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East Iceland (Austurland, Austfirðir) has a lot to offer. Beautiful landscapes, deep fjords, vast vistas and dizzyingly beautiful mountain passes. Yet during a “tour of Iceland,” the majority of people drive past a lot of beauty by barely getting off the ring road. And that’s a real shame! Plan some time to visit well-known and lesser-known sights in eastern Iceland; you certainly won’t regret it.
Your journey along sights in east Iceland
Most people will arrive for a trip through Iceland in Reykjavik and use a rental car on the road. If they come for a few days, often the south or west of Iceland will be discovered. For a few days to the east of Iceland, you don’t hear that much. It’s quite a long drive after all, for a few days. Still, it is possible, especially if you like nice car rides. Since I had visited the south before, I drove eastward in one go, with the first stop for an overnight stay at Vestrahorn. Just before and after this stop I see beautiful places, well known but also less known. Viewpoints, waterfalls, mountain passes, pretty towns, beautiful coastlines, hot pools … it’s all there! Below are sights in Eastern Iceland that have impressed me a lot.
Glacier lakes Fjallsárlón, Breiðárlón and Jökulsárlón
The first sights in east Iceland that you encounter when driving into the Austurland region from Reykjavik are the glacial lakes Fjallsárlón, Breiðárlón and Jökulsárlón on the southern side of the Vatnajökull Glacier. Jökulsárlón is the most impressive lake of the three, but therefore also the most crowded.
Large chunks of ice break off from the Vatnajökull Glacier and flow into the sea through a channel. Due to certain currents, many ice blocks end up back on the beach, giving the beach here the name Diamond Beach. The beach lives up to its name, especially in winter if you ask me. The sun stays low then making it slightly warm. The ice blocks then really look like diamonds! So my favorite season, winter, to visit Diamond Beach.
The first place of any size you come across after Jökulsárlón is the town of Höfn. You will find a pleasant harbor here and people who love culture are also in the right place. The oldest building in Höfn, Gamlabúð, houses the information center of Vatnajokull National Park. Various tours depart from Höfn, including to Skálafellsjökull, Lónsöræfi and Jökulsárlón.
South of Höfn is Ósland. Ósland is connected to Höfn, but in the past it was not; then Ósland was an island. The area is especially popular with bird lovers; many species of birds breed there every spring. The most common bird in Ósland is the Arctic tern. Even if you do not like birds, it is a must to visit the area. You will find here beautiful views, you look beautifully on the fjord with Höfn lying next to it.
Hoffell hot pools
Not far from Höfn are the Hoffell hot pools. From the ring road, it is only a few minutes’ drive to these hot baths, which belong to Hoffell Guesthouse. After paying an entrance fee, you can bathe in the hot water, with beautiful views. In summer the place is full of lupines, really beautiful!
The peninsula Stokksnes is one of my favorite places in Iceland. Stokksnes is dominated by the imposing Vestrahorn, a mountain you see in many photos of Iceland. It is one of the most photographed mountains in the country and I understand why! The place is magically beautiful, especially early in the morning. With a little luck, on a hike you will come across Icelandic horses, which roam freely here. You can also spot reindeer here, just by the side of the road.
On the Stokksnes peninsula, you can also visit Viking Village. It was once built to serve as the backdrop for a movie, but it never materialized due to financial problems. The plans still seem to be on the table, but when and if it will ever happen is not known. Wandering around in Viking Village takes you back in time, even though the Viking village really does need a facelift.
Almannaskarð pass or Almannaskarðsgöng tunnel
If you drive east, you can drive the Almannaskarð pass in the summer months. Due to snowfall, this mountain pass is often closed in the winter months. As a result, the east of Iceland was often not accessible via the south in winter. In 2005 the Almannaskarðgöng tunnel was opened, making this part of the road to eastern Iceland now drivable all year round. If you want to head east quickly choose the tunnel, do you feel like an exciting trip? Then in summer choose the mountain pass.
Brunnhorn, alias Batman Mountain
Near the recognizable Vestrahorn is another special mountain: Brunnhorn. This mountain is very reminiscent of Batman; therefore, Brunnhorn has been nicknamed Batman Mountain for many years. The best view of Brunnhorn is from the shores of Lón, a lagoon where many migratory birds can be found.
Eystrahorn, also known as Krossanesfjall, is another much-photographed mountain in eastern Iceland. The mountain seems to be a favorite of photographers working with a drone; you really do see the most beautiful images of this topper passing by. Take your chance here immediately when the weather is nice. I myself have had several times that I thought “I’ll do it on the way back” with the result that I couldn’t take any pictures at all due to bad weather.
Black beaches Lækjavik and Fauskasandur
A little past Eystrahorn, the ring road is close to the coast. The coastline here is breathtakingly beautiful; reddish-brown mountain slopes, the black beaches of Lækjavik and Fauskasandur and the blue sea water… What a contrast! Really stop here to admire the beaches.
Stapi in Stapavík
On one of the black beaches along this coast, near the Lækjavik exit, stands a monolith in the surf: Stapi in Stapavík. The 20-meter-high monolith is relatively unknown to tourists, but beloved by Icelandic photographers. From the road it may not seem so interesting, but standing next to it this giant is incredibly impressive.
Djúpavogskörin Natural Geothermal Pool
Fancy an Icelandic hot pool with great views? Wonderful views of Hamarsfjörður are from Djúpavogskörin Natural Geothermal Pool. It takes a while to pay attention when driving on the ring road, because you drive this hot pool in eastern Iceland in no time. So pay attention to the signs!
Öxi pass (939)
To get to Egilsstaðir you can follow ring road 1, but you can also choose the Öxi pass (road 939). This 20-kilometer, unpaved mountain pass takes you across the Breiðdalsheiði plateau. To drive this pass, weather conditions must be good, otherwise the mountain pass will be closed. You will see soon enough if the mountain pass is open when you arrive in the roundabout of Berufjörður and can take the turnoff to road 939.
A nice little fishing town is Stöðvarfjörður. Here you will find a small harbor, a museum called Steinasafn Petru, with beautiful (precious) stones collected by the owner herself in Iceland, a swimming pool with hot tub and a special b&b in a church from 1925(Kirkjubaer Guesthouse). From the town you can follow several hiking trails in Jafnadalur Valley, including to The Stone Arch, a naturally formed arch.
Saxa Sea Geysir
Just after the town of Stöðvarfjörður you will find Saxa Sea Geysir just along the ring road, on Google Maps you can find it under Saxa Sea Viewpoint. Saxa is a place carved by the water in the rocky coast. With every wave that comes rolling in, the water is thrust into the narrow strip and pushed up with great force. Especially with rough seas, this makes for a spectacular sight. So a quick stop, especially since it is so close to the ring road.
A photogenic lighthouse can be found at the mouth of Fáskrúðsfjörður. Hafnarnesviti Lighthouse is not so much impressive in terms of size, but it is impressive in terms of color: the 7-meter-high lighthouse is bright orange. It was built in 1938, replacing an earlier, slightly smaller lighthouse.
Choosing to follow ring road 1 from Berufjörður towards Egilsstaðir is not a punishment anyway, as on this route you will pass through the beautiful Fagridalur Valley. Halfway down this long valley stands a red house. A beautiful and photogenic object all alone in the middle of nowhere.
Egilsstaðir is located along the river Lagarfljót. The town was founded in 1947, not so much with the goal of growing into a large city, but more to serve as a center for the surrounding, rural area. Today Egilsstaðir is the largest town in eastern Iceland with 2,300 inhabitants. The city has almost all the facilities you would expect from a city. Think of an airport, a hospital, schools, stores, museums, restaurants and more.
Near the city of Egilsstaðir lies the still fairly new Vök Baths. You will find several geothermal baths kept warm by hot springs in the 1.1 km² Lake Urriðavatn. Don’t expect blue water here like in The Blue Lagoon, but natural water from the lake. A nice place to unwind for a while!
Fjarðarheiði (road 93)
The impressive 24.5-kilometer mountain pass from Egilsstaðir to Seyðisfjörður bears the name Fjarðarheiði. The highest point of the mountain pass is around 625 meters above sea level, which is quite high by East Icelandic standards. You can expect snow here all year round, with exceptions. Seyðisfjörður is cut off from the outside world many times a year due to snowfall on the mountain pass. As a result, Seyðisfjörður cannot be supplied, goods arriving in Seyðisfjörður by ship cannot be transported, and tourists get stuck in the town. Construction of the Fjarðarheiðargöng, a 13.3-kilometer tunnel between Egilsstaðir and Seyðisfjörður, will therefore begin in 2024. Despite the problems caused by the mountain pass, it is a beautiful road to drive!
Waterfalls on Fjarðarheiði, along road 93
Having braved most of Fjarðarheiði towards Seyðisfjörður, there are a number of waterfalls on the right once you begin the descent to Seyðisfjörður: Gljúfurfoss, Haífoss, Gufufoss and Udafoss. Especially at Gufufoss you have good opportunities along the side of the road to park your car for a while.
Seyðisfjörður has less than 650 inhabitants but is a very important place in the east of Iceland. The ferry from Smyril Line arrives here weekly from Hirtshals (Denmark), via Tórshavn (Faroe Islands). This means that many tourists arrive in Seyðisfjörður to explore Iceland from here, often by private car. Seyðisfjörður has a nice cultural center with a number of cozy restaurants, comfortable accommodations and, of course, the Seyðisfjarðarkirkja, with the famous rainbow path in front of it.
Quite a bit more inland in eastern Iceland lies the famous Stuðlagil Canyon, perhaps the most photographed spot in all of Iceland. This canyon, through which the river Jökulsá á Dal flows, has not been well known for a long time. Before the hydroelectric plant Kárahnjúkavirkjun was built at the beginning of the 21 century, this river was wild and savage. After construction, the river’s water level dropped, revealing the famous basalt columns. Today, Stuðlagil Canyon is truly an Instagrammable place; one of the most famous sights in eastern Iceland. The canyon can be visited from two sides. On the west side of the canyon, you can descend a bit into the canyon via steel steps. This spot is considered the official entrance, where you will also find restrooms and a snack car. Here you do not have as good a view of the basalt columns as from the east side. On this side you can descend to water level, standing on and between the basalt columns. To get here, however, you must first take a 4-kilometer hike.
Right along ring road 1, near the turnoff to Stuðlagil Canyon, is the Rjúkandafoss waterfall. This waterfall is 93 meters high and one of the few waterfalls in northeast Iceland that can be seen directly from the ring road. If you feel like a short hike, be sure to walk about 300 meters upstream for an even more beautiful view of the waterfall.
Puffin spotting in Borgarfjörður Eystri
Borgarfjörður Eystri is one of the best places in eastern Iceland for the spotting puffins. The S94 (Borgarfjarðarvegur) takes you from Egilsstaðir to this remote spot. The scenery along the way is insane. So vast and desolate with those imposing mountains in the background; it really feels like the end of the world. On the way you have to brave the 431-meter-high Vatnsskarð pass, from where you have a beautiful view of the Njarðvík valley. After this, you still have to cross the Njarðvíkurskriður (Njarðvík screes), a road that for years has been known as terrifying. The road was widened and made safer in 2019, asphalted and guard rails were installed. Now it is a beautiful route. While in Borgarfjörður, don’t forget to also take a look at the peat house Lindarbakki and the little church Bakkagerðiskirkja.