The Golden Circle in Iceland is the most popular day trip in Iceland from the tourist hub of Reykjavik. So what is Icel It’s a 230km route that features some of Iceland’s most stunning natural landmarks that are all on a days drive? Most tourists opt for a bus tour, but we suggest picking up a vehicle and driving the Golden Circle yourself!
Not everyone can take 10 days in Iceland to drive around the Ring Road. So, taking a small rental car or renting a campervan for a few days for the Golden Circle and Southern Iceland is a great alternative.
We’re avid self-drivers having done the North Coast 500, Faroe Islands, Northern Ireland, and Overlanding across Africa because we love the freedom that our own car affords us. Having this freedom means you are not rushed from one car to the next while driving the Golden Circle and have time to enjoy yourselves.
If you plan on driving the Golden Circle in Iceland yourself or even if you plan on taking a tour this guide will be sure to help you out!
How To Drive Iceland’s Golden Circle Route
Þingvellir National Park
The first stop on the Golden Circle is Iceland’s first National Park, Þingvellir. Not only is it the first national park, but it’s also the location of Iceland’s first Parliament, started back in 930 AD. Back then an assembly of 48 chieftains would gather to discuss Viking law and hold court. It’s regarded as the founding of Iceland as a nation and historically important to Icelanders.
Most notably this is also where the Eurasian and North American plates are slowly splitting apart. The drifting continents have created deep fissures and volcanic activity. One of the fissures is famous as it is filled with shimmering glacier water. For an incredible day out, tourists can put on wetsuits and brave the glacier water for an out of this world diving and snorkeling experience between two continents.
Þingvellir is located 40km NE of Reykjavik and takes about 40 minutes from the city center. The countryside is wonderfully filled with farms, mountains, and valleys. Once, you arrive you will have to pay for parking, however, it’s well worth the small fee.
Geysir Hot Spring Area
After Þingvellir you head to the Geysir Hot Spring Area, a geothermal area roughly 60km to the East. You can view two famous geysers in the area, Geysir, and Strokkur. After an earthquake, the original Geysir no longer erupts, but it’s neighbor Strokkur erupts at regular intervals.
There is an impressive gift shop/cafe that’s perfect for a pit stop. Just be prepared for Icelandic prices as a sandwich and drink will set you back almost $20. We drove the Golden Circle in our camper van so we cooked lunch off the road away from crowds. We recommend packing a picnic lunch either way.
This is one of the most spectacular waterfalls in Iceland. It’s a mesmerizing sight to watch the Hvítá River drop down a deep ravine. It’s an amazing sight that is one of Iceland’s most popular attractions. Make sure to bring a camera and rain jacket as the waterfalls produce a thick mist and frequent rainbows.
The waterfall is accessed from a large parking lot with a pathway and steps that allow for visitors to walk along the edge of the mighty waterfall. To stand at the edge of Gullfoss waterfall is a wet and amazing experience. Once you finish up at Gullfoss you need to backtrack a bit to head on to the Golden Circle.
Kerið Crater Lake
The Kerid Crater is a worthy stop on the Golden Circle that not everyone makes. It’s a former cone Volcano that has since collapsed. It’s also the only stop on the Golden Circle that does charge an entrance fee. However, it’s not much at 400 ISK or $3.50 USD.
The bottom of the volcanic crater is a deep sapphire blue that is a sharp contrast to the red rock of the crater. It’s a marvelous sight along the Golden Circle. It’s also quick as it only takes a five-minute climb.
Hveragerði – Sundlaugin Laugarskarði
Most people pass right through this town on their way back to Reykjavik. However, we suggest making the stop and heading to one of Iceland’s historic pools. Unlike the tourist traps of Secret Lagoon and Laugarvatn Fontana the swimming pool in Hveragerði an authentic Icelandic experience.
The pool is one of the first its kind constructed in Iceland. It’s entirely fed by geothermal water and features a 50m Olympic length outdoor pool, along with a diving board, steam room, hot tub, and cold tub. It’s also a place in Iceland where locals and tourists truly intermix. Before you head to a pool in Iceland we recommend you read up on the etiquette here. Icelandic pools typically charge between 600 ISK-900 ISK for a dip. This doesn’t include a towel, so make sure to pack a travel towel that folds up well.
For those with plenty of time in the summer months, you can also take a 45-minute walk out of town to find the Reykjadalur hot spring thermal river. Free hot spring! No need to pay for $45 to hang out in a crowded hot tub with other tourists sweaty bodies. Rivers are moving water, lagoons are stagnant…
Golden Circle Self Drive Tips
How long does it take to drive the Golden Circle?
It takes just under three hours to drive the Golden Circle. So, a reasonable amount of time would be about five hours with stops, or you could spend the whole day along the route. We spent the night along the route in our Happy Campers’ camper van.
If you’re not on a Golden Circle tour you have a lot of flexibility with time. There is a plethora of detours and Icelandic horses to be pet!
During the summer months, it’s easy to do it any time of day. You could even leave 10:00 p.m. chasing the midnight sun. Either way, we suggest going early or late in the day to avoid peak crowds at midday.
Here’s an Iceland Golden Circle Map
Driving in Iceland
If you’re visiting Iceland outside of the winter months driving the Golden Circle you’ll have no problems. However, come winter time the roads are icy and caution should be taken. If you’re interested in the weather and about the best time to visit Iceland we have a post. To stay up to date on road conditions check out Vegagerdin run by Iceland’s road authority.
When driving the ring road we suggest you download an offline Google Map and save the points of interest along the route. That will make driving between stops painless. It really is easy as there isn’t much traffic once you leave Reykjavik.
Be warned car rentals are not cheap in Iceland and gas is just as expensive. When we drove the Golden Circle has was around $2 a liter or $8 a gallon. You do not need a 4×4 vehicle to drive the Golden Circle.
Car rental insurance does not cover F-roads. We opted for a tour with Moonwalker to explore Landmannalaugar; however, we still saw many tourists off road in their vehicles. We would not recommend this unless you’re specifically renting from a specialized 4×4 company who is aware of your travel plans.
Plan Your Trip to Iceland
Book a camper!
A campervan is the best way to get around Iceland on a budget. While a camper is slightly more expensive than a car, you can sleep and cook in it! Meaning you don’t have to search for any hotels or deal with expensive restaurants in Iceland. Plus you get to sleep in nature every night and still use a heater if you wish! If you want to travel with a Happy Campers van like we did (and you should they are the BEST!) make sure to read our full review. You can easily book using this link, but make sure to book well in advance during high season.
When is the Best Time to Visit Iceland?
In my opinion, the best times to visit Iceland are June, July, September, October, and December – but it all depends on what you want! June-August is high season, but it is also summer in Iceland and when you will find the most pleasant temperatures. It’s also when you will experience the most amount of daylight and get the most of our of your trip. December is great because it is winter, you stand a strong chance of seeing the Northern Lights, it’s low season, and the temperatures haven’t gone to complete freezing yet.
However my personal favorite time to travel Iceland is during the fall months. It’s during September and October where you will see the leaves change vibrant colors around the country. Temperatures are still mild, and tourism is slowing down. You can see the full month by month breakdown for Iceland travel here.
Things to do in Iceland
There are literally so many things to do in Iceland I could write a book about it. Unfortunately, I don’t have that kind of time so I’m showing you the ultimate Iceland bucket list here. Some things that are a must do are go to an Iceland swimming pool, soak in a natural hot spring, stand under a waterfall, and see the Northern Lights.
Photography Gear for Iceland
A high-quality camera is an important packing item for Iceland if you want some great shots while on your vacation. We travel with our Fujifilm Camera and 200mm telephoto lens. Drones have sort of taken Iceland by storm, and can capture fantastic footage as well. We had our DJI Mavic in Iceland, but make sure to use your drone responsibly as many locals are getting increasingly annoyed at the sight of them.
Whatever you do do not forget a tripod for Iceland – especially if you plan on photographing the Northern Lights. You’ll need one for the long exposures.
Is Iceland Expensive?
Iceland is mega expensive. One of the most expensive countries in the entire world actually. Make sure that you plan accordingly and in line with your budget. It’s certainly possible to do Iceland on a budget of less than $100 if you are camping, cooking all your own basic meals, and traveling by public transport or score a good deal on a rental. The good news is that nature is free, and you’ll be able to see Iceland’s beauty without paying for it. So yes – it’s completely doable to have an affordable Iceland vacation.
If you plan on drinking be sure to pick yo duty free alcohol before you leave the airport. A pint of beer can easily run you $15-$20!
Helpful Iceland Travel Tips
- Icelanders speak Icelandic, but every single person I came across spoke English.
- The local currency is the Icelandic króna (ISK). ATM’s are found throughout the country
- Have I mentioned Iceland is expensive as hell? Well, it is! Save money by eating in and cooking for yourself. Check out our Iceland grocery store guide for all the tips!
- Iceland is one of the safest countries in the world; however, it’s always important to use common sense when walking alone at night.
- Tipping is not customary in Iceland.
- Iceland has strong internet infrastructure and you should be able to easily stay connected.
- Sometimes it’s nice just to have a real book in your hands when traveling. We recommend Lonely Planet to get you through those wireless nights.
What to Pack for Iceland
Nothing will ruin your Iceland honeymoon more than getting hurt and not having insurance. We don’t travel without travel insurance and neither should you. You never know what can happen in a foreign country and it’s best to be prepared. World Nomads provides good short term coverage.
You’re going to need something to carry your belongings in while you’re traveling around the world. Even if you’re not doing extensive hikes you need at least something small for day trips. My favorite daypacks are from Camelbak. You can see all our other backpack recommendations below:
Make sure to protect your eyes from the sun when you’re traveling. There are a lot of options for sunglasses and everyone should own at least a pair. It’s best to make sure they do have UV protection for the health of your eyes.
We made our first investment in quality polarized sunglasses with a pair of SMITH Optics Lowdown 2. Truthfully, not everyone needs to invest $150 in a pair of sunglasses, but they do make a huge difference from the crappy $10 ones.
I ALWAYS have a down jacket with me when I’m traveling in the winter, fall, or even spring. They aren’t just good for hikes, but doing anything outside.
Down jackets pack up light and small so there is no reason NOT to have one in your bag. Seriously it could save your life in a bad situation. We wrote a whole post on our favorites (hint –Feathered Friends, Arc’Teryx Cerium LT Hooded Jacket, Patagonia Down Sweater, REI Coop Down Jacket)
Goretex Rain Jacket
We’re building up a collection of shell jackets. We always carry one in our pack and they’ve come in handy many times. Weather around the world can be iffy in October, so it’s best to be prepared. They are lightweight, durable, packable, waterproof, and windproof and really a great travel rain jacket. We have a bunch of different shell jackets after several years, but my favorite right now is from Arc’teryx.
Any jacket can do the job, but the top dollar ones will hold up and really help in inclement weather.
I love real books, but for traveling it can be easier to carry a lighter and more compact item like a Kindle. Plus, then you can download new books on the go!
Please consider purchasing a travel water bottle before your trip! We hate to see one time use plastic bottles ending up in the ocean. The tap water is so good here – seriously please don’t be one of those tourists that buys plastic water bottles. It’s a waste of money and plastic!
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