Self Drive Guide: Golden Circle
How do we get to the Golden Circle? Can we drive to the Golden Circle ourselves? What IS the Golden Circle?
These are the questions we will be tackling today! If you need answers, you have come to the right place!
My name is Sam Daniels!
I am a writer from the United Kingdom who moved to Iceland almost three years ago. Since I began my Icelandic adventure I have fallen more and more in love with this country. The land of Iceland is woven with history, nature, legends and stories. It is almost impossible to travel around the country and not fall for these charms.
These things are especially true of the area we all know and love called “The Golden Circle”. This collection of sites offers travellers a chance to step into another world and walk in the shoes of Vikings while at the same time being able to experience some of the stunning nature that Iceland has to offer.
Today we are going to take a deep dive into the Golden Circle area, covering the main stops as well as a few special extras. Hopefully, by the end, you
will have all the information that you need to help you make your own amazing Golden Circle trip!
Below you will find a quick table of contents so you can see what we will be covering:
- What IS the Golden Circle?
- The stops of the Golden Circle
- Golden Circle “Extras”
- Golden Circle driving route
- Conclusion (including guided tour links)
What IS the Golden Circle?
Firstly, we need to look into what exactly the Golden circle is and why you should go there.
As we mentioned above the Golden circle is a collection of sites, spread across the south of Iceland. These locations all hold a special significance to the Icelandic nation due to their historical, cultural or natural attributes.
A typical Golden Circle trip will focus on three main areas. The Þingvellir (Thingvellir) national park, the Geysir geothermal area and the Gullfoss waterfall. While there are plenty of other amazing locations in this area (we will get to those later), these three are the main three that you cannot miss!
Getting to all of these areas is very easy by car and are free to access and enjoy for as long as you want. A typical drive around the Golden Circle can be expected to take approximately 6-8 hours if you just want to just stick to the main sights but can take up to 12 hours if you make additional stops. There are plenty of places you can stop along the way as well if you need to make use of a bathroom or grab yourself some food.
First things first you will, of course, need a car. If you don’t already have a rental car over here in Iceland then head on over to this page where you can find some great prices on rental car’s. No self-drive tour can really begin without a super comfortable car to drive!
As we go through this blog post we will go into more detail on how you can plan out and execute the perfect Golden Circle trip.
The stops of the Golden Circle
Now that we have our general overview of what the Golden Circle is, its time to look at little closer at each of the locations.
What can you find there? What makes them worth seeing? Why should you go there?
Thingvellir National Park
The national park is typically the first stop that will be made on your trip around the Golden Circle. It is no exaggeration to say that the national park is one of the most popular locations for tourists to visit in Iceland. This reputation has been well deserved with the sheer amount of stunning nature, rich history and cultural significance that is on offer.
The park sits in and around a fissure between two tectonic plates. This means you can literally hop between the American and Eurasian continents or even, in some cases, walk between both of them.
This area is perhaps most famous as being the location in which the world’s first parliament was formed. Beginning in 930 AD the parliament, called the Alþingi, was an outdoor assembly of various chiefs that met yearly from all across Iceland. It is still possible to see the seats that they sat on, carved into one of the rocky cliffs.
As the country grew, the parliament grew with it. Eventually standing as a place for the chiefs to address the Danish king during the Danish rule over Iceland. In the 1800s the original parliament was disbanded and moved with immediate effect to Reykjavik which cemented it as the capital city of the country.
Walking through the park will offer you a stunning serenity as you walk through history and get to experience Iceland through the eyes of its rich ancestry. For some, however, trips such as this require a little bit of additional adventure. Thingvellir is only too happy to provide this adventure as this is also the location of an area known as Silfra.
Silfra is one of only two locations in which one is able to swim between the tectonic plates and is the only location that is easily accessible. The water is remarkably clear here, giving a wide range of visibility into a seemingly endless, freshwater trench.
For those who wish to experience Silfra, you can book a snorkelling trip here. NOTE: This option includes the pick up from the city as well!
The Geysir Geothermal Area
When we talk about “Geysir” there are often two versions of the term that may be referred to. In many cases, the word “Geysir” is used simply as shorthand for the Geysir Geothermal area. Geysir though is the name of a specific exploding hot spring in the area known as the Great Geysir.
The Great Geysir was the first geyser to be widely spoken of in print across Europe, as such it is where the word Geyser originated from!
Unfortunately, the Great Geysir itself is no longer capable of sustaining an eruption without external assistance. Luckily its sister geyser Strokkur is still capable of very strong eruptions and is known to go off in intervals of as little as five minutes.
While today the ownership of the area belongs to the people of Iceland, the history of its ownership is quite long and it has passed hands a number of times. At one point in 1894, the area came to be in the hands of an Irish whisky distiller who erected a fence around Geysir and tried to charge a fee to see the area.
Today the area is completely free to visit and even boasts a large visitors centre where you can buy gifts and get some food. Self-driving to this area will mean you can spend extra time getting your camera set up and positioned for the perfect photo and believe me when I say you will be happy to have the extra time to soak up the scenery!
Gullfoss, The Golden Waterfall
The final stop on most Golden circle tours and the furthest location from Reykjavik is Gullfoss the Golden Waterfall.
When you get to Gullfoss, do yourself a favour and just stop for a moment and enjoy the environment. Let the visuals wash over you as you watch the water cascade into a seemingly endless void. Breath in deep the wonder of it all and let the world be still around you for a moment.
Gullfoss is a gorgeous waterfall that drops approximately 32 meters over a number of stages into a deep crevice. From the position at the observation deck, the bottom of this crevice is difficult to see and thus the water seems to fall endlessly.
Gullfoss gets its name from the mineral composition in the river that feeds the cascade. As the water tumbles down the falls, these minerals catch the light and produce an almost golden sheen to the water.
As with many sites of significance in Iceland, Gullfoss is not without its legends and controversies. One popular story speaks of foreign investors who, in the early years of the 20th century, desired to build a structure across the waterfall in order to harness its power. The project supposedly fell apart due to a lack of funding, after which the area became a protected sight but an alternative story talks of a brave young girl who stood up for the waterfall and threatened to throw herself in should the building take place.
Golden Circle “Extras”
The section above should have whet your appetite for the Golden circle but there is far more to the area than just these three locations. The benefit of doing your own self-drive tour is that you are able to mix and match your tour your own way!
We will take some time to go over some of the extra stops that you can add to your drive in order to ensure that your Golden Circle tour fills your personal needs.
Kerið is a very popular addition to any Golden Circle tour. This location is one of several crater lakes in the Golden Circle area. The vivid contrast between the bright red lava rock and the pool of amazingly blue water below has created a highly photogenic area. These colours are caused by a wide variety of minerals that can be found in the surrounding soil.
Kerið is often viewed as a simple crater that was created during intense volcanic activity. However, some recent study and research suggest that Kerið was, in fact, a volcano itself! Following this idea, the area is just crater today because the volcano could have expelled all of its magma reserves and then collapsed in on itself.
Entry to the Kerið volcanic lake does require a small fee of approximately 400 ISK
Fluðir is another location that contains an area of geothermal activity that you may want to visit when you travel along the Golden Circle route. The experience you would have here though is massively different to the one you will have at Geysir.
When you visit Geysir, you visit in order to see the massive jets of water but at Fluðir we will be seeking hot springs that we would be able to bathe in. Specifically, at Fluðir we will find a place called Gamla Laugin or “The Secret Lagoon”
Unlike the Blue Lagoon which is a man-made geothermal resort, the secret lagoon offers a much more natural experience. The Lagoon does still have all the facilities you would need. It has a place to get changed, rent towels and purchase some snacks. Once you are in the water though you are in the middle of the surrounding nature and countryside. It’s absolutely breathtaking!
Entry to the Lagoon does cost money with tickets costing 3000 ISK for adults and free entry for children under 14.
Faxi is another waterfall that can be found on the Golden Circle. If you are the kind of person who is incredibly excited to see Gullfoss then you will want to add this stop to your drive.
Faxi may not be as large as Gullfoss but it is by no means any less impressive. The water for this waterfall comes from the Tungufljót river and it is a popular location for both tourists as well as locals.
The waters here contain a large abundance of salmon and the waterfall also has a salmon ladder to assist with the fish that are travelling upstream.
Faxi is a site that is less commonly featured on the Golden Circle guided tours and as such, you may find this area can offer a bit of extra tranquillity on your trip.
If you were only able to choose one extra stop to make during your self-drive trip then I cannot recommend Friðheimar enough!
The current owners of this fascinating farm acquired it in 1995 during which time they have grown the area into something truly amazing. The farm combines a sophisticated greenhouse with a set of horse stables that ensure that there will be something for everybody to enjoy.
The farm runs its own horse breeding program and also offers a wide variety of horse shows for its guests to enjoy. If you want, then you will be able to have the chance to see the horses up close and learn a little bit about what makes them so special.
There is also the greenhouse that will be available for you to visit. Iceland is not a country that is very well known for its ability to grow crops. You will be able to gain some insight into the techniques that the farm employs in order to grow its famous tomatoes and perhaps even sample some of their fresh tomato soup!
You can read more about the tourist services that the farm offers here and you can also use this link to contact the farm for bookings!
Golden Circle Driving Route
Now that we know all about the Golden Circle, have our rental car organised and have decided on what stops we want to make we now need to work out hot to get there!
Below you will find some maps that will offer a few routes along the golden circle. These maps will help you find your way to each destination and map out your perfect self-drive tour!
The red tag is Reykjavik, where most people will be starting from. We then have the main stops of the golden circle on the orange tags!
The extra stops are in purple and most of them are along the driving route that has been provided along the blue line. The only stop that will require you to leave the route is the Secret lagoon but the detour isn’t large at all!
We also recommend checking out the safe travel website to check on road conditions or any potential road closures before you go out.
Thingvellir National Park.
The Great Geysir.
Gullfoss, the Golden Waterfall.
These locations are all truly amazing on their own but when put together in the Golden Circle they take on a whole new meaning. The sheer amount of beauty and history that they have on offer transcend themselves and create an Icelandic experience that can only be described as “unmissable”.
I cannot recommend this tour enough to anybody who is considering travelling to our little slice of the North Atlantic ocean and if you have the time I really think doing a self-drive tour can offer something special. Being able to take the day at your own pace and let everything unfold before you is a great way to see these locations and while you will be missing the informational aspect that you can get from a guided tour you will make up for that with time.
We do however understand that self-driving tours are not for everybody!
For those who wish to sit back and let somebody else take the wheel then I will include a couple of fantastic Golden Circle tours, offered from Wake Up Reykjavik for you to consider!