Updated: May 16, 2019
Stretching from Reykjavik to the Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon, Iceland’s South Coast offers sight after incredible sight. The natural beauty here is simply astounding, from ice caps and lava fields to black sand beaches, waterfalls and glaciers. A journey around South Iceland offers an insight into the sheer power of nature and its elemental forces.
Many of the highlights of South Iceland can be visited on day trips from Reykjavik. However, given the distance to the further reaches of this area it is far better to take your time and drive instead. Any trip to Iceland is bound to include a tour of the Golden Circle. But if you have a little longer you should definitely include at least some of the amazing south coast sights on your travel itinerary.
If you are exploring the highlights of the region by hiring a campervan, there are plenty of excellent campsites to park up at. You will have the freedom to linger where you like, spending more time in the places that you really connect with. Perhaps taking a few days walking the beautiful hiking trails of the Vatnajökull National Park. Perhaps basing yourself in the charming South Coast town of Vík í Mýrdal, which has many nearby sights. Here is our guide to the highlights of South Iceland.
Jökulsárlón Glacial Lagoon & Diamond Beach
Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon is an incredible natural phenomenon on the edge of the Vatnajökull National Park. This vast lake grows in size each year and is the biggest and deepest lagoon in Iceland. Its beauty stems from the glacial ice that floats through it on route to the ocean. Glowing ice blocks and icebergs sparkle right across the surface of the lake. In the summer months visitors can take boat tours around the lake. These vessels forge pathways through the ice and passengers get to see the bergs up close and enjoy expansive views across the national parkland.
The nearby Diamond Beach is another sparkling attraction. Here glowing blue pieces of ice dazzle against the black sand beach. As the tide changes these icy pebbles and rocks are washed by the waves. Diamond beach is a favourite among photography enthusiasts. The contrast of the icy blue and black sand makes for some stunning images. It is a highly unusual place and a genuine highlight of Iceland’s south coast.
Vatnajökull National Park
This is Iceland’s largest national park, covering an impressive 14% of the entire country. As such it is only the lower portion of Vatnajökull that can really be considered South Iceland. Within its broad borders you will find stunning scenery, encompassing wild rivers and waterfalls as well as the entirety of the mighty Vatnajökull ice cap.
It does take quite a long time to drive to the southern reaches of the Vatnajökull National Park from Reykjavik. However, there are visitor centres and campsites easily accessible from Iceland’s ring road and it is easily reached within 4-5 hours of scenic driving. This is a great place to park your camper van for a few days and make the most of the local hiking routes. There are so many beautiful sights to see in the area, so do be prepared to spend several days here.
Reynisfjara Black Sand Beach
This incredible black sand beach is an absolute must-see on the south coast of Iceland. It is an almost otherworldly place where you can really see evidence of the geological forces that have shaped Iceland. Basalt layres created by cooling lava have created dramatic cliffs and columns. In summer these cliffs are home to puffins and other sea birds. Out in the bay, rising up out of the wild Atlantic waters are three towering basalt columns. There are many stories surrounding these columns, including that they are three trolls turned to stone.
Worth noting is that the sea here can be particularly wild. Even on a day when the waters look relatively calm, there can be surges that create much larger waves. It is important to stay back from the shoreline and always keep an eye on the ocean and your companions. This may sound a little ominous, but as long as you are aware all will be well. The stunning Reynisfjara Black Sand Beach is not far from the village of Vík í Mýrdal, so it makes a great day trip.
Another exciting visit not far from the town of Vik is the Mýrdalsjökull Glacier. This is the fourth largest ice cap in Iceland with high icy peaks soaring skyward. Beneath the glacier lies the active Katka volcano, which is closely monitored for activity. Mýrdalsjökull is a popular place to visit, as it is possible to snowmobile across the glacier’s surface year round. This makes for a thrilling wintery experience, even during the summer months. It is also possible to delve into the glacier’s ice caves for much of the year. Usually from about October to April, so it has a much longer ice caving season that many other Iceland glaciers.
The Vestmannaeyjar Islands, otherwise known as the Westman Islands are an archipelago of around fifteen islands off of the south Iceland coast. A little over 4000 people live on Heimaey, the archipelago’s only inhabited island. The rest are left completely to the natural world, along with around thirty other rocky stacks and outcrops dotted between the islands.
There is a ferry to reach Heimaey Island and at an extra cost you can bring your vehicle with you. The island is small and quite easy to explore on foot, but there is a campsite there should you arrive by motorhome. The island is known for its microclimate that supports some prolific bird life. Visitors come to see puffins nesting here in early summer, along with arctic terns, guillemots and other birdlife.
Iceland has many dramatic waterfalls to discover and this beauty on the south coast is one of the most lovely. Plunging sixty meters down from a high plateau, it is possible to walk right the way around the Seljalandsfoss Waterfall. A path leads visitors behind the cascading curtain of water allowing for some spectacular views. On sunny days you should be able to spot rainbows through the water and at night the waterfall is lit up. The waters of Seljalandsfoss originate from the famous volcanic glacier of Eyjafjallajökull. This is the infamous volcano that stopped air traffic right across Europe when it erupted in 2010.
Located inside the beautiful boundaries of the Vatnajökull National Park is the stunning Svartifoss Waterfall. The name means Black Falls and comes from the sheer black basalt columns that surround the waterfall. Svartifoss is made up of a single free flowing drop plunging down twenty meters. Not far from the ring road you will find the Svartifoss Visitor centre. From there it is a gentle uphill walk to get to the falls, which aren’t visible from the road. There is a lovely circular walk that should take an easy 2-3 hours to complete.