This self-drive tour takes you along Iceland's south and west coasts for those in search of unique family adventure. After a day exploring the capital city, Reykjavik, you'll head west to the volcanic Snaefellsnes Peninsula, known as "Iceland in miniature" with a bit of everything (and a fraction of the crowds). You'll then continue to the more popular Golden Circle (Thingvellir, Geysir geothermal area, Gullfoss waterfall), and finish with two nights along the south coast discovering glaciers and black sand beaches.

Highlights

  • Get to know Reykjavik's colorful downtown with street art and murals
  • Escape the crowds in Snaefellsnes Peninsula with a number of short walks
  • Stay overnight in the Golden Circle to visit highlights without day-trippers
  • See massive waterfalls and glaciers along Iceland's dramatic south coast
  • Meet Icelandic horses and join an easy ride along a black sand beach

Brief Itinerary

Day Highlights Overnight
Day 1 Arrive in Reykjavik, Explore Downtown Reykjavik
Day 2 Reykjavik to Snæfellsnes Peninsula (West Iceland) Snæfellsnes Peninsula
Day 3 Tour Snaefellsnes Peninsula Snæfellsnes Peninsula
Day 4 Snæfellsnes Peninsula to Golden Circle Golden Circle
Day 5 Golden Circle to Vik (South Iceland) Vik
Day 6 Icelandic Horses, Beaches & Glaciers Vik
Day 7 Vik to Reykjavik, Departure  

Detailed Itinerary

Day 1: Arrive in Reykjavik, Explore Downtown

Reykjavik is a great city to explore by foot
Reykjavik is a great city to explore by foot

Welcome to Iceland! Upon arrival at Keflavík International Airport, you'll pick up your rental car and drive 30 minutes into Reykjavik. Since many international flights land in the early morning hours, you'll likely want to start your day with breakfast. Here are a few recommendations when you arrive in the city center:

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

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

Things to do in Reykjavik: 

  • Walk through Reykjavik’s compact downtown area and check out the unique street art scene.
  • Head to the waterfront for the Sun Voyager Sculpture and Harpa Concert Hall with its cool glass architecture.
  • Visit Hallgrimskirkja church on the hill; take the elevator to the tower for a great overview of the city below and panoramic views of the area.

To escape inclement weather, you may 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 Reykjavik harbor, and snack on a world-famous hot dog at Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur.

Day 2: Reykjavik to Snæfellsnes Peninsula (West Iceland)

Plenty of scenery in the Snaefellsnes Peninsula
Plenty of scenery in the Snaefellsnes Peninsula

After breakfast in Reykjavik, you'll pack up the rental car and head north to experience Iceland's west coast and the Snaefellsnes Peninsula. 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.

Along the way, stop in Borgarnes and learn about the Settlement age of Iceland at the Settlement Center, or walk along the shore path near the water. If you have extra time, consider stops at other quaint historical towns like Reykholt and Hvanneyri

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, creating Hraunfossar.

When you enter the Snaefellsnes Peninsula, you'll notice why it is sometimes referred to as “little Iceland” with a little bit of everything that Iceland has to offer: basalt columns, tiny fishing villages, coastal cliff walks past arches and other rock formations, lava fields, volcanic craters, black sand beaches, waterfalls, lava caves, and more.

Your first stop will be 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 maybe snow this time of year).

In Hellnar, stop at the small Fjöruhúsið cafe near the water to taste their delicious fish soup and enjoy the setting.

Day 3: Volcanic Snaefellsnes Peninsula

A winter sunset at Kirkjufellsfoss waterfall
A winter sunset at Kirkjufellsfoss waterfall

This morning, you can start your peninsula explorations with a cliff-side hike at Arnarstapi where you can get up close to lava formations and arches in the rocks. In fact, you can follow the trail all the way between Arnarstapi and Hellnar, starting from either side (the hike is quite flat, and you can turn around at any point if you like). 

Next, you will see the huge Londrangar 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.

Then 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, follow for a small trail on the right-side cliffs until you reach another small cover, once the site of a major fishing operation. 

As you near the westernmost point of the peninsula, look for signs for Saxholl crater. It's worth a quick 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 and end your day with a visit to Kirkjufellsfoss waterfall with Kirkjufell mountain in the background (one of Iceland's most photographed).

Spend the night in Grundarfjordur near the mountain and waterfall, or continue to the larger town of Stykkishólmur. On the way, you can stop at the Bjarnarhöfn Shark Museum and taste some Hakarl, or fermented shark.

Day 4: Snæfellsnes Peninsula to Golden Circle

Gullfoss waterfall in the Golden Circle
Gullfoss waterfall in the Golden Circle

This morning, you'll finish exploring the Snaefellsnes Peninsula and drive south toward Reykjavik. As you make your way, head into the Berserkjahraun Lava Fields, or drive to Stykkishólmur and stop by the Volcano Museum. 

Next, you'll enter Iceland's famous Golden Circle. Start with Thingvellir National Park, where the tectonic plates meet. Visit historical Law Rock where chieftains from all over the country met once a year to discuss laws and issues. While at Thingvellir, you can join a snorkel tour where you dive between the tectonic plates at the Silfra Fissure

Next visit the Geysir geothermal area, with bubbling mud pits and steam vents. The Geyser erupts like clockwork every 10 minutes so you're bound to get some good photos. Continue from here to Gullfoss (“Golden Falls”)—a massive waterfall that is sure to impress. Finish your day at a secret lagoon where you can soak in the geothermal waters and perhaps get a glimpse of the Northern Lights.

Day 5: Golden Circle to Vik (South Iceland) 

Find the steps to the right of Skogafoss waterfall for more views and connecting trails
Find the steps to the right of Skogafoss waterfall for more views and connecting trails

After breakfast, hit the road and spend the day enjoying popular highlights along the south coast. The area between Vik and Selfoss is full of cool sites and destinations and is quickly becoming one of the most beloved areas of Iceland.

Your first stop is Seljalandsfoss waterfall, which you can walk behind (the ground is uneven in a few places but there are stairs on one side). Standing in a cave under the cliff you will see the water come roaring down in front of you. Pay attention to the direction of the wind, or wear a rain jacket (or both!) You will find two smaller waterfalls to the right if you are looking from behind the waterfall. 

Next, along Route 1, you will find the powerful Skogafoss Waterfall. This marks the beginning of the 16 miles (26 km) Fimmvörðuháls Trail, which ends in Thórsmörk. You can admire the waterfall from the bottom (a short walk from the parking lot), or if you are up for it, find the stairs to the right and climb up for a different perspective. At the top, walk along the canyon to see some more waterfalls along  “waterfalls way” before turning around (note: depending on snow conditions this may not be possible).

At Dyrholaey, there are two parking lots from which you can see the famous arch. The one high on the hill has the better view. Take the bumpy dirt road to your right as you enter. From the top, you will also see a lighthouse and great views looking farther west along a black sand beach that reaches as far as you can see. Look for rare birds (and perhaps even puffins) flying around—they nest along the cliffside.

Near Vik, along Route 1, you will see a turnoff for Reynisfjara Beach, past a pretty church as you drive towards the water. This black rock beach (not as fine grain as the one in Vik) is most famous for the Reynisdrangar Columns, huge basalt hexagonal columns rising up out of the sand. Walk around the cliffs to the left as you face the ocean and you will find a couple of large caves as well.  

While the town of Vik itself is fairly small, its proximity to several great sights more than makes up for it. Staying here also allows you to explore more of the area in the evening when the larger crowds have left (or before the crowds arrive the next day). Towards the water, you will find beach pathways and a long stretch of black sand with high cliffs on the right side, often filled with soaring and nesting birds.

Day 6: Explore Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon

Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon
Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon

The south coast is home to many horse farms. You can join a family-friendly 30-minute or 60-minute ride on Icelandic horses along the black sand beaches at Vik.

Then, continue east along the Ring Road towards Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon, about 2-2.5 hours away. Here are some attractions in the area:

  • Diamond Beach: At the Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon, you’ll get the chance to see one of the most unique sights in Iceland: icebergs floating out to sea and beached on the black sand. Climb the hill for a better view of the entire area or follow the river under the bridge to the ocean for smaller icebergs along the black sandy shores of "diamond beach" where waves crash against them. It’s quite the sight! You may be fortunate to see seals, porpoises, or small whales that sometimes hang out in the lagoon or near the shore.

  • Fjaðrárgljúfur Canyon: The rock formations in Fjadrargljufur Canyon look like they’re from another world. There is a trail less than a mile from the parking lot along the ridge of the canyon where you will find some amazing viewpoints where the river curves around this strange rock cliffs. You can admire the views the entire time and go as far as you like. 

  • Skaftafell & Svartifoss (optional ice-caving & glacier walks): You could spend several days hiking all the trails around Skaftafell. If you’re short on time, the most popular hike leads to Svartifoss, a thin waterfall surrounded by columns of basalt. The hike is around three miles long (weather dependent) and offers great views alongside the river and towards the ocean in the distance. If you like, you can join an ice cave/climbing tour or glacier walking tour based here. 

  • Fjallsárlón Glacier Lagoon: A few minutes before Jokulsarlon, you will find another Glacier Lagoon about 10 minutes from the parking lot. Here you are much closer to the glacier than at Jokulsarlon, and you’ll have better views of all the cracks and crevices.

  • Hof: A quick trip off the main road will bring you to Hof's turf church. The practice of covering the roof with turf dates back to medieval times throughout Europe to protect from the harsh weather.

From here, you can drive back to Vik or stay overnight near Hof.

Day 7: Vik to Reykjavik, Departure

Return to Reykjavik for one more night in the capital
Return to Reykjavik for one more night in the capital

It's time to say farewell to Iceland! Today, you'll drive back along the southern coast towards Reykjavik. If there's time before your flight, consider a side trip on your way to KEF airport. Here are a few ideas to consider: 

  • Seljavallalaug Pool: A short distance after Skogafoss 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.

  • Urridafoss: As you reach the end of the south coast drive consider one last waterfall: Urridafoss. While this waterfall may not be as pretty as Skogafoss or Seljalandsfoss, it makes up for it in other ways. Urridafoss 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.

  • Explore the Hidden Gems of the Reykjanes Peninsula: The following places are often missed by travelers quickly heading between Reykjavik and KEF airport. With a bit more time, you can explore lava fields, geothermal area, lighthouses, and small fishing towns.

  • Blue Lagoon: Enjoy a geothermal soak in the iconic Blue Lagoon before you fly home (great for all ages).

  • Gardur 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 Family-Friendly Winter Road Trip - 7 Days
Map of Iceland Family-Friendly Winter Road Trip - 7 Days