Road Trip from Reykjavik: Get a Taste of Icelandic Nature in Just One Day

Julia Wytrazek / © Culture Trip
Julia Wytrazek / © Culture Trip
Photo of Elise Morton
Former Commissioning Editor (eastern Europe)25 February 2020

Got a layover in Reykjavik? Follow this road trip itinerary through the Reykjanes Peninsula to explore some of Iceland’s awe-inspiring landscapes and discover local culture – all in one day.

While Iceland is certainly worthy of a lengthier stay, if time is of the essence, a visit to the Reykjanes Peninsula, south of Reykjavik, offers the chance to get a taste of Iceland’s famed natural beauty. This one-day road trip itinerary takes in volcanic rock formations, lakes, geothermal mud pools, some respite at the Blue Lagoon, and even a chance to spot the Northern Lights.

Stop off at the the Valahnúkamöl cliffs on a road trip around the Reykjanes Peninsula | © Elise Morton / Culture Trip


Explore Lake Kleifarvatn

Pick up your hire car and drive south of Reykjavik, making a stop at Reykjavik Roasters for an all-important coffee and pastry. In around 45 minutes (following Routes 40, 41 and then 42), you will reach Lake Kleifarvatn. The largest lake on the Reykjanes Peninsula (around 10 square kilometres (3.9 square miles)), Lake Kleifarvatn is also among the deepest at approximately 97m (318ft) in depth. Thanks to its location on the fissure zone of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, the lake shrunk somewhat after significant earthquakes in 2000. Despite its reduction in size, the lake remains a draw for its natural beauty, born of the area’s geological activity. Admire the contrast between the water and the surrounding rock formations, which are the work of volcanic lava and are now blanketed with delicate moss, which changes colour throughout the year. Keep a lookout for Kleifarvatn’s answer to the Loch Ness Monster which, according to local folklore, is a whale-like beast.

Lake Kleifarvatn is the largest lake on the Reykjanes Peninsula | © imageBROKER / Alamy Stock Photo

Smell the sulphur at Krýsuvík

A little further along Route 42 lies the colourful Krýsuvík geothermal fields, which you’ll recognise by the columns of steam rising upwards and the unmistakable aroma of sulphur. Stop here to marvel at the bubbling mud pools and surrounding multi-hued hills, which range from red and yellow to silver and blue-ish tones. Be sure to keep to the boardwalk, which winds through the many boiling pools.

The unmistakeable smell of sulphur lets you know you are nearing the geothermal mud pools | © Elise Morton / Culture Trip


Experience an Icelandic fishing harbour

Follow Route 42 southwards, turning right onto Route 427 to travel west towards the fishing town of Grindavík. One of Iceland’s most active harbours, Grindavík is home to around 3,300 people, the majority of whom make their living fishing or in related industries. To discover more about the importance of fishing for Iceland, and for Grindavík in particular, pay a visit to the Icelandic Saltfish Museum. Focusing on the production of salted cod, the museum traces the history of fishing techniques and the crucial significance of cod for the Icelandic economy.

For lunch with a view of the harbour, stop in at Bryggjan restaurant for a hearty bowl of lobster soup, saltfiskur (fresh local salted cod) or Icelandic pönnukaka (pancakes). Ask the café’s owner, Hilmar, to take you upstairs to the workshop (netagerðin) to witness the painstaking process of net-making.

Fishing plays a crucial role in the Icelandic economy | © Rob Crandall / Alamy Stock Photo

Follow in the footsteps of troll Oddný

Follow Route 425 westward from Grindavík for approximately 10 kilometres (6 miles) to reach Brimketill – a natural pool at the bottom of the ocean cliff, formed by the wearing away of the soft volcanic rock by the pounding waves. Though known now as Brimketill (whitewater cauldron), the pool was long known as Oddnýjarlaug (Oddný’s Pool) after the troll Oddný who, according to legend, used to bathe and wash her clothes in the pool. It is not recommended to attempt to enter or get too close to the pool; instead, step out onto the jutting walkway for an invigorating brush with the crashing waves, and to get a good view of the white sea spray against the black lava formations.

Visit the haunted mud pools of Gunnuhver and the cliffs of Valahnúkamöl

Continue westwards around 4.5km (2.8mi) for another dose of sulphur in the form of the Gunnuhver geothermal area. Named for a furious female ghost named Gudrun, whose spirit was allegedly trapped in the mud pools by a priest some 400 years ago, Gunnuhver is special not least because its groundwater is made up solely of seawater – a unique phenomenon in Iceland. With minerals affording the surrounding rocks vibrant orange and blue colours, the geothermal springs can look inviting – be sure to stick to the paths to avoid an unhappy encounter with temperatures of over 300C (572F).

A short drive towards the coast, past the statuesque Reykjanes Lighthouse, will bring you to the Valahnúkamöl cliffs. Barely leaving the car park, you will enjoy a front-row view of the rugged, craggy coastline and the striking pillars of rock that jut skywards from the water. Most stately among these is Karlinn (The Man) island, a majestic rock formation rising 51 metres (167 feet) above the sea.

The Valahnúkamöl cliffs are known for their striking rock formations | © Sophia Hilmar / Alamy Stock Photo


Warm up and chill out at the Blue Lagoon

Return eastwards along Route 425 back towards Grindavík, then take the 426 up to the Blue Lagoon. Set within a lava field, this geothermal spa is Iceland’s prime tourist attraction and is famed for the milky quality of its blue waters, thanks to the high silica content. Said to have healing powers, the waters are rich in algae and salts. For the ultimate in luxury, book in for a session at the Retreat Spa. Designed by Basalt Architects, with inspiration from the Reykjanes peninsula, the spa offers massages, beauty treatments and an altogether more exclusive experience.

The Blue Lagoon is Iceland’s most popular destination for visitors | © Eric Nathan / Alamy Stock Photo

Learn about the Northern Lights at Aurora Basecamp

Follow Routes 426, 43 and 41 towards Reykjavik, turning off to the right at the junction with Route 42 to reach Aurora Basecamp (the drive should take around 35 minutes). As well as boasting one of the best locations to see the Northern Lights close to Reykjavik, Aurora Basecamp offers the chance to experience an awe-inspiring indoor simulation of the Northern Lights at the onsite Dark Park – no matter the weather! What’s more, the low light in the Dark Park gets your eyes ready for the darkness outside, meaning that your vision is already adjusted to enjoy the bright colours of the real thing.

Aurora Basecamp offers a cosy spot for spotting the Northern Lights close to Reykjavik | © Elise Morton / Culture Trip

Sample Icelandic and global cuisine at Hlemmur Mathöll

Can’t decide what to eat for dinner? Head back into Reykjavik and make a beeline for Hlemmur Mathöll. This stylish food hall offers everything from tacos and phở to an artisan bakery. For anyone looking to sample Icelandic cuisine with contemporary flair, Hlemmur Mathöll’s SKÁL! is second to none – this innovative restaurant and bar brings foraged local ingredients and traditional recipes to the fore with creative dishes such as glazed beetroot with smoked skyr yoghurt, pomegranate, almonds and kale; salted cod croquettes with spicy remoulade and dates; and beef skirt steak with mashed potato, herb butter and pickled celery.

There are a number of stopping places around Lake Kleifarvatn | © Elise Morton / Culture Trip

Find out more about how to make the most of your trip to Iceland by visiting Inspired by Iceland.

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