If dancing on a frozen lake in a volcano, drinking beers under the Northern Lights, or hiking through a glittering ice cave sounds cool to you, you need to start planning an Iceland road trip for this winter ASAP. Iceland is best seen by car – and with a solid itinerary and some research, you’ll be all set for your trip.
I’ve compiled everything about our trip here, from activities to accommodation to dining. Hopefully this will give you some idea of what to expect from a winter road trip in Iceland, and give you some inspiration when planning your own visit!
First things first, here’s all the basics you need to know about visiting Iceland in winter.
Driving in Iceland in Winter
Iceland is a ridiculously beautiful country, and visiting in winter is so, SO worth it. But there are a few important caveats.
If you’re an experienced winter driver, keep in mind that Iceland’s weather is probably more extreme than any you’ve encountered in the past. Iceland has ridiculously high winds (like, blow-out-your-car-window high winds) on top of normal winter conditions. I found driving here challenging and extremely stressful.
If you have no experience with winter driving, consider if you can handle low visibility, blizzards, icy roads, high winds, and narrow roads (and possibly all of the above, lol).
Iceland is not a fan of shoulders or guardrails on their roads, which means that if you slide while driving, you may end up in a snowbank, frozen lake, off a mountain, etc.
If you’re worried you can’t handle winter driving in Iceland, don’t! Go with a tour instead.
Regardless of your level of experience, renting a 4×4 is a must for winter driving. Definitely get one with studded winter tires – they make a difference!
Also make sure to get car insurance. You’ll be insured for a variety of damages including accidents, gravel damage, etc. The only thing our insurance did not cover was wind damage. Be careful when opening car doors in high winds (i.e. keep a tight grip, lol) because doors can and have been literally ripped off in this way.
I would recommend downloading Google Maps of all the areas you plan to visit beforehand. These were a lifesaver for us, since our car’s GPS was a piece of garbage.
Hours of Daylight
You might not have much daylight during your visit. In December you will have about 4 hours of daylight. By March, when we went, you’ll have 10. You can see a list of sunrise/sunset times by month here.
Depending what time of year you visit, this can really limit your ability to travel. Roads are all lined with reflective markers every few meters, but in blizzard conditions it can be hard to even see those. So it’s best to keep your night driving to a minimum if possible because of the low visibility.
Weather and Road Conditions
Iceland’s weather can be very unpredictable so your plans need to be flexible. You might need to forgo tours or pay for an extra night of accommodation for your own safety. If it’s not safe to be on the road, please don’t drive! It’s not worth it. Every year the Icelandic emergency services have to rescue hundreds of tourists who disregarded signs & warnings. Don’t be one of those people.
Check the weather and road conditions here and here before heading out for the day – continue checking multiple times throughout the day because conditions can and do change quickly!
Accommodations do fill up, even in wintertime. We started planning about a month before our trip and many places were already completely booked in the more remote areas. Do your research and try to book your accommodation well in advance.
I would recommend the following spots for stops along your road trip:
- Reykjavík: Any Airbnb! Get $40 off your first booking here. Or try Fosshotel Reykjavík.
- Golden Circle: Ion Adventure Hotel
- Vík: Guesthouse Carina (the BEST place we stayed our whole trip)
- Skaftafell: Hotel Skaftafell
- Jökulsárlón: Halí Country Hotel or Kalfafellsstadur Bed & Breakfast
Where to Eat
Iceland is pretty remote, so don’t assume that everywhere you go will have a restaurant, or even a grocery store! There’s a great map of grocery stores in Iceland here – as you can see, the further away from Reykjavík you get, the less options you’ll have.
We didn’t cook at all, so we got a pretty good taste of Iceland’s cuisine! I’ve included all our favorite restaurant spots in our itinerary, but here’s a shortlist:
- Reykjavík: Kaffivagninn, Snaps, Icelandic Fish & Chips, Reykjavik Fish, Islenski Barinn, Bæjarins beztu pylsur
- Golden Circle: Friðheimar
- Vík: Sudur Vík
- Jökulsárlón: Halí Country Hotel
DAY ONE – Visiting the Blue Lagoon and Exploring Reykjavík
We flew with WOW Airlines, and it was a surprisingly nice flight for a budget airline. I would definitely recommend them to any budget-conscious traveller.
Our flight got in around 4 AM, so we picked up our rental car then killed a few hours until the Blue Lagoon opened. The Lagoon is located near the airport (not near Reykjavík), so it was a logical first stop.
The Blue Lagoon
I LOVED the Lagoon and thought it was beautiful, relaxing, and more than worth the money. You can get a more in-depth look at our visit to the Blue Lagoon here!
After the Lagoon we headed over to Reykjavík, then took a power nap before exploring the city. Reykjavík is actually the only city in all of Iceland – over 1/3 of Iceland’s total population lives there!
Harpa Concert Hall
Harpa Concert Hall, located downtown, is a must-visit. It’s designed by one of my favorite artists, Olafur Eliasson, and it’s an absolute masterpiece. The daylight creates the most beautiful shadows, and at night it’s illuminated with LED light shows! Definitely one of the coolest pieces of architecture I’ve seen.
Hallgrímskirkja church is pretty hard to miss since you can see it from basically any part of Reykjavík. You can also explore inside for about $10 USD! The top floor has a lookout with a spectacular view of the entire city. You can book a ticket here.
Northern Lights Tour
We closed off our first night with this Northern Lights tour via Travel Reykjavík, for about $55 USD each. We got lucky and the Northern Lights were on full display! It turns out that they’re not as vivid in-person as they are in photos, because your eyes can’t detect the full spectrum of light the way a camera can.
So you will not see a spectacular display of bright ass green lights dancing through the stars. You will see vaguely mint-colored blobs of light moving around the sky. It wasn’t what I expected, but I still thought it was fucking magical.
Total Distance Driven: 144.1 km
DAY TWO – The Golden Circle
We stayed based in Reykjavík for our second day and road tripped the Golden Circle. This is one of the most famous day trips out of Reykjavík. It spans a few destinations like the very photogenic Þingvellir National Park, Strokkur Geyser, and Gullfoss Waterfall.
Þingvellir National Park
We drove about 40 minutes up to the park and were immediately greeted with a maze of different paths. There’s a ton of different points of interest here, like Öxarárfoss waterfall, a historical church, a horseback riding camp, Silfra diving site, and a bunch of walking trails.
Everywhere we went was beautiful but some sections were treacherous af. Definitely bring your crampons because the trails here are icy!
One of the coolest things in Þingvellir is Silfra, which is a fissure between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. You can actually book a tour and swim between the two plates – the water is supposed to be absolutely crystal clear.
Obviously, it is also freezing. You do get a dry suit, so you won’t get wet, but for me this one was a hard pass. I am more of a hot tub kinda girl.
It looks like an awesome, once-in-a-lifetime experience though. If you don’t mind swimming in 2-4° C water, you can book a tour here for diving or here for snorkelling.
We headed to lunch at the charming Friðheimar, a simple, family-run restaurant located in the middle of a greenhouse. Their menu is all tomato-based, even dessert! They’re famous for their tomato soup, which is self-serve, all-you-can-eat, and accompanied by fresh-baked bread and toppings like cucumber salad, fresh basil, and cream.
This place is a must-visit and I will personally slap anyone who doesn’t go. It’s an incredibly unique dining experience and hands down the best tomato soup I’ve ever eaten.
After lunch we headed up to Geysir, a highly active geothermal area. Geysir itself actually erupts very rarely, so the geyser you always see pictures of is the nearby Strokkur. It’s a massive eruption and you can get quite close to it, so it was pretty cool!
Our next stop was the majestic Gullfoss waterfall. Over 2,800 cubic feet of water rushes down it every second. It’s a beautiful area but we didn’t stay here long. It was windy, it was freezing, I could barely see, I hated my life. I didn’t even get any proper shots (this one is from Pixabay).
Dinner at Icelandic Fish & Chips + Drinks at the English Pub & Loftið
Once we got back to Reykjavík we hit Icelandic Fish & Chips for dinner. It was amazing (try the truffle sauce!), but FYI the chips are NOT chips they are roasted potatoes.
We wanted to get a taste of the local nightlife so hit up Loftið, a very cool cocktail lounge, before heading to The English Pub for a power blackout. At some point we got an Icelandic hot dog – a must-do – and stumbled home.
Total Distance Driven: 236.8 km
DAY THREE – Driving to Vík
For our third day we finally ventured out to start exploring Iceland’s beautiful southern coast, which is home to some of the country’s most recognisable waterfalls.
Our first stop was Seljalandsfoss, one of Iceland’s most famous waterfalls. It’s located right next to the carpark, so it’s easy to just pop out and then get back on the road. Apparently in summer you can actually hike behind it, but in winter the trail is closed because it’s too icy to safely walk.
This was one of my favorite parts of our entire trip. We were blessed with beautiful weather, and on a sunny day the light reflects off the water to create a stupidly perfect rainbow. I laughed a little bit after taking this photo because like, how is this even real.
Skogafoss is also located a short distance from the carpark, and you can walk up as close to it as you want! I felt small and insignificant in the best possible way standing at its base.
Sólheimasandur Plane Wreck
One of the coolest things we did the whole trip (ok, everything was cool lol) was hike out to the famous wreckage of a crashed US Navy plane. Nobody was killed in the accident, so you can ogle this one guilt-free! The hike is long (4 km each way), but completely flat – it took us about 40 minutes each way.
You’ll find Icelandic horses randomly scattered all along the southern coast, so keep your eyes peeled! They are so cute, cuddly, and friendly, and super photogenic.
Reynisfjara aka Black Sand Beach
Reynisfjara, located near Vík, is famous for its soot-black sand. It also has beautiful, distinctive basalt columns perfect for climbing (which also make a great Instagram shot).
Unfortunately, this beach is also REALLY DANGEROUS. Reynisfjara gets sneaker waves — unusually large waves which come in without warning and literally sweep people out to sea to their deaths. This happens every year. Don’t play in the water, don’t even go near the water, don’t turn your back to the ocean – be vigilant here, no joke.
There’s a hiking trail a short drive from Reynisfjara, where you can get a great view of the beach as well as the very photogenic Dyrholaey arch. In the summertime you can see puffins here, but they were nowhere to be found in winter 🙁
Vík, the Cutest Town of All Time Ever
Vík, a little town nestled into the mountains of southern Iceland, was by far my favorite stop. Despite a population of only 300, it’s become somewhat of a hub for travelers.
Full disclosure, there’s not a lot to do – the top attraction is the wool factory (seriously). But the town is just the most idyllic, picturesque place. Every single night in Vík I just stared out the window at the mountains around us and felt such an overwhelming sense of peace and contentment.
We ate at Sudur Vík both nights we were here. The food was AMAZING and the decor is super cute and cosy. Our hotel, Guesthouse Carina, was also lovely – Carina was an angel, the rooms were sparkling clean, and the breakfast (think meats, cheeses, spreads, incredible fresh-baked bread, and waffles!) was to die for.
Total Distance Driven: 223.4 km
DAY FOUR – Vík to Jökulsárlón
We spent our fourth day driving along the southern coast, from Vík up to Jökulsárlón. This was our hiking day, so we didn’t do too many activities since we knew we’d be worn out. The weather was also not ideal so we kept our driving to a minimum.
Our first stop, about an hour east of Vík, was the stunning Fjaðrárgljúfur canyon. It’s a bit of a hike, but the view is incredible, especially if you hike down to the water. Supposedly Fjaðrárgljúfur was formed all the way back in the Ice Age, and you do actually get a sense that you are in a very ancient place. It was really lovely and really peaceful.
Skaftafell National Park
After another hour, we finally arrived at the Skaftafell Visitor Centre, at the base of Vatnajökull Glacier. You can hike all the way out to the glacier (but not onto it without a guide). It’s a really, really beautiful area. I’d never seen a glacier before and the sheer size of it was awe-inspiring.
Svartifoss, one of Iceland’s most unique and recognisable waterfalls, is about an hour’s hike from the visitor centre. The hike was semi-challenging because the last section down to the waterfall was quite icy – I would recommend crampons for this hike, for sure.
This is, by far, the coolest waterfall I’ve ever seen, and probably the coolest waterfall I will ever see. This one is a must-do!
Jökulsárlón Glacial Lagoon
We headed about another hour east to catch the sunset at Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon. We didn’t see too much of it because it was getting dark, but we returned the following morning to spend some time at Diamond Beach.
Getting Stranded in a Blizzard, Lol
Our accommodation was quite close to the Glacier Lagoon, but the area was a lot more remote than we realised. There were no grocery stores, no restaurants, no anything. It started hardcore blizzarding and I didn’t feel comfortable driving out again, so we ate potato chips and energy bars for dinner lol.
Total Distance Driven: 225.5 km
DAY FIVE – Jökulsárlón Glacial Lagoon & Vatnajökull Glacier
We stayed overnight in the Jökulsárlón area solely because I wanted to be able to spend a good amount of time at the Glacier Lagoon. This might not be high-priority for everyone, but I was really glad we did it, since this was one of my favorite locations of our entire trip (I had a lot of favorite locations, lol).
It was honestly one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen. There’s this dramatic black beach littered with glittering chunks of ice, beautiful ice-blue water, all set against this incredible backdrop of snow-covered mountains and the glacier. I could have stayed there all day.
Also, there were ADORABLE SEALS everywhere!!! They kept bobbing in and out of the water and there were so many of them.
Glacier Hiking & Ice Caving at Vatnajökull Glacier
After the Lagoon we headed back to the Skaftafell Visitor Centre for our glacier tour. We went with this one via Glacier Guides for about $199 USD and it was AWESOME.
The tour took about four hours from start to finish. We spent all afternoon hiking, climbing through the ice cave, and learning about how the glacier changes throughout the seasons. It was hands down one of the coolest experiences of my life and an absolute must-do when visiting Iceland in winter.
You can read more about our glacier hiking & ice caving tour here!
Heading Back to Vík
We opted to spend this night in Vík rather than drive all the way back to Reykjavík, since that would have taken about 4 hours! We had a leisurely evening and obv got dinner at Sudur Vík again.
Vík is supposed to have a great view of the Northern Lights, so we considered trekking out. But it turned out we were exhausted from adventuring and actually really enjoyed having an unplanned evening to unwind.
Total Distance Driven: 214.8 km
DAY SIX – Keldur, Kerið Crater, Bruarfoss, & Reykjavík
Our trip back to Reykjavík was a hodgepodge of everything we had missed on previous days. We actually didn’t stop at Keldur, and we went to Bruarfoss but decided not to do the hike, but I would have loved to see both, so I am including them here anyway lol.
Keldur Turf Houses
These cute little houses are located about halfway between Vík and Reykjavík and it broke my heart when I realised I had forgotten to include them in our itinerary 🙁 These are the oldest turf houses in Iceland and the whole area looks beautiful and pastoral and basically the quintessential Iceland Town. Super cute. I will def have to stop here one day.
This volcanic crater lake is one of the only spots in Iceland that actually charges an entrance fee, but it’s only $4 USD. Initially I was not excited about visiting in wintertime, because one of the main draws of Kerið is its vibrant blue water. Which in winter looks like this.
However I was NOT aware that Kerið is actually significantly cooler (ha) in winter. Because it turns out that yes, although the lake is frozen and not as vibrant, you can hike down to it and walk on it. Because it’s, you know, frozen.
AND THAT WAS THE COOLEST THING EVER. I know I have said that everything in Iceland was the coolest thing ever, but honestly this one was so much fun. The ice was so slippery that we were just falling all over the place laughing our asses off. That’s probably my favorite memory from the entire trip.
After Kerið we headed over to Bruarfoss, where we discovered from the trailhead sign that the hike is 3 km. We were tired and not keen to commit to a longer hike, so we decided not to go.
If you have the time/energy I would recommend it! It’s supposed to be one of the most spectacular waterfalls in Iceland because of its bright blue water. You can read some reviews and tips about the hike here. I was sad we skipped this one and hope I get a chance to see it one day.
Back to Reykjavík
After our failed hike we headed back to Reykjavík. We grabbed dinner at Íslenski barinn – it was delicious and a great way to finally sample some of Iceland’s more unique culinary offerings like puffin, fin whale, and langoustine.
We bought some beers at one of the downtown Vínbúðin (Icelandic liquor stores, the only places licensed to sell booze) and went back to our AirBnb to spend our last night hot tubbing.
And from the hot tub, beers in hand, we were treated to yet another display of the Northern Lights. It was the perfect moment and the loveliest way to conclude our trip.
Total Distance Driven: 291.8 km
DAY SEVEN – Reykjavík
We spent this day bumming around Reykjavík since we had earlier flights. You could easily spend a day exploring Reykjavík – the walk along the water is lovely! I would suggest grabbing a nice brunch, walking around the city, or even booking a day tour if you have the time for it.
We grabbed a late brunch, dropped our car back at the airport, and then went our separate ways – back to the States for my friends, and on to London for me!
Word of advice, Keflavík Airport is a clusterfuck and not equipped for the massive influx of tourists, so head to your gate early. There’s a secondary passport check after security that isn’t visible until you head to your gate and the entire boarding process is super disorganised.
Other than that, our trip was perfection. We were all really sad to leave this beautiful country and agreed it was the best trip we’d ever taken. I absolutely fell in love with Iceland and I can’t wait to visit again.
And THAT’S ALL! This post was a doozy, thanks for making it all the way to the end. Hope this was helpful in planning your trip and feel free to reach out with any questions!
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Awesome photos! I’d love to do a similar itinerary in the future
Click and Learn Photography says
Great article Jaleh!
Glad to see you enjoyed Iceland – It’s such an incredible country that’s been on my bucket list for a long time. I just hope it lives up to the hype when I eventually get to visit!