Welcome to the ultimate travel guide for adventure seekers! Prepare to be blown away by the awe-inspiring natural beauty of Iceland's Golden Circle Routes – a destination that should be on every thrill-seeker's bucket list. Get ready to explore the geysers, waterfalls, and hot springs of Iceland, and let yourself be transported into a world unlike any other. With our insider tips and recommendations, you'll be sure to discover the hidden gems and unmissable experiences along these spectacular routes, making memories that you'll cherish for a lifetime. So what are you waiting for? Pack your bags and let's explore Iceland's Golden Circle Routes together!
What is the Golden Circle?
Iceland's illustrious Golden Circle is a world-renowned route between some of the nation's most stunning attractions. Setting out from Reykjavik, its capital city, you'll take a journey through southern uplands to :
- Þingvellir National Park,
- Geysir geothermal area,
- Gullfoss waterfall.
However, many tours include other destinations as well - perhaps a geothermal greenhouse or natural hot water spa on one venture! With so much natural wonder and beauty readily accessible in this small Scandinavian country it would be foolish not to explore further along the way.
Golden Circle Route Iceland
The Golden Circle Route in Iceland is a journey that will leave you breathless. The 300 km route encompasses some of Iceland's most spectacular natural wonders with Thingvellir National Park, Geysir Geothermal Area, and Gullfoss waterfall being the crown jewels. Thingvellir National Park boasts of crystal clear waters that showcase the tectonic plates of North America and Eurasia. Geysir Geothermal Area is an impressive display of hot springs, mud pools, and geysers. It is hard to resist the urge to pet the fumaroles but be warned, they are extremely serious about hot water and springs. Gullfoss waterfall is a magnificent sight to behold with its powerful cascading waterfalls. Pack your bags and be prepared to witness nature at its finest on the Golden Circle Route.
How to see the Golden Circle in Iceland
The Golden Circle attractions are located in close proximity to each other and are easily accessible from Reykjavik. Their convenient location is what makes them so attractive.
In this section, we will discuss the two main options for exploring the Golden Circle, assuming that you are starting from Reykjavik.
Option 1: Drive the Golden Circle
To explore the Golden Circle at your own pace, driving is the best option. The route is around 145 miles in total and covers three attractions, starting and ending in Reykjavik. Although the drive takes about 3.5 hours in total, you can break it up as you stop at each attraction along the way. The Golden Circle route follows mostly major roads, so a 4x4 vehicle is not necessary. Google Maps has detailed driving directions and all the sites are well-marked. At each of the three attractions, there is plenty of parking available.
The Golden Circle can be driven all year round as the roads and parking lots are cleared of snow in winters. However, there might be occasional road closures due to extreme weather, so it's advisable to check beforehand if you're visiting in winter. It's important to note that if you're arriving in Iceland by plane, you won't have your own car, so you'll need to rent one if you plan to drive.
Option 2: Take a Golden Circle Tour
It's perfectly fine if you choose not to rent a car for your trip. Renting a car can be costly and also feels disconnected from the surroundings in our view. We traveled around the world as backpackers for 15 months and never rented a car, hence we fully understand your perspective.
Usually, we would suggest making use of public transportation, but sadly, the countryside transit infrastructure in Iceland is not developed to support it. (However, it works smoothly in the city.) Therefore, the best alternative for exploring around the Golden Circle is by taking a guided tour.
Although tours have a reputation for being unappealing, we believe they can be an enjoyable and stress-free way to explore a destination. Tours often offer a wealth of information through the tour guide that you wouldn't receive otherwise, and it's also nice to have someone else handle the logistics, driving and itinerary.
While you may not be a fan of guided tours, it's still recommended to take the tour instead of completely skipping the Golden Circle. Although we didn't opt for a group tour, we noticed numerous tour groups during our visit to the Golden Circle attractions. There are plenty of tours available for the Golden Circle, with various durations and additional activities to choose from.
Choose Your Golden Circle Driving Route
The Golden Circle is not a clearly defined route as we previously thought. Although the three main attractions driving the golden circle are widely recognized, the rest of the route is subject to variation. Although there is a "Classic" route, the specifics of it can vary depending on interpretation.
When you check Google Maps, you'll notice that the three tourist spots on the Golden Circle are not arranged in a circular pattern. Instead, they're situated mostly in a straight line to the east of Reykjavik.
There are three primary choices for planning your driving route.
- Classic Golden Circle Route | Drive the full loop route and visit the three main attractions in the traditional order.
- Out-and-Back “Golden Line” Route | Please visit the three main attractions in the traditional order and then follow the same route back to your starting point.
Reverse Golden Circle Route | Typically, start the golden circle adventure with the last attraction and visit the other two in reverse order. Avoid driving a full loop.
We should examine these three route choices more closely.
Classic Golden Circle Route
- Attraction Order:
Thingvellir National Park > Geysir Hot Spring Area > Gullfoss waterfall
- Link to Route in Google Maps: Here
- Route Shape: Loop
- Total Driving Miles: 150
We recommend following the classic Golden Circle route which begins and ends in Reykjavik. The route includes three attractions that are visited in order from closest to furthest before returning to Reykjavik on a different road, creating a complete golden circle guided tour. This order is commonly used by travelers and tour groups for its convenience and efficiency.
Firstly, consider the timing of your three day trip. Among the three attractions, Thingvellir will probably take the most time. Visiting it first will allow you to have a more leisurely afternoon at the remaining two attractions without feeling the need to rush to include Thingvellir later.
A benefit of taking this route is that it creates a loop, giving you the opportunity to view different sights on the way back that you may not have seen on the way out. You have the option to make extra stops on the return trip based on your available time or desired travel duration.
After visiting the three main attractions, there are no officially planned stops on the journey back to Reykjavik. However, there are many fascinating sights to see on the way. Here are some recommended stops you can consider adding to your Golden Circle road trip:
- Faxi Waterfall
- Secret Lagoon
- Skálholt Cathedral
- Kerid Crater
Here's an example of what the extended route might look like. It includes additional stops, but will only increase the driving distance by approximately 15 miles.
Out-and-Back “Golden Line” Route
- Attraction Order: Thingvellir National Park > Geysir Hot Spring Area > Gullfoss waterfall
- Link to Route in Google Maps: Here
- Route Shape: Line
- Total Driving Miles: 145
To easily visit all three Golden Circle attractions from Reykjavik, you can use a straightforward route instead of following the circular path. This route is called the "Golden Line" and involves visiting the attractions in the golden circle in order and returning on the same path.
This alternative route is suitable for travelers who only want to visit the three main sites and continue with their other plans. It's a good option for those who don't need to see additional sites or sceneries on their way back.
In truth, after completing the three main attractions of the Golden Circle and departing from Gullfoss, the route you choose to return doesn't have a significant impact. Whether you follow the classic loop or retrace your original route, the difference in distance is only six miles. Your decision should be based on personal preference and whether you prefer to stick with a familiar route or explore something new on the way back.
I want to highlight the "Golden Line" route which Google maps suggests by default. However, you should be careful because if you don't pay attention, you might end up taking this route instead of the loop route that you intended to take.
Reverse Golden Circle Route
- Attraction Order: Gullfoss waterfall > Geysir Hot Spring Area > Thingvellir National Park
- Link to Route in Google Maps: Here
- Route Shape: Line (loop optional)
- Total Driving Miles: 145
A suggestion is to consider visiting the Golden Circle attractions in reverse order to reduce the crowds.
You can avoid the crowds by visiting Gullfoss waterfall and Geysir Hot Spring Area before heading to Thingvellir. Although you may encounter more people at Thingvellir, you'll still get to enjoy some peaceful moments earlier in the day.
Although there are some advantages to seeing the various Golden Circle tours in reverse, it is not a foolproof solution. While you may get lucky and avoid crowds, there is no guarantee. During the peak tourist season from May to August, you may encounter crowds no matter which order you choose to visit the Golden Circle.
If you don't intend to spend much time at the attractions or take extra stops, then we suggest the reverse Golden Circle route. It is ideal for travelers who want to see many places quickly, capture great photos, or avoid crowds.
To avoid crowds at Gullfoss, it's best to arrive as early as possible. The shortest route from Reykjavik passes through Thingvellir and Geysir, so you'll be taking the same route there and back. However, if you prefer to see something different on your way there, you could take the longer loop route, which only adds about 6 miles to your drive and doesn't require any extra stops.
To get to Gullfoss using the loop route, drive on Route 1 from Reykjavik and keep going north on Route 35.
Here is a link to that route.
If you're looking for an adventure of a lifetime, look no further than the Golden Circle routes and ways. This detailed guide will take you through some of the most breathtaking landscapes in Iceland, from towering waterfalls to glistening icebergs. Whether you're a nature enthusiast or simply seeking an escape from the hustle and bustle of city life, this journey will not disappoint. Experience the awe-inspiring power of the Strokkur geyser, marvel at the beauty of the Thingvellir National Park, and take a stroll through the charming town of Hveragerdi. The Golden Circle routes and ways offer something for everyone, and this guide makes it easy to plan and navigate your way through it all. So what are you waiting for? Book your golden circle trip now and discover the wonders of this magnificent corner of the world.