The Insider’s Guide to Iceland—No Tour Guide Necessary!

iceland travel guide
Photo by @juddjonas to Twenty20

Iceland is quickly becoming one of the hottest bucket-list destinations in the world. And with new cheap flight options constantly popping up, it’s never been easier to visit the land of fire and ice. However, you may quickly realize that guided tours around this otherworldly island can cost as much as getting there. Luckily, it’s super easy to rent a car and create your own itinerary that checks off all the usual hot spots and more.

Iceland has well maintained highways and affordable rental cars (and you drive on the right side of the road!) But what makes it especially easy to venture on your own is the fact that most agencies offer WiFi hotspots as an add-on to your vehicle rental. And believe it or not, there is decent coverage across the country. Print this handy list, enter each destination as you go, and leave the tour bus behind.

If you’d like to maximize your time exploring, Budget, Avis, Hertz and Europcar all have counters right in the airport, so you can be on the road within moments of landing. Ready, set, go!

1) Blue Lagoon

Depending on what time of day you arrive/depart, you may wish to make this the first OR last stop on your itinerary. These massive geothermal baths are only about a 20-minute drive from Keflavik International Airport, making it no surprise that they are the most commonly visited attraction on the island.

2) Reykjavik

The next stop, of course, is the country’s compact capital. Spend a few days exploring its museums, shopping, and nightlife before hitting the open road. Your drive from here will begin with the famous Golden Circle, a tour that would cost over $100 per person alone, minus the freedom and independence.

3) Thingvellir National Park

Situated at the meeting point of the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates, this national park is a playground of strange geological features. You can frolic in deep valleys where the plates are separating from one another, walk along wooden boardwalks to jet black waterfalls, and even scuba dive in the crack between the two continents in this region just thirty miles from Reykjavik.

4) Farmhotel Efstidalur

If you’re feeling a bit peckish on your way to the next sight, make sure to stop at this family run farm for some of the best ice cream on the planet. The warm café has large windows overlooking the stables, so you can ogle baby cows while enjoying the delicious dairy.

5) Geysir Hot Springs

In this volcanic zone, magma has forced fissures through the earth’s surface, resulting in bubbling mud, explosive geysers and the inescapable stench of sulfur. It’s located right off the main highway and features a café and shop to fulfill all of your touristy needs.

6) Gullfoss

Not far beyond Geysir lies Gullfoss, a waterfall that’s probably unlike any you’ve ever seen. This gigantic abyss holds a vast staircase of rushing water that seemingly disappears into the earth. You can appreciate the spectacular views from above, or scroll down into the valley to get a closer look. It’s one not to be missed!

Depending on the time of year you are visiting, the amount of daylight will vary greatly. In the winter months, this would be a great place to break up your journey at one of the few rustic inns or Airbnbs dotted across the countryside. Between September and April, you may even catch a glimpse of the Northern Lights!

7) Secret Lagoon

As you begin the arc southbound on the Golden Circle, you’ll come across this low-key series of hot springs. Cheaper, smaller, and less crowded than the Blue Lagoon, it may be the perfect place to relax mid road trip.

8) Fridheimar Farm

This impressive farm is a popular stop for folks who want to check out a year-round artificial-lighting greenhouse and sample the fruits of their labor. Which fruits, you ask? Hint: if you like tomato soup or Bloody Marys, you should include this stop on your itinerary.

9) Kerid Crater Lake

Red volcanic walls, striking green moss, and deep blue water characterize this 3000-year-old volcanic crater. A short hike takes you around the rim’s circumference, or you can scramble down to the water’s edge inside the caldera.

At this point, your circular journey can continue back towards Reykjavic via the tiny town of Selfoss. Alternatively, if you have more time to kill, you can head east to check out the following highlights of the southern coast.

10) Seljalandsfoss

A massive waterfall that you can walk behind? Yes please! That’s really all you need to know about this geological marvel.

11) Skógafoss

While you can’t walk behind it, this beauty being both larger and more powerful than Seljalandsfoss makes it well worth a visit. In fact, it’s one of the biggest waterfalls in the entire country. The constant spray it produces pretty much guarantees a rainbow sighting on sunny days.

12) Reynisfjara

If a black sand beach alone doesn’t impress you, the giant pyramid of basalt columns along the shore will. If you haven’t felt like you’re on another planet yet, you will once you arrive here. And if you’re lucky, you may even spot a family of puffins!

13) Vík

This tiny seaside settlement is the southernmost village in Iceland. Just over 300 residents call this cluster of colorful houses home, and the entire place feels a bit like a movie set. Luckily, it still packs a generous number of guesthouses and tourist facilities, making it another perfect place for a stopover to break up your tour.

14) Jökulsárlón

The southern coast is kind to save this glacial lagoon for last. It is the favorite stop for most visitors in this region, and it’s easy to see why. A lagoon, filled with floating glaciers? It’s over a hundred miles past Vik, but well worth the trek for this unreal sight.

At this point in your trip, you are about a five-hour drive back to the airport, Blue Lagoon and/or Reykjavik. With a few weeks on your hand, you can actually continue east on this Ring Road to complete a loop around the entire country! However, most common itineraries culminate here. This entire journey encompasses just over 600 miles start to finish, making it the perfect holiday road-trip.

Have you been to Iceland? What were your favorite spots? Share below.