Are you wanting to self-drive the Golden Circle in Iceland and wondering how? Then you’ve come to the right place! As someone who drove the Golden Circle during a short layover and as part of a separate 10 day trip, rest assured, squeezing in the Golden Circle is 100% possible and worth it.
Read on to plan your itinerary of things to see and for tips on how to self-drive around Iceland’s Golden Circle! From clashing tectonic plates, bursting geysers, and gushing waterfalls, all within close proximity to Reykjavik, you won’t want to miss driving this iconic route!
- What is the Golden Circle in Iceland?
- Golden Circle Iceland Map
- Main Stops on Iceland’s Golden Circle
- 1. Explore Þingvellir National Park
- 2. Find Strokkur & Geysir at the Haukadalur Geothermal Area
- 3. See Gullfoss
- Bonus Golden Circle Attractions
- Golden Circle Itinerary
- Tips For Why You Should Self-Drive Iceland’s Golden Circle Route
- Is the Golden Circle in Iceland worth it?
- When is the best time to visit Iceland’s Golden Circle?
- Where to Stay When Driving Iceland’s Golden Circle
- Frequently Asked Questions
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What is the Golden Circle in Iceland?
The Golden Circle is a 186 mile route near Reykjavik that allows you to see the three most popular natural phenomena in Iceland: geysers, waterfalls, and volcanic geography. The iconic route commonly starts in Pingvellir National Park, to Haukadalur Geothermal Area, and ends in Gullfoss, though you can branch off the circuit to see other attractions along the way.
Golden Circle Iceland Map
Golden Circle Iceland Map: Thingvellir National Park → Geysir & Strokkur at Haukadalur Geothermal Area → Gullfoss Waterfalls
Main Stops on Iceland’s Golden Circle
1. Explore Þingvellir National Park
Our first stop was Pingvellir National Park (also spelled Thingvellir), which is about a 45 minute drive from Reykjavik. Þingvellir is considered to be the seat of Europe’s first Parliament. During the time of the Vikings, representatives from all over the country would debate laws, trials, and territorial disputes in the summer. Thingvellir literally translates to “fields of parliament” and was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2004.
The park itself is situated in a rift valley bordered by the Mid-Atlantic Ridge between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. The meeting of the two tectonic plates creates a dramatic landscape of volcanic fissures, gorges, and Þingvallavatn lake. It is also one of the few places in the world where you can so clearly see two continents having drifted apart, which is most notable if you swim in the crystal clear waters of the Silfra fissure.
Best Things to Do at Thingvellir National Park
Walk through Almannagjá Gorge
When you park, all signs will direct you towards the Almannagjá Gorge. You can walk along the paved walkway between the two tectonic plates and observe the impressive cliffs and rock formations created by the plates pulling apart. Fun fact, the Gorge is the narrow path leading up to The Bloody Gate in Game of Thrones.
Visit the Drekkingarhylur Pool
Drekkingarhylur is a deep, narrow fissure filled with crystal-clear water that is recognizable for its vivid blue color. While admiring the contrasting shades of blue and the geological forces at work, you can learn about the pool’s sordid history as the place where convicted women were tied in sacks and drowned (hence, its literal translation “the drowning pool”).
See Öxarárfoss Waterfall
Not too far from Drekkingarhylur, you’ll find Öxarárfoss. Öxarárfoss is a picturesque waterfall formed by the Öxará River as it cascades over a series of rocky steps, creating a 20-meter (65-foot) drop into a tranquil pool below.
💡TIP: If you’re interested in hiking in Thingvellir National Park, there are 4 popular trails you can take, each of which will take you through the park’s highlights including: Almannagjá Gorge, Drekkingarhylur Pool, Öxarárfoss Waterfall, and Þingvallavatn Lake. Note, you don’t have to hike in order to see these viewpoints but it may be worth considering if you’re looking to spend more time in the park.
Snorkel Between the Tectonic Plates – Silfra Snorkelling Review!
The Silfra fissure is one of Thingvellir National Park’s most iconic geological features. It’s especially famous for the crystal-clear freshwater that comes from Langjökull glacier which filters through porous lava rock for centuries before flowing into the pool.
REVIEW: I knew I wanted to swim in Silfra after visiting the park the first time I visited Iceland. I mean, where else can I swim in crystal clear glacial waters between two tectonic plates? We booked a tour with Dive.Is after reading great reviews on Tripadvisor and were not disappointed.
Our guide was super friendly and made sure everyone was comfortable. We also got so lucky with the warm weather, as we didn’t have to wear thermals under our drysuits since it was fairly warm (at least, by Iceland standards). Your hands will get cold because they are the only part of your body not in the drysuit but I was honestly surprised by how comfortable the whole experience ended up being. Even though my hands were cold, my mind was blown away by how clear the waters were. Note, you will not see any visible wildlife besides the plants or micro-invertebrates that feed on the rich algae, thanks to the ample sunlight. Fish aren’t drawn to the waters for feeding because there’s no current, so there’s no plankton that’s drifting in and out of the waters.
If you love interesting geography, have never gone canyon diving, and aren’t completely averse to the idea of swimming in freezing cold water, I’d highly recommend doing the snorkeling or diving tour. Skip if none of the above apply or you’re pressed for time.
Thingvellir National Park Map
Thingvellir National Park Map: Parking Lot 1 → Almannagjá Gorge → Parking Lot 2 → Drekkingarhylur Pool → Öxarárfoss Waterfall Gullfoss → Parking Lot 5
Parking at Thingvellir National Park
There are many parking areas inside the park, with the most popular being:
- Pingvellir Parking P1 is closest to the Thingvellir Visitor Center
- Pingvellir Parking P2 is closest to Drekkingarhylur and Öxarárfoss
- Pingvellir Parking P5 is where you’ll park if you plan on diving or snorkeling at Silfra
While all of these options are close by, I do personally find Pingvellir Parking P2 is the best parking lot when visiting Thingvellir because it puts you near all the best things to do in the park.
2. Find Strokkur & Geysir at the Haukadalur Geothermal Area
Haukadalur Valley is a geothermal area that is famous for its hot springs and geysers. While Geysir is relatively dormant, there are a number of active hot springs, pools, and mud holes. It’s a short walk from the parking lot to Strokkur, where you can wait ~10 minutes to see the spring erupt and shoot water as far up as 130 feet into the sky.
It’s worth seeing if you’re interested in hot springs, have never seen a geyser before, and aren’t super pressed for time. For us, we were only interested in seeing the geyser and therefore did not go down other trails or short paths to explore more of the valley.
⌛TIME SPENT: 30 minutes
📍ADDRESS: Geysir Parking
3. See Gullfoss
Gullfoss is a short drive (~10 min) from Haukadalur and is absolutely worth stopping for. Gullfoss is connected to the Hvita river and flows in two stages. With over 350 feet of water cascading down every second, the sheer magnitude and mass of the falls is awe-inducing. There are viewing platforms that provide stunning panoramic views of the waterfall where you can appreciate the immense power and beauty of Gullfoss. And of course, no trip to Gullfoss is complete without seeing a few rainbows and being hit with the mist created by the cascading water. Once you’re here, it’s no wonder that its name means “golden falls.”
You can also grab some coffee or Icelandic lamb soup if you arrive while the gift shop and cafe are open.
⌛TIME SPENT: 1.5 hours
📍ADDRESS: Gullfoss Falls
Bonus Golden Circle Attractions
- Kerid Crater – a volcanic crater that is a popular spot while people are traveling around the Golden Circle. The area is known for the red volcanic rock, which contrasts gorgeously against the turquoise blue crater lake.
- Reykjadalur Valley – a geothermally active region where you can horseback ride on Icelandic horses, hike past hot springs and mud pots, and bathe in the famous “hot river” which is naturally heated
- Kerlingarfjoll Mountains – vibrant geothermal highland range with hot springs, mud pools, and rhyolite formations
- Blue Lagoon – Iceland’s most famous geothermal spa (which is 100% worth it IMO) where you can bathe in warm mineral-rich waters and wear rejuvenating silica mud masks
- Secret Lagoon – another geothermal spa that offers a more off-the-beaten-track experience
- Hrunalaug Hot Spring – a small, secluded hot spring that offers a tranquil, less crowded, and much cheaper alternative to Blue Lagoon or Secret Lagoon
Golden Circle Itinerary
Golden Circle Day Trip
If you’re planning on visiting the Golden Circle for a full-day or even half a day, here’s my recommendation to see all the highlights on the route:
- Start your day early and head to Thingvellir National Park to explore Almannagjá gorge, Öxarárfoss, and Silfra fissure.
- Drive to Haukadalur Geothermal Area and wait to see Strokkur erupt. While you’re waiting, walk around the area past the bubbling mud pots and steaming hot springs.
- Continue driving to Gullfoss and watch the roaring cascades plunge into a narrow canyon, capturing stunning photos of the golden-hued mist and rainbows that often appear.
Golden Circle 2-Day Itinerary
If you’re spending 2 or more days in the area, here are some ideas for Day 2:
- Begin by driving to Kerid Crater and taking a short walk around the rim to see the crater and lake.
- After Kerid, spend the rest of your day getting to and hiking the red peaks of Kerlingarfjoll Mountains.
- Or, if you’re looking for a more relaxing experience, explore Reykjadalur Valley where you can hike near or bathe in the naturally-heated river.
- End your day in luxe fashion at Blue Lagoon or Secret Lagoon, where you can soak in the warm and mineral-rich waters whilst surrounded by stunning landscapes.
Tips For Why You Should Self-Drive Iceland’s Golden Circle Route
Top Tip #1: You can drive the Golden Circle route in one day.
The Golden Circle is designed to be easily driven in a single day, even if you’re starting your day in Reykjavik or newly on the road after picking up your car at Keflavik Airport. It takes about an hour to drive between Þingvellir, Geysir, and Gullfoss and about 3.5-4 hours to do the whole circuit.
Of course, this only accounts for driving time so you’ll want to allocate at least half a day to fully enjoy the major stops and a full day if you plan on snorkeling at Thingvellir or making smaller detours near the Golden Circle.
Top Tip #2: Go without a guide and drive the Golden Circle yourself.
Self-driving allows you to set your own pace, spending as much or as little time as you’d like at each site, and you can explore off-the-beaten-path attractions that are not typically included in tour itineraries. You can also start your day as early as you want to beat the crowds, take photos of the beautiful scenery sans people, and adjust your schedule on the go if weather conditions change. There’s also no noticeable cost savings in taking a tour because all of the attractions are free to visit (minus the parking fee at Thingvellir).
If you’re a bit apprehensive about driving in a foreign country, rest assured as the route is well-marked, well-maintained, and easy to navigate using Google. However, if you’re traveling in winter, always check the weather and road conditions to make sure it’s safe to drive.
Top Tip #3: Consider doing the route in reverse if you’re going to dive or snorkel at Thingvellir National Park.
If you’re like me and you’re planning to snorkel Silfra but you hate how tangled and unruly your hair gets after it’s wet, then consider visiting Thingvellir last. It’s not that big of a deal because your body is going to be wet from the drysuit but something to consider if this is something that bothers you or if you want to look a certain way for pictures.
Is the Golden Circle in Iceland worth it?
Whether you visit Iceland in <24 hours or as part of a longer trip, the Golden Circle is 100% worth it. To this day, snorkeling at Silfra and seeing Gullfoss for the first time rank at the top of my list of most memorable trip moments.
The Golden Circle route is easy to do in a day and accessible from Reykjavik or Keflavik, depending on where you start your trip. Best of all, most things to do on the Golden Circle route are free and open 24/7 – I first visited Gullfoss at 11:00 PM in July!
When is the best time to visit Iceland’s Golden Circle?
The best time to drive the Golden Circle in Iceland is in:
- Summer for long daylight hours and easy driving weather. If you’re trying to maximize your time in Iceland and fit in the Golden Circle as part of your longer trip, I highly recommend traveling in summer since all of the major attractions are accessible 24/7.
- Shoulder season (May and September) for more predictable road conditions compared to winter and the chance to see the Northern Lights
- Winter to visit Gullfoss while it’s frozen over and the most reliable chance to see the Northern Lights
Regardless of the time of year, it’s best to start the drive early in the day so you have plenty of time to enjoy each stop along the route.
Where to Stay When Driving Iceland’s Golden Circle
If you’re planning to drive the Golden Circle in one day, I’d recommend staying in Reykjavík. As Iceland’s capital, Reykjavik will have the most hotels, guesthouses, and apartments to choose from, and it’s just a short drive to the beginning of the Golden Circle route. Staying in Reykjavík also gives you the opportunity to enjoy the city’s cultural and culinary scenes before and after your day trip.
Skuggi Hotel Review (⭐️ 8.7): Skuggi Hotel is part of the Keahotels hotel chain with eight hotels located in Reykjavík, Akureyri, and Vik. We booked a twin standard room that included breakfast, which was delicious and a convenient way to start the day before driving the Golden Circle. Our room was nice and clean, the beds were comfortable, and the shower had great water pressure. I loved our stay here and would highly recommend it if it’s within your budget (not sponsored). Note: we went during peak season and found that most accommodations were about $100 per person for well-reviewed, comfortable hotels/ AirBnbs. Check availability for Skuggi Hotel!
Hotel Borg Review (⭐️ 8.6): We originally planned to stay at Skuggi Hotel again but they were overbooked so they ended up moving our reservation to one of their sister hotels, Hotel Borg. We absolutely enjoyed our stay at Hotel Borg. The property is exquisite and conveniently located in the heart of the city, right near the end of Laugavegur street. Our room had a city-facing view and was incredibly spacious, especially by European standards. The beds were comfortable, the rooms were clean, the bathroom had great water pressure, and everything was decorated in an Art Deco style. Our reservation also came with free breakfast, which was well-stocked with coffee, pastries, and hot foods. I would 100% stay here again and cannot recommend it enough. Check availability for Hotel Borg!
If the Golden Circle route marks the beginning of your Ring Road trip(or if you’re spending two days round the Golden Circle), pick a place in Hveragerdi which is between the Golden Circle and the South Coast.Unlike other options, Hveragerði offers so many activities in the region including horseback riding, hiking, and bathing in the naturally-hot river.
Note, we booked our accommodations last minute so there weren’t that many options. The hotel we stayed at was convenient but we didn’t love it enough to recommend it. That said, if you start your search early, you’ll find plenty of cute and affordable guesthouses or B&Bs in the area.
Frequently Asked Questions
The three main stops on the Golden Circle Route are Thingvellir National Park, Geysir at Haukadalur Geothermal Area, and Gullfoss Waterfall.
The Golden Circle is a free driving route that connects Thingvellir National Park, Geysir Geothermal Area, and Gullfoss. These attractions are also all free to visit though there is a parking fee at Thingvellir National Park.
The Golden Circle is a relatively compact route that can be completed in one day, including visits to the main attractions: Thingvellir National Park, Haukadalur Geothermal Area, and Gullfoss Waterfall. However, if you’re interested in exploring some of the additional attractions along the route like the Kerid Crater or Reykjadalur Valley, you might consider extending your trip to two days. For those who are particularly keen on activities like hiking in Kerlingarfjoll or spending the day in the geothermal springs of Blue Lagoon or Secret Lagoon, you’ll want to dedicate even more time in the area.
The drive from Reykjavik to the start of the Golden Circle route, typically considered as Thingvellir National Park, takes approximately 45 minutes. A day trip to the Golden Circle from Reykjavik covers around 230 kilometers and takes roughly 3.5 hours of direct driving time without stops.
Final Thoughts About Driving the Golden Circle in Iceland
The Golden Circle is one of the country’s most popular routes and for good reason. It truly is a mini-Iceland, showcasing some of the best of Iceland’s natural beauty and geothermal activity, all within a relatively short distance of the capital, Reykjavík.
The best part is that it’s so easy to self-drive the Golden Circle and plan your itinerary around what you want to do without spending money on a tour. Just take your rental car from the awe-inspiring Þingvellir National Park – Iceland’s first national park and home to Iceland’s first parliament, to the explosive Strokkur at Haukadalur geothermal field, and, of course, the mesmerizing Gullfoss waterfall. And if you have time to spare, you can easily take short detours to lesser-known spots, like Kerid Crater, Kerlingarfjoll Mountains, or Reykjadalur Valley (my personal favorite)!
Whether you have the freedom to experience the Golden Circle in the midnight sun or while chasing the Northern Lights, see for yourself why this is Iceland’s most popular route. Best of all, the Golden Circle is the perfect way to begin your Ring Road adventure in Iceland. So what are you waiting for?