Published June 1, 2016
Iceland’s southern Ring Road is, understandably, one of the most popular and well-trodden routes in Iceland. But if you have a little extra time, there are some hidden gems scattered along the smaller roads and villages of the South Coast. We took a road trip recently to explore some of these lesser-known spots, most of which lie just a short distance from the main tourist trail. Here’s our guide to spending twelve hours in the southwest.
Photo courtesy of Pallet’s Facebook
1. Coffee in Hafnarfjörður
Instead of taking Route 1 south, take a right onto Route 40 as you leave Reykjavík and head for Hafnarfjörður. This charming seaside town is often mistaken for Reykjavík’s city limits, as it’s the first place you hit on the Flybus from Keflavík Airport, but it’s actually a municipality of its own. Take a walk around the seaside old town and the park (which has some quite tall trees by Icelandic standards) and grab a coffee at the cosy Pallet coffee house, which has recently relocated to Strandgata, making way for a second coffee option—a new book cafe, Norðurbakkinn.
2. See how hardfiskur is made
Next, follow Ásbraut until you reach Route 42. Along the way, you’ll see some wooden frames, laden with hanging fish. This is how hardfiskur is made—it’s salted and left out in open air until it’s finally bagged and sold in stores. Seeing massive fish carcasses swaying in the breeze and crunching over their fallen bones make this mini-necropolis a macabre but interesting sight.
3. Take a walk at Kleifarvatn
After passing through some picturesque mountains, you’ll come to Kleifarvatn—a large, eerily still lake. For some time, this lake was slowly draining away after an earthquake, taking the fish with it—but recently, it has stabilised, and people are fishing in the lake once more. It’s surrounded by cool rock formations, and you can walk the black beach that used to be the lake’s bottom.
4. Explore the Krýsuvík geothermal area
You’ll now start to see plumes of steam appearing on the horizon. These come from the Krýsuvík geothermal area, which is part of the mid-Atlantic ridge that makes Iceland such a turbulent volcanic country. Seltún is a famous little geothermal park where you can follow a zigzagging wooden path over the pungent, boiling mud pots, and there are hiking trails to other tucked-away hot pools in the area, like the one pictured above.
5. Visit the beautiful Strandarkirkja
At the end of the road, turn right onto Route 427. You’ll start to see some rolling, golden beaches that are well known as Iceland’s best stretch of coast for surfing. After a while, a steeple will appear on the horizon—this is Strandarkirkja, a beautifully preserved wooden church that’s said to bestow some kind of special god-magick onto those who offer a donation.
Photo courtesy Hendur í höfn
6. Stop for cake at Þorlákshöfn
This little town is mostly famous as one of two ferry ports for onward travel to the Westman Islands. But it’s also home to a café called Hendur í höfn—the perfect place to break from the trip, put your feet up and get some hot soup and coffee, and try the fancy cake selection for which Hendur í höfn is best known.
7. Take a walk around Eyrarbakki and have dinner at Rauða Húsið
Eyrarbakki is, perhaps unfairly, best known for being the site of Iceland’s biggest prison. But it’s also one of the oldest villages in the country. The sea front has a scenic pathway, and there’s a local history museum, but the star of Eyrarbakki is Rauða Húsið (“The Red House”)—an immaculate restaurant that would be worth the trip alone. This airy, comfortable dining room offers a menu of perfectly prepared Icelandic staples such as lamb, lobster and mussels, and the service is every bit as warm as the delicious lobster soup. It’s pretty popular, so you might want to book in advance.
8. Finish by visiting the Raufarholshellir lava cave
On the way back, turn right onto route 38 and continue onto route 39 to reach Raufarholshellir, one of Iceland’s most impressive caves. It’s relatively accessible, but dark and slippery, so good shoes and a torch are essential. The cave is Iceland’s third-longest lava tube at 1360m, but if you’re claustrophobic, you can still enjoy the first chamber, where three large holes let the sunshine illuminate the rich, red tones in the volcanic rock. Some spelunking makes a perfect end to the day, and when you emerge, it’s just a half-hour drive back to Reykjavík.
Read more of our road trip ideas here.