Geyser in Iceland

Tips to Self Drive the Golden Circle Iceland Driving Route

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Last Updated on February 26, 2021 by Michelle Moyer

What is the Golden Circle Iceland Driving Route

The Golden Circle in Iceland is the best known and most traveled tourist route in the country.  It is a 300-kilometer loop that begins in the capital city of Reykjavik and extends into the highlands of the southern area of Iceland.  Since it contains many sites to see, many tour operators run tour groups through the Golden Circle. However, it is very easy to self drive the Golden Circle Iceland driving route since most of the sites are located on the main well-maintained roadway. You will not need a 4×4 to tour the Golden Circle driving route.

Be sure to check out this link for important tips about Driving in Iceland.

Thingvellir National Park in Iceland

How long does it take to self drive the Golden Circle Iceland?

The self-drive tour through the Golden Circle in Iceland is a three-hour trip that can extend into 8 hours with all the fun stops on the way.  There is not much daylight in the winter in Iceland –like dwindling down to a few hours of sun–, so plan your trip during peak hours of the sun so that you can see the sites in the daylight.

We had our phone map app hooked up to the wifi of the Iceland-rented hotspot and this worked well for navigation.  We stayed on the main roads and had a signal the entire time.


The Golden Circle Iceland Map

There are many sites to see along the Golden Circle in Iceland and you can see them all on a one-day trip.  Here are the main ones that you can plan to stop at and add to your itinerary if you are self-driving.  Fill up your gas tank for the one-tank-trip , go slowly at your own pace, enjoy each of the unique Iceland Golden Circle sites, and venture off on a side trip to find something unexplored.

Iceland Golden Circle Map. Click on each pin to zoom in for each stop.

Iceland is a difficult travel destination in the winter –and really generally anytime– because of the weather.  Learn all the tips and advice for driving the Golden Circle in the winter here, including a packing list for your Iceland trip. Traveling to Iceland in winter

Must-see stops along the self drive Golden Circle Iceland driving route

Reykjavik

Start your Golden Circle Tour of Iceland in Reykjavik, the capital city.  Make sure to spend at least a day visiting this city.  After all, this where most of the country’s residents live.

Experience Reykjavik! Book tickets to the Blue Lagoon Spa, Northern Lights and more

Hallgrimskirkja is a church and one of the largest structures in the country.  It is located in the center of the city and can be seen from everywhere, looming over the city like a fortress.  Its architecture was built to resemble the glacial Icelandic landscape.  Admission to the church is free.  Climbing the tower to get a bird’s eye view of Reykjavik and the surrounding mountains is 1000 ISK ($10 USD).

church at dawn
Hallgrimskirkja at Dawn

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Booking.com

Thorufoss

Once you set out on your journey from Reykjavik, be prepared for the magical beauty of nature in many splendid forms.  Iceland is well-known for its waterfalls, and your first stop along as you self-drive Iceland’s Golden Circle will be at Thorufoss will not disappoint.

It is lesser-known, and not on the main route, so fewer tourists will be hanging around to obscure your photos.  If you are touring the Golden Circle in winter, this waterfall is known to freeze over in the cold.  For those Game of Thrones fans, this was the home of the Children of the Forest.

Tips to Self Drive the Golden Circle Iceland Driving Route 1 Thorufoss in the Golden Circle in Iceland
Thorufoss Waterfall
Photo by Tim Trad on Unsplash

Thingvellir National Park

Only a short 45-minute drive from Reykjavik, the second stop on the Golden Circle Iceland driving route is a huge National Park with a Visitor’s Center, bathroom facilities and a water fountain.  This was actually our first stop after landing in Iceland in the wee hours of the morning so we filled up our refillable water bottles here with that delicious Iceland tap water from the fountain.

Visitors center
Thingvellir Visitor’s Center

There is a 750 ISK ($8 USD) parking fee.  The park automatically takes a photo of your license plate as you enter the parking lot and you pay at the automated machine inside the Visitor’s Center.  Credit cards are accepted.

payment machine

Thingvellir was declared a National Park in 1930.  It was here, beginning as early as the 900’s the first parliament was formed.  They met here, were presented with the laws, settled disputes, made announcements that concerned the entire population and began laying the foundation for the future Republic of Iceland. 

seating on viewing stands
Assembled at the Parliament meeting!

Every spring, thousands would arrive in Thingvellir for the two-week gathering.  They stayed in houses made of turf and rock, gathered for the assembly and celebrated with banquets and games.

turf houses in Iceland
Turf houses built into the side of a mountain in Iceland

The continental drift is evident in this park and displays many lava cracks and fissures marking the division between the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates. Almannagja is the largest fissure at nearly 8 kilometers long.  If you were to stand and watch it for 100 years, you would surely see some movement as these tectonic plates continue to drift apart at a rate of 1 – 2 cm per year.

Lava fissures
Almannagja

Oxararfoss is a small waterfall formed by rifts in the tectonic plates.  The waterfall plunges 37 feet over a cliff and then cascades of little waterfalls that fall another 7 feet.  It is not one of the top-of-the-line waterfalls in a country full of beautiful falls, but if you are going to be in Thingvellir and walking by, be sure to snap a photo since it has such unique geology.  It is approximately a 1.7 km hike from the visitor’s center.  Not too bad in decent weather, but be sure to dress in layers to keep warm if you do the Golden Circle in winter.

waterfall in Iceland
Oxararfoss in Thingvellir National Park. Image by Laurette Chapuis from Pixabay

Thingvallavatn Lake contains a giant fissure, called Silfra, which is the only place in the world where scuba divers can swim between two tectonic plates.  The underwater geology that can be viewed is amazing and changes constantly as these tectonic plates drift further apart, causing earthquakes and rocks and boulders to fall into new positions.

The water in the rift is runoff from the nearby glacier which keeps the temperature in Silfra at a chilly, but bearable 2 – 4 degrees Celsius all year.  The water is near freezing so you will need to don a dry suit – doing your Advanced Open Water is the perfect opportunity to give it a try.

The freshwater is constantly refilling the fissure after it is filtered through the underground lava.  The resulting Silfra water body is super-clean and filtered with a visibility of 100 meters — the best in the world and perfect for a dive!

Silfra at Thingvellir National Park
Scuba Diving in Silfra.   Image by Gerald Lobenwein from Pixabay

There are many scuba and snorkel tours available near Thingvellir National Park. You can self-drive and meet your tour there, or find a tour that will transport from Reykjavik. Here is a great resource for some Silfra diving tours.

Laugarvatn Fontana

Located right off of the main road on the Golden Circle Iceland driving route, this site contains a geothermal bath, geothermal bakery, and a kitchen that serves a buffet lunch and dinner. The geothermal baths are heated from the natural springs and are quiet and secluded.

They offer rye bread tours where you can learn how they bake their bread using the geothermal heat. It takes a whole day to bake the bread after they bury it in the hot bubbling mud near the steaming lake. After the tour, they offer a taste test of the bread as well as the option to take the leftovers on the road with you to your next destination. We took many pieces and snacked on them while we traveled around the Golden Circle. It was a very filling, but delicious loaf. The Icelandic butter that they provided was extra creamy compared to what we were used to and we enjoyed putting extra layers on our bread!

burying bread in hot springs
Geothermal bread baking
rye bread
Laugarvatn Fontana Rye Bread Tour

Efsti-Dalur

Efsti-Dalur is a family-run cattle farm, hotel, ice cream parlor, and restaurant. It is located in the countryside with beautiful views. Horses are available to rent for a ride through the Iceland scenery on your own. For those that self-drive the Golden Circle in Iceland, it is a great stop for a yummy snack —or even lunch. The ice cream parlor has window seating in front of their barn.

ice cream at Efsti-Dalur
Efsti Dalur Farm with livestock and delicious homemade ice cream

Geysir & Strokkur

 GEYSERS IN ICELAND

The Great Geysir is the first known geyser and is the namesake for all subsequent sprouting and spewing geothermal hot springs.  Geysa in Icelandic means “to gush,” appropriately named as the geysers periodically gush out super-hot water and steam in a fountain-like display.  The Great Geysir is on hiatus for the moment and there haven’t been any eruptions in many years.  Its sister geyser, Strokkur, located just a short walk away, erupts with a gush about 20 meters high every 8 minutes or so for your viewing and photography pleasure.

There is a large geothermal area in the Haukadalur Valley that you can walk around to see bubbling mud pots, hot springs, and other smaller geysers.  The Valley is free and always open, but make sure you go in the daylight and plan for at least a half an hour so that you can catch one or two Strokkur shows.  There is a visitor’s center with facilities and a shop filled with souvenirs. This is a high tourist area and the parking lot can get busy and hectic.

Tips to Self Drive the Golden Circle Iceland Driving Route 2 Iceland Golden Circle Hot Springs
Geothermal area in Haukadalur Valley in the Golden Circle in Iceland

Gullfoss

SO MANY WATERFALLS IN ICELAND!

This is one of the most beautiful waterfalls I have ever seen!  It is located deep within canyon walls that were formed in the last ice age.  Gullfoss is a tiered falls with two main levels that flow over the large gorge at a rate of 140 cubic feet/s and turns the river at a sharp 90 degrees.  The layers of mist and beautiful surrounding scenery add to the mysticism and make it all the more beautiful and a definite MUST-SEE on your itinerary as you self-drive the Golden Circle Iceland route.

waterfall
Gullfoss Waterfall on the Golden Circle Iceland Driving Route

Faxi Waterfall

About 12 miles from Gullfoss, is its baby brother, Faxi Waterfall.  It is down a gravel pathway away from the main road.  This area is full of salmon which makes it a good fishing spot.  It is less visited than Gullfoss and is a quieter destination, still full of beauty and worth a stop.

waterfall in Iceland
Faxi Waterfall in Iceland. Photo by Chris Liverani on Unsplash

Friedheimer Greenhouse

Using geothermal heat, the family-run Friedheimer Greenhouse specializes in tomato plants that grow year-round in the Mediterranean greenhouse conditions.  For larger parties, they offer tours of their horticulture surrounded by 10,000 yummy-smelling tomato plants.

–And these tomatoes are definitely delicious.  I snacked on a whole tub of grape tomatoes and they were so good I felt like I was eating Candy!  The Greenhouse offers sit-down and counter-service meals including their famous tomato soup, freshly baked bread, and tomato schnapps to please your pallet  –even tomato ice cream and beer!!  Buy some extra souvenirs to snack on for the remainder of your self-drive Golden Circle Iceland Tour.

greenhouse and tomato plants
Friedheimer Greenhouse

The Friedheimer Greenhouse breeds Iceland horses and during the summer months, they also offer horse shows to their guests.  After a short talk about the origin of the Icelandic horse breed, visitors are led to the stables to meet the furry horses, talk to their riders, and take photographs. Even if you don’t take the tour, you can still have a quick visit with the horses who seem to be quite friendly.

visiting with an Icelandic horse
Visiting with the Icelandic horses at Friedheimer Greenhouse

Plan to stop at Friedheimer Greenhouse to enjoy the horses, the greenhouse, the TOMATOES, and a nice warm meal as a break during your self drive Golden Circle Iceland Tour.

Secret Lagoon

Located in the small town of Fludir, the Secret Lagoon is a man-made pool that is fed by geothermal hot springs and a relaxing stop along the Golden Circle Iceland driving route.  Built in 1891, it is the oldest pool in the country and remains a toasty 38 – 40 degrees Celsius all year.  The natural surroundings and mist rising above the hot pool give it a private, secluded and mystical atmosphere.

geothermal spa
Secret Lagoon geothermal spa

The Secret Lagoon is 3000 ISK ($30 USD). It is very different than the highly popular tourist attraction Blue Lagoon geothermal spa which is located near the Keflavik International airport.  Many visitors visit both pools so that they get a taste of each of them and experience both worlds.

Read this article for all the important DETAILS OF THE BLUE LAGOON SPA.

Taking a selfie with our complimentary drinks at the Blue Lagoon in Iceland
Blue Lagoon in Iceland

Kerid Crater

Kerid is a volcanic crater lake along the Golden Circle Iceland driving route that was formed by a volcanic explosion many centuries ago— like an estimated 3,000 years ago.  It is a rainbow of colors for your eyes to behold.  The caldera, or hollowed-out hole of the crater, is made of red volcanic rock while the steep sides of the crater are dark and bare of any vegetation growth.  One side of the crater is a low swooping wall covered in fragile green moss.  Because of the minerals in the water the color of the lake is a striking aquamarine color. 

There is a parking fee of 400 ISK ($4 USD) when staffed.  Take the easy hike on the ½ mile trail around the crater to admire all the contrasting colors.  Make sure you dress in layers and warmth if the weather is chilly in the winter.

Cnater in Iceland
Image by Patricia van den Berg from Pixabay 

Crater
Image by photovicky from Pixaby

After you self drive the Golden Circle in Iceland

Once you have made it through the Golden Circle Iceland driving route, you can return to Reykjavik or continue south for a Ring Road self-drive tour.  This will lead you to black sand beaches, more beautiful waterfalls, and glaciers where you can take a glacier tour. Read more about our exciting ICE CAVE TOUR.


What to bring as you self drive the Golden Circle Tour in Iceland

  • A Full tank of gas. It is a 300 km trip and will take only one tank of gas.  Gas is $2 per liter and there are several stations along the main road, but fill up ahead of time so that you can spend more time touring.
  • Layers.  It’s Iceland.  It’s always cold.  You will be warm in the car and cold outside.  Take layers.
  • Food / snacks.  Food is expensive in Iceland.  Take some snacks so that you don’t have to worry too much about fueling your belly.  If you are in a hurry, the gas stations have good hot dogs!  Try one out!  We had one on our last day and loved it.
hot dog
Hot dogs are delicious in Iceland

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Anyone can self-drive the Golden Circle in Iceland

Whatever your interests, you will be sure to find something that strikes your fancy. There is much nature to see in this country and the Golden Circle Iceland driving route is the best introduction to everything that this beautiful country has to offer. Were you traveling the Golden Circle in Iceland recently? What was your favorite stop?

Icelandic horse
Iceland horse in the scenery on the Golden Circle Iceland driving route

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Megan

oh Iceland is a complete dream destination of mine… I especially want to visit all the waterfalls & see the ice on the black sand beach!

Carol Colborn

OMG, you did it! We were scared that we would encounter a lot of problems so we opted for a 3-city cruise of Reykjavik, Isofjodur in the west, and Akureyri in the north. So we have no adventures in the east and south!

Jac | Texan Travels

We went to Iceland last March, it was a dream! I wish I would have thought about buying some snacks from the greenhouse to take for the rest our time there. What a good idea!

Pam

I can’t wait to go to iceland someday. My daughter was there two years ago and absolutely loved it. I’d like to try the rye bread cooked in the thermal sand. How neat is that?

Pam

We loved the Golden Circle in Iceland – it seemed to have everything in one small circle. I loved all the waterfalls of Iceland

Kiara

Thanks for the detailed view on traveling to the Golden Circle in Iceland. I’ll have to keep this in mind for when I visit.

Michelle

Iceland looks so incredible. I would love to visit one day, although hearing how expensive it is has deterred me. LOL!

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