Discover the best Golden Circle stops in Iceland and how to tour them
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.
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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.
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Map of the Golden Circle, Iceland
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 below as must-sees.
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 other 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 is an anglicised version of the Icelandic Þingvellir. You will see both words used.
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.
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.
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.
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?”
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.
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.
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 the 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.
Stop to pet an Icelandic horse
No trip to Iceland’s Golden Circle is complete without stopping to pet one of these cuties.
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 flip side is that the Icelandic horse is more susceptible to equine disease than horses elsewhere.
Other Golden Circle Stops
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.
Reykjadalur Hot Springs
Alternatively, why not soak in the Reykjadalur Hot Springs?
It’s a one-hour walk to these natural hot springs, which is scenic but challenging in places. Once you arrive, changing facilities are limited.
Ice cream at the Efstidalur Dairy Farm
Stop for organic homemade 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.
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 makes up for in beauty. It is famous for the brilliant colour that has earned it the label of ‘Iceland’s Bluest Waterfall’.
Brúarfoss is located between Þingvellir National Park and Strokkur Geysir. Park your car at the small Brúarfoss Waterfall official parking lot, which is just off Route 37.
The town of Skálholt is Golden Circle stop for all of you history fangirls and fanboys out there.
From 1056 to 1785 Skálholt was the centre of Christianity in southern Iceland (the other episcopal seat was Hólar in the north of the country). This was also where the first school in the country, Skálholtsskoli, was founded.
Today’s Skálholt has a large evangelical Lutheran church, Skálholt Cathedral, and hosts cultural events in the summer.
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.
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 limited public transport, to tour the Golden Circle you will either have 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 will also be able to 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, essential considering Iceland’s fickle weather.
- Reykjavik: Golden Circle Full Day Tour with Kerid Crater
- From Reykjavik: Golden Circle, Kerid Crater, and Blue Lagoon
- Reykjavik: Golden Circle Tour & Secret Lagoon Early Access
Do you need a 4×4 to drive the Golden Circle?
No. A 4×4 vehicle is not necessary to tour the Golden Circle stops.
Is it safe to drive the Golden Circle in winter?
It is perfectly safe to drive the Golden Circle in winter. This is one of Iceland’s major tourist destinations and roads are cleared of now frequently.
What to bring when touring the Golden Circle stops
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 can 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.
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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 is a high concentration of 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.
>>> CLICK HERE FOR PLACES TO STAY IN HAUKADALUR
Visiting Iceland as a Solo Traveller
For those travelling alone, safety is a concern and more so for solo female travellers. The good news is that the crime rate in Iceland approaches zero. There is little chance you will be robbed, attacked or harassed.
It is a staggeringly beautiful country and small enough to be manageable.
READ THIS NEXT: Iceland Solo Travel: Itinerary, Trip Costs & Essential Tips
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.