The south coast of Iceland has some of the country’s best natural attractions. Towering cliffs and black-sand beaches. Epic waterfalls and glaciers. Cute small towns that have somehow managed to survive volcanic eruption after volcanic eruption. And of course, tons of Icelandic horses. In this post, I’ll cover the top things to see on an Iceland south coast tour — including the beaches and some of the most amazing waterfalls near Reykjavik.
If you visit Iceland in the darker winter months, you’ll have to set out on this trip and return in the dark. But in exchange, you’ll have the most beautiful golden light by the time you reach the first waterfalls, and it’ll last until you hit the road back to Reykjavik in the evening. The natural beauty you’ll see on an Iceland south coast tour really comes into its own when the sun is low. The volcanic landscapes are stunning and unlike anything you’ve ever seen before.
So without further ado, here are the can’t-miss stops on a road trip from Reykjavik to Vik on the south coast of Iceland!
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Beginning an Iceland south coast tour: Driving south from Reykjavik
One thing you have to accept when you decide to do an Iceland south coast tour is you’re going to spend a lot of time in the car/bus. Your day starts with a two-hour drive to the first major stop.
But car time in south Iceland is a feature, not a bug. The landscapes you’ll see as you drive are spectacular. Miles and miles of iconic moss fields. Geothermal vents spouting steam into the air. Iceland’s nickname, “the land of fire and ice,” will make total sense as you travel through this region.
Below the huge fields of moss are lava caves — you won’t see them from the surface, but if you’re with a local friend or guide, they can point out the entrances. (Never enter a lava cave on your own. Not only are they not necessarily safe, but you also might be followed by a troll, according to the locals!)
After about 45 minutes, you’ll come to a small town with lots of greenhouses. This area is one of the main agricultural centers in Iceland — they grow tomatoes and cucumbers indoors to avoid having to import all of their produce. From here, the road flattens out and the best views are toward the ocean. If the weather is clear, you’ll catch a glimpse of Eyjafjallajökull — the volcano that erupted in 2010, pouring ash into the air that grounded European flights for weeks and sparked a huge tourist influx to Iceland.
About 90 minutes out of Reykjavik, you’ll come to the town of Hvolsvöllur. You’ll find an N1 convenience store where you can stop for a restroom break or gasoline. Across the street is a Kronan supermarket — pick up lunch here if you plan to have a picnic on your Iceland south coast tour.
Seljalandsfoss: The waterfall you can walk behind
Another 15 minutes of driving along the south coast of Iceland will bring you to the first major stop on this road trip: Seljalandsfoss.
Seljalandsfoss is most famous as the waterfall with a cave behind it. This allows visitors to walk 360 degrees around the waterfall, catching the view from behind. But even without the cave, it’s still one of the most spectacular Iceland waterfalls. The water crashes 60 meters from the glacier at the top of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano.
Seljalandsfoss is one of the most photogenic waterfalls in Iceland. As such, it’s extremely popular and usually quite crowded. Try to arrive as early or late in the day as possible to capture the best photos without dozens of other tourists.
Also note that in the winter, the path that goes around Seljalandsfoss is often closed due to ice. Even when ice is not a problem, the path is very slippery and wet. Take your time, be careful, and don’t take any stupid risks to get a photo.
At all times of year, you should wear a waterproof jacket when you visit Seljalandsfoss. You should also take measures to protect your camera and phone — the mist is pretty intense behind the falls, and your electronics will get soaked. Consider a waterproof phone case or, at a minimum, hide your camera in your jacket until you’re ready to snap a photo.
If you have some extra time before continuing your Iceland south coast tour, you can follow a short path to another waterfall — Gljúfrabúi. This cascade is completely inside a cave and a bit hidden away, so it sees far fewer tourists. Just be forewarned that you will get absolutely soaked — waterproof gear is a must!
Skogafoss: The waterfall hiding treasure
Shortly after you leave Seljalandsfoss, you’ll see another of the most spectacular south Iceland waterfalls from the Ring Road. This is Skogafoss, another 60-meter glacial waterfall worth stopping for.
Skogafoss is extra-special in Icelandic folklore. Locals say the waterfall hides buried treasure. It’s also beloved for the rainbows that usually form across the top on sunny days; my guide referred to it as the “magic waterfall.”
You can go right up to Skogafoss, but prepare to get soaking wet. Photo opportunities are just as good from the drier viewpoints a little further back.
Once you’ve seen it from below, it’s time to climb the 300 steps to get a view from above — the most exercise you’ll get on this tour of the south coast of Iceland! The climb is tiring, but worth it when you reach the top. You can often see more than one rainbow from up here.
Like Seljalandsfoss, Skogafoss gets quite crowded with tour groups. Aim to arrive early or late in the day if you want solitude. Around 4 pm in winter, you’ll encounter few crowds and be able to watch the sunset from here.
Sólheimajökull: Hike on a glacier
Iceland’s glaciers are retreating at heartbreaking rates. Climate change has been hard on these natural wonders, and the summers have become so warm that glacial melt is overtaking their ability to recover during the winter.
In other words, if you’ve ever wanted to hike on a glacier, do it during your visit to the south coast of Iceland — before they’re gone.
The most accessible glacier hike on an Iceland south coast tour is Sólheimajökull. The starting point for the hike is just past Skogafoss, down a rough dirt road. (It’s well-signed from the Ring Road.)
You must have a guide for your glacier hike, who will provide you with crampons, other necessary equipment, and safety tips. Your guide will also inform you about Iceland’s glaciers and geology.
If you decide to book a glacier hike, it’ll add about three hours to your Iceland south coast itinerary. You’re better off breaking up the trip into two days in this case — or you’ll have to rush through the rest of the activities in this guide.
Vik: A cute small town with great views all around
Next on your south coast road trip, you have about a 30-minute drive to Vik. This is one of the largest towns in southern Iceland, but it still feels pretty small — just a few streets with houses and small businesses, an Icelandic wool factory, and a church.
If you’re visiting Iceland during the summer months, you’ll pass one of the prime puffin-viewing areas in the country on your way to Vik — the stone arch of Dyrholaey. If it’s open (only when puffins are around but not during mating season), you can easily see some of the adorable birds here.
Vik makes a logical stop for a lunch break on your Iceland south coast tour. If it’s cold/raining/windy outside, you can eat your packed lunch in the shopping center, where you’ll also find a couple of reasonably priced (by Iceland standards) cafes.
After you eat, take a walk down to the beach. You’ll visit a more scenic black sand beach later on, but you can still capture some nice photos of the rocks offshore. These rocks resemble huge trolls — in Icelandic folklore, the trolls spent each night pulling ships back out to sea to prevent them from landing. But they were eventually tricked into staying out until the sun rose, which turned them to stone.
If you want to break up your trip along the south coast of Iceland into two days, Vik is the most logical place to stay overnight. You’ll find accommodation options ranging from campgrounds to high-end hotels. The town also has gas stations, convenience stores, and supermarkets if you need to stock up on supplies.
Reynisfjara Black Sand Beach: The most beautiful beach in Iceland
The highlight of any Iceland south coast tour is last. Reynisfjara Black Sand Beach was one of the few non-tropical beaches to make National Geographic’s list of the world’s best beaches. And for good reason — the combination of basalt cliffs, black volcanic sand, crashing waves, sunset views, and intriguing rock formations is hard to top.
The black sand beaches are just a short drive — maybe ten minutes — from Vik. You’ll come to a very windy parking lot, from where you have to walk down a short boardwalk to reach the beach. Walk to your left and you’ll find a cave in the cliff and some of the unique “basalt stacks” in the cliffs. Further to the left are the “troll rocks” you could first see from Vik. To the right, you can see rock arches in the distance, just off the coast.
Be very careful when exploring near the ocean at Reynisfjara Beach. The beach gets so-called “sneaker waves” — waves that look small but end up being surprisingly large. At best, they’ll knock you over. But in combination with the dangerous rip-tide just offshore, they can cause serious injury and have even killed people. Look where the sand is wet, and stay further back than that at all times.
While Reynisfjara is crowded, you can easily escape the masses of people by walking further down the shore. While you might run into multiple tour bus loads right near the boardwalk, just a ten-minute walk down the beach you could be the only person around.
Reynisfjara doesn’t have many facilities — just a couple restrooms and a small (and pricey) cafe. If you need to stock up on snacks or gas, do it in Vik.
Back to Reykjavik – Or onward to the Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon
If you’re trying to cover the south coast of Iceland on a day tour, you’ll now need to start heading back to Reykjavik. It’s about a two-hour drive if you don’t make any stops. The route is just the reverse of the drive from Reykjavik to Vik — there is no way to do this trip as a loop. During the winter, you have a reasonable chance of getting a free Northern Lights tour on your way back if conditions are good.
However, if you have time on your Iceland itinerary, consider covering even more of the south coast by staying overnight in Vik. This will allow you to visit some of the most beautiful glacial scenery in the country.
The two biggest draws to this part of Iceland are the Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon and Diamond Beach. While it’s theoretically possible to visit both on a south coast day tour, you’ll end up spending 10 or more hours in the car or bus. If you break up the driving into two days it’s much more doable. While I missed out on this part of Iceland, other bloggers rave about it being the most beautiful area close to Reykjavik.
While you’re in the area, other stops include Vatnajökull Glacier and Vatnajokull National Park. You can also do an ice cave tour on the glacier if you’re traveling in the winter months (usually October through March). You must take a tour guide, as the ice caves are often unstable.
Most companies that offer day tours to the south coast also offer a two-day option if you prefer not to drive yourself.
The south coast of Iceland vs. the Golden Circle
If you only have a short stopover in Iceland, you may be wondering how to pack the most into your trip. Competing with the south coast for jaw-dropping landscapes and waterfalls is the ever-popular Golden Circle.
On paper, the two routes look quite similar. But I highly recommend that you do both if you have the time. The waterfalls on the south coast of Iceland look nothing like those on the Golden Circle. And the landscapes are actually very different. Skip the Blue Lagoon or Secret Lagoon instead, and pack in both of these trips.
However, if you absolutely must choose between them during your Iceland itinerary, I lean slightly toward the Golden Circle. The main reason is you’ll spend less time in the car/bus and more time exploring the attractions, while the south coast involves more driving time.
Self-drive or Iceland south coast tour?
You can do a road trip along the south coast of Iceland independently or with a tour company. It all comes down to personal preference and comfort level with driving abroad.
Most travelers are better off with their own wheels in Iceland. This allows you to go at your own pace and stop at additional places along the way. If you’re in Iceland in the summer during the midnight sun, this is definitely the way to go.
However, if you visit outside the summer months, consider your comfort level driving on icy roads, and driving in Iceland in the dark. A south coast road trip will require you to leave and return to Reykjavik after the sun has set. The weather in Iceland can be very unpredictable, especially in winter. If the idea of driving through freezing rain in the dark seems unappealing, take a tour.
I booked a minibus small group tour because I was nervous about driving in Iceland in these conditions. I was afraid it would feel package-tour-ish and be overcrowded, but it honestly wasn’t that bad. It was also nice to have a guide who talked extensively about the geology, history and folklore at each of our stops.
However you do it, visiting the south coast of Iceland is sure to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Pack your camera — you won’t be able to stop snapping photos!
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