Preparation, Things to Do

Reykjavik? Ring Road? Planning your Iceland trip

So you’re going to Iceland, and trying to figure out how to plan your trip. The internet is full of millions of pictures of thousands of things you can see and do. How do you plan your itinerary? What should do you do, and what will you need to skip?

Here are my brief recommendations for how you should structure your trip, based on the number of days you have. Note that the categories overlap:

1-5 days: Stay in Reykjavik, and do day tours
3-8 days: Cover one or two areas, but not the whole country
7+ days: Cover the whole country. Well, more of it at least.

I think that some people will find these surprisingly conservative. Why just stay in Reykjavik for 4 days? Why not try the whole country in 6 days?

The answer is this: No matter how much time you have, you won’t see everything in Iceland. There is a main road in Iceland called Highway 1 or Ring Road, that does circumnavigate the country. Here’s what it looks like:

GIS, Map, Mapping Software, Geographic Information System, GIS, Geographic Information Software

Road and Speed Limits from OpenStreetMap under C.C. License Version 2.0

Ring Road is “only” 828 miles long. That gives you the sense that maybe you can see everything? 828 miles at an average of 60 miles an hour is under 14 hours of driving. But that doesn’t work for three reasons:

First, the speed limit is never 60 miles per hour. The top speed limit is 90 km/h, or about 56 mph. And for many stretches, the speed limit is much less. 70 (when entering or exiting a town), 50 (in towns), or even an occasional 30km/h (one lane bridges, for example) all occur. Remember that stretches of Ring Road are still gravel, and out east, there are some serious hills.

These speed limits are more than just suggestions in Iceland. You can get a speeding ticket for going 6 km/h over the limit, or about 4mph. For example, here are the fines for speeding in a 90 km/h zone:

speeding

(If you are interested, you can calculate your theoretical fine here, though it’s in Icelandic.)

Translating to miles per hour, if you are traveling 59 in a 55, you can get a ticket for about $80; your rental car company will send you a bill a few weeks after your trip.

The speed limits in Iceland are there for a reason– for example, see our planning post for details about hitting sheep in the road. Or rather, hopefully not hitting sheep in the road …

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Dynjandi by Bragi Thor  is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Second, Ring Road doesn’t cover the whole country. It totally bypasses the Westfjords, which are sticking up in the top left corner of the map above. There, you will find The Museum of Icelandic Sorcery and Witchcraft, the waterfall Dynjandi (see picture on the right), the lovely town of Ísafjörður and the Latrabjarg Bird Cliffs, which are the westernmost point in Europe.

Now, these aren’t necessarily must-see attractions. They just serve to illustrate things to see and do that are an hour or more away from Ring Road. Ísafjörður (which is home to our favorite restaurant in Iceland) is 4 hours off of Ring Road.

Even if you do pass through a part of Iceland on Ring Road, attractions may still be a significant drive off of the main road. For example, as you head through North Iceland, you may want to check out Dettifoss, arguably the most powerful waterfall in Europe. You have your choice of  862, a newly paved road, or 864, an older gravel road that many people think provides a better view. Even the paved road will be an hour roundtrip from Ring Road, plus time to enjoy the views. Not to mention a hike to the other 2 nearby waterfalls … this is how Iceland seems to work.

 

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Látrabjarg by Sigurdur Jonsson is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Third, there are simply too many things to see. Take a guess as to how many waterfalls there are in Iceland? I’m not sure anyone knows the answer to this question, but here’s a map of 67 named waterfalls:

GIS, Map, Mapping Software, Geographic Information System, GIS, Geographic Information Software

Waterfall data primarily from from OpenStreetMap under C.C. License Version 2.0

Here’s a much larger version if you are interested.

Just for fun, let’s do one more. How many museums do you think there are? Did you guess 116? Here’s a link to the giant map, which still isn’t very readable.


Given that you won’t cover the entire country, I think it makes much more sense to slow down and enjoy yourself. Spend a few extra minutes lingering, and have time for unplanned detours if something catches your eye. (Or a nap if the kids need one.)

Let’s look at the choices I listed at the beginning in more detail:

1-5 days: Stay in Reykjavik, and do day tours

The day tours are an important part of this plan. Reykjavik is a nice European city. But nature is a big draw as well. You’ll want to take a day trip to see the Golden Circle, and at least one more to the South Shore or the the Snæfellsnes peninsula. Or do both!

See our post about Golden Circle tour options for some choices.

Now, note that the next category starts at trips of 3 days. So I’m only saying this is the best and only option for trips of just 1-2 days. You may end up with a 1-2 days trip if you take advantage of the stopover offers from Icelandair or Wowair. If you are doing a stopover and flying Icelandair before April 30, ask for a stopover buddy! [Edited July 2017: Icelandair isn’t doing stopover buddies in the winter of 2017-2018. Instead, see if your vacation dates coincide with their new Stopver Pass contests.]

But I also think this is a fine option for slightly longer trips as well.  If all of your kids are under 12, a big bus tour of the Golden Circle will cost about $160 for the whole family. A rental car will cost less (unless you get a full-sized 4 wheel drive vehicle), but you still need gas (which costs around $7 per gallon in Iceland right now!), and you need to think about insurance.  Also make sure you understand F roads. And you need to worry about road conditions. There is something nice about having the details taken care of. Plus, a tour guide will provide you with more information than you will get on your own.

3-8 days: Cover one or two areas, but not the whole country

Yes, there is also something nice about renting a car and having the freedom to explore at your own pace, and to not have to backtrack to Reykjavik every evening. That’s what you can do with 3 or more days. But I think a week or more is the minimum to cover the entire Ring Road. And that’s in the summer. There are going to be long stretches of road in the northwest and northeast that won’t have many things to do, besides admire the stunning scenery, of course. But that’s time you could spend seeing other things.

Here’s a sample rough schedule:

Then head back

7+ days: Cover the whole country

In the summer, you’ll have lots of daylight, which makes driving much more enjoyable. A week in the summer is enough to travel the entire ring road, if you choose, with time to stop and see a lot of the country. You could start off with a similar itinerary as above, but then keep going on to East Iceland, Lake Mývatn, Akureyri, and back around. Or, since you’ll see so many other amazing sights, you could even skip the Golden Circle, though Geysir is pretty special.

But there’s no reason you have to do the whole thing. If you want to visit the Westfjords, even a week won’t be enough to do that plus Ring road. I think people feel pressure to see “all” of Iceland; once you realize that’s just not an option, it opens up opportunities to slow down. I promise you’ll still see plenty of amazing things!


 

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Reykjavik? Ring Road? Planning your Iceland trip was last modified: July 27th, 2017 by Eric