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A Comprehensive Guide to South Iceland

21-04-2023

South Iceland

Iceland, the land of fire and ice, is known for its breathtaking landscapes, unique geological features, and unparalleled natural beauty. The South Coast of Iceland is home to some of the most stunning and diverse attractions in the country. From majestic waterfalls to serene black sand beaches, geothermal areas to charming towns, South Iceland has it all.

In this comprehensive guide, we will explore the best South Iceland attractions and help you create the perfect South Iceland itinerary for an unforgettable adventure.

South Iceland Geography and Climate Overview

South Iceland stretches from the South Shore to the South East and South West regions of the country. The area is characterized by a mix of coastal lowlands, volcanic mountains, glaciers, and vast lava fields.

Due to the influence of the warm Gulf Stream, South Iceland experiences a milder climate compared to other parts of the country. However, the weather can be unpredictable and change rapidly, so it's essential to come prepared for all types of conditions.

Best time to visit South Iceland

The best time to visit South Iceland depends on your preferences and interests. Summer (June to August) offers long days, warmer temperatures, and better road conditions, making it ideal for outdoor activities and sightseeing. However, this is also the peak tourist season, so expect larger crowds and higher prices.

In contrast, winter (November to February) is perfect for those seeking a more peaceful and authentic experience. While the days are shorter and the weather can be more challenging, you'll have a chance to witness the magical Northern Lights and participate in unique activities like dog sledding in South Iceland.

Spring and autumn are also great options for avoiding the tourist rush and enjoying beautiful seasonal landscapes.

South Iceland guide

How to Get There and Getting Around

Flights and airports

To begin your South Iceland adventure, you'll likely fly into Keflavik International Airport (KEF), the country's main international gateway. From there, it's approximately a 45-minute drive to Reykjavík, the capital city. If you're traveling domestically, you may also fly into Reykjavík Domestic Airport (RKV).

Car rentals and public transportation

Renting a car is the most convenient way to explore South Iceland at your own pace. Reykjavik Auto offers a wide range of vehicles to suit your needs, including 4x4s for more rugged terrains.

While public transportation is available, it's limited and may not provide access to all the attractions you want to visit. Be sure to book your rental car in advance to secure the best rates and availability.

Car rental in South Iceland

Road Safety and Driving Tips for Navigating South Iceland

Preparing for Your Journey

Before embarking on your South Iceland adventure, keep these road safety tips in mind:

  • Rent a suitable vehicle for your itinerary, considering the types of roads you'll be driving on (i.e., choose a 4x4 if traveling on F-roads or in winter conditions).
  • Familiarize yourself with the Icelandic road signs and traffic rules.
  • Make sure your vehicle is well-equipped with necessary safety gear, such as a first aid kit, spare tire, and reflective vests.
  • Monitor weather forecasts and road conditions before setting off each day.

Navigating Icelandic Roads

Icelandic roads can be challenging, particularly in rural areas and during winter. Follow these driving tips to ensure a safe journey:

  • Stick to the speed limits, which are typically 90 km/h (56 mph) on paved highways, 80 km/h (50 mph) on gravel roads, and 50 km/h (31 mph) in urban areas.
  • Be cautious on gravel roads and slow down when approaching other vehicles to avoid damaging your car or windshield.
  • Always yield to oncoming traffic when driving on single-lane bridges or narrow roads.
  • Be aware of sheep and other wildlife that may wander onto the road, particularly in rural areas.

South Iceland tips

Winter Driving Precautions

Winter driving in South Iceland requires extra care due to snow, ice, and limited daylight. Keep these precautions in mind:

  • Allow extra time for your journey, as driving in winter conditions can be slower and more challenging.
  • Use winter tires and ensure your vehicle is equipped with necessary tools, such as an ice scraper, snowbrush, and jumper cables.
  • Keep your headlights on at all times to improve visibility for yourself and other drivers.
  • Familiarize yourself with how to handle icy or slippery road conditions, such as steering gently and avoiding sudden braking.

By following these tips and taking necessary precautions, you can safely explore the incredible attractions and natural wonders that South Iceland has to offer.

Top Natural Attractions in South Iceland

Waterfalls

South Iceland is home to several stunning waterfalls, each with its own unique charm. Here are three must-visit waterfalls on your South Iceland journey.

Seljalandsfoss

One of the most iconic South Iceland attractions, Seljalandsfoss is a majestic waterfall cascading over a 60-meter (197 feet) cliff. What makes this waterfall truly unique is the pathway that leads behind the waterfall, offering visitors a 360-degree view and a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Don't forget to bring a waterproof jacket, as you're likely to get wet from the mist!

Skógafoss

Just a short drive from Seljalandsfoss, Skógafoss is another must-see waterfall. With a drop of 60 meters (197 feet) and a width of 25 meters (82 feet), Skógafoss is one of the largest and most powerful waterfalls in Iceland. If you're up for a hike, climb the staircase next to the waterfall for a stunning view of the coastline and surrounding area.

Gljúfrabúi

Also known as the "hidden waterfall," Gljúfrabúi is a lesser-known gem located close to Seljalandsfoss. The waterfall is partially hidden within a narrow canyon, and reaching it requires a short walk through shallow water. Adventurous visitors will be rewarded with an enchanting view of this secluded waterfall.

Waterfalls in South Iceland

Geothermal Areas

South Iceland boasts several geothermal areas with hot springs, mud pools, and fumaroles. These are two popular sites worth exploring:

Geysir Hot Spring area

Located within the famous Golden Circle, Geysir Hot Spring Area is home to the Great Geysir, which gave the name to all other geysers worldwide. Although the Great Geysir is currently inactive, you can witness the powerful eruptions of Strokkur, which spouts boiling water up to 30 meters (98 feet) into the air every few minutes. The area also features several smaller geysers and hot springs, making it a fascinating stop on your South Iceland itinerary.

Landmannalaugar

Nestled within the Fjallabak Nature Reserve, Landmannalaugar is a geothermal wonderland known for its colorful rhyolite mountains, lava fields, and hot springs. Actually, Landmannalaugar is not exactly in the South of Iceland, but in the Southern part of the Highlands region. Still, it is a perfect day tour from most towns on the South Coast of the country.

The area offers various hiking trails, including the famous Laugavegur Trek, which connects Landmannalaugar to Þórsmörk. After a long day of hiking, enjoy a relaxing soak in the natural hot springs.

Landmannalaugar, Iceland

Beaches and Coastlines

The dramatic coastline of South Iceland is home to unique black sand beaches and striking rock formations. Don't miss these two popular sites:

Reynisfjara Black Sand Beach

Located near the village of Vík í Mýrdal, Reynisfjara is a world-famous black sand beach surrounded by towering basalt columns and sea stacks. Be sure to check out the nearby Reynisdrangar sea stacks, which, according to Icelandic folklore, were once trolls that turned to stone. Remember to exercise caution and stay away from the water's edge, as the beach is known for its powerful sneaker waves.

Dyrhólaey Arch

Dyrhólaey is a small peninsula with a stunning natural arch, offering panoramic views of the surrounding coastline and the Mýrdalsjökull glacier. During the summer months, you might also spot puffins nesting on the cliffside. Make sure to bring your camera for some fantastic photo opportunities.

Black sand beaches south Iceland

Canyons, Glaciers and Ice Caves

South Iceland is home to numerous glaciers and ice caves, offering visitors a chance to explore the frozen beauty of the region.

Vatnajökull National Park

Covering approximately 14% of Iceland's landmass, Vatnajökull National Park is home to Europe's largest glacier, Vatnajökull. The park offers numerous hiking trails, glacier walks, and ice cave tours for visitors to enjoy. Make sure to book your tour with a certified guide for a safe and unforgettable experience.

Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon

One of the most stunning South East Iceland attractions, Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon is a must-see for any traveler. The lagoon is filled with icebergs that have broken off from the nearby Breiðamerkurjökull glacier, creating a mesmerizing landscape. Take a boat tour to get up close and personal with the icebergs, or simply enjoy the view from the shore. Don't forget to visit the nearby Diamond Beach, where icebergs wash ashore on the black sand.

Fjaðrárgljúfur Canyon

Fjaðrárgljúfur is a beautiful and dramatic canyon in South Iceland, stretching for about 2 kilometers (1.2 miles) and reaching depths of 100 meters (328 feet). A walking path runs along the canyon's edge, offering stunning views of the serpentine river below and the lush green moss-covered cliffs. It's a perfect spot for photography enthusiasts and nature lovers alike.

Fjadrarglufur canyon, Iceland

Charming Towns and Villages in South Iceland

South Iceland is dotted with quaint towns and villages that offer a glimpse into Icelandic culture and history. Be sure to include these charming destinations in your South Iceland itinerary.

Vík í Mýrdal

Vík í Mýrdal is a picturesque village located on the South Shore of Iceland and serves as an excellent base for exploring nearby attractions like Reynisfjara Black Sand Beach and Dyrhólaey Arch. The village is also home to the charming red-roofed Víkurkirkja church, which is worth a visit.

Selfoss

As the largest town in South Iceland, Selfoss serves as a hub for travelers exploring the region. The town offers a range of accommodations, restaurants, and shops for visitors, making it a convenient place to stock up on supplies or enjoy a nice meal. Selfoss is also close to several popular attractions, including the Golden Circle and Þingvellir National Park.

Hveragerði

Known as the "hot spring town," Hveragerði is located in a geothermally active area surrounded by hot springs, steam vents, and fumaroles. The town is famous for its geothermal greenhouse cultivation and offers visitors a chance to explore the Geothermal Park, where you can learn about the area's geology and even cook your own meal using natural steam.

Hvolsvöllur

Hvolsvöllur is a small village situated in the heart of South Iceland and serves as a gateway to popular attractions like Seljalandsfoss, Skógafoss, and Þórsmörk. The village also houses the Lava Centre, an interactive museum that showcases the region's volcanic and tectonic activity.

Vik, south Iceland

Cultural and Historical Sights in South Iceland

Þingvellir National Park

Þingvellir National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is a significant historical and geological site in Iceland. It's where the world's first democratic parliament, the Althing, was established in 930 AD. The park is also located on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates are slowly drifting apart.

Visitors can walk between the continents and explore the park's unique geological features, such as the Silfra Fissure, where you can snorkel or dive in crystal-clear glacial water.

Skógar Museum

Located near Skógafoss waterfall, Skógar Museum offers a glimpse into Iceland's cultural history. The museum features traditional turf houses, a church, and various exhibitions showcasing Iceland's maritime, agricultural, and industrial heritage. It's an excellent place to learn about Icelandic customs, traditions, and daily life throughout history.

Turf Houses and Traditional Architecture

While exploring South Iceland, you'll come across traditional turf houses, which were once the primary form of housing in the country. The turf houses are characterized by their grass-covered roofs and stone walls, providing excellent insulation against the harsh Icelandic weather.

Some well-preserved examples can be found at Keldur Historical Farm and the Árbæjarsafn Open-Air Museum in Reykjavík.

Skogar museum, South Iceland

Outdoor Activities and Adventure in South Iceland

Hiking Trails and National Parks

South Iceland offers numerous hiking trails and national parks for outdoor enthusiasts. From the challenging Laugavegur Trek in Landmannalaugar to the scenic trails in Þórsmörk and Skaftafell within Vatnajökull National Park, there are options for all skill levels. Always check the weather forecast and trail conditions before setting out and be prepared with appropriate clothing and gear.

Horseback Riding

Experience the Icelandic countryside on horseback and get to know the unique Icelandic horse, renowned for its friendly temperament and smooth gait. Numerous companies offer guided horseback tours throughout South Iceland, ranging from short rides for beginners to multi-day treks for experienced riders.

Snowmobiling and Glacier Hiking

For a thrilling adventure, consider snowmobiling or glacier hiking on one of South Iceland's many glaciers. Tours are available on popular glaciers like Mýrdalsjökull, Vatnajökull, and Langjökull, and are led by experienced guides who ensure your safety and enjoyment.

Whale Watching and Puffin Tours

During the summer months, head out to sea for a whale watching tour, where you may spot minke whales, humpback whales, and even orcas. Many tours also include the opportunity to observe puffins nesting on coastal cliffs. The town of Húsavík, in North Iceland, is known as the whale watching capital, but several companies operate from the South Coast as well.

Whale watching in Iceland

Wildlife and Birdwatching in South Iceland

Arctic Foxes and Reindeer

While less common than Puffins, it is possible to spot arctic foxes and reindeer in the wild in South Iceland. Arctic foxes, Iceland's only native mammal, are elusive and primarily found in the Hornstrandir Nature Reserve. However, you might be lucky enough to see one in the more remote parts of South Iceland. Reindeer, introduced to Iceland in the 18th century, can be found in the East and Southeast, particularly around Vatnajökull National Park.

Puffins and Other Seabirds

South Iceland is home to an array of bird species, with puffins being the most iconic. These charming seabirds can be found nesting along the coast from late April to August. Dyrhólaey and the Westman Islands are two of the best spots to observe puffins in their natural habitat. Other seabirds you might encounter include guillemots, razorbills, and kittiwakes.

Birdwatching Tips and Resources

To make the most of your birdwatching experience in South Iceland, consider the following tips:

  • Bring a good pair of binoculars and a field guide to help you identify different species.
  • Research the best locations and times of the year for observing specific birds.
  • Practice patience and remain quiet to avoid disturbing the birds.

Puffin watching in Iceland

Northern Lights Viewing Spots and Tips in South Iceland

Best Viewing Locations

South Iceland offers numerous locations to witness the magical Northern Lights or Aurora Borealis. Some of the top spots include:

  • Þingvellir National Park: This UNESCO World Heritage Site, located within the Golden Circle, offers minimal light pollution and stunning surroundings.
  • Seljavallalaug: This remote geothermal pool, nestled between mountains, provides a unique setting for Northern Lights viewing.
  • Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon: The icebergs in the lagoon create a breathtaking backdrop for the auroras.

Tips for Northern Lights Chasers

To increase your chances of seeing the Northern Lights, keep these tips in mind:

  • Visit between September and April, when the nights are longest.
  • Monitor aurora forecasts and cloud cover predictions.
  • Stay away from city lights to minimize light pollution.
  • Dress warmly and be prepared to wait, as auroras can be unpredictable.

Northern Lights south Iceland

South East Iceland vs South West Iceland: Which One is Better?

While planning your trip to South Iceland, it's essential to understand the differences between South East Iceland and South West Iceland. Each region has its unique attractions and experiences, making them both worth exploring during your visit.

South East Iceland

South East Iceland is characterized by its dramatic landscapes, including vast glaciers, ice caves, and glacier lagoons. Some of the most popular South East Iceland attractions include:

  • Vatnajökull National Park: Home to Europe's largest glacier, Vatnajökull, and offers numerous hiking trails, glacier walks, and ice cave tours.
  • Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon: A mesmerizing lagoon filled with icebergs that have broken off from the nearby Breiðamerkurjökull glacier. Don't miss the nearby Diamond Beach, where icebergs wash ashore on the black sand.
  • Fjaðrárgljúfur Canyon: A stunning canyon that stretches for about 2 kilometers (1.2 miles) and offers spectacular views of the serpentine river below.

South East Iceland

South West Iceland

South West Iceland is best known for its proximity to Reykjavík, the Golden Circle, and the South Coast's iconic waterfalls and beaches. Some notable South West Iceland attractions include:

  • The Golden Circle: A popular tourist route that includes Þingvellir National Park, Geysir Hot Springs, and Gullfoss waterfall.
  • Seljalandsfoss and Skógafoss: Two of Iceland's most famous waterfalls, both easily accessible from the Ring Road.
  • Reynisfjara Black Sand Beach and Dyrhólaey Arch: Iconic coastal attractions located near the village of Vík í Mýrdal. 

South West Iceland

South Iceland Itinerary

This detailed South Iceland itinerary will help you plan your adventure and ensure you make the most of your time in this breathtaking region:

Day 1: Golden Circle

  • Þingvellir National Park
  • Geysir Hot Springs
  • Gullfoss waterfall

Day 2: Waterfalls and Beaches

  • Seljalandsfoss waterfall
  • Skógafoss waterfall
  • Reynisfjara Black Sand Beach
  • Dyrhólaey Arch

Day 3: Vík í Mýrdal and Fjaðrárgljúfur Canyon

  • Explore Vík í Mýrdal village
  • Visit Fjaðrárgljúfur Canyon
  • Relax in Hveragerði's Geothermal Park

Day 4: Glacier Exploration

  • Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon and Diamond Beach
  • Vatnajökull National Park
  • Glacier walk or ice cave tour (optional)

Day 5: Outdoor Activities and Adventure

  • Choose from hiking, horseback riding, snowmobiling, or whale watching, depending on your interests and the season

Day 6: Cultural and Historical Sights

  • Skógar Museum
  • Keldur Historical Farm or Árbæjarsafn Open-Air Museum
  • Explore the town of Selfoss or Hvolsvöllur

This itinerary can be customized to fit your interests, time constraints, and travel style. Whether you prefer a leisurely pace or are eager to pack in as many things to do in South Iceland as possible, this beautiful region has something for everyone.

Where to Stay in South Iceland: Accommodation Options

Hotels and Guesthouses

South Iceland offers a range of hotels and guesthouses to suit all budgets and preferences. From cozy family-run guesthouses to luxury boutique hotels, you'll find comfortable accommodations to rest after a day of exploring. Be sure to book in advance, especially during the peak summer season.

Farm Stays and Cottages

For a more immersive experience, consider staying at a farm or renting a traditional Icelandic cottage. Farm stays often offer a unique opportunity to interact with local families, learn about Icelandic culture, and even participate in farm activities. Cottages provide a cozy and private home base for your South Iceland adventures.

Camping and Campervan Rentals

Camping is a popular way to explore Iceland, offering a close connection with nature and flexibility in your itinerary. Many towns and attractions in South Iceland have designated camping areas with facilities like showers and restrooms.

Alternatively, consider renting a campervan, which combines transportation and accommodation into one convenient package. Be sure to follow Iceland's camping regulations and always stay in designated areas.

Accommodation in South Iceland

South Iceland Cuisine and Restaurants

South Iceland offers a variety of dining options for travelers. From farm-to-table experiences to cozy cafés and fine dining, there's something to satisfy every palate.

Farm-to-Table Dining

Farm-to-table restaurants have gained popularity in recent years, offering travelers an authentic taste of Iceland's freshest ingredients. These establishments often source their produce, meat, and dairy products from nearby farms, ensuring top-quality meals. Some notable farm-to-table restaurants in South Iceland include:

  • Friðheimar Tomato Farm: Located near the Golden Circle, Friðheimar offers a unique dining experience in a greenhouse surrounded by tomato plants. Their menu features tomato-based dishes, such as tomato soup, pasta, and even tomato beer.
  • Efstidalur II: A dairy farm near Laugarvatn, Efstidalur II, offers delicious farm-fresh meals, including homemade ice cream made from their cows' milk.

Cozy Cafés

South Iceland is home to numerous cozy cafés where you can enjoy a warm cup of Icelandic coffee, homemade pastries, and light meals. Some popular cafés in the region include:

  • Kaffi Krús: Located in Selfoss, Kaffi Krús is a popular spot for both locals and tourists, offering a variety of sandwiches, soups, and homemade desserts.
  • Systrakaffi: Situated in Kirkjubæjarklaustur, Systrakaffi is a charming cafe serving homemade cakes, sandwiches, and local dishes in a cozy atmosphere.

Cafes in Iceland

Fine Dining

For those looking for a more upscale dining experience, there are several fine dining options in South Iceland, offering creative menus that showcase Icelandic cuisine. Notable fine dining restaurants include:

  • Sjávarborg Restaurant: Located in Höfn, Sjávarborg Restaurant offers a stunning view of the harbor and specializes in seafood dishes made from the freshest local catch.
  • Hotel Rangá Restaurant: Situated in Hella, this fine dining restaurant offers a seasonal menu of Icelandic and Nordic-inspired dishes, crafted from high-quality local ingredients.

Restaurants in South Iceland

Folklore and Legends of South Iceland

Elves and Hidden People

Icelandic folklore is rich with tales of elves and hidden people, believed to inhabit the country's natural landscape. South Iceland, with its dramatic scenery and rugged terrain, is particularly associated with these supernatural beings. For instance, the Álfaborg or Elf Rock, located in Borgarfjörður eystri, is said to be the home of the Elf Queen.

Trolls and Giantesses

Trolls and giantesses are also prevalent in Icelandic folklore. Reynisdrangar, the basalt sea stacks near Reynisfjara Black Sand Beach, are believed to be trolls that turned to stone when caught in sunlight. Another example is Skessuhorn, a mountain on the Snæfellsnes Peninsula, said to be the dwelling of a fearsome giantess.

Iceland's trolls and elves

The Best of Iceland is ‘Going South’

With its diverse landscapes, rich history, and unique culinary experiences, South Iceland has something for everyone. From the rugged beauty of South East Iceland to the iconic attractions of the South West, there's no shortage of things to see and do in this enchanting region.

Use this comprehensive guide to plan your journey, and be sure to sample the local flavors and delve into the area's storied past along the way. Your unforgettable adventure in South Iceland awaits.