Self-drive vacations are becoming all the rage nowadays. They allow Globetrotters to travel at their own pace and stop off at anything along their path that looks interesting, while also having all their accommodations and a general route planned for them ahead of time. There are few better countries to explore on a self-drive tour than Iceland. Geographically small and featuring striking landscapes, an Iceland vacation is perfect for experiencing a self-drive tour and taking your time exploring its natural wonders.
In and Out of the Capital
Almost every Iceland vacation goes through Reykjavik at some point. It’s the capital of the country and the site of the international airport, so there’s no avoiding it unless you arrive by sea. While Reykjavik is relatively small – the population sits at around 130,000 – don’t mistake the city’s size for an indicator of how interesting it is. Despite the modest population, Reykjavik is one of the trendiest capital cities in the world and you’ll find plenty of attractions that other cities of less than 500,000 could never manage. If you’re interested in the country’s Viking history, a visit to the National Museum or the Saga Museum will fill you in on the details of how the Vikings settled the country and how the island was integrated into their cultural myths. If you’re not one for history, you can instead visit the city’s many trendy bars and restaurants to get a sense of how this distant national capital is defining trends in terms of food and nightlife.
Once you’re done getting acquainted with the country in Reykjavik, you can take advantage of your newfound automotive freedom and head onto the open road to experience the majestic landscape that bewitches everyone who comes to Iceland. A good introductory route is the Golden Circle, which passes waterfalls, geysers, and glaciers, while staying relatively close to Reykjavik. However, even if you don’t want to follow the typical circuit, heading southwest to Grandavik and the Blue Lagoon is a smart choice.
The Blue Lagoon is the most famous site in all of Iceland and is the most popular tourist attraction. If you’ve ever seen a postcard or National Geographic photograph of the country, you’ll recognize the sight of people sitting or floating in the azure-blue waters surrounded by craggy rocks, steam rising off their bodies. Being super popular, you’ll want to reserve a spot in the warm waters for yourself, which requires planning ahead. However, don’t let the crowds discourage you; the Blue Lagoon is popular for a reason.
From Waterfalls to Geysers
If you really don’t want to risk the crowded Blue Lagoon, you can still experience world-class hot springs on your Iceland vacation by heading east to Laugarvatn, the Hot Springs Lake. As well, the small village on the western shore of the lake works nicely as a base to explore the surrounding area. However, if you want to stay somewhere else, you can still visit the relaxing hot spring, Vigdalaug, which has been appreciated by locals since medieval times.
It’s not far from Laugarvatn to the one-two punch of Gulfoss and the Great Geysir. Gulfoss is commonly known as the “Queen of Waterfalls,” a striking 32-metre-high waterfall. The size of Gulfoss is impressive, but what’s most remarkable is how it seemingly “swallows” the river if you view if from a specific angle. If you approach the waterfall from the cliff facing it, the cliff edge obscures the falls themselves, making it seem as if the river merely stops. Near the Queen of Waterfalls is the Great Geysir, the original waterspout that gave us the word “geyser.” Although it doesn’t erupt at a predictable clip like other geysers (you could set your watch to some other geysers like nearby Strokkur), if you are lucky enough to visit the Great Geysir when it erupts, you’ll watch water blast 70 metres high into the air before coming back down to earth. It’s a great sight, indeed.
If Gulfoss and the Great Geysir get you interested in water landmarks, you can drive southeast to Skogafoss and Seljalandsfoss. At Skogafoss, you can climb a staircase to enjoy views of the 62-metre-high falls or walk right up to the foot of the falls to drape yourself in mist. Seljalandsfoss is a touch shorter than Skogafoss at 60 metres, but it’s still a magnificent site, pouring water from Eyjafjallajokull Glacier into crystal-clear water pools. The best part about Seljalandsfoss is that you can hike behind the waterfalls and enter a small cave. The view of the waterfalls from inside the cave, with a roof of rock over your head, is simply breathtaking.
Glaciers and Volcanoes
Both Skogafoss and Seljalandsfoss exist in the shadow of Eyjafjallajokull, the imposing glacial volcano that shut down international air travel in 2010, when it erupted and spewed untold amounts of smoke and ash into the atmosphere. If you drive up to the mountain’s base, you can learn about the eruption at the visitor’s centre and from a variety of plaques at viewing points around the landscape. Unfortunately, the precarious nature of the volcano and ice crevasses in the glacier make the volcano too dangerous to summit, even if it has been dormant since late 2010. You’ll have to settle on admiring the volcano from a distance.
While you won’t find Eyjafjallajokull very accessible, you can drive to the nearby Thjorsardalur Valley to satisfy your desire to explore the wild on foot. In the valley, you can hike through birch wood forests, traverse lava fields, and discover waterfalls dotting the landscape. If you’re wanting to take a day to lose yourself in the Icelandic wilderness, you won’t find a much better place to do so than Thjorsardalur Valley.
If Eyjafjallajokull only fanned the flames of your desire to explore a volcanic glacier on an Iceland vacation, then you need to include a drive to Vatnajokull National Park, to the further east. Vatnajokull Glacier is the largest ice cap in Europe (in fact, if you excluded the polar ice caps, it’d be considered the largest glacier in the world). You can hike to the top of the glacier from May to September, although you’ll have to arrange a summit with guides ahead of time. It’s a lengthy hike that’ll take up the whole day, although the experience of summiting Europe’s premier glacier surely makes all the exertion worth it.
The Diamond Circle of North Iceland
North Iceland is relatively remote compared to other Icelandic destinations, so it doesn’t get as much attention as the west part of the country. However, on a self-drive, you can easily follow the highway north from Vatnajokull Glacier and reach Akureyri, the base to explore this region. This is a perfect example of how a self-drive frees you up to explore the totality of this country.
North Iceland is most famous for being a popular location to shoot movies and tv shows. HBO’s Game of Thrones shoots many of its “North of the Wall” scenes here, and Hollywood blockbusters from Interstellar to The Fate of the Furious and Prometheus have used the region to depict both alien worlds and the extreme reaches of the North Pole. If you’re a movie or tv buff, exploring the landscape should be high on your list for activities on an Iceland vacation.
A popular route that’ll cover many of the highlights of North Iceland is the Diamond Circle. The circuit starts at the Godafoss Waterfalls and continues on to Lake Myvatn, where you’ll find bubbling mud pools, sprawling lava fields, and an abundance of hot springs, and Dettifoss Waterfall, which is the most powerful waterfall in Europe. At Dettifoss, water falls 44 metres at much higher speeds than most waterfalls in the world, which makes for a massive spray as the water impacts on rocks below. The Diamond Circle ends in Husavik, on the coast, where you can head out onto the waters to go whale-watching. A variety of whales pass through the region on their migrations, so you can see humpback or even blue whales depending on when you visit.
North Iceland is also a great place to witness two northerly spectacles – the Northern Lights and the Midnight Sun. In winter, the clear skies and unique climate make it a great place to view the Northern Lights dance across the sky, while in the summer, the region’s proximity to the Arctic Circle means the sun never truly disappears from the sky, causing a hazy twilight to rule over the day. As you’re equipped with a car, you can be sure to drive away from the urban centres to appreciate these natural phenomena in optimal conditions.
The Return to Reykjavik
North Iceland is about as far as you can get from Reykjavik. After exploring the region around Akureyri and Lake Myvatn, you can drive to the country’s west and explore the Snaefellsnes Peninsula, north of the Icelandic capital. Snaefellsnes is best known for the Snaefellsjokull, a volcano that defines the region and centrepiece of Snaefellsnes National Park. In Jules Verne’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth, the volcano was a gateway to the underground world beneath the earth’s crust. You can take a guided hike up to the saddle of the mountain, although if you want to achieve the true summit, you’ll have to have some ice climbing experience.
From Snaefellesness, you can take in some of the country’s most significant historical sites. The town centre of Stykkisholmur is one of the best-preserved in the entire country, while Eiriksstathir was the home of Erik the Red and his son, Leif Erikson, who was the first European to reach North America. Stykkisholmur also offers access to the Borgarfjorder, one of the mightiest waterways in Iceland. Hugging the coastline alongside the Borgarfjorder makes for a lovely drive.
As you make your way back to Reykjavik, you can find Reykholt, the home of Snorri Sturluson, a 13th Century scholar who was instrumental in forming our understanding of the Vikings. If you want to see even more of the country’s history, you can take a slight detour to Thingvellir National Park, where the ancient parliament met right after settlement in the 10th century.
The nice thing about doing a self-drive through Iceland is that you can pick and choose what you see and when. You don’t have to do a complete circuit of the island. Instead, you can pass over certain areas or focus entirely on one region, such as the Golden Circle or Diamond Circle, to appreciate Iceland’s natural wonders in full. If you want the freedom to explore nature in all its magnificence and the convenience to travel at your own pace, a self-drive tour on an Iceland vacation is perfect for you.