This 9-day self-drive adventure is a great alternative to the full Ring Road loop, especially during summer months when Iceland tourism hits its peak. With more than a week, you'll experience a range of incredible landscapes all over the island, like rugged peninsulas, hot springs, volcanoes, lava fields, small fishing towns, and waterfall hikes with only a fraction of the crowds. To shorten this itinerary, skip the East Fjords and fly back to Reykjavík from Akureyri.

Highlights

  • Take a day to wander through Reykjavík‘s bohemian streets
  • Escape the crowds and explore the Snæfellsnes Peninsula at your own pace
  • Board a traditional oak boat for a whale watching adventure in Húsavík
  • Discover geothermal pools, lava fields, and volcanoes around Lake Mývatn
  • Hike around Iceland's Eastfjords (and waterfalls) where few travelers venture

Brief Itinerary

Day Highlights Overnight
Day 1 Arrive in Reykjavík, explore downtown Reykjavík
Day 2 Glymur Falls, Borgarnes, Snæfellsnes Peninsula Snæfellsnes Peninsula
Day 3 Explore the Snæfellsnes Peninsula Snæfellsnes Peninsula
Day 4 Snaefellsnes Peninsula to Akureyri Akureyri
Day 5 Goðafoss, whale watching & big waterfalls Lake Mývatn
Day 6 Geological Wonders of Lake Mývatn Lake Mývatn
Day 7 Lake Myvatn to the East Fjords Seyðisfjörður
Day 8 Seyðisfjörður, return to Reykjavík Reykjavík
Day 9 Depart Iceland  

Detailed Itinerary

Day 1: Arrive in Reykjavík, explore downtown

Start and end the trip in Iceland's capital

Welcome to Iceland! Upon arrival at Keflavík International Airport, you'll pick up your rental car and drive 30 minutes into Reykjavík. Since many international flights land in the early morning hours, you'll likely want to start your adventure with a hearty breakfast. 

From here, you'll have the rest of the day to explore the world’s most northerly capital city. 

Things to do in Reykjavík: 

  • Walk through Reykjavík‘s compact downtown area and check out the unique street art scene and distinctly bohemian vibe.
  • Head to the waterfront to see the Sun Voyager Sculpture and Harpa Concert Hall with its cool glass architecture.
  • Visit Hallgrímskirkja church on the hill and take the elevator to the tower for panoramic views of the area.
  • To escape inclement weather, consider visiting a few museums such as the Northern Lights Center, the Saga Museum, the Marine Museum, or the Whales of Iceland Exhibition. You can also join a whale watching tour from the Reykjavík harbor, and snack on a world-famous hot dog at Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur.

In the evening, enjoy a variety of top-tier fish restaurants and Reykjavík‘s lively nightlife. 

Day 2: Glymur Falls, Borgarnes & Snæfellsnes Peninsula

Stunning views as you begin to drive north from the city

After breakfast in Reykjavík, you'll pack up the rental car and head north to experience Iceland's west coast and the Snæfellsnes Peninsula (roughly 97 miles). Both of these areas see fewer visitors compared to the Golden Circle and south coast and will provide you with a bit more time to take in the sites at your own pace.

First, stop for a hike at Glymur Falls, about 47 miles outside Reykjavík and Iceland's tallest waterfall. You’ll hike beside a narrow canyon which makes for some great photographs, about two hours out and back.

Continue on your drive towards the peninsula and stop in Borgarnes (about 47 miles outside Reykjavík) where you can learn about the Settlement age of Iceland at the Settlement Center, or simply walk along the shore path near the water. If you have extra time, make some stops at the other quaint historical towns like Reykholt and Hvanneyri (roughly 67 and 52 miles outside Reykjavík, respectively). 

If you had an early start and it’s not yet late afternoon, stop by 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. (These are roughly 78 miles outside Reykjavík.)

Once you get to the peninsula, head for the Gerðuberg Basalt Cliffs, where strange basalt columns rise up out of the earth. Park the car and walk around exploring and getting a closer look. Next, walk through the start of the Budhahraun lava fields on the coast, covered in moss or snow depending on the season.

Keep driving until you get to the village of Hellnar where you can stop for dinner at the small café near the water to taste their delicious fish soup and enjoy the setting. Reykjavík to Hellnar is approximately 121 miles.

Day 3: Explore the Snæfellsnes Peninsula

Kirkjufellsfoss waterfall

Today you'll continue your peninsula explorations with the cliff-side trails at Arnarstapi where you can get up close to some great views, lava formations, and arches in the rocks. In fact, you can walk the trail all the way to Arnarstapi from Hellnar, starting from either direction (3.79 miles). 

Then head for the Lóndrangar lava formations, which you can view from afar or up close (about 15 minutes by foot). A little further along the road is the Visitor Center for the peninsula where you can learn more about the volcanic system and the area.

If the weather is dry, take a stroll along Djúpalónssandur black sand beach with debris from a shipwreck (tip: photograph the rusted mangled metal pieces on the black sand). Here you will find four stones of different sizes, which were used by sea captains to test the strength of people wanting to join their crew. While facing the water, look for a small trail on the right-side cliffs that leads to the site of a major fishing operation. 

As you near the westernmost point of the peninsula, look for signs for Saxholl crater. If you have time, it's worth the stop to walk up the stairs that take you to the top with nice views of the surrounding area. 

Continue your drive around the other side of the peninsula, about 32 miles, and end your day with a visit to Kirkjufellsfoss waterfall with Kirkjufell mountain, one of Iceland’s most photographed, in the background.

You can either spend the night in Grundarfjörður near the mountain and waterfall or continue to the larger town of Stykkishólmur (about 26 miles from Kirkjufellsfoss). On the way (and if you're brave enough), you can stop at the Bjarnarhöfn Shark Museum and taste some Hákarl, or fermented shark.

Day 4: Snæfellsnes Peninsula to Akureyri

Few cars and plenty of photo ops on the drive to Akureyri

Spend the morning seeing any sights that you may have missed in the Snæfellsnes Peninsula (Berserkjahraun Lava Fields, Bjarnarhöfn Shark Museum) before you rejoin the Ring Road heading clockwise towards Akureyri.

The scenic drive from the eastern side of the Snæfellsnes Peninsula to Akureyri is around four to four-and-a-half hours (392 miles) and you'll want to keep your camera close. The north coast of Iceland may be the country’s best-kept secret. While crowds of tourists populate the south coast and Golden Circle, visitors to Akureyri and Lake Mývatn can enjoy the beautiful landscapes and wonderful volcanic areas all to themselves. A few stops to keep in mind on your drive:

  • Icelandic Seal Center in Hvammstangi (10 minutes off the Ring Road): This area is also home to one of the largest seal colonies in Iceland. Look for several sea watching spots along the coast a bit north of here.

  • Hvítserkur, “white shirt” basalt troll (add an hour to your drive): Close to the shore along the Vatnsnes peninsula is the black and white rock formation known as Hvítserkur, a troll who, according to the legend, was caught in the sun and turned into stone. While it's a nice sight from above, you'll also find a trail leading down from the parking lot. 

  • Varmahlíð: Stop in this small town, where Route 1 and Route 75 intersect (an hour before Akureyri). Here you can visit the Glaumbær Farm and the Víðimýrarkirkja Turf Church. This is a great way to experience the turf houses and to see how Icelanders used to live. The turf church, built in 1834, is one of the only remaining preserved turf churches in Iceland. 

When you arrive in Akureyri, Iceland’s second-largest city of 18,000 people, get out and walk around town. 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 footpath along the calm old harbor to see more of the picturesque fjord.

Day 5: Goðafoss, whale watching & big waterfalls

Goðafoss, the Waterfall of the Gods

Spend your morning with breakfast in Akureyri before you get on the road (Route 1) towards Húsavík and Lake Mývatn (47 miles) . 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. 

After about 35-40 minutes on the road, you will see Route 85 to the left for Húsavík. Despite this sign, stay on Route 1 for another couple of minutes to reach Goðafoss (you will head to Húsavík after this detour).

When you arrive at the “Waterfall of the Gods,” hike a couple minutes to see Goðafoss up close, or take a longer walk around to see it from multiple perspectives. The waterfall was named when Iceland converted to Christianity in 1000. 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), and he threw the old gods into the falls to symbolize the change and to usher in the new era.

From here, you'll continue back to the Route 1/Route 85 split and drive another 35 minutes to Húsavík, the whale watching capital of Iceland. Unlike in other regions where you must set sail to find whales, Húsavík often has whales, porpoises, and seabirds close to the harbor. You can join a tour on newer, carbon-neutral ships that are quieter (and nicer for the whales) and don’t pollute the environment (nicer for everyone). Also, check out the whale museum and the church by the harbor.

From here, head to Dettifoss, Europe’s most powerful waterfall (55 miles). Take a 15-minute hike upstream along the basalt cliffs and you will encounter another giant: Selfoss. You can approach from either the east or west side of the river. The road on the west is paved, while the one on the east is gravel. Both sides offer nice views of the waterfalls, but you have a nicer view of the full canyon from the east.

Continue driving to Lake Mývatn and spend your evening relaxing in the Mývatn 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 large geothermal pools, a sauna, and a steam room. You can enjoy views down over the lava fields and the craters around Lake Mývatn as you sit in the mineral water.

Day 6: Geological Wonders of Lake Mývatn

Spring and summer months bring greenery to Lake Mývatn

The area surrounding Lake Mývatn has the highest concentration of volcanic and geothermal sights in Iceland. In one day you can explore a plethora of pseudocraters, rock formations, lava fields, and volcanic craters

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

  • Skútustaðir pseudocraters: These pseudocraters were formed when hot lava flowed over the wet marsh area causing steam explosions. Take an easy walk among many pseudocraters on the shores of Lake Mývatn and loop around the smaller Lake Stakhólstjörnk. You can hike up to a few of them or just walk around them all. Enjoy 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 walk beneath large, strange, contorted lava formations caused when lava flows cooled. You can see the start of the formations here or hike the small loop in 15 minutes. Or 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. 
  • Höfði rock formations: A little past Dimmuborgir you will see a small turnout for Höfði. You could spend anywhere from 15 minutes to over an hour here walking the wooded trails that take you to some very unique rock formations in the lake.

  • Hverfjall cinder cone & crater walk: The volcano known as Cinder Cone is hard to miss from anywhere around Lake Mývatn. Climb up the side for a great view of the surrounding area where you can see the Skútustaðir pseudocraters and steam from the Mývatn Nature Baths and Hverarönd Geothermal Area. 

  • Hverarönd mud pits & steam vents: As you leave Lake Mývatn heading east, your first detour is the Hverarönd 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 from 30 minutes to an hour.

Just after Hverarönd, you will see a turnoff for Krafla/Víti. Take the road and drive 10 minutes (six miles) for these attractions:

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

  • Leirhnjúkur lava fields & geothermal area: Explore the Leirhnjúkur area and you will think you were on another planet. After a 10-minute walk, you will arrive at some steam vents. You can hike a big loop in an hour to see all the highlights, or stick to the first sights along the wooden path

Day 7: Lake Mývatn to the East Fjords

Your base on Iceland's east side

Many people tend to skip right past Iceland's East Fjords, making a beeline from Mývatn to the south coast. With the extra time this trip allows, though, you can treat yourself to some of the most scenic and remote coastlines in Iceland with a night in the picture-perfect Scandinavian town of Seyðisfjörður (roughly 125 miles from Lake Mývatn).

In this region, you will find lots of beautiful, calm fjords, outdoor activities, and small towns at the bases of large mountains. You can even kayak through the fjords, or (for a longer trip) take a ferry to either the Faroe Islands or Denmark.

Here are ideas for scenic day hikes: 

  • Hengifoss & Litlanesfoss: Take a 20-minute detour (40 minutes there and back) and hike until you arrive at Hengifoss waterfall, passing Litlanesfoss on the way. These spectacular waterfalls are framed by huge basalt columns and make a great activity for those who prefer to escape the larger crowds in the south. During early summer, you may also spot some puffins in the area. 

  • Seyðisfjörður: After a 30-minute drive over the mountain pass, you will be welcomed with amazing views of the fjord below. Once in Seyðisfjörður, you can hike several trails to waterfalls (two are fairly steep but they only take 5-10 minutes each), walk inside cool sound sculptures, visit a troll church, and explore the artwork and sculptures around the city. If you're looking for a longer hike, head to the northern side of the fjord and hike past several waterfalls continuing all the way to the top (Vestdalsvatn).

Day 8: Seyðisfjörður, return to Reykjavík

Village of Seyðisfjörður

This morning, you'll have time to explore more of the region by car where you'll find lots of beautiful calm fjords, outdoor activities, and small towns at the bases of large mountains. You can even kayak through the fjords, or (if you had a few extra days) take a ferry to either the Faroe Islands or Denmark.

Depending on flight times, you'll travel 30 minutes over the mountain pass to Egilsstaðir (17 miles), drop off the rental car and catch a domestic flight back to Reykjavík. Here, you'll have the rest of the day to take advantage of anything in the capital that you may have missed at the beginning of the trip. 

Day 9: Depart Iceland

Reykjanes Peninsula

It's time to say farewell to Iceland. Soak up your last moments and explore more of Reykjavík. Or, if there's time before your flight, consider a side trip on your way to KEF airport. Here are some suggestions: 

  • Explore the hidden gems of the Reykjanes Peninsula: The following places are often missed by travelers quickly heading between Reykjavík and KEF airport. With a bit more time, you can explore lava fields, geothermal areas, lighthouses, and small fishing towns.
  • Seljavallalaug pool: A short distance after Skógafoss you can make a detour to Seljavallalaug, one of the oldest swimming pools in the country, built in 1923 (look for the small sign to Seljavellir). A short hike past some very cool scenery will take you to the relaxing pool.

  • Urriðafoss: As you reach the end of the south coast drive consider one last waterfall: Urriðafoss. While this waterfall may not be as pretty as Skógafoss or Seljalandsfoss, it makes up for it in other ways. Urriðafoss is the largest volume waterfall in Iceland, and very wide (and loud). It’s only a short trip from the Ring Road and a good finale to the south.

  • Garður lighthouse: Two lighthouses are located near the airport: one on the coast (older and not as stable), and a second a bit further inland. This can be a nice area to walk around and stretch your legs before your flight, and the views of the coast can be very nice.

Map

Map of Iceland Off the Beaten Path: Snæfellsnes, Akureyri,  Lake Mývatn & More - 9 Days
Map of Iceland Off the Beaten Path: Snæfellsnes, Akureyri, Lake Mývatn & More - 9 Days