Everything you need to know about the Golden Circle in Iceland

When visiting Iceland, one of the best and easiest adventures out of Reykjavik is the Golden Circle tour. This extensive loop takes you to some of the most beautiful sites in the Southwestern areas of Iceland. Indeed, this is all while staying on easy-to-drive roads through a safe and clean country. The views are magnificent and will showcase for you and your fellow travelers the otherworldly beauty of Iceland’s natural scenery.

One of the most exciting parts of the Golden Circle is that it is flexible. The most typical route is only about 237 kilometers, requiring 3-4 hours of drive time to get to the three most popular sites (Thingvellir National Park, Geysir Geothermal Area, and Gullfoss Waterfall). However, it is also valuable to add in some of the less well-known stops along the path. This will add very little in drive time, but make the day or days extremely rewarding. Starting fairly early in the morning makes for a beautiful and exciting path through Iceland. However, there is also beauty in a twilight drive. This is especially true during the summer when some light stays in the sky all night long.

Essential Stops on the Golden Circle

Thingvellir National Park

One of the most extensive spaces to visit on the Golden Circle, Thingvellir National Park sits on one of the only land locations of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, a site of sea-floor spreading where rock is constantly (if extremely slowly) changing and moving due to tectonic plate movement. This creates gorgeous natural formations, and hiking trails criss-cross the entirety of the park. Within the park, diving is permitted at Silfra, where the beautiful submerged rift is visible in crystal clear detail. If you intend to stop along the Golden Circle, consider making Thingvellir your halfway point. This way you can camp there during the summer months. You’ll be glad for the opportunity to see the night-long twilight that is so distinctive in countries this far North. In the morning, visit Thingvellir Church. It is a simple building that was originally constructed when Iceland became a Christian country more than 1000 years ago. This location was the site of the Althing, the Icelandic Parliament, until the middle of the 1800s. Then, it moved to Reykjavik. Learn a little history and culture before setting out to the next step on your journey!

Geysir Geothermal Area

geyser in golden circle Iceland
Strokkur Geyser erupting in Iceland.

Wait a few minutes to see at least one eruption of hot water at Geysir Geothermal Area. Throughout your journey in Iceland, you are sure to have noticed wisps of steam coming from between rocks along the sides of the roads or on rocky cliffs. Here, a hot spot for geothermal activity, you’ll see the surface of the Earth looks like the inside of a cavern. Rock that normally is inside the Earth appears on the surface. There is a large and beautiful visitor’s center, and while you’ll probably run into crowds, it is one of the best places to find a lot of people: the “oohs” and “aahs” after each Geysir blast are satisfying, knowing you are experiencing something beautiful with so many other people.

Gullfoss Waterfall

Gulfoss waterfall in Iceland

The power and excitement of Gullfoss are astounding: this waterfall cascades 32 meters down in a jagged canyon that looks right out of a fantasy world. The pounding of the water and the churning spray will wake up your senses, and on sunny days, gorgeous rainbows can be seen as the sun refracts through the water vapor. Hiking down to the waterfall is well worth it; a good opportunity to stretch your legs and enjoy the natural vistas. Other waterfalls along the path are no less amazing, though perhaps not quite so loud as Gullfoss: visit Faxi and Bruarfoss for unique and totally different waterfall experiences that are less well-traveled but equally beloved.

Preparing for the Golden Circle

Budget Your Time

It never hurts to budget more time than you expect. If you want a quick tour, you can do the trip in the morning or afternoon. However, expect to arrive back an hour or two later than you planned. For a no-rush journey, budget a whole day and make some planned “extra time” stops toward the end of your trip. This can be added or subtracted depending on how long you take at the main sites.

Bring Maps

Use a mapping application to create your own planned itinerary; while some of the journeys may be on the Ring Road/Route 1, you’ll want to make sure you know where all your essential turns are as well as any potential detours, since they may have only sparse signage or be easy to miss. Save these maps offline if you can, so that any loss of GPS connection doesn’t throw you off.

Packs Snacks

Pack snacks, but plan to try some cuisine while you are out there! While there aren’t a lot of restaurants along the path of the Golden Circle, you’ll find that these restaurants have something extraordinary to offer. That being said, you’ll be spending a good amount of hours in the car; it never hurts to make sure you are prepared for a snack.

Be Prepared

Most sites on the Golden Circle won’t require heavy gear or boots. Unless you’re taking a tour that takes you off the beaten path, basic hiking boots or very sturdy sneakers will work. Closed toed shoes are a good idea. Though, even in the summer months, given how many uneven and gravel paths you’ll walk on.

Rent a Car

One of the benefits of renting a car and doing your personalized version of the tour is the opportunity to stop and take photographs or explore small hiking trails you find along the way. Make sure to bring a camera to can capture all the beauty.

Gorgeous Extra Stops on the Golden Circle

For the Engineer: Nesjavellir Geothermal Plant

This may be the more “nerdy” stop for many, but the history of geothermal energy in Iceland is well documented in the museum-like exhibitions of the Nesjavellir Geothermal Plant. If you visit in a group, a tour can be arranged. This way the enormous turbines will awe and inspire anyone with an interest in sustainable energy. Iceland’s unique geological properties create some of the most consistent and renewable energy reserves in the world. If you are going on a particularly cold day, adding this stop can be a nice break.

Love Contemplation? Crater Lake Kerid

Considered a side stop, Kerid is also considered one of the most visually stunning stops along the Golden Circle. Begin your walk on the lip of an ancient crater, viewing for kilometers in all directions. It looks down into the astonishing blue waters of the lake itself. Then, descend into the crater and spend some moments in thought looking out over the beautiful waters and pondering its depths. As you explore, take in the gorgeous rocks, which are all in bright hues of red, orange, and green; you’ll also notice that sound carries in the crater in unique ways: try a whisper and a shout.

History Buff? Visit Skalholt

If you are a fan of deep history and interesting church relics, Skalholt‘s cathedral and museum site are well worth the visit. The plain and imposing style of Icelandic churches is well represented here, and though there have been churches in this location for hundreds of years, they have actually been destroyed (by fire or bad weather) and rebuilt 10 times! Explore the ancient tombstones and the cellar and crypt, getting to know the unique history of religion in Iceland and how it has impacted the formation of Icelandic culture.

Fancy a Swim? Visit the Secret Lagoon in Fludir or Laugarvatn Fontana Geothermal Baths

Given the abundance of water in Iceland, it became popular to create self-heating swimming pools fed by hot springs to help people learn to swim well, and the Secret Lagoon represents one such pool. This natural hot spring has become a site of relaxation after long days of hiking and sightseeing. Laugarvatn Fontana is another great stop, offering a wide variety of spa and wellness options. It also boasts a geothermal bakery, where the bread and pastries are baked under the ground based on the volcanic heat!

Farm-to-Table Food Buff? Check out Friðheimar Greenhouse and Restaurant

This enormous greenhouse provides fresh produce, mostly tomatoes and cucumbers, to Iceland all year round, and when you visit on your Golden Circle journey, you can participate in their tomato soup and bread lunch that is well known for its full flavor. The tomatoes don’t stop there though: there are coffee drinks and ice cream that include it as well! You’ll leave full of tasty homemade bread.

Learn More About the Golden Circle

No matter where you visit on your Golden Circle tour, you’ll be glad that you made the choice to rent a car and proceed at your own pace. Customize your journey and take advantage of every special moment to explore and discover. After the Golden Circle, consider exploring the Westfjords and Snaefellsnes Peninsula. Click here for more Iceland information!