The vast majority of Iceland’s visitors don’t explore the eastern side of the country as it’s considered too far from Reykjavik. East Iceland is, therefore, the region that is least frequented by international tourists. The truth is that they end up missing out on amazing experiences since East Iceland boasts some of the most compelling sights in the country.
Driving along its twisted coastlines, walking on its picturesque hiking trails, and exploring its mystical sites, natural attractions and adorable little villages is something we can highly recommend to anyone traveling to Iceland.
If you’d like to avoid the crowds and see where the locals go to spend their holidays, make sure to include East Iceland in your travel itinerary! In this article, you’ll learn about the main characteristics, geology, history of the area, and the most exciting activities that are available in this region so that you can easily plan your trip.
How to Get Around in East Iceland
East Iceland, known as “Austurland” in Icelandic, is easily accessible from Reykjavik. There is only one road that leads there: the one that circles the country, the Ring Road. The journey itself takes at least 6 hours, but with stops along the way, it will take much longer. You’ll certainly want to make plenty of stops. The route leading to East Iceland is packed with natural wonders!
Since this region is located literally in the opposite corner of the country from Reykjavík, visiting East Iceland also means that you’ll have to cross at least one more entire region: South Iceland or North Iceland. In an ideal situation, you’ll drive around the whole island, approaching East Iceland from the south and returning to Reykjavík from the north or doing it in reverse. Either way, you’ll need a minimum of one week to explore the area if you don’t want to spend most of your time in the car and rush through the other regions without stopping.
An array of tours and activities are available in East Iceland. Driving a rental car, a campervan, a motorhome, or joining a guided tour are all great ways to explore this area.
Exploring the country on public transportation isn’t really an option in Iceland. Buses in the countryside only run a few times a week. There’s a direct bus to Höfn three times a week. From there, you’d need to change lines if you wanted to continue to other villages. Keep in mind that the buses don’t stop outside of the populated areas (where most of the natural attractions are located) and they don’t run every day. This makes it impossible to visit East Iceland’s famous sights if you only use public transport.
Generally, guided group tours are the best alternative to public transport in Iceland. They’re sometimes even cheaper than local buses and offer stops at the most beautiful locations, providing fun and informative guidance in English.
If you’d like to visit East Iceland on a guided tour, you’ll need to book an “Around Iceland” multi-day tour. This will take you around the whole country with plenty of stops, not only in East Iceland but in all of the other regions, too. The shortest Ring Road tour is 6 days long, but there are tours that last from 7 to 14 days as well. The longer the tour, the more time you’ll have to explore the country and the more time you can spend at each location.
You can also plan your own itinerary, rent a car, and travel around East Iceland without a local guide. This will require some planning, but we’re here to help you out! You’ll need at least 6–7 days to travel to East Iceland and back to Reykjavík, but the longer you stay in the area, the deeper experience you’ll have.
You can also join some guided activity tours once you’re there. There are, for example, guided glacier hiking tours that depart from Höfn as well as horseback riding, hiking, kayaking, boat tours, and other exciting activities. From Egilsstadir, there are organized group tours, day tours, and multi-day trekking tours in the Highland area available. Ask for recommendations at the tourist info centers, guesthouses, or other tourist service facilities.
East Iceland is a sparsely populated region. Only about 13,000 people (3% of Iceland’s population) live in this area, which measures 23,000 km2 (8800 sq. mi). There are some small villages, but don’t expect too many options when it comes to restaurants or supermarkets. The largest towns are Höfn and Egilsstadir, where you’ll find plenty of cafés, restaurants, supermarkets, and large gas stations with shops and fast-food restaurants.
The more famous smaller towns are Djupivogur, Seydisfjordur, and Borgarfjorud Eysti, which are all known for their breathtaking natural settings. These towns and villages also offer a few restaurants, cafés, and small grocery stores. The accommodation options in the countryside are relatively limited, so it’s best to book everything in advance.
The main road is in good condition and is easily driveable, but some smaller roads in the fjords can be narrow and bumpy. While Iceland’s Ring Road is maintained all year round, the conditions can be challenging in the winter and even the main road can be closed for shorter periods of time. Exploring the fjords in winter requires a four-wheel-drive car and a good amount of driving experience. In the summer, however, you should have no problem driving around East Iceland in any type of car.
The Weather in East Iceland
The weather in East Iceland is a little bit colder than in the other populated areas in the country. A branch of the cold East Greenland Current flows around Iceland’s northeastern and eastern coasts, affecting the sea surface temperatures, which are the coolest here. This affects the temperatures and the weather patterns on the coast as well.
The average temperatures are somewhat cooler than in South or West Iceland. Winter starts sooner and spring begins later than in the capital area. This is important information to be aware of, especially when it comes to self-planned holidays. The good news is that the summers in this region are usually sunny and the temperatures can sometimes get quite high, reaching 18–20°C (64–68°F) on the best summer days. Learn more about Iceland’s weather here.
Geologically speaking, East Iceland is an old landmass compared to the northern and southern parts of the country. As the tectonic plates drift, Iceland has been spreading to the east and west, so these are the oldest parts of Iceland.
Remains of 14 central volcanoes are scattered throughout the region, some of which look very impressive. During the Ice Age, glaciers carved the top layer of the surface. When the ice cap melted, stunning magma chambers and other volcanic attractions were left on display.
The landscape here tells the story of how the Earth was formed. The valleys are soft and verdant while the steep fjords display the gorgeous layering of the earth that has happened through the centuries. Thousands of layers of basaltic lava with bright red highlights are easy to see from Hengifoss, in particular. The largest rhyolite formations in Iceland can be found in this region, for which it is famous. It’s also renowned for its collection of interesting minerals, including onyx, jasper, opal, zeolites, amethyst, and fossils.
East Iceland is the best location to find the Iceland spar, also known in medieval times as “solar stone.” This transparent variety of calcite became famous in the 17th century for its double refraction property and played a significant role in the early development of wave optics. If you’re interested in stones, don’t skip Petra’s Stone Collection in Stodvarfjordur, East Iceland.
Sagas and History
The history of East Iceland is older than the settlement of the Nordic people in Iceland. You can find historic sites or ruins in almost every fjord, farm, village, and even in the most remote parts of the Highlands.
The first people who set foot in Iceland were probably the Romans. Roman coins dating back to the 1st century were found near Djúpivogur. Irish monks also sailed to Iceland seeking solitude in the medieval times. According to the Icelandic Sagas, some hermits were already here when the Vikings arrived in the 8th century. Iceland’s first settlers, Ingólfur Arnarson and his foster brother Hjörleifur, docked in East Iceland and spent a winter here on their very first expedition to the new land.
Some hiking trails travel through these historical locations and saga sites. The ruins of ancient monasteries and burial sites along with locations full of supernatural creatures from folktales make this region worth its fame as a mystical land.
East Iceland prospered in the 19th century due to its fishing and whaling industry. This is when a Norwegian-run whaling station, also the world’s largest, was found in the area and a large number of villages in the fjords began to take shape. In 1906, the first telegraph cable from Europe came to Iceland, making Seyðisfjörður a hub for international communication.
Nowadays, fishing remains the main industry in the Eastfjords. Agriculture is important here as well since sheep, barley, and other grains are produced in the area of Hérað and in the valleys. On top of this, there’s a large aluminum smelter in Reyðarfjörður, an international airport in Egilsstaðir, the Norröna ferry harbor in Seyðisfjörður (that connects Iceland to Denmark and the Faroe Islands), and the growing tourism industry, of course.
Things to See in East Iceland
East Iceland can be divided into four major areas: Southeast Iceland (the Vatnajokull Region); the Eastfjords; the Lagarfljót lake Area and the Eastern Highlands. All of these areas have their special characteristics and unique landscape. You can easily spend many days od even weeks with exploring this mystical region! To help you plan your trip, we wrote a separate article where we introduce all the must-see places and natural attractions in East Iceland.
Things to Do in East Iceland
First and foremost, traveling around extensively is the best thing you can do in East Iceland. It doesn’t matter whether you drive a rental car or join a guided tour, this is totally up to your travel style and preferences.
The best thing you can do is to travel along the coast and preferably take all the detours that lead to some remote villages. Believe us, these detours are worth taking! Stop in every village you can. Have a cup of coffee, a piece of cake, or a waffle. Taste the local food and ask about the sagas and history of the area.
In the winter, some detours aren’t available, so make sure you check the conditions often and that you have a suitable car. Some areas, like the Highlands, are less easily accessible than others, even in summer. To explore the most remote areas, you might need a bigger car and/or a local guide. If you’d like to get to know these places, just book a guided tour and you’ll be in good hands with the locals.
Kayaking or Sailing
Exploring the area from the water is a popular activity here. Experienced kayakers can paddle around the fjords easily as the calm waters are generally very safe, making them ideal for kayaking. For beginners, guided kayaking and boat tours are offered in several villages.
Vatnajokull has at least 30 outlet glaciers, many of which are easily accessible for hikers. The most popular glacier hiking location in the area is Skaftafell but there are tours to Hoffelsjokull as well, located further in the east. Please keep in mind that you shouldn’t attempt glacier hiking without safety equipment and a local guide. In this article, we’ll explain why this is and you can also learn more about Iceland’s glaciers.
Soaking in a Geothermal Pool
East Iceland has one of the most scenic geothermal pools that you can find in the country. Vök Baths is a geothermal destination on beautiful Lake Urriðavatn, located a few minutes’ drive northwest of Egilsstaðir.
A series of geothermal pools are built over the lake. The warm water pools are literally floating on the lake, creating an absolutely memorable experience. When bathing in the pool, you’ll have an undisturbed 360-degree panoramic view over the surrounding natural landscape. When you’re traveling in East Iceland, this is definitely a must-do!
East Iceland is a hiker’s paradise. This fact is very well known among the locals who often spend their holidays in this area, coming in from all over the country. The natural scenery in East Iceland is outstandingly beautiful and the hiking trails are less traveled than many other trails in the west and south.
The epic Vatnajokull area is the most thrilling site in the entire country for hikers and nature lovers. With its rugged, blue glacier tongues and green birch forests, Skaftafell offers endless adventures to its visitors. The barren volcanic terrains of the Eastern Highlands, the alpine landscapes of the Dyrfjoll mountains near Borgarfjordur Eystri, the spectacular views from the top of the fjord-side mountains at Seydisfjordur, and the beautiful trails of Iceland’s largest forests all beg for your attention and steal the hearts of the hikers that visit them.