In my previous posts I wrote about a Guide to Hiring a Car in Iceland, Chasing the Northern Lights in Iceland: A Practical Guide, the Secret of Travelling Iceland on a Budget and Driving Around Iceland’s Ring Road in Winter: Practicalities and Itinerary! Today I’d like to focus on one of the most popular activities in Iceland, the Golden Circle.
The Golden Circle refers to the loop road that many tour buses and day trippers take on daytrips out of Reykjavik. Along this road are a variety of different things to see and it makes an easy day trip if you’re based in Reykjavik. Self-driving the Golden Circle in your own rental car (I rented mine through Holiday Autos) is definitely the way to go as it’s far cheaper and you can stop wherever and whenever you want and for as long as you want. The Golden Circle can be wrapped up before lunch and you can even continue along the south coast to some other places of interest and even make it all the way to Vik by nightfall if the weather is good.
How long is the Golden Circle?
If you do the entire Golden circle and return to Reykjavik that afternoon, it’s about 230km (143 miles) and takes about 6 or 7 hours at a leisurely pace. If you continue on to Vik, it is a long day as there are a few more waterfalls to see along the way before reaching Vik. The distance is 280km and you won’t arrive in Vik until about 5pm. This is what I did and it was a perfect distance for me and not too rushed.
Stop 1 – Þingvellir (pronounced Thingvellir) – 40km (25miles) from Reykjavik
Almost everyone stops here as their first stop on the Golden Circle and I highly recommend getting here early so that you get a moment of peace and quiet before the tour buses arrive. The tour buses started arriving at about 9:10am and the park officially opens at 9am. Try and get here by 8:30am — you’ll still be able to go to the lookout and if you’re there at the right time of year, you’ll even get to see the sunrise with only a few other people.
Þingvellir is the site of the first Icelandic parliament some 1000 years ago. It’s also where two tectonic plates are splitting apart from one another creating large rifts in the earth. But for me, these two things were minor attractions. I actually really loved this place because the views at that time of the morning are stunning and it’s nice to go for a walk along the nearby river on your own in the cool crisp air while most of the tour buses are buzzing in and out of there really quickly.
Stop 2 – Strokkur & Geysir Geysers – 100km (62miles) from Reykjavik
Some 60km (37miles) on from Þingvellir are the geysers of Strokkur and Geysir. Geysir is where the English word ‘Geyser’ came from, but this geyser hasn’t been active since around 2000 when a nearby earthquake shut it down. Strokkur is a smaller geyser and erupts roughly ever 5 minutes. It’s pretty impressive to see that puddle of hot, bright blue water occasionally bubble up and erupt into a massive jet of water 25m (75ft) tall. Most people stick around for about 4 eruptions and then continue on to Gullfoss.
Stop 3 – Gullfoss – 109km (68miles) from Reykjavik
This waterfall truly is an impressive site and would be worth visiting on its own. A wild, raging river with a massive volume of water thunders into a ravine creating the mighty Gulfoss. In winter you get a lovely frozen landscape, but I’ve also seen photos of Gullfoss in summer and it looks completely different, but no less stunning. It’s only 10 minutes down the road from Strokkur and you could come here first and visit Strokkur on the way back if that suited you better.
Stop 4 – Kerið – 165km (103miles) from Reykjavik
Kerið is the remnants of a collapsed volcano which now houses an impressive lake. It’s a b-grade attraction and is probably one you can skip if you don’t have time. It’s actually on the road to Selfoss which is convenient if you’re looping back to Reykjavik. But if you’re continuing on towards Vik, you might want to take route 30 from Gullfoss rather than Route 35 as it will shave off about 30km, but also skip Kerið completely. That said, if you’ve got lots of time in Iceland or are just travelling really slowly, Selfoss does make a good overnight spot.
I stayed about 20km before Vik in a lovely modern farmstay called Guesthouse Vellir. The breakfast in the morning was fantastic and the price of the room for 2 people was €79/$88/£62/AUD$117. Check the current price on booking.com.
The place I had originally considered in Selfoss was Selfoss Hostel which cost €47/$52/£37/AUD$70. A good option in a good location at a fantastic price. Check the current price on booking.com.
The Golden Circle is a must-do activity when in Iceland despite it being the most heavily touristed. That said, with your own wheels you don’t have to worry too much about the crowds as you can set your own agenda. We got a fantastic Hertz rental car for about €20/$22/£16/AUD$30 — but we booked it through an agent who was able to get us the car for about half the normal price available on the Hertz website. Check current rental car prices on Holiday Autos.