Unmissable Golden Circle Stops, Iceland: Map & Essential Guide

Whether you go for a self-drive option or join a day tour, discover the essential Golden Circle stops (and watch out for those elves!).

Did you know that Iceland is one of the few places in the world where you need to seek permission from resident elves to build a road?

Early in the construction of Iceland’s Route 1, the so-called Golden Circle, the engineers hit a snag. The road went slap-bang through the elves’ habitat.

There was nothing else for it but to call in an elf-whisperer, who persuaded the elves to move. Today, boulders are positioned along The Golden Circle to remind humans to respect elves.

Route 1 is your highway to exploring the natural wonders of Iceland’s Golden Circle. Read on to discover which Golden Circle stops you can’t miss and how to tour them.

an icelandic horse close up in snow covered field

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What is the Golden Circle, Iceland?

Not to be confused with the Ring Road that encircles the entire island, Iceland’s Golden Circle is a 300 km circular route that loops eastward from Reykjavik, connecting points of natural interest.

Due to Its proximity to the capital, you can easily complete the Golden Circle as a day trip from Reykjavik. Therefore, it is a perfect excursion during a short stay or layover in Iceland.

Map of the Golden Circle, Iceland (With Essential Stops)

Map of Golden Circle, Iceland (click on image for interactive map) Map Data @ 2021 Google

To get you started, here’s a map of Iceland’s Golden Circle. If you rent a car to tour Iceland’s Golden Circle, you will need a map to follow. But even if you settle back and let a tour guide and driver do the work for you, it’s helpful to be able to visualise your route. 

On this map, I have included the most popular Golden Circle stops as well as a few that are less-visited. I consider the stops that I have highlighted as must-sees.

  • Thingvellir National Park 
  • Laugarvatn spa
  • Efstidalur Dairy Farm
  • Braurfoss waterfall
  • Haukadalur Geothermal Area (Strokkur Geysir)
  • Gulfoss waterfall
  • Kerid Crater Lake

With the exception of Laugarvatn spa and Kerid crater lake, admission to all of these Golden Circle stops is free!

Let’s begin by learning more about the essential stops before moving on to the remaining attractions of the Golden Circle

Essential Golden Circle Stops

Thingvellir National Park

This UNESCO designated site is an essential Golden Circle stop for two reasons: geological and historical.

Thingvellir National Park is of geological importance because it is located at the boundary of the American and Eurasian continental plates. These plates are constantly pulling apart and this movement has created a massive rift valley.

On average, Iceland is expanding at 2 cm every year. That’s a land grab with a difference!

Also, Iceland is floating on top of a mantel plume, an upwelling of abnormally hot rock within the Earth’s mantel.

These two factors give rise to Iceland’s extraordinary volcanic activity which has shaped its landscape.

rocks in glacial lake with snow topped mountain
Thingvellir National Park

Thingvellir National Park is also the site of the longest functioning parliamentary assembly.

First established in 930, Thingvellir is the beating heart of Iceland.  It is here that all of the major events in Icelandic history have taken place, from the adoption of Christianity in 1000 AD to the country’s declaration of independence in 1944.

For a grisly side of Icelandic history, don’t miss the Drowning Pool. In medieval times, drowning was a popular form of execution and provision was made in Icelandic law in 1281. At Thingvellir, 18 women are said to have been tied up in a sack and thrown into this pool.

The Drowning Pool, Thingvellir

If you have time to spare, stop by the Visitor Centre. There are displays on the area’s geology and history, and a small shop that sells souvenirs and snacks. It is open between 9 am and 5 pm in the summer months.

Hiking within Thingvellir National Park is very easy and is along good, clearly-marked trails. For the more adventurous, you can snorkel or dive between the continental plates at Silfra. Great for bragging rights!

Haukadalur Geothermal Area (& Strokkur Geysir)

Our second Golden Circle stop is Geysir, after which all other geysers have been named. This is a thermal area of bubbling sulphurous pools in the Haukadalur Valley.

people walking through steaming lava field in geysir iceland
Geysir, one the essential Iceland Golden Circle stops

The original Geysir is currently inactive. However, visitors come to gasp in awe at the mighty Strokkur geyser, which reliably shoots plumes of boiling water up to 40 meters in the air every five minutes or so.

Referring to the Strokkur geyser, I heard one visitor ask another “Does someone come to turn it on?”

True story.

Visiting Geysir: Safety Tip

From the parking lot, it’s a 100-metre walk to the Strokkur geyser past a steaming and bubbling lava field. To prevent scalding yourself, make sure that you don’t veer off the marked path.

Gullfoss waterfall

Although I was faced with challenging weather when I visited Gullfoss waterfall – imagine horizontal hailstones whipping across your face like mini shards of glass –  it was no less spectacular for this.

Formed by twin cataracts thundering over a total height of 32 meters into a narrow gravel canyon of the Hvitá river, Gullfoss, is a dramatic sight. It is also known as Golden Falls, from the golden hue that is often cast from its glacial waters.

glacial water rushing through snow and ice covered landscape
Gullfoss waterfall

However, Gullfoss Waterfall came very close to destruction at the beginning of the 20th century when foreign investors tried to rent the waterfall to generate electricity. Although the owner of the land opposed the construction, he accidentally signed away the rights to the waterfall.

His daughter was less than happy at this prospect and took them to court, even threatening to throw herself into the river. Fortunately, she won the legal battle, and the property was sold to the protection of Icelandic Government

Gullfoss offers a number of viewpoints. To get spectacular views of the gorge, walk first down to the lower viewpoint. Then, follow the pathway along the edge of the canyon to the upper viewpoint, getting as close as you dare.

Visiting Gullfoss Waterfall: Safety Tips

  • Watch your step and your camera gear
  • When I visited, the metal steps were slippery from the spray of the waterfall.
  • As water and camera lenses /phones is not a good combination try to protect your gear as much as possible.

Stop to pet an Icelandic horse

No trip to Iceland’s Golden Circle is complete without stopping to pet one of these cuties.

Icelandic horse

Due to its height, the Icelandic horse is often mistaken as a pony. It is known for being sturdy and good-natured and for its unique four-beat gait which promises a smooth ride.

This is the purest horse breed in the world, having lived in Iceland in isolation since the time of settlement. An ancient law dating from 982 decreed that no horses could be imported, a law that has been upheld to this day. However, the flipside is that the Icelandic horse is more susceptible to equine disease that horses elsewhere.

Other Golden Circle Stops

Laugarvatn spa

Do you want to bathe in an hot spring and are looking for a lower key alternative to Iceland’s Blue Lagoon? If so, check out Laugarvatn Fontana spa which is on the Golden Circle route.

It may not be as big and famous as the Blue Lagoon, but at 3,950 ISK per person, it is much more budget-friendly.

Ice cream at the Efstidalur Dairy Farm

Stop for organic home-made ice-cream at Efstidalur. This family-run working farm, a short distance from Thingvellir National Park, sells a variety of products straight from the farm, including the famous ice cream, skyr and feta cheese.

The ice-cream is delicious and you can enjoy it whilst watching the cows through a window between the cafe and the cowshed.

In the summer months, Efstidalur offers horse-riding.

Braurfoss Waterfall

As this Golden Circle stop wasn’t included in the day tour that I took, I missed out on seeing it.

But there’s a very good reason why it wasn’t included on the day trip. Tucked away between Laugarvatn village and Geysir geothermal area, to reach Brúarfoss you need to hike over two miles (one-way) along the Brúará River.  

Although Brúarfoss (‘Bridge Falls’) is a relatively small waterfall in Icelandic terms, what it lacks in size it make up for in beauty. It is famous for the brilliant colour that has earned it the label of ‘Iceland’s Bluest Waterfall’.

Kerid crater lake

This shallow, neon blue lake sitting in a volcanic caldera of rare red rock is a geological oddity. The Kerid caldera is thought to have formed when the magma in the centre of the volcano depleted itself, rather than being carved from a more dramatic explosion.

The Kerid crater lake is located 15 km north of Selfoss, off highway 35.  For an entrance fee of 400 ISK you can walk around the rim and take photographs of this peculiar, but spectacular, lake. 

bright blue lake in a volcanic caldera with red rocks

Planning Your Tour of the Golden Circle Stops

How Long Does it Take to Tour the Golden Circle in Iceland?

You can easily complete the Golden Circle route in one day. With no stops, you could drive the route in three hours or so. But what would be the point of that? You need to allow time to enjoy the places of interest and take photos.

How to see the Golden Circle

As Iceland has a limited public transport infrastructure, to tour the Golden Circle you will either have to to hire a car or book a day trip from Reykjavik.

For maximum flexibility, driving the Golden Circle is your best option, as long as you are comfortable driving in all weather conditions. In addition to visiting the essential stops on this Golden Circle itinerary, you can also take in the more off-the-beaten-path stops such as Kerid Crater Lake or Laugarvatn spa.

However, if like me, you are less comfortable about driving in all-weathers, there is no shortage of Golden Circle organised tours departing Reykjavik. What you lose in flexibility, you gain in comfort and convenience.

Here is my pick of the best from GetYourGuide, my go-to platform for booking excursions. All of these offer free cancellation up to 24 hours before departure, valuable considering Iceland’s fickle weather.

What to bring when visiting the Golden Circle

Iceland’s weather is notoriously unpredictable and changeable. Make sure that you dress appropriately and always pack layers. Around Gullfoss waterfall, it can be particularly windy.

I also suggest bringing waterproof protection for your camera.

Is the Blue Lagoon in the Golden Circle?

The Blue Lagoon is not in the Golden Circle but is close to the airport at Keflavik.

If you are pushed for time, you join a combined Blue Lagoon and the Golden Circle day trip. Alternatively, if you are driving, make an early start and squeeze both into the same day.

What to bring on a trip to the Golden Circle

Iceland’s weather is notoriously unpredictable and changeable. Make sure that you dress appropriately and always pack layers. Around Gullfoss waterfall, it can be particularly windy.

I also suggest bringing waterproof protection for your camera.

Where to stay when touring the Golden Circle

As the Golden Circle is within easy reach of Reykjavik, most people decide to stay here.

If you want to be in the thick of things, then the downtown area of Reykjavik, close to the Laugavegur shopping street, is your best bet. Here you will find most of the museums, restaurants and bars.

However, if you are a light sleeper be aware that there a high concentration of few bars that stay open until late in the weekend. But if you are also burning the midnight oil, this won’t make any difference!


Hotel Frön – I stayed at this decent 3-star hotel on Laugavegur which is perfect if you are visiting Iceland on a budget but are looking for a bit of comfort. A big bonus was the free breakfast. Recommended.

Here are some alternatives that I have found that may suit other budgets:


Canopy by Hilton Reykjavik City Center – In an unbeatable location,  a 2-minute walk from Laugavegur Shopping Street and 500 meters from Harpa Concert & Conference Center, this stylish 4-star hotel features a number a fitness centre and a bar.


Freyja Guesthouse and Suites –  To reduce your Iceland trip costs, take a look at this property, a 3-minute walk from Hallgrímskirkja Church. It has excellent online reviews and is a bargain by Icelandic standards.

But if you would like to stay close to The Golden Circle, Haukadalur would be a good base.

Iceland’s Golden Circle: A Final Piece of Advice

Back to those elves.

At the end of our Golden Circle day trip from Reykjavik, our guide offered us a final piece of elven advice. For all you elf watchers out there – over half of Iceland’s population believe in huldufólk or hidden people – here’s how to identify an elf.

Look carefully to see if there is a groove between his upper lip and nose (philtrum). You can’t see one? Well, if that’s the case, you could be talking to an elf.