I recently got back from my first visit to Iceland. Yes, you read that right, I said first visit, because despite having seen so many natural wonders and vistas during my 14 day Ring Road trip, it became clear quite pretty fast that one visit isn’t enough to see everything Iceland has to offer. I only got back from Iceland a few days ago, but I already have some things in mind for my next Iceland trip.
However if you are like me a few weeks ago, looking forward to your first Iceland trip, the number of things to do and see can be quite overwhelming. One of the things you will hear and read a lot about during your research is the Golden Circle. A perfect introduction to what Iceland has to offer.
What is the Golden Circle?
The Golden Circle is the most popular driving route located in the southwest of Iceland, close to capital Reykjavik. Therefore, this 300 kilometer drive is a perfect roadtrip for those with limited time. The Golden Circle can be done as a day trip from Reykjavik and features three of the most impressive locations in southeast Iceland: Þingvellir National Park, the Geysir Geothermal Area, and Gullfoss waterfall.
However, chances are high that you will want to make more stops, so if you have more time, you could easily spend a few days along the Golden Circle route.
Step 1: Renting a car
To drive the Golden Circle route, you will need a car. Most travelers arrive by air so you probably will need to rent a vehicle on arrival. Most of the Golden Circle route is paved so doesn’t require a 4×4 (except in winter). We had our own car, so we didn’t need to rent one. However if you do need one, the type of vehicle may be an important decision of your trip.
If you are planning on staying in hotels or B&B’s on the road, you can go for any type of vehicle you want. Keep in mind though that accommodation is very expensive, so if you are traveling on a budget I would go for camping. Campsites costs about 1200-1800 krones (about 9-14 euros per night). On my next trip I would definitely go for a small campervan as these are equiped with beds and small kitchen and are not too expensive to rent. Happy Campers is a great option.
What to see along the Golden Circle route?
There are many stops you will want to make during your mini roadtrip along the Golden Circle in Iceland, however we will keep this list limited to the traditional three attractions.
Þingvellir National Park
Starting from Reykjavik, you drive east on route 36. This brings you to Þingvellir National Park, one of the three national parks in Iceland. Historically, this place has always been a meeting point. In 930 the very first parliament ever in the world was born here. People gathered here every year in the summer (inaccessible in the winter) to discuss differences and conflicts and, if necessary, settle them.
But even from a nature’s point of view this is an interesting place, because it is here that North American and Eurasian tectonic plates ‘drift’ two centimeters from each other every year. The created fissure in Silfra provides a nice picture. But it is even better to go snorkeling. The water is crystal clear. You can see up to 100 meters deep. But it is also cold, ice cold even because it is barely 3 ° C. You also have the valley, Lake Tingvallavatn, the black lava rock. The Öxarárfoss waterfall and the church are also worth seeing. As a whole, Thingvellir is included on the UNESCO World Heritage List.
The Geysir Geothermal Area
Driving further east from Thingvellar, you follow 36 until you go left on route 365. Follow until you come to the next crossing where you head north on 37. This eventually leads to route 35 which makes the circle go south, but before you do, follow north to the next two stops on the Golden Circle.
The Geysir was once the most powerful geyser in Iceland, but has become a bit lazy. In the past, it sprayed about 40 to 60 meters high every 30 minutes. Is it perhaps that the general name ‘geyser’ is derived from the Geysir as a kind of tribute? Nowadays it only reaches around 6 meters a few times a day.
The Strokkur is the smaller brother but nevertheless has great power. Every five to ten minutes it sprays the hot water up to 35 meters. Hallucinating and fantastic view. The water has a temperature of 127 ° C at a depth of around 20 meters. The water is then temporarily just below the surface, after which it is injected into the air with brutal force.
A short drive further on route 35 you will find the third stop on the Golden Circle: the Gulfoss.
The river Hvitá (white river) has a kilometer-long gorge in the landscape worn from the lake Hvítárvatn and the glacier Langjökull. The Gulfoss was created, an impressive waterfall that throws itself down in two steps, 32 meters deeper. In the summer at 130 m³ per second. The strange thing is that the second stage is perpendicular to the first. When the sun shines and the power of the water creates clouds, this results in a rainbow, hence the name golden waterfall.
Best time to visit
The Golden Circle can be done year-round, however depending on the season, the conditions may vary. In summer you can witness all seasons in one day, though a regular car should suffice. In winter however, snow conditions will require you to rent a 4×4 car.
Winter season has the advantage you are able to see the northern lights during your trip. Summer on the other hand allows you to go sightseeing clockround. The midnight sun makes that it doesn’t get dark at night. Therefore if you want to go sightseeing without the crowds in summer, we recommend starting your trip very early or late in the evening.
May to September is high season and will come with higher costs.
Other popular things to do around the Golden Circle
- Snorkelling or diving the Silfra fissure in Þingvellir National Park
- Visit the Kerid Crater
- Rafting the Hvita River
- Caving in Leiðarendi
- Fontana Geothermal Baths
- Secret Lagoon in Fludir