What is the Golden Circle?
The Golden Circle is the most popular tourist route in Iceland and driving the Golden Circle will take you to the most unique and greatly different locations that should definitely be on your Iceland bucket list!
There are three main sites of interest on the Golden Circle tourist route:
Thingvellir National Park is one the most historical sites you will find in Iceland, located in the middle of a lava field it is also where the two tectonic plates meet and where you can actually snorkel or dive in between them. It is a place of great natural beauty and important historical events.
Next stop on the Golden Circle is at the incredible Geysir geothermal area, home to the famous Geysir and his active baby brother Strokkur whose fountain bursts into the air every 4-10 minutes. The area is smoke-filled due to geothermal vents, but there are great paths and marked viewing points so it is perfectly safe to explore.
The third stop is the grand finale, nothing like the other stops and truly one of Iceland’s most popular tourist spot. Gullfoss Waterfall, or the Golden Waterfall is an exquisite phenomenon to witness. Dropping two stories down into a glacier-carved gully the meltwater changes color often so the waterfall never completely looks the same. The meltwater runs from the second-largest glacier in Iceland Langjökull Glacier which also feeds the stunning waterfall Hraunfossar in Borgarfjörður.
Thingvellir National Park
GPS coordinates of Golden Circle 64.2558° N, 21.1299° W
The history of Iceland and the Icelandic nation is not as evident in any location as it is at Þingvellir. It is where the parliament Alþingi was founded in the year 930 c.e. and where people gathered to make laws and big decisions all the way through 1798. Many of the nation’s greatest moments have taken place at Þingvellir and for most Icelanders, Þingvellir holds a place in their hearts. Þingvellir is a UNESCO protected heritage site and in Icelandic laws, you can read that Þingvellir’s land will and should always be a mutual property of the Icelandic nation and under the protection of the parliament.
Studies in recent decades have led to the conclusion that Þingvellir National Park is a natural wonder on a global scale and that lake Þingvallavatn and Þingvellir’s ecosystem form a unique whole. Around Lake Þingvallavatn, Icelanders have watched new creatures come to life and active earthquakes have completely reformed the area frequently through centuries.
So why is the Þingvellir area so volcanically active?
This is the very spot where two continental plates, the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates, meet. The rift between them runs right through Thingvellir National Park. You can visit the meeting of the tectonic plates in many different locations at Þingvellir and even go snorkeling or diving in between if you join a tour in Silfra Fissure which was rated one of the top ten activities in the world by TripAdvisor in 2019.
The Þingvellir area is home to a rich history, to the alluring Law Rock and Almannagjá but also a place of great beauty, birch forests and some of the most enchanting waterfalls in Iceland. You can’t and shouldn’t miss it!
Geysir and Strokkur
GPS 64.3104° N, 20.3024° W
Geysers and hot springs are among Iceland’s most remarkable features and with more than 700 such sources, there is no shortage of hot water. The heat which shoots up from the earth’s molten core creates unique formations in a fascinating array of shapes and sizes one of them being the Haukadalur Valley and hot spring area, home to both Geysir and Strokkur geysers.
The most famous Icelandic geyser is the Great Geysir, the king of all geysers, and the word geyser in the English language is taken from this particular geyser. The name Geysir originates from the Icelandic verb að geysa or to gush and is very fitting as the Great Geysir has at some point in time spouted up to about 170 meters (557.743 ft). Today Geysir has gone quiet but when it did it seems as if his baby brother, Strokkur, gained the power Geysir lost and now shots into the sky every four to ten minutes with great applause from the audience present.
GPS POINTS N64° 19′ 38.220″ W20° 7′ 8.135″
Gullfoss or the Golden Falls is usually the last stop people make on the Golden Circle route. It is a stunning and powerful waterfall located in the glacial river Hvítá which originates in Langjökull, Iceland’s second-largest glacier and is a true totem of Iceland as it is one of Iceland’s best-known landmarks. In early 190 the plan was to turn it into a power plant but with the resilient fight of a local farmer’s daughter Sigríður Tómasdóttir the plans ended up not going through. For this, we are eternally thankful as the mesmerizing two-story drop fall entertains and truly takes the breath away from anyone who visits.
About one kilometer above Gullfoss waterfall the Hvítá river makes a sharp turn to the right and then flows down going into an extremely wide curved three-story gorge that then abruptly plunges into a much higher two-story valley that is the home to the actual waterfall. The first drop is 11 meters (36 ft) and the second is 21 meters (69 ft) making the waterfall exceptionally impressive. The average volume of water falling down the waterfall is 140 cubic meters (4,900 cu ft) per second in the summer and 80 cubic meters (2,800 cu ft) per second in the winter. The greatest flood ever to be measured contained was 2,000 cubic meters (71,000 cu ft) per second.
Driving the Golden Circle in Winter vs. Summer
The Golden Circe is easily doable all year round. The distance from Reykjavík to the first stop from is only about 45 minutes meaning you will not be going far into the highlands and that the roads are quite good.
In the summertime, the roads are all clear and you can expect to see young lambs and ponies playing in the farm fields surrounding the stops. The grass is beautifully green and yellow flowers grown all around. Rent a car on a self-drive tour or join a Golden Circle tour. You can combine your Golden Circle tour with another fun activity like River Jet or River Rafting.
In wintertime, you might have a harder time driving on the roads around the Golden Circle as they can get slippery, but the area surrounding the Golden Circle is a true winter wonderland with snow-covered grounds, furry Icelandic horses and the arctic fox scoping around. The overall look is like something out of a Christmas card and you come to see why we named it Ice-land. You can also hop on another tour to explore South Iceland.
The look of the circle is very different depending on the season and many have described it as two very different planets. You simply must experience both!
Where to eat on the Golden Circle?
We will, of course, recommend joining the Golden Circle and Local Food tour, which will take you to all the stops on the standard Golden Circle all whilst keeping you full and satiated with yummy meals and bites. The tour takes you on an epic foodie ride – giving you a taste of some of Iceland’s best dishes! – But if you aren’t looking to join a tour we will still list out our favorite stops for lunch on the Golden Circle.
- Friðheimar Tomato Farm for some tomato soup and an authentic experience
- Efstidalur II for some homemade dairy deliciousness
- Hérðasskólinn Restaurant and Bistro for some old school feel and yummy food
- Laugarvatn Fontana Spa has a lovely restaurant for you to enjoy – fresh and healthy
- The Gullfoss café for some Icelandic lamb meat soup and a warm cup of coffee
- Minilik Ethiopian Restaurant for a step into a whole different culture
- Þrastarlundur for excellent brunch or pizzas
- Restaurant Mika for a great variety of tasty plates
Where to stay along the Golden Circle route?
The Golden Circle, being one of the more popular routes to take in Iceland has plenty of accommodation options for you to enjoy, anything from hotels to hostels to cabins and cottages. Here we will list out the ones with the highest rating:
- Ion Hotel
- Hotel Geysir
- Litli Geysir Hotel
- Hotel Gullfoss
- Mengi Kjarnholt
- Borealis Hotel
- Hotel Úlfljótsvatn
- Hotel Edda Laugarvatn
- Gljásteinn Skálinn Hostel
- Ljósafossskóli Hostel
- Hérðsskóli Boutique Hostel
- Laugarvatn HI Hostel
- Geysir Hestar
- Jaðar – The Old House
- Mengi Kjarnholt
- Efstidalur II
- Secret Seed
- Galleri Laugarvatn
Cabins and Cottages:
- Thingvellir Lake Cottage
- Geysir Cottage
- Geysir Hestar
- Úthlíð Cottages
- Eyjasol Cottages
- Sacred Seed
- Árbakki Farmhouse Lodge
- Vað Holiday Home
- Golden Circle Hot Tub Cabin
Camping in the Golden Circle
Thingvellir offers two camping grounds. One at Leirar which is divided into 4 different ones and the one at Vatnskot. The facilities include toilets, BBQ, showers, washers, and dryers.
- Open from the 1st of June until the 1st of September.
Geysir Camping Ground is within a walking distance from great Geysir. Facilities on-site include showers (500 ISK), WCs, access to electricity, washing machines, WIFI, a golf course, and a playground.
- Open from the 15th of May until the 15th of September.
Skjól Camping Ground is located in between Gullfoss and Geysir. Their facilities include a restaurant, showers, WCs, WIFI, washers, access to electricity, a restaurant, a golf course, and walking paths.
- Open all year round.
Faxi Camping Ground is a quiet and beautiful location next to the waterfall Faxi. The facilities include cooking facilities, electricity, toilets, showers, a swimming pool, a restaurant, and walking paths.
- Open from the 15th of May until the 30th of September.
Úthlíð Camping Ground a campsite very near Geysir. Facilities include cooking stations, toilets, showers, electricity, a golf course, a playground, and a swimming pool.
- Open from May to September but all year round for campers.
Interesting Places near the Golden Circle
Situated in the center of West Iceland, the Golden Circle is within easy reach of some great detours. Take a few hours before or after your tour to explore nearby sites.
- Kerið volcanic crater lake
- Kiðjabergsvöllur Gold Course
- Langjökull Glacier
- Faxi waterfall
- The Secret Lagoon, Iceland’s oldest swimming pool
- Friðheimar Greenhouse
- Drumbó, River Base offering River Rafting and River Jet Tours
- Laugarvatn Fontana Spa
- Efstidalur II farm
- Skálholt Church
- Árgil Waterfall Gully
- Slakki Zoo
- Flúðir Geothermal Village
- Farmers’ Market – Garðyrkjustöðin Engi
- Sólheimar Eco Village
- Úthlíðarlaug Swimming Pool
Frequently Asked Questions about Golden Circle
1. What is included in the Golden Circle?
The Golden Circle includes Gullfoss Waterfall, Geysir geothermal area, and Thingvellir National Park.
2. Why is it called the Golden Circle?
The term Golden Circle was adopted as a term by Iceland tourism some years ago. It includes several sites of interest to tourists on an easy drive from Reykjavik.
3. How long does the Golden Circle tour take?
This will always depend on the weather, if you are looking to do additional activities, and where you are planning to end up (in Reykjavík or at another location). The standard Golden Circle route from Reykjavík and back with a good stop at each location will take about 6 hours.
4. Can you do the Golden Circle in a day?
5. Are there any other Circle tours in Iceland?
Yes, there are! The Silver Circle sends you off exploring Borgarfjörður and includes stops like Deildartunguhver hot spring, Hraunfossar & Barnafoss waterfalls, Krauma Geothermal baths and Reykholt. Another circle is the Diamond Circle situated in the North and includes stops like Lake Mývatn, Dettifoss waterfall, Ásbyrgi, and Húsavík.
6. Is the Blue Lagoon on the Golden Circle?
No, the Blue Lagoon is located in Reykjanes Peninsula, near Keflavik airport and about 45 minutes from Reykjavik. You can easily combine the Blue Lagoon and the Golden Circle on a day tour, though.