Road number 1, also called the ring road, is the main thoroughfare that gets you around the island. It connects the main cities along the coast, but also sites of interest around and between them.
Coming in at 1,339 km long, Þjóðvegur 1 as they call it in Icelandic is by far the most used road in the country. There are a number of travel itineraries that are essentially built on this road and even if you're heading into the highlands of Iceland, you'll still have to start on Road 1.
Road number 1 near Lómagnúpur in the south
The Icelandic climate is very harsh on the roads, so many of them can become unsafe in bad weather, but road number 1 is always very well maintained. Now 98% paved, it is almost entirely a dual lane road, except for certain sections with single-lane bridges.
Most of the time, the speed-limit is 90 km/h on the ring road. Check out our article How to drive in Iceland for more detailed information.
For many years, the asphalt sections were few and far between, only near the main towns, but major works were officially completed in 1976 with only a few sections partly paved.
In addition to the climate, there are other issues that can plague the road workers' efforts. Volcanic phenomena, particularly in southern Iceland, sometimes completely halt construction efforts that had to be started over to pave the road as it is today. Infamously the jökulhlaups, which are subglacial eruptions, have tended to shift massive parts of the landscape and completely destroy certain sections of the road, as was the case with the Grimsvötn eruption in 1996.
There are various bus companies, so it's quite easy to get around the ring road, but the vast majority of travelers will prefer the freedom afforded by rental cars, even if more expensive.
For a tour of the whole thing, taking the time to see most of the nearby points of interest, the minimum in our experience would be 8 days. You can find more information on this subject on our page dedicated to travel tips before you leave.
But as always in Iceland, if you're driving in winter take great care because even on Road 1 things driving can become quite challenging. So 8 to road trip the ring road summer is more like 10 days minimum in winter.
As you can see on the map above, Road 1 is the fastest way to get around but leaves out some very interesting regions such as:
Starting from the south-east suburb of Reykjavík, the ring road takes you north to Borgarnes or south to Selfoss.
The road to Borgarnes takes you through the recently-built tunnel (1998) which is 5770 meters long and avoids a 60 km detour around the fjord. The road then goes around Bifröst before reaching Blönduós and arriving at Akureyri, the northern capital.
From here, the route goes back south through the Myvatn region, before crossing a long desert to reach Egilsstaðir in the east.
Next up is the small port of Höfn on a heading due south, passing passes Kirkjubæjarklaustur, Vik and Selfoss before reaching the capital.
Here are some ideas for approximate travel times with good weather conditions between each city:
Whatever the direction!
The majority of travelers travel in a clockwise direction, but this doesn't really change anything, the landscapes will look the same arriving from the south or from the north.
One possible reason for counterclockwise could be volcanic phenomena such as jökulhlaups that can potentially cut off the southern route. This was the case in 1996, when a Jökulhlaup cut off tourists heading south from the eastern fjords, but you'd have to be very unlucky for that to happen as it's very rare...
Even though road number 1 is very well maintained, winter weather can very quickly change road conditions and certain sections can become literally impossible to drive through.
It is essential to be vigilant at all times and always look for up-to-date information about the state of the roads (www.road.is).
The road is often snowed over, especially in northern Iceland, and so this means icy roads. Even though all rental cars are well-equipped at this time of the year (snow tires), we strongly recommend a 4x4 or SUV vehicle for added safety.
There are countless tourist sites accessible directly from road number 1, but for a much more in-depth look, you can check out our interactive maps of tourist sites by region.
But here are some real gems for you to choose from, very close to road number 1 and accessible with a traditional vehicle (not 4x4).