Explore the wonders of western and southern Iceland on this action-packed 11-day self-drive itinerary. Thrill to orca whale watching off the Snæfellsnes Peninsula, hiking atop the Sólheimajökull Glacier, and exploring Jökulsárlón glacial lagoon by amphibian boat. You'll also savor a wealth of other iconic sites and experiences, from Kirkjufell mountain and Strokkur geyser to Skógafoss waterfall and the geothermal wonders of the Golden Circle, plus meet belugas at a sanctuary in the Westman Islands.

Highlights

  • Seek out orcas on a whale-watching trip off the Snæfellsnes Peninsula
  • Soak in the geothermal waters of the Secret Lagoon
  • Ride an amphibious boat and tour Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon
  • Hike atop the Solheimajokull glacier 

Brief Itinerary

Day Highlights Overnight
Day 1 Arrive in Keflavik, Explore Reykjavik Reykjavik
Day 2 The Wonders of Snæfellsnes Snæfellsnes Peninsula
Day 3 Orca Whale Watching from Ólafsvík, Stykkishólmur Snæfellsnes Peninsula
Day 4 West Iceland & Borgarfjörður Golden Circle
Day 5 Golden Circle & Secret Lagoon Golden Circle
Day 6 South Coast Waterfalls & Black-Sand Beaches Kirkjubæjarklaustur
Day 7 Skaftafell Natural Reserve & Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon Boat Tour Kirkjubæjarklaustur
Day 8 Sólheimajökull Glacier Hike, Ferry to Westman Islands, Heimaey Westman Islands
Day 9 Explore Heimaey, Beluga Whale Sanctuary Westman Islands
Day 10 Ferry to Landeyjahöfn, Drive the South Coast, Reykjavik Reykjavik
Day 11 Reykjanes Peninsula & Lava Tunnel Tour, Depart  

Detailed Itinerary

Day 1: Arrive in Keflavik, Explore Reykjavik

Exploring Downtown Reykjavik
Exploring Downtown Reykjavik

Upon arrival at Keflavik airport, pick up your 4WD and head to your hotel in Reykjavik to check in and freshen up before heading out to explore downtown on foot or by rented bicycle. The compact historic district is intriguing for its unique street art and quintessential Icelandic architecture. Your must-see checklist should include the modern and handsome Hallgrimskirkja cathedral, inspired by Iceland's basalt volcanic columns and of an unmistakable Viking-heritage design. Then head to the waterfront for the Sun Voyager Sculpture and the Harpa Concert Hall, with its contemporary glass architecture.

To escape bad weather, or if you're a culture fan, you can visit one or two of Reykjavik's world-class museums. Head to the Old Wharf area to check out the Northern Lights Center, the Saga Museum, the Marine Museum, or the Whales of Iceland Exhibition. Alternatively, if you feel the call of nature (or simply want a relaxing soak), head to Nauthólsvík Geothermal Beach, on the south side of town, to swim in a lagoon warmed by geothermal waters.

Day 2: The Wonders of Snæfellsnes

Lóndrangar
Lóndrangar

This morning, head north through West Iceland (which you'll explore on day four) to the Snæfellsnes peninsula—often referred to as "Iceland in miniature" for its wealth of volcanic geological marvels. Upon arrival, you'll have plenty of time for a clockwise drive around the 55-mile-long (90 km) peninsula, beginning with a stop at the iconic, black Búðakirkja church standing alone atop Budir beach. Continue west through the Budahraun lava field to Arnarstapi, where the natural sea arch is among many fantastical coastal formations stretching west to Lóndrangar, with its clifftop basalt pinnacles.

Circling the snow-capped Snæfellsjökull volcano, you can explore inside Vantshellir lava cave and stroll Djúpalónssandur black-sand beach before heading east along the north shore to shark-tooth-shaped Kirkjufell mountain. This iconic, picture-perfect pinnacle and the little Kirkjufellsfoss waterfall at its base are must-sees, not least thanks to their fame as a featured setting in "Game of Thrones." Continue the short distance into the small harbor town of Grundarfjörður, where you'll stay overnight.

Day 3: Orca Whale Watching from Ólafsvík, Stykkishólmur

Whale Watching Ólafsvík
Whale Watching Ólafsvík

This morning, head west to Ólafsvík, a small fishing town with the pinnacled modernist Ólafsvíkurkirkja church seemingly inspired by icebergs. You'll set out on a whale-watching trip to Breiðafjörður Bay, considered the best place in Iceland to spot sperm whales, orcas, and pilot whales. Winter, spring, and early summer are the best times for viewing orcas and sperm whales (although you may also see them in summer), while summer is best for viewing pilot whales, often in huge pods numbering hundreds of animals. You may also spy humpback whales, minke whales, and other species.

After lunch back in Ólafsvík, take a short hike up to the nearby Bæjarfoss waterfall and the hilltop lookout offering panoramic vistas of the surrounding mountains. Then head back east to the picturesque harbor town of Stykkishólmur, with its colorful fishing boats and striking futuristic Stykkishólmskirkja church—this one with a sweeping bell tower resembling a wishbone. Next, check out the nearby and folksy Shark Museum at Bjarnarhofn farm, where you'll learn how traditional fermented hákarl (pungent petrified shark meat ) is cured from the endemic and toxic Greenland shark.

Day 4: West Iceland & Borgarfjörður

Hraunfossar waterfall

Today you'll drive to the Golden Circle via the Borgarfjörður region of West Iceland, which is replete with attractions. Your drive takes you via the coastal fishing village of Borgarnes—its Settlement Center has exhibitions on the Settlement Era and Icelandic Sagas—then on to Reykholt, a beautiful medieval "Saga heritage village." From here, it's a 10-minute drive up the Hvítá River Valley to Barnafoss and Hraunfossar waterfalls, tumbling over a lava field; and, a short distance beyond, Víðgelmir, the longest lava tube in Iceland, worming for 5,200 feet (1,595 m) beneath the earth.

Exiting the valley, stop for a relaxing soak in the Krauma Geothermal Bath & Spa beside Deildartunguhver hot spring. You'll then follow the Hvalfjörður fjord to its head, where you'll lace up your boots for an exhilarating hike up the rugged canyon to the Glymur waterfall; at 650 feet (198 m), it's Iceland's second tallest. Continue south to the Golden Circle region for two nights.

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Day 5: Golden Circle & Secret Lagoon

Þingvellir National Park
Þingvellir National Park

Blessed with fascinating geological formations and proximity to Reykjavik, the "Golden Circle" (approximately 155 mi/25 km) is Iceland's most popular sightseeing route. The route is condensed enough to experience all the major sites, beginning with Þingvellir National Park to hike the gorge separating the Eurasian and North American plates, ending at the Öxarárfoss waterfall. You can even don a wetsuit and ease into the crystal-clear glacial waters of the Silfra fissure for an unforgettable 2.5-hours snorkeling adventure amid supernatural shades of blue as you swim through a narrow volcanic canyon.

Next, head to the Geysir geothermal area, where the spectacular geysers (derived from the verb "gjósa") gave their name to spouting hot springs worldwide. The best-known of the many "geysirs" here is Strokkur, which erupts every 8-10 minutes, blasting scalding water up to 100 feet (32 m) in the air! Continue to Gullfoss ("Golden Falls"), one of Iceland's most iconic waterfalls. Then drive south to nearby Secret Lagoon, Iceland's oldest geothermal swimming pool, for an alfresco soak. Finally, as you head back to your hotel, you might stop at Kerid—a beautiful neon-blue lake within a red-ash volcanic crater.

Day 6: South Coast Waterfalls & Black-Sand Beaches

Black Sand Beach and Rocks of Reynisfjara
Black Sand Beach and Rocks of Reynisfjara

The scenic South Coast boasts many of Iceland's most famous attractions (and many offbeat ones) as you drive along Route 1, "Ring Road." Make your first stop at the iconic Seljalandsfoss waterfall, where, uniquely, you can walk behind the 200-foot-tall (60 m) cascade. Another 19 miles (30 km) brings you to Skógafoss waterfall, where after admiring the cascade from below, you can hike to the top and follow the Fimmvörðuháls trail to other waterfalls higher up. Also here, call in at the Skógar Folk Museum to peruse a heritage collection that includes a traditional turf farmhouse.

Continue east to the Dyrholaey cliffs and stone arch and black-sand beach of Reynisfjara, punctuated by sea stacks and the Hálsanefshellir Cave within a cliff of pentagonal basalt columns (puffins nest on the cliff-face). Then stop in Vik to visit the Icelandic Lava Show, which recreates a volcanic eruption with real molten lava (2000°F / 1100°C) pouring bubbling into the showroom. Finally, detour to Hjörleifshöfði, a promontory amid the black lava wash, to view the summit burial mound of Viking settler Hjörleifur Hróðmarsson (killed here in 875 CE). You'll overnight in Kirkjubæjarklaustur, a short distance beyond.

Day 7: Skaftafell Natural Reserve, Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon Amphibian Boat Tour

Touring Jökulsárlón by amphibious boat

Today, continue east along the Ring Road to Fjaðrárgljúfur Canyon, a snaking, moss-covered canyon easily accessed by a ridgetop hiking trail amid a surreal landscape seemingly from "Lord of the Rings." Further east, the landscape is dominated by Vatnajökull, Europe's largest glacier, which you'll explore with easy walks to the Skaftafellsjökull glacier tongue and a short hike to the picturesque Svartifoss waterfall, with its dramatic backdrop of surreal basalt columns.

Continue along the shore to Jökulsárlón ("glacial river lagoon"), a breathtaking coastal lagoon dotted with small icebergs. Here you'll explore amid the 'bergs on an exciting trip in an amphibian boat while learning about glacial processes and formation of the 1,000-year-old icebergs from your English-speaking guide. If you're lucky, you might see some seals swimming alongside or hauled out atop the electric-blue icebergs. Then, return to Kirkjubæjarklaustur to relax in your hotel's sauna or hot tub.

Day 8: Sólheimajökull Glacier Hike, Ferry to Westman Islands, Heimaey

Ice Climbing in Sólheimajökull
Ice Climbing in Sólheimajökull

This morning, an exhilarating glacier hike awaits as you head west via Vik and inland to the Sólheimajökull glacier for a three-hour guided group tour. You'll be outfitted with crampons and safety gear before stepping onto the glacier, which spills from the Mýrdalsjökull ice cap that covers the Katla volcano. It's only a short drive to the Landeyjahöfn wharf, where you'll catch a ferry to Heimaey for two nights in the Westman Islands. Keep your eyes open for whales and seals during the 45-minute journey: fin, minke, and humpback whales are frequently seen in summer, and orcas can be spotted year-round.

You'll have the afternoon to visit the Storhofdi cliffs at the southern tip of Heimaey, view the nesting puffin colony, and hike up and around the 660-foot-tall (200 m) dormant volcanic cone of Eldfell, created when a fissure opened up and erupted in 1973, decimating half the town. The Eldheimar Museum tells the story and is built around houses half-buried by lava. Although it looks like the lava flow stopped just short of the Stafkirkjan stave church, this was a gift of Norway in 2000 to commemorate the millennium of Iceland's official adoption of Christianity. 

Day 9: Explore Heimaey, Beluga Whale Sanctuary

View over Heimaey and Heimaklettur

For your second day on Heimaey (the only occupied island of the 15-isle archipelago), stroll west a short distance from town into the Herjolfsdalur valley, where cusped by the rim of an extinct volcano you’ll find replicas of the first farmstead built on Heimaey. In town, head to the SEA LIFE Trust Beluga Whale Sanctuary, where formerly captive beluga whales—Little White and Little Grey (rescued from an aquarium in China)—swim in a natural harbor lagoon. Your visit includes a tour of Iceland's only Puffin Rescue Center.

If you're feeling adventurous, for a spectacular view over the Vestmannaeyjar archipelago, hike to the summit of Heimaklettur, the island chain's peak (928 ft/283 m); note that the early section requires scaling three ladders to reach the trailhead. And you don't have to be a sudster to enjoy a visit to The Brothers Brewery, where a tour teaches about the brewing process and a tasting of its distinct beers, which include such local ingredients as seaweed. The balance of the afternoon is at leisure to relax in and around Heimaey, which has some excellent restaurants.

Day 10: Ferry to Landeyjahöfn, Drive the South Coast, Reykjavik

Sun Voyager Sculpture

This morning, take a ferry back to the mainland and drive west to Reykjavik. Choice stops you can make along the way include a two-hour round-trip hike to the wreck of a US Navy DC-3 that in 1973 crashed on the black-sand beach at Sólheimasandur (note: this is 20 mi/32 km east of the ferry wharf). And at Hveragerdi, you can divert a short distance up to Reykjadalur ("Steam Valley"), which is alive with bubbling mud pools, sulfurous fumaroles, and boiling springs. Don your swimwear under your clothes and hike the trail and boardwalk (one hour each way) to bathe in the thermal river.

This afternoon, explore downtown Reykjavik at leisure, focusing on those sites you may have missed on day one.

Day 11: Reykjanes Peninsula & Lava Tunnel Tour, Depart

Lava Tunnel Tour
Lava Tunnel Tour

Depending on the time of your departure flight, you can explore the moon-like lava landscapes of the Reykjanes Peninsula en route to the airport. The Mid-Atlantic Rift runs diagonally across the peninsula, making it one of the most seismically active parts of Iceland, with such geothermal areas as the world-famous Blue Lagoon and Fagradalsfjall volcano, where an eruptive fissure began pouring out lava in March 2021. A highlight is exploring the Raufarhólshellir lava tunnel on an hour-long guided tour. You can then walk across the Bridge Between Continents spanning the rift. The airport is not far.

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Map

Map of Iceland South & West Coast Highlights: Snaefellsnes Peninsula, Golden Circle & Westman Islands - 11 Days
Map of Iceland South & West Coast Highlights: Snaefellsnes Peninsula, Golden Circle & Westman Islands - 11 Days