Iceland Travel and Photography Guide

This is it, everything I learnt from my time in Iceland and I hope just one small snippet will make your adventure in Iceland magical and memorable. With wild places and photography locations at its core this guide will help you get the most from your time in this small and fiery country.

It was roller coaster of an adventure but it became easier the more time we spent exploring the country.

This is a guide to all the things I wish I had known before arriving in Iceland. Explore this amazing country of ice and fire as you plan your ultimate adventure. Find out where the best waterfalls are located, how to photograph ice and make friends with the local horses.

Summer and winter in Iceland are very different and this guide will focus on the summer months with a brief foray into winter visits.

Iceland has everything – deep fjords, rolling hills, geothermal pools, bubbling mud, whale encounters, arctic foxes, icebergs, glaciers, black sand beaches and thousands of unique locations to make lasting memories.

And if you are more of an armchair traveller, sit back and enjoy the galleries as you are transported to this unique country.


The problem with driving around Iceland is that you’re basically confronted by a new soul-enriching, breath-taking, life-affirming natural sight every five goddamn minutes. It’s totally exhausting.

— Stephen Markley

As Stephen Markley puts it – Iceland is exhausting. The roads exhaust you, the weather exhausts you and even the landscapes are exhausting, but it is amazing. Whether you have a stop over or a month in this country, its people, its wildlife and its story will leave you wanting more.


Highlights of Visiting Iceland

The whole of Iceland is a treat, but some places are extra special. If you just want the edited highlights then this is the place to start. Everywhere in Iceland is magical, but if you want special waterfalls or the best places to stay then these summary guides will tell you all you need to know.

Iceland is an island nation and the coast is protected by a wide range of lighthouses. All are found on the coast but many are inaccessible or need planning to reach them.

Each community has its own church and while many are functional some are unique in their design with stunning locations and a long history.

As well as waterfalls and churches, Iceland has a number of distinct geothermal areas where the ground steams and boils. These are spread around the country so wherever you end up visiting you will find somewhere to explore.

In conjunction with geothermal areas come volcanoes. The island is covered in fault lines and volcanoes, some of which are still active and erupt on a regular basis.

Glaciers are spread across the country and dominate the landscape in the south and east of the country. In the north, the glaciers are more discrete and take more of an effort to reach. In the south the glaciers can be seen from the main road and are extremely easy to access.


Icelandic Regions, Roads and Weather

Iceland is divided into 7 individual and unique regions. Maps of Iceland show the main regions, however these change depending on where you are looking and the information you are searching for.

  • South West and Reykjavík
  • South Coast
  • East Fjords
  • North Iceland
  • West Fjords
  • Snæsfellsnes Peninsula
  • Central Highlands

Roads in Iceland

Getting around Iceland is incredibly easy in good weather. Car hire is the easiest option and gives you the option to stop wherever you want (legally!).

The roads are empty for much of the journey and once you leave the Golden Circle the traffic volume decreases and once you head away from Höfn you feel as if you have the country to yourself.

When the weather is bad then everything takes much longer and you do need to ensure you check weather forecasts before going anywhere and check updates as you drive. You must follow local information and guidance. It can get deadly on the roads in the blink of an eye.

If driving is not for you then there are lots of organised tours and these will take you to some of the more remote regions without having to worry about driving or the weather. If you want to know more then read my articles about car hire, driving in Iceland and choosing a tour.

Distances and Driving Times in Iceland

We discovered very quickly that distances and driving times that were planned were fictional. A road that looks good on a map may take much longer to drive than anticipated even in good weather. The distances and times below are a rough guide to help with planning, but your own driving style, how many photography breaks you take and the weather conditions will all play a part in your individual journey time.

Reykjavík to Egilsstaðir 640km Minimum of 8hours

Reykjavík to Akureyri 390km 5hours

Reykjaviík to Höfn 450km 6hours

Reykjavík to Keflavík Airport 50km 1hour

Weather in Iceland

The weather in Iceland is infamous. It can change in a split second from sunshine to whiteout storm and there is nothing you can do about it. Planning is essential to survive the weather and make the most of it while you are visiting. Always check the weather forecast at the Icelandic Met Office and keep checking. Don’t look at the day as a whole, keep checking hour by hour, especially in the winter or when you are in the Central Highlands.

The time of your visit will also determine the weather you encounter. Snow is always present in the mountains and starts to arrive properly at lower altitudes in late August. This will stay until April when the weather turns warmer and spring arrives. The warmer summer months last from June to August but even during this time the weather can be harsh, cold and generally horrid.

Having the correct clothing for the weather is essential for safety and comfort. Even if you are travelling in the summer months you need to take layers and waterproofs as a bare minimum.


Planning a Road Trip to Iceland

While it is possible to turn up in Iceland and see what happens planning makes it much more relaxed. There is so much to see and do that careful planning will maximise your time in this unique country.

There are a number of factors that need to be considered, especially if you are visiting in the high summer season. There is a limited amount of accommodation in some areas, especially if you want a hotel room so you really need to book early. To be able to do this you need to have some idea of dates and how long it will take you to get from place to place. This is less of a problem if you are camping as the majority of sites do not take bookings, you just turn up and pick your spot.

Car hire is another thing that needs to be planned in advance. In the summer months cars are difficult to come by if you haven’t booked in advance. Make sure you book your car for the duration of your stay even if you don’t know what you will be doing or where you will be going. It is much easier to tweak your hire dtes than find a car when all the hire companies are fully booked.

Planning your route can take a while and factoring in tours needs to be done if there are specific things you want to experience. These sell out quickly in the summer and again in the winter months (aurora hunting and ice cave experiences) so it is better to book your tours and then work self drive adventures around your bookings.


Photographing Iceland – Kit and Tips

Photography is one of the many reasons that travellers come to Iceland and one of the reasons many return time after time. The landscapes are unique and the light is something spectacular. Even in bad weather conditions the landscape look beautiful.

Given the extreme weather conditions kit needs to be well looked after. It can be exposed to rain, ash, sub zero temperatures and salt water as well as everything in between. Taking time to find suitable covers will pay dividends in the field as will allowing lenses time to equalise to indoor and outdoor temperatures when it is cold outside.

You can photograph Iceland with everything from a phone through to the most expensive camera. It really doesn’t matter what you have with you, the landscape will allow you to make amazing photographs and memories.

Many of the key areas have designated parking and viewing areas. Make sure you follow instructions and don’t wander off the path. This is for your own safety in geothermal areas and preserves the environment in more sensitive areas. Travel and photography in Iceland really is sustainable if you make sure you think about what you are doing and where you are going.

Some unique skills are required when taking photographs in Iceland. Horses need care when being approached so they are not distressed, geysers erupt when they want to and so you need to be ready. Waterfalls and rainbows are everywhere but getting a true feeling of the moment is easier said than done.


National Routes, Parks and UNESCO Sites

Iceland is known for its beauty and landscapes and to make it easy to navigate a number of national parks and routes have been developed over the years.

The main road around the country Ring Road 1, is now seen as a tourist route by many. It offers a simple way to explore the main points of the country on mainly good roads with plenty of stops and breaks.

There are also a number of routes that are spurs from the Ring Road which allow you to explore different places at your own pace.

The busiest and most well known is the Golden Circle. This takes in waterfalls and stunning landscapes just a short distance from Reykjavík and the 300km route can be completed in a day, although there is more than enough to fill a week. It includes Þingvellir National Park, Geysir Geothermal Area and Gullfoss waterfall.

Less well known are the Diamond Circle around Mývatn in the north and the newly developed, remote and stunning Arctic Coast Way which meanders along the north coast.

Iceland has a number of UNESCO World Heritage sites and national parks which are well worth taking time to explore and include in your plans for visiting Iceland. These include Þingvellir, Vatnajökull and Snæfellsjökull as well as the island of Surtsey off the Westmann Islands. There are also areas known as geoparks at Katla and Reykjanes which have been identified for their unique geology.

National Parks in Iceland

UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Iceland

Tourist routes in Iceland

Geoparks in Iceland


South West Iceland and Reykjavík

The south west corner of Iceland is often overlooked. People arrive at the airport and head straight to Reykjavík. However this small corner is one of my favourite places in the whole country. It has some distinctive churches including the beautiful Hvalsneskirkja, unique lighthouses such as Garðskagi Lighthouse, the tallest in Iceland and a lot of geothermal energy at Seltún, Gunnuhver, Krýsuvík and of course the Blue Lagoon.

Beyond Reykjavík, this area also feels calmer and quieter than both the Snæsfellsnes Peninsula and the Golden Circle. There may not be big dramatic waterfalls but the geology is impressive and gives an overview of what is to come further north and east.

Places To Visit In The South West Of Iceland

  • Reykjavík
  • Hafnarberg sea cliffs
  • Garðskagi Lighthouse
  • Gunnuhver Hot Springs
  • Seltún Geothermal Area
  • Bridge Between Continents
  • Reykjanes Lighthouse
  • Hvalsneskirkja
  • Krýsuvík Geothermal Area
  • Kleifarvatn
  • Brimketill lava rock pool

Main Towns in the South West of Iceland

  • Grindavik
  • Reykjanesbær
  • Vogar
  • Hafnarfjörður 
  • Akranes

Roads And Driving In South West Iceland

  • The roads in this part of Iceland were some of the best and the most consistent. No unexpected gravel areas
  • Driving is easy but busy especially around Reykjavík. Even in the city it is easy with clear signs

Time Needed To Explore

  • Reykjanes Peninsula is a comfortable day of exploring from Reykjavík
  • Reykjavík is a long as you need. Three days was perfect but there was lots still to find even after three full and long days
  • Akranes and the surrounding area can easily fill a short day or be part of the journey north to Snæsfellsnes Peninsula and onwards to the far north

South Coast of Iceland

The south coast of Iceland is where many people end up exploring. It has well maintained routes, an abundance of attractions and plenty of places to stay. However, this means that it can be busy and isn’t always the true Iceland experience! If you want this in the south of Iceland then the Westman Islands or the coast near to Knarrorósviti is the place to adventure.

This part of Iceland is on the Golden Circle and so good planning is needed to make the most of your time here. Set out early and stay out late to make the most of the time that day trips are back in Reykjavík.

As with other areas of Iceland there is a little bit of everything. Massive waterfalls at Gullfoss and Seljalandsfoss, the impressive Geysir and expansive black sand beaches.

Places To Visit In South Iceland

The highlights

Main Towns in south Iceland

  • Selfoss
  • Hella
  • Reykholt

Roads And Driving In the south of Iceland

  • The roads in this part of Iceland were good but busy in places
  • Make sure you park sensibly and check out whether you need to pay for parking.

Time Needed To Explore

  • This area can be done as a day trip from Reykjavík
  • To really explore allow 4 days

South East Iceland

In the west of the region there is ice and glaciers at Vatnajökull National Park, a UNESCO world heritage area. Volcanoes grumble below the surface of this frozen landscape.

Main Towns in south East Iceland

  • Vík
  • Hof
  • Höfn

Roads And Driving In South East Iceland

  • Most roads are good although some away from Ring Road 1 are rough gravel
  • Ring Road 1 in south east Iceland is often closed in the winter months so check before travelling

Time Needed To Explore

  • This area is at least a days drive from Reykjavík so this needs to be factored into your planning
  • This area needs 2 to 3 days to explore properly

East Fjords

The east of Iceland is often forgotten to the more popular and easily accessible west. However, in the east tourists are fewer, the landscape is more gentle with deep fjords and green hills and an abundance of wildlife.

The population of this huge area in 2015 was 15,300. The largest town in the region is Egilsstaðir, with a population of 2,300. It feels big, but in comparison to other countries this is tiny. The oldest municipality is Djúpivogur. This small fishing port was given a trading licence in 1589 and currently has a population of around 500.

North of Höfn, the fjords start. With an abundance of lighthouses and small fishing villages it is one of the best places to see sunshine and coastline as well as puffins.

Main Towns in East Fjords

  • Djúpivogur
  • Seydisfjordur
  • Egilsstaðir
  • Vopnafjörður

Roads And Driving In East Iceland

  • Most roads are good although some on the peninsula are gravel tracks
  • Ring Road 1 in East Fjords is often closed in the winter months so check before travelling

Time Needed To Explore

  • This area is at least a days drive from Reykjavík so this needs to be factored into your planning
  • Once you reach Höfn allow at least three days to explore the east coast of Iceland

The North of Iceland

The north of Iceland couldn’t be further from the Golden Circle if you tried. Even Akureyri, the Capital of the North has a calm and laid back vibe, possibly helped by the red traffic lights in a heart shape! Tourists are fewer up here and some days you go without meeting any at all.

The newly formed Arctic Coast Way follows the whole of the north coast and includes small villages and vast beaches. Wildlife is prolific with seals hauled out on beaches and whales making the nearby ocean their home for a while.

If you want to get close to the Arctic Circle then this is where you need to be. Rifstangi north west of Raufarhöfn is the most northerly point of Iceland and is about 2.5 kilometres from the Arctic Circle. You can’t drive to this point but a road takes you to within 4km and then it is a walk along a remote and exposed coast.

The north is also home to Krafla, a volatile volcanic region with recent earthquake and volcanic activity. Fumaroles steam across the landscape and mud pools plop away in this geothermal region.

Places To Visit In the north of Iceland

Main Towns in North Iceland

  • Húsavík
  • Akureyri
  • Blönduós
  • Raufarhöfn

Roads And Driving In North Iceland

  • Ring Road 1 runs around the north but is inland. To see the coastline you will need to venture away from the main road
  • The roads along the coast are rough gravel and can be impassable in the winter months

Time Needed To Explore

  • At least three days to visit the area
  • The area around Krafla, Dettifoss and Goðafoss need two days
  • The Arctic Coast Way is a comfortable week of exploring
  • If time is limited consider flying to Akureyri

Westfjords

The Westfjords of Iceland are stunningly beautiful in a raw and remote way. The weather is extreme; even in the summer months the temperature can drop close to freezing and storms blow in reducing the visibility to nothing. However, when the sun is out (or even when the weather isn’t extreme) this area of Iceland is special.

It has a calm feel to it, volcanoes and geothermal energy seems a million miles away as the coast roads snake along deep fjords and pass through quiet fishing villages. The mountains plunge straight into the turquoise ocean with most roads balanced on a narrow shelf between mountain and sea.

This is the most westerly part of Iceland as well as the whole of Europe. There is nothing beyond here and the bird cliffs of Látrabjarg and Bjargtangar lighthouse are the last pieces of Europe.

Stories of sea monsters and trolls are a part of life in this corner of the world and it is easy to see how they came about and remain to this day.

Places To Visit In West Fjords

Main Towns in North West Iceland

  • Ísafjörður
  • Hólmavík
  • Patreksfjörður

Roads And Driving In West Fjords

  • Roads in this part of Iceland are variable and will swap from good and back again within a very short distance
  • There are long tunnels with forks so make sure you know which way you are going before you enter the tunnel
  • There are a number of steep mountain passes with tight hairpin bends. Not for the faint hearted!

Time Needed To Explore

  • Given the distance from Reykjavík the Westfjords need at least three days to explore even a small amount
  • To properly discover the area allow three days once you are there if not more

Snæsfellsnes Peninsula

The Snæsfellsnes Peninsula is an easy drive from Reykjavík and gives a taster of Iceland. It has volcanoes, a glacier, black sand beaches as well as abundant wildlife and photography stops.

Main Things To See On The Snæsfellsnes Peninsula

Towns on the Snæsfellsnes Peninsula

  • Stykkishólmur
  • Grundarfjordur
  • Òlafsvík
  • Arnastapi

Roads And Driving

  • Roads around the peninsula are all good
  • Some of the landmarks are off rough tracks but are possible in 2WD in the summer months
  • Road 54 circles the peninsula from Borgarnes which is on Ring Road 1

Time Needed To Explore

  • Very long day trip from Reykjavík
  • Two to three days make it a comfortable adventure

Central Highlands

The Central Highlands in Iceland are a chance to escape from the madness of the Golden Circle. Accessed through the network of ‘F-roads’ that criss-cross Iceland the area can only be accessed in a 4WD vehicle and even then the road conditions need to be checked before and during your adventure in Iceland. The other way to access this area is through hiking and group tours.

Main Areas of the Central Highlands

  • Landmannalaugar (The People’s Pool)
  • Thórsmörk (Thor’s Forest)
  • Dreki and Nautagil Canyon
  • Askja and Víti craters
  • Herðubreið Mountain
  • Hekla volcano
  • Kerlingarfjöll Mountains
  • Thjorsardalur Valley
  • Lakagígar (Laki Craters)
  • Aldeyjarfoss
  • Eldgjá Canyon
  • Hveravellir Nature Reserve
  • Langisjór Lake
  • Bárðarbunga Volcano

Towns in the Central Highlands

  • None!

Roads And Driving

  • 4WD needed for safe access
  • Roads are generally closed to vehicles from September through to June
  • River crossings are possible but need planning and experience

Time Needed To Explore

  • Minimum of three days for the west Central Highlands
  • Dreki, Askja Crater and Víti Crater need two days minimum from Mývatn or Egilsstaðir

Wildlife and Nature in Iceland

Iceland is bursting with wildlife. In the summer months the roadsides erupt in a rainbow of colours – lilac lupins, pink geraniums and white bog star. In the dry desert surrounding Askja mosses and lichens hang on to life while the river banks are full of marsh loving flowers.

Birds are abundant with some of the largest gannet, puffin and arctic tern colonies making the island their summer home. Snow buntings, pied wagtails, gulls and redwings are common and are bold in their advances. They are not bothered by visitors and can be cheeky on campsites where they have learnt about the gains that can be made.

The ocean around Iceland is home to seals, whales and dolphins making any coastal drive a chance for an encounter.

The only thing lacking in Iceland is mammals. Reindeer and arctic foxes are present but hidden from the busy tourist areas, but with time and patience they can be seen. Horses and sheep roam the landscape and can be bold, not afraid of cars or their passengers.


Iceland in Pictures

If you just want to kick back a browse the beautiful landscapes of Iceland then why not visit my galleries. These are a selection of my favourite places and moments in Iceland.