Are you planning a trip to Iceland and wondering whether the Golden Circle or South Coast is the best route for you? Then you’re in the right place!
The Golden Circle is Iceland’s most popular driving route that connects Thingvellir National Park, Gullfoss, and Strokkur. Consider the Golden Circle like a highlight reel, offering a concentrated taste of Iceland’s geological features that’s perfect for those short on time.
If you want the feature-length film, then you’ll want to travel the South Coast. This area showcases more of Iceland’s natural diversity, including black sand beaches, dramatic cliffs, and vast glaciers.
If you only have 24 hours in Iceland, the Golden Circle is the best option – especially if you’re staying in Reykjavik. The South Coast is simply too far from the capital city, so trying to squeeze it into a short trip would result in more driving and less sightseeing. This is ultimately what I ended up doing during my 30 hour layover.
On the other hand, if you want to experience more of Iceland’s natural beauty and your trip is at least 5 days, then you’ll love the South Coast. And with that amount of time, it’s possible to do both! I ended up driving the Golden Circle and the South Coast in the first half of my 10 days in Iceland and it was incredible.
Keep reading to discover more about each route, determine which one best fits your travel plans, and how you might even be able to drive both routes in the same trip!
- Sightseeing in Golden Circle vs. South Coast
- Activities in Golden Circle vs. South Coast
- Driving Time in Golden Circle vs. South Coast
- Golden Circle vs. South Coast in Winter
- Golden Circle is right for you if…
- Iceland’s South Coast is right for you if…
- Golden Circle and South Coast Itinerary
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Sightseeing in Golden Circle vs. South Coast
⭐ BEST SIGHTSEEING: South Coast, primarily due to its sheer breadth of natural wonders. Although the choice was tough, especially considering how incredible it is to snorkel in Silfra and experience Gullfoss up-close, the South Coast and its diverse landscapes comes out on top as the ultimate winner.
Golden Circle vs. South Coast Map: Golden Circle Highlights (Thingvellir National Park → Geysir & Strokkur at Haukadalur Geothermal Area → Gullfoss Waterfall) & South Coast Highlights (Seljalandsfoss Waterfall → Skogafoss Waterfall → Reynisfjara Beach → Skaftafell National Park → Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon → Diamond Beach)
Sightseeing in Golden Circle
The Golden Circle is a year-round travel circuit that houses Iceland’s most popular attractions.
The route typically starts with a visit to Thingvellir National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that’s famous for being the birthplace of Iceland’s parliament and the convergence of the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. It’s also a must-visit for Game of Thrones fans who want to see the Bloody Gate in real life.
Next stop is the Haukadalur Geothermal Area where you can see Strokkur shoot hot water up to 30 meters in the air, once every 8-10 minutes.
The final highlight of the Golden Circle route (and my personal favorite) is Gullfoss, one of Iceland’s most iconic and powerful waterfalls. Often referred to as the “Golden Waterfall”, Gullfoss is where most visitors get their first glimpse into the sheer raw power and beauty of Iceland’s natural landscape.
Sightseeing in Iceland’s South Coast
The South Coast offers a different type of scenic beauty with black sand beaches, towering waterfalls, and glittering glaciers.
The route usually starts with a stop at Seljalandsfoss, famously known as the waterfall you can walk behind. While its cascading falls are beautiful anytime of year, it’s especially incredible in the summer months when there’s unending sunlight.
Close by, you’ll find another waterfall named Skógafoss. This waterfall curtain has a dramatic 60-meter drop that cascades all year long, but is particularly stunning in winter when it’s surrounded by snowy cliffs.
Near Vik, one of the main villages in South Iceland, you’ll find Reynisfjara black sand beach and its towering basalt columns. If you drive past Vik to Skaftafell, you’ll find the crown jewels of Iceland’s South Coast- Vatnajokull (Iceland’s largest glacier), Jökulsárlón (Glacier Lagoon), and Diamond Beach.
Activities in Golden Circle vs. South Coast
⭐ BEST ACTIVITIES: The South Coast of Iceland simply has more things to do compared to Golden Circle. Snorkeling in Silfra and the Zodiac Boat Tour in Jökulsárlón are tied for my favorite activity in Iceland but I also loved walking to Bruarfoss, hiking Fjaðrárgljúfur Canyon, and horseback riding in Hverargerdi, all of which are found on the South Coast.
Golden Circle Activities
One of the best things to do in the Golden Circle is snorkeling in Silfra where you can swim in the fissure between the North America and Eurasian tectonic plates.
The glacial waters here are so clear and pure that it can’t sustain marine life. While you won’t see any fish, you will be able to swim through crystal clear waters admiring the underwater landscapes formed by the tectonic plates. You can do this activity year-round but is one of my favorite activities to do in Iceland in the summer.
Aside from snorkeling, here are some other activities to do in or close to the Golden Circle:
- Snowmobile at Langjökull Glacier: After visiting Gullfoss, head to Langjokull and experience the thrill of riding over one of Iceland’s largest glaciers. If it’s cold enough, you can even do a combo tour that includes snowmobiling and exploring an ice cave.
- Relax at Laugarvatn Fontana: Soak in the warmth of natural hot springs and geothermal baths after visiting Thingvellir National Park.
- Visit Friðheimar Tomato Farm: Get off the beaten path and head to Friðheimar for a unique opportunity to taste and learn about cultivating tomatoes in a geothermal greenhouse.
- Hike the Rim of Kerið Crater Lake: If volcanic craters are your thing, then consider walking the outer rim of Kerið Crater Lake for a panoramic view of the bright blue lake surrounded by red volcanic rock.
Activities on the South Coast of Iceland
Beyond sightseeing, there are plenty of things to do on the South Coast of Iceland to immerse yourself in the stunning landscape of this region. Here are some activities to consider, most of which center around hiking, waterfalls, and glaciers:
- Horseback Riding: A horseback ride through the stunning landscapes near Hverargerdi, Vik, or elsewhere on the South Coast is a great way to take in the region’s unique landscapes. I remember our ride through the woods in Reykjadalur Valley felt like entering a European enchanted forest but I’m confident every region will have its own charm.
- Take a Dip in Reykjadalur Hot Spring: Relax in the natural hot springs near Hveragerði while taking in the beautiful surrounding views. The hike to the hot springs is relatively easy and can be done in about an hour.
- Hike Bruarfoss: Known as Iceland’s bluest waterfall, Bruarfoss is a hidden gem waiting to be discovered. The hike to Bruarfoss takes you through beautiful landscapes, culminating with the stunning view of the icy blue water itself.
- Hike Skógafoss: If you can’t get enough of Skogafoss, then consider hiking upriver from Skógafoss waterfall and spend as long as you like exploring the surrounding greenery, canyons, and waterfalls.
- Hike Fjaðrárgljúfur Canyon: Featured in Justin Bieber’s music video, this ancient canyon with its steep sides and winding river provides great views of untouched Icelandic landscape that is worth visiting.
- Explore Skaftafell National Park: Skaftafell is an area within Iceland’s Vatnajökull National Park, Europe’s biggest glacier outside the arctic. The park offers a wide variety of activities catering to different difficulty levels and interests, including paved trails, waterfall hikes, glacier hikes, and more.
- Take a Zodiac Boat Tour in Jökulsárlón: Experience the Glacier Lagoon via zodiac boat and ride between the floating icebergs. Every day is a different experience as the Lagoon grows and changes with each visit.
Driving Time in Golden Circle vs. South Coast
⭐ SHORTER DRIVING TIME: The Golden Circle can be completed in a single day (including stops), making it the best way to experience Iceland’s natural beauty without spending too much time on the road.
Driving Time in Golden Circle
Navigating the Golden Circle is a relatively quick journey, typically taking around 1 hour to drive the entire route without stops and about 3-4 hours including stops at the 3 main attractions.
In contrast to the South Coast which can take up to 5-6 hours of driving time alone not including stops or activities, the Golden Circle is a more efficient option for those with limited time in Iceland. This is especially true if you’ll be based in Reykjavik, as its proximity makes it an ideal day trip for those based in the city.
Driving Time in the South Coast of Iceland
Driving the South Coast of Iceland is a considerably larger undertaking than the Golden Circle. Without stopping, the drive alone can take 5-6 hours without stops, but to truly appreciate the region and enjoy all the amazing activities it offers, a day trip will barely scratch the surface.
Unlike the easy accessibility of the Golden Circle, the South Coast simply requires a longer time commitment. While it’s possible to do a day trip from Reykjavik, it’s much better to have at least 2-3 days to truly explore and experience the region fully.
Golden Circle vs. South Coast in Winter
⭐ GOLDEN CIRCLE VS. SOUTH COAST IN WINTER: While the Golden Circle is easier to navigate in winter, the South Coast is simply more picturesque. If you’re a comfortable winter driver and can remain flexible in your plans, then the raw, unspoiled beauty of the South Coast in its winter cloak of snow is an experience you won’t want to miss.
Golden Circle in Winter
During the winter months, the Golden Circle and its 3 main sites transform under a blanket of snow. In particular, Gullfoss becomes a stunning snowcape, with its cascading waterfall flowing through ice-fringed canyons and plunging down into the frozen river.
It’s also easier to drive the Golden Circle in winter, as the roads are well maintained and experience less icy conditions compared to other areas.
Iceland’s South Coast in Winter
The South Coast in winter is simply enchanting. Not only do popular sites like Seljalandsfoss and Skogafoss take on a whole new level of beauty amidst their snowy surroundings, but winter is the best time to explore nature-made ice caves or take a glacier hike across Vatnajokull.
However, planning a trip to the South Coast in winter requires confident driving skills and flexibility in your plans. Compared to the Golden Circle, driving in the South Coast is more susceptible to snow-laden roads that required skillful navigation and sudden weather changes that can disrupt travel plans, especially as you head east.
Golden Circle is right for you if…
- you only have 24 hours in Iceland
- you’re staying in Reykjavik
- you plan on taking tours over self-driving
- you want an easier drive
- you want to specific activities only found in Golden Circle, like snorkeling in Silfra
Iceland’s South Coast is right for you if…
- you’re spending a few days or more in Iceland
- you don’t mind a long drive
- you want to do more hiking and outdoor activities
- you love waterfalls (like me!)
- you’re interested in glacier activities, including hiking across glaciers, exploring ice caves, and seeing Glacier Lagoon
- you’re visiting in winter and are a comfortable driver in snowy weather conditions
Golden Circle and South Coast Itinerary
If you’re looking to visit both the Golden Circle and Iceland’s South Coast (which I’d personally recommend), then consider completing the Golden Circle in 1 day and then spending 2-3 days in the South Coast. Here’s a sample 3-day Golden Circle and South Coast Itinerary that allows you to experience both in the same trip:
- Day 1: Start your drive along the Golden Circle, with Thingvellir National Park as your first stop. Afterwards, head to Geysir in the Haukadalur Valley to see Strokkur erupt before ending the day at Gullfoss.
- Day 2: Drive along the South Coast to Vik, where you can explore Seljalandsfoss, Skogafoss, and Reynisfjnara Black Sand Beach. Depending on your interests and time, you can also add horseback riding and hiking Bruarfoss as additional options.
- Day 3: Continue your drive along South Iceland and head east towards the land of the glaciers. Depending on the time of year, you can spend your time hiking in Skaftafell National Park, glacier hiking or ice caving in Vatnajokull, or visiting Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon and the nearby Diamond Beach. You can also add Fjadrargljufur Canyon as an option if you have enough time.
Final Thoughts: So Which is Better? Golden Circle or South Coast Iceland
Choosing between the Golden Circle and the South Coast of Iceland primarily depends on how much time you have.
If you have little time and want a taste of Iceland’s most famous sights, the Golden Circle route offers a quick and convenient option. Here, you’ll get to travel to the Geysir geothermal area, see the cascading falls of Gullfoss, and walk through Thingvellir National Park, home to the first Icelandic parliament.
On the other hand, if you have more time and want more adventure, then the South Coast is the way to go. This route along the famous Ring Road takes you through a diverse range of landscapes, from waterfalls to black sand beaches to glaciers. Between Vik and Hofn, you’ll be able to walk behind Seljalandsfoss, stand at the base of Skógafoss waterfall, walk on the black sand beach of Reynisfjara, and bear witness to the incredible Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon.
I hope you found this guide on the Golden Circle vs. South Coast helpful!