This amount of time will enable you to enjoy the full expanse of the Ring Road while having the time to get out of the car and explore. Earlier in the year (e.g. April/May, I would recommend going in a counter-clockwise direction so that by the time you arrive in the North (especially in the Westfjords) you are less likely to encounter roads still closed due to snow. If you arrive later in the year, a clockwise trip is recommended because once you arrive in South Iceland (the most visited area of Iceland), the crowds will have thinned out. I will present this itinerary in a counterclockwise direction but you can simply reverse it as you see fit.
Take the FlyBus (or rent a car) from Keflavik airport to Reykjavik 101 (downtown). This is where you’ll find the majority of the city’s bars, restaurants, cafés, museums, and galleries. Very walkable. Explore your surroundings and take a stroll along the harbor or Tjornin Pond. To keep costs down (as hotels can be quite expensive), an Airbnb with a kitchen might be more budget-friendly. There are several small markets in the area (Ginger, etc.) Wine and alcohol are sold separately at the Vinbudin. Find more general tips on Iceland travel here.
Either via car or with one of the many tour companies that offer day tours, take the Golden Circle Tour. This includes the expansive waterfall Gullfoss, the still-erupting geyser named Geysir (yes, this is where we get the word), and Thingvellir National Park where the North American and Eurasian Tectonic Plates meet. This was the site of Iceland’s earliest parliament over a thousand years ago, as Thingvellir literally means Assembly Fields. For the more adventurous, don a dry suit and snorkel between the two plates, although you will have to arrange for this in Reykjavik.
Back in Reykjavik, visit the National Museum for a historical perspective of Iceland, The Settlement Museum to view ancient Viking longhouses, and the Kjarval Museum (Kjarvalsstaðir) to view the incredible talent of Jóhannes Sveinsson Kjarval, one of the most prolific and important Icelandic artists. In the evening, a 40-minute drive takes you to the Fakasel Icelandic Horse Show where you can dine while watching these incredible creatures (they have 5 gaits, including the tölt which is unique to this breed.)
On your way out of Reykjavik, stop in at Earth Cooking in Hveragerði to eat foods cooked by geothermal steam! Visit the quaint old fishing towns of Eyrabakki and Stokkseyri before taking the car ferry out to the Westmann Islands, where the Eldfell volcano erupted in 1973, evacuating the town. Now it is a thriving fishing village. In 1624, Barbary pirates raided the islands and took 400 Icelanders as slaves back to Algeria. Spend the night on the Westmann Islands.
Spend the day enjoying the beauty and history of the Westman Islands. Boat trips along the island’s cliffs are awesome, as is the museum at the volcano site.
Return to the mainland and continue east. Many beautiful waterfalls are located along the southern expanse of fertile land here. From Reykjavik, the first two you will encounter are Skógafoss and the magnificent Seljalandsfoss (which you can walk behind).
At Skogar and hike inland from Skogar to Porsmork, a verdant inland valley. If arranged ahead of time, basic overnight facilities are available.
Heading east, stop at the Reynisfjara Beach with its black sand, enormous columns of basalt, and massive waves crashing into the shore. Be careful! Unsuspecting travelers with their backs to the waves have been swept out to sea here. Continue on to Skatafell, where you can go ice climbing or simply view the massive glacier.
This day should be set aside for the magnificent Jökulsárlon Ice Lagoon, where a zodiac tour can be taken amongst the calving glacier. A James Bond scene was once filmed here. One can either choose to go snowmobiling on the Vatnjökull glacier or spend the night in Hofn and stock up on essentials.
Drive to the town of Djúpivogur and take a boat trip out to Papey Island (reservation required) where you will be met with a flock of seabirds and remains of an old settlement of friars.
Drive to the charming town of Seydisfjordur through a stunning valley. It’s a long drive but stunning. Stay the night. This photo was taken in July at 1 am!
Drive to the Myvatn Nature Baths and soak in the geothermal waters. After Myvatn, a 1 hour or so drive further north will take you to the powerful Dettifoss waterfall. On the way to Akureyri, stop at the awe-inspiring Godafoss waterfall and marvel at the power of nature.
Drive to Husavik and take a whale watching tour. This is a charming town known as the whale-watching capital of Iceland. Nearby is the stunning GeoSea, with its geothermal infinity pools overlooking a fjord. Relax and have a bite to eat and a beer while soaking in the warm waters.
Spend the day exploring the charming town of Akureyri, Iceland’s second-largest city with a population of ~ 20,000 people. Akureyri sits at the bottom of a beautiful fjord and has terrific shops and restaurants.
Take a drive up the winding coastline road to Siglufjordur for the day. Siglufjörður is famous for its Herring Festival which is held every year in August, and for its Herring Museum. Þjóðlagahátíðin á Siglufirði is a music festival which is held every year in July. It is also the town where the Icelandic series ‘Trapped’ was filmed.
Take a small plane or the ferry north to Grimsey Island, which straddles the Arctic Circle. You can have your photo taken (a bit corny) if you’re so inclined. Lots of puffins and a beautiful orange lighthouse.
Take the morning ferry out the Hrisey Island for a walkabout and to view seabirds. Careful not to get too close to the arctic tern nests, though, unless you want terns divebombing down upon you.
Drive to the Westfjords, the least explored (touristed) region of Iceland. Visit the Arctic Fox Center, the Latrabjarg sea cliff which stretches 8.75 mi and 1,447 ft. This majestic cliff’s claim to fame is that it is the westernmost point in Europe and hosts Iceland’s greatest concentration of seabirds. You can return the car in the largest town on the Westfjords, Isafjordur (amazing fish stew!), and fly back to Reykjavik or drive back down.
Explore the many stores and galleries along Laugavegur, Bankastræti, and Austurstræti or bathe in the Blue Lagoon before heading back to Keflavik airport and home.
Want to hear more about Iceland and how to plan your next trip to the north with breath-taking views no matter where you are? Listen to my Travel Tales with Mike Siegel on Stitcher or on the Apple podcasts now.