The best day trips in Iceland with a rental car – Where to stay in South Iceland and what to do

Northern lights in Iceland

Taking day trips with a renal car from a single base location is a great option for many visitors to Iceland. But there are several things to consider when choosing between staying put or moving between multiple hotels during your trip in Iceland.

The pros and cons of taking day trips in Iceland

Pros

  • Great if you have a family or don’t want to pack and unpack each day
  • If driving a car you’ll avoid having to pay for expensive day trips by coach
  • You can keep your plans flexible each day
  • You may get a discount at your accommodation if booking several nights
  • There are so many great places to visit within a short drive in the South of Iceland
  • You can change your plans if the winter weather closes any road

Cons

  • Fuel costs can add up if you rack up the miles
  • You may find yourself having to backtrack on some days
  • It’s possible to spend lots of time driving if you visit places far afield
  • Road conditions can become tricky during the winter months

Should I rent a car in Iceland?

Whilst there are plenty of options for those that wish to take organised trips, hiring a car is ideal if you want to have the flexibility to travel independently and explore places off the main tourist trail. There’s not much public transport in Iceland outside of Reykjavik, so if like me you aren’t a fan of being bussed around with large groups of other tourists, then hiring a car is the way to go!

Outside of Reykjavik the roads are extremely quiet and driving in the Icelandic landscape is a fantastic experience. Whilst you may start the day out with a plan to visit a specific place, sometimes just taking an unplanned detour to check out a viewport, village or just to explore is half the fun. You can’t go wrong with hiring a car in Iceland.

To find cheap rental cars in Iceland from Keflavik airport I would recommending visiting autoeurope.co.uk.

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What type of car should I hire in Iceland?

Having visited the country on many occasions I would definitely say that a 2WD car would do fine for the average first time visitor. Many of the main sights will be accessible with any standard car. However you may feel more comfortable renting a 4WD if you plan to visit Iceland during the winter to give you that peace of mind, especially faced with possible snowy or icy roads.

Check out my other post to find out what’s it like driving in Iceland and top tips when renting a car.

Lada Niva in Iceland.  Renting a 4WD in Iceland.

What time of year should I go to Iceland?

Iceland is truly a year round destination, however you don’t go to Iceland to experience great weather.

In the summer the weather can be a mixed bag, but you won’t have to worry about the road conditions most of the time. This will make those longer day trips much more achievable. Temperatures may average around 15 degrees on a good day, and you’ll see a mixture of sun, wind and rain. You’ll also have near enough 24 hours of daylight to work with in the peak of the summer season.

Winter roads in Iceland

In the winter it’s a different story. The weather certainly has the potential to force you to change plans. Some winters can be mild and rainy, but others cold and snowy. Conditions can change very quickly, so you need to be prepared to adapt and rethink your plans. Temporary road closures are fairly common place if there is heavy snowfall. This makes having a base location a great option as you won’t have the worry of needing to make it to your next hotel each day.

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Where to stay in South Iceland? Choosing the best base location.

South Iceland is blessed with an array of accommodation options depending on what takes your fancy.

It’s quite common for the first time visitor to base themselves in Reykjavik, the capital of Iceland. You’ll have no trouble finding something that suits your budget, and many of the best sights are within a drive of here. Booking.com has plenty on offer.

However if the city isn’t your thing then I would recommend considering booking a holiday home either in the countryside outside of Reykjavik or in some of the small surrounding towns and villages.

I found that the area around Thingvellir National Park was a great option. You have some small villages and shops within a short drive to stock up on supplies, will be surrounded by beautiful countryside and closer to some of the best sights in Iceland. You’ll also be able to take a day trip to Reykjavík if you want to check out what the city has to offer. There are lots of accommodation options on booking.com.

What are the best day trips in Iceland?

You will have no problem finding a great place to visit for the day. But your choice will depend on how far and how long you are willing to drive.

The following is not a comprehensive list but should cover most of the best options for you in South Iceland. The driving times have been based on the assumption that you’ll be staying outside of Reykjavik in some of the areas I have suggested.

The Blue Lagoon (< 1 hour driving)

The Blue Lagoon, Iceland

No visit to Iceland is complete without a visit to the famous Blue Lagoon, a large geothermally heated pool where you can easily spend hours relaxing. Located a short drive from Keflavik Airport on the Reykjanes Peninsula, it’s possible to combine a trip here either just after your flight lands or just prior to departure. However you’ll need to book online in advance. Tickets don’t come cheap these days either, but if its your first time in Iceland then its a must do in my opinion.

Fagradalsfjall volcano (< 1 hour driving)

After months of earthquakes, in March 2021 a volcano began erupting on the Reykjanes Peninsula not far from the village of Grindavik. Whilst the volcano itself may have since stopped erupting, there are several hiking trails that take you to the site of the eruption where you’ll be able to see the freshly solidified lava and formations. Just east of Grindavik there are designated car parks where you’ll be able to start your hike. There are some helpful information on visitreykjanes.is.

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Krysuvik geothermal area and Lake Kleifvartn (< 1 hour driving)

Krysuvik geothermal area, Iceland

Located just a few minutes drive from the Blue Lagoon and Grindavik, Krysuvik is a fascinating geothermal area of bubbling muds pits and steaming pools. There is a free car park located right beside it and marked footpaths through the area. I would recommend driving here via Lake Kleifvartn where the volcanic landscape is stunning and even more impressive in winter snow. You should be able to combine a trip here with a visit to the Blue Lagoon on the same day.

Reykjavik (< 1 hour driving)

Reykjavik church

If the city is your thing then Reykavik is worth a visit. It has much more of a small town feel than most ofter capital cities in the world, and certainly has plenty to offer. From fantastic architecture, independent shops and an array of restaurants, you can easily fill a day here. You’ll also be able to take a range of boat trips from the harbour and I would definitely recommend taking a whale watching tour.

The Golden Circle – Thingvellir National Park, Geysir and Gulfoss (1 to 2 hours driving)

Oxarafoss waterfall Iceland

This Golden Circle is another must do if it’s your first visit to Iceland and it makes the perfect day trip. Thingvellir National Park is where you’ll be able to see where the North American and European tectonic plates are moving apart, and even walk between them. Geysir is the name of the most famous of the Icelandic geothermal area where you’ll be able to see the Geysir erupting boiling hot water every 10 minutes or so. And Gulfoss is the name of a huge and impressive waterfall further west. Whilst you’ll probably see a lot of other tourists on this trip, it’s not one to miss.

Snaefellensess (3 hours each way)

Snaefellsnes Peninsula is located in the far west of Iceland and north of Reykjavik. This would make a fairly length day trip with up to 3 hours each way. But if you start early and finish late then you’ll be able to have a great day exploring here. Snaefellsnes National Park is the location of a beautiful glacier[-topped mountain which you’ll be able to drive up during the summer months with a 4WD. There are also several picturesque villages along the coast, and some stunning coastal landscapes.

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Waterfalls and beaches of the South Coast (2.5 hours each way)

Skogafoss waterfall in Iceland

You can easily spend a whole day driving the south coast of Iceland and checking out the many sights on offer. Setting off early you’ll easily be able to reach as far as the village of Vik which is set alongside a stunning volcanic black stand beach. Between your base and Vik are some fantastic and easily accessible waterfalls such as Seljalandsfoss and Skogafoss. The black sand beaches at Dyrhólaey and Reynisfjara are also must sees.

Snowmobile tour on Myrdalsjokull (2.5 hours each way)

Snowmobiling in Iceland

The huge glacier of Myrdalsjokull is hard to miss on the south coast, located near the village of Vik. Its here I would recommend considering a snowmobile tour on the glacier itself, or even a glacier hike. You’ll be able to do this year round, although I’d strongly favour doing it in the winter when the snow conditions will be great and you’ll be less likely to see rain.

The Secret Lagoon (< 1 hour driving)

If you want to check out the Blue Lagoon but don’t want to be amongst hoards of tourists, then the Secret Lagoon is a great option. Located near the village of Flúðir, It’s a scaled down version and a much smaller and more rustic experience but well worth a visit.

Blafjoll ski resort (< 1 hour driving)

Bláfjöll is a small mountain range in the southwest of Iceland, about 30 km from Reykjavík. There’s a great little ski resort here which suits a range of abilities and would make a great winter day drip from your base.

Langjokull tours (< 1 hour driving)

Langjokull is the enormous glacier located to the west of the famous waterfall Gulfoss. It’s Icelands second largest glacier and is an impressive sight. You’ll be able to take a range of trips on the glacier if you book through some of the a various companies. These include snowmobiling, glacier hiking and even visiting an ice cave.

Jokulsarlon glacial lagoon (5 hour each way)

Jokulsarlon glacial lagoon in Iceland

This is probably a bit of a stretch for most people, but if you don’t mind long drives then it’s just about possible to see the impressive Jokulsarlon glacier lagoon in a day. I was lucky enough to do this during the winter when the weather was perfect and road conditions ideal. It took about 4 to 5 hours each way, starting early and finishing late. But the lagoon really is one of the most impressive sights in Iceland and it’s difficult to take a bad photo there. You can also take a trip into the lagoon on an amphibious vehicle, although just wandering around taking in the scenery was enough for me.

Final thoughts

There are certainly plenty more other options for day trips in South Iceland, but the above list is a good start and covers the main sights. Perhaps consider splitting your holiday in two and having two bases, one near Reykavik and another further east? Either way, a single base certainly worked for me when I visited with my wider family and it’s something I would urge you to consider if you don’t want to be on the move with your suitcase every day.

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