Iceland’s Golden Circle (not to be confused with Iceland’s Ring Road) is the country’s most well-traveled tourist trail, but for any first time visitor to the Land of Ice and Fire, should be at the top of the to-do list.
The Golden Circle in Iceland is made up of three of the country’s most impressive natural sites: a national park, a waterfall, and geothermal geysers. This is Iceland in an accessible microcosm, where you can see ice and fire just an hour’s drive from Reykjavik.
Driving the Golden Circle in Iceland is one of the best days out, so to inspire your next Icelandic adventure, here’s our comprehensive guide to this classic sightseeing route.
What is the Golden Circle in Iceland?
Iceland’s Golden Circle is a popular tourist route that encompasses three major tourist attractions in the southwest. These attractions are all within one or two hour’s drive of the Icelandic capital, making this an accessible day trip from Reykjavik throughout the year.
The Golden Circle comprises three major destinations:
- Thingvellir National Park
- Haukadalur Geothermal Field
- Gullfoss Waterfall
You start out in Reykjavik and complete a loop that brings you back to the capital. Along the way, there’s history, natural beauty, landscapes, vistas, explosive geothermal geysers, and thundering waterfalls. It’s an epic road trip, and it doesn’t stop there, because you can extend the journey to visit nearby attractions that aren’t officially part of the Golden Circle. These include volcanic crater lakes, natural hot springs, and more.
You can expect the Golden Circle route to be busy, but if you’re here to see the best that Iceland has to offer in a limited time frame, then this is the best place to visit.
For first-timers, this is the ultimate dip into the Land of Ice and Fire – and from here, you won’t want to go home.
Map of the Golden Circle in Iceland
How Long Does it Take to Drive the Golden Circle?
The Golden Circle is popular because it’s so close to Reykjavik, but you’re still going to need to take a long day out to make the most of everything there is to see.
The closest site to Reykjavik is Thingvellir National Park. This is a one-hour drive from the capital. From Thingvellir, it’s a one-hour drive to the main sites within the Haukadalur Geothermal Field and the adjacent Gullfoss waterfall.
It’s four hours round trip from Reykjavik, but the trip isn’t just about driving Iceland’s Golden Circle – it’s about exploring the attractions, too!
Even with minimal stopping time and a lunch break, leave at least six hours to see the three major attractions. If you want to add in extra activities (you can go snorkeling in Thingvellir National Park, for instance) or a few extra stops outside of the official route, then you need a whole day to get the best out of touring the Golden Circle. Ten hours is ideal.
Driving Tips in Iceland
Driving in Iceland is undeniably a beautiful experience, which is why it’s our recommended way to visit the Golden Circle (not to mention that renting your own vehicle equals independence). As soon as you leave Reykjavik, you’re surrounded by vast Icelandic landscapes. You can see waterfalls and volcanoes from the car, and looming mountains and glaciers in the distance.
But driving in Iceland can be a surreal experience, too. In a country with more tourists than residents, one of the biggest dangers on the road can be avoiding the car in front that suddenly stops to take photographs of the waterfalls.
Recommendation: If you are renting a car for this Golden Circle trip, make sure to use Rentalcars.com to find the best deals. They search and compare rental prices from all major rental companies in Iceland, so you can rest assured that you’re getting the best possible price on your rental car.
Then there are the animals to look out for. This is a wild country, and even along the ‘highways’ you’ll encounter stray sheep or feral reindeer. The roads you’ll be driving to the Golden Circle are all paved, and it’s almost impossible to get lost (just remember, they drive on the right-hand side here). You won’t need a four-by-four for this route, unless you plan on going off road at another point in your road trip around Iceland.
Outside of the short summer months, the weather can be unpredictable. Snowstorms can quickly bury the road in snow, but then pass rapidly. Unless you’re experienced at driving in icy and snowy conditions, it’s best to join Golden Circle tours in winter rather than self-driving.
Best Golden Circle Tours
While driving is the best way to explore the Golden Circle, there are other options to consider if you’re not confident driving in Iceland.
As this is one of the most popular tourist routes in the country, there are plenty of tours available. These depart from Reykjavik, often including a hotel pickup, and will hit the three major attractions (they might also include other attractions, such as a stop at a hot spring, for example). There are half-day and full-day tours available.
Some of the most popular of them are:
- Best Overall: Golden Circle Full Day Tour with Kerid Crater
- With Secret Lagoon: Golden Circle Tour & Secret Lagoon Early Access
- With Blue Lagoon: Golden Circle Day Trip with Blue Lagoon Transfer
- With Snorkeling in Silfra: Golden Circle and Snorkeling in Silfra with Photos Included
- Small Group: Small-Group Premium Golden Circle Tour from Reykjavik
In winter, these tours can be combined with a Northern Lights tour; you get taken to a remote location once the sun has set (which doesn’t take long in winter!) where you’ll have a good chance of seeing the spectacular Aurora Borealis in the night sky. In our opinion, this is the best Golden Circle tour in Iceland, as there are few other places in the world where the Northern Lights are so visible and vibrant.
Adventure lovers can also opt for adventurous tours. In winter, there are snowmobile tours, and in summer, you can ride horses under the midnight sun!
Best Time to Visit the Golden Circle
There’s not necessarily a ‘best time of year’ to visit Iceland and to tour the Golden Circle. It depends on what you’re looking to see and do, because every season offers different opportunities.
Peak season is between June and September. This is when the weather is best and the sun is always in the sky (you can experience the midnight sun phenomenon). The driving is easy, but the roads are busy and the Golden Circle can be packed with tours and tourists. Rental prices are higher, as are flight prices and hotel costs.
You can skip the worst of the crowds by self-driving in the shoulder months. March to May offers long days and cheaper prices. In March, you might even catch the Northern Lights. October and November offer a similar experience. Winter is difficult for self-driving, but does offer you an almost guaranteed opportunity to see the Northern Lights – you’ll also see Gullfoss frozen over (an otherworldly winter wonderland!).
Best Golden Circle Itinerary
The Golden Circle can be tackled in a number of ways when you’re driving. We’ve detailed the classic route below, starting with Thingvellir National Park (closest to Reykjavik) and ending at Gullfoss. You can reverse this route, of course.
After the big three, we’ve detailed a number of additional stops that you can make along the way or at the end. These include hotsprings and crater lakes. These are all suggestions that make for great detours from the traditional route, and we’ve explained how they can fit into your Golden Circle itinerary.
1. Thingvellir National Park
Start your day early and get a head start on the tour buses by driving from Reykjavik to Thingvellir National Park.
Thingvellir is one the most historic locations in Iceland, as this national park protects not just an incredible area of outdoor beauty, but the place where the Parliament of Iceland was held for centuries.
The ‘Althingi’ is one of the earliest examples of democracy in the world, and it’s still in session in Reykjavik today (albeit in more modern surroundings). The Icelandic Parliament was first held in 930 A.D., and they met once a year at Thingvellir until the 18th century.
The whole area is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and you can see the preserved remains of a stone church, the Oxararfoss waterfall, and an impressive ridgeline of unique rock formations. Best of all, though, is the fact that this massive rift valley is where the North American and European continental plates meet.
In fact, the plates aren’t meeting so much as separating. Every year, the cracks widen, and a wide, deep fissure has formed and filled with crystal clear glacial water. Despite the cold, the Silfra Fissure has turned into an incredible snorkeling and diving spot. That’s right – you can don a dry suit, snorkel, and fins and swim between two continental plates.
2. Haukadalur Geothermal Field
From Thingvellir National Park, head west, and within an hour you’ll drive into the Haukadalur Geothermal Field. This is where you’ll be able to see the powerful geothermal forces at work.
The main stops here are the powerful geysers – boiling hot springs of water that explode upwards in violent spurts when the pressure below builds up and is released. There’s the Great Geysir, Little Geysir, and Strokkur.
The geysers can reach impressive heights of 20 meters, while the surrounding landscape bubbles and boils as you walk through the geothermal fields.
There are several smaller waterfalls on Iceland’s Golden Circle, like Oxarafoss in Thingvellir National Park, but nothing compares to Gullfoss. This is the true centerpiece of the Golden Circle, and it’s just a 10-minute drive east from the Geothermal area.
Gullfoss (the Golden Waterfall) is one of Iceland’s original tourist spots. It was saved by the landowners from being turned into a hydroelectric power plant in the mid 20th century, making this one of the first eco tourism destinations in the world.
The waterfall is powerful, reaching heights of 32 meters, and churning out thousands of cubic liters of water every second. In summer the roar of the falls is awe-inspiring, but in winter, everything is frozen over.
You can view the falls from a wide viewing area that looks over the edge of a sharp precipice opposite the longest drop. It’s quite a sight.
Other Attractions On or Near the Golden Circle
1. Kerid Crater
One of the best detours to add to your itinerary is Kerid Crater. It’s a one-hour drive southwest of Gullfoss, and you can visit it on your way back to Reykjavik by turning the Golden Circle into a longer loop.
Kerid Crater is a volcanic crater lake. There’s literally a lake in the volcano. The water and the sides of the crater are both incredibly colorful in summer, while in winter, the lake freezes over.
2. Secret Lagoon
The not-so-secret Secret Lagoon is located between Gulfoss and Kerid Crater, and it’s the perfect place to unwind and relax toward the end of your Golden Circle tour.
The Secret Lagoon is a natural hot spring where you can enjoy the geothermal waters in the great outdoors. Surrounded by small geysers and wonderful scenery, this beats the man-made Blue Lagoon any day!
3. Langjokull Glacier
Langjokull Glacier is the second largest ice cap in Iceland, and one of the largest in the world outside of the polar regions. The glacier is enormous, and its southern edge is just north of the Golden Circle.
This is an adventure playground for travelers, as you can go snowmobiling, snowshoe trekking, or ice caving in the glacial area. It’s best to go as part of a tour, though.
Iceland has exceptional history and natural beauty, all of which can be found within a one-hour drive of the capital Reykjavik.
While Iceland is often seen as remote and isolated, visiting the Golden Circle is easy, even if you’re only stopping over in Reykjavik for a few days.
So why not explore the vast nature and long history of Thingvellir, be astounded by the geothermal energy of the Great Geysir, and stand in awe of the sheer power of Gullfoss?