Iceland’s South Coast is home to some of the country’s most beautiful sights. Majestic waterfalls, towering glaciers, sleeping volcanoes, peculiar lava formations, and striking black sand beaches make this area a must-visit destination for any traveler. History buffs will love touring the place where the first Icelandic parliament was held, as well as the numerous small museums along the coast dedicated to different aspects of Icelandic life.
The Ring Road, the country’s main highway (also known as Route 1) encircles the island—this is where you'll be driving while checking out the South Coast. If you're coming from downtown Reykjavik, take Route 49 east until you reach a sign that reads "1S": Route number 1 South.
From Keflavik International Airport, take Reykjanesbraut/Route 41 towards Reykjavik, turn right on Route 413, and drive east until you reach Route 1. Many of the South Coast's must-see attractions are along Route 1, but there are also several sites worth making a short detour for.
Sights and Activities
Hveragerði Geothermal Park Seljavallalaug
The small town of Hveragerdi was originally settled due to the abundant geothermal activity, and it now provides visitors the opportunity to experience the hot springs and more. The Geothermal Park is open every day in summer, and includes a natural clay foot bath, an underground geothermal oven (locals use it to bake famous black bread), and—of course—plenty of hot springs. Horseback riding and hiking on the area's many trails are also great options.
Check out Seljavallalaug, a pool constructed around a natural hot spring near the Laugará River. Deep in the mountains, it’s a great spot to get away from other tourists for a bit. To get there, take Route 242 from the Ring Road and drive until you reach the parking lot, then follow a path down the mountainside. For more info on hot springs in Iceland, take a look at this guide.
Thingvellir National Park
This is the birthplace of Iceland: In the 10th century, the Icelandic parliament was established here, which legitimized the nation. It also happens to be the site where the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates meet (you can walk across the divide on a footbridge).
The Silfra fissure, one of the best diving sites in the world, is also in Thingvellir. The incredibly clear water means fantastic visibility for viewing under-the-sea flora and fauna.
Fed by Langjökull glacier, Gullfoss waterfall is a majestic natural site that will leave you completely speechless. The towering cascade is 105 feet tall and the water plummets down in two stages. There is parking as well as a restaurant next to the falls.
Geysir Geothermal Area
No trip to the Golden Circle is complete without a stop at Geysir. This hot spring area is home to several boiling puddles of mud, but the crown jewel is a geyser which erupts every couple of minutes and spews hot water high into the air. There is also a newly opened small exhibition center where you can find out more about the geology and history of this fascinating place.
While this waterfall may not impress you with its height, its volume is a different story. Urriðafoss carries the most amount of water out of any other waterfall in the country. Located a mile or so away along Route 302, the waterfall is a short detour away from Route 1.
Hvolsvöllur is a small town located along Route 1 at about 62 miles (100 km) east of Reykjavik. History buffs should definitely visit the Saga Center, a museum dedicated to the early Viking settlements in Iceland and the fascinating world of sagas, medieval stories of heroic achievements, the most famous of which, the Njal´s Saga, took place this area. And those interested in geology should stop at the newly opened Lava Center, an interactive exhibition space that explains how volcanic activity and earthquakes led to the creation of Iceland millions of years ago.
Seljalandsfoss & Skógafoss
Selijalandsfoss is fed by water from the Eyjafjallajokull glacier, and visitors can literally walk behind the giant waterfall's water curtain on a path. Nearby Skógafoss is visible as you drive past on Route 1. At almost 200 feet high and 82 feet wide, it's more than impressive—and you'll want to stand at the bottom of the falls for a close encounter with its powerful spray. On a sunny day, you may even spot a rainbow in the mist.
If you still haven't had your fill of waterfalls (is there such a thing?), drive a little further along Route 249, where you'll eventually see the Gljúfrabúi waterfall on your right. It's partially hidden in a canyon but there is a path between the rocks that will lead you down. Make sure you are wearing good hiking shoes and water-proof clothing.
This open-air museum is like a mini village where artifacts related to Icelandic life are displayed in various buildings. There's a traditional turf farmhouse, schoolhouse, old-fashioned church— and even a hydro-electric plant. Visit and see how Icelandic people lived throughout history.
Sólheimajökull is actually an extension of Mýrdalsjökull glacier, and leads down to the sandy expanse of Iceland's coast. The surrounding rock formations are dramatic, shaped over millennia by the glacier. Unfortunately, due to climate change, it has been receding very quickly in recent years, but Sólheimajökull is still visible from the road. Take Route 221 to reach the glacier, but don't attempt hiking here alone or without proper equipment—there are plenty of guided tours available for a safe and fun experience.
Vik and Dyrhólaey
You don’t need to travel further than Vik and Dyrhólaey to see why the South Coast is Iceland's most popular region for visitors. Nature has created an enormous arch along the rugged coastline at Dyrhólaey, making for quite the eerie landscape, and Vik’s black sand beach is one of the most beautiful and unique beaches in the world. Legend has it that the three basalt rock formations that stick out of the sea are actually trolls who froze because they were caught in the morning sunlight.
Skaftafell in Vatnajökull National Park
Skaftafell is a scenic area that is now part of the biggest national park in Europe—Vatnajökull National Park. It is home to beautiful glaciers and the highest peak in Iceland—Hvannadalshnúkur. You could test your glacier climbing skills here or you can simply opt for an easy two-hour hike from Skaftafell Visitor Center to Skaftafellsjökull glacier. Half of the trail is paved and the rest is covered in gravel. There are many more trails that you can explore according to difficulty level and length. For a list, click here.
This area is also home to a few beautiful waterfalls that you can hike to. One of them is Svartifoss, about a mile away from the Visitor Center. The 65-foot tall waterfall is bordered by black basalt columns on both sides which makes for an eerie view. During the 45-minute hike to the Svartifoss, you will pass along three other falls, making for plenty of great photo opportunities in Skaftafell.
This strikingly blue glacial lagoon comes complete with enormous chunks of glittering ice, many carrying a resting seal or two as they float slowly by. Boat tours are available here, a great way to experience the beauty of Jökulsárlón.
A popular tour in this area in the winter is the ice cave tour inside Vatnajökull, the biggest glacier in all of Europe. And don’t miss the nearby black sand stretch of coast, dotted by blocks of blue ice that lend to its apt nickname: Diamond Beach.
Planning Your Itinerary
How much time should you spend exploring the South Coast? it really depends on how many sights you’d like to see. The major ones can be explored in a day—consider a self-drive day trip from Reykjavik or a guided tour of the highlights if your time is limited—but a three-day itinerary like this one will give you more time to take in the beauty of the waterfall, glaciers, and natural pools you'll encounter along your way. Five days to a week would be perfect if you’d also like to include some off-the-beaten-track locations and Jökulsárlón glacial lagoon as well as experiences such as dogsledding (which is available in the summer as well as in the winter!), horseback riding, and glacier climbing.
As far as when to visit, summer travelers will enjoy long days of daylight, perfect for those who want time to drive farther off the beaten path. It also means bigger crowds—in 2016 alone, more than 1.7 million tourists traveled to Iceland, with half making the trip between May and September. Winter days are much shorter (the sun sets around 4:30 pm)—keep this in mind when planning your adventure. This guide provides more information on seasons in Iceland.
Options for guided tours of South Iceland are almost as varied as the landscape itself. Super Jeep tours present a thrilling chance to get off-the-beaten-track in remote areas or see the most popular sights from a different perspective. This is especially fun in winter, when many smaller roads are closed to normal traffic (even with 4WD).
If you’d like to experience the beautiful Highlands, try a multi-day group hike, an exciting way to see this beautiful and less-visited region. A popular trek starts in Landmannalaugar, an area known for its colorful rhyolite mountains, to Þórsmörk, a mountainous nature reserve nestled between two glaciers. You can camp or stay in huts and cottages along the way—check out this article for more information about the region's fantastic Volcano Trails.
Another unique way to see the South (and truly avoid the crowds) is to take a helicopter tour over the magnificent landscape and Route 1's classic highlights. You usually have the option to add a landing to your itinerary as well!
Where to Stay
Since this is an extremely popular touristic area, there are plenty of lodging options, ranging from family-owned guesthouses to Airbnb listings and quaint hostels and hotels. A favorite stop is the small fishing village of Vik, home to Reynisfjara Black Sand Beach. It is located almost halfway between Reykjavik and Vatnajökull which makes it the perfect spot to explore the southeast and southwest areas. For a modern accommodation option, consider Iceland Air Hotel located just off the main road in Vik. The hotel’s sleek furnishings are inspired by the country's natural wonders, and the restaurant’s menu serves dishes prepared with local ingredients.
Midgard Base Camp in Hvollsvollur offers private rooms as well as bunk beds in shared rooms. The modern property is located in the village of Hvolsvöllur, about 62 miles away from Reykjavik—a great option if you plan on exploring the Highlands.
In case you are driving all the way to Jökulsárlón glacial lagoon, consider Fosshotel Glacier Lagoon, located just 18 miles west of Jökulsárlón along Route 1. The hotel has modern rooms, a sauna, and is completely surrounded by nature. Since it's positioned far from any light pollution, it is also a great place to witness the Northern Lights in winter.
Looking for something less traditional, more experiential? See this article with a roundup of Iceland's more unique lodging options.
Where to Eat
Restaurants and cafés abound on the South Coast where you can grab a bite and relax after a few hours of sightseeing. In Hvolsvöllur, don’t miss Gamla Fjósið, a family-owned restaurant located on a former farm. Their extensive menu includes soups, salads, burgers, and seafood, all prepared with ingredients sourced from the area.
Eldsto Art Café is another great option in the same region. The small café is on the first floor of a guesthouse and offers comforting Icelandic classics such as lamb soup and flatbread with smoked lamb, as well as international fare: burgers, panini sandwiches, and even nachos.
Fjöruborðið restaurant in Stokkseyri (38 miles east of Reykjavik) is famous for its excellent langoustine soup, the focal point of the menu. Or check out the Red House Restaurant in quiet Eyrarbakki, a small fishing town just a short detour south of Route 1. Located in a historic building, this eatery’s menu is unsurprisingly heavy on fresh seafood offerings. Don’t leave without walking around the village and taking in the beautiful coastal landscape.
And the craft brewery trend is very much alive in Iceland as well. If you are in the Sellfoss area, check out Ölvisholt Brewery, a microbrewery that offers six year-round on-tap beers and a few seasonal brews.