Road Trip to Iceland’s Golden Circle: Our Expert Guide
The Golden Circle rounds up three of the country’s most diverse and popular sites: Thingvellir, Gullfoss and Geysir. It’s the perfect introduction to Iceland…
A big, beautiful waterfall, spectacular volcanic scenery (with the Mid-Atlantic Ridge running straight through it), an obliging geyser and a smattering of Icelandic history. The Golden Circle is an easy 300km loop east of Reykjavik and you can do it in a day’s independent self-drive, or by joining a guided tour by coach.
With 34 years’ experience as the world’s leading operator to Iceland, we’ve driven the route more than just a few times!
Read on for our expert guide to the most commonly asked questions about planning a road trip to the Golden Circle, plus our top tips on getting-off-the- beaten-track and avoiding the crowds…
What is the Golden Circle?
Three iconic natural wonders. Three very different landscapes. Three sights combined on a single day’s road trip from Reykjavik that encapsulate the beauty and variety of Iceland’s landscapes and geology. They are:
Thingvellir National Park
A shrine to plate tectonics, the canyons of this world heritage site bear testament to the rifting of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. You can snorkel in the Silfra fissure – a flooded ravine of gin-clear water. Thingvellir is also the site of the world’s oldest existing parliament; the open-air Althing first assembled here in 930AD.
Geysir Hot Springs
Although the Great Geysir has been almost dormant since 1916, nearby Strokkur is one of the world’s most predictable geysers, erupting every six minutes or so, spouting scalding water up to 40m high.
As you approach the ‘Golden Falls’ it seems like the ground simply swallows the Hvítá River. It’s only when you reach the lip of a hidden canyon lying perpendicular to the waterfall that the full might of this twin-tiered cascade strikes you.
How can I visit the Golden Circle?
It’s a very popular self-drive route. The roads are well maintained and if you’re short on time you could probably do the highlights in just 3-4 hours. The Golden Circle is far more rewarding, though, if you allow at least a full day.
The main benefit of self-drive is freedom and flexibility. You can go where you like and stay for as long as you like. Several Reykjavik-based tour operators offer coach tours of the Golden Circle where you have the benefit of a driver and local guide – but you will be travelling in a large group with a fixed itinerary and timetable, which can be frustrating if you want to explore hidden gems or wait for that perfect photograph.
Discover the World offers several self-drive holidays in Iceland that feature the Golden Circle. As an added bonus, they provide iPads preloaded with your itinerary and a range of apps featuring everything from natural wonders and the nearest petrol stations to hiking suggestions and the daily weather forecast. Find out more about iDiscover here.
Alternatively, check out these small-group escorted holidays with the Golden Circle on the itinerary.
When is the best time to do the Golden Circle?
Anytime you like! Each season has its own appeal – and challenges. During winter, the roads on the Golden Circle are usually open, but you should always check local conditions before setting off. If it’s snowy or icy, ensure that your vehicle has studded tyres. You may need to hire a 4WD vehicle – or consider joining a guided tour in a superjeep.
Winter transforms Gullfoss into something straight out of Narnia: spray rising from the waterfall freezes on the walls of the gorge, creating intricate columns of ice. At Geysir, the steam billowing from Strokkur seems even more impressive during winter, while Thingvellir looks particularly beautiful when dusted with snow. For photographers, the days are short, but the golden light of a low sun can be very rewarding. Of course, there’s also the possibility of witnessing the northern lights at this time of year.
“I love Geysir at the end of the day when the crowds have left. In February the photo opportunities are amazing with the low sun, snow and ice.” Iceland specialist Jan Pencherz
There are far fewer tourists on the Golden Circle during winter. The flip-side of a summer visit, however, is that it’s warmer and the days are long. In fact, during mid-summer, you can enjoy 24hr daylight – allowing you to linger at places and enjoy fewer other tourists once all the tour buses have returned to Reykjavik in the late afternoon.
Spring and autumn are perfect times to visit the Golden Circle. Spring has long days and a dash of snow and ice left over from winter, while autumn sees the Icelandic tundra turn russet and gold – Thingvellir is stunning at this time of year.
“In June you can do the Golden Circle late at night,” says Iceland Product Manager Paavo Sonninen. “All the sights are open and there’s still daylight, but there is no one else there. Imagine having Geysir all to yourself! Also, the wind often calms down at night.”
How long does it take to see the Golden Circle?
You should allow a full day in your itinerary to drive the Golden Circle and experience the three main sites of Thingvellir, Geysir and Gullfoss. You will also have time to see a few of the less-visited highlights in the region (see below), but if you want to do any activities – such as hiking or snorkelling at Thingvellir – you may find you need two days or more.
Clockwise or anti-clockwise – what is the best way to drive the Golden Circle?
“Definitely clockwise,” according to Simon Wells – Iceland Education Project Manager. “That way, you start your day at Thingvellir where the landscape represents the birth of Iceland both geologically and as a democratic nation. There’s no better starting point.”
To drive the Golden Circle in a clockwise direction, you head east from Reykjavik on Route 36 towards Thingvellir National Park, continuing on Route 365 to Laugarvatn. From there Routes 37/35 lead to Geysir and Gullfoss. Route 35 then loops southwest to join Highway 1 leading back to the capital.
Apart from sightseeing, what can I do on the Golden Circle?
At Thingvellir, the Silfra fissure is flooded with crystal-clear glacial water, creating one of the world’s top dive sites. You can snorkel or scuba dive with the Eurasian continental plate on one side and the North American one on the other. The snorkelling tour lasts about 40 minutes, while qualified divers can take two dives, up to 18m deep. Dry suits are provided.
It is also possible to include other activities on a Golden Circle tour, such as snowmobiling, horse riding and all-terrain vehicle (ATV) tours.
Not far from Fludir, you can get into warmer water at the Secret Lagoon – a geothermal sanctuary since 1891 that is less well-known, but just as enticing as the Blue Lagoon. Alternatively, take a soothing dip at the Laugarvatn Fontana spa.
Don’t let the Golden Circle become one long drive. There are many opportunities for walks, especially at Thingvellir. “Hike to the waterfall Oxararfoss and then continue along the fissure floor in a northerly direction,” says Discover the World’s hiking guide Cathy Harlow. “This is Langistigur, one of the ancient pathways that led to the assembly site. Or from the service centre on the main road, take the path that crosses the lava to the deserted farm of Hrauntun, which was abandoned in the 1930s.”
Built around a large geothermal field 45km east of Reykjavik, Hveragerdi is Iceland’s horticultural hotspot, growing vegetables in heated greenhouses and hosting a flower show on the first weekend of June. It’s also a popular spot for a hike. Follow the Reykjadalur valley north of the town and you’ll find hot springs, mud pools and a warm river for bathing.
What are the ‘alternative’ sights on the Golden Circle?
Heading clockwise around the Golden Circle there are several worthwhile stops in addition to Thingvellir, Geysir and Gullfoss:
Glufrasteinn Museum is the former home of writer and Nobel laureate Halldor Kiljan Laxness and provides an interesting insight into the culture and politics of Iceland during much of the 20th century.
A short distance south of Geysir, Faxi waterfall is smaller than Gullfoss and offers a more intimate experience. “I love Faxi as an ‘alternative’ on the Golden Circle – you can walk right up to them,” says Karen Corfield, an Iceland specialist with Discover the World. “There’s also a lovely little café overlooking the falls that sells fabulous homemade soup, coffee, cakes and handmade woollen gifts.”
From the 11th to 18th century, Skalholt was one of Iceland’s most important religious centres and has a fine cathedral, built in the 1900s and a popular venue for summer concerts. Nearby, you’ll find the Slakki Petting Zoo and Engi organic vegetable market.
Although local landowners charge an entrance fee to visit the volcanic crater lake of Kerid it’s still worth visiting.
“Go there at sunset or sunrise,” recommends Karen. “The colours of the minerals in the rocks are accentuated making the experience amazing”.
For an insight into what lies beneath Iceland and how the country obtains 87% of its hot water, make the detour to Nesjavallavirkjun Geothermal Power Plant. The road to the power station skirts the southern shore of Lake Thingvallavatn – a beautiful drive, but note that the road is not well maintained and may be closed during winter.
Any tips for taking photographs on the Golden Circle?
“Geysir is best late in the afternoon,” says Simon Wells. “That way you can put the camera on burst mode and get some great shots with the setting sun shining through the water and steam – or head to the little hill behind Strokkur for a great vantage point.”
Can you recommend anywhere for lunch on the Golden Circle?
You can always pick up a packed lunch in Reykjavik before setting off – Braud & Co is a good spot for picnic supplies. On the road, here’s what the experts suggest:
“I recommend the delicious cakes at the bakery at Hveragerdi,” says Jan Pencherz. “There’s also a great café selling homemade cakes at Thingvellir, on the main road before you turn off to the car park for the old parliament”.
Karen suggests Fridheimar greenhouses: “A great spot for lunch, with tomato-based homemade recipes – pizza, pasta, soup and cocktails.”
“Make sure you stop at the Geysirs around lunchtime,” says Amy Gibbs, Nordic Sales Manager. “A lovely warm bowl of fresh Icelandic mushroom soup is the best way to fuel a day exploring the Golden Circle.”