Planning a Ring Road trip to Iceland is an unforgettable experience. Yet, with so many captivating sights to see, it can be difficult to know which direction and routes to take, especially if you’re stuck deciding between the Diamond Circle and Golden Circle.
This is one of the rare choices where the best route truly comes down to the specific attractions you want to see, activities you want to do, and how much time you have. The Diamond Circle offers a raw, untamed experience of Iceland’s rugged landscapes, while the Golden Circle connects iconic attractions in a condensed route.
I was lucky enough to see both during my 10 days in Iceland but I recognize that not everyone has a week or more to spend vacationing (yes, I’m looking at you, U.S. PTO policies). And while it’s no surprise that I’ll tell you that both the Diamond Circle and Golden Circle are amazing, I recognize that you might have to pick between the two for your next trip.
So whether you’re looking for off-the-beaten-path natural wonders or a first-time visitor wanting to see Iceland’s most famous landmarks, this guide will help you figure out how to maximize your time and experience the best of what Iceland has to offer based on your interests.
- What is the Diamond Circle and Golden Circle in Iceland?
- Sightseeing in Diamond Circle vs. Golden Circle
- Activities in Diamond Circle vs. Golden Circle
- Detours in Diamond Circle vs. Golden Circle
- Diamond Circle vs. Golden Circle in Winter
- Trip Length Required for Diamond Circle vs. Golden Circle
- Diamond Circle vs. Golden Circle for First-Timers
- Diamond Circle is right for you if…
- Golden Circle is right for you if…
- Diamond Circle and Golden Circle Itinerary
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What is the Diamond Circle and Golden Circle in Iceland?
The Diamond Circle and Golden Circle are two popular tourist routes in Iceland that showcase some of the most stunning natural attractions in the country.
The Golden Circle is a 300-kilometer (186 miles) loop that starts and ends in Reykjavik, the capital city of Iceland. It covers 3 major attractions: Þingvellir National Park, Geysir geothermal area, and Gullfoss waterfall.
The Diamond Circle is a 250-kilometer (155 miles) loop that covers more remote and less explored areas in Iceland. It is located in the northern part of the country, typically starting and ending in Akureyri, the second largest city in Iceland. The route includes 4 major attractions: Lake Mývatn, Ásbyrgi canyon, Dettifoss waterfall, and Húsavík village.
Both the Diamond Circle and Golden Circle highlight Iceland’s unique geological features such as hot springs, waterfalls, and volcanic landscapes. They also provide easy access to other popular Ring Road destinations such as the Snaefellsnes Peninsula.
While each route is incredible in its own right, the Diamond Circle offers a more extensive exploration of Iceland’s diverse landscapes and is ideal for those seeking a less crowded, off-the-beaten-path experience.
On the other hand, the Golden Circle is a better choice for those with limited time or prefer a more accessible route, as it showcases the most famous landmarks in a shorter span and is located closer to the capital, Reykjavik.
Sightseeing in Diamond Circle vs. Golden Circle
⭐ BEST SIGHTSEEING: TIE. Both scenic routes offer a variety of stunning natural phenomena including geysers, volcanic landscapes, and scenic waterfalls. If proximity to Reykjavik and seeing the most famous landmarks in Iceland is your priority, the Golden Circle is for you. However, if you’re like me and love waterfalls, the Diamond Circle with its 3 falls is the clear winner.
Sightseeing in Diamond Circle
The Diamond Circle route is the lesser-known counterpart to the Golden Circle and connects some of the most stunning scenery in North Iceland.
The starting point for this route depends on whether you’re traveling in a clockwise direction or counter-clockwise along the Ring Road. There’s no right answer but I personally traveled counter-clockwise so I could do the South Coast at the beginning of my trip.
Because we were traveling from Seydisfjordur, our first stop was Dettifoss – Europe’s most powerful waterfall – and the nearby Selfoss. Interestingly, each side of the waterfall provides a different perspective so here are some reference pictures in case you only have time for one. Near Dettifoss, you’ll discover Ásbyrgi canyon which is characterized by its horseshoe shape and lush surroundings.
Next, you’ll want to make your way to the Lake Myvatn area, which includes Krafla Crater, Hverir Geothermal Area, Grjótagjá Cave, and Dimmuborgir. This whole region is known for its volcanic activity and features martian landscapes (Hverir), lava pillars (Dimmuborgir), vibrant crater lakes (Krafla), and nature-made hot springs (Grjótagjá).
As you make your way around the Diamond Circle, you’ll journey to Goðafoss waterfall. Famously referred to as the “Waterfall of the Gods,” Godafoss is recognizable by its crescent shape, cascading waterfalls, and surrounding greenery. It’s only a short drive from Godafoss before you end in Húsavík – the whale watching capital of Europe and one of the best places to go whale watching in Iceland.
Sightseeing in Golden Circle
The Golden Circle is the most popular driving route on the Ring Road.
Starting from Reykjavik, you’ll first head to Thingvellir National Park which is the site of Iceland’s parliament and the convergence of the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. It’s also a favorite for Game of Thrones fans who want to see the Bloody Gate in real life.
From there, head to Haukadalur Geothermal Area to witness the impressive Strokkur geyser shoot boiling water up to 30 meters in the air.
The last attraction along the Golden Circle is Gullfoss, one of Iceland’s most powerful and iconic waterfalls (and my personal favorite along the Golden Circle). Also known as the “Golden Waterfall”, Gullfoss is a must-see for anyone who wants to experience the raw beauty and power of Iceland’s natural landscape.
Activities in Diamond Circle vs. Golden Circle
⭐ BEST ACTIVITIES: TIE. It’s hard to pick a clear winner between the Golden Circle and Diamond Circle because both routes have great activities depending on personal preferences. If you’re a keen hiker, then the Diamond Circle is better suited for you.
However, if you’re interested in other activities, the best route will depend on your specific interests. For me, snorkeling in Silfra was the highlight of the Golden Circle, while whale watching in Husavik was the best thing I did along the Diamond Circle.
Diamond Circle Activities
There are many things to do in the Diamond Circle beyond sightseeing. Some of the best activities include:
- Visit Mývatn Nature Baths: Relax and rejuvenate in the geothermal waters of Myvatn Nature Baths, a man-made lagoon known for its healing mineral-rich waters.
- See Northern Lights in Myvatn: For those lucky enough to visit during winter, Myvatn is one of the best places in Iceland to spot the mesmerizing Northern Lights.
- Hike Namafjall: If geothermal areas are your thing, then consider hiking up Namafjall. This mountain overlooks Hverir, a geothermal area known for its bubbling mud pots and roaring fumaroles.
- Hike Asbyrgi Canyon: Pick a trail and hike the horseshoe-shaped Asbyrgi Canyon, surrounded by lush greenery and tall cliff faces.
- Hike Stuðlagil Canyon: If you’re traveling clockwise from the Eastfjords, consider hiking Stuðlagil Canyon so you can see its stunning basalt columns and the vibrant blue river that flows through. This activity is best done in the summer on a non-rainy day.
- Whale Watching in Husavik: Book a whale watching tour in Husavik, the whale-watching capital of Iceland, for a chance to see these magnificent creatures in their natural habitat. This was my favorite thing to do in the Diamond Circle and I’d highly recommend Gentle Giants if you decide to do this activity.
Golden Circle Activities
Snorkeling in Silfra is one of the best things to do in the Golden Circle and my personal favorite. Here, you’ll have the unique opportunity to swim through the fissure separating the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. The pristine, glacial waters in Silfra are so pure that they can’t support marine life but instead offer a clear view of the underwater landscapes.
Besides snorkeling, here are some other activities near the Golden Circle:
- Snowmobile at Langjökull Glacier: Snowmobile across Langjokull, Iceland’s second-largest glacier. It’s the perfect adventure after visiting Gullfoss.
- Relax at Laugarvatn Fontana: After exploring Thingvellir National Park, take a dip in the natural hot springs and geothermal baths at Laugarvatn Fontana.
- Visit Friðheimar Tomato Farm: Head off the beaten path and discover Friðheimar Tomato Farm. Here, you can taste delicious tomatoes grown in a geothermal greenhouse while learning all about their cultivation process.
- Hike the Rim of Kerið Crater Lake: If you’re a fan of volcanic craters, don’t miss the chance to hike the outer rim of Kerið Crater Lake. The panoramic view of the brilliant blue lake surrounded by red volcanic rock is especially breathtaking.
Detours in Diamond Circle vs. Golden Circle
⭐ BEST DETOURS: Golden Circle. The Golden Circle takes the crown due to its proximity to Snaefellsnes Peninsula and the South Coast. While the Diamond Circle and the areas nearby are picturesque, they don’t have the same must-see qualities when compared to West or South Iceland, especially if you’re visiting outside of the summer months.
Detours Near the Diamond Circle
The Diamond Circle is near East and North Iceland, both of which are harder to get to from the Golden Circle.
If you’re driving east from the South Coast, then consider visiting Seydisfjordur. This picturesque town is most well-known for its Rainbow Street and charming blue wooden church.
In the summer months, you’ll want to head over to Borgarfjordur Eystri, one of the best places to see puffins outside of the Westfjords.
If you’re looking for something more active, then consider hiking Stuðlagil Canyon for gorgeous views of black basalt columns flanking a vibrant turquoise winter.
In the north, you’ll be close to Akureyri (aka the “Capital of North Iceland”) where you’ll find a wide selection of restaurants and charming architecture. It’s also the best stopover in North Iceland if you plan on journeying to Snaefellsnes Peninsula.
All of these places are within a 1-3 hour drive from various points along the Diamond Circle but anywhere between 5-10 hours away from the Golden Circle!
Detours Near the Golden Circle
On the other hand, the Golden Circle is the better driving route if you want to be close to West or South Iceland.
In the west, you’ll find Snaefellsnes Peninsula. The driving route follows the rugged coastline of the peninsula and offers dramatic landscapes dotted with colorful buildings, quaint fishing villages, and unique geological formations, the most famous of which is Kirkjufell Mountain. Since the top highlights along the route are close together and encapsulates Iceland’s natural diversity, it’s colloquially referred to as “mini-Iceland” or “Iceland in a nutshell.”
Meanwhile, South Iceland is the land of waterfalls, black sand beaches, and glaciers. Here, you’ll find iconic waterfalls such as Seljalandsfoss and Skogafoss, the stunning Reynisfjara sand beach, the famous Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon, and Vatnajokull, Iceland’s largest glacier Vatnajokull.
Diamond Circle vs. Golden Circle in Winter
⭐ DIAMOND CIRCLE VS. GOLDEN CIRCLE IN WINTER: Diamond Circle. If you’re traveling to Iceland in the winter, you’re likely interested in seeing the Northern Lights and the Diamond Circle is simply the better place to see them. Also, you’ll find similar natural scenery to the Golden Circle, even if some places will be off limits due to road closures.
Diamond Circle in Winter
Winter in the Diamond Circle offers beautiful winter landscapes you won’t want to miss. Not only will you see Lake Myvatn, Godafoss, and Husavik covered in snow, but North Iceland is one of the best places to see the Northern Lights in the country.
With cold temperatures and poorer weather conditions, some highlights along this route will become inaccessible. Most notably, you’ll likely have to save Dettifoss and Asbyrgi Canyon for another trip as the roads leading to them close frequently during this time of year.
Golden Circle in Winter
The Golden Circle and its 3 main attractions transform during winter. One of the most breathtaking sights is Gullfoss, whose massive falls cascade slowly through the snow-covered canyons into the river below.
In winter, driving along the Golden Circle is also more convenient compared to surrounding regions since the roads are well-maintained and experience fewer road closures.
Trip Length Required for Diamond Circle vs. Golden Circle
⭐ DIAMOND CIRCLE VS. GOLDEN CIRCLE BASED ON TRIP LENGTH: The Golden Circle is perfect for those with limited time, while the Diamond Circle is great for those who are planning a week-long Ring Road trip.
Trip Length Required for Diamond Circle
The Diamond Circle route is more time-consuming compared to the Golden Circle because (1) it’s further away from Reykavjik and (2) its attractions are spread out over a larger geographic area.
The drive from Reykjavik to Akureyri alone takes 5 hours but it’s more common to fit in the Diamond Circle as part of a longer Ring Road road trip. Between getting to the Diamond Circle, having enough time to experience the region fully, and making other stops along the Ring Road, you want at least a week in Iceland.
Trip Length Required for Golden Circle
In contrast, exploring the Golden Circle is much more time-efficient.
You can reasonably complete the Golden Circle within 3-4 hours, which includes driving time and stops at the 3 main attractions.
Because it’s close to Reykjavik, the Golden Circle also fits into any Iceland itinerary, whether it’s a quick weekend getaway or a longer road trip.
Diamond Circle vs. Golden Circle for First-Timers
⭐ BEST FOR FIRST-TIMERS: The Golden Circle is the ideal choice for first-time visitors. because it’s easy to get to, doable in a day, and hosts 3 of Iceland’s bucket list attractions.
Diamond Circle for First-Timers
For first-time visitors, the decision between the Diamond Circle and the Golden Circle hinges largely on how much time you have and your interests.
The Diamond Circle is an excellent choice if you’re looking for an off-the-beaten-path experience and have at least a week to spare. However, it lacks the ‘bucket list’ sights that many first-timers seek.
Golden Circle for First-Timers
Conversely, the Golden Circle can be incorporated into any itinerary and easy to do in a day.
Its 3 main attractions are among Iceland’s hallmark attractions, making it an ideal choice for those looking for a snapshot of Iceland’s most famous natural wonders.
Diamond Circle is right for you if…
- you have at least a week
- you want to escape the crowds and explore off-the-beaten-path
- you are interested in hiking, especially if you’re visiting in summer
- you want to see the Northern Lights
- you plan to visit East and North Iceland
Golden Circle is right for you if…
- you are more interested in seeing the top tourist attractions
- you plan to visit the South Coast or Snaefellsnes Peninsula
- you have limited time and this is your first trip to Iceland
Diamond Circle and Golden Circle Itinerary
If you’re able to spend at least a week in Iceland, you’ll have enough time to do both routes. Here’s an example 7-day Diamond Circle and Golden Circle Itinerary that includes stops through the South Coast and Eastfjords:
- Day 1: Start your Iceland trip with the Golden Circle, visiting Thingvellir National Park, Haukadalur geothermal area, and Gullfoss waterfall.
- Day 2: Spend your day exploring the South Coast including Bruarfoss, Seljalandsfoss, Skogafoss, and Reynisfjara Black Sand Beach. You could also consider adding horseback riding to your itinerary, depending on your interests.
- Day 3: Continue your exploration of South Iceland, heading towards the glaciers. Spend the day hiking in Skaftafell National Park, glacier hiking or ice caving in Vatnajokull, or visit Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon and the nearby Diamond Beach. If time permits and it’s the right season, Fjadrargljufur Canyon is worth visiting.
- Day 4: Pass through East Iceland as you make your way to the Diamond Circle. Enjoy the drive from Hofn to Seydisfjordur where you end your day exploring Seydisfjordur’s colorful streets and buildings.
- Day 5: Begin your journey to the Diamond Circle, starting with a visit to the powerful Dettifoss waterfall. Continue to Asbyrgi canyon (if open) and spend the night in the town of Húsavík.
- Day 6: Start your day with whale watching in Husavik before heading to Lake Myvatn. If you’re visiting in winter, be sure to spend a few evenings hunting for the Northern Lights.
- Day 6: Dedicate this day to the volcanic region around Lake Myvatn. Explore the Dimmuborgir lava field, the Hverir geothermal area, Krafla crater, and more.
- Day 7: End your Diamond Circle adventure with a visit to Godafoss waterfall before making your way back to Reykjavik or towards Akureyri if you plan to continue on to Snaefellsnes Peninsula.
Final Thoughts: So Which is Better? Iceland’s Diamond Circle or Golden Circle
It should come as no surprise that the choice between the Diamond Circle and the Golden Circle boils down to your interests and time in Iceland.
If you’re seeking iconic sights and have limited time, then the Golden Circle is your best bet. However, if you’re looking for a more off-the-beaten-path adventure with dramatic landscapes and fewer crowds and you have the time, then the Diamond Circle is a hidden gem waiting to be discovered.