Iceland has rocketed up many people’s bucket lists over recent years. During our Iceland road trip from Reykjavik to Akureyri with a sizable detour through the Westfjords, it was easy to see why.
Iceland’s other-worldly landscape and staggering natural scenery has seen an increasing number of visitors flock to this unique island. In 2017 over two million people visited Iceland, more than six times the population of the whole country.
Whilst any road trip in Iceland is going to be special, the Westfjords is one of the least populated and least visited regions of the country. Only around two percent of the population of Iceland live in the Westfjords.
Our Icelandic road trip through the Westfjords allowed us to see a beautiful part of Iceland that very few people get to visit. We decided to drop in on a detour whilst driving from Reykjavik to Akureyri, Iceland’s two largest cities.
In the far north west of Iceland the scenery is rugged, ragged, and wild. Tiny postcard-perfect towns dot the landscapes, mostly little more than small clusters of cute colourful houses.
There are plenty of things to see between Reykjavik and Akureyri as Iceland’s mesmerising scenery frequently transforms before your eyes. A bend in the road suddenly shifts the landscape from sheep-filled green fields to a lava-encrusted mountain range bursting with waterfalls.
The roads regularly peak and bend, either around a calm peaceful fjord or the rough, dark ocean. The weather changes in a flash too. Cold winds and lashing rain can be instantly replaced by blue skies and heavy warm sun. Nowhere is this more evident than in the spectacular Westfjords.
Here’s a breakdown of our road trip from Reykjavik to Akureyri via the Westfjords:
Day 1 – Reykjavik to Budardular
Day 2 – Arriving in the Westfords
Day 3 – Isafjordur to Akureyri
Day 4 – Husavik and Dimmuborgir
Day 5 – Return to Reykjavik via the Reykjanes Peninsula
Arriving in Reykjavik late at night, it’s an early start the following morning to make some headway on our Iceland road trip. Our route from Reykjavik to Akureyri takes us north along the west coast, up and around the nether reaches of the Westfjords before rejoining Route 1 towards Iceland’s second largest city.
The first destination for day one is Budardular, a small town with a population of 266 roughly an hour from Reykjavik. We’re taking a hundred mile detour en route to see the beautiful Búðakirkja church that sits on the southern tip of the Snaefellsness peninsula.
As we approach Búðakirkja church the landscape is a thick green and the sky a deep grey. Cloud covers the distant mountains, whose peaks remain hidden.
Búðakirkja church is on the approach to Snaefellsjokull, a national park that is home to the Snaefellsjokull volcano. Perhaps only in Iceland could you find a glacier on top of a volcano.
Before reaching Búðakirkja is Bjarnarfoss, the first waterfall of the many we’ll pass on this road trip. Iceland is rich in breath-taking waterfalls, diverse in size and shape, carving through this rough and rocky land. Descending from a long ridge, Bjarnarfoss descends to form a gentle river that snakes through the green fields below.
Isolated against a grey sky and set within fields of moss covered craggy rocks Búðakirkja stands dramatically against a wild and desolate background.
Just beyond the church is the coastline, where the orange sand and black rocks add to the surrealist nature of the place.
Continuing on the same road, around the tip of the peninsula and past Snaefellsjokull glacier, eventually leads to Kirkjufell Mountain and Kirkjufellsfoss Waterfall.
At over 1500 feet tall Kirkjufell Mountain stands slanted, like a triangular shard of green glass jutting out of the coastline. The most famous mountain in Iceland, the name translates as ‘church mountain’ and it was one of many locations used as a backdrop for the Game of Thrones.
A short walk away from the main road is Kirkjufellsfoss waterfall. An enormously popular photo-spot, with the combination of the waterfall in the foreground and the domineering mountain behind it’s easy to see why.
Together Kirkjufell and Kirkjufellsfoss are an incredible introduction to western Iceland’s geological prowess and sheer absolute beauty.
Shortly after Kirkjufell we hit the first of many rural unpaved roads. With heavy rain lashing down suddenly the tarmac stops but the narrow road continues. Conditions are tricky to say the least.
Much of the rural road network has been sealed over the past few years but there are still stretches that are waiting to be upgraded. The surface becomes nothing more than slushy brown gravel and potholes big enough to get lost in; it’s more like a rally driving track rather than a country drive. It’s around two hours before we reach Budardular.
Though little more than a dot on the map, Budardular is a very good place to stop for the night if you’re road tripping up to the Westfjords. The tiny town features a good choice of places to stay, a gas station and a small but well-stocked supermarket.
Of the accommodation options in Budardular, The Castle is one of the most popular. Featuring very comfortable rooms, great views of the bay and wonderfully friendly hosts.
Just a few minutes away is Dalakot Búdardal, another great place to stay that offers a range of comfortable rooms, as well as a fantastic breakfast spread.
→ You can search for more accommodation in and around Budardular here.
On the second day of our Iceland road trip we head further north and west and into the Westfjords. Though undoubtedly spectacular, it starts to become apparent as to why so few people venture this far into the north west of Iceland. The distances between towns are huge, and there are no shortcuts; there’s often only one road between two points separated by hundreds of miles.
Reaching the Westfjords involves another long stretch of unpaved gravel roads. These roads have the added danger of being found on steep hills that climb over and cling to the edge of mountains and descend towards fjords. Many of the locals speed along without a care in the world.
Driving through the snowy mountains of the Westfjords and a curious roadside statue
Our first stop in the Westfjords is Dynjandi waterfall. Dynjandi is the largest waterfall in the Westfjords, falling a remarkable 100 meters and feeding six additional waterfalls below it. The crashing sound of the constant flow of water is cacophonous, like continuous thunder, which is what the term Dynjandi means in Icelandic.
The path that follows almost half way up Dynjandi is little more than a track of stones, rocks and rubble with nothing to hold on to, but with a bit of effort it’s manageable. The view back out over the fjords and mountains that sweep to the sea are worth the scramble alongside Dynjandi’s deafening roar.
From Dynjandi it’s a just over hour’s winding drive to the small town of Flateyri. The route zig-zags around the edge of several fjords that hang like fingers around the southern tip of the Westfjords. Huge ragged mountains sweep down to the sea, their peaks crunched up beneath the heavy sweeping clouds and above the smooth icy waters below.
Perched over a fjord with its back to the mountains Flateyri is set in a stunning location. The town’s beautiful houses are a mishmash of reds, yellows and blues, with a pretty white church with a red spire at the foot of the mountain.
The same country on the same day – route 61 in the Westfjords on the left and route 1 towards Akureyri just a few hours later
The nearby town of Isafjordur in the north west of the Westfjords is reached by the Vestfjarðagöng tunnel. At over five miles long the tunnel is a marvel of engineering, cutting though the deep mountain valleys to connect the towns in this remote corner of Iceland. Passing deep through the bowels of the Icelandic mountains the descent feels like a journey to the centre of the earth.
Isafjordur is a pretty lively place for a population of just 2,600 people. The largest town in the Westfjords, it’s an obvious place to stay if you’re looking for somewhere to base yourself whilst exploring the far north west of Iceland.
Amenities are plenty here, and Tjöruhúsið restaurant rightly has a fantastic reputation as one of the best in the entire country for its phenomenal food and lively atmosphere.
Arguably the best places to stay in the Westfjords are either Flateyri or Isafjordur. Both towns have a decent selection of accommodation as well as several good places to eat especially Isafjordur. Isafjordur also has a good sized supermarket if you need to pick up any essentials.
The Old Bookstore is one of a number of B&Bs to be found in the beautiful town of Flateyri. Located in a beautifully rustic old Icelandic house with a fabulous interior The Old Bookstore also comes with a hearty continental breakfast.
→ You can search for more accommodation in and around Flateyri here.
Meanwhile Tangs in Isafjordur is another beautifully-styled apartment property fully kitted out with top of the range amenities and with an incredibly friendly and helpful host.
→ You can search for more accommodation in and around Isafjordur here.
The following morning Isafjordur is darkly atmospheric. Grey cloud and rain covers the water of the fjord. The buildings and houses of Isafjordur are again bright with colour, making it a picturesque place to be against nature’s currently colourless background.
Fishing is the main industry here, and the boats that sit in the harbour are decorated with rust and signs of many arduous days and nights out at sea. It’s a seven hour drive from Isafjordur to Akureyri and after picking up some breakfast from the excellent Kaffihús Bakarans, it’s time to hit the road.
From Isafjordur we continue our Iceland road trip heading for Akureyri. This is the longest stretch of the journey so far, with over 500 miles ahead. The scenery as we head towards northern Iceland becomes increasingly spectacular with every mile.
Passing through the final leg of the Westfjords and into northern Iceland, the sun lifts its head and the grey sky turns blue. Green fields replace the snowy craggy mountains.
This section of Route 1 slices through some of Iceland’s most beautiful landscapes. Where the Westfjords had been scrunched up and harsh the Northwest and Northeast regions are wide, vast and colourful. Gorgeous green fields stretch and sweep out in every direction as far as the eye can see. Though it’s a long and tiring journey, the entire drive into Akureyri is breathtakingly cinematic.
As the second largest city in Iceland there is plenty of choice for accommodation in Akureyri.
Situated right in the heart of the town centre, rooms at the Centrum Hotel are bright, comfy and offer great value for money with a free breakfast included.
Nearby and close to the centre of town, Lava Apartments & Rooms features a range of stylish, modern and well equipped rooms, many with kitchenettes.
→ You can search for more accommodation in Akureyri here.
To make up for the previous day’s lack of sightseeing stops day four of our Icelandic road trip is jam-packed with incredible sights.
In the morning we make the short trip from Akureyri to the nearby town of Husavik for a whale watching trip in the Skjálfandi Bay, one of the many highlights of the whole week. Over the course of two hours out at sea several huge whales silently and gracefully cruise around our boat.
The sea and skies are a dangerous grey throughout the trip. At times the sea is fairly bumpy, though not unmanageable. Decked out in plenty of waterproof layers there’s even a free mug of hot chocolate to round off the adventure.
From Husavik we continue along the north coast to another uniquely Icelandic natural wonder, Jökulsárgljúfur Bay. The northern tip of Iceland is dotted with numerous moody and dramatic black sand beaches and Jökulsárgljúfur Bay sits at the far north of the Vatnajökull National Park, an enormous that covers almost 15% of the entire country of Iceland and is now a UNESCO World Heritage site.
The black sand of Jökulsárgljúfur Bay is caused by the region’s highly volcanic past. The black sand is made from lava rocks formed over hundreds of thousands of years following major volcanic eruptions in the area. When volcanic lava meets the sea it cools to form black rocks, which in time break down to create the black sand beaches that Iceland is famous for, including Jökulsárgljúfur Bay.
From Jökulsárgljúfur Bay we make our way on to one of the most famous natural landmarks in Iceland, Dettifoss. In a whole week of breathtaking sights, Dettifoss is simply staggering. Much like Dynjandi waterfall, the sheer scale and force of Dettifoss is impossible to adequately describe. At just over 40 metres high and 100 metres wide, Dettifoss is possibly the most powerful waterfall in Europe in terms of waterflow.
There are two roads that Dettifoss can be accessed from, road 862 and road 864. Of the two roads 862 is fully paved and runs along the west side of Dettifoss. Road 864 runs along the east side of the falls and is entirely gravel and can only be passed by off-road vehicles. Road 864 is also usually closed outside of the summer months as it becomes impassable due to bad weather.
After Dettifoss we continue towards the crazy jagged landscapes around Lake Myvatn and Dimmuborgir.
Formed over 2000 years ago by dried lava and volcanic rock, Dimmuborgir appears out of nowhere. The land is black and matted all around, covered with patchwork fields of dark green just next to Lake Myvatn, a large flat lake of deep blue water.
There are several different walking routes around various sections of Dimmuborgir’s crusty landscape, the longest of which takes about an hour.
The mangled and charred land protrudes in every direction, creating all sorts of dark alcoves, caves, and arches. It’s another sign of Iceland’s fascinating variety, alongside the mountains, waterfalls, rolling green hills, fjords and moody seascapes.
We return to Akureyri with a stop off at Godafoss, another of the region’s beautiful waterfalls. Set just off the road almost halfway between Akureyri and Myvatn, Godafoss is a wide and low waterfall, noticeably different to any of the others that we’ve seen so far on this trip.
Sat deep in a river amongst a relatively flat background and against a darkening sky it’s Iceland at its moodiest. The clouds are thick and heavy and remain for the rest of the journey.
Having completed our long-winded Reykjavik to Akureyri road trip, the time comes to return south back towards the capital and bring our Iceland road trip to an end.
Taking the more conventional direct route from Akureyri is comparatively swift. We approach Reykjavik in under five hours, which feels like no time at all compared to the time it took to detour through the Westfjords on the way up.
With several unexpected free hours at our disposal we decide to see what else we can squeeze in. When route 1 reaches Reykjavik we ignore the exit signs and keep going.
A lightening quick flick through the guidebook tells us about Strandarkirkja, a small picturesque church on the Reykjanes peninsula on the southern tip of Iceland that looks out to the ocean. With the sun above our heads and endless hours of daylight still ahead we follow the meandering roads there.
Strandarkirkja church and somewhere on Route 427
The pale blue wooden Lutheran church of Strandarkirkja stands alone, elevated on a grass bank. The church is designed to be a beacon to sailors out at sea. There has been a church on this site since the 12th century, though the current church was built in the late 1800s.
The colourful interior of the church is just as beautiful as the exterior. The pale pink walls are complimented by a golden chandelier hanging from an arched soft blue roof. A few rows of seating face the tiny altar.
Driving along the Reykjanes peninsula the landscape alters once again right in front of our eyes, suddenly returning to the volcanic lava fields that we had seen earlier at Myvatn.
A couple of people fish in one of the large lakes formed amongst the black rocks beneath the beautiful sunshine, even though now it’s technically night time.
Passing through Grindavik and heading north back up towards Reykjavik, we marvel at the landscape a few more times, driving straight past the Blue Lagoon. We’ve driven somewhere near 1,500 miles in the course of our Iceland road trip, and each mile seemed completely different from the one before it.
If you’re planning on spending some time exploring Reykjavik, here are a few places to stay that we recommend:
In the thick of the action, Hotel Von is a wonderful modern hotel in the dead centre of Reykjavik. The hotel features clean and stylish rooms, helpful staff and with all of the delights of Reykjavik right on its doorstep.
Just on the edge of the city centre is Skuggi Hotel by Keahotels, another chic, modern hotel with lovely rooms and an abundance of amenities. The hotel also offers free parking which is perfect if you still have your hire car for a little longer.
→ You can search for more accommodation in Reykjavik here.
Getting to Reykjavik as a starting point for further exploring the Westfjords (or other parts of Iceland) is incredibly easy. Numerous airlines fly to Keflavik International Airport daily from all over the world.
Flights to Keflavik are just 3 hours from London and less than 6 hours from New York and Toronto.
If you’re going further than Reykjavik and want to do more than day trips then you’ll need to hire a car to get around. There are numerous options for car hire in Iceland catering for the large number of visitors to the country who decide to see a bit more of the country.
We always use Discover Cars to find the best rates on rental cars wherever we go when we need to drive.
As well as providing a great deal of information, both books are full of essential information and insights into the history and nature of this small but fascinating country.
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