The Golden Circle is by far the most popular day trip in southern Iceland. The circular route runs for about 186 miles and starts and ends in the capital city, Reykjavik. Some of Iceland’s top scenic attractions are along this route, making it a highlight of any short or long visit to Iceland.
The Golden Circle is a great introduction to the country and all of its natural wonders. Iceland is famous for its dramatic landscape, and this mini roadtrip shows off some of its best, including gorgeous waterfalls, volcanic craters, glaciers, geothermal activity and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Add to this the famous Icelandic ponies roaming throughout the land and you’ll quickly see just how magical Iceland really is.
This guide will take you through all the basics of self-driving the Golden Circle with some additional tips and stops along the way. Of course, you can take a guided tour of the Golden Circle, but driving it yourself gives you more freedom, and the added bonus stops are worth their weight in gold.
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With the ease of the Golden Circle being a direct circular route from Reykjavik, it’s a straightforward way to explore the wonders of Iceland, even if you’re only staying a short while.
How long does it take to drive the Circle Circle?
An average tour of the Golden Circle should take about 6-8 hours, but if you were to do it without stopping it would end up somewhere between 3-4 hours.
I’ve added a few extras to the usual itinerary to make it an even more exciting adventure. Depending on the weather and tourism levels, I would factor in a full day for this trip, between 8-10 hours. You’ll want plenty of time to take in the unique and breathtaking scenery; the worst thing you could do is feel rushed.
When can I visit the Golden Circle?
This guide is for a self-drive tour any time of the year. Yes, you can even drive the Golden Circle in the winter and you don’t need a 4×4 to do it. However, I would highly recommend 4×4 in the wintertime if you are heading off the main route.
One of the scariest moments we had on the trip was visiting waterfall þórufoss, as a person that has never driven in snow nor in a snowstorm, it was challenging enough in 4×4. Going back on the main road we slid on the ice, my friends yelling brace! We were all good but I couldn’t have managed that in a smaller car.
The paved roads are well-maintained and the convenience of this route to the city is what makes it so popular. There’s still a lot of tourism in the winter for those chasing after the Northern Lights, but it won’t be as busy as the summer months.
If you’re visiting in the summer, you’ll have unlimited daylight at your disposal, meaning you can start later in the day and still have enough time for everything. In the winter, the daylight hours are very limited, so you never want to miss a chance to get out the door before sunrise.
The great thing about driving the Golden Circle yourself is that you’re more likely to avoid crowds and enjoy more privacy along the way.
Keep in mind that most Golden Circle tours leave in the morning from Reykjavik between 8-10am, with afternoon departures around noon and 2pm and most of them return to the city by 8pm. If you can, work your schedule around this to avoid the tour buses as much as possible.
Why is it called the Golden Circle?
The Golden Circle gets its name from one if its main attractions, Gullfoss – which translates from Icelandic to Golden Waterfall – along the roughly circular route. It is also sometimes called the Golden Triangle, due to the three main attractions. There’s a story that says Vigdís Finnbogadóttir, the president of Iceland from 1980-1996, was the first person to use the expression ‘Golden Circle’ and it just sort of stuck.
In the north of Iceland, you’ll also find another popular circular driving route called the Diamond Circle. In the summer, many people will use the Golden Circle as a starting point for driving the full Ring Road around Iceland and up to the Diamond Circle.
What are the highlights of the Golden Circle?
The Golden Circle has three major attractions you’ll want to visit; Thingvellir National Park, Haukadalur Geothermal Field and Gullfoss. But you’re not limited to just these three! The area around the Golden Circle has many other attractions that can make your day even more enjoyable, like soaking in the geothermal hot springs.
Next I’m going to guide you through each stop along the way in the order you might visit them.
Your first stop along the Golden Circle, driving in a clockwise direction, is the National Park Þingvellir, spelt Thingvellir in English. This was Iceland’s first national park and is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s an important stop from a cultural and geological perspective.
Around fifty years after Iceland was first settled, Thingvellir became the location for Iceland’s first parliament, known as Althing, in 930 AD and continued there until 1798. Thingvellir was chosen as the parliament’s meeting location because of how easily reachable it was from all the different regions of Iceland in the summer months.
It was this location where laws were passed, judicial hearings took place and it’s where the foundation for Iceland’s cultural roots were formed. So from a cultural standpoint alone, Thingvellir is an important stop.
But then you have the fact that Iceland sits right on the middle of two continental plates, the Eurasian Plate and the North American Plate. Thingvellir just so happens to be found in the rift valley of these two plates, that are slowly drifting apart from each other.
This means that part of your experience in Thingvellir National Park is that you can see and walk in the cracks that have opened up in the earth. There are even opportunities for a truly unique experience of snorkeling and diving in these fissures.
Silfra at Thingvellir
Usually when you think of Iceland, you think of cold, so scuba diving doesn’t necessarily come to mind when you’re considering a trip to the Arctic. However, within Thingvellir National Park, you’ll find the home of one of the top ten scuba sites in the world.
Silfra provides a unique scuba diving and snorkeling experience unlike anywhere else. No matter what time of year you visit, you can actually plunge into the clearest water on earth, with wet suits of course.
The water that reaches the fissure has taken 30 to 100 years to get there, filtering through lava rock along the way. This is what provides visibility for up to 100 metres. If you’re up for it, book ahead of time to experience underwater tunnels, terrain, and caverns that you won’t find anywhere else in the world.
If scuba diving isn’t your thing, then there’s a ten minute walk from the parking lot that will also take you to a lovely waterfall called Oxararfoss. The walking paths through Thingvellir are free, however there is a small parking charge to be paid by credit or debit card. Plan on spending 30-90 minutes at the park, depending on the weather conditions.
Game of Thrones fans will be excited to know that a number of scenes from the show were filmed in the national park, as well as other locations around Iceland.
Friðheimar Tomato Farm
After leaving the Thingvellir National Park, the next major highlight of the Golden Circle is about an hour’s drive. Before you reach that, though, you’ll probably want to stop for a hearty lunch! And for that I can’t recommend Friðheimar enough. This is a unique highlight to your day you don’t want to miss.
Friðheimar is a tomato farm and restaurant located in the area of the Golden Circle that’s growing increasingly popular so book a table! They’re able to grow tomatoes all year round, despite Iceland’s long, dark winters, with artificial lighting in the greenhouses.
From the moment you walk into this geothermal tomato farm, everything looks and smells of tomatoes. It’s a great choice for vegetarians and vegans in Iceland and the food is extraordinary. The one and only Friðheimar Tomato Soup is served on a buffet with sour cream, home baked bread, cucumber salsa, butter and fresh herbs. You won’t believe how fresh everything tastes.
Money-saving tip: the soup is unlimited and you can eat as much as you like!
Don’t hesitate to treat yourself to a Bloody Mary, which they obviously specialize in with all the tomatoes. It was the best Bloody Mary I’ve had in my life, in a uniquely gorgeous setting of tomato vines. Alternatively, they make their own beer flavoured with tomatoes.
Greenhouse visits are also available all year round for pre-booked groups and you can even take away delicious food souvenirs such as tomato jam, cucumber salsa and tomato drinks. And if you want to visit the Icelandic ponies, pre-book a visit to the horse stables.
You will not regret this enriching, wholesome stop at Friðheimar!
Haukadalur Geothermal Field
Jump back into the car for the much shorter journey from Friðheimar to the next major sightseeing destination: Haukadalur Geothermal Field, also referred to as the Geysir Geothermal Area.
The major geothermal wonders of this area are Iceland’s famous geysers, Strokkur and Geysir. In addition to these you’ll explore mud pots, hot springs and fumaroles (steam rising, essentially).
Geysir is believed to have been erupting for at least 10,000 years, but is fairly dormant in modern times. If you’re lucky enough to see the spectacular eruption, you’ll witness boiling water and steam reaching over 400 feet in the air. But if you don’t get to see Geysir, never fear, Strokkur will save the day!
Strokkur is just 50 metres from Geysir and usually erupts every five to ten minutes, so this is what you’re really there to see. The eruption is smaller than Geysir, averaging around 50ft in the air, but it’s still an impressive sight to behold.
Visiting Haukadalur Geothermal Field is another free stop along your way and there’s free parking on site too! Next to the car park, there’s a large gift shop and plenty of toilet facilities so I recommend taking advantage of the bathroom break and food opportunity as well.
Because Strokkur spouts often, you’ll have ample opportunity for a photo, just make sure and stick to the marked paths for safety. I found this stop to be the most crowded, with lots of tour buses so I spent the least amount of time here.
Gullfoss waterfall is the last of the three major highlights of the Golden Circle. Gullfoss means ‘golden falls’ and is where the Golden Circle name comes from. Gullfoss is a favourite waterfall in Iceland and is only a ten minute drive from the geysers.
Gullfoss is on the Hvítá River, with two main car parks, offering different views of the falls. With views at lower and higher elevations, there are steps that links the two and both viewpoints are definitely worth seeing.
It’s also possible to walk along the edge of the river above the falls, but this will depend on weather conditions and time of year you’re visiting. This area is very windy and can be extremely cold in the winter months so you might not spend as much time as you think you will.
The water originates in glacier Langjökull flowing down to the sea as glacial river Hvítá. The falls then cascade down across two levels. The first is around 36 feet in height and the second is around 70 feet in height, so it’s not just one tall, straight waterfall. In the summer, about 4900 cubic feet of water pass over the falls each second.
In the summer there’s a good chance of seeing a rainbow in the spray of the waterfall if you visit in the afternoon and in the winter you’ll have a beautiful snow covered landscape.
It’s free to visit and park at the falls, and you’ll also find a visitor centre, shop and café on site.
What else is there to see around the Golden Circle area?
Secret Lagoon Hot Spring
Is there a better way to unwind after a long day than in a hot spring? And although the secret is out on this fantastic spot, you’ll be amongst locals.
If you’ve followed this guide on a visit outside of the long days in summer, you’ll be happy to know that you should be arriving at the Secret Lagoon for sunset (if you time it well!) – and there’s nothing better than watching the sun set over the horizon while lounging in a hot geothermal pool.
The Secret Lagoon, known locally as Gamla Laugin, is one of the oldest natural pools in Iceland. It was made at Hverahólmi, a geothermal area in the town of Flúðir in 1891, and is a special place with rich natural resources of warm water that comes from the hot springs.
The Secret Lagoon will be a different experience for you if you’ve already visited the Blue Lagoon, as they keep the vibe simple and natural, with a more local feel. You’ll definitely find less tourists at this location, despite being just off the Golden Circle.
The water in this geothermal pool gets very hot so you’ll have to be careful. This is because there’s actually three active geysers which spout every few minutes, showing off for the guests. Their names are Vaðmálahver, Básahver, or Litli Geysir and they provide 100% of the water supply in the lagoon.
The warm, clean water is rich in sulphur, stays at 38-40 Celsius all year round and only takes 24 hours to complete a cycle of water replacement. You’ll be able to watch the boiling water in the little pools surrounding the main pool and it only adds to the magical ambience.
There is an entrance fee that includes access to the change rooms, lockers and showers. Make sure and have your swimsuit and travel towel, but if for some reason you forget yours, both are available for hire for an extra charge.
Please note that it’s required in Iceland to shower fully naked prior to entry to any of the swimming pools and there are not private cubicles. This is good to keep and mind and be prepared if you find this uncomfortable.
Should I drive back to Reykjavik at the end of the day?
If you’ve stayed at the Secret Lagoon past sunset (in the winter), you’ll now want to head back to the capital, where you started from. It’s an easy hour and a half drive, but it will be dark, so you’ll want to drive slow and be careful, especially since you’ll be so relaxed from the hot springs. There won’t be any stops along the way, so this will be a straight shot.
If you’re following this route in the summer, you’ll have more daylight hours to stop along the way home if there’s any special spots that pique your interest. A notable stop is Kerið Crater, a volcanic caldera on the way back to Reykjavik.
Just remember to never pull off on the side of the road suddenly. The roads in Iceland usually only have one lane in each direction with no shoulder, so it can be dangerous to stop without leaving space.
Be sure not to confuse the Golden Circle with the Ring Road, which is an 828-mile drive around the entire island of Iceland that can take up to a week to complete. If you’re visiting in the summer, and you want to continue along the Ring Road instead of returning to Reykjavik via the Golden Circle, that’s another option for you at the end of the day.
Thingvellir National Park has camping options or if you want to stay in a hotel, make sure and research this ahead of time and book in advance. Iceland isn’t really the best place for spur of the moment plans.
I hope you’ve enjoyed learning about the Golden Circle and are ready for your trip! The Golden Circle is a bucket list item for many people and you won’t regret the time you took to visit all the attractions on the magical island of Iceland!
Hi, I'm Kat, an Australian that moved to London in 2013 to start a new adventure. What a roller-coaster that was! I love helping others move to the UK and people explore the world! I’d be honoured if you’d say, “Thanks!” with a £3 coffee on Ko-fi.