With waterfalls around every corner, and some of the world’s most dramatic scenery, Iceland is a dream destination for many travelers. Luckily, even if you’re short on time, Iceland’s Golden Circle showcases some of the country’s best features.
Accessible within a day trip from the capital city of Reykjavík, think of the Golden Circle as a sample tour of what Iceland has to offer. Though all tour companies do tours of the area, it’s easily doable as a self-driving tour. However, no matter how you do it, you’ll want to reserve a full day as there’s so much to see and do.
So, fly into Reykjavík, grab a vehicle, and let’s go!
The Golden Circle is a driving route which connects the capital city of Reykjavík to Iceland’s three most popular natural attractions: a tectonic rift valley, a geyser, and a waterfall.
Driving the full 153-mile loop takes a little over 3.5 hours. Of course, the stops take much longer. Though the route is doable in a day trip, plan to be out for roughly 12 hours. We recommend starting your day early to fit everything in.
Technically, you don’t need to do the full circle. You could go back to Reykjavík the way you came. This saves 9 miles / 20 minutes, but what’s the fun in that? Plus, when doing Iceland’s full Golden Circle loop, you have the option to add two more fabulous stops in the itinerary, a crater and a geothermal area. As these sites are easily reachable, we include all five stops in this guide.
- (A & G) Start and end in Reykjavík
- (B) Thingvellir National Park
- (C) Geysir and Strokkur Geysers
- (D) Gullfoss Waterfall
- (E) Kerið Crater
- (F) Hengill Geothermal Area
What Type of Vehicle Do I Need to Rent in Iceland?
Iceland’s Golden Circle consists of well-traveled paved roads. You do not need a 4×4 to drive Iceland’s Golden Circle in summer. A 4×4 is also not necessary to travel the famous ring road around Iceland in summer.
Iceland drives on the right, just like the US and mainland Europe, and the roads are generally traffic free. Other than the occasional sheep that jumps out on the road, it’s relatively easy driving.
It is worth noting, Iceland’s weather is unpredictable year-round, and can be downright nasty in winter. Though the Golden Circle roads are well-maintained, a 4×4 can provide that extra security of not getting stuck in the snow from late September to mid-May. Outside of Reykjavík and the Golden Circle, a high-clearance 4×4 is highly recommended in winter.
We typically use RentalCars.com to find the best rental car prices.
Where to Stay to Visit Iceland’s Golden Circle
As the Golden Circle isn’t that far from Reykjavík, this is where most travelers stay. However, it is also possible to stay near the Golden Circle if you’re keen to be at the sites for sunrise or sunset.
- Blue Hotel Fagrilundur – Located within Iceland’s Golden Circle, it is one of the most convenient options with the best value.
- Hotel Lotus – Close to Reykjavík’s city center, we stayed here on our first and last nights in Iceland. Clean, comfortable, and quiet, it was a good budget option with free parking.
- Tower Suites Reykjavík – With floor to ceiling windows, this city center hotel has one-of-a-kind views of the city, landmarks, and mountains. If we were looking to splurge, this is where we would stay.
Thingviller National Park - Iceland's Golden Circle
The first stop on your self-driving tour of the Golden Circle is Iceland’s first national park, Thingvellir National Park.
Not only is this national park a beautiful place to visit, it’s a UNESCO World Heritage site for its cultural significance. In 930 AD, the first Icelandic tribes set up the world’s oldest ongoing representative parliament here. Thingvellir actually translates to “the fields of parliament.”
Of course, that’s not why millions of visitors come to the park every year. Rather, they come to see the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. Here, at Almannagjá gorge, the earth is literally tearing itself apart between the tectonic plates of North America and Europe. You can walk between the continents, or dive and snorkel the gap at Silfra. However, we felt it looked most phenomenal from the air on our helicopter tour.
While you’re walking the ridge, make the hike out to Öxarárfoss waterfall. If you’re a Game of Thrones fan with a keen eye, you’ll notice this is the site of The Bloody Gate and the entrance to the Eyrie.
Thingvellir National Park is free to visit, but the closer parking lots require a fee. However, we found Parking Lot #3 just off Road 36 was free. It made a stunning 15 minute walk to the waterfall, then it was another 15-minutes to the visitor center.
Thingvellir or Þingvellir?
Often, you’ll see Thingvellir written as Þingvellir. Believe it or not, the symbol Þ (thorn) is not just Icelandic. This symbol was used in Old English until around the mid-12th century to represent the “Th” sound.
Geysir and Strokkur Geysers - Iceland's Golden Circle
Most visitors don’t realize there are two geysers on the Golden Circle, and they are free to visit. Geysir is massive when it does explode, though it’s considered practically dormant these days.
Just next door is Strokkur, a smaller geyser, but impressive in its own right. This beautiful blue bubbling pool erupts in a powerful jet of water every four to ten minutes.
Since the eruptions are so frequent, we enjoyed watching the pool pulsate as the water gathered and heated, readying itself for its next show. See if you can guess exactly when it’s going to explode, it happens quickly.
In addition to the geysers, there are several hot pools to wander around. Definitely not for swimming, the temperatures range from 80 – 100°C (176 – 212°F).
If you’re hungry, the Geysir Center across the street serves up some good traditional Icelandic food.
Gullfoss Waterfall - Iceland's Golden Circle
The furthest stop on the round-trip tour of Iceland’s Golden Circle is the Gullfoss Waterfall. The name translates to Golden Falls for its golden hue in the evening sun.
The top-level walk gives the best panoramic view of the falls. However, the bottom pathway gets close to the water, where you can really feel the power and wind coming off these magnificent falls.
As you walk the paths, you’ll notice a tribute to Sigriðus Tomasdottir. The daughter of the former landowner, Sigriðus is credited with saving Gullfoss from destruction.
Legend has it, in the early 19th century foreign investors wanted to build a hydro-electric dam along the waterfall. Sigriðus protested, often walking the 75-miles to Reykjavík to persuade the government into protecting the falls. Most notably, she threatened to throw herself into the falls.
Luckily, the investors did not have enough capital to pursue the endeavor. Eventually, the Icelandic Government bought Gullfoss and made it a nature reserve in 1979. Today, it is a spectacular and free place to visit.
Kerið Crater - Iceland's Golden Circle
Instead of heading back to Reykjavík the way you came, take Route 35 towards Selfoss.
Along the route, make a short stop at Faxafoss, another lovely waterfall. There is a parking fee of 750 isk (about $6 USD). However, rumor has it that if you eat at the restaurant on site, Við Faxa, they will waive the parking fee.
Kerið Crater is about 30 minutes down the road from Faxafoss. Estimated to be around 3000 years old, Kerið Crater is 170 meters wide with a lake at the bottom. You can walk around the ring of the crater or descend the stairs to get a closer look at the lake. There is a 400 isk (roughly $3 USD) admission fee, and there are no facilities.
Kerið Crater isn’t the only water filled crater in Iceland, there are several. Since we headed east after Gullfoss, we didn’t make it to Kerið Crater on our trip, but we knew we would see others just like it. Actually, in Northern Iceland, Lake Viti in the Krafla volcanic area looks very similar to Kerið Crater, but it’s much wider at 300 meters.
Hengill Geothermal Area - Iceland's Golden Circle
Iceland is a geothermal hot spot. Steam rising from the earth and hot boiling pools are a common sight throughout the country.
Hengill Geothermal area covers 100 square acres right in the middle of Iceland’s Golden Circle route. One of the easiest and most popular places to visit in Hengill is Reykjadalur Valley.
Follow the road through the hot spring town of Hveragerði to Reykjadalur Hot Spring Thermal River parking area. Unfortunately, you must use a smart phone app to pay the parking fee, which can cause some issues for visitors.
Bring good shoes and a bathing suit. The 3.5-kilometer hike into the valley takes about an hour and is a bit tiring. Though in the end you’ll be rewarded with gorgeous views, and a heated river to soak in.
Just a word of caution, there are a lot of heated and bubbling pools throughout the area. Most are scolding hot and cannot be safely touched. With wooden platforms and steps leading into the water, the Reykjadalur Thermal Bathing Pools are very obvious compared to the other areas not safe for bathing.
Planning to Spend More Time in Iceland?
If you’re planning to spend more than a long weekend in Iceland, check our Iceland Travel Guides Page for more free articles on what to see and do.
It’s also useful to pick up a full travel guide on the country as there are so many hidden gems and we are yet to see and write about them all (yet!).
- We used the Lonely Planet Guide for our trip. These guides are great for pointing out off-the-beaten path attractions.
- Lonely Planet also has a travel guide specific to Iceland’s Ring Road.