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If you’re visiting Iceland for the first time, then you definitely want to begin with what’s called the Golden Circle since it features three stunningly beautiful locations: an extremely powerful waterfall, a geyser which erupts frequently, and a UNESCO World Heritage site. The best part is that you can do the whole trip in a single day with any one of these stops making incredible fodder for your Instagram feed!
Featuring the magnificent Gullfoss Waterfall, Geysir Geothermal Field, and Thingvellir National Park, the Golden Circle is the perfect day tour from Reykjavik. Alternatively, you may decide to hire a car and drive the 300-km (190-mile) route from Reykjavik into the southern uplands of Iceland and back. Self-driving the Golden Circle route allows you to go at your own pace. And you do not need a 4×4 vehicle to drive the Golden Circle.
The best site to book your car is with Discover Cars. They search both local and international car rental companies to help you find the best possible price. This is the easiest way to rent a car in Iceland. However, do be careful if you decide to hire a car in the winter as Iceland’s roads are icy. Weather changes quickly, and a sunny morning can easily turn into a snowstorm later that day. But Iceland has a fantastic website to check real-time road conditions called Vegagerdin.
With its first stop only 40 minutes east of Reykjavik, a visit to the Golden Circle makes the perfect day trip outside of the city. Because of the distance and amount of things to see on this trip, schedule at least 7-8 hours to allow for enough time at each destination. And if you have a whole day to spend on your Golden Circle adventure, you can expand the route by adding a few extra stops, which is what I did.
Thingvellir National Park
The Golden Circle is usually done clockwise with the first stop being Thingvellir National Park. One of the main attractions to this beautiful park is that it sits between the North American and European tectonic plates, meaning you can (technically) stand between two continents at once. And if you’re feeling adventurous, you can even snorkel or scuba dive between the plates themselves and bear witness to some of the clearest water in the world.
In addition to taking a dip in the clear waters, you can also hike up to the breathtaking Öxarárfoss Waterfall for a view of where the main river plunges through the valley you walked through just minutes ago.
The park is also perfect for walking around admiring the beautiful scenery. Make sure you also walk the short distance to the Thingvellir Church, beautiful in its simplicity.
The park is free but if you’re self-driving you need to pay 750 ISK (around €5) for parking there. There are multiple parking lots throughout the park, so if you’re not up for hiking you can drive and park to see the main sites. You will need at least 45 minutes to see the main sights in the park although Gunta (my travel buddy) and I walked around for around double that time.
The next stop on the Golden Circle route is the Geysir Geothermal Field. This is a popular site and was one of the most crowded attractions on this trip. It’s home to the well known Geysir, plus many bubbling and steaming hot pools. Although the original geyser is no longer active, the new spectacle, Strokkur, is the main attraction here.
Erupting about 50 feet in the air every 10 minutes, tourists tend to flock and crowd around this site searching for the perfect photo. You can spend anywhere between 20 minutes to 1 hour at Geysir, depending on how many times you want to see the geyser set off and if you want to climb up the mountain to get a more aerial view of the geothermal area. There is no charge to visit here.
Gullfoss Waterfall is a truly spectacular sight and is considered by many as one of the most beautiful waterfalls in Iceland. No matter the season, the mighty Gullfoss is a must-see spot in the land of fire and ice. It’s listed as one of the top 10 waterfalls in the world by the World of Waterfalls. There are higher waterfalls in Iceland but a chance to witness the sheer power and grandeur of Gullfoss is something no one should miss.
Dress warmly or wear a raincoat here as you’ll be sprayed with constant mist and wind as the falls crash right in front of you. If you’re lucky enough to be visiting while the sun is shining, look out for rainbows as you descend for the perfect photo-op. The place is free and one hour is more than enough to walk around and take in the falls.
Secret Lagoon Hot Spring
The Secret Lagoon is a geothermal pool on the Golden Circle route. It’s Iceland’c first public swimming pool, having been created in 1891 and its location makes it very easy to combine with other activities. What could be better than visiting the legendary Golden Circle & taking a relaxing soak in the Secret Lagoon afterwards?
I remember joking with Gunta, my travel buddy, that I felt a bit drowsy on arriving at the pool and that my perfect dream at that particular moment was to drink a coffee in the warm pool. Jokingly, I passed a remark about this to the receptionist who said it was perfectly okay to do so, after paying extra for the coffee of course! I felt I was not far from paradise that particular afternoon as I sipped my coffee while immersed in the warm thermal waters of the pool!
What’s good about this place is that it receives far fewer tourists than Iceland’s famous Blue Lagoon. In fact, the Secret Lagoon is perfect for enjoying a genuine Icelandic bath while appreciating the true qualities of thermal water. It also has brand new facilities with changing rooms, lockers and showers — which must be used (without clothing and with soap) prior to entering the pool, where a modern deck and stairs into the water have been created.
This place is so magical that I just didn’t want to leave. Floating in the perfectly warm waters, alongside bubbling hot springs and a small geyser that erupts every ten minutes or so just off the pool’s far left corner, was just too relaxing to part with. Afterwards, Gunta and I walked around the pool to have a closer look at those boiling, spouting hot springs.
Adults pay an entrance fee of 3,000 ISK (around €20), which includes the use of the lockers and showers. We probably spent a good two hours here relaxing in the pool but you may spend more or less time depending on how much time you have on your hands.
An interesting stop along the Golden Circle is at Skálholt, one of Iceland’s places of special historical interest. For seven centuries it was the scene of the most dramatic events which shaped the political, spiritual and cultural life in Iceland. It was an episcopal see, a school, a seat of learning and administration for more than 700 years and a place of pilgrimage in medieval times.
The cathedral at this place was consecrated in 1963 and is the 10th church standing on exactly the same site. It is decorated with valuable art, both old and new. In the crypt there is a small exhibition from the National Museum with items excavated in Skálholt. However, what really caught my eye was the small turf church right by the cathedral.
Kerid Crater Lake
Our last stop on the Golden Circle route was the eye-popping Kerid Crater Lake. In Iceland, you CANNOT just have a stunning lake. No, it also has to be inside a volcanic caldera. And sometimes that’s not even enough, so the showiest country in the world provides something like Kerid Crater Lake, which is a nearly neon blue lake sitting in a volcano surrounded by rare red volcanic rock!
It costs 400 ISK (€2,50) to enter and walk around the rim of this 3000-year-old crater. You can also descend a steep flight of steps and stroll around the edge of the lake too. All in all, it’s an easy hike around the crater. Enjoy the spectacular view but be careful of the slippery paths!
Although there are various tours you can book, getting an Iceland car rental is a huge advantage as you can set your own pace, schedule and itinerary. It gives you the freedom to explore as much or as little of the Golden Circle route as you want. Self-driving the Golden Circle in Iceland allows you to go at your own pace. Stop for photos any time you want, or head off to explore different side roads too. And the best part is you can do all of the above in a single day. It’s ideal for people who are visiting Iceland for just a few days, as I was.