Many visitors to Iceland don’t make it very far from Reykjavik, but there is a real variety of things to do in East Iceland. This area is craggy and mysterious, with cute fjord towns, gorgeous wildlife and some stunning scenery, including the astonishing Vestrahorn Mountain.
East Iceland, like West Iceland and the Snæfellsnes peninsula, is some of the oldest land on the island: land that was created by volcanic eruptions and then eroded by glaciers over millennia. Much of the coastline is deep fjords, with steep sides of layered, crumbling rock. It feels older and more worn than South Iceland and North Iceland– but no less dramatic.
In this article I’ll share ten great things to do in East Iceland, working my way through the region from north to south – so this is a good follow-on from my article on things to do in North Iceland. If you want more details on how to plan a trip around Iceland, check out my itinerary for driving Iceland’s Ring Road.
1. Make friends with the furry locals at Möðrudalur
I didn’t see Möðrudalur on any lists of things to do in East Iceland that I read before I visited – I kind of stumbled on it. I was looking for a campsite between Dettifoss and Seydisfjordur, and I found this place on google maps. It had pretty good reviews and so I spent a night there – and I’m really glad I did!
Möðrudalur is a hamlet – a tiny community with a few houses, a cute Icelandic-style church and some traditional turf-roofed buildings. It also has a campsite, a guest house and a really nice restaurant called Fjallakaffi. We tried some traditional dishes here, like moss soup. The hamlet is located by a stream and in the distance, you can see volcanoes dotted around – it’s a lovely spot from which to watch the sunset.
However, the most memorable thing for me was the animals: there are a couple of friendly goats. They wander around the ground and the campsite like they own the place, and I even saw them sleeping up against someone’s tent!
More special than that, though, was seeing arctic foxes there! There were two arctic fox cubs playing around in the grass by the stream and they seemed fairly unafraid of humans. It was wonderful to see them frolic. They looked like little bear cubs and I was struck by their alert eyes. I had read that you need to go to the west fjords to see arctic foxes, so I hadn’t expected to see them in East Iceland. I don’t know how often there are there, but I have seen others on Instagram have seen them at Möðrudalur also.
It is worth knowing that Möðrudalur is about 8 km down a small road off the Ring Road. It is one of the many gravel roads in Iceland, and quite pot-holey when I was there in August 2021 – you may have to take it slow on this road.
2. Hike to Stuðlagil Canyon
About 75 km from Möðrudalur, taking a detour off the Ring Road, is a canyon where turquoise water flows between hexagonal basalt columns. It’s so stunning, it’s not surprising it’s an Instagram favourite. In fact, you may have already seen amazing drone footage of the canyon.
I wish I could tell you all about this canyon and what it’s like to hike there, but I have to confess: I skipped this hike! The day before we were planning to do it was really full-on and rather than having another exhausting day, my husband and I decided to cut some activities to make the day more relaxed – and this was one of them. However, this hike does seem to be one of the most beautiful things to do in East Iceland, so I couldn’t write about East Iceland without mentioning it, as it looks amazing from pictures and you should at least be aware it’s there!
Read more about the viewpoints at Stuðlagil Canyon.
3. Soak in the hot springs at Vök Baths
If you have hiked to Stuðlagil Canyon, or even if you haven’t, you might fancy a dip in a hot spring.
These are all over Iceland. Some are man-made, like the Blue Lagoon, which uses water heated by pushing water deep into the earth, and some occur naturally, where hot water works its way to the surface naturally. Vök Baths, near the town of Egilsstaðir, is one of the latter and is one of the best hot springs in Iceland. The pools are basically a cordoned-off section of Urriðavatn lake: an area that has long had hot water seeping into it from the ground.
What’s unnatural about it is there are big floating rings with a submerged floor and an infinity edge, so you can sit on the edge or immerse yourself in the hot water, while enjoying the view of the lake. And if you want a bit of cold water therapy, you can also jump into the lake!
4. Explore the towns of the East Fjords
East of Egilsstaðir is a series of fjords, deep valleys cut by glaciers and flooded by the sea. And sprinkled around the fjords are a number of small fishing villages and towns.
An essential thing to do in East Iceland is to visit at least one of these fjord towns.
I considered Borgarfjörður Eystri, which is known for having a big puffin population in summer – it is one of the best places to see Puffins in Iceland. However, the detour there is quite time-consuming (2 hour round trip from Egilsstaðir), and my time was tight as I needed to get back to Reykjavik by a certain day (to see the volcano erupting!).
So in the end I chose to visit Seyðisfjörður, which is also possibly the most picturesque town in East Iceland. Seyðisfjörður is a fishing town and also a stop for cruise ships, so its docks dominate the seafront. However, it has a very pretty sky-blue church and a rainbow-painted path leading up to it. When I went it was the stage for some influencers taking photos for ages! There are some good food options here, too – I had a hearty meal at El Grillo.
As well as Seyðisfjörður, I stopped briefly in Fjarðabyggð and passed through several other towns along the coast. What struck me about all the fjord towns was how functional they are, as well as being cute: there are both pretty churches and industrial docks and boats.
5. Drive the Walter Mitty road
Another reason I chose to visit Seyðisfjörður was that I wanted to drive the Walter Mitty Road. From Egilsstaðir, to get to Seyðisfjörður, you need to take route 93, which goes up over a high plateau and down into the fjord.
Driving this road is the most extreme example of microclimates I’ve ever experienced. Around Egilsstaðir, it was sunny and bright: a perfect Icelandic summer’s day. The plateau itself was really foggy when my husband and I drove it (both going in and going out) – there were times we could only see a few meters in front of our camper van, so we had to be really careful, especially as there are steep ditches and lakes to the side of the road.
After the plateau, we descended into the fjord, we hoped we’d re-emerge into bright weather again, but the fog hung low in the air, blanking out the tops of the mountains and blocking much of the sun’s light
This last downhill stretch of the road has become known by some as The Walter Mitty road, after the 2013 movie The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, directed by and starring Ben Stiller. In this movie, the main character skateboards down this road to Seyðisfjörður, gliding around the bendy road surrounded by epic fjord scenery.
Unfortunately, as it was so foggy when I went, I didn’t get great views of the fjord – but my picture of Gufu waterfall, which is a stop along the Walter Mitty Road, was OK.
6. Drive along the East Fjords roads
When you’re in the East Fjords area, I would encourage you to take a detour on some of the coastal roads, which twist and turn in and out of the fjords
You can’t drive any further than Seyðisfjörður – the road only goes in and out. However, you could take route 955 around one of the peninsulas. And route 1 does hug the coastline between Fáskrúðsfjörður and Hvalnes.
The scenery is wonderful and you trace the outline of the deep fjords, you pass occasional villages, fish farms in the water and craggy headlines. It was foggy during my whole time in east Iceland, but I did get glimpses of the glorious headlands.
7. Gaze on a black beach at Lækjavik
South of the fjords, the landscape will start to look less old and crumbly – and you’ll start to notice the shore becoming darker. The first major black sand beach you’ll find as you head south is at Lækjavik.
It is striking because it has a rugged stack of rock on the beach. There’s a small area you can pull up and a couple of ledges overlooking the beach where you can get a good view of it.
However, it’s not that user-friendly to go on the beach. To do that, you need to clamber down some rocks, which may require the use of your hands!
8. Hvalnes Lighthouse & Nature Reserve Beach
Not far from Lækjavik, about 9km south, there’s another great thing to do in East Iceland: visit the lighthouse and nature reserve of Hvalnes.
The lighthouse itself is very typical of Icelandic lighthouses. For me, the more exciting thing to do was to wander the huge black sand beach in the nature reserve.
You can park in the nature reserve car park, and then walk over the shingle sandbanks to get to the shore. I’ve been to lots of black sand beaches in Iceland, mainly in South Iceland – and some are fairly busy with tourists. But when my husband and I went to Hvalnes, there was no one else there. Not a soul. It was just us and endless black sand and the relentless white surf. It was blissful.
Not far from here, after the road heads inland for a while, I also saw some Icelandic horses, who seemed pleased to hang out with me for a while.
OK, so I saved the best for (nearly) last! Visiting Vestrahorn is definitely one of the best things to do in East Iceland.
Vestrahorn is another location that does well on Instagram. It is quite different to the ridgey sides of the fjords: it’s a jagged black mountain with steep sides of scree that seems to look out to sea defiantly, surrounded by black sand beaches. It captures that ‘moody Iceland’ vibe very well! Once I saw photos of this place, I was really keen to see it for myself.
To see Vestrahorn, you need to take a private road off the ring road to Stokksnes. There’s a small charge of 900ISK for entry, which you can pay at the Viking café. You can also visit a ‘Viking village’ here, which was built as a film set (but that didn’t interest me, so I didn’t do that).
Once you’ve paid for your entry, you go through a gate down the small gravel road to the Stokksnes peninsular. The road has marshy lagoons on either side, and you can park on the side of the road and clamber up on the dunes to get a view of the mountain.
The first time I came here, the sky was clear and I had a stunning view. However, the second time, it was foggy and I couldn’t see the mountain at all – and I didn’t know this was the case until I’d paid and driven out to Stokksnes. You see, you can’t see the mountain from the café, and the people working there said they didn’t know whether there was a view that day or not.
The main thing to do here is to appreciate the dramatic scenery and wander along the beach – the landscape is the big draw here. There are some climbing routes on the mountain, and there were some people with surfboards when I visited, but you’d have to really know what you were doing to attempt that: the surf is fierce and the water incredibly cold!
10. Eat well at Höfn
There are not many towns in between the east fjords and Höfn, so it’s a good place to stop for food and/or a night. I found a budget guest house with a shared bathroom for a reasonable price here.
It’s a fishing town, so you could also have a very tasty meal of freshly caught seafood. Try Pakkhús restaurant where you can get a giant plate of Langoustines with garlic butter. At around £50 a plate, if you’re doing Iceland on a budget, you might not be able to stretch to it. But if, like me, you like to save money in order to splurge occasionally, this could be the perfect place to splash out.
If you don’t fancy seafood, there’s also a nice laid-back place called Ups, which has a mix of vegan and non-vegan food, including big tasty burgers.
In Höfn, there’s a lighthouse which is also a good place to see the area around the town. In fact, on a clear day, you can see all the way to the glaciers of southeast Iceland, which look like white monsters, spilling over the sides of the Vatnajökull volcanic system. And if I were you, I’d spend some time exploring that region – it is probably my favourite area of Iceland and there are so many spectacular things to do in South Iceland.
Map: Things to do in East Iceland
Here’s an interactive map of the top things to do in East Iceland:
Where to stay in East Iceland
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Over my two trips to Iceland, I’ve stayed in a few places I can recommend:
- First, the campsite at Möðrudalur, which I didn’t need to book ahead if time: I just turned up and paid in the restaurant. I didn’t like having to pay for (very short) hot shower here, but the scenery and restaurant were great. And the goats and foxes, of course! As well as the campsite, they also offer guest rooms indoors.
- I also stayed at a campsite at Fossardalur in the East Fjords, which also has guest rooms. It was very basic, with no common room nor kitchen, but it did offer hot shower included, and the scenery was great, again.
- On my first trip to this area, I stayed at Höfn Guesthouse. It had a shared bathroom, which isn’t ideal, but meant the prices was low. And it was spotlessly clean and quite cosy.