Are you planning an Iceland stopover? This South Iceland ring road itinerary will take you to all the must-see sights in South Iceland, including the black sand beaches of Vik, Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon and the Golden Circle!
This is the EXACT Iceland ring road itinerary I followed on my first winter vacation in Iceland, so you’ll also find my personalized recommendations throughout!
Why Do You Need an Iceland Ring Road Itinerary?
Iceland’s ring road takes you on a journey around the country. During winter, when days are short, you won’t be able to see the entire ring road. But an Iceland ring road itinerary focused on one region will help you make the most of a short winter vacation in Iceland.
This itinerary focuses on the best things to see and do in South Iceland, which is the most popular region for first-time Iceland travelers.
Why consider a South Iceland Ring Road Itinerary?
Since Iceland’s international airport, Keflavik, is in the south, it’s easy to get your rental car and head out. If you only have a short stay in Iceland, why not get right to the highlights? On a South Iceland ring road itinerary, you can expect:
- majestic waterfalls
- ice caves
- black sand beaches
- spouting geysers
- soothing hot springs
One thing you might miss in the south of Iceland is the northern lights. I saw much more intense auroras in North Iceland. If chasing auroras in Iceland is your main reason to go, check out my North Iceland ring road itinerary guide instead!
Golden Circle Highlights
The Golden Circle is Iceland’s most famous tourist attraction – aside from the Blue Lagoon, that is.
It’s a scenic route that takes you from the capital of Reykjavik to some of the most iconic natural sights in Iceland. Think waterfalls, geysers, natural hot springs, and more.
You’ll find plenty of Golden Circle day trips available from Reykjavik, but you can also see the geysers and frozen waterfalls yourself on a self-drive tour. That’s what I recommend, so you can go at your own pace.
Here are the Golden Circle highlights not to be missed on a self-drive Iceland Ring Road itinerary.
Haukadalur Geysir is where you’ll find the original Geysir that all geysers are named for. Geysir itself doesn’t erupt frequently anymore BUT you can enjoy poking about the bubbling mud pots and hot springs.
Strokkur is the geyser that erupts frequently, sending a spurt of boiling water straight up into the air. Make sure you stay long enough to capture its eruption for a video.
The surrounding area is equipped with walkways that offer 360 views of the action from a safe distance.
Gullfoss is one of Iceland’s most iconic waterfalls. Water cascades down two separate tiers into a deep canyon. During February, the waters were frozen over completely in ice. It was incredible to see such a large waterfall frozen over completely with ice glittering in the sun.
Gullfoss is particularly beautiful during the sunrise and sunset hours, when the light turns the water golden. If you have the chance to time your visit with sunset definitely do so. Gullfoss is easily accessible from the Ring Road with well-maintained walking paths and viewing platforms, making this a convenient photo stop as you head southeast.
The Gullfoss tourist information center is famous for its lamb soup if you have worked up an appetite by this time.
Once you’ve had your fill of Golden Circle activities, it’s time to get on the road to Vik. Heading south from the Golden Circle, you will pick up the Ring Road near Selfoss. Get on the Ring Road here and continue east, stopping when you see anything that catches your eye.
- Eldstó Art Cafe – A good lunch spot with yummy soups and artisan ceramics. The mushroom soup is incredible!
- Seljalandsfoss waterfall – A super-accessible waterfall on the Ring Road between Hvolsvollor and Holt. You can go behind the falls for a new perspective!
- Skogafoss waterfall – This is a pretty impressive waterfall to visit. Weather dependent, you can take the stair path from the waterfall to a trail along the river that passes dozens of waterfalls. The waterfall spray can freeze over in winter making everything slippery. If you didn’t pack your crampons, you’ll find them for sale in many of the Icelandic gas stations. They make a great investment so you don’t have to worry about falls while you are exploring South Iceland’s many frozen waterfalls.
Vik area: Dyrhólaey and Reynisfjara
I won’t lie, the Vik area was my favorite part of South Iceland hands down. It is famous for its black sand beaches, which attract puffins in the summer months. In the winter the black sand beaches and basalt columns are a stunning contrast with the bright white snow.
You’ve probably seen pictures of the dramatic sea arch jutting out into the Atlantic Ocean at Dyrhólaey. It’s every bit as impressive as it looks. Explore the area on foot following the footpaths that offer different perspectives on the arch.
The black sand beach at Reynisfjara is equally famous. The contrast between the dark sands, roaring waves, and basalt columns creates a uniquely beautiful landscape. There is something so special about seeing it in the winter. If you dare, dip a finger into the freezing Atlantic waters.
If you are looking for lunch or just a good cup of coffee to warm up after exploring these two incredible black sand beaches, visit Haldorsskaffi in Vik. Suður-Vík is another popular restaurant with several recommended lamb dishes. The menu centers fresh seasonal food. While lamb and Arctic char are popular, you will find some vegetarian choices.
Vik is also the first place that I saw the Northern Lights so it will always have a special place in my heart. I looked up and got lucky. Then we spent a couple of hours driving around the nearby hills chasing auroras.
Spend a night in Vik and leave yourself plenty of time to explore these stunning natural attractions…and maybe catch some auroras.
Vik to Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon and Vatnajökull National Park
It takes about 2 and 1/2 hours to go between Vik and Jökulsárlón ice Lagoon. But you will want to leave almost double that given the amount of things to see and do between the two – and of course the unpredictable winter weather!
Kirkjubaejarkluastur is the only real town with services between Vik and Hofn. Take the opportunity to gas up or get road trip snacks. I recommend the black licorice!
Jökulsárlón ice lagoon, or Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon as it is officially known, is a great place to see glaciers and icebergs. It’s also incredibly popular and extremely crowded.
Tons of tours visit Jökulsárlón even in the winter. So you should prepare yourself for the crowds.
It is also a tiny stop. So while there may be equally as many people on a Golden Circle Tour there is much more space to spread out and it will not feel crowded. At Jökulsárlón, everyone is here to see – and get selfies with – the same thing.
Getting there early or hitting it up later in the day can help you get a little more quality time and photos without the crowds. If you have the choice, save your Jökulsárlón visit for a sunny day. It was overcast when I went and the ice was kind of a gloomy gray color.
Vatnajökull National Park offers so many winter activities that I’ve laid them out in a separate post to help you decide which glacier activity is best for you: a glacier hike, an ice caves tour, or snowmobiling.
We took an ice caving tour that was absolutely magical. We rode up to the glacier in a jacked-up van with massive snow tires, descended into the ice cave and had about an hour to explore on our own taking photos.
I wish I had my current camera to provide you with better photos, but here is a glimpse of what you will see on an ice cave tour. Just imagine it twenty times better 🙂
After ice caving in Vatnajökull, we headed back toward Reykjavik with an overnight in Vik. If you stayed in Vik already and the weather is good you might prefer to power through to Reykjavik.
Reykjavik isn’t just Iceland’s capital. It’s also the center of LGBTQ Iceland. Spend half a day walking around downtown checking out these highlights:
- Hallgrimskirkja church, an architectural marvel and iconic symbol of the city
- Harpa concert hall, a tourist favorite for its striking contemporary design – consider joining a guided tour or booking tickets to a concert to spend more time in this beautiful building
- Municipal swimming pools with heated water offer an immersive introduction to the local bathing culture; see the full Reykjavik guide for which ones I recommend and swimming pool etiquette.
My LGBTQ guide to Reykjavik has additional information on where to stay, what to see and where to eat. Be sure to check that out if you want a full guide to Reykjavik written just for LGBTQ travelers.
Reykjanes Peninsula, Home of The Blue Lagoon
For a splurge, book yourself tickets to the Blue Lagoon, Iceland’s most famous attraction. It is quite close to Keflavik Airport so many travelers like to go on their way to/from from the airport.
The Blue Lagoon is a massive swimming pool complex with different pools, saunas, steam rooms, and a swim-up mask bar where you can apply a mud mask and then wash it off in the mineral waters.
Tickets are cheaper depending on what time of day you go. They’re also cheaper if you book online rather than risk getting tickets at the door.
Other things to see and do on Reykjanes Peninsula include:
- Fagradalsfjall and Meradalir, two recently active volcanoes
- Valahnukamol Cliffs, a coastal area shaped by lava & waves that’s worth a visit for photographers
- Seltun Geothermal Area, a colorful geothermal area with bubbling mud pools & hot springs
- Bridge Between Continents, a footbridge over the continental plates between Europe and North America, where you can actually see the plates moving
Iceland Ring Road Itinerary: Know Before You Go
How many days do you need for the ring road?
Three is the minimum number of days for an Iceland ring road itinerary.
With three days, you’ll be able to see one area of Iceland’s ring road–but it will feel rushed.
Three also doesn’t allow for any weather-related delays, like in winter. In a four day itinerary, you can comfortably see and do everything in this guide, WEATHER DEPENDING.
Tack on a fifth day if you want to spend more time in Reykjavik.
With five days in Iceland, I’ve also taken a North Iceland winter road trip, which includes more geothermal activity including geothermal spas in Iceland.
What is the best time of year to do the ring road in Iceland?
Summer is a magical time (or so I’ve heard). But it also means peak crowds.
If you’re looking to experience the magic of Iceland, scheduling your vacation outside of the summer season gives you more opportunities to appreciate the landscape.
Winter means fewer crowds, a chance to see the northern lights, and magically slow sunrises and sunsets.
I’ve only explored the ring road in winter – specifically in December and February. Winter has its challenges, from road closures to storms like the one that caused me to reschedule my ice caving tour.
Can you drive Iceland’s ring road in winter?
Yes, you can. Rental cars in Iceland come with snow tires, which help grip the road.
I felt safe driving the Ring Road in winter, but I am from the Northeast and I’m used to driving in snow.
I also grew up driving a manual car which is what most of the car rentals in Iceland are. I like driving stick shift in winter because it gives you more control over the vehicle.
If you’ve never driven in snow before, it might make sense to book a guided tour so you don’t have to worry about the driving!
During my two trips to Iceland in winter, it only snowed once. But that snow storm was enough to completely shut down the road for the night! On other days the roads had a light coating of frost or ice. I took it slow until the roads warmed up to avoid a skid. Let me know in the comments what other questions you have about winter driving in Iceland, and I’ll do my best to answer!
When are the Northern Lights in Iceland?
The northern lights in Iceland are visible from September to March. I’ve seen the northern lights in Iceland in December and February. In my experience, there was more intense aurora activity in north Iceland. I also happened to go near solstice, which is often a peak time.
With the flexibility to set your own pace and explore lesser-known gems that catch your eye, this self-guided Iceland Ring Road itinerary tour allows you to truly experience the wonders of Iceland. So grab your camera, pack your bags with this winter packing list for Iceland, and get ready for an unforgettable trip!