How to Drive Iceland's Golden Circle: A Complete Guide with Maps
- What Is the Golden Circle?
- Renting a Car in Iceland to Tour the Golden Circle
- How Long Does It Take To Self-Drive the Golden Circle?
- Iceland's Golden Circle Map: The Classic Route
- Golden Circle Routes and Itineraries
- How To Avoid the Crowds
- Golden Circle Sights and Attractions
- 1. Thingvellir National Park
- 2. Geysir Geothermal Area
- 3. Gullfoss Waterfall
- Get Off the Beaten Path
- Where to Eat on the Golden Circle?
- Drive the Golden Circle Like a Local
Learn everything you need to know about Iceland's Golden Circle, the most popular tourist route in Iceland. Explore the best Golden Circle attractions, like geysers, waterfalls, hot springs, and volcanic craters. Learn where to eat, where to say, and whether a self-drive tour or guided tour is better for you. Choose the best route for your visit with our Golden Circle itineraries and maps.
- Make the Golden Circle the first stop on your trip around the Ring Road with this 8 Day/7 Night Self-Drive
- Find out even more by reading the Ultimate Guide to the Golden Circle
If you're traveling to Iceland for the first time, there's a good chance you'll visit the Golden Circle. Even if you've been on a Golden Circle tour before, you might want to drive it again by yourself to explore the secondary locations along the way that the tour buses often skip.
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What Is the Golden Circle?
The short answer is that the Golden Circle is a scenic route between three beautiful natural attractions in Iceland. The main Golden Circle attractions include:
Instead of driving back and forth from Reykjavik the same way, people typically drive a short circle that's just under 140 miles (230 kilometers) in length.
The Golden Circle shouldn't be confused with the Ring Road, an 828-mile (1,332-kilometer) drive encompassing the entire island of Iceland. The latter can take several days to a week to complete.
There are hundreds of different Golden Circle tours to choose from, but if you'd rather drive this route yourself, then read on for tips on how to do it.
Renting a Car in Iceland to Tour the Golden Circle
Self-driving the Golden Circle is a great way to see everything at your own pace. First, you'll need to find a rental car. You'll want to rent a four-wheel drive, jeep, or SUV if you plan on visiting during winter.
A four-wheel drive is important to your safety on the road when there's heavy snow on the ground. However, the Golden Circle is the most popular route in the country, so if you were to find yourself stuck in a pile of snow, help wouldn't be far off.
In the summer, you might want to consider a camping car rental (a car with a tent on its roof) and spend a night at the campsite in Thingvellir National Park.
How Long Does It Take To Self-Drive the Golden Circle?
One of the benefits of driving the Golden Circle yourself is that you choose when to begin and how long you'll stay at each attraction. Since the Golden Circle is the most popular attraction in Iceland, hundreds of different tours go there every day. You'll be spoiled for choice when it comes to picking the best Golden Circle sights.
With the flexibility of having your own car, you can choose exactly how long you spend exploring these attractions and which route to take. There are many possibilities.
If you want to rest, you can do the circle in the afternoon or evening. During the summer, nights don't get dark, so you could even go at night and visit the attractions under the midnight sun.
Driving the 140 miles (230 kilometers) of the Golden Circle can take as little as three hours if you take the shortest route. So, you could do the whole circle in about five hours with stops, but most people prefer to spend a few days to a week to self-drive the Golden Circle. (Check out our Golden Circle map below.)
To beat the crowds, get up at the crack of dawn and leave early so you can spend the full day exploring at a relaxed pace. Perhaps you'd like to visit these attractions like the locals, and then spend a night or two in the area.
Thingvellir National Park has a great campsite and a modern and stylish hotel. The Geysir geothermal area also has a luxurious hotel and a campsite.
By Gullfoss, you can find another hotel and multiple summer cabins along the way that you can rent for a more private experience. Nothing beats being in the clean and quiet countryside while sitting in a private hot tub on the deck of a cabin.
You could also decide to add a hike to the warm river in Reykjadalur to your Golden Circle route, and then choose to stay at a lovely hotel in the village Hveragerdi or its beautiful campsite.
- See also: Where to stay in Iceland
Iceland's Golden Circle Map: The Classic Route
Below is a map of the most popular Golden Circle route.
Golden Circle Routes and Itineraries
The Golden Circle route is extremely popular, and there are hundreds of ways to explore it. If you're looking for a good place to start, here are five of the most popular routes.
5. 10 Hour Golden Circle Tour with Snowmobiling on Langjokull
This tour has all of the best Golden Circle attractions for travelers on a budget and looking for adventure. It includes a visit to the Langjokull Glacier - the second-largest glacier in Iceland - and an excellent spot for a snowmobile trip!
4. Three-Day Northern Lights Tour of Iceland's Golden Circle & South Coast with Ice Caving & Glacier Hiking
For travelers with more time to explore, a three-day tour will ensure you see all of the best Golden Circle stops. You'll also have the opportunity to do two of Iceland's most popular activities - exploring ice caves and taking a hike across glaciers.
3. Small-Group Golden Circle Tour with a Visit to an Ice Cream Farm and Transfer from Reykjavik
Join this small-group tour to see all the most popular Golden Circle sights and attractions. This tour starts in Reykjavik and even includes a stop at an ice cream farm!
2. Afternoon Six-Hour Golden Circle Tour to Gullfoss, Geysir & Thingvellir with Transfer from Reykjavik
With only half a day, can you see the Golden Circle? Yes! Participants on this short and affordable tour will make sure you see the top sights in just an afternoon.
1. Four-Day Northern Lights Winter Vacation Package with the Golden Circle, South Coast & Blue Lagoon
A four-day tour is an ideal option if you have time and want to enjoy everything the Golden Circle has to offer. Stops include the famous Blue Lagoon, geysers, Iceland's black sand beaches, towering waterfalls, and, if the stars align, the northern lights!
How To Avoid the Crowds
If you're driving the Golden Circle, you're more likely to avoid crowds and thereby enjoy greater privacy along the way. Most Golden Circle tours leave in the morning from Reykjavik, between 8 a.m. to 10 a.m., with afternoon departures around noon and 2 p.m. Most of them are back in Reykjavik by 8 p.m. There are select midnight sun tours available in the summer.
The busiest times at the Golden Circle's major attractions of Thingvellir, Gullfoss, and Geysir are between 9 a.m. and 7 p.m., although from October to February the long daylight hours in Iceland allow for longer viewing hours.
If you leave early in summer (or spend the night in the area), you can see the attractions in broad daylight before 9 a.m. or after 7 p.m. These are perfect times to capture sunrise and sunset photos in the spring or fall or admire the northern lights during wintertime.
If you spend a night at one of the hotels or campsites in the summer, the midnight sun allows you to enjoy the area's natural attractions without too many other tourists around.
Golden Circle Sights and Attractions
As we've mentioned, there are three main attractions on every Golden Circle itinerary. Let's look at each one more closely before sharing ways for you to go off the beaten path when visiting them.
1. Thingvellir National Park
The first stop on the Golden Circle is Thingvellir National Park, Iceland's first national park and the only one recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It's 29 miles (47 kilometers) northeast of Reykjavik.
The North American and Eurasian tectonic plates meet and form a rift valley here. Within the park, it's possible to take turns standing on the North American and Eurasian continents. Movement between the plates is ongoing, resulting in earthquakes that separate the plates by about two inches per year.
As a result of this ongoing activity, a fissure, Silfra, opened in the ground in 1789. It has since filled with purified glacial meltwater and has become a popular snorkeling and diving destination.
2. Geysir Geothermal Area
The second significant stop on Iceland's Golden Circle is the Geysir geothermal area, about 38 miles (61 kilometers) east of Thingvellir National Park on Route 37. This area of geothermal activity is named after the 59-foot-wide (18-meter-wide) Geysir, whose activity dates back to at least 1294, when an earthquake hit the region.
Today, Geysir, derived from the Icelandic word meaning "to erupt," is rarely active. However, you can still see where it used to spout off, as well as other, more active geysers in the area.
Strokkur is a geyser that became active following an earthquake in 1789. It erupts about every eight minutes, shooting a water column 82 to 115 feet (25 to 35 meters) into the air.
3. Gullfoss Waterfall
Six miles (10 kilometers) east of the Geysir geothermal area on Route 35 will bring you to the spectacular Gullfoss Waterfall. This is the third major stop on the Golden Circle in Iceland.
If you only see one waterfall in Iceland, make it Gullfoss. This natural wonder is fed by glacial waters from the Hvita River, which flow over the two stages of the falls at about 459 cubic feet (140 cubic meters) per second in the summer, and 358 cubic feet (109 cubic meters) in the winter.
The first stage of the waterfall is about 36 feet (11 meters), and it's followed by a second, more significant waterfall with a drop of 69 feet (21 meters). Thanks to the amount of mist kicked up by Gullfoss, rainbows frequently appear at the falls.
Gullfoss Waterfall is open year-round, but the path to the lower level observation area is closed in winter due to icy conditions.
Get Off the Beaten Path
Beyond the three main attractions, you can also visit other points of interest along the Golden Circle, such as:
- Reykjadalur's hot river
- The Secret Lagoon
- Nesjavellir geothermal plant
- Kerid volcanic crater
It's always a joy to explore new corners of Thingvellir National Park. No matter how many times you visit, it's possible to see something new.
There's so much more to Thingvellir than just Almannagja, Peningagja (the Money Rift), Silfra, and Oxararfoss.
Autumn is a favorite season to explore the park when the low shrubs covering the area turn multi-colored. The ground's red, yellow, and green colors contrast nicely with a fresh snow layer.
Tours will give you ample time at each location to see the main sights, but with your own car, you can choose to go for a short hike within the national park or perhaps bring a picnic and settle down in some mossy clearing with a view over the lake.
Most people go to the same paths in only one section of the park, next to the information center. But the park is much larger and encompasses the entire lake of Thingvellir, which would take about an hour to drive around, or a one- to two-day hike (it's about 37 miles or 60 kilometers, but the route is almost flat).
Where to Eat on the Golden Circle?
When driving yourself, there are many options for where to eat. If you're a foodie, then you might want to stop at some of the great dining locations along the way and skip the overpriced sandwiches and road burgers commonly found in gas stations.
Some of the interesting options include the Frioheimar greenhouse for tomato soup with homemade bread and cucumber salsa. All the tomatoes and cucumbers are grown on the premises.
The Ethiopian restaurant Minilik in Fludir is also a fun find in the middle of the Icelandic countryside. It's an excellent example of how international cuisine has reached more remote areas of Iceland.
If you head to Solheimar Eco Village, you can get homemade cakes and delicious coffee at Graena Kannan cafe.
Or, if you want to find local art or do some yoga, check out the ceramic studio and cafe Bragginn Clay & Coffee, an 8-mile (13-kilometer) drive from Fludir. They're only open during summertime. On weekends they offer yoga classes, and on Thursdays, they have Irish coffee evenings.
The traditional Icelandic meat soup served in Gullfoss cafe is also delicious, and they'll give you a free refill. There's also the ice-cream barn Efstidalur that's not to be missed.
Some hotels along the way have fine dining restaurants, such as the Geysir Hotel and the Silfra restaurant in the Ion Hotel.
If you make an extended Golden Circle trip, you could drive to Stokkseyri and enjoy some fine langoustine at Fjorubordid or go to Rauda Husid in Eyrarbakki.
Drive the Golden Circle Like a Local
Above is an alternative one-day drive of the Golden Circle, as a local might do it. This suggestion is mainly for spring, summer, and autumn when the weather is pleasant and the days are long.
If you want to make this a two-day trip, we suggest camping in Thingvellir National Park. Although, of course, you can also choose to spend the night in a hotel somewhere along the way.
First, have breakfast at a restaurant in Reykjavik and grab some snacks for the road. Our suggestion is to try Braud & Co for some fresh sourdough bread or a couple of cinnamon buns.
If you plan on making this a two-day trip, then also buy some food for breakfast the next day, or get something to put on a barbeque for the evening (if you like - you can also decide to do that later on in the trip). Grab a tent (or rent a tent) and leave Reykjavik around 9 a.m.
Head towards Hveragerdi, but turn left onto Route 431, which turns into Route 435. Parts of this road are gravel, so take your time and go slowly.
The route is beautiful, and you likely won't meet many others on the way. When you get to Nesjavellir Geothermal Plant, you might want to check out their geothermal exhibition.
Continue along Route 360, a stunning gravel road that goes through the less-visited Grafningur area of Thingvellir. The road is winding with plenty of cute picnic clearings and great views of the lake. It's an excellent area to park your car at the side of the road to take some pictures or breathe in the fresh countryside air.
There are a lot of summer cabins in this area. If you are driving in autumn (late August or even early September), you can also look for wild berries to pick.
At the end of Route 360, there's another geothermal power station, Ljosafossstod, that has a free, fun, interactive exhibition daily; it's worth checking out for half an hour or so.
Then head towards Skalholt on Road 36 and then 35. On the way, make a stop by the crater Kerid, which takes about half an hour to walk around.
You can also stop by Skalholt if you like and visit its historical church and learn about this important location in Iceland's history.
When it's time for lunch, stop at either Bragginn, Fridheimar, Kaffi Klettur, or Minilik for a delicious meal.
After lunch, head to the Secret Lagoon in Fludir and relax for a couple of hours in hot water while checking out the small hot springs by the pool. Aim to be at the Secret Lagoon before 2 p.m. at the latest for privacy's sake, as large tour groups arrive between 3 p.m. to 5 p.m.
Photo from Golden Circle Tour with Secret Lagoon
Following a soak in the Secret Lagoon, head towards Gullfoss waterfall. It would be best to arrive in the afternoon as most tour groups will have left the area.
After admiring the powerful waterfall and walking down the hiking path to its rim, it's time to head towards Geysir, which should also be relatively quiet in the late afternoon/early evening. If you've become hungry for dinner, you could check out the menu at Hotel Geysir.
For dessert (or an appetizer in case you'll have dinner later), We suggest trying locally made ice cream in Efstidalur. If you only want this to be a one-day trip, then head to Thingvellir and go for a stroll there in the evening sun before making your way back to Reykjavik.
If, on the other hand, you want to camp for the night and you haven't had dinner yet, then shop for charcoal and something to put on a barbeque in the small village of Laugarvatn. The Icelandic lamb is highly recommended.
Continue to the campsite of Thingvellir National Park (where there are barbeques available), pitch your tent, and prepare your feast.
After dinner, go for a stroll in the evening and listen to the local birds singing. The above picture was taken around midnight in June to give you an idea of how bright it's throughout the night.
The next day, you can get up early and enjoy the quiet morning before most people arrive or sleep in and go for an extended walk around the area in the afternoon. You could be back in Reykjavik in the early afternoon (from Thingvellir, it's only about a 29-mile or 47-kilometers drive to Reykjavik) or spend the whole day exploring Thingvellir National Park.
If you are looking for more activity, you could book a snorkeling tour in Silfra by Thingvellir or a horseback riding tour on the outskirts of Reykjavik and get back to the city in the late afternoon or early evening.
Grab a set of wheels, and you'll be on your way to exploring the Golden Circle firsthand!
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