Iceland, Travel

Driving the Iceland Ring Road

In early June we visited Iceland for 12 days, 9 of which we spent driving in a full circle around the edge of Iceland, starting and ending our trip in Reykjavik. These are some of my pictures from the trip, go to the end of the post for all the information. Iceland is one of the most enjoyable and relaxing places I have ever visited.

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Prior to planning our visit I didn’t actually know much about Iceland other than having seen a few pictures. Most of the people that I knew who had visited had come in the winter to see the Northern Lights and had done a short trip mainly based in Reykjavik. When I started looking into it the winter seemed not right for us as it would be very cold and with minimal daylight. We chose to go in early June, when it would be warmer, with constant daylight, but just before the full peak season began – it was fabulous.

Weather

We experienced everything from a short snow blizzard when high up crossing a mountain to baking hot sun for many of the days. Several layers were best clothing-wise. I took a ski jacket (waterproof and padded) as my main coat which felt like the right thing as even on the sunny days it could be windy.

Expensive?

Iceland is often mentioned as being expensive however it is a mixed picture. The Icelanders generously do not charge you to look at their natural wonders which is probably the main thing you will be visiting on a trip around Iceland. We really appreciated that the carparks and entry to national parks were free.

Food costs

The most noticeably expensive thing for us were groceries, even a packet of generic sliced cheese could cost around £10 – ouch! Those costs and a general lack of choice in the supermarkets meant that we found that self-catering wasn’t particularly worth doing for us, especially with the logistics of moving on every day to a new place.

What was the food like?

Eating-out the food could be around £6 for soup and bread, about £15 for main meal. Coffee and cake was about the same as in the UK, if not a little cheaper. You don’t tip in Iceland so those costs are within the meal price. We were a captive market in most places without a choice of places to eat and so we were truly amazed at the quality of the food. We didn’t have a bad meal the whole time we were there. The quality of food at the restaurants at places like museums and major sights also astounded us as these were often the best places to eat in town, with locals eating there too, again not feeling like we were being exploited or palmed off with less than good fare as might occur at a touristy place. We found this Lonely Planet guide to be invaluable for finding places to eat as out in the countryside cafes and restaurants didn’t seem to advertise themselves as much as we were used to, something that looked like a barn would turn out to be a lovely cosy place once we got inside.

Favourite foods

The Icelanders have great bread, lovely rye breads, flatbreads, and a really dark almost sweet bread that is sometimes cooked with volcanic heat. We also became a bit obsessed with the Iceland combination of chocolate and liquorice – so good! We tried it once out of curiosity and then got hooked. I had to institute a personal ‘no liquorice before lunch’ rule as once you open one of those bags of chocolate liquorice men they vanish quickly. Skyr, the high protein yoghurt-cream-cheese, was delicious. We had a lot of soups – that was often the most economical lunch option – I liked the fish soups in particular. Icelanders do a good buffet too which could also be a good lunch option as it is usually has a good selection of salads and bread, plus a soup.

Getting there

Iceland is very easy to get to from the United Kingdom. We flew with WOW Air who, for a low-cost airline, were excellent. Getting from the airport into Reykjavik is also very easy as Flybus can take you to the main bus station, then transfer you to a minibus and take you right to your hotel door, AND pick you up again on your return journey. It really takes the stress out of the journey. You can buy tickets online in advance.

Paying for things

You can get out cash but in Iceland most people pay for everything with a credit card. I even once used my credit card to access a toilet! It is worth knowing this in advance so you go there with a credit card that doesn’t charge a transaction fee each time it is used overseas. Many of the petrol pumps were self-service and also only took credit card payment. When you pay for meals in restaurants you usually do that at a central till rather than paying at your table. We found booking.com to be useful for booking many of the hotels.

Language

It is of course always nice to try to learn a bit of the language of a country you are visiting but really most Icelanders (all?) speak really excellent English. It is very comfortable for English-speakers, apart from the heavy guilt of not speaking another language as fluently as the Icelanders…

Why drive the ring road?

Reykjavik is a nice small city but for us the part of the trip that we enjoyed the most was getting out into Iceland and seeing the natural wonders. I would really encourage anyone visiting Iceland to get out of Reykjavik into the countryside if they can. We hired a 4 wheel drive car for the trip which was useful when we left main roads for the gravel roads. A car wasn’t needed in Reykjavik as everything in the centre is walkable. We loved our trip so much that we definitely want to go back. I’m day-dreaming of replicating the whole trip again!

Our Iceland Ring-Road itinerary

I scoured the internet and guidebooks to plan our trip so I list our route below in case it is helpful to anyone else. We went anti-clockwise so we could start with the well-known stuff first like the Golden Circle and the glacier lagoon. We took it all at a relaxed pace. You could probably shave off several days if you did more driving in a day, we never did more than about 3 hours a day. We also stopped a lot to explore.

Day 1: Arrived Reykjavik
Explored Reykjavik a little. Tried one of the famous hot dogs from Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur. We also ate at Ramen Momo. We stayed at Hotel Hilda – it was fine for one night.

Day 2: Reykjavik to Gullfoss
We collected our car from Sixt (who were fine, we would use them again) and drove the Golden Circle to Thingvellir National Park, Geysir, Strokkur, and then Gullfoss. We ate at the Geysir Centre which is a huge modern cafeteria with an equally huge souvenir shop attached to it. We stayed at Hotel Gullfoss which was nice enough and in a convenient location. We also had dinner there.

Day 3: Gullfoss to Kirkjubæjarklaustri
We visited Seljalandsfoss, Gljúfurárfoss, Skógafoss, the plane crash site, Vík village and church, and the black beach. We had a nice lunch in Vík at Halldorskaffi. We stayed at Hotel Laki – we stayed in a cabin there, we wouldn’t advise doing that as it was a bit old and smelled strongly of gloss paint. Without prompting from us they did offer us a free upgrade to stay in the hotel but we’d already planned to self-cater that night so unfortunately had to turn that down.

Day 4: Kirkjubæjarklaustri to Suðursveit
We crossed the Sandar, a vast landscape of desert of glacier silt. Then to the iconic Jökulsárlón, the glacier lake. The glaciers from the lake glide out to sea with some washing back up onto the black beach which you can access from the seaward side of the road. We stayed at Hali Hotel – a great place. The restaurant was good too for both breakfast and dinner.

Day 5: Suðursveit to Egilsstadir
We stopped at Höfn and looked at the boats. We ate a nice bowl of soup in Djúpivogur at the Langabud Museum Cafe. We were then faced with a choice to continue to follow the route 1 tarmac road or take a shortcut on the steep gravel 939 road. We took the 939. There were a few sweaty-palm moments and the 4 wheel drive car came in handy, however it was a beautiful clear day and we were glad of our choice. We then left our stuff in the hotel at Egilsstadir by the Lagarfljót lake and went to to Seyðisfjörður. To get there you drive up and over a mountain pass and we actually found this road the most terrifying as the edges of the roads don’t have barriers so it did feel that with one tiny error you might plunge over the edge. Still we did have a nice pizza in Seyðisfjörður at Skaftfell Bistro and made it back alive. We stayed at Guesthouse Egilsstadir – we got a free upgrade to a lake-view room, such a lovely view of Lagarfljót. Another good breakfast.

Day 6: Egilsstadir to Akureyri
We visited Dettifoss and explored the Lake Mývatn area. At Hverarondor Hverir you can see geothermal activity with sulphurous gas pouring out of the ground. We ate a hearty lunch at Vogafjos Cowshed Cafe and then went on to Godafoss which was my favourite of all the waterfalls that we saw on this trip. We arrived at Akureyri late in the day ready to take on our apartment and cobble together a home-cooked meal. We stayed two nights at Hotel Ibuðir, it isn’t a hotel but several apartments situated in the heart of things.

Day 7: Akureyri to Húsavík to Akureyri
Keeping Akureyri as our base we drove to Húsavík for the day where we boarded a wooden sailing schooner on a trip run by North Sailing. This was such a memorable experience as we got to see thousands of puffins flying around, and several whales, including getting very close to a humpback whale. We were also very lucky with the weather as it was a beautiful day and while being windy enough to sail it wasn’t too rough. I tend to get travel sickness but after a shaky first 15 minutes I was fine. I even got to hoist one of the sails which was good fun. I used to sail a lot as a teenager and this has added to my great sailing memories. We ate a very late lunch at the Húsavík fish and chips counter in the harbour. After this we went back to Akureyri and had a drink in the botanic garden cafe.

Day 8: Akureyri to Varmahlíð
We went the long way around from Akureyri to Varmahlíð – via Dalvik, Ólafsfjörður, and a fun tunnel experience to Siglufjörður. In Siglufjörður we ate at Kaffi Rauðka. Near Varmahlíð we visited the Skagafjordur Folk Museum and Glaumbær turf house farm which was an eye-opening insight into what a tough life the Icelanders used to have to live. There is also a nice tea and cake situation going on in the tea room. We stayed at Hótel Varmahlíð. It was fine but a but too retro for us. I might be tempted to drive straight from Akureyri to Reykjavik in one day if I wanted to take off a day from the itinerary.

Day 9: Varmahlíð to Reykjavik
We took a look around the Settlement Centre in Borgarnes and ate a good salad-and-soup buffet lunch there. On arrival back in Reykjavik we found our rental apartment, left our stuff, and then took the car back. There is a great ice cream shop called Valdís near the car rental places if, like us, you need consolation about the road-trip being over. We stayed three nights at A Part of Reykjavik Hverfisgata Apartments – definitely our favourite accommodation of the trip. It was really nicely kitted out, really clean, and in a good location. We will definitely try to stay there again next time.

Day 10 and 11: Reykjavik
During our time in Reykjavik we tried a lot of good cafes including Cafe Haiti, The Laundromat Cafe, Mokka Kaffi, and Reykjavik Roasters (possibly our favourite). Bakari Sandholt was just around the corner from our apartment and getting a few things to takeaway from there was a very delicious and relatively economic meal. My favourite eating-out experience was brunch at Snaps, it is a cute greenhouse space and I wanted to try everything on the menu. We walked for miles and miles including off into the suburbs to see what they were like. We took the lift up the Hallgrímskirkja cathedral to take the well-known view of the Reykjavik rooftops. We looked around the Harpa concert hall, at several art places like the Museum of Photography, and in many of the shops up and down the Laugavegur.

Day 12: Reykjavik to home!

We can’t wait to go back.

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