Valley.
Cars are parked at the end of this gravel road, from where guests hike for approximately 50-70 minutes until they reach the first areas for bathing. Note that different sections of the river come out at different temperatures, so walk up and down a little to find the most comfortable spot for you.
A bus goes to Hveragerði, but not to the parking area from where the hike starts, so the best way to get here is either by renting a car or joining a tour.
Photo from Westman Islands Boat Tour
Vestmannaeyjar is both a town and archipelago found off the South Coast of Iceland. The islands are often anglicised as the Westman Islands, alluding to the area's first settlers, Irish monks, or "Men from the west".
All in all, Vestmannaeyjar is comprised of 15 islands, as well as around 30 sea stacks and skerries, and are thought to have formed 10,000-12,000 years ago, making them quite young in geological terms.
The largest island, Heimaey, is the only one within the archipelago that is inhabited, currently boasting a population of approximately 4200 people. The other islands are either completely untouched by human hand, or sport a solitary hunting cabin, only taking visitors in the warm summer months.
Photo from Westman Islands Boat Tour
One particular draw that attracts guests to the Westman Islands is its natural biodiversity. Here, you'll find every one of Iceland's seabird species, including Guillemots, Skuas, Arctic Terns, Puffins, Icelandic Gulls and Kittiwakes.
Thanks to the area's microclimate, millions of birds nest in the islands' cliff face each spring, departing again at the end of the summer months. Because of the birdlife's importance to the islands, the Atlantic Puffin has been officially adopted as the emblem of Vestmannaeyjar.
In order to get to the Westman Islands you can take a ferry (and bring your car if you like) from Landeyjahöfn harbour. Heimaey Island is easily walkable, however, so it's not necessary to bring your car with you. The trip takes about 35 minutes one way and it's recommended to book in advance.
Alternatively, you can fly from Bakki airport that's located right next to the harbour (10-minute flight).
Seljalandsfoss waterfall is considered a staple stop on the South Coast sightseeing route, in large part due to the fact that visitors can actually walk behind the cascading water here. This makes the feature particularly beloved by nature photographers who jump at the chance to snapshot the waterfall from behind.
Standing tall at 60 metres (197 ft) high, the water of Seljalandsfoss originates from the volcanic glacier, Eyjafjallajökull. Eyjafjallajökull is, of course, famous for its 2010 eruption, which simultaneously managed to both shut off European air traffic and instigate the Icelandic tourism boom.
Visitors to Seljalandsfoss will often continue north along the trail until they discover Gljúfrabúi, another small waterfall, this time hidden away inside of a gorge in these ancient sea cliffs. Once again, photographers jump at the chance to photograph Gljúfrabúi and its unique surroundings.
Seljalandsfoss has been featured widely in international film and television. Arguably, the waterfall’s most famous appearances was a waypoint during the first leg of The Amazing Race 6, as well as taking a starring role in the music video for Justin Bieber’s track, “I’ll Show You”.
Photo by Anna and Michal
A mere 23 kilometres eastward from Seljalandsfoss waterfall, visitors will stumble across one of the South Coast’s outdoor pools; Seljavallalaug. Seljavallalaug is one of the oldest swimming pools in Iceland, having been constructed in 1923, long before Iceland’s advance into the modern era.
Seljavallalaug also once held the title of being Iceland’s largest swimming pool, measuring 10 metres in width and 25 metres in length, but lost the title in 1936.
Still, despite its size and age, Seljavallalaug is free to enter and makes for a worthwhile stop whilst travelling the South Coast. Do note, however, that those choosing to bathe at the pool do so at their own risk, and only should the urge take them.
The water is lukewarm at best, as natural hot water trickles down the mountainside that makes up one of the pool's walls.
Many visitors pay a little too close attention to the strange green shade the pool water often takes, a result of the algae that grows on the pool’s sides and bottoms. The pool is cleaned once a year. Visitors are required to take all trash with them from the site and leave nothing behind. There are no showers or bathrooms on-site, but a small house where visitors can seek shelter to change clothes, and that as well is up to visitors to leave neat and tidy.
Getting there requires you to take a left turn off the Ring Road onto road 242 until you come to a parking lot. From the parking lot, there's an additional 15-20 minute walk to reach the pool.
A short drive along a gravel road on the left-hand side of the Ring Road takes you towards Sólheimajökull Glacier. This is the meeting place for anyone that has booked a glacier hike on this impressive glacier, that's a part of the larger Mýrdalsjökull glacier.
A glacier hike or a glacier climb should only ever be done with a certified guide, as glaciers are full of dangerous cracks and visitors need to know what they are doing. Everyone partaking in a glacier hike will be provided with crampons, helmets and ice axes, as well as a guide that will lead the group.
If you on the other hand aren't looking to go on a hike on the glacier, it's still a beautiful sight to see from a distance. From the parking lot, there's a 15-minute walk to the edge of the glacier tongue, along impressive mountains and the glacier lagoon that nestles in front of it.
Photo from DC-3 Plane Wreck Shuttle
For many years, the US Navy DC-3 Plane Wreck sat abandoned to the elements. The result of a fuel failure in 1973, the aircraft crashed into the black sand desert of Sólheimasandur, located between Hvolsvöllur and the fishing village of Vík í Mýrdal. Thankfully, there was no loss of life in the incident.
It has sat there ever since, exposed and jagged, creating a stark contrast, not just with its peeling white paint to the dark, flat, volcanic earth of Sólheimasandur, but to its sheer artifice when compared to the open, untouched nature that has become its resting place.
Given the plane’s presence since the early seventies, and considering that Iceland’s tourism boom did not officially kick off until 2011, some Icelanders are only now beginning to accept that the DC Plane Wreck has become a makeshift visitor attraction in itself.
Until fairly recently, the wreckage was considered as something of a mess, if considered at all. It is only with foreign eyes that the wreckage has become a real point of interest.
Getting there you will need to put in a bit of effort. The plane can not be seen from the Ring Road, and it's illegal to drive to it. Visitors will have to park their car by the Ring Road, and then start a 45-60 minute walk to reach it (on flat surface). Bicycles are also permitted, that shorten the journey somewhat. The open sands provide no shelter from the unpredictable weather, so dress warmly.
Skógafoss is one of the largest waterfalls in Iceland, boasting a drop of 60 metres and a width of 15 metres, and again, acts as one of the major attractions along the South Coast.
Visitors to Skógafoss can walk right up to where the cascading water crashes into the ground, making for fantastic photographs. Photos are made even more amazing by the sheer size of the mist and spray clouds constantly formed by the waterfall, creating rainbows in the light.
Standing at such proximity also allows you to experience the sheer power of this natural feature. Be careful during the winter months, however, as the rocks at the base of Skógafoss often become incredibly icy, making it dangerous to approach.
It is also possible to view the waterfall from the top if you ascend the staircase right beside it. Be careful in the winter months, however, as these stairs become laden with snowfall, making accessibility difficult.
Because Skógafoss is only found a short distance from Seljalandsfoss, the waterfalls are often paired in travel guides, considered as something like cousins. Like Seljalandsfoss, Skógafoss has made numerous appearances in the media, including on History Channel’s ‘Vikings’ and in the film 'The Secret Life of Walter Mitty'.
Dyrhólaey’s origin story can be traced back to when it was a volcanic island, separate from mainland Iceland, known as “Cape Portland”. Today, Dyrhólaey has connected to the rest of the country, becoming a small peninsula unto itself.
This promontory is best known for its fantastic views over Iceland’s South Coast, as well as the birdlife that utilises Dyrhólaey’s towering cliff faces and the enormous rock arch that dominates the scene.
Those travelling to Dyrhólaey for the views will be in for a sure treat. To the north, you will be able to Mýrdalsjökull glacier, while to the east and west respectively, you will have views over Reynisdrangar and the southern coastline towards the town of Selfoss.
Do note, however, that parts of Dyrhólaey are closed off during May and June in order to leave the nesting birds undisturbed. Guests looking to see birdlife can see a variety of species, including puffins, but be aware of the Arctic Tern who are known to divebomb aggressively when protecting their nests.
Reynisfjara is a black sand beach, found between Vík í Mýrdal village and Dyrhólaey, roughly 180 kilometres away from Reykjavík. Reynisfjara is an excellent example of the volcanic shorelines that so characterise Iceland’s coasts, making it one of the most popular stop-off points for sightseeing tours along the South Coast.
Here, guests can stand in awe of this ancient and mystic vista, a landscape defined by its distant mountainscapes, towering cliff faces and captivating rock formations. In 1991, National Geographic voted Reynisfjara among the Top 10 most beautiful non-tropical beaches found in the world.
Of particular note is the 15-metre high basalt rock stack, Reynisdrangar, which protrudes from the ocean just off the coastline. Over the years, there has been much folklore surrounding Reynisdrangar; some claim it to be the petrified remains of three trolls, frozen solid in the sunlight as they attempted to pull a boat from the water.
Others suggest it is the frozen imprint of a long-lost, three-masted ship, whilst another theory suggests Reynisdrangar is all that's left of a frozen troll after a vengeful husband froze them after learning that they’d murdered his wife. Whatever the case, Reynisdrangar is home to a wealth of nesting seabirds including Puffins, Fulmars and Guillemots.
Walking along the coast, guests will also observe the hexagonal rock formations that decorate the cliffsides running along the length of Reynisfjara. These basalt columns are known as Garðar and are reminiscent of the Giant’s Causeway in Ireland.
Garðar was formed after a historic eruption, where lava cools over time, leading to a process called “columnar jointing”. Once again, a visit here is sure to provide you with a deep insight into Iceland’s geological processes.
A word of warning for those looking to travel to Reynisfjara, however. This beach is infamous for being the site of a number of accidents over the years, a fact due to the unpredictable “Sleeper Waves” that flow rapidly up the coast. Those types of waves are often also called "Sneaker Waves" or "Rogue Waves".
These waves are powerful and the currents of Reynisfjara are strong, not to mention that the water is ice cold, meaning that if you’re caught up suddenly in the tide, the odds are immediately against you.
Make sure to pay good attention to the warning signs here and keep well away from the shoreline—it might just save your life!
Vík í Mýrdal is a small coastal village found on Iceland’s South Coast, often utilised as a lunch stop and souvenir shopping destination for those partaking in a sightseeing tour.
The village is home to approximately 300 people, yet stands as the largest settlement in a 70-kilometre radius. Because of this, Vík í Mýrdal is considered an important staging post and administrative centre between Skógar and the Mýrdalssandur glacial outwash plain.
Vík í Mýrdal is located directly south of Mýrdalsjökull glacier, meaning it is at constant threat from Katla volcano, which sits beneath the ice cap. Katla has not erupted since 1918 which, according to scientists, means the chance of a new eruption increases with each day, although it may still take years until the next one takes place.
It is thought that Katla’s eruption would cause glacial flooding large enough to completely destroy the town, save for the red-roofed Vík í Mýrdal church which is positioned on a hill higher than the rest of the town.
Because of the threat, residents of Vík í Mýrdal regularly hold evacuation drills at the church. Scientists and guests who stay in one of Vík í Mýrdal’s 1400 hotel rooms are warned in advance of the possibility of an eruption.
But no eruption has taken place for over 100 years, and while Katla sleeps then visitors to Vík can go on excursions all year round towards Katla volcano and explore natural ice caves found in the glacier that sits on top of it.
Fjaðrárgljúfur Canyon holds a two-kilometre long river in South Iceland, is approximately 100 metres deep, with steep walls and narrow pathways. Fjaðrárgljúfur, notoriously unpronounceable for foreigners, is said as [Fyath-raor-glyu-fur].
Fjaðrárgljúfur Canyon has changed a lot over the nine thousand years it has existed; today, guests can explore the feature either from the walking path above the canyon or actually inside of it (though this will require some wading).
The bedrock of Fjaðrárgljúfur is palagonite, dating back to cool periods during the last Ice Age, approximately 2 million years ago. The canyon has taken on its strange and winding shape due to the river Fjaðrá, which begins at the mountain, Geirlandshraun.
Visitors are urged to respect the path that winds itself on top of the canyon, as stepping off it damages the delicate grass and moss found there.
Kirkjubæjarklaustur, often known as simply “Klaustur”, is a small hamlet found on Iceland’s South Coast, to the east of Vík í Mýrdal, in the municipality of Skaftárhreppur.
This village, with a population of approximately 500 people, is the only location between Vík and Höfn where it is possible to utilise local amenities, including a petrol station, supermarket, post office and bank.
Kirkjubæjarklaustur has a long and important history in Icelandic culture, making it just one of the major reasons as to why a village of such a diminutive size can be so popular amongst tourists.
To begin with, it is widely agreed that Kirkjubæjarklaustur was home to Irish Monks long before the Settlement of the Norsemen. Then, in 1186, a convent of Benedictine nuns was to call the village home until the Reformation in the mid-1500s.
In ancient times, the village was called “Kirkjubær” (Church Farm), and served as the location where the local pastor delivered his “Fire Sermon”, a prayer that is said to have halted the furious Laki Eruptions in Iceland's Highlands that took place in 1783 and saved the town’s church.
Today, visitors can see the 1924 memorial chapel built as a testimony to this incredible event.
Photo by Matteo
Kirkjugólfið (“The Church Floor”) is an 80 m² square stretch of columnar basalt rock, imprinted in a field just east of Kirkjubæjarklaustur village. Despite this attractions name, Kirkjugólfið is entirely natural, a result of cooling lava flow that becomes contracted then cracks into a series of separate hexagonal columns.
Thus, there has never been a church on the site, merely an allusion to one. Despite this, the entire area does have its history deeply rooted in mysticism; it is said that Kirkjubær was so enchanted and sacrosanct to the early Christian settlers that pagans could not set foot there.
Legend claims that Irish hermits (Papar)—the earliest settlers to the area—were the ones to lay down this protective spell. One story even states that a young pagan, Hildir Eysteinsson, failed to believe such magic could be possible and therefore attempted to move to Kirkjubær. Upon setting foot on the land, he fell down dead at once.
(As a side note, be aware that this enchantment has now, apparently, been lifted. Pagans as well as people of any religion or lack thereof are free to roam Kirkjubær to their heart’s desires.)
Photo from Wikimedia, Creative Commons, by JD554
Dverghamrar (“Dwarf Cliffs”) is an area of hexagonal basalt columns found in South Iceland, approximately 10 kilometres east of Kirkjubæjarklaustur. Dverghamrar is a protected national monument.
Dverghamrar is an excellent example of how mysterious and puzzling Icelandic nature can be, a fact driven home by the attraction's mythological name.
According to folklore, Dverghamrar was once the home of dwarves, elves, hidden folk and all other manner of supernatural beings. Not only were they supernatural, but they were also a major part of Icelandic interpretation of Christianity, acting as followers to this new monotheistic religion. Christian "hidden folk" are referred to as "Light Elves" in Icelandic folklore.
One reason that Icelanders believed this is due to a folktale revolving around a young woman in 1904 who claimed to ethereal singing originating from Dverghamrar, despite the fact she could see the site was empty. Listening closer, she could recognise the song as a Christian hymn, ‘The Father in Heaven’.
It is said that Dverghamrar was built by these ethereal creatures, a justified explanation given the lack of scientific understanding on the part of early Icelanders.
Just like Kirkjugólfið, modern understanding dictates that the basalt columns were formed from cooling lava that quickly contracted, thus causing deep and distinctive cracks in the rock.
Skaftafell is a preservation area located in the region of Öræfi (“The Wasteland”), southeast Iceland. Skaftafell was once a national park in its own right, having been established in 1967, but as of June 2008, has been incorporated into the enlarged Vatnajökull National Park.
Skaftafell was originally inhabited as a farmstead not long after the initial settlement of Iceland and was even the location for a number of administrative meetings between different Chieftains. The Öræfajökull eruption of 1362 decimated the community in its entirety, making the area uninhabitable for long stretches at a time. Hence, the area has been referred to as “the wasteland” ever since.
Farmsteads continued to be re-established in the area, though each was met with insurmountable challenges, ranging from the infertile soil to frequent glacial flooding and ash clouds from the nearby volcano, Grímsvötn. Farming was finally discontinued in the area in 1988.
Today however the region boasts incredible beauty, the country's tallest peak, Hvannadalshnúkur, as well as the country's tallest waterfall, Morsárfoss. There's a stark contrast between the green birch clad fertile ground right next to the enormous Vatnajökull glacier, making this one of Iceland's most popular hiking areas.
A short hike from the visitor centre brings people to Svartifoss waterfall, although the most popular hikes are the glacier hikes themselves.
Skaftafell boasts a popular camping site, as well as a visitor's centre and a small café.
Vatnajökull is the largest glacier in both Iceland and Europe, with a total surface area of 8,100 km2 and an average width of 400 metres to 600 metres. Vatnajökull reaches a maximum ice width of approximately 1000 metres and boasts over thirty different outlet glaciers, giving you some idea as to the glacier's scope.
Vatnajökull National Park covers approximately 11% of the country, blanketing canyons, mountains and even volcanoes, thus proving to be an excellent example as to why Iceland is known as the "Land of Ice and Fire".
Some of the island's most active volcanoes currently rest beneath the glacier, including Grímsvötn, Öræfajökull and Bárðarbunga. Scientists expect there to be a high level of volcanic activity in Vatnajökull over the next half-century.
Vatnajökull is just one of the three national parks in Iceland, but is, without doubt, the largest, having absorbed both the historical Skaftafell National Park (est. 1967) and Jökulsárgljúfur (est. 1973).
The other national parks in the country are Þingvellir National Park, roughly forty minutes northeast from Reykjavík, and Snæfellsjökull National Park. Vatnajökull National Park was established in 2008 in order to protect the area’s eclectic wildlife.
It is so enormous that the possibilities of things to do within it are countless, however ice caving in winter and glacier hiking all year round are the most popular activities.
Most of the park is within the Icelandic Highlands, so in order to reach more remote parts of it a 4WD car is required.
Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon has some of the prettiest vistas in Iceland. This is an area of serene beauty characterised by its peaceful icebergs, the curious seal colonies and sweeping views over the ice caps and mountains of Vatnajökull National Park. Upon visiting here, the reasons become evidently clear as to why Jökulsárlón is colloquially titled “The Crown Jewel of Iceland”.
Driving here from the capital, Reykjavík, will take approximately four and half hours without stops, meaning a return trip would see you driving for approximately nine hours - but you'll surely want to make several stops along the way.
The lagoon is always increasing in size, as it is formed by the glacier calving large chunks of ice into the lagoon. Through global warming, this phenomenon is rapidly increasing, and Jökulsárlón is now Iceland's deepest lagoon reaching a size of 18 square kilometres from when it first formed around 1934-1935. From the 1970's it has increased fourfold in size.
Most visitors choose to spend an evening overnight at accommodation along the South Coast, either at Höfn, Vík í Mýrdal or Hvolsvöllur.
With that being said, some do choose to make the trip in a single day, especially during the warm summer months when the Midnight Sun allows for nearly 24 hours of illuminated sightseeing.
Just be aware that it's an extensive trip to make in a single day, as there are countless other attractions to be found along the way.
If Jökulsárlón is the ‘Crown Jewel’, it’s also the ‘Prize’, the gold at the end of the winding rainbow we call the Icelandic South Coast.
Only five minutes walk from Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon, guests will stumble across the aptly named Diamond Beach, a strip of coastline where icebergs wash up onto the jet-black, volcanic shoreline.
Diamond Beach is particularly beloved by photographers who relish the opportunity to snapshot the striking contrasts made between the pale blue ice and volcanic black sand.
Thanks to the icebergs' natural formation, no photo is ever alike, and the rolling tide presents a fantastic chance to experiment with timelapse, creating fantastic and surreal pictures that perfectly capture the area's unique, ethereal nature.
Höfn í Hornafirði (often shortened to simply ‘Höfn’) is a fishing village in southeast Iceland, sitting just near the Hornafjörður fjord. Between 1994 and 1998, the village was known officially as Hornafjarðarbær, before taking the name it is known by today, meaning “Harbour”.
Today, the village is the second-largest urban settlement in southeast Iceland and boasts incredible views over Vatnajökull glacier. The surrounding landscape is characterised by shifting shoals and glacial rivers, with several small islands lying to the east of the village such as Mikley and Krókalátur.
As for amenities, Höfn boasts more than most towns of its size (est. population: 2100). For one, the village contains a domestic airport, two banks, four schools, four hairdressers, a supermarket, a flower shop and computer repairs outlet, a gym, a golf course and numerous restaurants and hotels.
Of particular note in the village, visitors can experience the Höfn Glacier Museum where, through their wealth of displays, they can learn about Vatnajökull's geology, ecology and history. Guests may also like to pay a trip to Gamlabúð ("Old Shop"), the oldest house in the village still in use today. And unless you're vegetarian or vegan, than you shouldn't visit Höfn without trying their famous langoustine, the specialty of each restaurant in town - there's even a langoustine festival held here each summer.
Höfn í Hornafirði is often utilised for overnight stops for tours travelling along the South Coast, particularly those that travel as far as Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon, or for those continuing east, rather than returning west to the capital.
Have you visited Iceland's scenic South Coast, and if so, what was your favourite location? Are there any handy hints that you'd like to share with future travellers to South Iceland? Make sure to leave your thoughts and queries in the Facebook comments box below.