For a unique Iceland experience, avoid the crowds of the south completely. This trip has it all: volcanoes, waterfalls, hot springs, nature baths, whale watching, fjords and more. Below are 2 great ways to experience the north: all the highlights with only a fraction of the people. You can maximize your time by taking a domestic flight over the beautiful highlands of the interior to Akureyri, or you can drive one way and fly from Akureyri back to Reykjavik.

Daily Highlights

  • Day 1: Reykjavik (Laugavegur street, Hallgrimskirkja, Harpa Culture Center, Sun Voyager Sculpture, Harbor)
  • Day 2: Scenic Drive to Akureyri (4.5 hours)
  • Day 3: Godafoss, Husavik, Ásbyrgi Canyon, Dettifoss. Stay in Myvatn
  • Day 4: Lake Myvatn, evening in Akureyri: waterfalls, lava fields, rock formations, mud pools, craters, nature baths)
  • Day 5: Back to Reykjavik (or 45 min domestic flight)

 

Driving: 350 km, 5hr with flights from Reykjavik to Akureyri

Driving: 1120 km, 14hr if driving from Reykjavik and back. (4.5hr each day)

Day 1: Arrival and Downtown Reykjavik

Arrive at KEF in the morning and pick up your rental car and drive to downtown Reykjavik.  If you like, you can stop at the Blue Lagoon for a couple hours on your way (it opens at 8am and is just 20 minutes from the airport), or you can do that on your last day instead.

Breakfast Recommendations

  • Bergsson Mathús (opens at 7am)
  • Sandholt (opens at 7am)
  • Reykjavik Roasters (coffee)
  • Brauð & Co. (bread and pastries)

Things to do in Reykjavik
Walk through Reykjavik’s compact downtown area, and along the water past the Sun Voyager Sculpture and to the Harpa Cultural Center with its cool class architecture. Visit Hallgrimskirkja church on the hill and take the elevator to the tower at for a great overview of the city below and panoramic views of the area. Walk around the harbor or join a whale watching tour. Spend some time learning about Iceland’s history at the Settlement Exhibition or the National Museum of Iceland. Snack on a world famous hot dog at Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur or hop between cafes. In the evenings enjoy a variety of top-tier fish restaurants and Reykjavik’s nightlife.

Reykjavik Food Recommendations
Lunch / Dinner

  • Sea Barron
  • Kol Restaurant
  • The Coocoo's Nest
  • Kaffivagninn (Lunch only)
  • Café Loki

Nightlife

  • Craft Cocktails
  • Mikkeller & Friends
  • Skúli Craft Bar
  • KEX Hostel Bar (Live music on weekends)

Any time

  • Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur - famous hotdog stand

Driving Times: 40 min to Reykjavik.

Day 2: Scenic Drive to Akureyri

Get an early start for your 4.5-hour drive north to Akureyri, Iceland's second city. The North of Iceland may be the country’s best-kept secret. While crowds of tourists populate the South and Golden Circle, visitors to Akureyri and Lake Myvatn can enjoy the beautiful landscapes and wonderful volcanic areas all to themselves.

There are several other stops along the way if you want to break up the drive and explore some more of the West and Snaefellsnes Peninsula.

Optional Stops / Detours

  • Glymur Falls: Hike to Iceland's tallest waterfall alongside a narrow canyon offering spectacular views of the area (RT hike about 2 hours).
  • Borgarnes: Stop at this small town for a snack, and walk along the path on the water, or to learn more about the Settlement Age of Iceland at the Settlement Center
  • Gerðuberg Cliffs Basalt Cliffs: these hexagonal basalt columns rise up out of the earth and are quite the site. You can drive right up to them and then explore the area for a while on foot. 
  • Hraunfossar (“Lava Falls”) and Barnafoss (Children's waterfall), regarded as some of the most unique and spectacular waterfalls in Iceland, where clear subterranean water seeps through the lava fields, pouring out of the rocks, creating Hraunfossar.
  • If you have extra time, make some extra stops at the other quaint historical towns like Reykholt and Hvanneyri
  • If you want to make it a long day, you can venture more into the Snaefellsnes Peninsula with cliff-side walks, lava fields, and black sand beaches. 

Akureyri
Iceland’s second largest city (18,000 people) sits on Iceland’s longest fjord and makes a great base for exploring the north. While here, be sure to check out the thriving restaurant, cafe, and bar scene and visit the Akureyrarkirkja church on the hill. With more time, follow the path along the calm old harbor and water to see more of the picturesque fjord.

Day 3: Godafoss, Husavik, Ásbyrgi Canyon, Dettifoss

Spend your morning exploring the rest of Akureyri’s downtown area before you get on the road (Route 1) towards Husavik and Lake Myvatn. Be sure to take a look back towards Akureyri from the other side of the fjord; you can see the mountains behind the town and it makes for a great photograph. Take the scenic route past Husavik, Asbyrgi Canyon, and the waterfalls Dettifoss and Selloss.

After about 35-40 minutes you will see a Route 85 to the left for Husavik. Stay on Route 1 another couple of minutes to reach Godafoss (you will head to Husavik after this detour).

Godafoss Waterfall, the “waterfall of the Gods”
It’s impossible to miss Godafoss, the “waterfall of the Gods”, just off route 1. Hike a couple minutes to see the waterfall up close, or take a longer walk around to see if from multiple perspectives.  The waterfall was named when Iceland converted to Christianity in 1000. The legend says that when Þorgeir Þorkelsson, local chieftain and law speaker, made the tough decision to convert the country from the old nordic gods to Christianity (in order to prevent war) he threw the old gods into the falls to symbolize the change to the new era.

Continue back to the Route 1/85 split and drive another 35 minutes to Husavik, the whale watching capital of Iceland. 

Husavik: Iceland’s Whale-watching capital
Unlike in other regions where you must sail a while to find whales, Husavik often has whales, porpoises, and seabirds a few minutes from the harbor. Join a tour on some newer, carbon-neutral ships that are quieter (nicer for whales) and don’t pollute the environment (nice for everyone). We recommend North Sailing, right on the harbor (the entire building, restaurant, and cafe was made from recycled wood).

Note: the rides can be pretty bumpy.

Check out the whale museum and the church by the harbor before further exploring the region.

Asbyrgi Canyon
Just north of Dettifoss towards the coast, this giant horseshoe-shaped canyon is said to be left by Sleipnir, the eight-legged horse of the Norse god Odin. Others believe it was caused by large floods when glaciers burst and melted almost 10,000 years ago. The canyon is 1km / 0.5 mi wide, 3.5km /2mi  long, and up to 100m / 300ft high in some places and offers some spectacular views.

Dettifoss, Selfoss, Hafragilsfoss
A 30-minute drive from Lake Myvatn (or on a loop from Husavik and Asbyrgi) brings you to Dettifoss, Europe’s most powerful waterfall. A 15-min hike upstream along the basalt cliffs and you will encounter another giant: Selfoss. 

Accommodation: Spend the night around Lake Myvatn. You can skip Dettifoss and Selfoss and take it easier by sticking to the Lake Myvatn area if you like.

Day 4: Geological Wonders of Lake Myvatn

The area surrounding Lake Myvatn has the highest concentration of volcanic and geothermal sights in Iceland. In one day you can explore pseudocraters, rock formations, lava fields, hike up and around a volcanic crater, dip in a thermal pool in a cave, see mud pools and steam vents, see a lake in a volcano, hike a lava area from another world, and finish the day relaxing at the Jarðböðin Nature Baths with a view over all you just accomplished.

The following sights are listed in roughly in order as you would approach from the western side of the lake driving counter clockwise.

Skutustadir Pseudocraters
These pseudocraters were formed by when hot lava flowed over the wet marsh area causing steam explosions. Take an easy 1-hour walk among many pseudocraters on the shores of Lake Myvatn and loop around the smaller lake Stakhólstjörn. You can hike up to a few of them or just walk around them all. Enjoy the nice views across the lake where you will see steam rising from the geothermal areas and other volcanic craters in the distance.

Dimmuborgir Lava formations and “The Church”
Take a 1-hour walk beneath large, strange, contorted lava formations caused when lava flows cooled. You can see the start of the formations in only 5 minutes or hike the small loop in 15 minutes. Or, take your time and walk the bigger loop (2 miles) where you will see Kirkja (“The Church”), a natural lava formation that resembles a vaulted church arch, and a nearby cave a bit further. 

Hverfjall Cinder Cone and Crater Walk
This Cinder Cone is hard to miss from anywhere around Lake Myvatn. Climb up the side for a great view of the surrounding area where you can see the Skutustadir Pseudocraters and steam from the Jardbodin Nature Baths and Hverarond Geothermal area. 

Jardbodin Nature Baths
Note: You may want to save this after some of the other places listed below. You will have to backtrack a bit, but it will let you relax at the end of the day rather than hiking more afterwards.

Relax in the Jardbodin Nature Baths, the North’s equivalent of the Blue Lagoon, but with fewer people, cheaper prices, and better views. You won’t find all the spa extras that you do at the Blue Lagoon, but you will find a couple large geothermal pools, a sauna, and a steam room. You can enjoy views down over the lava fields and the craters around Lake Myvatn as you sit in the mineral water.

Hverarond Mud pits and Steam vents
As you leave Lake Myvatn heading East along the ring road your first detour is the Hverarond geothermal area. Here you can walk around various bubbling mud pits, and steam vents, admiring the interesting red and orange colors. Exploring the entire area takes 30 minutes to an hour.

Just after Hverarönd you will see a turnoff for Krafla / Viti, take the road and drive 10 minute to...

Krafla/Viti Crater
Drive past the Krafla power station (also worth a stop) and you will find the Viti crater, part of the Krafla volcanic system. This crater is filled with a bright blue lake.

Leirhnjúkur Lava Fields and Geothermal Area
Walk around the Leirhnjúkur area and you will think you were on another planet. After 10 minute walk, you will arrive at some steam vents. Follow the path through lava fields where you can see where lava oozed over until it cooled. Make sure you stay on the trail, as there are steam vents all around and the ground can be very hot in other places. You can hike a big loop in around 1 hour to see all the highlights, or stick to the first sights along the wooden path

Spend another night around Lake Myvatn, or head back to Akureyri where there are more options, restaurants, and to shorten your drive the next day.

Day 5: Back to Reykjavik

Drive back to Reykjavik (4.5 hours from Akureyri) and stop at some of the other sights you may have skipped on the drive up (listed on Day 2)

Recent Trip Reviews

Related trips planned by kimkim specialists

5-day tour of the north: akureyri, lake myvatn, waterfalls, and geothermal hotspots, Iceland - Jul 30 - Aug 5, 2017

Traveler: Laura F. - Local specialist: Preeti Bhide

Very helpful for a very last-minute vacation! We loved some of our lodging accomodations and really enjoyed the sites you suggested.

Preeti was very responsive at every moment that we needed her, and she created a terrific itinerary for us as we knew little about our destination and what we wanted to see.