6 Tips for Driving the Ring Road in Iceland

This past spring, a friend and I set out to drive the Ring Road (also called Route 1) in Iceland. This stretch of highway wraps around the main part of the island, so in theory it’s pretty simple to drive–you just stay on the same road the whole way around!

I’d never driven abroad before, and my friend didn’t have a license, so it was something of a learning curve. Nevertheless, it was an amazing way to take in the diverse landscape and natural beauty of Iceland, and well worth doing.

But it will be even more fun if you use these tips…

1. Rent an Appropriate Car

Though most of the roads in Iceland are nicely paved, there are stretches of unpaved road even on their biggest highway. Long parts of the highway are covered in only gravel, and you might find yourself roughing the terrain in a flash-blizzard (even if it’s June), up the side of a mountain, or in an area where you haven’t seen (and won’t see) a car or house for miles.

Alyssa Hollingsworth / Own Work
Alyssa Hollingsworth / Own Work

My friend and I were in a cute little city car with automatic drive. While it worked well enough (and obviously, since I’m writing this, we made the full ring) there were several tense moments, especially when Thorny the Brave (our car’s name) wheezed its way up the side of a mountain.

Case in point: We went clockwise around the Ring Road. If we had been going counterclockwise, I’m not sure we would have made it up one particularly steep, unpaved mountainside (luckily we just had to coast down at about 5 MPH while I cackled like a madwoman and my friend stared in numb shock at the plummet to certain death outside her window).

If you can drive shift, definitely go with that option. If you plan to go inland much at all, or want to take some shortcuts to cut off corners of the Ring Road, really consider learning shift. Really.


(Sidebar: Get the GPS with the storytelling component if you can! It’ll go off automatically when you are driving, and tell you some of the history and legends of the area you’re going through.)

2. Take Your Time

In its entirety, the Ring Road is about 830 miles long. As an American accustomed to road trips, I planned our itinerary with about 2-4 hours of driving every day so that we could do the whole route in five days. It sounded doable–and is doable–but by the time we came back to Reykjavik we were both more zombie than human.

At our stop-off in Jökulsárlón (a glacier lagoon), we made friends with a photography club who were doing the Ring Road in the opposite direction. They had blocked out two weeks for the entire route, including plenty of stops on the way that we’d had to rush through or skip. That’s the way to do it, if you ask me!

Arian Zwegers
Arian Zwegers

Give yourself more time. The trip becomes more flexible, fun, and spontaneous–and you can sleep in if you want!

3. Do Your Research

Iceland is full of mind-boggling attractions, from whale watching to glaciers to volcanic beaches.

To get the most out of your Ring Road trip, do a bit of Googling before you go. There are plenty of lists highlighting the must-not-miss locations along the highway.

With TripAdvisor, you can find some great lesser-known places–like caves with hot springs, boiling geysers, or bakeries where you can make your own bread by burying it in the hot ground. Just look up the towns or region you’ll be driving through and browse the reviews.

There aren’t a whole lot of signs on the road for attractions, so it’s good if you know the gist of what you want to see before you go.

Alyssa Hollingsworth / Own Work
Alyssa Hollingsworth / Own Work

(Tip: It doesn’t hurt to scope out a spa (or two) along the way to help work out the kinks from driving!)