Guide to Iceland’s Golden Circle (with map)

Guide to Iceland’s Golden Circle (with map)

Ready for your next travel adventure in Iceland? Iceland has one of the world’s most treasured landscapes with gems like the Golden circle that exhibit the best of it. Fantasy scenery turns reality as cliffs of staggering scale tower next to you, waterfalls plunging gracefully to the bottom of scenic valleys, and other natural wonders.

Grab a car rental for the day and go a trip through the scenic route of Southern Iceland. There are tons to see and do—sightseeing, relaxing, and even driving from destination to destination is full of dramatic landscapes.

Keep this guide handy during your drive. It will be your resource for the best things to do on the Golden Circle Iceland, tips for getting the most out of the experience, and more!

What is the Iceland Golden Circle?

Iceland Golden Circle is a well-traveled tourist route that takes you on a journey through Iceland’s most breathtaking natural landscapes and rich cultural heritage. Drive along Iceland’s most scenic road trip route to discover many of its iconic landscapes.

Golden Circle in Iceland is a loop route beginning in Reykjavik. It includes attractions like the majestic falls of Gullfoss, water jets reaching towards the heavens erupting from the Haukadalur Geothermal Fields, and land’s edge where two continents meet. In addition, cultural relics like the origin of education in Iceland and where Parliament gathered have added cultural landmarks to experience Iceland’s history en route to the next wonder.

Driving the Golden Circle

Experience the wonders of the Golden Circle Iceland at your own pace with your rental car. Self-drive tours are the best way to truly take your time at each landmark and add your personal touch to your itinerary with other intriguing stops.

Driving the Golden Circle

Here are some general facts to keep in mind when driving on the Golden Circle in Iceland:

  • Golden Circle distance: 190 miles (300 km)
  • Time to complete: 3-4 hours (7-8 hours when including stops)
  • Speed Limits:
    • Cities/Developed Areas: 50 kph (~31 mph)
    • Open Road: 80 kph (~49mph)
    • Highway: 90 kph (~55mph)

The "Big 3" stops on the Golden Circle in Iceland are Þingvellir National Park, the Geysir Geothermal Area, and the Gullfoss Waterfall. The travel distances between these landmarks are:

  • Reykjavik to Þingvellir National Park: 25 miles
  • Þingvellir National Park to Geysir Geothermal Area: 38 miles
  • Geysir Geothermal Area to Gullfoss: 6 miles
  • Gullfoss to Reykjavik: 66 miles

Parking is available at each of the Golden Circle landmarks, usually just a few steps away from seeing the main attractions. So, feel free to get out of the car and enjoy the perks of each stop.

Things to see in the Iceland Golden Circle

Customize your Iceland Golden Circle journey. In addition to its ‘Big 3’ attractions, plenty of other small towns, businesses, and landmarks are located on the route. These are the landmark stops that form the Golden Circle.

Down here you can see the Iceland Golden circle map:

  • Þingvellir National Park

Marked by its cultural significance and geological beauty, Þingvellir National Park is the jewel of Iceland. It is one of the most visited sites in Iceland for sightseeing, outdoor recreation, and learning about the rich Icelandic history.

Geological phenomena have transformed the volcanic landscape of Þingvellir National Park. Dramatic cliffs emerge from the ground, grassy fields cover broad valleys, and rushing waterways carve their way through the Earth.

Thingvellir in iceland

Straddle yourself between two continents at the Silfra Fissure. Hike the gorge or scuba dive the frigid waters that separate the North American and European continents. Hiking trails leading to Öxarárfoss waterfall lets you see the mighty falls plunging into the rocks below. Or take a route towards Thingvallavatn Lake, the largest in Iceland.

There’s lots of history to uncover in Þingvellir National Park. Stand on the historic site of the ancient annual parliament assembly at Alþing and stop for a moment at the Hakið visitor center for in-depth exhibitions about the nation’s history.

Thingvellir in iceland

  • Geysir Geothermal Area

The sound of water bubbling into a bursting eruption is quickly followed by the exclamations of “ahh!” from the crowd witnessing the natural wonder. Squeeze your way to a front-row spot to see nature’s explosive water show.

Geysir iceland

Beneath the surface of Iceland are tons of volcanic activity warming up its natural features. Sitting in a volcanic area, Geysir Geothermal Area is an entire field dotted with geysers and hot springs. Steam rising from the field lets you know that the ground is warmed up and getting ready for another spectacle.

The Great Geysir earned fame after earthquakes caused its water to shoot as high as 122 feet. Its eruptions are infrequent, however. You’ll undoubtedly capture excellent photos of Strokkur Geysir. Join the crowd circling the geyser for the timed eruption every 5-10 minutes. Boiling water jets out of the Earth to heights upwards of 65 feet. 

Parking is available at Geysir Geothermal Area. Just be prepared for the odor caused by sulfur you’ll smell immediately when you arrive.

Geyser Strokkur eruption in the Geysir national park, Iceland.

  • Gullfoss Waterfall

There is always a rainbow hovering over the Gullfoss Waterfall. Even on clearest and the sunniest day in Iceland, the mist cloud rising from the thundering falls keeps enough moisture in the air to form views of the color spectrum.

Gullfoss iceland

Glacial water melting from Langjökull Glacier topples over the ledge into the Hvítá Canyon. It’s the largest waterfall in Iceland (by volume) and drops a total of 105 feet. The stunning spectacle resembles a staircase as the two-tiered falls drop 36 feet then 69 feet.

The boom of the water drowns out the world while immersing you in the photo-worthy setting with surrounding grassy-topped cliffs. One of the best times to visit Gullfoss Waterfall is when the sun is out. The sun’s reflection on the waters earns its name the ‘Golden Falls.’ The Golden Circle is named after the waterfalls and one of the ‘Big 3’landmarks on the route.

waterfall iceland

  • Secret Lagoon

Day trips on the Golden Circle have made the quiet town of Flúdir best-kept secret and one of the favorite tourist attractions. Secret Lagoon is one secret impossible to keep to yourself once experiencing its magic.

Geothermal of hot spring pool in Iceland

Secret Lagoon is nature’s hot tub. Water from nearby hot springs and geysers fills the pool at temperatures averaging 100-104°F for a geothermal bath. Nature gives you the perfect setting to relax, soak up the warm waters, and enjoy breathtaking views of the Icelandic landscape.

Officially called Gamla Laugin, it was built in 1891 as Iceland’s oldest swimming pool. However, its natural setting has been left untouched all these years. Grassy hills set the backdrop as you climb over the ledge boulders to get into the pool. Nearby steam spouts confirm that the water temperatures are perfect for entering. If you stick around until the night, you can even catch a glimpse of the northern lights flashing overhead.

Secret Lagoon has visitor facilities, including a shower to rinse off before returning to your car and a snack bar for treats as you continue the trip around the Golden Circle in Iceland.

secret lagoon iceland

  • Skalholt

The unassuming town of Skalholt is actually one of the most important cultural hubs in Iceland. Unlike the natural landmarks discovered on the route, It’s one of the Golden Circle attractions that explore a heritage site of the nation.

Skalholt iceland

Drive into town, and the iconic Skalholt Cathedral is the most prominent building you’ll notice in Iceland. The current church was built in 1963, although it’s the tenth church sat on the site. Guided tours inside the cathedral let you examine its unique architecture. Then, explore the museum with exhibitions covering its history as the Episcopal See for the past 800 years and current excavations of its surrounding ruins.

In addition to the holy site, Skalholt was home to the first school in Iceland. Skálholtsskóli was built in 1056 and continues to host visitors as a culture center with events and activities. If you’re traveling with kids, stop by the Slakki Petting Zoo for hands-on fun with piglets, rabbits, calves, and other friendly animals.

Skalholt in iceland

  • Kerid Crater

Hope you packed your camera because a stop by Kerid Crater will reveal one of Iceland’s most photographed landmarks in Iceland. The vibrant colors emanating from this volcanic crater lake make it a beautiful sight to behold.

Kerid, Volcanic crater, south Iceland

Stand on the lip of the open Kerid Crater as it slopes 180 feet deep into a sky-reflecting emerald green pool. The pool walls uniquely showcase red volcano rocks as intense green grass patches attempt to hide them. Hike around the 885-ft wide crater to get a vantage point from every angle or carefully descent to the lakeshore.

It took nearly 3,000 years for nature to create something as marvelous as the Kerid Crater. It’s part of the Tjarnarhólar regions of the Western Volcanic Zone of Iceland, although it’s only remnants of a past volcano.

Make this a stop on your Golden Circle journey to see what makes the scenery so captivating for photographers and nature-lovers.

Kerid volcanic crater lake in Iceland. Landscape with red volcanic stones on the top of Kerid Crater with blue crater lake in Iceland

Tips for traveling the Golden Circle

It’s not every day you find yourself traversing the illustrious landscapes of Iceland, so it’s best to be prepared to make the most of it while you’re there! Here are a few quick tips to remember before, during, and after your Golden Circle excursion:

  • Most people drive the Golden Circle in Iceland to explore in a clockwise pattern starting with Þingvellir National Park. However, since it’s a loop trail, it can also be driven counter-clockwise, which will take you to Gullfoss first. Keep in mind that this is a longer initial drive to your first attraction.
  • Iceland drives on the right side of the road (same as the US), and much of the road during the trip is only two lanes.
  • Make sure to check and fill up on gas before you leave Reykjavik Iceland.
  • Be sure to bring a camera! Whether you use your smartphone or an expensive camera, you’re going to want to document this bucket list travel adventure.
  • Leave Iceland better than you found it. Golden Circle takes you to many of the island’s celebrated landmarks. Take care not to disturb nature or drive off designated paths.

Best time to visit the Golden Circle Iceland

Considering the best time to visit the Golden circle in Iceland? Nature is unpredictable, especially in a destination like Iceland. Depending on the season you visit can give different experiences at each of the landmarks. Golden Circle is accessible all year long, so here’s what you can expect during each season:

Summer – Peak season (June-August)

With long days and plenty of sunshine, summer is one of the best times to visit the Golden Circle. You can take your time at each stop and see each landmark in the best light. However, since it’s peak season, expect to see many other tourists at each site. Rental cars and tour buses fill the roadways, and you might need to wait a moment to snap that perfect photo.

Fall – The best time to visit (September-November)

As the summer crowds start to travel home and the weather stalls just before it cools for the winter, fall is an ideal time for a Golden Circle Road Trip.

Winter – Low Season

The weather isn’t as intense in the southern Iceland region, so drivers can still be found on the Golden Road. However, with the colder temperatures, you might encounter frozen waterfalls, barren trees, and views of snow-capped mountains in the distance. Winter can be one of the most magical times to visit the Golden Circle to see the amazing landmarks illuminated by the Northern Lights.

Spring – Good time to visit

Go on a springtime day trip on the Golden Circle to see nature rebirthing after a long winter. As a shoulder month, it’s a period just before the summer tourist rush, and nature showcases its vibrant colors. It’s a time to see wildflowers decorating the lush valleys, waterfalls at full force, and more.

The Golden Circle Iceland FAQ

What is the difference between the Golden Circle Iceland and Ring Road Iceland?

  • The main tourist routes in Iceland are the Golden Circle and Ring Road. The Ring Road is the main road stretching around the country for 828 miles. It’s a multi-day road trip that includes all regions and the Iceland coast. Golden Circle is a smaller day-trip route that’s 190 miles long. It shares a section with Ring Road but focuses on the South Iceland region.

How do you get to the Golden Circle Iceland?

  • The Golden Circle in Iceland is a loop trail accessible around South Iceland. Most people start at Reykjavik and make the loop from the capital city.

How long do you need to visit the Golden Circle Iceland?

  • Driving the Golden Circle nonstop will take approximately 3-4 hours. Tourists who plan to visit the landmarks and attractions should factor in a few extra hours when planning their trip. Most people complete the Golden Circle as a day trip.

Are Golden Circle tours available?

  • Tours are one of the best ways to experience the Golden Circle. Visitors can choose between self-drive tours (must have a car rental Iceland), hiring a private driver, or joining a tour golden circle guide company with a pre-set itinerary. Duration and prices vary depending on the tour.

Are you ready to hit the road and explore the golden circle?  Book your rental car in Iceland with Go car rental and let us help you plan your golden circle trip!

[Go Back]