If you're looking for ten adventure-filled summer days of authentic travel, our Ultimate itinerary for Iceland is sure to cater to your highest expectations. As well as guiding you to virgin landscapes and secret natural gems, this round trip provides a thought out selection of Iceland's must-see attractions.
Iceland has no railway system, and although the Icelandic bus system is relatively accessible and simple to use, trips are both expensive and infrequent.
When traversing the country, therefore, we recommend that you rent a car as it allows you to control your own pace and explore hidden paths and less used roads where you are sure to discover many secrets.
With the speed limit set at a modest 90km/h, Iceland's quiet highways provide ideal road trip conditions where you have ample opportunities to marvel at the breathtaking scenery.
And remember that if you do not have the necessary means of driving by yourself, you always have the option of going on a Guided Ringroad of Iceland Tour.
With your sights set on central Reykjavík where you have booked your accommodation, you pick up your car upon arrival at the Keflavík International Airport, drive through the lunar vistas that make up the Reykjanes Peninsula, and immerse yourself in Iceland's spectacular landscapes as you spontaneously discover them by simply looking out the window of your car.
Over 70% of the people who visit Iceland make their way to the Blue Lagoon, making it Iceland's single most popular attraction, and with good reason; named in 2012 as one of National Geographic's “25 Wonders of the World", this geothermal spa is located in the middle of a rugged black lava field in Grindavík, a 25-minute drive away from Keflavík Airport, and is filled with warm milk-blue water that is said to have extraordinary healing powers.
Should you arrive in Iceland early in the morning, a visit to the Blue Lagoon would be an ideal choice for the day, but since the journey ahead will provide you with ample opportunities to bathe in many of Iceland's magnificent natural and man-made pools, you would be well-advised to save a visit to the Blue Lagoon for your last day, or skip it altogether.
When you have checked into your accommodation you should take advantage of the proximity to Reykjavík's booming city centre, where you can discover a multitude of shops, museums, restaurant's and café's and explore the old harbor district of Grandi, which recently metamorphosed into a vibrant artistic venue filled with workshops, bistros, and galleries.
In the evening you should definitely dine at one of the 5 best restaurants in Reykjavík before merging with the radically liberal nightlife in Reykjavík, which is famed for its avant-garde atmosphere and flamboyant crowds.
Just make sure that you save some energy for the journey ahead.
You start your second day in Iceland by driving 20 km east of Reykjavík, into the Bláfjöll Country Park, where the late morning and early afternoon will be well spent exploring what is widely considered the most magnificent natural phenomenon of its kind, the empty magma chamber of the Þríhnúkagígur volcano.
After a 3 kilometre hike through Bláfjöll's volcanic wonderland, an open cable car will take you through a narrow, funnel-shaped opening, and lower you slowly 120 meters into the enormous Þríhnúkagígur magma chamber.
A Þríhnúkagígur volcano tour is literally an excursion into the cold heart of a dormant volcano, where orange and scarlet walls tell stories of ancient cataclysms and terrible destruction.
In the afternoon you drive to the small town of Hveragerði, where you will spend the night after hiking into Reykjadalur, a steaming geothermal valley that cuts through the mountains above the village.
Hot water perpetually pours from the Reykjadalur's surrounding hills, forming a warm stream in the bottom of the valley, where you can bathe and unwind while taking in the mesmerising scenery.
Should you thirst for a more daring approach, a guided horseback tour would take you even further into the mountains above Hveragerði, where you discover mighty lava fields and geothermal hot spots of bubbling mud pools, solfataras, and fumaroles on the back of the strange but spectacular creature that is the pony-sized Icelandic horse.
The third day of your journey takes you further east, across the southern lowlands where Seljalandsfoss, one of Iceland's highest waterfalls awaits you by the highway.
Seljalandsfoss drops over 60 meters over a misty cavern wherein you can walk behind the cascade and experience its mystical force from a point of view that is extremely rarely granted by mother nature.
In 1923, the pool was attached to a mountainside where it collects the lukewarm water that steadily seeps from the hills, and to this day you are free to bathe in this stunning example of organic architecture.
Ten kilometres east of Seljavellir, the mighty Skógafoss, one of Iceland's largest waterfalls, plummets 60 meters from off the towering cliffs that make up the border between the coastal lowlands and the Icelandic Highlands.
After accosting this mighty aqueous guardian of the south, you would do well to visit the Skógar Folk Museum, whose six buildings display more than 15,000 regional folk craft artefacts.
The late afternoon will be well spent exploring Reynisfjara, one of the world's most beautiful black sand beaches.
Perpetually hammered by the ruthless North Atlantic surf, Reynisfjara is adorned with titanic rock formations and hexagonal basalt columns that make up an enormous cliff face in which strange dark caves gape towards the open sea.
Please be advised that strong undercurrents, heavy surf, and cold water temperatures make entering the sea extremely dangerous and one should not do so under any circumstances.
Photo by Regina Hrönn Ragnarsdóttir
After exploring Reynisfjara, you head east, towards the neighbouring town of Kirkjubæjarklaustur where you will lay your head for the night.
The bright summer evening provides the perfect conditions for exploring the Systrafoss waterfall and the magnificent Systrastapi (Sister's Rock), a strange rock hill which towers from the southern lowlands in a 30-minute walking distance from the village.
On the fourth day, you journey into Skaftafell, a national shrine that covers over 4800 square kilometres of utterly surreal wildlands where black desert sands meet a birch wood oasis under a spur of the Vatnajökull ice cap.
This crown of the south is famed for its warm summer climate, and locals offer excellent services including guided glacier hiking and ice climbing tours, transportation, food, and accommodation, and from Skaftafell's visitor centre and campsite, a multitude of hiking trails will take you into dreamlike realms of mesmerising beauty.
On Fossaleið (Trail of Falls ), Hundafoss will be the first and highest of a set of cascades on the path which to the majestic Svartifoss (Black Falls) waterfall, that tumbles from off a towering row of black basalt columns in a forest glade that is like a gap in reality.
But within a 30-minute drive east the campsite, you will find one of Iceland's most treasured masterpieces of nature, Jökulsárlón.
Jökulsárlón is a glacier lagoon, on which you can join countless seals in travelling amongst the towering mountains of ice that have broken from off the Breiðamerkurjökull glacier in the north.
For decades, Jökulsárlón tours have attracted large crowds from around the world, and to this day they remain one of Iceland's most sought out tourist activities.
But when the titanic iceberg's of Jökulsárlón have melted to the size of a mere cubic meter, the Jökulsá á Breiðamerkursandi glacial river ferries them south into the sea, where the waves polish them into table-sized blocks of ice that eventually wash onto the obsidian sands called the Diamond beach.
The Diamond Beach is where 1000-year-old glacier fragments slowly fade into unity with the single great drop of water that is the Atlantic Ocean.
This is where you spend the rest of your day before heading back to Skaftafell for a well deserved good night's sleep, under a glacier bathed in the scarlet rays of the midnight sun.
This unofficial capital of the east is split by Iceland's third largest river, Lagarfljót, which is allegedly home to the Icelandic equivalent of the Loch Ness Monster, the serpentine creature known as Lagarfljótsormurinn.
Documented sightings of the great worm of Lagarfljót first occurred in 1345 and continued well into the 21st century, but it wasn't until 2012 that a video recording finally provided the irrefutable evidence that ultimately proved the creature's existence.
And within the blink of an eye, legend had become fact.
But before you have the possibility of chancing upon a close encounter with the Lagarfljót Worm, the three-hour morning drive towards Egilsstaðir will reward you with crowd-free vistas of windswept mountains, picturesque villages, and an array of waterfalls so stunning that they are even said to rival their southern counterparts.
Comprised of long fjords with steep sides and jagged glacier-forged peaks, the dramatic east coast is contrasted with fertile farmlands, blooming meadows, and green groves.
25 kilometres south of Egilsstaðir, the Hallormsstaðaskógur National Forest covers over 740 hectares of varied landscapes, making it the largest forest in Iceland.
Forests are rare phenomena in Iceland and before you reach Egilsstaðir, a visit to the forest would be well worth your while. Hallormsstaðarskógur boasts of over 40 kilometres of footpaths and marked trails, two fully equipped campsites, and boat and horse rentals.
Today's drive takes you 190 kilometres northwest of Egilsstaðir and into the mystical horseshoe-shaped canyon of Ásbyrgi (The Shelter of Gods), whose steep sides are made up of towering cliffs that, according to numerous local sources, are the principal dwellings of the Icelandic hidden people (huldufólk).
The grand canyon measures 3.5 km in length and 1 km across and is divided by a distinctive 25-meter high rock formation called Eyjan (The Island), on top of which you may enjoy sweeping views of the whole horizon while fellow travellers carefully navigate the many footpaths of the densely forested floor below.
Photo by Regína Hrönn Ragnarsdóttir
One of those paths is a stone-stepped trail that leads to the crystal clear and still Botnstjörn. This small body of water is all that remains of a nameless waterfall, which in primordial times fell roaring from the cliffs above.
Today, Botnstjörn is fitted with a viewing platform that allows for a peaceful moment where one can pay a silent tribute to the aquatic spirit that once was the master of this realm.
Spend the day in Ásbyrgi's soft but rocky embrace, and secure a night of sweet dreams by remembering to pay your respects to the hidden people in the cliffs above you.
Over the southern Hólfjallavegur, a two-hour drive will take you from Ásbyrgi and into the northeastern inland, where you will traverse Lake Mývatn's ethereal landscapes that were formed in a cataclysmic volcanic explosion more than 2000 years ago.
Mývatn is one of Iceland’s largest lakes, famed not only for its multiple bird communities and vibrant plant life, but also for the many natural wonders that surround the lake itself, including the bubbling sulfuric mud pools of the Námaskarð pass, the enormous tuff ring volcano crater of Hverfjall, and the massive Krafla, a fiercely active volcanic caldera that last erupted in 1984.
East of the lake, you will find one of Iceland's most precious natural marvels, the Dimmuborgir (Dark Cities) lava fields.
Legend has it that Dimmuborgir came into existence when Lucifer was banished and cast from the heavens. Upon landing east of Mývatn, the fallen angel quickly amassed a damned hoard of lost souls and established a Catacombs of Hell, much to the dislike of the local light elves.
There was chaos and there was confusion, demons fought light beings under a burning sky, but eventually, the elves drove satan's army far into the nether regions before turning the unusually shaped lava fields into a cross-dimensional elven capital of their own.
Stories like this may come across as nonsensical at first, but when one takes the area's incredible geothermal potency into consideration, Mývatn's mythological association with fire, brimstone and burning underworlds becomes quite understandable
Around the lake, in fact, you are more than likely to happen upon numerous caves that are filled with hot water, many of which rank amongst the world's most magnificent natural baths.
But since small earthquakes regularly alter the area's geothermal conditions—sometimes raising water temperatures to extreme and even life-threatening levels—you should always connect with locals before bathing in the caves.
From Mývatn, a 40-minute morning drive takes you into the northern Skjálfandi Bay, where under you find the quiet little town of Húsavík, which has made a name for itself as the whale watching capital of the world.
Because of the multiple species of whale that flock to their feeding grounds in the waters of Skjálfandi bay, Húsavík is the very best whale watching harbour in Iceland, with local operators boasting of an unmatched 99 percent success rate.
On a Húsavík traditional whale watching tour you are more than likely to encounter the white-beaked dolphin, the harbour porpoise, and even the titanic blue whale, but the gentle minke whale is by far the most commonly sighted animal, his curious nature often allowing visitors to watch him from a very short distance.
From Húsavík a 90 kilometres drive takes you west to Akureyri, the largest town in Iceland outside of the capital area, with a population of 20.000.
Although Akureyri lies only 100 kilometres below the arctic circle, the town greets you with mild and pleasant weather and an easy going atmosphere.
Topping Lonely Planet's list of ten best places to visit in Europe 2015, Akureyri has started to rival Reykjavík as Iceland's go-to cultural hot spot, and before you rest for the night, you should spend the late afternoon and evening exploring the town's many attractions that include an abundance of cafés, restaurants, and museums.
On your second last day in Iceland, you get up to an early start and let a three-hour morning drive take you into the old pastoral hamlet of Húsafell.
Set in dense birchwoods between two glaciers, this ever popular outdoor activity centre makes for an ideal place to spend a day of easy hiking and sightseeing.
Excellent footpaths and hiking trails lead into the beautiful Húsafellsskógur forest, towards the Ok and Eiríksjökull glaciers, and onto the vast Hallmundarhraun lava field which is home to numerous caves, including Surtshellir, and the enormous Víðgelmir.
Víðgelmir is 1585 meters long with gigantic domes reaching astonishing heights of over 15 meters, making it not only the largest cave of its kind in Iceland but also one of the largest lava caves in the world.
Although Víðgelmir's share size is spectacular to behold, the cave's true uniqueness lies not in its enormity, but in its beautiful vibrant colours that come to life in numerous chosen locations where a system of lights has been carefully installed to ensure that visitors fully enjoy their underground adventure.
15 kilometres southwest of Víðgelmir you will find another natural marvel, where the Hraunfossar waterfalls flow into the Hvítá River.
Hraunfossar rank amongst Iceland's most magnificent waterfalls and should not be missed, especially because they are located within a 5 minute drive from Húsafell's service centre, which consists of a small grocery store, a filling station a swimming pool, and an information booth where you can book cottages, reserve space on the campground, or simply book a room for the night in the local Hótel.
During the very last day of your trip, you travel two hours southwest of Húsafell and onto the ultra volcanic Reykjanes Peninsula, a massive ridge of black and red lava fields where the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates drift apart.
Around every turn, you will stumble upon majestic examples of Iceland's volcanic nature, such as the steaming lake Kleifarvatn, and the vibrant geothermal fields of Gunnuhver and Seltún that are filled with bubbling mud pools and steaming fumaroles.
In Sandvík, on the peninsula's southern point, a footbridge overarches a small canyon, where you can walk between the two separating continents.
It is easy to lose track of time and space in Reykjanes' volcanic landscape, so make sure to save a moment for the Blue Lagoon, should you not have gone there on your first day.
The steamy world of black rock and milk-blue water makes for the perfect finish to your visit in Iceland wherein the misty lake you are bound to soak away all of your tension and prepare your body for the journey back home.