The Golden Circle: A Complete Guide
The Golden Circle is a breathtaking sightseeing route in Iceland.
Starting and finishing in Reykjavik, this 300-kilometer route can be enjoyed as a day trip from the capital city or as a detour on the much longer Ring Road that goes around the whole of Iceland.
Being conveniently located and bursting with spectacular scenery, The Golden Circle is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the whole country. The stand-out locations are Thingvellir National Park, Geysir Geothermal Area, and Gullfoss Waterfall.
For people with the time and inclination to get off the beaten track, there are loads of amazing little stops you can take along the way!
This article will tell you about some of the most wonderful locations on the Golden Circle that most tourists completely miss. Don’t worry, we’ve included everything you need to know about visiting the classics too!
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How to visit the Golden Circle
There are a few different ways to visit the Golden Circle, including booking an organized tour or hiring a car and driving the route for yourself.
We recommend that you book a self-drive tour.
Although it is possible to go with a guided company, a self-drive tour will give you the independence to choose all the places that you want to stop off at. You can take things at your own pace, enjoy lots of scenic detours, and have the flexibility to see beyond the tourist hot spots.
The most visited sights of the Golden Circle are:
- Thingvellir National Park
- Geysir Geothermal Area
- Gullfoss Waterfall
These are normally visited in the order mentioned above, with the circular route ending back in the capital city of Reykjavik.
It takes around 3 hours to drive the circle in full, but that does not account for the time spent at each of the attractions or include the time spent eating at a local restaurant. Don’t forget that it could take even longer to drive the route in winter when conditions are more challenging.
Some people visit these attractions on a half-day trip, but we thoroughly recommend that you allow at least a whole day to take your time at each destination, especially considering there are so many other overlooked gems along the route.
It is also possible to spend a few days on The Golden Circle, staying at accommodation along the way. The benefit of this is that you can visit the attractions at the crack of dawn, or later on in the day when most of the other tourists are back at their hotels.
If you want to see more of Iceland, it is a good idea to do a self-drive tour of the whole Ring Road route, and allow an extra day to see the Golden Circle at the beginning or end of your trip.
If you need some ideas of where to stay during your visit to the Golden Circle, we have included recommendations later on in the article!
The Main Attractions of The Golden Circle
There are so many wonderful places for you to visit on The Golden Circle Route. The most popular of these are Thingvellir, Geysir Geothermal Area, and Gullfoss Waterfall.
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Thingvellir National Park
After setting off from Reykjavik, you will arrive at Thingvellir National Park in around 45 minutes. Thingvellir is a very important place for the history of Icelandic people.
It was here that Iceland’s parliament was first created over 1000 years ago. Whilst the rest of the world was still controlled via feudal systems and dictatorships, the Icelandic settlers had devised a democratic system that has been almost entirely uninterrupted until the present day.
Not that the Icelandic society has always been utopian. You can still visit the drowning pool at Thingvellir, where the common execution method of drowning was carried out.
Drowning aside, the democratic processes established by the settlers in 930AD are very similar to the political processes of the present day, but parliament now meets in Reykjavik instead of Thingvellir National Park.
As well as being home to Icelandic democracy, Thingvellir is an extremely beautiful place to visit.
It sits in a rift valley between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates, with an abundance of volcanoes, lakes, and soft green moss. It is also home to the Silfra fissure, the only place in the world where you can scuba dive between two tectonic plates!
The water in the Silfra fissure is crystal clear, so you will have unbelievable visibility as you dive amongst the caves and rock formations below the water. You must have proven experience of dry suit diving to participate in a dive. If you don’t have this experience, it is possible to arrange a snorkeling tour of the fissure instead.
The water is only 2 degrees celsius 35.6 Fahrenheit), but the specialist dry suits will keep you warm and dry.
For more information about the Silfra Fissure and other caving adventures in Iceland, you can check out this article!
As well as the Silfra Fissure, you will find the wonderful Almannagja gorge at Thingvellir, home to the beautiful Oxararfoss waterfall. You can bring along your hiking boots and enjoy a scenic hike through the gorge, where you will see the evidence of the drifting tectonic plates with your own eyes.
Facilities at Thingvellir
There are a couple of information centers in the National Park where you will find toilets, gift shops and be able to buy some food. It is free to enter Thingvellir National Park, but there is a small parking charge.
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Geysir Geothermal Area
When you’ve finished soaking up the history and landscape of Thingvellir, it’s time to head on to the next attraction. Geysir Geothermal Area is also known as Haudalur Geothermal Field, and it is about a 50-minute drive from Thingvellir National Park.
Here you will find lots of geothermal activity, with vents and chimneys pouring hot steam out of the earth.
For your safety, it’s really important that you keep to the marked paths and don’t attempt to touch or enter any of the thermal water or bubbling clay pots that you come across. If you do want to check out Iceland’s Hot Springs and Swimming Pools, you may want to read this article for more information.
Thanks to magma close to the earth’s surface, the water at Geysir Geothermal Area is boiling hot. Unable to drain away through the silica-rich soil, it explodes out of the earth in the form of Geysers.
The most famous of these Geysers is called Geysir. It might not seem like a very imaginative name, but this world-famous geyser gave its name to all the others!
A geyser is a hot spring where boiling water and steam sometimes erupt into the air. They need very specific conditions, so they are quite rare.
These conditions include:
- A source of water running beneath the earth.
- A source of geothermal heat.
- A difficulty for water to drain away (normally caused by silica in the soil)
As more and more hot water accumulates, it is heated by the magma running close to the earth’s surface and the geyser eventually discharges steamy water high into the air.
Geysers go through periods of high activity and low activity. After an earthquake, they are usually very active before slowly settling back down over the coming years. The world-famous Geysir is currently in a period of low activity.
People have done many things to try and make it erupt more often, including digging channels to speed up the flowing water or pouring soap into the hot spring. A better understanding of preserving the natural world means that these practices have now stopped.
If you don’t see Geysir erupt during your visit, don’t worry!
Just walk over to the nearby Strokkur. This geyser explodes 20 – 40 meters into the air roughly every 10 minutes. Strokkur is very impressive, but it’s nothing compared to the power of the less active Geysir.
In 2000, the water of Geysir reached an amazing 122 meters!
Facilities at the Geysir Geothermal Area
Don’t forget to pop into the Geysir Center, which is directly opposite Geysir and Strokkur. You will find a museum, restaurants, a swimming pool, a gift shop, a campsite and even a hotel here. It is also possible to book activities like horse riding and off-roading at the center.
Hop back into the car and you will arrive at Gullfoss or ‘The Golden Falls’ in just 10 minutes.
This is the last of the 3 unmissable sights on The Golden Circle, and the breathtaking waterfall inspired the name of the sightseeing route. In its highest place, the water at Gullfoss falls 70 feet.
After crashing onto the rocks below the water sprays into the air and creates many tiny rainbows in the glinting sun. In the wintertime, it is not possible to get right up to the edge of the waterfall, but it is still a beautiful place to visit.
The landscape gets covered in a thick layer of snow and ice, which feels like stepping into another world.
The breathtaking landscape of Gullfoss was very nearly lost to a hydroelectric project. At the beginning of the 20th century, there were plans to build a dam across the water.
A remarkable woman saved Gullfoss from this destructive project.
A poor woman of little social standing, Sigridur Tomasdottir traveled back and forth on the 200km road to Reykjavik on foot. She met with lawyers and brought international attention to the case until the investors were eventually forced to back down.
Sigridur is now an iconic figure in Icelandic history, greatly loved and admired by the local people.
Facilities at Gullfoss Waterfall
There are toilets available at the parking lot, which you need to pay a small fee to use. There is also a visitor center called the Panorama Restaurant, Café, and Gift Shop. You will find free toilets here as well as lovely food and handcrafted gifts.
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Popular Golden Circle Detours
As well as visiting the three main sights mentioned above, you can choose some of the popular detours and excursions to incorporate into your Golden Circle Adventure.
Here are some ideas!
1. Skalholt town
Skalholt town is a lovely stop to make along The Golden Circle. It is a 20-minute drive from the Geysir Geothermal area and has a rich cultural history to discover.
You can visit the memorial cathedral whilst you are in Skalholt, built in the 1950s-1960s. Many other churches have stood in the same place, but they have been destroyed due to bad weather or intentionally burned to the ground.
There is a rich and bloody history to be discovered here, from the beheaded Catholic bishops to the clan battles of the sagas. It is in the waters surrounding this church that Vikings were first baptized as Christians in Iceland!
2. Kerid Crater
20 minutes from Skaholt you will find Kerid Crater. Kerid is a beautiful lake that sits inside the crater of a volcano.
The lake is a deep, vibrant blue due to all the minerals in the water. The crater itself is composed of beautiful red volcanic rock. In the past, there have been concerts inside the crater which take advantage of the acoustics.
As of summer 2020, the landowners have started charging a small fee of 400 IKR ( 3 USD) to visit the crater. You can walk around the rim of the crater for some amazing views whilst you stretch your legs, but be careful on very windy days!
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3. Icecream at Efstidalur II
Efstidalur II is a lovely farm shop and restaurant very near Geysir Geothermal Area. Visitors love stopping off for a meal here, or even just an ice cream.
This working farm is a wonderful place to visit. In the summer you can book to go horseback riding here, or just enjoy being surrounded by cattle and horses.
The food is made from local ingredients, often coming from the farm itself. There is also a hotel on-site where you can stay during your Golden Circle Visit!
4. Waterfalls of the Golden Circle
Iceland has got more gorgeous waterfalls than you could ever visit in a lifetime! Of course, Gulfoss isn’t the only lovely waterfall on the Golden Circle.
You can also stop at the lovely Faxi Waterfall (Vatnnsleysufoss) which is 22 feet high and an amazing 300 feet wide. You will find lots of fishermen at the river here, hoping to catch wild salmon. It is much less touristy than Gulfoss, so you can expect a more peaceful visit.
Alternatively, þórufoss is another pretty waterfall that is not too crowded. It is one of the first stops on the Golden Circle, coming 20 minutes before Thingvellir on the way out of Reykjavik.
Faxi is a better place to stop on the way back to the city, which is a 20-minute drive after Gullfoss.
5. Hot Springs of the Golden Circle
The most popular place to swim in Geothermal waters on the Golden Circle is at the Secret Lagoon.
The Secret Lagoon is much cheaper than Blue Lagoon, but it has nothing near the size or standard of facilities. The Secret Lagoon is a basic heated swimming pool with a lot of history.
It is the oldest swimming pool in Iceland, first built back it in 1891. You can hire a swimsuit and towel or bring your own. From the warm water, you will see a baby geyser and boiling pools and enjoy the lush moss and grass that surrounds you.
This may be called the Secret Lagoon, but the secret is very much out! You are not going to have this place to yourself.
Another option would be the Fontana Geothermal Baths in Laugarvatn. Here you will find many interconnected steam rooms and baths to relax in. After enjoying a wonderful soak in the healing waters you can jump straight into the cold lake on the edge of the spa.
A final recommendation of hot springs on the Golden Circle is Reykjadalur Hot Spring River. This amazing river is completely free to enter. It takes about an hour’s hike to get there from the parking lot, but it will be worth it once you relax in the naturally heated river in the middle of the Icelandic countryside.
Please keep to the designated paths, and be very careful if walking on the snow and ice in winter.
6. Fakasel Horse Park
The wonderful Icelandic horse breed is famous all over the world!
Icelandic horses are brave and intelligent. They have played a vital role in the settling and development of Iceland.
At Fakasel Horse Park you can learn all about these horses, enjoy short horse shows during the day, take a barn tour, book to go on a horse riding tour, or enjoy the evening horse theatre show.
There is also a lovely restaurant on site. The horse farm is located between Selfoss and Hveragerði, towards the end of the Golden Circle if you visit Gullfoss last.
7. Thjorsardalur Valley
Thjorsardalur Valley is a gorgeous place to visit if you don’t mind taking a couple of hours to detour from the Golden Circle route.
You will escape the majority of other tourists here, and discover a pristine valley rich in waterfalls and wildflowers. There is a beautiful, peaceful forest in the valley as well as some extraordinary archeological ruins.
Nearly one thousand years ago, a huge eruption from Mount Hekla covered the valley in a thick layer of lava and volcanic ash. Archeologists have found many Farmhouses beneath the ash, including the brilliantly preserved farmhouse at Stöng.
You can visit a replica of this house as well as a replica of an early church whilst at the valley, getting a glimpse into the extremely difficult life of the early settlers.
8. Langjokull Glacier
Langjokull Glacier is also off the Golden Circle Route.
However, it is not too far from Gullfoss and is often combined with a drive of the Golden Circle. You can take part in some really exciting activities at the Glacier. Snowmobiling, glacier walking, ice caving, and even husky dog sledding are all on the menu.
For lots more information about ski and snow tours in Iceland, you can check out this article.
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Where to stay when visiting the Golden Circle
You have plenty of different options when it comes to accommodation on the Golden Circle.
You can either stay in the capital city of Reykjavik, or you can decide to stop off along the Golden Circle route.
Here are some recommendations for places to stay during your visit!
Accommodation in Reykjavik:
The cheapest accommodation you will find in Reykjavik at a campground like the eco campsite. You will need to bring your tent with you, as it is not possible to hire one at this campsite. You will find a shared kitchen, hot showers, and wifi on site.
Some people choose to pack camping gear on the flight or ferry with them and camp every night that they stay in Iceland. Not only will you save a lot of money, but you can camp at some beautiful National Park locations during your stay.
Insider Tip: If you camp in the summertime, don’t forget an eye mask because the midnight sun can filter through the tent and make it hard to sleep. In the winter, many campsites in Iceland are closed.
The Galaxy Pod Hostel is a hostel accommodation with a difference.
To give guests more privacy, each dormitory bed is inside a little pod. Guests can control the temperature and enjoy the high tech entertainment system. The kitchen is shared, and there is a bar on site.
What’s more, it is only a 10-minute walk from the center of Reykjavik!
Grand Hotel Reykjavik is a 4**** hotel with a wellness spa and a highly rated restaurant on site. You can treat yourself to a massage before heading out to enjoy nearby shopping and museums.
Accommodation on the Golden Circle:
There are loads of lovely campsites along the Golden Circle.
These include the campground at Lake Úlfljótsvatn where visitors can enjoy a spot of fishing in the evening. There is also a lovely campsite at the Geysir Center and at Lake Laugarvatn to name a few.
Hótel Eldhestar is a lovely mid-range option on the Golden Circle.
You will have a private room but a shared shower. It’s only a 30-minute drive from Reykjavik and guests can use the outdoor wooden hot tub for no extra charge during their stay.
There is also a free shuttle service from the capital, so you certainly get great value for money!
For a luxury stay in the Golden Circle, you will want to check in to the 360 Hotel and Thermal Baths. This 4**** hotel is situated in Selfoss. It comes with access to the onsite geothermal spa and a highly recommended restaurant.
Where does the Golden Circle Start?
The Golden Circle starts and ends in the capital city of Reykjavik.
Visitors normally visit Thingvellir first, followed by Geysir and finally Gulfoss. There is nothing to stop you from driving the circle counter-clockwise if you prefer.
How can I escape the crowds?
You can’t escape the crowds altogether.
The Golden Circle is one of the most popular places for tourists to visit, and there will be regular bus tours stopping by along the route.
If you prefer to travel without the crowds, you could make the most of the long daylight hours in summer and head to The Golden Circle after 6 pm. Remember that the daylight hours are very short in winter and this may make visiting outside of the busier hours particularly challenging.
Don’t worry too much about the crowds.
The main stops on the Golden Circle are huge outdoor locations. Even though there are a lot of visitors, they don’t feel too crowded.
When is the best time to visit the Golden Circle?
You can visit all year round.
In summer you have longer hours of daylight and the driving conditions are easier. This allows you to escape the crowds in the evening, but also means you can enjoy the day at a more leisurely pace without rushing.
Some people are frightened about driving in Iceland in the wintertime, and it certainly poses some extra challenges. Nonetheless, the icy landscapes are very beautiful. Between September and April, you will also have the opportunity to see the amazing Northern Lights.
If you have some concerns about driving safely in Iceland, don’t hesitate to check out our article about traveling safely during your trip.
Where should I eat when visiting the Golden Circle?
There are so many different hotels, cafes, and restaurants where you can eat along the Golden Circle.
It’s a good idea to work out which stops and detours that you want to take and plan where to eat accordingly. Most visitor centers have a restaurant on-site, as do many hotels and farms.
The restaurant and farm shop at Efstidalur II comes particularly highly recommended. They serve ice cream made from the farm milk and meat that they raised themselves. It sits between Thingvellir and the Geothermal Area, so is an ideal spot to stop for an early lunch.
It’s also a great idea to pick up some lava bread when passing through Laugarvatn. The Bread is baked using the geothermal energy of the earth, buried in the volcanic sand for 24 hours before being served.
See You Soon!
We hope you found this article about visiting the Golden Circle helpful!
You can find lots more resources about traveling in Iceland on our website, including the chance to book some brilliant self-drive tours.
We look forward to welcoming you to the Golden Circle soon!