Top things to do in South Iceland
Updated: Oct 23, 2022
Iceland, known as The Land of Fire and Ice, is exactly that! Steaming geysers, plunging waterfalls, erupting volcanoes, black sand, blue glaciers; Iceland is truly like something from another world. Follow my itinerary below for an epic five day adventure in the most magical of lands, and the very top things to do in South Iceland.
A Note on Driving
The best way to see Iceland properly, at your own pace, is to road-trip it! We went in February, in the thick of winter, and so opted for the South section of the Ring Road/Route 1 (people do the whole Ring Road but we were limited for time and were also nervous to traverse the north of the Ring Road during the winter months). We were very lucky with the weather; although freezing, raining and windy, there were no snowstorms whilst we were there - so the visibility was excellent and driving was blissfully easy (be warned, it isn't always easy! Blog post to follow for tips on driving in Iceland). If you want that freedom of getting around at your own pace and having easy access to the top things to do in South Iceland, driving is the way to go!
We flew in to Keflavik International Airport and our first port of call was to collect our rental car from Orange Car Rental (we booked through rentalcars.com). We planned to use our phones and Google Maps to navigate around Iceland but we also paid a bit extra to rent a SatNav as well, as we'd likely be in places that couldn't pick up Internet connection (it's a good thing we did as there were times when Google Maps didn't work - especially with obscure-sounding Icelandic addresses).
Day 1: The Golden Circle
The Golden Circle is comprised of a few top-notch things to see: the main attractions being Þingvellir National Park, Geysir and Gullfoss. It is definitely the most popular route in Iceland and if you don't feel like driving, there are many tour options available. Renting a car though, will give you absolute freedom and allow you to visit other stops along the way - such as the Secret Lagoon and Bruarfoss. The Golden Circle always comes up high on any top list of things to do in South Iceland.
Þingvellir National Park
We headed to the Golden Circle straight from Keflavik International Airport and our first stop was Öxarárfoss in Þingvellir National Park. The waterfall was completely frozen and there was some guy scaling it with ropes - rather him than me (if you look closely at the photo on the left, you can see him near the top of the falls)! There are lots of hikes you can do in Þingvellir, and if you have time there is even snorkelling in nearby Silfra. There is also interesting history in Þingvellir as it is the sight of Iceland's first parliament.
This is one of the coolest things to see in Iceland and definitely one of the top things to do in South Iceland! All other geysers worldwide have actually been named after this specific one. Every five minutes or so, Strokkur shoots a jet of boiling hot water 300 metres into the air. There are other smaller geysers in the area but Strokkur is the most popular as it erupts regularly and usually very high. The water is boiling so stay safe and stand back.
Gullfoss represents sheer enormity; it takes up a massive area and there are two stages to the falls. It was particularly freezing here and I can honestly say I have never felt so cold in my life, before or since. To me, this photo exudes frostbite! Interesting history 🤓📚: in 1907 there were plans to use Gullfoss for a hydroelectric project that would eventually submerge Gullfoss. A woman by the name of Sigríður Tómasdóttir protested (at one point threatening to throw herself into the falls) and the plans never went through, thus saving Gullfoss! 🙌🏻
If you wish, you can continue on to Kerid Crater for awesome views of a volcanic lake. And you can then either finish your Golden Circle route by looping back to Reykjavik via the Blue Lagoon, or continue on to Seljalandsfoss and beyond, to complete some other top things to do in South Iceland.
It rained all morning on our second day - so the photos at Seljalandsfoss look pretty bleak. It was still a beautiful sight though and we had the falls mostly to ourselves. In the summer months, you're able to walk behind the waterfall which makes for some fantastic photos but in the winter it is too slippery and the path is closed.
Top tip: If you continue walking for another 10 minutes or so (along the path to the left of the waterfall), you'll reach Gljúfrabúi Waterfall which is inside a cave and pretty cool! The path here can get very icy in winter so make sure to have your crampons with you.
Next, we jumped in the car and made our way to Skógafoss - one of Iceland's most famous waterfalls, and with good reason. It is immense and leaves you feeling a teeny-tiny insignificant spec. It is definitely one of the top things to do in South Iceland.
The rain continued to pour as we skidded and slid along the path to Skógafoss (I wish I'd worn my crampons here!). We were unprepared for the scale of this waterfall - it is huge, powerful and gushing - and truly amazing to experience in any weather. You can see it from the road and, on sunny days, there's often a rainbow visible across it. If you're not too cold and wet, you can also climb the steps all the way to the top and get a good view from above the waterfall.
Sólheimajökull Glacier Tour
We knew we wanted to do a glacier walk and this one is only possible on a guided tour. You're able to walk up to Sólheimajökull Glacier unguided but to actually walk on the glacier itself, you need a guide, as well as appropriate equipment. We booked a guided tour with Arctic Adventures and they provided us with helmets, crampons, pickaxes and harnesses.
The tour was great and it was amazing to walk on an actual glacier! Luckily, by the afternoon it had stopped raining. Although we'd been muttering about the torrential rain all morning, this actually worked in our favour: the guide told us that it was the best view she'd seen of Sólheimajökull that year - the rain from earlier that day had settled on the ice, creating a layer of water which produced the most beautiful reflection of the glacier. Sadly though, Sólheimajökull is receding at an alarming rate each year due to global warming. It's a must see and one of the top things to do in South Iceland.
If you stay in Vik, this is the perfect last stop for the day, on the way to your hotel. The drive up to the viewpoint is steep and winding but the trip is worth it! There are two car parks - one at the lower point, and one higher up. If you can, I'd suggest driving all the way up as the views over the coast are beautiful, and you'll see a seemingly endless stretch of black sand, a lovely lighthouse, as well as the famous arch in the sea. The arch is 120m high and you can walk along it (this is actually where Dyrhólaey gets its name - literally meaning "the hill island with the door hole"). You can do a quick hike here, and in the summer months you might see puffins. As it gets dark, the view is slightly eery but very in-keeping with much of Iceland's landscape in winter.
The Black Sand Beach (Reynisfjara)
This! THIS! This beach is otherworldly and really one of the very top things to do in South Iceland - we drove here for sunrise but you can visit anytime of day. It is an ethereal place; the sand is black and the basalt columns loom hauntingly over the beach. If you can only prioritise a few places to see on the South coast, make this one of them. It is like nothing I've ever seen before. Be warned: the waves here are ruthless, so be sensible and don't get too close.
Skaftáreldahraun Lava Fields
On the drive towards Fjaðrárgljúfur Canyon, you'll pass through this endless expanse of very low, small hills which make up the Skaftáreldahraun Lava Fields. In the summer, there is a sea of green moss covering the lava boulders - but in winter, this is covered in snow, so the moss peaks out in places and this makes for a very beautiful sight! This wasn't a scheduled stop we had planned but there are several places to stop at along the way, so we parked in one of the parking spaces and had a wander around the fields.
It's a long name and an equally long walk! The canyon is just off the main road and there is a small car park nearby. The Fjaðrá river flows through the canyon (it was frozen over when we visited) and when walking along the top, there's an incline for much of the way, which is made trickier in the snow. The walk is about 2km along the marked hiking trail, and there are lovely views over the canyon from the various lookout points along the way - something to add to your list of the top things to do in South Iceland. You can also hike the canyon's floor by walking down but this would require serious waterproofs and probably shouldn't be attempted in winter.
Now would be a good time to stop of at Vatnajökull National Park, do some hiking and see Svartifoss. We were completely waterfalled out by this point and we figured it would be iced over anyway (quick check on Recent Instagram photos proved this to be the case), so we gave it a miss and headed straight to a glacier instead. If you do go to Svartifoss, the walk is approximately 45 minutes from the Visitor Centre in Skaftafell - and you'll pass by three other waterfalls on the way. If you have time, definitely make a stop in Vatnajökull National Park as it is considered one of the top things to do in South Iceland.
We drove to this glacier (along a very rough road, with rocks and potholes) and parked in the nearby car park. Svínafellsjökull was surprisingly empty and seems a bit of a hidden gem. It's something I'd consider one of the top things to do in South Iceland. There's a short walk you can do with beautiful views of the glacier, allowing you to get near enough to see the scale and blueness of it. It is really quite breathtaking and an easy and recommended stop on the way to Diamond Beach.
This place is otherworldly and needs to feature high on your list of top things to do in South Iceland! We raced to Diamond Beach (really called Breiðamerkursandur or Fellsfjara) for sunset and stood in awe watching as the light changed over this ethereal landscape. The black sand is covered with massive sparkling icebergs that have been washed ashore, and the result is a truly magical display. The beach is just across from Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon, which is worth a visit as well.
Blue Ice Caves: Vatnajökull National Park
Believe it or not, this was my initial reason for wanting to visit Iceland 😍 These caves are so cool; each year, new caves are formed so the experience is different every time. But they all have this mesmerising blue ice.
You have to book a tour for this one, as the caves aren't safe to enter on your own. We booked a three-hour tour with Extreme Iceland and I would highly recommend them. When you arrive at the starting point by Jökulsárlón Lagoon, there are loads of tours and it's quite confusing - so make sure you find the company you booked with. The tour will drive you in a snow-type-truck to the caves. Heads up: it is a VERY bumpy ride and can be quite nauseating. Tip: Iceland tours generally are expensive, so if you're on a tight budget, I'd say pick a couple of tours you really want to do and stick with those (and if seeing a blue ice cave is high on your list, then prioritise it). And for the rest, just drive and explore as much as you can yourself. I would add that this is one of my top things to do in South Iceland, so do check it out!
We spent the rest of Day 4 driving all the way back to Reykjavik to stay there for the last night of our trip. Now would be a good time to stop off at any places you missed along the way - or to revisit a spot you loved. We had planned to stop off at the very famous abandoned DC3 plane wreck on Sólheimasandur's black beach. It would have been an hour walk each way, and we simply didn't have time (we needed to return our rental car in Reykjavik by 6pm). It's also an extremely difficult walk in winter (when the weather is especially windy), there is no clear signage, and people do get lost on Sólheimasandur. If planning on hiking to the airplane wreck in winter, you should not attempt this without a guide.
Harpa Concert Hall
Once we'd arrived in Reykjavik, checked into our hotel and returned our car, we headed to Harpa Concert Hall - an architectural beauty (the design was inspired by Iceland's landscape)! Check the timetable for your dates as there are regular orchestras and theatre groups performing at Harpa. Even if there are no events scheduled, I'd recommend visiting anyway as it's an amazing building with colour-changing features on the walls inside, as well as lovely views of the city.
All eager and rearing to go, we had booked a sunrise slot at the Blue Lagoon Geothermal Spa (and paid for the transport there and back option as well). This meant waking up at 6.30am and chasing after a bus that had already left the station (our fault as we couldn't find the bus stop). When we did finally make it to the Lagoon, boy was all that running worth it! It was magical seeing the sky slowly light up, reflected in the milky blue of the pools below it.
The water is warm and soothing - a perfect activity for the final day of a trip to Iceland. The standard package includes a locker, towel, access to the Lagoon (and sauna/showers), amazing mud mask and also a free drink! And you can stay all day if you'd like 🤩 Just be sure to read the Blue Lagoon's important info before you visit (there's a high level of silica in the water, so do apply the conditioner provided before going in. The silica can also damage lenses in prescription glasses, so either don't wear glasses or just make sure not to submerge them).
Finally, we explored the capital city! It was weird to suddenly be amongst civilisation with no waterfalls around us. Reykjavik is on the coast and the views of the blue sea set against the white snow are really stunning. There's shopping to be done, coffee to be drunk and cool street art to see.
Notable things to see and do:
1) Hallgrímskirkja, the parish church. For ISK 1,000, you can climb the tower for awesome views of the city.
2) Harpa Concert Hall (more info above)
3) Street Art everywhere!
4) Buy a famous Icelandic woolly jumper (they cost a pretty penny)
5) See the Sun Voyager sculpture
6) Plenty of interesting museums (such as the National Museum of Iceland and the Settlement Exhibition)
Did we plan on seeing them? Yes. Did we book a tour in the hope that we'd see them? Yes. Were there any lights to be seen during our trip? Nope! Nada. Not a single beam graced the sky when we were there. We tracked the Northern Lights using an app and saw there were unlikely to be any that week - so we actually cancelled our tour in advance. The tours let you know the day of your tour if there are likely to be Lights that evening, and if not, they cancel your tour and give you a chance to join another tour during your trip. However, you could just end up losing money this way - if there are no Lights at all, you don't get your money back. And if you're anyway in the South of Iceland (away from light pollution), and there are Lights one night, you're likely to see the Northern Lights yourself. So if chances of seeing the Northern Lights are particular high when you're in Iceland, I'd say book a tour, as they'll take you to places you might not get to on your own. Otherwise, if the Lights aren't likely, just wing it and hope that you see them yourself!
And so that's it! Five crazy days in Iceland. Would I visit again? Most definitely.
Tip: Plan a rough itinerary but bear in mind that the weather in winter will play a big part on your day-to-day schedule, as well as the short daylight hours. Also, there will be many places you'll want to spontaneously stop at along the way - so make sure you allow for extra time.
Good luck planning your trip and let me know any questions/comments in the space below.