Iceland might be one of my favorite countries to visit in the world. Even though there has been a huge influx of tourism in recent years – in 2012 tourism became the country’s largest industry – it still feels relatively untouched and unspoiled. If you’re a nature-loving tourist or a landscape photographer, it just doesn’t get much better than Iceland. Here are my picks for the top 10 stops along the ring road in South Iceland.
After you visit the final stop on this list you can continue on the ring road to the East Fjords area or double back to Reykjavik. If you choose to double back, it’s a good idea to divide these sights so you see half in each direction.
The Golden Circle has several amazing stops (for more info check out my article on a 3-day stopover itinerary for the Golden Circle) and it remains Iceland’s most popular area for tourism. Why? In a relatively short amount of time, you can see impressive waterfalls, a national park, hot springs, and even an active geyser (picture below). That’s a lot of bang for your buck! It also helps that these sights are located conveniently close to Reykjavik, allowing you to book a Golden Circle tour through your hotel if you don’t want to rent a car.
That being said, Iceland has so much more to offer than the Golden Circle. So I highly suggest renting a car to see the rest of the sights on this list. After leaving Gullfoss in the Golden Circle, you’ll begin heading east.
2). LAVA Center
This stop is unlike the rest I’ve chosen to feature on this list – it’s the only one indoors! The LAVA Center offers an interactive museum experience that explains the volcanic and earthquake activity around the country. I didn’t have many expectations for this museum, but it totally blew me away. The experience is immersive and captivating, with 4D effects such as moving floors and surround sound audio cues. I was fascinated from beginning to end. Allow yourself 1-hour at this stop.
3). Seljalandsfoss Waterfall
The first major waterfall (after leaving the Golden Circle) on this list is Seljalandsfoss. This tall and slender cascade looks like it came straight out of a Tolkein book! In my opinion, it’s one of the most magical waterfalls in the world. In the summer, you can walk behind the falls for some extra stunning photographs.
About a half mile down the road from the Seljalandsfoss parking lot, you can find another beautiful waterfall inside of a mossy cave. The hike to the cave, I hear, is not accessible in winter. So I didn’t get to see this waterfall, but I hear it’s equally as stunning as her more popular sister.
4). Skogafoss Waterfall
I hope you’re not tired of waterfalls because just a little farther down the ring road you can stop for a close-up view of this huge cascade. Honestly, in winter, Skogafoss is even more impressive than Seljalandsfoss (because you can’t walk behind Seljalandsfoss in winter). The best time to visit is in the afternoon when the sun hits the falling water and creates a vibrant rainbow.
5). Sólheimajökull Glacier
There are so many glaciers visible from the comfort of your car in South Iceland, but it’s also worth stopping to get a close-up view of these blue beauties. Sólheimajökull offers glacier walking tours, which are totally worth the splurge, but you can also just park in the parking lot and take a quick 15-20 minute hike to actually touch the giant blue ice.
Please do not walk on the glacier unless you have booked a tour. It’s very very dangerous. People have died.
6). Vik Black Sand Beach
If you’ve never seen a black sand beach before, Vik will utterly delight you. The cone-shaped rock formations just out to sea create a ghostly effect. This is a good place to stop for gas or a bite to eat because after you leave Vik, South Iceland becomes very rural.
7). Svartifoss Waterfall
Iceland is not just the land of fire and ice, it’s also the land of water. So, yes, another waterfall has made my South Iceland highlight list! Unlike the previous two falls mentioned, which are located right off of the ring road, Svartifoss is only accessible via a one-hour hike. You access the falls from the trails behind Skaftafell visitor center in Vatnajökull National Park.
Svartifoss doesn’t have a heavy flow like Skogafoss, and it doesn’t offer the opportunity to walk behind the water like Seljalandsfoss, but it is surrounded by some impressive geological features. The cubic rock face is perplexing. Did Picasso design this waterfall? In my opinion, it’s definitely worth the trek.
8). Jokulsarlon Lagoon
Perhaps my favorite stop along the ring road in South Iceland is this beautiful lagoon full of huge blue ice blocks and happy sea lions. I could sit on the lagoon’s icy beach for hours just watching the animals feed and navigate the rough waters.
In the lagoon’s parking lot you can book a tour to visit an ice cave (see #10 on this list) and enjoy a lobster roll or fish and chips from one of the food trucks. In the summertime, you can take a boat tour of the lagoon.
9). Diamond Beach
Directly across from the lagoon, on the other side of the highway, you’ll find a parking lot to visit a beach that is unlike any other. Diamond beach features large blocks of ice that have washed up from Jokulsarlon lagoon. On a sunny day, this is a photographer’s dream! The light shines through the mini icebergs to create a prism effect.
10). Vatnajokull Glacier Ice Cave
Although it’s not a cheap tour, standing inside of an ice cave is a once in a lifetime experience. First, you’ll drive over the glacier in a massive 4X4 vehicle. Then you’ll descend into the beautiful crystal cave, which exceeded my expectations (many reviewers expect it to be enormous, but I was happy with my 30-foot cave). After visiting the cave, you’ll hike around the top of the glacier before heading back to Jokulsarlon Lagoon.
Total time for this experience is 3-4 hours. If you’ve never visited an ice cave before, this South Iceland stop should be at the top of your list.
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