The Golden Circle — a route consisting of three major sites easily reached within a day from Reykjavík — is one of the most popular tourist activities in Iceland. In fact, if you only have two days in the whole country, Lonely Planet Iceland recommends you spend one of them on this particular pilgrimage. The Golden Circle highlights history, geology and natural beauty by allowing visitors to hit up a historic national park, an impressive geyser and a beautiful waterfall on one trip.
With public transportation lacking in Iceland, visitors have two choices for accessing the sites — joining a group tour or renting a car and doing a self-drive tour. We chose to self-drive for a few reasons —
1. It’s cheaper. Well, we broke even. Group tours are around 9,000 kroner, or $50usd per person, while renting a car is about 20,000 kroner, or $110usd per day. So even with the cost of fuel, with three people we were actually breaking even. Had we added another person to the mix we would have been saving. And the wonderful thing about the Golden Circle is that all three sites are actually free, so the car and fuel are the only fixed costs.
2. It’s more flexible. We we able to spend as much or as little time at each site as we wished, and we were able to make detours to check out nearby attractions or activities. Most importantly, to me anyway, I was able to request photo-ops ever 5 miles and was patiently indulged. I don’t think that would have worked with a busload of other people. Which brings me to my last point…
3. We hate other people. Just kidding. But really, my mom, sister and I get so little time all together, we really wanted to be able to converse freely without being rude to a group. Plus we got to pick out our own music and blast it! The day before we asked a shop owner for Icelandic music suggestions and walked away with three new albums: We Sink by Soley (our favorite and featured in my Iceland video!), Brekkan by Benni Hemm Hemm (in Icelandic!) and of course, Takk by Sigur Ros.
The flexibility just made this trip for us. I had read that the Golden Circle sites can feel a little bit like an assembly line in the summertime as tour buses rotate round, but even in peak season we were often the only car in sight. The first leg of the trip was a forty-five minute drive Reykjavík to Þingvellir National Park, though it may have taken us an hour as we stopped often to marvel at rolling farms, friendly horses, and stark churches.
Stopping so that I could photograph horses and Olivia could shriek and touch them would become a theme for our days on the road.
Our arrival at Þingvellir National Park was marked by a field of stone piles, a phenomenon that apparently exists all across Iceland. Funny enough, this valley of rocks was the most tourist-mobbed place that we stopped all day.
Þingvellir is a Unesco World Heritage site, Iceland’s first national park, and the most important historical site in the country. In fact, this site has significant importance on a global scale as well — it was here that Vikings established the world’s first democratic parliament in AD 930.
This was the one sight in the Golden Circle where I think we may have benefited from a tour guide. The park is huge, and it’s kind of difficult to discern where exactly “IT” is, “it” being The Thing you are supposed to be sure to see. If that sentence made little sense to you, then congratulations — you can’t understand the ramblings of a crazy person obsessed with checking things off a list.
While obviously nothing remains of the world’s first parliament (it was conducted over one of the ridges rather than in a building), you can peek inside one of Iceland’s first churches. Beside it are a few teeny farmhouses, one of which is the prime minister’s summer home.
Þingvellir has immense geological clout as well as historic — it sits perched atop the tectonic boundary between American and European plates. Does that sound familiar? That’s because I went scuba diving between those plates earlier in the trip!
The ridges, like those seen in the photo below, are a result of the techtonic plates moving apart at a rate of 1-18mm per year.
I was really excited to show my mom and sister Þingvallavatn, Iceland’s largest lake and site of my diving adventures. I marveled once again at the unbelievable cold and clarity of the water, and even convinced my sister to take a sip. It’s pure glacial water, after all — people pay a lot to drink that stuff out of a bottle.
For those that want to explore Þingvellir further, trail maps are available for a small fee at the Park Service Center.
Eventually we were back in the car again, on our way to Geysir, another 40 minute drive. On the way we passed Laugarvatn, a town of just 200 people spread around a hot spring lake. From here you can rent kayaks and rowboats and paddle around the lake, or take tours of the nearby caves. I routed us through Laugarvatn in hopes of convincing my mom and sis to visit the modern thermal baths overlooking the lake, but a mosquito attack as we exited the car put them off the idea.
Arriving at Geysir, we headed straight to the on-site restaurant to eat lunch while gazing out the window at spouting hot springs.
This turned out to be my favorite stop by far of the Golden Circle. Geysir is the jet-like hot water eruption for which all other geysers on Earth are named. Isn’t that amazing? It’s like getting to visit the original Tree or the original Rock which all other trees and rocks are named after.
Geysir once shot 70-80m high — impressive when compared to Old Faithful in the USA, which shoots from 25-55m. However, in the 1950’s tourists inadvertently clogged Geysir by throwing rocks into it in an attempt to set it off, and it hasn’t erupted the same since.
Fortunately, there are still active spouts to keep geology-loving tourists happy. Strokkur, a nearby neighbor of Geysir, is the most reliable geyser in the world. Strokkur erupts every 7-10 minutes at a height of 15-30m. I stuck around for several eruptions in an attempt to capture the whole thing on film!
For those that want to explore the Geysir area further, an audiovisual exhibition is available in the Geysir Center, and horse treks are available from Hotel Geysir.
A mere ten minute drive further brought us straight to Gulfoss, Iceland’s most famous waterfall and the final destination on our Golden Circle tour.
Unfortunately the weather had begun to turn a little gloomy at this point, and so we didn’t see any of the rainbows this double water drop is known for.
But perhaps more beautiful than the falls themselves is the story of the woman who saved them. In the 1920’s a group of foreign investors made plans to dam the Hvita River for hydroelectric power. The landowner refused to sell but the government gave special permission to the investors, inspiring the landowners daughter to walk all the way to Reykjavík (70 miles!) to protest. Her threats to jump into the waterfall were heeded and thanks to the investors allowing the lease to lapse, the falls were saved. Today, Gulfoss is part of a nature reserve and protected from development.
For those that want to explore the Gulfoss area further, snowmobile rides to Langjökull Glacier leave from the visitor center and cafe.
For those that are on a self-drive tour like we were, there are alternative routes back to Reykjavík so that the same route doesn’t have to be driven twice. In our case we were heading straight into a road trip up the Snæfellsnes Penninsula, so we had to double back most of the way before heading north up the coast.
Along the way we passed dramatic waterfalls, happy livestock and interesting architecture.
Once again, I have to emphasize that the self-drive option was worth it for the photography opportunities alone! If you’re visiting Iceland, chances are you’re circling round this golden route. I encourage you to gather a group of three or more and make the DIY option into a bargain!
Do you prefer to DIY your trips or meet new friends through joining a group tour?
Every time you write a post about Iceland, I become more determined to go there ASAP!
It definitely seems like the self-drive option is better, for the photography alone. I absolutely LOVE the photos of the horses running – they’re absolutely stunning!
We were so lucky to catch that moment! Each of my upcoming roadtrip posts HEAVILY features Icelandic horses — hope no one gets sick of them 🙂
Do it Yourself is ALWAYS better if you have somebody to do it with!! What a great adventure! And well, blasting your own music is ALWAYS a plus
Especially when its amazing Icelandic tunes like these were! Seriously, it was as if those songs were written as soundtracks to the landscapes all around Iceland…
amaaazing photos! my parents are leaving for Iceland on Tuesday (they couldn’t be more excited) and they wanted to know if you rented a car from the airport or from Reykavik, and what rental company did you use? They have read online that its dangerous to drive in Iceland and that if you do any damage to the car you might as well drive it off a cliff because they will charge you such a ridiculous amount! Iceland is HIGH on my list and your beautiful posts have only fuel the fire! when I move to Ireland next year I will most definitely be visiting!
We had the car rental arranged through our hotel, and it was dropped off there! I’m sure your parents hotel would do the same. We drove our car on some pretty crazy roads and it did just fine, though I did have a few moments of panic. I would recommend telling the rental car company your intended route and just asking if there’s anything they should be concerned about!
Wow, sounds like a great roadtrip. And the imagery is stunning.
Thanks Annie! Now if only I was old enough to rent cars on my own. Darn rental car rules…
Definitely prefer the roadtrip! The freedom to go at your own pace, spend time at the interesting places and skip the boring ones! Though your photos make the whole place look just magical!
Well I wish I could take all the credit for that but seriously… it’s hard to take a bad photo in Iceland!
Hey, this is fantastic. We are going to Iceland in October and are doing a self drive trip and we have been looking for some useful information (Especially times between places). We can’t wait to go there and now having read this post I know it is going to be FAB!
I’m so glad I could be of help! It’s a great little trip to DIY, enjoy!
amazing pictures! The roadtrip is so much better idea there! I was there on the tour and it was nice and all but I really wished to stop in so many places along the way to take pictures 🙂
Well maybe someday you can go back and do it by roadtrip 🙂 Am I the only one that always fantasizes about returning to every place I’ve already been?!
no, you’re definitely not the only one. what’s more I am returning to already visited places and then I’m annoyed I’m kind of wasting my holidays as I could have seen a new place instead 😉
Fantastic photos! Really gives us a sense of being there, thanks Alex!!!!!!
Thank you Chris! I wish I could take everyone with me, so this is second best 🙂
I love love love your photos! Random question- is it a lot of work to put so many images into Wordpress? Do you have a shortcut?
Ha…. YES it is a lot of work! Unfortunately I have not found any shortcuts other than don’t be a crazy person who insists on putting so many photos in their posts. If only that could be me 🙂
Totally worth it, looks great!
As usual, I found it fascinating. Wish I could go there. Love, Gram E
Thanks Gram! Love knowing you’re reading 🙂
Good article and lovely photos. I know Iceland well and you have described some of the best bits! Everybody should visit at least once, it is a marvellous place.
Thanks John! That’s a great compliment coming from someone familiar with the country.
Found your post via Lonely Planet’s tweet yesterday – great read! And perfect timing as well since I’ll be traveling to Iceland next summer and plan on doing a self-drive tour. It was nice to hearing about your experiences – I’m looking forward to it even more now!
Question – how did you handle all the insurance options for your rental car? I’ve found on some sites that there’s collision coverage, gravel protection, and ash protection, among others. Did you own car insurance cover anything?
Thanks Jamie, glad you found me! As for insurance we were careful to call both our car insurance in the states (well, my mom’s since she was driving) as well as our credit card (which often provides insurance for rental cars) and ended up purchasing it through my mom’s American Express card. Definitely investigate those options!
You bring my home country on higher level with quality photo. I hope the stay here in Iceland has been good so far.
At least the weather last days has not been good.
Very good efforts to create lovely post on Golden circle tour, Iceland is the best place in the world to see the beauty of the glaciers surrounded by huge mottled fields with cracks.
Holidays in Iceland with amazing Iceland Glaciers will be the unbelievable trip for the any travellers.
Great Blog, Loved it!
Going to Iceland in October and considering the self drive option. This this has made my mind up for me.
Thanks Chris! Enjoy Iceland, it’s fantastic!
Hey Alex, love the read and photos! My wife and 2 kids and I are going to be in Iceland next month! We were planning to rent a car and do the golden circle self drive too. Just wondering if a 4×4 is necessary for the trip? Prices seem to double for SUVs. I keep reading about these F-roads 🙂 Do you encounter them on this tour? Thanks!
We just rented the cheapest car they had, a little sedan. It was small but perfectly safe for the Golden Circle. No F roads to be seen! Good luck!
I got such a kick out of the blog. It was just beautifully done. Would you recommend staying overnight in one of the areas of the Golden circle. You mentioned that you took a road trip up to the Snæfellsnes peninsula. Did you first return to f Reykjavík and then head out the next day?
Thanks Susan! We kept going north and started the road trip straight away, which I really recommend. You can find details in this post and this post about the roadtrip and where we stayed!
I ready to go iceland in October and drive from Reykjavik to Thingvellir National Park, is it driving along route 1 and through “Mosfellsbaer” and then route “36” to Thingvellir? How about the road condition, is it good for driving?
Hi Betsy, I’m sorry but I don’t remember the specific road we took… but we did the standard route the GPS told us to take! The road conditions were great in the summer!
Hey, loved the post and the stunning photos! I am heading to Iceland in a couple of months with my mum who has mobility problems. Just wondering if you could advise which of the parts of your trip would be suitable for someone who could only walk a few mins at a time and wouldn’t be able to hike etc? Also which of the sites could you park nearby and which were a longer walk to the site? I’d really appreciate any advice 🙂
Hey Nicola! First of all, I would recommend you to rent a car so you can move at your own pace and not feel pressured by a group. I think that will make you both a lot more comfortable! This was quite a while ago now but from what I remember the Geysir site was a very, very short walk from the parking lot while the other two had slightly longer (maybe 5-10) minutes to get to the main attraction. I hope that helps!
Yep those distances seem about right for walking from the carpark, all are pretty close!
Definitely rent a car. Affordable Car Rental and Sadcars are cheap. The flexibility was great as Alex says and we brought along a couple Couchsurfers to split the costs with.
I’m sure this has probably been asked somewhere, but what time of year was your trip? the weather looks beautiful! 🙂
Hey Michelle, we visited in June! We could not have been luckier with the weather. It was amazing.
Hi Alex, great blog. I will be traveling by myself to Iceland in May. Do you think it’s safe for me to do the golden circle all by myself? I know it’s super expensive to absorb cost all by myself but i think the flexibility itself pays it off. i’m just a bit worried about safety. Please let me know what you think. thanks. Barbara
Hey Barbara! I absolutely think so. Iceland is a super safe country overall and I don’t see anything about the Golden Circle that would send up any red flags. Depending on the time of year there may not be many cars on the road, so I would definitely travel with a cell phone just in case of car trouble. But enjoy and good luck!
Hi Alex! Your blog post has me SO excited for my travels in Iceland this fall. Question: How long did this trip around the golden circle take you? Clearly it’s a thing that will vary from one traveler to the next, but I’m trying to get a general idea for planning purposes. 🙂
Hey Maggie, I am so sorry to say that I really can’t remember! I would budget the entire day (we did) but in terms of hours I have no memory. Wishing you the very best time though, happy travels!
Hi Alex, thanks for typing all of this up and making it available. I’m headed to Iceland in April and having this link handy will definitely be helpful. Thanks!
You are so welcome, Bryan! I hope it’s a good resource. Enjoy your trip!
Thanks for the advice. It was useful to read your thoughts on renting a car. I can’t wait until I get to Iceland next week and see these sites.
You’re so very welcome Jennifer. Enjoy Iceland — it is magical! (I say that about a lot of places but in Iceland it really applies.)
beautiful pictures! what month was your travel in?
we are heading there in early september 🙂 do you advise to do this as a day trip or to stay over a night?
Hey Milinda, we were there in June! You can easily do this as a day trip, but we continued onwards North after as part of a three day road trip around the West coast of Iceland. Hope that helps!
Thanks for all the info, can you tell me were the beautiful cafe at Geysir is? I cannot seem to find anything online. Is it at the Geysir Hotel or by itself? Thanks!
Hey SJ! I’m sorry but I can’t quite remember — I’m sure when you arrive it will be very easy to find. There wasn’t much around! Sorry I can’t be more helpful.
We were here in winters…it looked so different from your pics….different , but charming and nice!
Would love to revisit in summers!
I would love to return someday in the winter… if only to see the Northern Lights!
After 4 years, people are still reading your blog!
Thank you for writing this. Certainly will be handy for my trip in September.
Indeed they are! Feeling very blessed to still be doing a job I love <3 Enjoy your trip!
Thank you for sharing. I have a question….. Do you need a GPS device or is a road map suffice?
We had a GPS in our rental car 🙂 We too are directionally challenged!
Appreciate it. This NY-ker is a hot mess with anything below Houston Street!
Love your posts and blog and find it extremely helpful!
We want to do this drive but stretch over more days. How many miles was your roundtrip and how long did it take? Thank you for posting!
Hey Cynthia! Unfortunately I am not sure of the mileage though plugging all your stops into Google Maps should give you that info. We did this in a day. Enjoy your trip!
Hey Alex. Great Post indeed and awesome pictures. Just one question. Whats it like travelling to Iceland in December first week? I am planning it this year December.
Sorry, I’ve only ever been to Iceland in June so it’s all I can really speak to! I’m sure there are plenty of accounts from other travelers who have been around that time if you do some Googling 🙂 Good luck!
Wow wow and wow ?
Thank you sooo much for sharing your adventures ?
We will be going this September and our posse will be seven ?
Again thanks for some great advice and the stories ?
Awesome Philip! That sounds like a super fun trip!
We will be traveling to Iceland in June for 5 days and are trying to combine a little bit of relaxation with a little bit of sightseeing. If we were to base out of Reykjavik for most of the time, but then head out for a two day tour of the golden circle, is there a place you would recommend staying over?
Hey Megan! Really, the Golden Circle was quite easy to do in a day. We did a three day road trip portion of our trip and loved combining a day of the Golden Circle with two days of the Snæfellsnes Peninsula — you can read more about it here!