Beloved for its proximity to Reykjavík and diversity of landscapes, the South Coast of Iceland is filled to the brim with natural wonders. Waterfalls, glaciers, black sand beaches, volcanos, hot springs, you don’t have to drive a long distance from Reykjavík for a change of scenery. While in Summer, waterfalls sparkle in the eternal sunshine, the first snowfalls turn the region into a mystical Winter wonderland, making for the ideal playground for your northern lights adventure.
Follow our guide and check off all the highlights of the South Coast!
1. Set sail to Westman Islands, the Pompeii of the North
Vestmannaeyjar is an archipelago off the South Coast of Iceland, better known as Westman Islands. You certainly have heard of its main island, Heimaey, hit by a spectacular eruption in 1973 that forced the evacuation of the entire population to mainland for months. One fifth of the town was destroyed, but people prevented a further disaster by spraying billions of litres of sea water to cool the creeping lava that was threatening to close off the harbour - the island’s main source of income. The local museum Eldheimar was built around the remains of one of the houses that were buried by ash and retraces the events. During the Summer months, the islands are accessible by ferry, with regular departures from Landeyjahöfn, while in Winter, conditions are more unpredictable, with occasional departures from Þorlákshöfn. In addition to its rich history, Westman Islands are known for their sheer beauty and wonderful hiking opportunities.
2. Walk Behind Seljalandsfoss Waterfall
You have seen it a thousand times on pictures, from every angle, in every season, but nothing prepares you to a visit to Seljalandsfoss (60 meters) and you still won’t believe your eyes. Chances are high that you will see a number of waterfalls on your trip to Iceland, but Seljalandsfoss stands out for the path that takes you all the way behind the waterfall. Talk about full immersion! Please note that in Winter, the path can get very slippery (sometimes even closed) and one must be extremely cautious. You don’t want to break a leg, there is still plenty to explore. A 10-minute walk North of Seljalandsfoss will take you close to another enchanting waterfall, Gljúfrabúi (40 meters), nestled in a canyon and worth checking out.
3. Take a Dip in Iceland’s Oldest Pool, Seljavallalaug
After taking a short hike into a valley of lush green hills, sprinkled with snow in winter, you will reach what looks like some sort of oasis where lies one of Iceland’s most scenic pools, also one of the oldest. Back in 1923, locals used Seljavallalaug Pool for their swimming lessons. The highly publicized 2010 eruption of Eyjafjallajökull resulted in the pool being fully loaded with ash, making it temporarily unusable until it was cleaned out the next summer. The spectacular surroundings and feeling of solitude make for a unique experience and you will undoubtedly enjoy a few laps.
4. Look for the Treasure Chest at Skógafoss
Of similar height (62 meters), Skógafoss is much powerful than Seljalandsfoss, also much larger, reaching up to 30 meters after rainfall. Legend has it that the first Viking settler in the area, buried a treasure chest behind the waterfall in 900. Hence the common rainbows. Three men are said to have found the chest years later but were only able to grab a golden ring on the side of the chest before it disappeared again. The so-called ring is now on display in Skógar Museum and the chest… yet to be found! Climb the 527 steps along the waterfall and you will reach the viewing platform, for a unique perspective and sense of scale.
5. Hike to Solheimasandur DC-3 Plane Wreckage
21st November 1973. The United States Navy aircraft has just delivered military equipment to Hornafjörður airport for the radar station in Stokksnes. On the way back, a large ice deposit on the cabin prevents the aircraft from keeping its cruising altitude, and soon forces him to land on Sólheimasandur beach, where the wreck is abandoned. Today, the story of DC-3 and the remains of the plane draw photographers and history buffs alike to the tranquil shores of Sólheimasandur. All driving there is forbidden to preserve the fragile soil from extensive damage, but the site is accessible by a one-hour hike across a desert black sand beach, enhancing the desolation and surrealism of the place.
6. Marvel at the Arch at Dyrhólaey
Dyrhólaey, literally ‘the island with the door hole’, is a 120-meter high promontory, formerly a volcanic island, that gets its name from a massive stone arch, which the sea waters have eroded, visible from the top of the hill. Over the recent years, it has become a popular stop along the South Coast, for the broad view it offers in all directions. From Dyrhólaey lighthouse is a breathtaking view over the black sand beach and Mýrdalsjökull Glacier in the background, while on the other side, the black lava stacks of Reynisdrangar rise from the sea. Below the parking area stands Arnardrangur, ‘the Eagle Rock’, a 14-meter high stack named after the eagles nesting in the rock, although those haven’t been spotted there since 1850. In Summer, Dyrhólaey is a popular nesting area for hundreds of puffins!
7. Sit on Gigantic Columnar Basalt Formations at Reynisfjara
Reynisfjara is one of Iceland’s most beautiful and visited black sand beaches, featuring sometimes straight, sometimes curved basalt columns, the iconic Reynisdrangar sea stacks - obviously trolls, in the distance and roaring waves coming from the Atlantic Ocean. Walking along that beach, the scenes you have seen the other day in that Hollywood blockbuster or TV Series take on their full meaning. While it is easy to be mesmerized by Reynisfjara’s beauty, remember to always keep a safe distance and beware of the sneaker-waves that are often pushing far further up the beach than one would expect.
8. Visit Fjaðrárgljúfur Canyon
Fjaðrárgljúfur is a canyon located in South East Iceland, about 2-kilometer long and up to 100-meter deep in some places. The canyon is the result of progressive erosion by the relentless flow of glacial currents through the palagonite over an estimated period of 9000 years. The thick green moss over the rock formations and sheer walls makes for dramatic contrasts. We recommend the hike up on the canyon’s eastern edge, with river Fjaðrá flowing down lower down, all the way to a charming waterfall. In winter, the river level is rather low, making it possible to walk inside the canyon for another perspective.
9. Sail Between Icebergs at Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon
Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagon is that kind of place that makes you look twice to realize that you are not dreaming. Wait, maybe you are? The icebergs break off Breiðamerkurjökull Glacier into Jökulsárlón Lagoon, where they will float and bump into each other for about 5 years. They will eventually move towards the outlet and make their way into the Atlantic Ocean. The lake is also known as the deepest lake in Iceland, at over 248 meters. You can hop on an amphibian boat or a zodiac boat and sail among the icebergs, for a magical experience…
10. Walk Among Glittering Stranded Icebergs at Diamond Beach
Right in front of Jökulsárlón is a place just as spectacular as the glacier lagoon itself, if not more. Breiðamerkursandur might not sound familiar to you, as tourists have recently renamed it Diamond Beach, which can only be approved. Chunks of ice regularly float in the river from the Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon into the open sea and get washed onto the Diamond Beach, creating strong games of lights and reflections. Whether you come at sunrise, sunset, under the midnight sun or the northern lights, Diamond Beach will most likely be the icing on the cake of your trip along the South Coast.
If you found this article helpful you might also like our guide to the Top 10 Experiences in North Iceland and the Top 10 Experiences in East Iceland.