The Golden Circle is one of the biggest tourist attractions in Iceland. If you’re planning to visit Iceland and you haven’t done the Golden Circle before, then it has to be on your list. We teamed this day trip with lots of time in Reykjavik and a trip to the Blue Lagoon, to fully experience Iceland. Driving the Golden Circle give you full flexibility, so we opted to drive ourselves. This post gives our experience and why we chose to go it alone.
What is the Golden Circle?
The Golden Circle is a circular route made up of three main tourist attractions: Þingvellir National Park, Geysir and Gulfoss waterfall. The route can be completed in a day and there are additional optional stop offs too. The Golden Circle shows off some of Iceland’s natural beauty and has sites of historic value too.
Optional stop offs include Kerid crater, geothermal baths and one that we opted for; Fridheimar tomato farm.This post covers our experience of driving the Golden Circle and visiting four attractions; Þingvellir National Park, Geysir, Gulfoss waterfall and Fridheimar tomato farm. A map of our route, showing these four locations, is further down this post and you can read more about additional stops on GuidetoIceland.is.
To tour or drive the Golden Circle yourself?
There are many tour options available that will take you by coach, mini bus or even private car around the Golden Circle. Having a local expert can prove invaluable, but we opted for driving the Golden Circle ourselves. The main reasons we chose to do this were:
- Flexibility; in doing it ourselves we were able to spend as much time as we wanted at each location and even chose our own itinerary. Tours have a pre-determined itinerary and schedule meaning the focus may not be on the areas you’re most interested in.
- Cost; the tours can be costly and when we added up paying for the tour, airport transfers and Blue Lagoon transfers it worked out better value to hire a 4×4. Hiring a 4×4 gave us the flexibility we wanted and the ability to visit all these sites and travel to/from the airport when we wanted.
It’s worth considering though that the Golden Circle is over 200km, so theres some considerable driving involved. Going on an organised tour will allow you to relax and take it easy a little more. We ended up really enjoying the flexibility of doing it ourselves.
So you’re doing it yourself… but what car to book?
After doing some research, I decided that in winter a 4×4 was preferable to a smaller car. Although the Golden Circle route is all paved road, in winter there can be snow storms and some of the roads have considerable pot holes. Add to this driving on the right side of the road (aka the wrong side for us!), with the gear stick on the opposite side than we’re used to, we wanted to make the driving as easy as possible, so opted for a 4×4.
Although the day we were driving the Golden Circle was fair weather, the following day on our Blue Lagoon trip we had bad weather and having the 4×4 made driving much easier (and safer) than being in a smaller car. I’m planning on uploading a short video of the driving conditions we encountered soon!
If you’re considering car hire, I’ve added a section at the bottom of this post about our hire car experience and the insurances we had in place.
Top Tips for driving the Golden Circle and in Iceland generally
- In Winter be prepared for cold weather – take warm and waterproof clothing, a change of clothes and a flask with a hot drink. We got this onefrom amazon.co.uk, but it doesn’t seem to be available in other countries.
- In Summer, be conscious of the time. The sun can set after midnight and you may be more tired than you realise.
- Get familiar with Iceland’s roads and read up on the signage/rules. There are helpful youtube videos explaining Iceland’s roads, many of which are gravel.
- Be familiar with your GPS and have a plan of where you’re going before you leave. Have a back up map in case of technical problems or no signal.
Golden Circle stop 1 – Þingvellir National Park
Þingvellir National Park is a site of historic and geological significance. Historic because its the site where Iceland’s general assembly met from 930 AD until 1798. Þingvellir literally means ‘Parliament Pins’ and this history makes it the site of the oldest parliament in the world. Its also of geological significance as the Mid-Atlantic rift, where the the Eurasian and North American tectonic plate meet, runs right through the park. Iceland is the only place where the rift goes above sea level and Þingvellir is the best place to see the two plates.
The visitor centre is currently being expanded, but gives a good history of the site via interactive videos and theres also a gift shop. Beware though, you could very easily miss the visitor centre altogether! It sits just a few hundred meters from the main road, but can’t be seen from it and there is no sign on the main road! Thankfully we pulled over in an icy lay-by (pictured above) to assess a map and realised the visitor centre was down the next right turn (just 50m in front of us).
There is a small ISK500 fee to park at the visitor centre, which can be paid by card and lasts all day.
Golden Circle stop 2 – Geysir
The weather was awful – cold with driving rain – but we braved it for well over 20 minutes, only to see a few splutters and the water reaching no higher than 5 meters. With soaked jeans, wet feet (despite wearing waterproof walking boots) and a disappointed face we headed to the nearby shop and cafe centre for some much needed warmth.
This is an ideal place to get some lunch if you don’t have any other plans (we did, keep reading!).
Golden Circle stop 3 – Gulfoss
Stop 3 on our Golden Circle tour was only around 5 miles from Geysir. The Gulfoss falls are a feat of nature and truly breathtaking. The sound and power of the water falling 11 meters and then 21 meters is mesmerising and it isn’t even the biggest waterfall in Iceland! (thats Skógafoss at 60m).
Theres also an interesting history to the falls with local girl Sigriður Tómasdóttir protesting to save them from being dammed in the 1900’s. Nowadays the falls are owned by the Icelandic government and protected from development, preserving their natural wonder for generations to come. After the slight disappointment at Geysir, the falls really bought back the wonder of the magic circle.
By this point, we were at the furthest point from Reykjavik of the Golden Circle and getting pretty hungry! Thankfully I’d come across an interesting place to eat that was our bonus stop on the way back to Reykjavik.
Golden Circle stop 4 – Fridheimar tomato farm
Iceland does not immediately come to mind when you think of a place that has ideal conditions for tomato growing. However, our stop at Friðheimar tomato farm educated me to realise that Iceland has surprisingly good conditions for tomato growing!
The family owned farm grows not only four varieties of tomatoes, but also cucumbers. Visitors can enjoy all thserves them all up to visitors in their in-greenhouse restaurant. Guests are free to wander around the greenhouse to see the tomato plants and also see the bees.
The greenhouse is heated by pumping naturally hot geo-thermal water from a nearby hot spring around pipes that line the walls. When the water enters the greenhouse its around 95 degrees celsius! The plants are fed by Iceland’s naturally pure water. Being a remote island means Iceland is protected from many plant infestations and as such the plants at Friðheimar are grown without the need for pesticides. Add to this natural set up some state of the art technology for temperature control and the growing conditions are ideal!
We enjoyed a late lunch of spinach and ricotta filled ravioli with home made tomato pasta sauce and pesto. Its also a great place to enjoy a Bloody Mary (or a Virgin Mary for the driver!).
Back to Reykjavik
With our last stop on our route complete we drove back to Reykjavik. Driving the Golden Circle had taken the full day. We left Reykjavik around 10.20am (consider that sunrise is around 10am in early February) and returned around 17.30. In total we’d covered 230km. Adding additional stops would of course take longer, so plan accordingly. It would be easy to stretch driving the Golden Circle over a few days if you have the luxury of time.
Heres a map of our Golden Circle route, with each place that we stopped off marked.
For driving the Golden Circle, I booked a Dacia Duster through Blue Car Rentals. These guys included all the insurances available; Collision Damage Waiver (CDW), Super Collision Damage Waiver (SCDW), Gravel Protection (GP) and Theft Protection (TP). Many other companies I looked at (including the large ones) didn’t include some of these as standard. I preferred having the peace of mind knowing we had all the insurances in place. Separately, I booked car hire insurance for less than £15 which gave additional cover to recover any payment we’d need to make in case of an accident.
When we arrived at the office to pick up the car we were upgraded to a Nissan Qashqai. It had heated seats, in-built GPS and a reversing camera. We were really impressed with the car and it served us well on our trip.