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? A self-driving tour gives you the option to stop at some extra sights along the way. Driving yourself can also keep you away from the crowd during COVID-19. 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 Golden Circle tour before, you might want to drive it again by yourself and explore all the additional locations along the way that the tour buses often whizz past.
If you're asking yourself, 'what is the Golden Circle?' then the short answer is that it's a scenic route between three beautiful natural attractions in Iceland: Thingvellir National Park, Geysir geothermal area, and Gullfoss waterfall. Instead of driving back and forth the same way, people typically drive a short circle that's just under 230km (140 miles) in length.
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 guided tour, then here are a few excellent 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. You might feel more at ease in a 4x4 if 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 in wintertime, help wouldn't be far off.
In the summertime, you might want to get a car with a tent on its roof, or a camper van, and spend a night at the campsite in Thingvellir National Park. Whenever you plan to visit Iceland, it’s important to note that COVID-19 has made some changes to local businesses.
It may come as a relief to find out that Iceland is still open to approved countries' visitors. Throughout the pandemic, Iceland has implemented strict testing and contact tracing policies to reduce the virus’s spread.
There are also a few guidelines that limit how many people can gather and outline social distancing recommendations. You can read more about the policies surrounding the virus in our comprehensive COVID-19 guide.
Iceland has not only a relatively small population but also a low population density. This has proved to be a great benefit during COVID-19 because you can quickly separate yourself from others and still see some amazing sights. The Golden Circle is situated close enough to Reykjavik, the capital, but is far enough away that you can quickly leave the crowds behind and create a unique schedule for this trip.
The Benefits of a Self-Drive during COVID-19
Driving the Golden Circle yourself during COVID-19 is a great way to explore without traveling with other people. You can skip the minibus and structured tours for your personalized itinerary. Rental cars are thoroughly sanitized between rentals, making them an exceptionally safe choice during COVID-19.
In a lot of ways, you may not even notice the effects of COVID-19. Nature is still wide open and accessible during these unprecedented times.
Whether you want to complete the trip in a day or take a few days to see the sights, it is entirely up to you. COVID-19 has impacted most local businesses so that you may find some reduced hours at cafes or restaurants.
If you want to make the trip last a few days, you can camp in the warmer months or cozy up in a luxurious hotel overnight. Whatever you choose, driving yourself gives you the option to stay isolated from other travelers. You can see the sights during the quiet times and rest when you need it.
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 outing 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 lie-in, you can do the circle in the afternoon or evening. During the summer, 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 that you could do the whole circle in as little as 5 hours with stops - or 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 early, 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. 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 yet another hotel as well as multiple summer cabins along the way that you can rent for some privacy. And nothing beats being out in the clean and quiet countryside while sitting in a 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 8:00-10:00, with afternoon departures around 12:00 and 14:00. Most of them are back in Reykjavík by 20:00. 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 9:00 and 19:00. Except for October to February, daylight hours in Iceland exceed the busy times.
If you leave early in summer (or spend the night in the area), you can see the attractions in broad daylight before 9:00 or after 19:00. These would be 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 the herds of tourists around you.
You can choose to visit multiple other attractions along the Golden Circle, such as Reykjadalur's hot river, the Secret Lagoon, the Nesjavellir geothermal plant, or the Kerið volcanic crater, and explore each area in more detail.
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 Almannagjá, Peningagjá (the Money Rift), Silfra, and Öxarárfoss. Autumn is a favorite season to explore the park when the low shrubs covering the area turn multi-colored. The red, yellow, and green colors of the ground contrast well 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 1-2 hour 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 actually much larger and encompasses the entire lake of Thingvellir, which would take about an hour to drive around, or a full day or two to hike (it's about 60km or 37 miles, but the route is almost flat).
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, then you might want to stop at some exciting dining locations along the way and skip the overpriced sandwiches and road burgers found in gas stations.
Interesting options include the greenhouse Friðheimar where you can have some tomato soup with homemade bread and cucumber salsa. All the tomatoes and cucumbers are grown on the premises.
If you head to Sólheimar Eco Village, 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.
Or, if you want to find some local art or do some yoga, check out the ceramic studio and café Bragginn Clay & Coffee, 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.
There are also some hotels along the way that have fine dining restaurants, 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 an alternative 1-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 2-day trip, then I 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 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 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 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 twisted and winding with plenty of cute picnic clearings and great views out to the lake. It's a good area 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), you can also look out for berries to pick.
At the end of Route 360, there's another geothermal power station, Ljósafossstöð, that has a fun and interactive exhibition going on every day, free of charge, and is worth checking 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, which takes about half an hour to walk around. 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 while checking out the small hot springs by the pool. Aim to be at the Secret Lagoon before 14:00 at the latest for privacy, as large tour groups arrive between 15:00 and 17:00.
Photo from Golden Circle Tour with Secret Lagoon
After a soak in the Secret Lagoon, head towards Gullfoss waterfall. It would be best to arrive in the afternoon when 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 already, you could check out the menu at Hotel Geysir.
For dessert (or an appetizer 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 head to Thingvellir 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 (Icelandic lamb is highly recommended!). Continue to the campsite of Thingvellir National Park (where there are barbeques available), pitch your tent, and make your dinner feast there.
After dinner, you should go for a stroll in the evening and listen to the local birds singing while among only a few other travelers. 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 Thingvellir, it's only about a 45-minute drive to Reykjavík) or spend the whole day exploring Thingvellir National Park.
If you long for some more activity, then you could book a snorkeling tour in Silfra by Thingvellir or a horseback riding tour on the outskirts of Reykjavík and get back to the city in the late afternoon or early evening.
Find and compare rental cars here and be on your way to exploring the Golden Circle in detail!