The Golden Circle’s proximity to Reykjavik makes it ideal for a day trip from the nation’s capital. With so many of the best Icelandic attractions, you can see why it’s a must on so many travelers’ to-do lists. There’s the historical and geological national treasure that is þingvellir National Park. Not to mention the steaming craters of Strokkur and Geysir geysers in Haukadalur geothermal valley. And let’s not forget the mighty Gullfoss waterfall with its golden-hued waters.
The circuit gets its name because from Reykjavik, it loops around to the uplands of Southeast Iceland and then circles back. Any Golden Circle driving map will tell you, of the many attractions in Iceland and many things to do, this is one of the few that you can’t access directly from the Ring Road. You won’t be taking F-roads, but you will be getting off the main highway.
Driving to each of the Icelandic highlights, it’s a relatively straight shot between þingvellir, Geysir geothermal area, and Gullfoss. This means you can definitely visit all three in the same day. Gullfoss, the furthest stop along the route is less than a two-hour drive from Reykjavik. Then if you have the time, energy, or inclination, you can travel to some of the other attractions along the circuit.
Whether you’re taking a half day outing or a full day excursion, this is your ultimate guide to the highlights and extra stops during a Golden Circle tour. It’s Iceland’s most popular tourist circuit, and we’ll tell you the best route to go along this diverse circle chocked full of attractions.
The Golden Circle Big Three
Iceland’s Golden Circle route is a 300 km (190-mile) circuit in South Iceland filled with some pretty spectacular sights. If you’re wondering what to see in the Golden Circle, there are traditionally three principal stops along the way. They are what I like to call The Big Three on this popular travel route.
þingvellir National Park
þingvellir (anglicized as Thingvellir) is a place with both huge historical significance and unique geological features. Iceland’s first parliament, the Alþingi, began here in 930 AD. It was originally a gathering place for the island’s most powerful chieftains to make important decisions about the affairs of the day. This also makes it the world’s oldest parliament. While the first meetings were held outside, Iceland’s Alþingi now resides in a building in the capital.
Another interesting feature of þingvellir park is the park’s tectonic plates. Iceland sits on the meeting point of the North American and Eurasian plates, which is why we have so much volcanic activity. The ground here is literally pulling apart, and you can see a crack in the earth’s crust. Parts of the opening are filled with water, and scuba diving in the Silfra Fissure is a favorite underwater activity.
As they travel the Golden Ring Iceland map, eagle-eyed Game of Thrones fans will recognize parts of the park. It served as the filming location of the Bloody Gate at the entrance to the Vale of Arryn in the Eyrie.
The national park is a UNESCO World Heritage site and will surely be one of your favorite stops during your trip.
Haukadalur Valley Geysers
The next main stop on the Golden Circle is the Geysir geothermal area. This geothermal valley has two main attractions: Strokkur and Geysir geysers. We actually get the word “geyser” in English from this Icelandic sightseeing hotspot. The Great Geysir is the larger of the two, but it’s not really active anymore.
If you check the map of Golden Circle, it's easy to see you’ll have more success trying your luck with nearby Strokkur, which erupts on cue every 5-10 minutes. It shoots a jet of boiling water 10-20 meters (32-65 feet) into the air every time and is pretty darn impressive.
The last top attraction along the route is a beautiful waterfall. Iceland has over 10,000 of waterfalls, and each is special in its own way and has a unique story. This spectacular cascade gets its name from the word which means “golden” in Icelandic. On a sunny summer day, the sediment in its rushing waters mixes with the rays of the sun to give it a golden-tinted hue.
Additional Stops on Iceland’s Golden Circle
If you look at an Iceland Golden Circle map, you’ll notice that there are more stops and detours than just the three main highlights we’ve mentioned. There’s actually a whole other host of stunning and unique things to see and do along the oval-shaped circuit. These are some of the top additional places to visit on the Golden Circle Tour map. One of the great things about driving in Iceland is that you set your own itinerary.
Laugarvatn Fontana Geothermal Baths
This spa town has some lovely baths that have the same hot water as other Icelandic hot springs.
Famous for its handmade ice cream created with locally-sourced ingredients. This cattle farm also doubles as a hotel and has a restaurant on the premises.
The glacier is a longer detour past Gullfoss, Winter sports lovers can go snowmobiling, explore the ice caves, or hike the glacier itself.
Drumbó River Base
Go rafting in the Hvitá river. It’s a popular activity in the area a favorite among outdoor enthusiasts.
The Secret Lagoon
Would you like to discover a secret lagoon? Well, maybe it’s not so secret anymore.
Secret lagoon in Iceland is one of the country’s many hot springs. If you’re looking to stop along the Golden Circle route and take a dip, be sure to mark your map with this spot.
This tomato, horse and cucumber farm makes a great lunch stop. Just get there between 12-4 pm and call ahead to let them know you’re coming if you’re traveling with a larger group. The freshly made tomato soup is delicious, as is the homemade bread.
This historical site is thought to be Iceland’s first town. It has a white church with a dark roof, a typical feature of Icelandic architecture.
The Slakki petting zoo is great for families and kids who never want to grow up. Come meet the birds, pigs, bunnies and other small creatures at this animal park. Just don’t take one home as a souvenir, no matter cute they are!
Sólheimar is an international community of about 100 individuals working and living together in harmony. Villagers spend 3-12 months here working as interns and volunteers.
This turquoise volcanic crater lake is the last geothermal stop on the circuit before you hit the town of Selfoss and get back on the main road.
Hellisheidi Geothermal Power Plant
This is less an outdoor activity and more for anyone interested in geothermal power and how Iceland harnesses it. The Geothermal Exhibition at Iceland’s second largest power plant is quite interesting for those curious about the process.
A Full List of Stops Along The Iceland Golden Circle
So to summarize, here is a Golden Circle Iceland map with all of the attractions if you're heading clockwise.
Thingvellir National Park
Laugarvatn Fontana Geothermal Baths
Drumbó River Base
The Secret Lagoon
Driving the Golden Circle
When driving the Golden Circle or booking day tours and guided tours, it’s important to keep in mind how many hours of sunshine you’ll have. If you’re traveling in the middle of Iceland’s winter, there will only be four to five hours of sunlight per day. This means that you might not be able to fit in all three of the Golden Circle’s main attractions if you don't plan well.
If you’re making the journey in the summer, you’ll have plenty of time to explore. Thanks to the seemingly endless light of the Midnight Sun you can spend the full day active. Just be careful about fatigue. If you woke up really early (the sun can rise as early as 3 am), you’ve already had a head start to your day. Many weary travelers can lose track of time as they still experience full daylight until as late as midnight.
Before you know it, you’ve been up and about for fifteen hours and then suddenly realize you still have a two-hour drive back to Reykjavik. Pace yourself and try to fit in as much as you can while sticking to a semi-normal sleep schedule.
You can find sunrise and sunset times for your Iceland trip on timeanddate.com. It will better help you plan and prepare.
Should I Take an Iceland Golden Circle Tour or Do a Self-drive Tour?
This is an excellent question, and the answer depends on several factors. First of all, it’s very easy to do a self-drive tour in this zone. So if you were hesitant about doing it on your own, don’t let that be the thing that’s holding you back.
Benefits of a Drive It Yourself Golden Circle Tour
One of the benefits of planning it yourself is that you can really take the time to explore and experience each of the attractions in depth. When you do it at your own pace, you take as little or as much time as you need at each location. You’ll never feel rushed. Additionally, you’ll also never feel like you’re waiting around because too much time was allotted for an activity or people are taking a long time snapping that perfect selfie.
You can also start your day as early as you like and finish as late as you want. Deciding to drive the Golden Circle yourself is the perfect choice for independent travelers who don’t mind organizing the schedule and logistics on their own.
Benefits of Doing an Organized Tour
On the other hand, you could choose to do one of the many Golden Circle tours available. Choose a tour operator running a sightseeing tour along the route, and they organize everything for you. Along with a Northern Lights hunt, a Golden Circle excursion is probably one of the most popular tours in Iceland. You travel by bus, minibus or van while sharing your time and space with other travelers.
If you’re more independent, this might not be the ideal option for you, especially if you don't like traveling with large groups. You’re on someone else’s schedule and your day revolves around the whims of other travelers. You also have a set amount of time at each location. It’s a trade-off between freedom and flexibility or having things be easier because they’re already taken care of in advance.
Golden Circle Iceland: Complete Guide with Extra Highlights
A day out traveling around the Circle is one of the best road trips you can take in Iceland. There’s so much to see and do that I don’t blame you if you choose to spend more than just one day exploring the area. From Gullfoss to the National Park of Thingvellir, let us know, what are your favorite stops, and which are you most excited to see?