The Golden Circle is the most popular route to take in Iceland. But instead of going on a Golden Circle tour, why not drive it yourself? As a result, you have the option to stop at some extra sights along the way. Find out how to drive the Golden Circle like a local!
If you're coming to Iceland for the first time, then you'll be visiting the Golden Circle route without a doubt. Even if you've been on a tour before, you might want to drive it again by yourself and explore all the extra locations along the way that the tour buses often whizz by.
If you're asking yourself, 'what is the Golden Circle?' then the short answer is that it's a common route between 3 beautiful natural attractions in Iceland; Þingvellir National Park, Geysir geothermal area and Gullfoss waterfall. Instead of driving back and forth the same way, people normally drive a short circle, that's just under 230km (140 miles).
There are hundreds of different Golden Circle tours to choose from, but in case you'd rather drive this route yourself instead of going on a tour, then here are a few very good reasons and tips on how to do it!
First up, find a rental car that suits you. A 4x4 is unnecessary unless you are going during wintertime, then you might feel more at ease in a 4x4 if there's heavy snow on the ground. The Golden Circle is the most popular route in the country, however, so if you would find yourself stuck in a pile of snow in wintertime, help wouldn't be far off.
During summertime, you might want to get a car with a tent on its roof, or a camper van, and spend a night in the campsite in Þingvellir National Park.
One of the perks of driving the Golden Circle yourself is that you choose when to leave and how long you'll stay.
Since the Golden Circle is the most popular attraction in Iceland, there are hundreds of different tours going there all day, every day and you're spoilt for choice when it comes to picking the best tour for you.
However, with the flexibility of having your own car, you can choose exactly how long you spend exploring these attractions, and which route you take. There's not just one way to do it!
If you want to have a lay-in, you can do the circle in the afternoon, or even in the evening. During summertime the nights don't get dark, so you could even go during nighttime and visit the attractions under the midnight sun. The drive itself is just under 3 hours with the shortest route, so you could do the whole circle in as little as 5 hours with stops - or obviously, you could also spend days doing it.
If you want to beat the crowds, you can get up at the crack of dawn and leave then, spending the full day exploring and relaxing along the way.
Perhaps you'd like to visit these attractions like the locals, and then spend a night or two in the area. Þingvellir National Park has a great campsite, as well as a modern and stylish hotel, and the Geysir geothermal area also has a luxurious hotel and a campsite.
By Gullfoss you can find yet another hotel as well as multiple summer cabins along the way that can be rented for some privacy - and nothing beats being out in the clean and quiet countryside sitting in your own private hot tub on a summer cabin's veranda.
If you're driving the Golden Circle yourself, it's more likely that you can find privacy on the way.
Most Golden Circle tours leave in the morning from Reykjavík, between 8-10 and with afternoon departures around 12 and 14. Most of them are back in Reykjavík by 20:00. In summertime some midnight sun tours are available, but not many. There are hardly any overnight tours available of the Golden Circle (I think there are none, but perhaps there's 1 or 2 I haven't heard about!)
So the busiest times of the day are between 9:00 and 19:00 at all locations: Þingvellir, Gullfoss and Geysir.
With the exception of October-February, daylight hours in Iceland exceed those times. So in summertime if you leave early (or spend the night in the area) you can see the attractions in broad daylight before 9:00, or after 19:00. In spring or fall these would be the perfect timings to capture those sunrise and sunset photos - or for admiring the Northern Lights during wintertime.
I once spent a night at the hotel by Geysir and went for a walk to Strokkur area in the middle of the night under a starry bright sky - and then there was absolutely no-one else around.
If you spend a night there in the summertime, the night doesn't even get dark, so you can enjoy the natural attraction completely on your own without herds of tourists around you.
Not only can you choose to visit multiple other attractions along the Golden Circle (such as Reykjadalur's hot river, the Secret Lagoon, the Nesjavellir geothermal plant and the Kerið volcanic crater) - you can also explore each area in more detail.
I often spend several nights in a summer cabin right by Þingvellir National Park that my family owns, and it's a joy to explore new corners of this park. Every time I go I see something new (and I've been there hundreds of times!).
There's so much more to Þingvellir than just Almannagjá, Peningagjá (the Money Rift), Silfra and Öxarárfoss. My favourite season to explore the park is in autumn, as the park is covered with low shrubs that turn multi-coloured and the red, yellow and green colour of the ground is in contrast with a fresh layer of snow.
On tours, you're given ample time at each location to see the main sights, but with your own car, you could choose to go for a 1-2 hour hike within the National Park, perhaps bring a picnic and settle down in some mossy clearing with a view over the lake.
Most people just go to the same paths in only one section of the park, right next to the information centre. But the park is much larger than that and encompasses the entire lake of Þingvellir, which would take about an hour to drive around, or an entire day or two to hike (it's about 60km, or 37 miles, but almost flat).
Photo credit: Breathe Iceland
By driving yourself you can do some research beforehand and find the best places to stop for a bite to eat along the way. If you're a foodie, like me, then you might want to stop at some exciting dining locations along the way and skip the overpriced sandwiches and road burgers that can be found in gas stations along the way.
Interesting options include the greenhouse Friðheimar where you can have some tomato soup with homemade bread and cucumber salsa, and all the tomatoes and cucumbers come from the premises.
If you head to Sólheimar Eco Village then you can get some homemade cakes and delicious coffee at Græna Kannan café. The 'grandma style' cooking at Kaffi Klettur in Reykholt also gets great reviews if you're looking for traditional comfort food with local ingredients.
Photo credit: Bragginn
Or if you want to find some local art or do some yoga, then check out the ceramic studio and café Bragginn Clay & Coffee which is a 10-minute drive from Flúðir. They're only open during summertime. On weekends they offer yoga classes and on Thursdays, they have Irish Coffee evenings.
If you make a stop in Hveragerði, then be sure to check out Kjöt & Kúnst for lunch or dinner.
Photo credit: Varmá at Frost & Fire Hotel
There are also some hotels along the way that have restaurants offering fine dining, such as the Geysir Hotel, Silfra restaurant in the Ion Hotel, the more homely Hotel Borealis or Varmá restaurant in the Frost & Fire Hotel.
Above is a suggested alternative 1-day drive of the Golden Circle, as a local might do it. Note that this suggestion is mainly for spring, summer and autumn when the weather is nice and the days are long. If you want to make this a 2-day trip, then I suggest camping in Þingvellir National Park - although of course, you can also choose to spend the night in a hotel somewhere along the way.
First up, have some breakfast in Reykjavík and maybe grab some snacks for the road. My suggestion would be to go to Brauð & Co and get some fresh sourdough bread - or a couple of their cinnamon buns if they have them ready.
If you plan on making this a 2-day trip then also buy some food for breakfast the next day, or even 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 Reykjavík around 09:00 am.
Head towards Hveragerði, but turn left onto road 431 that turns into road 435. Parts of this road are gravel, so just take your time and go slowly, the route is beautiful and you won't meet many others on the way. When you get to Nesjavellir Geothermal Plant you might want to check out their geothermal exhibition, or just continue on your way.
Continue along road 360, a stunning gravel road that goes through the less visited Grafningur area of Þingvellir. The road is twisted and winding with plenty of cute picnic clearings and great views out to the lake, in case you want to park your car at the side of the road somewhere to take some pictures or breathe in the fresh countryside air.
A lot of summer cabins are in this area. If you are driving in autumn (late August, or even early September) then you can also look out for berries to pick.
At the end of road 360, there's another geothermal power station, Ljósafossstöð, that has a fun and interactive exhibition going on every day, free of charge. I thoroughly recommend checking it out for half an hour or so.
Then head towards Skálholt on road 36 and then 35. On the way make a stop by the crater Kerið, it takes about half an hour to walk all the way around it. You can also stop by Skálholt if you like and visit its historical church, and learn about this important location in Iceland's history.
Then it's time for lunch, so stop at either Bragginn, Friðheimar, Kaffi Klettur or Minilik for a delicious lunch. After lunch, you can head to the Secret Lagoon in Flúðir and relax for a couple of hours in the hot water and check out the small hot springs by the pool. Aim to be at the Secret Lagoon before 14:00 at the latest for some privacy, as large tour groups arrive there between 15:00 and 17:00.
After a soak in the Secret Lagoon head towards Gullfoss waterfall. You should be arriving in the afternoon when most tour groups should've left the area.
After admiring the powerful waterfall and walking down the hiking path to its rim, then it's time to head towards Geysir, that should also be relatively quiet in the late afternoon/early evening. If you've become hungry for dinner already, you could check out the menu at Hotel Geysir.
Photo credit: Beint frá Býli
For dessert (or an appetiser in case you'll have your dinner later) I suggest having some locally made ice-cream in Efstidalur.
If you only want to make this a one day trip, then simply head to Þingvellir and go for a stroll there in the evening sun before making your way back to Reykjavík.
If on the other hand you want to camp for the night and you haven't had dinner yet, then shop for coals and something to put on a barbeque in the small village of Laugarvatn (I recommend some Icelandic lamb!). Continue to the campsite of Þingvellir National Park (where there are barbeques available), erect your tent and make your own dinner feast there.
Photo credit: Mats Wibe Lund
After dinner, you should go for a stroll in the evening and listen to the singing of the local birds, amongst only a few other travellers. The above picture is taken around midnight in June, to give you an idea of how bright it is throughout the night.
The next day, you can get up early and catch 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 Reykjavík in the early afternoon (from Þingvellir it's only about a 45-minute drive to Reykjavík) or spend the whole day exploring Þingvellir National Park.
If you long for some more activity, then you could book a snorkelling tour in Silfra by Þingvellir or horseback riding tour on the outskirts of Reykjavík get back to the city in the late afternoon or early evening.
Find and compare rental cars here and be on your way to explore the Golden Circle in detail!