Home to striking black beaches, tremendous waterfalls, fascinating lava caves and a glacial lagoon that is the stuff of the Arctic dreams of intrepid explorers, Iceland’s southern region receives the most number of tourists around the year, even in winter, when the rest of Iceland can feel remote and quiet. Its proximity to Reykjavik and ease of accessibility coupled with varied landscapes for those who’d like to see as much as they can in as little time as they’ve got have resulted in the availability of many operators who cater to this need.
Still, South Iceland deserves all the attention and is completely worth it if it’s your first time in the country. You can either drive the Ring Road and explore the sights on your own (except glacier hiking and the Glacier Lagoon which must be done with expert guides) or choose from one of the many tours such as this 2-Day Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon and South Coast Tour. This tour is run by my friend Ingo, who was kind enough to take me around the South Coast over two days and the itinerary includes most of the stops I’ve mentioned in this post (he’s a fun person to hang out with and I can highly recommend his tours).
If you’re visiting Iceland soon, whether in summer or winter, I hope this post helps you to plan your trip. I’ve listed the places below in the order that we visited them- driving from Reykjavik to Vik on the first day and driving back on the second day. I had a stroke of unfavorable weather and missed seeing the glacier lagoon, but I like to believe that there is always the next time.
Raufarhólshellir Lava-tube Cave
The Raufarhólshellir lava-tube cave in South Iceland is the third largest in the country and close to the Ring Road. There are four entrances to this 1360m long tube. As lava flows along a channel, like a riverbed, overflows along the sides of this channel may connect, expand (on cooling) and solidify to create a roof over the flowing lava. Over time, when the flow stops from the source, the last of the lava moves to the end leaving behind a hollow lava-tube cave such as Raufarhólshellir.
You can enter the cave from one of the entrances though this is easier in summer. I visited in winter and you can read here what it was like to enter the lava-tube during a snowstorm and see the unique lava formations. I don’t recommend this if you’re claustrophobic or have serious knee or back injuries. Watch the video below:
Sólheimajökull Glacier Hike
A popular choice for glacier hikes on the south coast, the Sólheimajökull glacial tongue is part of the Mýrdalsjökull glacier, below which lies the sub-glacial volcano Katla that last erupted in 1918. The landscape is spectacular with geological features such as ice formations, ridges and deep crevasses sculpted by the glacier. The hike is moderate and doesn’t require any technical skills but you can’t hike on the glacier unless you’re on a guided tour. Crevasses are invisible under a thick layer of snow and the ice can be unstable in certain parts- only the experts know which parts of the glacier are safe to hike on.
You’ll be provided with crampons to walk on the ice and an ice axe. A glacier hike on receding glaciers like this one is an excellent way to get some perspective on the issue of climate change- something that most people don’t think about in their daily lives. Not to mention that hiking on a glacier as you watch the sun move across the sky casting shadows on the snow is an incredible experience.
Seljalandsfoss and Gljúfrabúi
A sight to behold, Seljalandsfoss drops 60m from a cliff top into a stream below. A ledge runs behind the waterfall and it’s possible to walk behind the curtain of the waterfall and see it from a unique perspective with the sun shining through the cascading water. If you decide to do this during winter, it’s best to have spikes on your shoes as the spray from the waterfall on the snow and ice makes the path slippery.
A short walk away is the secret waterfall Gljúfrabúi concealed by a canyon. Just follow the sound of the waterfall, stepping on rocks as you wade through a narrow opening to find it and you won’t be disappointed. Look up to see the 40m high waterfall gushing into the gorge as light streams into the opening. It’s best to wear a warm waterproof jacket and boots as the spray in the enclosed space can leave you (and your camera) soaking wet.
If you haven’t heard of the Eyjafjallajökull volcanic eruption that made headlines around the world in 2010 and brought airports across Europe to a standstill, you must have been living under a rock. The eruption, in many ways, made people sit up and take notice of Iceland, a country where the force of nature is not to be underestimated.
The incident also featured in one of my favorite movies- The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, in a hilarious scene where a confused Ben Stiller stands looking at a blaring horn in the village alerting residents to the eruption. A car drives up to him and a local man urges him in Icelandic to get in. He asks him what’s going on and where everyone is and the man replies in Icelandic, his face stressed and serious before he answers with a sense of urgency, “Erection erection,” before he calms down with great effort to say, “Er-rup-tion!” Watch the scene:
Today, you can visit the Eyjafjallajökull Visitor Center, on a farm that was affected by the eruption. Watch the short film screened here that depicts the incident and after effects on the area and the family that owns the land.
On Nov 21, 1973 a United States Navy Douglas Super DC-3 airplane was forced to land on Sólheimasandur’s black sand beach after the pilot switched to the wrong fuel tank leading him to believe he had run out of fuel.
Thankfully the crew survived, but the airplane’s fuselage was abandoned. Today the site is one of Iceland’s most photographed locations. The last I heard was that in recent weeks the landowners have restricted access for tourists.
This is one of those sights in Iceland that has been made famous by tourists and photographers, but even as recently as five years ago it was hardly ever visited by anyone. It is kind of in the middle of nowhere but it’s worth stopping at (only if you have access so check before you go). The wrecked airplane makes for a dramatic subject on the barren beach- at least that was how it looked when I visited in winter with the beach covered in snow. This site also recently featured in an Indian Bollywood movie song, yes the kind where the actors dance around in scenic locations and it was hilarious to see the actors pose on top of the wrecked plane, hardly a location for romance.
Iceland’s southernmost village of Vík, also the rainiest in the country, is usually highly booked in summer and with good reason. The quaint village is lovely, offers accommodation in guesthouses, hostels and a campsite, has a beautiful church and is close to other must-see spots on the south coast such as Reynisfjara, Dyrhólaey and Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon making it a convenient base. Activities such as snowmobiling, dogsledding, ice climbing, salmon and trout fishing, horse-riding and boat trips in the glacier lagoon can be booked here.
A beautiful black sand beach, Reynisfjara is a popular stop on photography tours in South Iceland. Perhaps the most unique feature of the beach is the stack of basalt columns on one end that are struck by massive powerful waves. At the Western end of this beach, the Reynisdrangar sea stacks reach out from the ocean- trolls trapped in time by the first rays of the sun while they attempted to drag a ship to land with less than noble intentions.
The area is a known spot for puffin watching. Smooth shiny black pebbles lie strewn on the beach and the strong waves are both awe-inspiring and fatal. After an accident that led to the death of a tourist, visitors are advised to be more careful and not venture too close to the ocean.
The stone arch at Dyrhólaey, best seen from Reynisfjara, is an impressive natural formation on the south coast next to a barren rocky plateau that is also home to a lighthouse. Here strong winds threaten to carry you off the plateau and the views over the black beach and the Atlantic are breathtaking. The area is a nature reserve rich in bird life and also features in an important Icelandic saga- Njal’s Saga.
Standing in front of this 62m high waterfall cascading from a rugged cliff into dreamy mist will always be a special memory for me- this is where I saw my first rainbow ever! Legend has it that the first Viking settler at Skógar stashed a chest of gold coins in a cave behind the waterfall. Some versions go on to suggest that a man found the stash. I don’t know if there really was or is a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, but seeing my first rainbow at the age of (I could tell you but I won’t) felt like a great reward.
Secret Lagoon, Flúðir
This locals’ favorite hot spring is a great way to end your South Coast trip and provides all of the relaxation minus the crowds of the Blue Lagoon.
Geysers and geothermal vents, meadows and a greenhouse surround the area. The lagoon itself isn’t very big but if you arrive early or very late in the day, you might have it to yourself. If you’re lucky you might even get to watch the Northern Lights while you soak in the comfort of the warm spring. Changing rooms and shower facilities are available as is a bar and restaurant.
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Planning a trip to Iceland? Read about the wildly beautiful Snaefellsnes Peninsula in West Iceland, what to do in Reykjavik, day trip to Landmannalaugar and why visiting in winter is a great idea. For general information to help you plan, visit my Iceland Travel Blog or my packing list for Iceland.