The Golden Circle basically covers the highlights of Iceland in one neat little day-long road trip. If you’re pressed for time and can only spend a day or two in Iceland, then this is the route for you! You’ll cover waterfalls, geysers, national parks and much more in a very short period driving the Golden Circle.
Firstly, I’d like to give a huge shout-out to Auður at IHeartReykjavik for the inspiration for this Golden Circle road trip. We used her map and suggested stops to get us from Reykjavik to Gulfoss and back, and it was super handy!
Why drive The Golden Circle yourself?
Rather than take a guided coach tour, we opted to rent our own car when in Iceland so that we could do the sights our own way – freedom to explore and choice far outweighed our need to be chauffeured around. Plus, being in our 30’s we didn’t want to be crammed into a coach bus with a bunch of old people. No offense to old people, but overhearing conversations about retirement plans, medication and grandchildren wasn’t on our list of experiences to be had.
It was summer when we went so we did not need to worry about snow on the roads. Although I was a bit nervous about renting a car abroad, I was assured by friends that driving is easy and safe, so long as the weather cooperates. They were right – it was really, really easy to drive there and there’s nearly zero traffic.
Hitting the Road
We set out from Reykjavik after picking up our rental car at around 730am, which included a wifi hotspot (very handy!) to use with our phone maps so we wouldn’t get too lost. We were not far out of the city when we found our first place of interest, cairns stacked just next to the road in varying heights, at the edge of Thingvellir (Þingvellir) National Park.
While some cairns date back to the time of the Vikings, many have been built by tourists and are a nuisance. So, don’t go building cairns during your visit. You’ll just be contributing to a problem. And you don’t want that.
Thingvellir (Þingvellir) National Park
Carrying on again down the road, we arrived at the main attractions at Thingvellir, or, as it translates, “Parliament Plains”. It was here that the oldest parliament in the world was founded around 930 AD. Unfortunately, only the hill remains and there’s not much to see as far as buildings go. Fortunately, it is such a beautiful park, you don’t even need any of that to make it worthwhile to see.
It was here at Thingvellir that the rule of law was born in Iceland, and the early courts were here as well. For more information on the legal and early legislative history of the country, please click here. A little grim, there were pools where executions would take place (drownings) and rocks upon which gallows were built for hangings, which took place around the 1500s when the island nation was under the rule of the Norwegian king.
It is at Thingvellir where you can SCUBA dive between the continental plates (Silfra), but we were not adventurous enough for that (and it was COLD!). However, you can still walk between the plates on pathways, which was good enough for me.
No trip to Iceland could be complete without seeing the famous Geysir – the place where geyser in English gets its name. While Geysir is now dormant (since 1916 – so 100 years), Strokkur, about a 2 minute walk away, is still active and goes off every few minutes. It was definitely worth seeing a few eruptions while we were stopped.
We were careful to keep to the marked paths, as the water was boiling hot. There are warning signs everywhere for a reason! Tourists have died straying from marked paths in the Icelandic parks, as geothermal springs run throughout the country and the earth suddenly break away.
Strokkur was a sight to see! It was not overcrowded with tourists and we were able to see perfectly. I recorded a slow-motion video of it erupting:
The Niagara, Iguazú or Victoria Falls of Iceland (Gulfoss) are huuuuge. There’s a large tourist facility there and there are two parking lots (as far as we realized) – one up top and one closer to the bottom. Be prepared to walk up and down a lot of steps! There is a viewing platform/trail for older folks or folks who can’t make the trek down to the edge of the falls. But it’s so worth braving the many, many stairs and slippery pathway to get up close and personal with the falls.
I have one word for this and it’s “awesome.”
We spent about 40 minutes here, as there’s not much to see other than the falls. Of course, there’s a tourist café with overpriced food and drink, but that’s nothing new. Onward!
Encountering some unpaved (gravel) roads on the way to and from Gulfoss, we were pretty nervous about continuing on, but we powered through (slowly) and made it back to the paved roads without any issue. If I had to do it again, I’d rent an SUV!
In case we didn’t have our fill of waterfalls after seeing the behemoth, Gulfoss, we decided to make a stop at a smaller set of falls, near to our lunch spot, for a quick photo op.
Much quieter (there were about a half dozen other people there), Faxi was a great, relaxing stop compared to the tourist destination of Gulfoss. It was still pretty impressive, as far as waterfalls go. There were tons of flies and gnats everywhere, but it was still a beautiful, serene spot.
After about 15 minutes, we trekked up the short trail to the parking lot and piled back into the rental, in search of good eats somewhere in the Golden Circle.
Our next stop was a late lunch at this amazing greenhouse restaurant, Fridheimar. I’ve already posted about it, so you can read all about it here!
A nearly 3,000-year old crater in the ground now filled with a lake, Kerið was only about $3 US to enter and has a tiny parking lot, so I’m not even sure if you can get here via coach. A little tough to find, as it’s nestled in backroads, it was so worth it.
The hike down was treacherous, but worth the view looking up into the rim. It was also full of flies and gnats, so not entirely comfortable. However, you gotta do it. When in the Golden Circle, right?
It was also here where I fell down the muddy hillside and scraped the crap out of my leg. It was painful, yet also hilarious.
Exhausted, we hiked back up to the rim, took some more photos, and got back into the car, ready for the home stretch on the way back to Reykjavik. We were back in the city in time for our reservation at Dill restaurant, so it wasn’t a super long day, and we’d seen a lot.
We slept well that night, needless to say!
What about you? Would you rent a car in Iceland, or would you rather do a coach tour? Do you think the Golden Circle is overrated, or is it Iceland’s greatest hits? I’d love to hear what you think!