The Golden Circle in Iceland is basically a loop drive that takes you to some of the country’s must-see sites. It can easily be done as a day trip from Reykjavik and takes about 3 hours of driving time without stopping. We did this little trip on our second day there and it was the perfect way to start off our trip – but if you only have a layover, definitely head here to see a lot in a short amount of time!
We were in Iceland in the summer and the roads were great – we had a reliable front wheel drive Hyundai from Geysir Car Rental – but if you’re there in the winter or otherwise bad weather, make sure you rent a car with four wheel drive and have experience driving in those conditions. The roads can definitely get icy fast. Gas is also crazy expensive so plan for that. A full tank should get you through the whole day.
We stopped at all three “main” Golden Circle spots and also added in an extra one at the end, so keep reading to find out what that was (and where we ate on our journey)!
1. Þingvellir National Park
Our first stop was at one of Iceland’s national parks: Þingvellir. It was a pleasant surprise to find out that national parks in Iceland are free, which is not something we’re used to in the States. We wandered through the little village where Iceland’s first Parliament was started back in 930 AD. The church here is so tiny and picturesque!
Thingvellir National Park is also the place where the North American and Eurasian tetonic plates are visibly splitting apart. It’s creating deep fissures in the ground, and one – Silfra – is full of glacial water and you can actually snorkel and scuba dive there! We didn’t sign up for this excursion but we did stop by to check it out. How awesome would it be to scuba dive between tetonic plates, though?
We stopped by a waterfall, Oxararfoss, on our way out. We were so excited to see our first of Iceland’s many waterfalls! It rained on and off on us the whole time were in the park, but luckily it cleared up right when we got to the waterfall.
Did you know Iceland is the home of the original geyser? It’s the geyser that all other geysers are named after. Also, after visiting Iceland, I completely forgot how to spell geyser in English and had to Google it for this post.
The original geyser – Geysir – sadly does not erupt anymore because of tourists throwing rocks into it a few decades ago, but luckily the whole area of Haukadalur is filled with beautiful hot pots. There’s also another geyser, called Strokkur, that erupts every ten minutes or so. We saw it go off a few times while we were there and it was just as cool every time with its blue water and scalding steam.
Haukadalur also has a little cafeteria restaurant where you can grab some food to warm you up. We got some traditional Icelandic meat stew – a soup of lamb and veggies – and a pepperoni pizza. Both were delicious and it’s totally worth eating there to get a little authentic taste of Iceland instead of bringing along a picnic lunch.
Speaking of waterfalls in Iceland, Gullfoss is one you do not want to miss. It’s a massive waterfall where the river Hvítá disappears into a ravine 100 feet deep and 65 feet wide. You truly cannot comprehend how big it is until you’re standing in front of it.
The path alongside Gullfoss is windy and misty from the water, making it freezing, so make sure you wear a warm, waterproof jacket and protect your camera lens. Also, take some time to read the plaques and signs nearby about the history of this waterfall; it’s pretty interesting and amazing! If you get lucky with good light, you might even see a few rainbows hanging around in the mist. I spent a long time trying to get a good photo of the ones we saw, but didn’t succeed, so it will have to live on in my memory.
4. Kerið Crater Lake
This is a lesser-known stop on the Golden Circle, but it really completes your trip. It was once a typical cone volcano, but the top collapsed, creating the crater it is now. We assumed the water inside was rainfall, but were surprised to find out that the water actually rises and falls with the underground water table.
Kerid is the only stop on the Golden Circle tour where you have to pay. It’s about 3000 krona per person, which is a little less than 3 USD. If you have time, it’s definitely worth a stop! It takes about five minutes to hike into the crater, but once you get there, it’s so peaceful and not as crowded as the other stops. The red & green crater filled with turquoise water is a sight unique to Iceland and I could have spent a long time here.
All in all, it will probably take you around eight hours to complete the whole Golden Circle at your own pace, so don’t plan anything else for that day. Stop and pet some horses, pull over when you see something gorgeous, and don’t worry about having to catch a tour bus back. And if you’re staying in Reykjavik that night when you return and looking for a place open a little later for dinner, go grab some Icelandic hot dogs like we did.
Whether you have a whole week or just a couple days in Iceland, the Golden Circle is definitely worth a trip!