The Diamond Circle is a tourist route in the northern part of Iceland that connects three of the most beautiful attractions in the region; Ásbyrgi Canyon, Dettifoss Waterfall and Lake Mývatn. There are also loads of other splendid attractions on the way, which I’ll tell you about in this article. You might have heard about the Golden Circle, which is a different sightseeing tour in the southwestern part of the country, in case you were wondering whether it was the same one. The Diamond Circle is definitely not as well known as the Golden Circle, probably because the latter one is closer to Reykjavik.
The Diamond Circle is around 190 miles (310 kilometers) long, so just driving the whole route takes you a little over four hours. Since you’ll be getting out of the car and exploring the main attractions on the route, the whole tour will take you around 10–12 hours.
If self-drive travel is not your style, there are plenty of tour companies that offer Diamond Circle Day Tours. These are the ones I’d recommend:
Whale watchers enjoying the amazing scenery at Skjálfandi Bay, Húsavík. Unsplash/Mahkeo.
If you’re driving from Akureyri (which is the largest town in the northern part of Iceland), your first stop will probably be Húsavík. Húsavík is a charming town of roughly 2,000 inhabitants, often dubbed the “Whale watching capital” of Iceland. Since the Diamond Circle Route is pretty long, it’s up to you whether you make a pit stop at Húsavík or not. If you for instance decide to go on a whale watching tour from Húsavík, that would shorten the time you have for the other attractions.
Things to do in Húsavík
A gorgeous day at Tjörnes. Travelade/Nína.
Tjörnes is usually not considered as a part of the Diamond Circle but I think it’s definitely worth visiting, especially in good weather. Tjörnes is a small peninsula, located 9 miles (15 km) north of Húsavík. This little peninsula is in fact one of the most important places in Iceland in terms of geology. This is due to the fact that you can find fossils in abundance at Tjörnes and the strata of fossils are a testimony to the changes in climate for the past 4 million years.
It’s very nice to stop at Tjörnes, just for a little stroll at the beach and a quick gaze at the fossil layers. There’s also a very charming café/hostel by the harbour called Tungulending.
If you'd like to know more about Tjörnes, check out this article.
Ásbyrgi is a horseshoe-shaped depression, 2 miles (3.5 km) in length and over 0.6 miles (1 km) wide. The tall cliffs, beautiful birch forest below them and the amazing acoustics in the area make Ásbyrgi one of the most unique places in Iceland.
Ásbyrgi is a part of the Vatnajökull National Park and you can find numerous hikes in the area. There’s also a pretty nice campsite at Ásbyrgi, which in my opinion is an excellent alternative for those who want to do the whole Diamond Circle in two days.
Here you can find some ideas for hiking in the area.
If you take a close look, you can see some people standing right next to the waterfall. Travelade/Nína.
Dettifoss is the most powerful waterfall in Europe and without a doubt one of the most awe-inspiring waterfalls in Iceland. The massive amount of water that crashes into the river below creates a thunderous noise, which is a huge part of the experience, in my opinion. The noise is in fact so loud that it feels like the earth is trembling under your feet.
You have to walk half a mile or so from the parking lot and to the waterfall, so that might add around 30 minutes to your stop. The road from Ásbyrgi to Dettifoss is also unpaved and pretty rough, which might slow you down a bit.
Mt. Herðubreið. Flickr/Felix Haller.
While you’re driving towards your next destination, Mývatn, you will catch a glimpse of a stunning mountain called Herðubreið. It is one of Iceland’s most adored mountains and a great deal of artists and writers have paid homage to it. Herðubreið is located just north of Vatnajökull glacier, so you’ll just see it from a far distance. But I just wanted to let you know that it will be in sight while you’re driving towards the south from Dettifoss Waterfall.
Northern lights dancing over Lake Mývatn. Unsplash/Vincent Guth.
Lake Mývatn is one of the most beautiful lakes in Iceland and the area around it is full of geological wonders and impressive landscapes. You could easily spend a few days just exploring the area, but if you’re doing the Diamond Circle in one day, you will have to plan your time at Mývatn carefully.
Many people actually choose to go to the Mývatn Nature Baths, which is a popular geothermal bathing spot. Others walk around the area, exploring interesting attractions such as the Skútustaðagígar Pseudo Craters or the Grjótagjá Thermal Pool (which might interest Game of Throne fans).
Grjótagjá Cave. This is where the steamy scene between John Snow and Igritte of GoT was filmed. Flickr/Ron Kroetz.
Hverir Geothermal Area. Unsplash/Eleni Afiontzi.
Must-see attractions in the Lake Mývatn Area:
Here’s a list of things you can do in the Lake Mývatn Area:
Goðafoss in the winter. Unsplash/Trevor Cole.
Goðafoss, which translates into “The Waterfall of the Gods” is a gorgeous cascade around 21 miles (34 km) east of Akureyri. The cascade got its name from an important event in Iceland’s history, namely when Þorgeir Ljósvetningagoði decided to take up Christianity and forsake the old pagan religion. This was in the year 1000 (or 999 according to some historians) and according to the legend, Þorgeir threw some statues and idols of Norse Gods into the waterfall when he had finally come to a conclusion in this complicated matter.
Goðafoss Waterfall can be seen from the road and you can park just right next to it. This is probably the quickest stop on the Diamond Circle, 15 minutes will be enough time for you to gaze at the waterfall and get some nice pictures, in my opinion.
You will be spending a good amount of time outdoors so you should definitely bring some warm clothes. As you might know, the weather in Iceland has a tendency to change quite fast so be prepared for bad weather, even if it’s sunny and nice when you depart. I usually wear a raincoat when I go to Dettifoss Waterfall because of the spray.
There are no supermarkets along the way so it might be wise to stock up on some snacks in Akureyri. I always advise travelers to shop at Bónus, it’s significantly cheaper than other supermarkets or grocery stores in Iceland.
There are some restaurants at Húsavík and also near Mývatn where you can grab a bite, and there are some gas stations en route too.
Driving the Diamond Circle Route is usually also possible during the winter but getting around can be a little trickier. Road conditions can get pretty bad in Iceland during the winter months so you should always be well prepared. I recommend checking out this extremely useful article on driving in Iceland during the winter.
If you’re not really up for driving in ice and snow, you might consider embarking on a guided day tour. That’s a very convenient way to experience the beautiful attractions on the Diamond Circle; you can just sit back, relax and enjoy the view from the bus.
If you’re driving yourself, I would advise you to depart pretty early in the morning. If you want to be back in Akureyri (I’m assuming that is your starting/finishing point) in the evening, you will have to leave early and plan your time carefully.
The main attractions on the Diamond Circle are usually not very crowded with tourists, like its bigger brother in the south (the Golden Circle), so I wouldn’t worry too much about being strategic to avoid the crowds. There are generally more tourists in Iceland during the summer months so if you should place your bet on the shoulder seasons or the off-season if you want to skip the crowds entirely.
I think doing your Diamond Circle road trip in two or even three days could also be a good idea. This is a pretty large area and there are loads of things to explore on the way. Camping in Ásbyrgi or Mývatn could be a clever option if you prefer exploring the area at a slower pace.