Iceland’s Golden Circle: Everything you need to know
Updated: Jan 8
Any first-time visit to Iceland will almost certainly involve taking a tour of the Golden Circle. Three of Iceland’s most impactful and popular natural wonders lie on this route. This trio of hotspots is sometimes referred to as the Golden Triangle too. The tour loops through south Iceland taking in the Þingvellir National Park, the Gullfoss Waterfall and the Geysir Geothermal Area. All three locations are stunning, but there is lots more to see along the way too. Here we’ll answer some of the frequently asked questions on the different types of Golden Circle tours. You’ll also find out about the practicalities and what to expect in each destination.
What are the options for Golden Circle tours in Iceland?
There are many options for guided tours of this popular route with buses heading out from Reykjavik on day tours. The whole route takes about three hours to drive from the capital. Add to that half an hour to enjoy each location, plus a good lunch break. All in all the whole tour can be comfortably achieved in about five hours. If you’re short on time or choose not to hire your own transport, then this is a good way to see the sights. If you have more time then hiring a car and self-driving the Golden Circle route is a great option. With your own hire car you’ll be able to explore completely at your own pace. You’ll have the flexibility to arrive any time of day and stay as long as you like in each location. Also you’ll be able to stop off at the many less-visited destinations along the way. You could choose to take a full day to drive the route or stay at hotels or campsites along the way.
What is the best time to tour the Golden Circle?
The Golden Circle sights are located within easy reach of the capital city. Most people on a city break to Reykjavik will also take a tour of the Golden Circle. Tour buses generally head out of the city at about 8-9am, and again at about 1-2pm. With this in mind it is best to visit early in the morning or late in the afternoon or early evening. That way there will be fewer people to share them with! Summer is obviously a busier time for tourism in Iceland. Having said that the phenomenon of the Midnight Sun means that there are many more daylight hours to explore in. You might even think about visiting the sights at night. Seeing them during the twilight hours is a completely different experience than in the middle of the day. In spring and autumn there will be fewer visitors to Iceland in general, and even fewer again in winter.
Can I easily camp on the Golden Circle route?
There are some great campsites to pitch up or park on the Golden Circle route. Staying the night right next to these natural beauties will give you all the more opportunity to visit them during quieter times. One of the best is the campsite close to Þingvellir National Park. It has spectacular views over the lake and mountains and good facilities. There are plenty more to choose from, including at the Geysir geothermal area and at Laugarvatn Lake. These campsites are all open to campervans or to tent camping guests. Some offer BBQ equipment in summer, so you can enjoy some fun communal dining with your fellow travellers. Camping the Golden Circle is the best way to see it and a much more unique experience than taking a bus tour. It is also a really manageable introduction to camping in Iceland. You don’t need to drive too far and the road conditions are generally good. The campsites here are also very established and well equipped.
Tell me about the Þingvellir National Park
This is one of the oldest national parks in Iceland and one of its most historic attractions. The meeting of two tectonic plates created the park’s dramatic natural setting. These plates caused a vast rift valley to form, which is criss-crossed by beautiful rivers and waterfalls. It was also the site of Iceland’s very first parliament dating back to the 10thCentury. There is a lot to do here, including hiking its many nature trails or diving at the Silfra Lake. There is also a good interpretation centre where you can discover the national park’s historical significance. If you are a fan of the Game of Thrones then look out for some familiar landscapes along the way. Quite a few of the popular TV series’ locations can be found in the area. There are many more right across Iceland too (another possible theme for your self-drive Iceland tour!).
What’s so special about Gullfoss Waterfall?
The Gullfoss Waterfall is one of the top natural attractions in Iceland, and with good reason. These awesome falls tumble over thirty-two meters down over two tiers. When the sun hits the water it is sometimes possible to spot rainbows amidst the water spray. In winter ice crystals catch the light making the water appear to sparkle. Whichever time of year you visit, Gullfoss is just magical.
What’s so great about Geysir?
The Geysir Geothermal area is awesome to behold. After all, this is the Geysir that all other geysers were named after! Geysir is also known as the Haukadalur Geothermal area. It consists of a valley floor dotted with a mixture of clear pools, bubbling mud pools and hot springs. And there are some mighty high geysers too. The Great Geyser is currently considered dormant, but in its prime it shot water some 120 meters into the air! There are plenty more impressive jets to dodge though. The neighbouring Strokkur geyser shoots water between 20-30 meters skyward every ten minutes or so. The brightly coloured mineral deposits are also fascinating to see and very photogenic.
Where else can I visit on the Golden Circle?
There are so many great places to stop on the Golden Circle route. One of our favourites is the Secret Lagoon – sounds good doesn’t it? This lovely hot water lagoon is located about 25km from Geysir near the little town of Fludir. It is one of the oldest man-made geothermal pools in the country, dating back to the late 19thCentury. The water temperature hovers at around 39 degrees Celsius year round. Definitely stop by for a dip and see the nearby natural hot springs if you can. Depending on your interests another good stop is the Hellisheiði Power Plant. Here you can find out the facts and figures about geothermal energy in Iceland – fascinating if that’s your kind of thing. One of our favourite picnic stops is at the Faxi Waterfall not far from the mighty Gullfoss. It’s not as big or impressive as its neighbour, but it is beautiful and a peaceful spot to spread out the picnic blanket and spend a few hours.
Are there good cafes or restaurants on the Golden Circle?
Fuelling your adventures is part of the joy of travel and there are loads of great places to eat on this route. If you’re on a self-drive tour then you can avoid the overpriced sandwiches in the visitor centres and seek out some local treats. Having said that the traditional meat soup at the Gullfoss Café is delicious and quite reasonable. TripAdvisor is a great resource for tracking down the best cafes and restaurants wherever you are, so do a little research in advance. One firm favourite is the tomato soup at Friðheimar farm, where they grow their own delicious produce. If travelling from Gullfoss towards Thingvellir National Park then a stop for ice cream at Efstidalur dairy farm is a must. If you’re after fine dining then some of the high-end hotels in the area have fantastic restaurants open to non-guests.