10 Best Stops on a Road Trip Down Iceland’s South Coast
Barring Iceland's notoriously unpredictable weather patterns, you can make it from Reykjavík to Vatnajökull in a day’s time (if you drive like mad), but why the rush? Set aside a long weekend and you can embark on the journey of a lifetime down the country's scenic south coast, which takes in some of the world's most breathtaking waterfalls, glaciers, and fairytale landscapes.
Day 1: Reykjavík
Most journeys in Iceland begin and end in Reykjavík, its colorful capital city and hub of Icelandic food and culture. Before shuttling off down the coast, set aside some time to take in the best of this tiny settlement. After getting a refresher in Viking history at the National and Saga museums, stroll down Laugavegur—the city’s main shopping drag—before taking a detour to Hallgrímskirkja, an iconic white concrete church whose clocktower affords sweeping views of the city and the sea.
All that sightseeing is sure to work up an appetite. We suggest digging into seasonal Nordic cuisine—Arctic char, beetroot, skyr—at restaurants like Dill (which earned itself a Michelin star in 2017), Fiskfelagid (its sea-centric menu includes Icelandic salted cod and monkfish), and Grillmarkadurinn (if you’re looking to taste puffin or reindeer).
As for where to stay? The ION City Hotel is downtown’s newest and most stylish boutique hotel, from Icelandic architectural studio Minarc (behind the brutalist ION Adventure Hotel). Beyond the intimate lobby’s nest-like hanging lights and birch tree wall hanging, futuristic hallways with motion-controlled uplighting give way to just 18 Nordic-chic rooms and suites featuring wood-paneled floors, window seats, Icelandic art, and free mini-bars stocking local drinks and snacks.
Day 2: 179 kilometers (111 miles) from Reykjavík to Vík
To beat the crowds and take advantage of daylight, you’ll want to get an early start. It’s a two-hour drive from central Reykjavík to your first stopping point: Seljalandsfoss. The waterfall is practically unmissable—you can spot its 213-foot plunge long before the winding road reaches it. While not as massive as Skógafoss or Gullfoss (another two of Iceland’s most famous waterfalls), Seljalandsfoss is unique. Visitors can actually walk behind the falls for a behind-the-scenes perspective during warmer months. JS Tip: don’t forget rain gear; the mist will soak you through!
Another 25 minutes down the road lies Skógafoss. One of Iceland’s biggest waterfalls, its 49-foot-wide curtain of water plummets 200 feet over what was once a sea cliff along Iceland’s former coastline. (Its drama has earned it cameos in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty and Vikings.)
Legend has it Iceland’s first Viking settler buried a treasure in a cave behind the falls. Only an iron ring from the chest was “found,” which is now on display at the nearby Skógar Museum. If you have time to spare, head into the small village to browse its folk exhibits, which cover national costumes, Viking Age artifacts, an eight-oar fishing ship, and authentic (and fully furnished) turf houses—dwellings early Icelanders once lived in to stay insulated from the unforgiving northern climate.
A further 10 minutes west on Route 1 leads you over a bridge towards Vík—but we’re not headed there just yet. Keep your eyes peeled on the right-hand side for a turn-off to a dirt access road. You’ll know it by the metal gate and (usually) a handful of parked cars. This is the entry to your next adventure: the Sólheimasandur Plane Wreck.
Instagram might be to blame for the explosive popularity of Solheimasandur Beach, where a US Navy plane crash-landed back in 1973. While the crew survived, the wreckage was abandoned and still lies on the desolate black-sand beach, now reachable only on foot. The 2.5-mile hike required to reach it is the biggest challenge—there’s nothing to see or do on the way, and you’ll eventually have to make the same journey back—but for some, the wild experience of finding an abandoned plane in a desolate stretch of nothingness is Instagram gold.
Twenty minutes further up the road is a turn-off for Route 215. Take it to reach Reynisfjara Beach. Iceland hit the jackpot when it comes to jaw-dropping natural beauty—its waterfalls, its lava fields, its hot springs—but none draws crowds quite like Reynisfjara. It could be the beach’s otherworldly pitch-black lava sand, or the cliff-like basalt columns that rise like giants to form massive caves. The sea stack formations just offshore are pretty spectacular as well, as are the seabirds (we’re talking puffins and guillemots and fulmars) that circle above. Go in the early morning or late afternoon to skip most of the rush—and whatever you do, do not get close to the water. Those rip tides are no joke.
From Reynisfjara, it’s only a 12-minute drive to Vík, the southernmost settlement on Iceland. Many tour companies make pit-stops here on their way east to take advantage of the numerous shops, restaurants, and hotels nearby. Time your hike (or drive) up to the beautiful red-and-white church at the top of the hill for a sunset view of the village and the sea, then tuck into hearty Icelandic staples (steak sandwiches; rhubarb porridge; quality pizza) at Suður-Vík, a charming restaurant housed in a historic 1902 building. Nearby hotels and guesthouses are aplenty; Hotel Laki and Icelandair Hotel Vik are two favorites.
Day 3: 140 kilometers (87 miles) from Vík to Skaftafell
No time for sleeping in: you’re going to want to rise well before the sun today (but we promise it’s worth it). A 2.5-hour drive away lies the Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon, a large lake on the edge of Vatnajökull National Park where sunrise sets its massive blue icebergs aglow. You could spend hours here, snapping photos of resident seals, hopping a boat tour to get up close and personal to the frozen landscape, snacking on local pastries at the lonely shop… Don’t forget to head across the road to Diamond Beach, where smoothed-down glacier bits spit out by the sea look like diamonds.
It might seem counterintuitive to retrace your steps, but drive about 45 minutes back west from the lagoon towards Skaftafell, the gateway to Vatnajökull National Park—a 5,000-square-mile icy wonderland of massive glaciers and ice formations. Covering 13 percent of the island, it’s home to western Europe’s largest national park and largest glacier. During the summer and fall, the parkland’s trails and black sand dunes open up to hikers and ATV-ers. In the winter, it’s all about dog-sledding, Ski-Dooing, and ice-climbing.
If you do end up making the journey during winter, don’t miss your chance to hike a glacier and experience an ice cave. Even if you decide to self-drive, guided tours are still required to witness this phenomenon, so book early. Hikes with Arctic Adventures include glacier gear (like crampons and helmets) and an expert guide to lead the way.
After ticking “hike a 2,500-year-old glacier” off that bucket list, the rest of the journey is yours to decide. Heading back to Reykjavík? The new 104-room Fosshotel Glacier Lagoon hotel is a stylish stopping point about 23 minutes from Skaftafell, with stunning views of the surrounding lava fields and a sauna for treating those sore post-hike muscles. Otherwise, continue on to Iceland’s lesser-known East Fjords, a land of quiet fishing towns and—yes—even more waterfalls.
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