How To Do Iceland's Ring Road In A Camper Van: Part 1 - Reykjavik, South & Southeast Iceland

Guys. Let's talk Iceland.

It’s for sure the most naturally beautiful place I’ve ever been. Every turn in the road led you to a new vista – lava fields opened to fields of purple wildflowers as far as the eye could see, to steep basalt cliffs shrouded in fog with waterfalls crashing over the edge, to open valleys with tangled mountains streams.

It was incredible. 

My husband and I were there for a week with my sister-in-law and brother-in-law, and took a camper van around the Ring Road, a highway (sometimes a gravel road) that goes around the island, taking you by the majority of the major spots. Since it's summer and near the arctic circle, we basically had 24 hours of daylight, so we were able to squeeze a lot in. If you don't mind hiking at 10 pm and a few long drives, you can definitely do most of the Ring Road in a week.

We shared a bunch of our trip on insta-story, where I got a ton of questions about traveling by camper van from people going to Iceland, so I thought along with a part 1 of our recap, I’d share some of the logistics of our trip too.

Airline: Wow air FTW. We flew direct out of Baltimore and tickets were cheap ($350ish round trip). Everything else costs extra though, so be sure to pack light, bring food, and be okay with possibly sitting next to a stranger.

Camper Van: We rented from Snail, a family-owned business that was the first in the Iceland camper van game. Although our van was a little bit older and smaller than my SIL and BIL's, who went with Happy Campers, ours came with everything you need included. If you feel like driving around with Chuck Norris on the side of your van (wouldn't blame you), I'd go with Kuku Campers. Also, we named our van the Land Yacht. 

The Land Yacht & G-Unit

The Land Yacht & G-Unit

Food: In Iceland, food is really expensive. Like, $30 for a bowl of soup expensive. So what's nice about having a camper van is you can do breakfast and lunch in the van, not waste any outdoors time in a restaurant, and spend more money on a nice dinner. While $30 basic hamburgers is totally insane, we found really amazing restaurants with $40-60 entrees, which is a lot, but not compared to a crappy gas station sandwich at $15-20 or $30 OK pizza. 

Camper Van Essentials: Stock up at a Bonus before leaving the city. We go eggs and toast for breakfast; bread, cheese, deli meats, and mustard for lunch sandwiches; snack foods - skyr, granola, apples, peanut butter, cheese, Icelandic flatbread, and brought a bunch of Square (use AvocadoADay for a discount) and Health Warrior bars; for dinner we picked up pasta, pesto, canned beans, cherry tomatoes, and olives for nights we didn't want to go out; olive oil for cooking. If you're drinking, pick up wine, beer, or liquor at the Duty Free in the airport, because it's pretty pricy. We also rented wifi from Trawire, which was great for navigating and regular instagram updates. Also, melatonin. 

Camper van breakfast! Scrambled eggs and tomatoes with toast! 

Camper van breakfast! Scrambled eggs and tomatoes with toast! 

Where to Stay: There are camp sights ALL over the island, but if you're going in peak season (July and August), you may want to reserve ahead of time at some of the spots in the bigger towns (Vik, Hofn, etc). Otherwise, you just pull right in at any time. Because I know you're wondering, bathroom/shower quality varies, but none were terrifying. 

Language: Everyone we ran across spoke English, but all the names of sites and towns are in Icelandic, which is a challenge to pronounce. Remember that volcanic eruption in 2010? My motto? Just say it like Kanye - with Konfidence. 

What to Pack: I think I did a pretty good job not overpacking and still being warm. Here's what I brought:

  • 2 pairs thicker black leggings
  • 2 pairs thin leggings (for layering with jeans when it was cold and for sleeping)
  • 2 pairs jeans - bring hiking pants too if you have them (I didn't)
  • 3 sweaters
  • A few different long sleeved shirts (a flannel, a running zip up, 3 long sleeved t-shirts)
  • 4 t-shirts and tank tops for layering
  • Puffy vest
  • Hoodie for hanging out in the van at night
  • A zip-up running jacket
  • Wool hiking socks and regular running socks
  • Hiking boots (THESE are amazing
  • Comfy running shoes for hanging out at the campsite. 
  • Flip flops for the shower
  • Gloves, hat and scarf 
  • A warm jacket (a quilted down jacket is perfect)
  • A thin rain jacket you can layer on top of your thicker jacket (sometimes it rains and it's not super cold, so it's nice to have a thin jacket too)
  • Quick dry towel
  • Good lotion (hello dry skin!)

What not to pack: A straightening iron. Just don't. 

Day 1: Reykjavik to Þingveller National Park

Our overnight flight landed in Reyjavik around 5 am, so by the time we picked up our bags, took the hour long bus ride into the city (you can rent luggage storage at the bus terminal), we were ready for a nice, hearty breakfast, and more importantly, coffee. We stopped at Bergsson Mathus, the cutest little cafe right in Old Reyjavik. The breakfast menu was really simple, but everything was perfectly prepared - extra crispy bacon, soft boiled egg, juicy fresh fruit, salad, THE BEST BREAD I'VE EVER EATEN. Seriously, I could only eat bread and skyr butter in Iceland and be totally ok with that. 

All the good stuff: soft boiled egg, fruit, cheese, skyr and raspberry parfait, salad, crispy bacon, THE BEST BREAD EVER

All the good stuff: soft boiled egg, fruit, cheese, skyr and raspberry parfait, salad, crispy bacon, THE BEST BREAD EVER

With full bellies and a combination of caffeine high and sleep deliriousness, we set off to explore the city. Reyjavik is super walkable - despite being the capitol and largest city in Iceland it's only got 200,000 something residents, so it's perfect for exploring on foot. We walked by Tjornin, a pretty park lined pond, up to Old Reyjavik city square, then to visit Harpa, the concert hall and the most stunning building architecturally. Then we wandered along the waterfront and made our way to Hallgrimskirkja, the massive white concrete church. Around that area, there's a few really nice shopping streets, so we did a little shopping to beat the rain. Along the way we snagged a famous hot dog at Baejarins Beztu.

Harpa

Harpa

Shopping with Hallgrimskirkja in the background

Shopping with Hallgrimskirkja in the background

Icelandic hot dogs are kind of a big deal. This coming from someone who is really not into hot dogs. They're made with lamb and pork, and topped with ketchup, remoulade, sweet mustard, raw onion and fried onions. 

Icelandic hot dogs are kind of a big deal. This coming from someone who is really not into hot dogs. They're made with lamb and pork, and topped with ketchup, remoulade, sweet mustard, raw onion and fried onions. 

We shopped our way towards Old Harbor, stopping at Cafe Haiti for the best cup of coffee in Iceland. We looked at boats, then ate lunch at Icelandic Fish & Chips, where you can choose from different catches of the day, and different dipping sauces for your fish, all made with skyr. 

Fried cod and pollack with garlic roasted potatoes, mango and coconut salad and roasted chili and truffle tarragon skyr dip. 

Fried cod and pollack with garlic roasted potatoes, mango and coconut salad and roasted chili and truffle tarragon skyr dip. 

We did a little museum-ing after lunch. We're history nerds so we skipped the Phallological Museum (real thing) and went to the Reykjavik 871 +/- Settlement Museum to see the ruins of the oldest manmade structures in Iceland, and the National Museum. Highly recommend. 

Then it was off to pick up the camper van, meet up with Caroline and Neil, Scott's sister and her husband, grab groceries and hit to road for Þingveller National Park (that Þ is pronounced "th"). The park is set where the North American and European tectonic plates meet (you can even go diving between them in at the Silfra fissure in the park's Þingvallavatn lake). We went to the lake and looked through the crystal clear waters into the fissure, then walked along the massive rift over the valley, which is dotted with waterfalls and historical sites, everything from the 1930s Prime Minister's summer house to AlÞingi, the site of Iceland's first assembly (and the world's longest running assembly) started in 930 A.D. We finished our day with a 10 pm (still daylight!) hike to this gorgeous little waterfall running over the edge of the rift. 

Day 2: Geysir and Gulfoss to Vik

We spent our morning and early afternoon exploring the Golden Circle, an area that's inland a bit from the Ring Road, but has a lot of the more popular tourist sites. We started at Geysir, a hillside spot dotted with geysirs and hot springs. Then we drove down the road to Gulfoss, Iceland's most famous waterfall. Don't forget a rain jacket! We were soaked from the waterfalls mist! What's really cool about Gulfoss is in the distance over the flat plains that surround it, you can see mountains covered with a massive ice cap - we thought it was just clouds at first! They have a pretty big visitors shop (as does Geysir) with lots of food and pretty nice shopping. We stopped for a cold Einstock beer and a bowl of their famous lamb soup (which you can get second helpings of as we discovered - damn straight for a $30 soup!)

Geysir at Geysir

Geysir at Geysir

Gulfoss

Gulfoss

Lamb soup was perfect after getting cold and soaked at the waterfall!

Lamb soup was perfect after getting cold and soaked at the waterfall!

After lunch we took a detour towards Þorsardalur, another area inland from the Ring Road, where we visited Hjalparfoss, a pretty little waterfall, and Stong, the ruins of an old Viking farmhouse that was buried in ash from a volcanic eruption in the 1100s. You need a 4X4 to get there. It was insane how many details they knew about the life of the farmer who lived there - like, in what other country would you know about the life of a 10C Viking farmer?? For my fellow Game of Thrones nerds, behind the farm, you can walk a couple kilometers to Gjain, a lush little volcanic valley filled with waterfalls where Arya and The Hound scenes were filmed, but we unfortunately didn't have enough time. 

Hjalparfoss

Hjalparfoss

It was a bit of a haul back to the Ring Road, but once we were there, we hit up two of the big waterfall sites off the road, Seljalandsfoss, a huge rainbow shrouded waterfall you can walk behind, and Skogafoss, where you can see the unpronounceable volcano that exploded in 2010 looming above. If you go in June, driving along this area you'll see fields of Alaskan lupine, a purple wildflower, as far as the eye can see (sad news, just googled the name and apparently despite being gorgeous it's an invasive species...boo). 

Seljalandsfoss

Seljalandsfoss

Seljalandsfoss

Seljalandsfoss

Skogafoss

Skogafoss

We drove the rest of the way to Vik, the town we were spending the night. We got dinner at Sudur-Vik, a cute little Icelandic restaurant in an old house overlooking town. I got their seafood stew, which tasted delicious but was a bit skimpy on the seafood, and a side salad, then we ate like seven breadbaskets with butter because I'm telling you guys, the bread and butter in Iceland is LITERALLY THE BEST EVER. 

After dinner we visited Reynisdrangur, a crazy looking black sand beach where volcanic sea cliffs meet the ocean, forming caves and these spiky black basalt columns that look like steps. You can also see Dyrholaey, a massive sea arch, across the small bay. 

Day 3: Southeast Iceland - Skaftafell to Hofn

It was a rainy morning, but thankfully cleared up a quarter of the way through our morning hike in Skaftafell in Vatnajokull National Park. Vatnajokull is the largest ice cap outside of the poles. You can explore it on tours, but because of time constraints, we decided to stick to Skaftafell, a hiking area at the base of the mountains that hold in Vatnajokull. There's lots of waterfalls and great views. We hiked to see Svartifoss, a waterfall over the same hexagonal basalt columns we saw at the beach. Then we continued our hike up to Sjonarsker, a spot with the most incredible views of the ice cap and surrounding farmland. The skies were beginning to clear, so we hung around awhile soaking in the views and taking somewhere in the range of 3,482 pictures. 

There's a cute little food stand near the visitors center selling langoustine soup and fish and chips, so we grabbed a bowl of soup to enjoy with our sad camper van sandwiches. It was so delicious and creamy, but again, kinda greedy with the langoustine (don't worry, we made up for the langoustine shortage that night). 

We spent the rest of the day exploring two glacial lagoons about an hour from Skaftafell, Fjallsarlon and Jokulsarlon. Although they're gorgeous, both are formed from rapidly retreating glaciers, offshoots of Vatnajokull that used to go up all the way to the Ring Road. Now there's a huge lagoon filled with icebergs that have broken off the glacier and float in a meltwater lake. Fjallsarlon is smaller and the icebergs aren't as pretty, but it's more scenic and less crowded. Jokulsarlon is massive, and some of the icebergs are like, sink the Titanic huge - okay, maybe that's an exaggeration, but it's still pretty incredible. Some are bright white, others are streaked with ash from ancient volcanic eruptions, and others are this vivid shade of blue. While we were there, we saw the biggest iceberg in the lagoon split in half and flip over - it was the most incredible thing we saw the whole trip!

We then visited the beach across the road from the lagoon, where some of the smaller icebergs slip out through a small waterway out to the beach. It's crazy to see these chunks of ice floating in the water, then coming back on shore to finish their melt. Being the resourceful campers we are, we grabbed drinks and chipped off a few chunks of iceberg to chill them down. I know putting ice in your wine isn't very classy, but I feel like there is an exception for iceberg ice ;) 

We drove a little ways up the road to Hofn, where we were spending the night. It's this cute little waterfront town, famous for langoustine. We went to Pakkhus, restaurant built in an old fishing warehouse overlooking the harbor. It looks really casual, but the food is high class dining. You can see the red boat of the fisherman who catches their langoustine right out the window! We drank Vatnajokull beer (brewed with wild local thyme and water from the Vatnajokull ice cap) and had the most amazing three course meal. 

Local smoked fish appetizer: dill marinated trout on Icelandic flatbread with horseradish cream and smoked trout in a jar with sesame snow and wakame salad

Local smoked fish appetizer: dill marinated trout on Icelandic flatbread with horseradish cream and smoked trout in a jar with sesame snow and wakame salad

Salmon and shrimp with mashed potatoes, pickled beet and langoustine foam

Salmon and shrimp with mashed potatoes, pickled beet and langoustine foam

A pile of langoustine with garlic butter. Skip the pink sauce, garlic butter is SO much better. 

A pile of langoustine with garlic butter. Skip the pink sauce, garlic butter is SO much better. 

How can you not order something called a skyr volcano? Skyr mousse with poprocks, caramel, and meringue and blueberries.

How can you not order something called a skyr volcano? Skyr mousse with poprocks, caramel, and meringue and blueberries.

From there, we continued our trip through the Eastern Fjords, to the volcanic grounds in Northern Iceland, through Snaefelles Penninsula, and finally with a relaxing spa night at the Blue Lagoon, but I'll be back next week to share more about that! 

Have you been to Iceland? Any favorite spots in the city and South that we missed? Leave a comment because we're definitely planning to go back! 

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