currently living in Kleinwalsertal, Austria.
Iceland is a dream destination for many. A place where Earth, in forceful constant change through glacial and volcanic activity, fairly demands a place in the spotlight. We were very excited at the chance to experience her hard work first hand.
Our visit would certainly be intense. The many desired stops around the island had to be squeezed into a narrow time window, pushing us on almost regardless of weather and mood. With ten days to circle the Ring Road, and several hundreds of possible destinations on our itinerary, it's a challenge to stay focused on the single most important thing: To breathe in once in a while, and enjoy each moment before it has passed away.
But the journey was also intense in a more positive way. The incredible variety of nature took us by surprise - even after months of planning! Within a few days day one can move between tranquil fjords, immense crammed bird cliffs, powerful waterfalls, green pastures with grazing sheep and the occasional natural hot pot, and mountains of almost any color and shape. It is amazing - but too much at once will only lead to overwhelm.
We had the opportunity to visit Iceland in late May to June of 2018. May is too early to visit the Highlands, with the mountain roads still covered with snow and closed. Hence we were excited to learn that the Ring Road offers an astounding variety of things to see and do along its course - just look at our map with points of interests!
(The map isn't complete; it includes only the destinations that caught our attention, and it may contain incorrect information. And no, we did not visit all of them - I honestly think you would need months on the road for that!)
I had put a lot of effort into planning this trip. Maybe too much, but honestly, it wasn't easy with three people interested in "almost everything"! What ought to be in focus? Hiking in the fells was a given, as was walking along a crater rim or through the stinky steam of boiling hot springs and geysers. And hopefully take a few dips in hot pots, as the wonderful natural bathing pools in Iceland are often called. Bird-watching sounds like fun, too, puffins and all, although we're amateurs in the sport. Also, how affordable is whale watching? (Not affordable enough for us, unfortunately.) A cave tour? (Oh, so many to choose from!) And is Iceland any good for mountainbiking? (Turns out it absolutely is, if the weather allows, but getting the bikes along would be trickier!) By the way, should we bring our climbing gear? (It does seem possibly worthwhile!)
We decided to circle Ring Road 1 clockwise from Reykjavik. Skipping the bikes and climbing gear due to continued travelling after Iceland, we opted to do only hiking and sightseeing. Maybe, if we're unbelievably lucky, we may return with the bikes another day - but then it better be sunny.
In the gallery below, most of the places we visited are represented and narrated by captions, so I won't reiterate it all here. Just a quick travel recommendation: If you get the chance to travel the Ring Road of Iceland, be sure not to miss these favourite destinations: The active and easily accessible Hverir geothermal area, outlandish Leirhnjukur near Krafla, the impressive basalt columns of Hljóðaklettar, the mystical atmosphere of Asbyrgi, hiking to and visiting tranquil bays and fjords in the more remote east, and Reykjadalur with its hot, bathing friendly river and geothermal areas. There are, of course, many more worth highlighting...
Weather, snow and safety
May is off-season in Iceland. The month is more budget-friendly and less touristy than high season in June-August, but can be more challenging to plan. Buses to the interior usually start running in June, and even along the Ring Road there is a possibility of snow in May!
If you will be driving, it's a very good idea to always keep updated on the road conditions, and maybe on the opening of mountain roads. Read the guide on how to drive in Iceland, and this excellent highland driving guide if heading to the interior.
Hikers should know that many of the summits lining the Ring Road are snow-capped in May. You'll probably be alone if you go mountain hiking this time of year, and some areas are better just saved for summer (Hornstrandir). If you want to do a longer hike, you can add some safety by registering it with https://safetravel.is/.
Regarding weather, we had read that on average, May is the sunniest month in Iceland. Our experiences are anecdotal, but we did get a surprising amount of sunshine hours although the trip started with a great Icelandig storm. We probably had temperatures between 10 - 20 degrees C most days, and hail only once (during the storm).
Also note that many areas are still recovering from winter. Sensitive, popular areas may be closed for visitors. Keep updated. In places where the snow has only just melted, the green grass you see on photos online will be a dull brown, and birch forests might be coming into leaf or barely sprouting. We came in the time of sprouting, and would love to go back later in summer to see the land lush and the mountains more accessible.
There's no getting around the fact that Iceland is very expensive to visit these days. Given the country's popularity with tourists, and the need to offer infrastructure withstanding natural forces and protecting the sensitive natural environment, the high price tag is not fully incomprehensible - and some expenses are motivated for their value. If you can afford to, support the local communities. If not, budget travel is not impossible!
Staying in campings is in some ways easier, as you don't have to book a year in advance (often you don't have to book a site at all). We spent most nights in campgrounds or bivouaced (where that is allowed, and following strict no-trace principles). A few nights with bad weather were eased by youth hostels, which can offer cooking facilities that help reduce costs. With transportation, sharing a rental car with others is cheaper than tickets for long distance buses. And last but importantly, by careful planning you become your own guide around Iceland - pick out the raisins of the cake, do it all in your own time, and save a lot of money!
The interior of Iceland can't be reached by an ordinary car – you will need a 4×4 vehicle and good driving skills in order to travel safely there. But even for a roundtrip along the Ring Road, we found that renting a 4WD is worth the cost unless always sticking to the Ring Road. Not only can road conditions vary significantly under ideal circumstances, but the infamous Icelandic weather can make driving a challenge even on tarmac. Also, having the freedom to do your own exploration, in your own time, adds so much to the feeling of spontaneous adventure!
Book online for the best price, and do include basic insurances. But look out for the most incredible bargains - we've read about people being fooled by a few tricky rental companies (beware the bad reputation of Green Motion, 4×4 Car Rental and Sad Cars, source).
As mentioned, for two or more people travelling together renting a car can actually be the most economic option, since long distance bus passes are very expensive. On the other hand, specialized busses can in some places go in terrain where a smaller 4WD car cannot! If you want to go to the same stops that the buses offer, and have the possibility to start and end a journey in different places, eg. for long hikes, a bus pass may be the right option. It depends on the desired itiniery. Note, though, that some of the buses only operate in high season, which is quite short in Iceland!
We cooked our own food in hostel or campground facilities or on our gas stove. To keep costs down, bring what you need from home to increase self-sufficiency, buy only the provisions you actually use, and be flexible about the types and brands of groceries. We were surprised to find a few food items cheaper than at home, like chia seeds and canned beans. The price tag of most other foods make you want to live on chia seeds and canned beans for the duration of your vacation. All dairies, charcuterie and meat, cakes and bread… really, most edibles are expensive compared to European supermarkets. On a positive note, several supermarkets in Iceland offer "less-than-perfect" fruit at a discount - a great idea to reduce both the consumer price and food waste! Well done, Iceland.
Secret note: If you drink coffee, bring a cup with you to the store! You'll be surprised at how often supermarkets and gas stations offer the black gold, sometimes even for free, but the price is always reasonable. Just be decent about it and only fill the cup if you are a customer in the store.
- German: reisewut.com - A true treasure for travel preparation
- Reddit Wiki for visiting Iceland
- Our POI map (google the destinations and you'll have enough to do for months!)
- Road conditions map
- Opening of mountain roads and other travel info
- Cycling map
- Map in high detail by National Land Survey of Iceland
- Buses how-to by Lonely Planet
- Camping in Iceland
Palettes of black and white to vibrant earth colors. Landscapes barren and remote, yet alive, constantly reshaping through glacial and volcanic activity. Steaming fumaroles, bubbling pools and spouting geysers reveal the ceaseless activity beneath the thin crust of Earth. Iceland's landscapes are both bizzare, humbling, and uniquely stunning.