Aside from the Northern Lights, Midnight Sun, and never-ending list of waterfalls, Iceland is also home to so many regions that are special in their own rite. It's also a great country for first-time international travelers—there’s an activity for everyone, from driving an ATV across the black sand beaches to relaxing in one of the many hot springs; there are hikes for all levels of athletes; and you can make the driving as complicated or as simple as you’d like. You don’t even have to leave Reykjavik, if you’re looking to just get away for a long weekend.
But where there is infinite opportunity, there is an overwhelming number of potential itineraries. But first, a bit of knowledge around how the country is split up. In Iceland, you’ll find eight regions: Reykjavik, South Iceland, Westman Islands, West Iceland, East Iceland, Westfjords, North Iceland, and the Highlands. Every single one is worth its own visit. On that note, it is often easiest to pick one region — depending on how much time you’re going to spend on the trip — and stick with it for the duration of your trip. If you find yourself with more than a week of time, start piecing together regions for the ultimate road trip.
Here are 10 places that are well worth checking out on your next journey to the Land of Fire and Ice. Some of them will only take an afternoon to experience in full, others beg for a long weekend — or longer. Read on and plan that trip.
For the best time, plan your visit to Reykjavik around a weekend — preferably a long one — so you can take in its vibrant nightlife. There’s shopping, incredible food, lively bars, and colorful homes waiting to be photographed.
Time Commitment: It’s best to plan at least three days over the weekend in Reykjavik. The beauty of Reykjavik is that you could spend as much time here as you want without getting bored. There’s a robust cultural scene, from the concerts at Harpa to the Design March in the spring, and there are more restaurants than you could experience in six months straight in the city.
Things to See: If you’ve only got three days, here’s what you absolutely have to see, do, and eat: Grab breakfast at Bergsson Mathus, check out the Phallological Museum (yes, you read that right), catch a choir practice at Hallgrimskirkja, take a walk along the harbor overlooking Mount Esja, get a history lesson at the National Museum of Iceland, shop locally along Laugavegur (don’t miss Hrím Hönnunarhús for some souvenirs that will double as home decor), and taste a modern twist on traditional ingredients during dinner at ROK. For nightlife, don’t miss Prikid, which plays local and international hip hop all night long; Snaps Bistro for a killer gin and tonic; Hurra for local music; and Kiki for an incredibly friendly queer scene.
Thingvellir National Park
You’ve probably already heard of this region as it’s the park where you’ll find Silfra Fissure, Gulfoss, Geysir, Öxarárfoss, abandoned farm ruins, and fields of lava rock. Thingvellir National Park was once home to Iceland’s Parliament, an important organization tasked with upholding the laws of the country up until 1800.
Time Commitment: Plan to spend the better part of a day here. It’s a quick 40-minute drive from Reykjavik and there are a ton of tour buses that will take you there. While you can drive the Golden Circle — an in-park road that will bring you past all of the main natural attractions — in an hour or so, you’ll want to pack a picnic and explore the various hiking trails throughout the area.
You can visit the park at any point in the year, but if you visit during the warmest months (June, July, August), you’ll be blessed with better (read: drier and sunnier) days.
Things to See: Although chock full of tourists, Gullfoss, Silfra Fissure, and Geysir are all worth a visit. Look up the abandoned farm ruins and plan a quick hike to take in the sights — chances are you’ll have the area to yourself. If you want to see one of the most important spots for the original Parliament location, head to Öxarárfoss. This is also the spot where you can snorkel between two tectonic plates (the North American and Eurasian plates, to be specific) at the Silfra Fissure.
If you want to take in the variety of Icelandic landscapes in one day, head north and slightly west of Reykjavik and pay a visit to Snæfellsnes Peninsula. A majority of the region falls into Snæfellsjökull National Park, where you’ll find a world of geological wonders (think: volcanic craters and even more black sand beaches).
Time Commitment: You can easily spend an entire weekend driving around this peninsula. It’s an easy drive from Reykjavik — around two hours without stops. If you’re short on time, factor in a full day to take in the sights.
Things to See: Budirkirkja, a quaint church along the coast that’s been painted black; Vatnshellir, a cave system created from volcanic activity; Djúpalón, a beach with boat ruins and black sand; Kirkujufell, a mountain that looks like a church steeple from one side with neighboring waterfalls; Stykkisholmur, a town full of intriguing museums and a stunning hike to a lighthouse; and Saxholl, a volcanic crater you can climb to the top of. Technically, you could cover all of this in a day, but it’s even better when you can spend some time stopping off at scenic overlooks.
Vík is the perfect stopping point if you’re traveling from Reykjavik along the south to Jökulsárlón. You’ll find this scenic town about a two-and-a-half-hour drive from the capital city; the exact halfway mark along the southern part of the Ring Road (a route that circles the entire country).
Time Commitment: You could just stop by to grab lunch, or you could spend the night and make the most of the nearby hiking trails. The town is located just behind a mountain range, which can make it a little tricky to visit during the winter months, but it’s one of the more populated towns along the route.
Things to See: The red church overlooking the town is about as charming as it gets. Explore the field behind the church for a handful of hiking trails. One will take you around the field itself, another will take you a bit deeper into the mountain range, and another system of trails will bring you to the Mýrdalsjökull Glacier. Closer to sea level, you’ll find Reynisfjara — the black sand beach that has made Vík a tourist hotspot. The basalt rock columns that line the beach are worth exploring when the tide is out — once the water comes in, it’s incredibly dangerous to get close to the water. If food is on your mind, head to Restaurant Sudur Vik where you’ll find some incredible pizza.
If you’re on your way along the the southern section of the Ring Road, you’ll reach Jökulsárlón two-and-a-half-hours after you drive through Vík. Here, you’ll find the iconic Glacier Lagoon and Diamond Beach.
Time Commitment: Set aside a few hours to take in the views here. Plan your trip around sunrise or sunset if you’re looking for a stunning set of photographs — it’ll also be less crowded during these times. Also note that it can get quite windy, so dress in layers and aim to visit midday for the warmest temperature.
Things to See: This area is all about the icebergs and nearby Breiðamerkurjökull Glacier. Park in the lot for the Glacier Lagoon and hop over the sand dunes to take in the calm scene of icebergs of all sizes sitting peacefully in the water. If you’re looking for more movement, head across the street to the Diamond Beach, another black sand beach that happens to be the landing point for many glacier pieces tumbling through the water. The waves can be quite aggressive here at times, so be careful.
Most will know this region as the area you’ll fly in and out of — it’s home to Keflavik International Airport. But there’s a lot more to this region, including an even better viewing point of the Silfra Fissure than what you can see in Thingvellir National Park.
Time Commitment: You can spend an afternoon driving around this area — but the amount of time you should dedicate to the area depends on how long you want to stay at the Blue Lagoon. I would recommend planning it into your itinerary the day you arrive or the day you’re leaving, giving its proximity to the airport.
Things to See: Blue Lagoon may be the most Instagrammed location in this area. You’ll also find the lighthouse at Gunnuhver, the “Bridge Between Continents,” the yellow Hópsnesviti lighthouse, and a fisherman’s cottage called Stekkjarkot that dates back to the 1800s (it’s now open to the public). This will take you off of the tourist trail and up close to some iconic Icelandic landscapes.
This may be the most dramatic region of Iceland, with its sprawling cliffs and rural villages. This area can be difficult to reach during the winter months, given that road closures can last weeks during particularly heavy bouts of snowfall. That being said, plan your trip to the Westfjords during the summertime for the best chances at seeing as much as possible. It’s also a wonderful place to camp, if that’s something of interest.
Time Commitment: Driving in an out of the fjords takes time. If you want to experience everything this area has to offer, plan to spend at least three days here. You will see more tourists during the warmer months, but it rises above the risk of getting stuck in the wilderness during a snowstorm.
Things to See: Dynjandi waterfall, meet some puffins at Flatey Island, go kayaking in Vigur, walk up to the gravity-defying cliff of Hornbjarg, check out the northernmost glacier of Drangajökull, get a lesson in local folklore at the Icelandic Sorcery & Witchcraft, and visit the shipwreck at Mjóifjörður. If you’re even slightly interested in camping, this is the place to do it.
This region of Iceland is incredibly tricky to visit during the winter, as the roads aren’t maintained like the main routes and can often be overrun with snow and ice. You’ll need a 4x4 vehicle to navigate this area no matter when you’re visiting. If you find yourself in Iceland during June, July, or August, consider taking a trip to the Central Highlands for some serious hiking.
Time Commitment: Many of the hikes in this region require guides and multiple days of walking to fully experience. Take a full week and explore the Central Highlands — you won’t regret it.
Things to See: Don’t visit the area without paying a visit to Landmannalaugar, or “The People’s Pools.” This area is full of hot springs, perfectly located to give tired hikers and shepherds a place to relax. Pair a hike along Laugavegur to compliment your hot spring soak. Thorsmork is another trail you’ve probably seen on Instagram — its dramatic views show off some of Iceland’s most interest geology. Lakagigar, or “The Laki Craters,” is exactly what it sounds like: a valley full of volcanic craters.
Head to the north and you’ll find Mývatn, a volcanic lake surrounded by scenic villages and hot springs. Its waters are thought to be healing by the locals and you’ll find a lot of them making the most of their belief at Mývatn Nature Baths — a worthy alternate to the Blue Lagoon should you find yourself in the north.
Time Commitment: Take an afternoon to spend exploring the Mývatn area and longer if you’re paying a visit to the local hot spring. This should be considered an important stop along your northern road trip, but doesn’t have to serve as an overnight destination.
Things to See: Take a trip along the Diamond Circle, a ring of attractions including Húsavík, Ásbyrgi, Dettifoss, Goðafoss, and the rocks of Hljóðaklettar. Mývatn Nature Baths are a must stop, especially if you find yourself with weary driving legs. If you’re looking to get some steps in, hike to the crest of the Hverfell Crater.
If you want to see waterfalls, caves, lava fields, and streams all in one day, drive an hour north-east of Reykjavik toward Glymur Waterfall. Unlike the other waterfalls, it’s not the easiest hike to see the actual falls.
Time Commitment: Set aside an entire afternoon to hike to and from Glymur Waterfall. The country’s second-tallest falls will require a four-hour round-trip hike. Pack a picnic and you’ll be thanking yourself all day long.
Things to See: Glymur may be the main attraction, but you’ll see a ton of other attractions on the way. Botnsdalur valley, Þvottahellir cave, Botnsa River and the Hvalfell Mountain. Once you cross the Botsna River after passing through the cave, you have the option of taking the north or south route toward the waterfall. Either way, the hike can get steep, so make use of the ropes that have been installed for support.