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Driving the Golden Circle in Iceland is the classic, memorable road trip adventure for travellers visiting Iceland. The 300km route is a great opportunity to experience the most popular destinations of Iceland: Pingvellir, Geysir and Gullfoss plus other unique points of interest on a day trip from Reykjavik.
Touring the Golden Circle route is an essential day trip for anyone visiting Iceland for the first time, as the perfect short road trip for a layover in Iceland, or as the start or end of driving Iceland’s Ring Road. Consider renting a car and feel the wind in your hair as you drive around the Golden Circle route under your own steam.
If you’re with two or more, depending on the car rental company you rent from it could be cheaper than partaking in a tour.
We relished in the idea of hitting the road under our own steam and picked up our rental vehicle in Reykjavik and spent the day leisurely exploring the Golden Circle circuit.
This drive it yourself guide to the Golden Circle in Iceland goes over the highlights and main attractions along the way, and providing you with inspiring photos and tips to help plan your own Golden Circle road trip.
Driving in Iceland
- Roads along the Golden Circle are well maintained, clearly signed and often travelled. City driving is the busiest part of the journey as once you enter the country side traffic and congestion will fall by the wayside.
- Use common sense and adjust your speed accordingly to the often changing weather and road conditions. Always have you lights on and seatbelts fastened. Dial 112 For Emergencies.
- You can check reliable, real time road condition and weather alerts in Iceland on the website Vegagerdin. Download the App on IOS or Android.
- Hold onto your doors! Iceland is notorious for its unpredictable and volatile weather. It’s not uncommon to experience strong gail winds that make it difficult to either open or close your door!
- Be on the lookout for Icelandic sheep that are known to either stand beside or on the road itself. Slow down and give them a warning honk if they don’t budge.
The Golden Circle Highlights
Þingvellir National Park
Historically, this Unesco World Hertiage Site bore witness to the establishment of Iceland’s first national parliament, the Alping, in 930 AD. Take a seat at the Lögberg or the Law rock, where early Icelandic residents would assemble annually for the Alping.
The Almannagjá rift valley within Pingvellir National Park is located on the Mid-Atlantic ridge where the North American & Eurasian tectonic plates are slowly diverging (moving away) from each other. There are very few places on Earth where it is this easily accessible to observe the effects of this geologic process!
Pingvallavatn lake is the largest lake in Iceland and fills the rift plain of the Almannagjá rift zone. The lake is and abundant with Arctic char fish and consequently popular with migratory birds. Gorgeous views are had at viewing platform near the Interpretive Centre.
Öxarárfoss is sourced from the Öxará river and varies in volume depending on the time of year. Enjoy the rush of the flowing water as it tumbles down over dark basaltic columns and onto the Almannagjá rift plain.
Well maintained walking paths are available on the rift plain. Visit the farmhouse, Pingvalabaer, built in 1930 to celebrate the milleniumth anniversiary of the Alping. Next to it is the Pingvallakirkja, the site of one of Iceland’s oldest Christian churches from the 11th century but now occupied by a mid-nineteenth century wooden building.
The next show stopper on our Golden Circle journey was the the active geothermal region of Haukadalur. The Earth here is piping hot with steam arising from fumaroles and geysers. The mud bubbles and jumps around in small mud pools. The distinct scent of sulphur wafted into our nostrils.
Strokkur geysir is an active geothermal geysir that reliably erupts every 5-15mins. A terrific and exciting sight to watch the water explosively rise to heights of 20m in the air.
Even more famous is Geysir, the original hot water and steam spring from where the English vocabulary word geyser stems from. How cool is that!
There are gift shops, stores, cafes, and hotels available in Haukadalur.
The voluminous Ölfusá River thunders down into a ravine at the popular double tiered Gulfoss waterfall. The wide, rapid river swerves almost perpendicularly before plunging into a 32 metre or 105 feet crevice and disappearing from view. A spectacular sight to behold from every angle.
Thick mist, huge sprays of water, and prevailing winds make photography difficult at the viewpoint overlooking the Ölfusá river East of the parking lot. The water droplets and sunlight merge to produce a rainbow showcasing natural kaleidoscope of color.
Descend the staircase and pathway to experience the powerful, roaring waterfall up close and take in the impressive view peering down into the deep, narrow valley.
We recommend wearing warm layers and waterproof clothing for protection against the wind and the frequent spray of water arising from Gullfoss.
After ascending to the parking lot level, walk along the edge of the cliff overlooking the falls and gaze out at the beautiful, lonely landscape.
Feeling hungry? The Gullfoss cafe offers delicious meat soup with bread with free refills! So grab a table, two spoons to share, and unwind.
Top Detours On the Golden Circle
Go at your own pace and see where it takes you along the Golden route and relax knowing you have the freedom and flexibility to take those off the beaten roads that pique your interest and customize your trip with unique detours.
Following the impressive Gulfoss, you can opt to make a quick stop at another less known waterfall along the Golden Circle.
Faxi waterfall is a low and wide cascade situated on and spanning the width of the Tungufljót River. It’s a soothing spot for a lunch picnic or an overnight stay at the campsite in the area.
Can’t get enough of waterfalls?
Check out Pórufoss Waterfall and Brúarfoss Waterfall and Thjorsardalur Valley
If daylight is waning, finish your road trip on the Golden Circle at Kerið crater, a red volcanic crater embellished in green mossy vegeation. It is likely that Kerið began as a cone volcano but collapsed and formed a caldera after emptying out the magma chamber in the Earth’s crust.
Towns to Visit
The quiet town of Skálholt was the country’s first town and the site of the first established Icelandic school. Iceland’s first bishop made his home there as well and the striking cathedral is worth a visit.
The geothermally active area in and around Hveragerði makes for a unique experience. Visit the free geothermal park Hverasvæðið to watch bubbling mudpots and steaming boreholes. North of town, hike 3km one way to Reykjadalur, a scenic valley with a bathable hot river of varying temperature.
The Eco-Village of Sólheimar
The humble village of Sólheimar is an eco-friendly, sustainable and thriving community of 100 permanent residents. The Icelandic vilagers actively work together for the benefit of the entire community and in particular with those with disabilities or special needs. Great location to base yourself from when exploring the Golden Circle.
Rest and Relaxation
Fontana Geothermal Baths
Unwind and slow down at the Fantana Geothermal Baths in Laugarvatn. Access includes steam rooms, a traditional Nordic sauna, and heated pools. The spa overlooks a scenic lake with a mountainous backdrop. Great (and cheaper) alternative to the famous Blue Lagoon.
The Secret Lagoon
Gamla laguin, otherwise known as the Secret Lagoon, can be found in the small village of Flúðir. This natural geothermal pool holds the title as the oldest swimming pool in Iceland. These days locals and visitors continue to frequent the natural hot springs for the natural surroundings and magical atmosphere. Expect basic facilities and services and a unique experience.
Farm to Table Experiences
The farm at Efsti-dalur serves fresh, mouth-watering, homemade ice-cream at their Ice Cream Shop sourced from the dairy cow barn next door. Additionally, this versatile farm offers a B&B and restaurant should you decide to stay longer!
Friðheimar Tomato and Horse Farm
Have lunch at Friðheimar where the food on your table is fresh and grown directly from the farm . All you can eat fans rejoice as their delicious tomato soup and bread have this option available.
Navigating Iceland’s Golden Circle
Google Maps will tell you it only takes approximately 3 hours of driving time for complete the Golden Circle. However with stops and exploring roads less taken it is easy to rack up more driving distances and time spent in the car. Combine this with a respectable amount of time spent at each attraction and you’ve got a full day ahead of you.
Self driving the Golden Circle gives you the wonderful opportunity for a custom tailored experience.
Zoom in and out to look around the map. Click here to download the itinerary and have access to detailed step by step directions for offline use.
It’s not necessary to rent a GPS from your vehicle rental company if you download the map above or utilize the app Maps.Me, an excellent offline map and navigation tool which we use frequently.
Accommodation In Iceland
Basing yourself in Reykavik allows you easy access and a variety of shopping, restaurants and entertainment. Our recommendations are the following:
We enjoy utilizing AirBnB as a couple when we want to balance budget with privacy. If you’re new to Airbnb you can sign up with a new account at Airbnb and get a $30EURO or $35USD discount on your first stay!
Planning a Trip To Iceland?
We never leave home without emergency medical and trip protection cover. We utilize travel insurance from World Nomads for short trips abroad. Protect yourself and your wallet from unexpected injury, sickness & theft abroad.
Still not convinced about self driving the Golden Circle? If you don’t feel comfortable to drive in Iceland, especially with a manual transmission or would rather have someone else handle the logistics than by all means join a tour group! There are plenty of Golden circle tours available to get you around quickly and safely.
Iceland Travel Guide
Dress Appropriately for the Weather
Iceland is notorious for its unpredictable and versatile climate. It’s not uncommon for the weather to change in the blink of an eye. Be prepared for sun, rain, hail, and wind.
We recommend waterproof jackets and boots, quick drying pants, warm layers, and a flexible attitude! Shop our favorite Iceland travel essentials!