You could spend a month driving around Iceland’s otherwordly landscapes and still find there’s plenty more to see, from famous waterfalls like Skogafoss and hot springs on the south coast to windswept beaches in the Westfjords, the dramatic highlands in Landmannalaugar, jaw-dropping cliffs on the Snaefellsnes Peninsula, and breathtaking mountains in the east. But if you’re short on time, don’t worry, the right Iceland self-drive itinerary will take you from the capital Reykjavik to some spectacular nature on the south coast.
Ideally, it should allow for a good amount of time to visit beautiful waterfalls, black sand beaches, breathtaking viewpoints, and the Glacier Lagoon, which is perhaps the crown jewel of Iceland’s south coast.
When there’s so much to see, it can be hard to decide what to include and what to leave off your itinerary. And if you’re visiting Iceland in winter, you’ll have to remember to dress right and keep in mind that road conditions are likely to be impacted by weather. After all, you might not want to be constantly rushing from place to place without getting the chance to slow down and truly enjoy where you are. Luckily, I’ve got local guide and travel planning expert Óli Schram at Go Ask A Local to share a 6-day Iceland self-drive itinerary for those wanting to explore the south coast of Iceland.
His itinerary is perfectly suited for a first-time visit to Iceland and offers a good balance of the main highlights along with some off-the-beaten-path places with fewer crowds. The itinerary makes time for sightseeing, relaxing, outdoor activities, history & culture, and exploring the best places in more remote areas.
He has included some time in Reykjavik, a day touring the Golden Circle, a few days on the South Coast exploring Vik, Reynisfjara, Skogafoss, and lots of waterfalls, and then a few days in the highlands and F-roads, before heading over to Jokulsarlon, the glacier lagoon, Skaftafell, and the famous Diamond Beach.
The days in the Southern Highlands would require a 4×4 vehicle and are best done with a guide. You should attempt to do this independently only if you’re very experienced in driving in rough and remote terrain. He advises that commercial car rentals prohibit things like crossing rivers.
Here are his recommendations for possible stops for each day on this 6-day South Coast Iceland self-drive itinerary, plus ideas for what to see and do, and the best order to do it in.
Óli Schram is an Icelander who has been guiding visitors for over 30 years. He started as a guide taking out his family and friends in the late ’80s long before Iceland was a popular tourist destination. Gradually, he started to get requests from relatives of friends, friends of friends, and then friends of his friends’ friends! He’s been going strong ever since.
From his base in the countryside outside of Reykjavik, Óli spends 250+ days of every year guiding. Rain or shine, in the blistering cold, and even in blizzards, you’ll find Óli out somewhere showing his clients the best of Iceland. He’s available for guided tours and Iceland trip planning consultations at Go Ask A Local.
Day 1 – Golden Circle to Flúðir
Today you’ll explore the Golden Circle, visit Thingvellir, Gulfoss, Geysir, Secret Lagoon and spend the night on the far end of the route in Flúðir.
The Golden Circle is Iceland’s most-visited route and the crowds are often shoulder to shoulder. While the sights of Thingvellir National Park, the waterfall at Gulfoss, and the geysers at Geysir are lovely—hence the recommendation to include this on your Iceland self-drive itinerary— they are crowded and this is Iceland at its most touristy.
When I am guiding clients, I often skip the Golden Circle and recommend that they do it on their own with a rental car or with a group tour like this one and save a day with me for something lesser-known and where having a guide lets you explore hidden places.
Start the day with some short sightseeing in Reykjavik before taking off for the Golden Circle on your Iceland road trip. Make a few stops on your way to Thingvellir park where you’ll get a mix of fascinating landscapes and a thousand years of Icelandic history.
From here, continue on to the geysers at the Geysir Geothermal Area and watch Strokkur erupt into the air, before a quick jump over to Gullfoss waterfall. Finish the day with a soak at the Secret lagoon.
Tonight’s accommodation is in Flúðir which is a cute town with good hotel options. Some doable additional activities today could be horse riding, fly-boat, rafting, and kayaking.
Day 2 – Into the Highlands: Landmannalaugar to Kirkjubæjarklaustur
Prepare for a packed day as you head up into the southern highlands for some Viking history, spectacular waterfalls, secret hot springs, hikes, and great views amongst canyons, rivers, and volcanos in this stunning landscape.
The second day of this Iceland self-drive itinerary is best done with a guide, but if you’re going on your own make sure that you have a 4×4 and have spoken with someone knowledgeable so you can safely plan your route. You’ll spend the night in Kirkjubæjarklaustur.
Begin with a drive up to the Gaukshöfði lookout point for views over the Þjórsá river and Þjórsárdalur valley. Carry on to the beautiful Hjalparfoss waterfalls before stopping to learn about Viking history at Stöng farm, a preserved Viking-era settlement.
Make a few more quick stops at waterfalls with Háifoss among them on your way to two gorgeous crater lakes, Hnausapollur and Ljótipollur.
Now you’re entering Landmannalaugar, an otherworldy geologic area with constant geothermal activity that is perfect for hiking, swimming, and secret hot spring-hunting. Your last stop of the day is the stunning Eldgjá canyon.
Overnight in Kirkjubæjarklaustur. Optional activities: hiking and swimming.
Day 3 – Glaciers, Lagoons, and Diamond Beach
Enjoy a day along the coast with a Zodiac boat ride among the icebergs. Spend time kayaking, glacier hiking, ice climbing, & visit ice caves before a visit to Diamond Beach and some Puffin watching to finish the day. You’ll spend another night in Kirkjubæjarklaustur.
Before heading in the direction of Skaftafell, plan on a short hike into the awe-inspiring Fjaðrárgljúfur Canyon which is right near the hotel. Then, get ready for something totally different during your visit to Skaftafell in Vatnajoküll National Park.
You have the option for lots of short hikes (including one to Svartifoss waterfall), but for something more adventurous go to Svínafellsjökull glacier and try your hand at ice climbing or glacier hiking. Glacier hiking is best done with a guide, here is a 3-hour glacier hike with Iceland’s best adventure travel company that was founded by a mountaineer and world traveler.
Afterwards, shoot over to the glacier lake Fjallsarlon for a Zodiac cruise among icebergs before checking out its bigger sister lagoon, Jökulsárlón for some speedboating or kayaking. Of course, take some time for a visit to Diamond Beach too.
From here, you can wind down the day at Ingólfshöfði with a tractor ride for Puffin spotting. You’ll overnight again in Kirkjubæjarklaustur.
Day 4 – Southern Highlands to South Coast
Back into the Southern Highlands for some more off-the-beaten-path exploring before you make your way down to the South Coast.
For those with only 5 days, this day can be cut out. On your 4th day, instead of going into the highlands, just take the coastal route south from Kirkjubæjarklaustur and do day 6 in reverse. Day 5 remains the same, but with you returning to Reykjavik at the end of the day.
Make sure to pack a picnic lunch as there are no restaurants where you’re going today. Ideally, hire a guide to join you as you head back into the Highlands by 4×4 en route to Hvolsvöllur via the South Fjallabak tracks. You’ll cross this unique and remote region filled with gorges, glaciers, and rivers formed by constant volcanic activity over millennia. This is the location of one of Iceland’s most famous Sagas, so it’s a good idea to read up a bit ahead of time to fully appreciate the history in addition to the landscape.
Be prepared for some bumpy driving en route to today’s first stop, Laki crater. It’s an enormous volcanic fissure that bisects a mountain in Vatnajökull Park. From here, drive to the Fjallabak Nature Reserve where you’ll spend the day hiking and exploring away from the crowds. Marvel at the beautiful scenery as you follow the south tracks (South Fjallabaksleið) down towards Hvolsvöllur on the coast where you’ll be spending the night.
Day 5 – Þórsmörk National Park
Spend today taking in the splendid scenery of the beautiful Þórsmörk National Park. You’ll stay another night in Hvolsvöllur.
Start your day in Þórsmörk National Park with not-to-be-missed Stakkholtsgjá canyon and Gljufrabui waterfall which many tourists overlook in favor of the more famous Seljalandsfoss.
For those wanting a little more action, you have many good hikes or optional ATV riding, which is one of my favorite activities to do in Iceland. You can also do a super jeep tour, but I think you’ll have more fun on an ATV or exploring on foot.
Plan on a visit to the Lava Centre to learn about all the volcanic activity you’ve been seeing. Return to Hvolsvöllur for another night.
Day 6 – Vik, Reynsifjara beach, and the South Coast
Visit Vik and enjoy an easy and relaxing day along the South Coast before heading back to Reykjavik for your last night.
From your hotel, head out in the direction of Vik, stopping at Seljalandsfoss and Skogafoss for a walk/hike. While at Skogafoss, make time for a stop at the Skogar Museum.
Afterwards, in the town of Vik, enjoy a wander and lunch. You have a few good restaurant options in town. After fueling up, make your way down to Reynisfjara black beach. While the sand here is black, the name “black beach” used only in reference to this beach does not really make much sense – almost all of the beaches in Iceland are black!
From Vik, it’s about a 2.5-hour drive back to Reykjavik, though you should add some time to stop at Hella to explore and for a walk around Selfoss en route. From here, you’re back to the capital after your Iceland road trip for one more night before flying back home.
Tips on Driving in Iceland on your Self-drive Itinerary
- During the summer months, when the midnight sun shines all day and all night, road-tripping around the Ring Road in Iceland is the absolute best way to explore the country, allowing you to travel at your own pace. Unsurprisingly, it’s also a very popular way to travel, so it’s best to book your rental car as much in advance as possible, especially if you’re looking to drive an automatic car.
- Around the entire island, the roads are in excellent condition. There are gravel roads in some parts that might require you to have off-roading experience. If you are not confident about driving here, the easiest way is to go with a guide.
- Google Maps is quite accurate, so you won’t find it difficult to get to popular spots including every famous waterfall you want to go to and well-known attractions such as the Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon.
- Another great option to make the most out of exploring during the long days of summer, while saving up on accommodation costs is to rent a campervan.
- When driving on the main road, it’s easy to get distracted by the sight of beautiful Icelandic horses, amazing rock formations, lava fields that seem like they’re out of another planet, or the Northern Lights in winter. However, that is no excuse to stop in the middle of the road or to saunter off the right side of the road. There is always enough time to stop properly at a parking lot, but no excuse to be a nuisance to others while driving on your Iceland trip.
- If you’re planning to road-trip around Iceland in the winter months, be prepared to have some flexibility in your itinerary due to the very real possibility of strong winds and bad weather.
Based in Reykjavik, Óli Schram is an Icelander who has been guiding visitors for over 30 years. He’s available for guided tours and Iceland trip planning consultations at Go Ask A Local.
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