Your Complete Guide to the Golden Circle Route

June 21st, 2021

Written by:

Camila Contreras-Langlois

5 min read

The Golden Circle, Iceland, encompasses some truly stunning natural sights. Whether you come to the Land of Fire and Ice on a short getaway or week-long tour of the island, it’s a route not to be missed.

To know what to expect and start planning your trip around Iceland, browse this handy guide. We’ve compiled some key facts and answers to frequently asked questions about the Golden Circle route. Iceland awaits!

What is the Golden Circle?

The Golden Circle is a scenic, 305-kilometer (190-mile) driving loop near Reykjavík. It features an incredible landscape, highlights the geothermal power of Iceland, and immerses you in nature.

You can mark this on your Icelandic bucket list for an ideal full day out in the countryside.

And do you know why it is called Golden Circle? Here’s a fun fact for you before you set off on this spectacular route into the southern uplands of Iceland. It is named after Gullfoss waterfall, which translated means “Golden waterfall”.

Top highlights to visit along the Golden Circle

There are 3 main natural attractions and stops on the Golden Circle. We’ve listed them below and you’ll soon see why it’s an unmissable journey.

Gullfoss waterfall

This may be the first stop on your Golden Circle itinerary, the great and golden waterfall of the south. It’s a sight to behold!

Gullfoss is one of the most impressive waterfalls in Iceland, although they all have their own charm. Here the mighty river Hvítá makes its way through the rocky landscape and falls 32 meters (105 feet) into the narrow canyon below.

The deep canyon carves the landscape and makes for otherworldly photos. It is 70 meters (230 feet) deep and almost 3 kilometers (1.9 miles) long.

To admire it in all its splendor, follow the footpath from the parking area to the viewing platform. On a sunny day, you may notice the rainbows created by the mist of the powerful fall.

Geysir

A bit further along the way, you’ll find yourself at the great Geysir area in the Haukadalur valley. This ancient geyser was, in fact, the first ever recorded in Icelandic literature back in 1294. This was following an eruption from Mount Hekla that ignited the fiery landscape.

If you didn’t know about geysers, they are hot springs that are under pressure and erupt with columns of hot water and steam. This geothermal phenomenon occurs because of a hole that runs all the way into the Earth’s crust.

Geysir is dormant these days, but you’ll surely catch its neighbor Strokkur spurting water every 5-10 minutes or so. It is now the main attraction of this geothermal area. You’ll find other smaller springs bubbling nearby.

Geothermal eruption of Gullfoss Geysir after sunset, Iceland

Þingvellir National Park

Finally, you’ll arrive at the centerpiece of the Golden Circle,Þingvellir (Thingvellir) National Park. Its stunning landscape of valleys, steep rock walls, and rivers is only but one reason why it’s famous.

This literal rip in Iceland’s rugged countryside is caused by the tectonic plate movement. The national park is where the North American and Eurasian plates meet and are slowly pulling apart. Wandering through this area is a great way to observe active geology.

Þingvellir was also inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2004 for its outstanding universal value and historical significance. In the 10th century, the first parliament to represent all Icelanders was founded here. It is also considered the world’s oldest parliament.

Thingvellir National Park, Iceland

Top activities to try around the Golden Circle

While you’re in the region, there is a range of excursions you could book for an even more memorable vacation. You can pick which one based on your tastes and interests. Here are a few suggestions:

1. Snorkeling in the Silfra fissure

At Þingvellir National Park, you could go snorkeling between 2 tectonic plates. That’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity!

Yes, the water will be fresh and yes, it will be crystal clear. In fact, the glacial water makes it one of the clearest bodies of water on Earth, with up to 120 meters (394 feet) of visibility.

2. Snowmobiling atop a glacier

Snowmobiling is accessible in Iceland all year round. One example is that you could get picked up from Gullfoss in a super truck that will take you to the starting point of the trail atop Langjökull glacier.

Langjökull is the second largest ice cap in Europe. Imagine driving a snowmobile along a vast tundra of snow and admiring the view from the top.

3. Horseback riding in the countryside

There are numerous locations in the area where you could go riding on a sturdy and fluffy Icelandic horse. Wander around the landscape of lava fields and rolling hills in the best company.

Other attractions in and around the Golden Circle

There are plenty of other sights and visits you could add to your itinerary. Pick as many as you wish, especially if you want to make your trip longer than a day.

Here are our favorites:

  • Fontana Baths and the Secret Lagoon to relax in geothermal springs
  • The 3,000-year-old Kerið crater lake with its red volcanic rock
  • Even more waterfalls, such as Helgufoss, Thorufoss, and Faxifoss
  • Friðheimar greenhouse to eat geothermally grown tomatoes
  • Skálholt village and its quaint white church

How to explore the Golden Circle?

Thanks to its location near the capital, it’s easy to visit the Golden Circle. You have a few options to do so: drive the scenic route or join a local guide on a group or private tour.

Is the Golden Circle free to visit?

While there are no entrance fees, you should still set aside some budget for your trip around the Golden Circle. The basis of it is whether you’re booking a spot onto a guided tour or renting a car.

You’ll also need to think about the excursions you want to try, ticketed attractions you may want to visit, and where you’ll eat along the way.

Secret Lagoon, Iceland

Drive the Golden Circle

Take the wheel of your own Golden Circle adventure and travel at your own pace. This will allow you to spend as long as you want at each spot.

As we’ve previously said, this circuit is easily done in a day. You could take a day tour from Reykjavík, explore it during your tour of the south coast, or drive past before continuing along the Ring Road.

With less than 300 kilometers (186 miles), you can easily drive the route in a few hours. But make sure to factor in at least 8 hours to visit the top attractions at your leisure.

You’ll need to rent a car for your self-drive day out. You may also consider a 4-wheel drive if you’d like to go onwards to the highlands.

Guided tours of the Golden Circle

If you’d rather avoid driving in Iceland or prefer to relax to take in the view from your window, consider joining a guided trip. There is a vast array of guided outings from which you can choose. 

With a group tour, you’ll join fellow travelers and a local guide who will take you to all the big attractions. You’ll also benefit from their local knowledge to learn about the history, heritage, and natural wonders of Iceland.

On some Golden Circle day trips, you may also get to visit the idyllic Friðheimar greenhouse cultivation center. Here, you will find out about the magic behind growing delicious, pesticide-free tomatoes and cucumbers with the aid of geothermal heat.

Landscape in the Thingvellir Park

Where should you stay during your Golden Circle tour?

Because you can visit the Golden Circle in one day, you don’t necessarily need to book accommodation along the way.

You could book a hotel in Reykjavík, from where you can start and end your journey. This way you stay on a city break and find something within your budget.

If you’re traveling along the south coast or around the country, you could pick something in the area or slightly further afield to continue your road trip.

With Iceland Tours, your lodgings are all sorted out before you arrive. We’ll book tried-and-tested accommodation that fits your itinerary and budget.

You could even try a camping adventure in Iceland if you wanted!

Best time to visit the Golden Circle

The Golden Circle is accessible and stunning at all times of the year. When you decide to visit Iceland will depend on what you want to experience.

Tour Iceland in the summer and you’ll enjoy longer days and steadier weather. This way you’ll have more time to squeeze in attractions and excursions.

On the other hand, come in winter and you can expect snowy landscapes, frosted waterfalls, and the spectacular Northern Lights.  

Oxararfoss waterfall in Thingvellir, Iceland.

Booking your Golden Circle tour

Come visit Iceland to discover the highlights and secrets of the Golden Circle. For a special experience, let the local experts at Iceland Tours help you plan your dream vacation.

Pick your favorite itinerary, depending on how you prefer to travel and what you want to see. You can also add activities and day trips based on your budget and tastes.

When you book with Iceland Tours, you can expect us to take care of your accommodation, transport, and activities. So all you have to do is enjoy yourself!

Ready to plan? Browse our Iceland vacation packages to find your dream trip.  

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Written by:

Camila Contreras-Langlois