Start in Reykjavik, which you really won’t have a choice about since it’s the only international airport on the island. Pick up a 4x4 at one of the car rental companies near the airport. DO NOT try to drive the northern route in winter without a 4 wheel drive vehicle. If you have extra spending cash, spend it on a better vehicle, you won’t regret it when the snow starts to pile up. Make sure to check the road closure map daily to keep out of perilous situations. Also check out the Aurora forecast to see which nights on your trip will give optimal viewings conditions.
What to do:
Because you’ll be flying in and out from the same city (or adjacent city, anyway, be aware, the airport isn’t actually in Reykjavik, but a 40-minute drive from there), the things to do listed for this first stay can be swapped for those listed for the last stay. Since the weather is unpredictable, your plans may need to change accordingly. Many tourists visit the Blue Lagoon first, as it’s near the airport, but I recommend booking this at the end of your trip instead, as a nice relaxing warm bookend to a cold adventure. If you want to check out the blue lagoon after picking up your rental, the lagoon is free to roam in without stepping into the water.
On your first day you’ll likely have a bit of jetlag, so take it easy in the city. Visit the famous Hallgrímskirkja church, you can purchase a ticket to its viewing deck on the top of the church, it is the best place for a panoramic view of Reykjavik in my opinion.
Many neighborhoods are walkable in Reykjavik, but most of the winter long walks are not enjoyable due to the fierce wind rolling in from the ocean. Instead, use your afternoon and evening to explore the unique groceries in Iceland for supplies you’ll keep in your car for the next ten days. I highly recommended stocking up groceries for your journey to make the trip more cost efficient and as Icelandic as possible.
On your second day, animal lovers will enjoy a trip to Eldhestar horse farm (do book before your trip), nestled in a valley that will remind you of Hoth. In fact, the folks at Eldhestar may remind you that scenes from Star Wars’ Episode 7’s ice planet were shot nearby. Eldhestar tours include a large lunch. Try the herring curry, an Icelandic dish that, unlike the fermented shark, tastes better than it sounds.
After your horse ride head to Kerid, a small volcanic crater lake which freezes over in the winter.
It’s time to see waterfalls on the famous Golden Circle. The golden circle is the most travelled route in Iceland; even in the winter the roads are kept plowed during the daylight. The first stop is Thingvellir National Park, where you can walk through a rift in the Mid-Atlantic Ridge.
Optional: if you want to swim through that ridge, you can don thick scuba suits at the nearby Silfra fissure scuba shop. Do book this tour in advance of your trip.
Then head further north towards Geysir. Be careful at Geysir during the winter. If you have a walking stick, be sure to bring it as the walk up the hill (albeit a low grade) is often covered with an inch of ice that has bruised many a knee.
Gullfoss, a massive waterfall plunging into a crevasse, is a short drive north from Geysir, and shouldn’t be missed. Often the path to the lower overlook is closed in winter, but be sure to walk the upper, less travelled, overlook running along the northern cliffs.
This is where you’ll depart from the golden circle and head south for Seljalandsfoss, a waterfall that, in the winter, seems taken straight from Frozen, complete with ice covered stairs. Yes, this is the waterfall that you’ve seen photos of online, taken from behind the falls. If looking at the waterfall from the front isn’t awe inspiring enough, try hiking up the icy stairs on the left and back behind. During most of the winter you will not be able to get behind the waterfall, but beside it. Warning: this is extremely dangerous, so do so at your own risk!
Be sure to walk the path that leads away from Seljalandsfoss to the west to see more waterfalls, including one hidden inside a cave that feeds a small stream. Enter the cave at your own risk.
After a whole day of driving and waterfall glazing, head to your choice of accommodation and get rest up for the next day!
Eat & drink:
There is a cafe next to Hallgrimskirkja church in Reykjavik that serves the infamous Icelandic fermented shark, it’s pungent foul smell might send a lot of people away from tasting it, it you’re a true food adventurer, it is not to be missed. Hot dogs are not just an extremely popular snack around Iceland. Not only it is one of the most affordable food item, they are delicious with the toppings, sauces, and the high quality crispy hot dog sausage inside a warm bun. There is a famous hot dog stand in Reykjavik where former President Bill Clinton has visited as well. There is also a locally famous hot dog stand near Selfoss Pylsuvagninn Selfossi. Curry Herring is also a interesting food item to try. Efstidalur farm and restaurant near Geysir is a good place for some hot soup. Their specialty is not just the soup, but their spicy jams, do try both the green and red. Warning: You may like it so much you’ll end up taking a few jars home with you.
Head south on the Ring Road, or Highway 1, the major highway circular around the whole island towards Vik. It might take longer than you think to get to Vik because along the road, there are many interesting spots to stop and see randomly.