Guides, Things to Do

South Coast of Iceland Touring Plan

Outside of Reykjavik and the Golden Circle, the South Coast of Iceland is often the next area that people recommend for tourists. (And I’m one of those people– our sample 1 week Iceland itinerary with kids spends a lot of time in the south!)

Here is a sample itinerary for your visit to South Iceland. You can cover this in a day, or 2 or 3 days, depending on how much you want to see. In the list below you’ll see a couple of potential points where it can make sense to turn around. (And we don’t cover everything– there’s always more to see if you want to explore!) Here’s what we’re going to cover: (Click for a larger version.)

Urriðafoss waterfall

Let’s pick an arbitrary starting point on the west for what’s considered South Iceland: The lesser known waterfall called Urriðafoss. (The suffix foss means waterfall– you’ll see it a couple more times in this post!) One of the benefits of the south coast is that many attractions are very close to the road, and Urriðafoss is no exception. But the road to Urriðafoss is easy to miss; look for Urridafoss on Google Maps to make sure you don’t miss it. After a couple of minutes on a slightly bumpy gravel road, you’ll come to the waterfall, which is at least partially visible from the parking lot.

But get out of the car and head down the walking path— watch out for the high winds! You’ll be rewarded with a shallow but complicated, multi-layered waterfall. By the end of your journey, you may be tired of seeing waterfalls, no matter how incredible. But as our first waterfall, Urriðafoss was a great start, and one that was just a few minutes out of the way.

The Lava Centre

The Lava Centre is a brand new museum that opened in 2017. Reviews seem to be very positive– it’s a great museum for the whole family. There are lots of interactive exhibits that cover different kinds of volcanoes.

This newest and perhaps most interactive museum in Iceland is also one of the most expensive, at least for admission for one adult. Adult admission tickets including the cinema are 2900 isk, and kids 12-18 are 1450. (Kids 11 and under are free.) You can save 10% by booking online. However, don’t miss the family pack: 2 adults and all of your kids can see the museum for 4950 isk– less than the price of 2 adults, even with the online discount. (I don’t think the 10% discount applies to the family pack.) That 4950 is a very good deal, especially if you have a lot of children!

There is also a full restaurant on site, called Katla Mathús. You can order off of the menu, or choose from a few different buffet options (including the full buffet, or soup and salad only) for 2260 to 3400 isk. But kids (12 and under?)can eat from the buffet for just 1250 isk.

Westman Islands

Here’s your first big decision. If it’s summertime, and you have extra time, I highly recommend a detour to the Westman Islands. If the weather is good, it’s a 35 minute ferry ride each way. If the weather isn’t good, or if the close port is closed, that ferry ride turns into a 2 hour and 45 minute trip, possibly back to a port where your car is not. Try to avoid that. See all of the details in this guest post we wrote about the Westman Islands.

If you make it here, it’s usually easy to find a place to stay overnight; the ferry limits the number of tourists who make it here. Leave the car behind on the mainland, and walk to see the impact a 1973 volcano had on the island. (1973! You may meet people who had to evacuate!) Again, see all of the details here.

 

Seljalandsfoss waterfall

Whether you have time to see the Westman Islands or not, you should see Seljalandsfoss. It’s one of the most famous waterfalls in Iceland, and its right by the road (Ring Road, or Route 1.)

Note that the landowners recently (July 2017) began charging a parking / entrance fee of 700 isk. I feel very comfortable paying this– a rockslide closed the walking path behind the falls in September of 2017, and it seems reasonable to pay the landowners to maintain the area. (The walking path re-opened a few days later.)

You’ll get a little wet walking behind the waterfall, but it’s not a long hike. Just watch out for little feet (or any feet, really) on the slippery path.

Skógafoss waterfall

Seljalandsfoss and Skógafoss are often mentioned together– they are two wonder waterfalls less than half an hour from each other. You can’t walk behind it, but you can choose to admire it from the base, or take the (370!) steps up to the top for a view of the south coast. We chose to just admire this one from the bottom.

Arcanum Tours

Less than 15 minutes east of Skógafoss you’ll find the tour company Arcanum, which offers glacier hikes, snowmobile rides on a glacier, or ATV quad bike tours. All of the tours are excellent, though if all of your kids are over 10 and willing to hike, we recommend the glacier hike. See our detailed write-ups of our experiences with Arcanum here.

Sólheimasandur plane crash site

I generally recommend skipping this, now that the landowner has closed the site to car traffic. It’s now nearly a 2 mile hike each way over flat, but boring terrain. It’s cool to see the US Navy plane that crashed in 1973 (everyone was fine!) but the walk takes a fairly long time. If you do decide to hike, make sure you have sun protection and water with you– there’s nothing on the way but black sand!

The Arcanum ATV tour will get you to the plane crash site; this is the only other way I know to get there without walking. That’s what we did, and we happened to see the plane on a day they were filming a movie. It’s not usually on fire!

Dyrhólaey

Dyrhólaey is another top attraction of the south coast– walk around and play on all of the crazy natural structures around there. My kids could have spent an afternoon here just exploring.

Loftsalahellir cave

You’ll pass this cave on the way to Dyrhólaey, but if you have trouble, the GPS coordinates are:  63°25’19” N 19°9’5″ W. It takes a couple of minutes to walk up the steep pathway, and it gets a little slippery right at the top. But you are rewarded with a fantastic view from a cozy spot.

Reynisfjara

Let’s start with the safety warning here. Imagine your favorite ocean spot. Imagine the waves coming in and out, as waves do. Then imagine that, after 15 or so waves, the 16th wave goes 50 feet past where any of the previous waves went.

Not 5 or 10 feet, but a full 50 feet. I’ve never seen that happen at a beach, but that’s what can happen at Reynisfjara, and without warning (though usually only in the winter.) Stay well back from the water, and leave yourself an exit plan. That is, if you have to run 50 feet away form the water, make sure there isn’t a rock mountain behind you.

People die here every year. You should not get anywhere close to the water. Don’t let this scare you away, though–  it’s a fun and interesting stop.

Vik

Just a few minutes past Dyrhólaey and Reynisfjara you will come to the town of Vik. That makes Vik a convenient stopping point for a meal or an overnight stay. But there isn’t so much here that is noteworthy—it’s simply convenient.

You will find a black sand beach that is much quieter than Reynisfjara. I assume it’s also safer, though you should still probably be careful with the waves.

I was a fan of this unique sculpture, but my kids just thought it was weird:

It’s called Voyage, and the cool part is that it is facing an identical looking sculpture … across the ocean in England! England and Iceland fought in a series of open water skirmishes called the Cod Wars. The conflict was over how much of the ocean Iceland could control around its borders. Could England fish within 200 miles of Iceland’s borders? 50? 2? The conflicts were resolved, and these sculptures memorialize the peace.

In town, you’ll find a couple of restaurants and the Víkurprjón wool store; you may find some information that there is a factory tour here. But the “tour” consists of looking over a railing at some workers sewing sweaters. I don’t think there are any bargains here, but you will find a nice selection of winter clothing.

Vik is a good opportunity to talk about a couple of things you may run across on your trip:

  1. Curvy and steep roads. Yes, Ring Road is the primary highway around Iceland. But before you get into Vik, the speed limit goes down to 50 kmph as you wind your way up and around some mountains. Take it slow!
  2. Grocery store hours. We arrived in Vik just after 6:00 PM on a Saturday. The grocery store had just closed at 6:00, and wouldn’t reopen again until … Monday morning! So plan ahead, bring some food with you, or plan to eat out.

We ended up walking up the hill across Ring Road to Sudur Vik Restaurant. It was a nice place, though service was slow; they seemed overwhelmed by the late May crowd they had that night. Perhaps there were a lot of us who arrived after the grocery store closed …

Turn around here?

If you only have 1 day budgeted to the south coast, and especially if you did a tour with Arcanum, this can make a good time to turn around. The next attraction I’m listing is about a 50 minute drive east.

Fjaðrárgljúfur

The next stop on our journey east was around the village of Kirkjubæjarklaustur , which boasts several natural attractions. First was a stop at Fjaðrárgljúfur canyon. There, I managed to hike up the hill only to realize that I forgot to put the memory card back in my camera. Fortunately, my cell phone did an admirable job:

The drive to get here ended up being about 10 minutes each way off of Ring Road. This was longer than we thought, because of the condition of the road. Toward the end the road was like a washboard, which was not a lot of fun for the baby!

You park in a parking lot toward the bottom of the canyon, and you need to hike up the hill to get the view. Besides the hill, it’s an easy hike- it’s a nice path, and you won’t have any trouble with slipping. You can get pretty high up, and see for miles. But there are lookout points on the way that provide you good stopping points if you want to turn around.

Kirkjugólf

After a stop for lunch and gas (and stocking up on prepaid gas cards) we headed to Kirkjugólf, a natural “floor” of hexagonal basalt rock.

Back at Reynisfjara we saw tall basalt columns that varied in height. Here you are more or less standing on top of a bunch of hexagonal basalt columns that are all about the same height.

And you end up with a tiled stone floor made by nature. It’s very cool, and also very strange that it’s just out in a field behind the gas station. But I guess that’s what you get when nature is in charge.

In the picture above, the N1 gas station is behind us. There are two options for getting to this spot. You can park at the N1 and walk to here; you need to head northwest and cross the street (NOT Route 1, but the smaller 205.) By the information signs, there is a ladder you can climb up and down to cross the fence line.

The other option is to park in the parking lot at the back of this picture—there’s actually a tiny car parked in the lot. Then there is a walking path to the stone floor.

Stjórnarfoss

We missed this. But if you park at the parking lot (the second options above) you’re also very close to an adorable little waterfall called Stjórnarfoss. You may also see this area called Systrastapi. From that parking lot, walk away from Kirkjugólf until you see water, then turn left. Hopefully, you’ll find this in a few minutes:

“STJORNARFOSS” by Andrés Nieto Porras is licensed under CC BY 2.0

If you’re in the area and have some extra energy, you might want to try to find it!

Foss á Siðu

Back on Ring Road and heading east, on your left you’ll pass by another waterfall. You’re going to see that sentence a lot, and we decided not to stop. This one is called Foss á Siðu.


Foss á Síðu” by Ron Kroetz is licensed under CC BY 2.0

You’ll have to find parking on the right and walk across if you want to get a closer look.

Fossálarfoss

Back on Ring Road and heading east, on your left you’ll pass by another waterfall. Okay, I won’t use that sentence any more! But these falls are literally right next to the road, though again you’ll need to watch for the parking area on the right and walk across the street. GPS coordinates are: 63°51’9″ N 17°50’21” W

They are more like large rapids, or a small waterfall. But it’s a nice area for a quick stop, though you can also just drive by.

Or maybe turn around here?

We’ve already covered a lot– likely more than you can see in one day. This is a good point to turn around if you don’t plan to cover the entire Ring Road; Skaftafell is going to be another 40 minute drive, and you’ll need to hike 30-45 minutes to see the waterfall.

Skaftafell

Next we stopped at Skaftafell Visitor’s Center, or Vatnajökulsþjóðgarður if you want something easier to pronounce. It’s open from 9 AM to 7 PM.

The names get a little confusing here, even beyond pronunciation. There used to be a Skaftafell National Park, but in 2008 it became part of the much much larger Vatnajökull National Park. So this is technically the Skaftafell Visitor’s Center inside of Vatnajökull National Park.

The national park is huge. Iceland is just under 40,000 square miles in total land mass. Vatnajökull National Park is 5,250 square miles of that—13% of the total land mass of Iceland! Imagine if there was a state park that took up 13% of the United States. It would cover the entire state of Texas. Plus California. Plus Missouri.

The glaciers that we’ll get to east of here are also in the park (see Fjallsárlón and Jökulsárlón below.) But the main draw in this area of the park is the waterfall Svartifoss . Head left to begin the hike to Svartifoss. Now, if you ask people how long the hike to Svartifoss takes, you’ll get answers that range from 15 minutes to 45 minutes. It turns out that the hike is just over a mile long, but it’s very uphill.

If you can maintain a brisk walking pace, it won’t take long at all. But we were tired, and the 2 mile roundtrip required to get to the top wasn’t going to happen. Here’s what our reward would have been:


Svartifoss by Norton Ip is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Instead, we found a steep and interesting way back down, with a few informational signs.

Inside the visitor’s center, you’ll find a lot of information about the park (including a movie) and the various hiking trails, bathrooms, and a gift shop. You can buy a trail map of the park for 300 krona, or about $3. There are also some small exhibits to peruse.

Your food options are a little limited. The gift shop has a cooler with drinks, some Skyr, and some other snack food. And as you start to walk to the left toward Svartifoss, you’ll pass a food truck called Glacier Goodies. They had baby back ribs, fish and chips, lobster soup, and a giant chocolate bar with a picture of a glacier on it. The food was pricey, but it’s your only option here for hot food.

The Skaftafell Visitor Centre is free, not too far off the road, and worth a stop. Just leave plenty of time and energy if you want to hike to Svartifoss! Bring water with you for the hike, or buy it in the gift shop.

Fjallsárlón

Ring Road continues along just south of Vatnajökull National Park. Our next stop will be Fjallsárlón glacier lagoon, a lake left behind by melting pieces of glacier ice. This is the much less popular glacier lagoon, and we’ll get to the more famous Jökulsárlón soon. They are only about 10 minutes apart; it’s worth seeing both.

Fjallsárlón  doesn’t look like much from the road, or even the parking lot; I assume that’s one reason why it’s less popular. We had signed up for a Zodiac boat tour, and the first step (after a bathroom break) was to put on the coveralls and life jackets.

You have to be at least 6 to do the tour. But my son, who at the time was a week or so away from turning 7, had some issues with his coveralls. The smallest size they had was an 8-10, which is really a 10. We made do.  The company that runs the boat tours told me that 8-10 is the smallest size coveralls they have found.

The issue came with the next step, which was the roughly 10 minute walk down to the glacier. For me, this was incredible, because you finally reach a point where you can actually see the reason we’re here.

But for my son, it was a really long walk in a very heavy outfit. The walk back up was especially hard; he rested a couple of times. He still had fun, but keep this in mind for your younger kids.

Down at the boats, the guide talked about the glacier for a couple of minutes, as well as boat safety. You sit on the outside inflated part of the boat. This seemed scary, but it wasn’t really; it’s a nice smooth ride, and the sides are quite large.

You may have noticed the water color in the picture above; the sky is blue, the ice in the middle has that classic “glacier blue” tinge to it, but the water, is, well, brown. There’s just more sediment in it. It’s not as picture perfect as Jökulsárlón is, but I don’t think it’s a huge deal. Though maybe that’s another reason why Fjallsárlón is less popular?

The boat cruises around the lagoon at a fairly gentle speed. This made a huge difference to my kids, compared to the Westman Islands ferry they had been on a few days earlier. I think my girls would rank fairly high on the “prone to seasickness” scale; they almost didn’t go. But they did go, and were glad they did. If you’re looking for a “starter” boat ride to see how it goes, this would be a good choice.

You’ll get to enjoy the beautiful scenery:

And then the guide will go hunting for what he called 500-year-old popsicles. It turns out that pieces of ice that have been exposed to the air and elements take on the bright white color. But when smaller pieces of ice have just broken off, they are much clearer. The guide went hunting for a small piece that was clearer for us to taste. Eventually, he found one, which happened to come complete with a handle!

He worked to smash pieces off of it, for us to hold and eat. The kids really enjoyed this. They also learned a fair bit about glaciers.

You are actually on the boat for about 45 minutes, though with getting the coveralls on and hiking to and from the lagoon, you‘re closer to 80 minutes. The cost is 6,800 krona for adults and 3,500 for kids 6-15. That‘s not cheap- $200 for a family of 4. But I think it makes sense to pay a premium for the more intimate tours- the boats only hold up to 11 passengers. It‘s a memorable experience, it‘s not very stressful, and it‘s even educational. If your kids are old enough, I recommend this as something the whole family can do together.

The web site for the boat tours is http://fjallsarlon.is/. New in 2017 is a restaurant with sandwiches and a buffet.

Jökulsárlón

My hope was to head to Jökulsárlón, take their boat tour of a glacier lagoon, and compare. Unfortunately, it was incredibly windy. I don’t know if it was the wind by itself that cancelled the boat rides for the day, or the fact that the wind had blown tons of ice right into the harbor, blocking the boats. But it was windy. It was so windy that I just hopped out of the car, took a few pictures, and we continued on our way. It’s odd that Fjallsárlón, only a few miles away, was very calm. Maybe the hill down to that lagoon protects it from the weather?


Wind in Iceland

Jökulsárlón was the first time I worried about my car doors. The winds can be very strong in Iceland. Imagine you park your car with the wind coming from behind you. And imagine it’s really strong. You open your door just a little, and the wind starts pushing into that door, pushing it forward. If you’re not thinking about it (and normally I don’t!) you can lose your grip on the door. This can push your door right into the car next to you, which would be very sad. Or, if it’s a strong enough wind, it can push your door to its stopping point, and actually bend the hinges. That’s really sad too, and it really happens! Just be aware. And maybe consider that minivan, so the kids have doors that slide!


The company at Jökulsárlón, whose web site is icelagoon.is, offers a zodiac boat tour, just like the ones offered Fjallsárlón. But they also have an amphibian boat tour, which you may call a duck boat.

The zodiac tours run on a fixed schedule, June through September. Tours cost 9,500 krona for adults, and 5,000 for kids 10-12; they don’t recommend kids under 10 go on the zodiacs. Fjallsárlón is less expensive, and allows kids as young as 6.

The amphibian boat tour allows kids of all ages—0 and up! The cost is 5,000 isk for adults, 2,000 for kids 6-12, and free for kids under 6. (Actually, the web site says 0-6 is free, so your 6 year old may nor may not have to pay.)

Jökulsárlón also has a building with a café, which is open year-round, 7 AM to 7 PM. They have sandwiches and hot and cold drinks.


One lane bridges

South Iceland might be your first introduction to one lane bridges. Most of them are just platforms over rivers, but there is a more memorable one right before Jökulsárlón. (and I mean right before … the left turn to get to Jökulsárlón is maybe 200 feet past the bridge.) Here’s a picture through our car window:

There is always a sign warning you about an upcoming one-lane bridge and a place to pull over. In almost all cases, traffic from both directions is treated equally—whoever looks to be getting to the bridge first has the right of way. Still, go slow, and make sure the other car / cars are planning to pull over.


Þórbergur Center

Here’s a name that’s a little easier to remember if you know that the Þ is a letter called a thorn, and it makes a th sound as in … well, thorn. So this is a name that is pronounced “Thorbergur.” The Icelandic for Þórbergur Center is Þórbergssetur.

This is a museum about Þórbergur Þórðarson. But there’s a good chance your family will call it the book museum:

The building is about 10 minutes east of Jökulsárlón, and you can see it from Ring Road. In the picture above, you can see the restaurant at the far left corner. Our lunch there was pricey but good. The kids mostly chose either lamb soup or smoked trout sandwiches; there was no kid’s menu.

Þórbergur Þórðarson was an Icelandic author, poet, and lover of Esperanto. The museum has a nice atmosphere—it’s a dark space with nice lighting.

But ultimately, it’s not that exciting unless you know something about Þórbergur. Adults pay 1,000 krona, and kids are free. But your best bet might be to check out the book museum on the outside and maybe buy some cake.

The end of the road?

Jökulsárlón is a very common stopping point for people not doing the entirety of the Ring Road. With no stops, it’s about 5 hours of driving from Reykjavik to Jökulsárlón. If you have less than a week in Iceland, stopping here and turning around makes some sense. There’s more driving involved in seeing the Golden Circle, not to mention if you want to detour to the Westman Islands.

The downside is that there’s not much of an alternate route back—you’re just backtracking back to Reykjavik. Well, it’s about 4 hours of backtracking to Selfoss; after that, you can head north and cover the Golden Circle. There’s plenty to see on the South Coast, and I think turning around here (or even sooner) can make a lot of sense.

South Coast of Iceland Touring Plan was last modified: November 10th, 2017 by Eric