Tour of the Unmissable Landmarks of Iceland
It’s not hard to get away from it all in Iceland. It’s a big island with a relatively small population and most of them living in or near Reykjavik. Yet despite the aching emptiness there are some things about Iceland you just can’t get away from. Not that you’d want to. The natural and man made landmarks of Iceland are the things that give the country its colour, its atmosphere, and of course, its tourists. You can do a road trip of Iceland in anything from a week to a couple of months. We took a six week road trip with our bikes and car and tent in summer, but we also went for a week in Spring to cover a festival and managed to pack in The Blue Lagoon, a Golden Circle tour and more. You can see many of the landmarks of Iceland in a 7 day ring tour, opt for 14 days in Iceland or go the whole hog like we did and stay for most of the summer. Here are our top tips of sites you should pick and mix from on your Iceland Road trip…
Iceland Road Trip Landmarks
Driving is undoubtedly the best way to see Iceland unless you fancy cycling it. But Iceland’s maps are deceptive. Things that look close might not be. (A problem that becomes more acute on a bike.) We quickly realise once we get on the road that there can be ten fingers of winding fjord between us and lunch. Or multiple single track bridges that take time to negotiate. Or impromptu weather changes. (One thing you can be sure of in Iceland is that the weather will change.) And then there’s the surprises. There’s a new delight around every corner and you find yourself stopping more than you meant to to take a picture or just look in awe at the landscape.
Pick and Mix from these Iceland itinerary ideas
I’ve picked out a few of the landmarks I feel you wouldn’t want to miss on a Ring Road tour of Iceland, starting in the south, where most people head first, especially if they only have a short time in the country. Don’t be tempted to stick to the well trodden Golden Circle tour and Blue Lagoon attractions. There’s so much more on offer, whatever the length of your stay.
1 Hallgrimskirkja Church
If you have an active imagination and its one of those days where the light is flat, you can almost believe the white Lutherian Hallgrimskirkja church in Reykjavik is one of the peaks that surround the capital. The church is like an optical illusion; wherever you are in the city you can see it. And it looks really different depending on the time of day you visit. The church is free to enter and for a small fee you can take a lift up to the top of the church to view the bay unencumbered by buildings.At nearly 75 metres high it is the tallest church in Iceland. There’s also a very impressive pipe organ on site. While you are in town, Perlan is another landmark monument worth checking out. It looks like a squat spaceship compared to the church’s needle spire and is good for families with exhibition space, a planetarium and observation deck.
2 Faxa Bay
If you visit spend any time in Reykjavik on your Iceland Ring Road itinerary, you’ll be drawn to this vast expanse of water. In fact every time you walk don a street it seems to be at the bottom of it. We enjoyed walking the bay in summer, but on our February visit it as really magical, as the wind blew through our veins and the snow on the peaks shimmered in the bright sky. Faxa Bay, or Faxaflói as its known as locally is an inlet of the North Atlantic Ocean hugging the south west coast. Its the largest bay in Iceland, and unsurprisingly it offers great fishing opportunities and lots of seafood restaurants. Our top Iceland restaurant tip is the posh fish and chip shop near the whale watching entrance. Like any Reykjavik restaurant Icelandic Fish and Chips isn’t cheap for families on a budget but the kids will love it and I found it worth pushing the boat out for (excuse the pun!)
3 Harpa Cultural and Conference Centre
Ok it’s not the Sydney Opera House but it’s still pretty impressive. Harpa Cultural Centre stands on the waterfront in Reykjavik. It’s vast coloured glass exterior was inspired by the landscape. You can go in and wander around or book tickets for a concert. There’s a fun one man family show that has been running for seven years. In “How to become Icelandic in 60 minutes” Bjarni Haukur Thorsson teaches you everything you need to know about blending in. Not really, but you’ll have a laugh!
4 Geysir and Strokur
It’s a bit of a cliche I know, but you have to see these guys. Head to Haukadalur Valley to the geysir that lent its name to the phenomenon. Geysir itself has in recent years stopped erupting but Strokkur stepped into the limelight and puts on a reliable show every five or ten minutes. We played a fun family game counting down and predicting when it would blow.
A decade ago the world got very familiar with the name, if not the pronunciation of Eyjafjallajökull, as it held up the world’s air traffic control systems and caused worldwide travel chaos. You are never far from volcanic rock, even in the city; look across to the city centre from Perlan and all you will see is great chunks of geology. But at Eyjafjallajökull, in Hvolsvollur you can look in awe at the volcano and then watch the movie in the Eyjafjallajökull Visitor Centre about the eruption. We spent a happy hour there, hoping there was no sequel on its way.
6 Jökulsárlón and its Icebergs
Jökulsárlón glacial lake in the south eat of the island is famous for the colour of its icebergs. Their luminous blue light makes the place look utterly spooky. It’s noisy too, as they crash and move and form and reform. You can see this deep glacial lake from Route 1 between Höfn and Skaftafell. If you want to get up closer you can go out on a boat trip. We were just content to wander and marvel. Leave at least an hour for this if you are interested in nature or ice formations. Be careful where you sit though; a woman tried to take a selfie sitting in an iceberg that looked like a throne recently and found herself quickly floating away.
7 Gullfoss and the Waterfalls
Gullfoss is best known for being on the Golden Circle Tour; a must on any road trip around Iceland. It is pretty magnificent and not to be missed. But there are many other waterfalls in the south that we fell in love with just as much. Seljalandsfoss is the one you can walk behind; it has a drop of over 60 metres and a neat cave to shelter in to see the water blast down, We got quite wet so do bring a raincoat if the wind is strong. Skógafoss is worth a visit too; especially if you ave fans of Marvel; it was apparently a location in Thor: The Dark World.
8 Hellisheidarvirkjun (or Hellisheidi) Power Plant
This is one for your 21 day Iceland round trip as it’s not one of the conventional landmarks but is a good education in what makes Iceland hot. Hot water and steam from the ground have encouraged Iceland to build turbines and produce electricity which is 100% renewable. (It’s a revelation to check into a basic campsite and find free washing machines and heated toilets.) You can see how Iceland has really harnessed it at Hellisheiði geothermal plant, llocated on Hengill volcano. There’s an interesting exhibition talking you through the process of making power.
Another Iceland itinerary idea for a longer tour, the Vestmannaeyjar or The Westman Islands lie just 10 miles off Iceland’s South Coast. They are home to one of the world’s largest Atlantic puffin colonies. Read our post on puffin hunting with the kids in the Westman islands.
10 West Fjords
Look at the western glacial fjords on a map and you will see they look like the fingers on a hand as they weave in and out of the bay. In real life they look like the fingers of a big hoary giant and its hard to shake the feeling that something is watching you. You can see them below in this picture taken when we were cycling Iceland’s Dream Road. Escape from the coach parties on the south coast to take in their beauty. There are some pretty little villages on route.
11 Dynjandi Waterfall
12 Museum of Icelandic Sorcery and Witchcraft
Hólmavík is a small fishing village snuggled into the twisting coastline of peninsulas in the Western Fjords. You might wind up there by accident after visiting Akureyri – Iceland’s second city. Or perhaps it’s not accidental. Maybe we are all drawn there! Hólmavík’s big claim to fame is magic, you see. At first sight there’s nothing very magical about this village; all we really notice is the N1 garage. But around 20 witches were burned at the stake in the Western Fjords and this village commemorates them with stories and strange exhibits at the quirky Museum of Icelandic Sorcery and Witchcraft. We admittedly arrived in the village at dusk but it does have an eerie feeling; can you see a witches hat outline in the local church? Take a look at our post about our unsettling 24 hours in Holmavik.
13 Sudureyri Fishing Village and Project
Suðureyri is a small Icelandic village perched on the tip of the 13 km-long Súgandafjörður. It claims to be Iceland’s most sustainable fishing village; fish are caught using traditional methods like long lining, and pride is taken in using almost every part of the fish. Sudureyri is about as far away from Reykjavik as you can get in the Western Fjords, even with the quite scary 5km tunnel built to improve access so it’s a bit of a hike. But if you have a few weeks for your road trip, you might want to include it in your Iceland travel plan as its an atmospheric little place. Sadly there aren’t any tours of the fish head factory, (yes that is a thing) but you can visit the Íslandssaga fish processing plant. A sunny morning finds following our guide Oddny, the Quality Control Manager, through a machine room and then along the cutting line watching the fish being processed. You can also catch your dinner on a sea angling trip, and cook it with the help of a local family, go out with a working fishing boat or simply buy a bag of fish and go feed the cod in the lagoon. There’s no shortage of fish round here! North Coast. Read about our visit to the Íslandssaga fish processing plant here.
14 Sea Monster Museum
There are few that can argue a sea monster would be a notable landmark, and while I can’t swear Iceland has one, it definitely has a building to mark the belief that they exist. You can find The Sea Monster Museum in Bildudalar where monsters seduce, legends spook, memorabilia seems to flash in the muted daylight and timbers most definitely creek. Check out our post on our sea monster visit.
15 Husavik and the Whale Stations
Husavik is the landmark town for whale watching and pretty much everything here has a logo with a tail on it. You shouldn’t have any trouble finding a boat trip although it may be busy in high season. Check out our post on whale watching in Husavik. And our reaction to the idea that you might want to eat them afterwards.
Myvatn Nature Baths is a cheaper alternative to the blue lagoon, especially for a big family. It’s also easier to get in at busy times. If you are camping nearby you will need to protect yourself against midgies though. If you are interested in a hot pool related adventure of Iceland check out our post on doing a self guided hot pool trail. Myvatn is a shallow volcanic lake near Krafla volcano. While you are there visit Hverir, a hot-springs area packed with hot mud pots and spouting all manner of steam. Our kids loved wandering the walkways and seeing the mini eruptions. It’s much less crowded than the coach party ridden Golden Circle geysirs.
17 Modrudalur Farm and Askja Caldera
Mödrudalur is the highest inhabited farm in Iceland. Its owner Elisabet Kristjansdottir founded the Fjalladryd Travel Service to guide visitors around the forbidding landscape. We set off early in the morning in Elisabet’s vehicle, driving for two and a half hours, around a 5000 square metre lava flow; swinging our way along asphalt highway, rubble covered F road and sandy track. We veer off the track at high speed. “Let’s take the shepherds road,” says Elisabet, handing out chocolate ‘lava’ biscuits. We are on our way to Askja Caldera, in the Dyngjufjöll mountains, a range created by repeated eruptions under Ice Age glaciation. We leave the 4×4 on an hour long hike to a caldera, across black sands. We reach a smaller caldera filled with a massive sapphire blue lake. We then walk on to Viti crater where we bathe in the pale blue volcanic hot pool. All in all quite a day out –read our post about visiting Askja Caldera here.
Seyðisfjörður is surrounded by mountains. You are most likely to see this town if you enter Iceland by ferry but you may enjoy the 17k diversion from the Ring Road. The winding road out is an exciting introduction to the wilds of Iceland, going over Fjarðarheiði mountain pass at 600 metres; it may be your first introduction to Iceland’s incredible waterfalls. There’s not a huge amount in Seydisfjordur, but the pretty wooden houses, the artistic community and the wild weather make it interesting. We visited the swimming pool and stayed in a small, cosy hostel.
19 Lake Lagerfljòt and the Worm
Everyone happily buys into our three day expedition around Lake Lagerfljot because it has a monster in its depths. And this monster; Lagerfljòtsormurinn, has all the drama of Loch Ness. But the ride is prettier than a mythical monster. We bike a 30km chunk of the 56km lake just south of Egilsstadir, camping at Attlavik. On the east side of this lake is Hallormsstadaskógur; Iceland’s biggest forest, and a landmark of its own.
20 Djupavik Fish Factory
Djúpavík is a small village in the West Fjords.It seems an unlikely place to house a small hotel and huge exhibition space that traces the history of fish in the town. And when you take a tour of the abandoned herring factory it all seems even more unreal, but it’s an interesting diversion if you are in the west of Iceland. Stay awhile and have cake in the cafe or see if you can catch a concert in the old oil tank. Check out our post on the Djupavik Fish Factory here to hear the mysterious story of the fish that went away.
21 Rhyolite Fields of Landmannalaugar
You’ll need to hire a 4WD if you want to drive the interior. This is packed with extraordinary landmarks that many people don’t ever get to see. But I’d only bother doing it if you are on a longer trip, it’s summer and the weather is good. In a 4WD Dodge Durango, we head off on the Fjallabak route towards the tourist honeypot of Landmannalaugar, It’s the starting point for several of the most popular hiking routes in Iceland and it’s easy to see why as we spend a morning playing hide and seek in the lava. The shiny rhyolite is another world and you can imagine the elves hiding here too.
7 Day Iceland Ring Tour
Iceland is pretty empty. Hardly anyone lives in the interior, which you can only reach during summer and only with a four-wheel-drive vehicle. Most of the inhabited parts of Iceland are along the coast and the ring road is a handy connector for any trips in Iceland. It runs to 1,332 km (828 miles) and is paved throughout. You can do it in a 7 day Iceland itinerary, but expect to drive at least 200 kms a day if you do. This will be a basic bomb around, without much time to digest what you’ve seen or spend time lingering in a museum. But conveniently some of the main sites are right next to the road. I imagine many people have almost crashed the car when passing the icebergs in the south. I would start in the south, where things are very clustered together and you can tick them off quickly. Then I would probably choose one of the fjords; either east or west and have a couple of days in the coastal wilderness before spending a day in Reyjavik.
14 Day Iceland Tour
An Iceland 1 week itinerary will give you a basic idea of the place but two weeks in Iceland gives you much more leeway to stop and see things and explore. It will also give you a couple of days in the capital Reykjavik. It’s worth booking a couple of guided trips to see things that other tourists might not on your Iceland driving holiday. While you can do the Golden Circle on your own in the car, you’ll need a company to help you go whale watching, glacier hiking, horse riding or river rafting. If you fancy getting out on or into the water, If I were you I’d head straight for the north (Super Break are currently doing some great deals flying into Akureyri in the north east) and book some rafting, whale watching or hot pools. The Geosea geothermal sea water baths in Husavik, North Iceland, offer cliff side bathing in natural baths. Check out our post on hot pools in Iceland for more info.
21 Days in Iceland and More
Now you’ll really have time to explore. And if it’s summer, take a little self guided drive of Iceland’s interior. (You can hire a 4×4 if your car isn’t up to it. But do book ahead as in the summer months they sell out.) The landmarks come thick and fast on any ring road tour, from high towers to volcanic towers from geysirs to waterfalls. But if you have three weeks or more you can see smaller quirkier things. Bjork’s home town? Game of Thrones locations? Perhaps you can play a vegetable instrument at one of the festivals.
Read more of our posts on Iceland:
- Looking for the Source – preview post
- First impressions – arriving in Iceland
- Not your usual Golden Circle tour
- Culture and happiness – at the Children’s Culture Festival
- Letting go of the reins takes a lot of practice – Icelandic horse riding
- Making music with a carrot – contemporary music for curious kids
- 8 things that make Iceland the most creative kooky place I’ve been
- Does a happy revolution sound like this?