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Driving The Golden Circle: Waterfalls, Geysirs and Hot Springs

There is no more popular activity in Iceland than visiting the Golden Circle. This handful of attractions close to the capital of Reykjavik is a ‘best of’ when it comes natural beauty. Therefore, it’s no surprise that driving the Golden Circle is at the top of every Iceland visitor’s list.

The large numbers of mega buses leaving the capital in the morning are a testament to just how popular this area can be. And there’s a certain convenience to letting someone else do the driving. If that’s your thing, you can find a large number of Golden Circle tours HERE.

But isn’t it more fulfilling to explore independently? If you are two or more people, you can rent a car and drive the Golden Circle on your own…for less money…and have more fun. If you are up for an adventure, we recommend checking prices and renting your car here.

Stream in Thingvellir National Park
Thingvellir National Park

And that’s exactly what we did.

Whether you go on your own or join one of the big bus tours, you’ll visit the same three sites:  Thingvellir National Park, the geothermal fields of Geysir/Strokkur, and the vast waterfall of Gullfoss. In recent years, many of the bus tours have added a very quick stop at Kerid Crater to the list.

In our Golden Circle itinerary below, we’ve gone a bit deeper. We’ve outlined the best activities and attractions. It IS possible to do all of this in one day, but it is a very long day (and generally only possible with the long days in summer). You’ll likely need to prioritize your activities and make the decision on what to skip.

Alafoss Wool Outlet

Located in the suburb of Mosfellsbaer just before reaching the road to Thingvellir, the Alafoss Wool Outlet has been providing wool to the warmth-obsessed Icelanders since 1896. Many of the sweaters in the shop are handmade.

We watched a parade of older Icelandic women enter the shop, each carrying a plastic bag or two filled with wool sweaters. They were coming in and selling their handknit creations to the store. You can hear a store talk about their sweaters being handknit, but seeing the creators coming into the store really brought it to life. If you need a souvenir, this can be a good spot. The store opens at 10:00am, so you can be there right when it opens and still see much of the rest of the route.

Halldór Laxness House/Gljufrasteinn

White Jaguar car in front of home of Halldor Laxness on the Golden Circle
The home and car of Halldor Laxness, now a museum

On the south side of Road 36 (for most people doing the Golden Circle route in a clockwise direction, this is on your right), is the home of Iceland’s most celebrated author, Halldor Laxness. Laxness penned over a dozen books and is considered Iceland’s Hemingway (some of the books are a bit dark).

He received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1955 and his home has been preserved as a museum, complete with his Jaguar car and all. Unless you are passionate about the author or Icelandic literature, it’s not a major stop.

Þingvellir National Park

Pathway through two rock walls in Thingvellir National Park
Thingvellir is located between two tectonic plates

Located along Route 36 is Þingvellir (Thingvellir) National Park. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is both an amazing geological formation and an important part of Icelandic history.

Thingvellir is a rift valley between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates – you can actually walk down into the fissures of the rock as the continents separate by a few centimeters a year. The truly adventurous can snorkel or scuba dive in the Silfra rift between the two continents.

Historically, the Thingvellir is important as it hosted the Parliamentary assembly of Iceland (called the Alþingi) from 930 AD until 1798. For two weeks every summer, the Icelandic assembly met here on the grassy plains in an event that was part festival, part governance meeting, part trial, and part flea market.

Many Icelanders feel a deep connection to this park and it is as popular with locals as it is with tourists.

Fontana Thermal Baths

Group of people watching pots being opened
Digging the pots of rye bread out of the black sand before enjoying it

In the tiny town of Laurgarvatn, you’ll encounter the first hot springs of the day. This area is notable for the geothermal activity that powers and heats the town. They also harnass this energy for cooking. There is a long tradition here of digging holes into the black sand along the shores of Lake Laugarvatn and letting the boiling water do the cooking. You might have seen it on some popular travel TV shows.

Specifically, the locals here have been baking geyser bread in the hot sand for generations. Visitors can participate in this unique “Thermal Bread Experience.” The dense, brown, rye bread is extremely popular with Icelanders who top it with butter and smoked trout from the lake. We found it to be a unique experience and the bread was quite delicious.

Stone hot springs near lake with pier
The lakeside thermal pools at the Fontana Baths

Some of the bus tours will make a stop to see the bread, but few will stay to dip into the thermal waters at Fontana, which really is one of the best hot springs in Iceland. This makes a nice spot for lunch and a soak before heading back out on the Golden Circle.

Geysir Geothermal Area & Strokkur

Bright blue geothermal pool
Geothermal pools dot the area near the geysers

A half hour up the road from Thingvellir National Park is the geyser Geysir. This is the original exploding hot water plum for which all others in the world are named. This entire area is located within the Haukadalur Geothermal Field.

The regular eruptions have stopped at the original Geysir. The cause, depending on who you list to, is tourists who threw rocks into the original Geysir caldron or an earthquake a few generations ago. After another earthquake in 2000, this original geyser has started spurting again, although very irregularly.

Group of people standing near a geyser
Audience waiting for the eruption

However, immediately adjacent is the geyser Strokkur, which erupts roughly every 5-6 minutes and throws steaming hot water over 100 feet into the air. It’s quite impressive.

For people who enjoy photography, this is a great place to practice the craft. We recommend using fast shutter speeds to capture the action!

The Strokkur GPS coordinates: 64°18’46.55″N, 20°18’1.87″W.

Strokkur geyser, mid-eruption, against a dark sky
Strokkur geyser, mid-eruption
Strokkur geyser erupting with people in front
Comparing the people against the water shows the height of the eruption

Gullfoss Waterfall

Gullfoss waterfall and rainbow
Gullfoss, one of the most popular attractions in Iceland, is easily reached from Reykjavik

Just another 10 minutes up the road from Geysir is the impressive waterfall of Gullfoss. Gullfoss is one of the top tourist sites in Iceland – a credit to both its geographic proximity to the capital of Reykjavik as well as its natural beauty.

The Gullfoss falls is a two-step staircase falls in the Hvita River. The upper fall is a cascade that drops about 40 feet and is the impressive view most people see. The lower fall drops another 70-100 feet down into a deep gorge and away from view. The result is a beautiful pair of falls that also throws off a tremendous amount of mist.

The orientation of the falls facing south and the mist that is sprayed upwards can lead to beautiful rainbows much of the time. Bring your cameras…and a raincoat.

Friðheimar Tomato Farm & Restaurant

People eating at tables in greenhouse of tomato plants
Dining under the orange lights of the Fridheimar greenhouse

In Iceland, farms mean either sheep or greenhouses, and Fridheimar is a greenhouse that grows tomatoes and other herbs and vegetables. It is also one of the most unique dining experiences in the world and makes a great late lunch on the Golden Circle. As you dine, you are surrounded by growing tomato plants and the bees that pollinate them.

The menu features everything made from tomatoes. While the tomato soup and bread is the most popular menu item, many of the other dishes are excellent. And don’t overlook the drinks, which includes such novelties as tomato beer.

Note: Reservations are absolutely essentially, so contact them as soon as you have your plans established. They are open for lunch only from 12:00-4:00pm.

Secret Lagoon

People in swimming in hot springs pool in Iceland
Swimmers enjoying a dip in the Secret Lagoon

Just a short detour off Road 35 is The Secret Lagoon (or Gamla Laugin).  This is the oldest hot springs swimming pool in Iceland, dating from around 1891. The Secret Lagoon makes a nice dip after lunch. Or, if you are spending more time on the Golden Circle, can be done in the evening.

The Secret Lagoon is the antithesis of many of the other hot springs spas in Iceland. Here, you get a semi-natural, rectangular hole in the ground filled with wonderfully warm water. It’s less pretentious, less fancy, and less costly, but equally relaxing.

Skálholt Cathedral

Old turf church next to modern white cathedral
Turf church next to the modern cathedral

A short detour off Route 35 is the Skaholt Cathedral. This was the site of the first school in Iceland, founded in 1056. From then until 1785, this was one of the important places in the country and the center of religious life on the island.

If you tire of looking at all the incredible natural beauty, this makes a quick photo stop for a visit. Be sure to get a picture of the turf church next to the main cathedral.

Kerið Crater

Blue lake in a volcano crater
The blue lake in the center of the Kerid Crater

This impressive crater was formed over 6,500 years ago when a magma chamber collapsed during a volcanic eruption. Over time, the crater filled with groundwater forming a beautiful, blue lake. This has sometimes been called Iceland’s Eye of the World.

The Kerid Crater is on private land and is one of the few natural sites that charges a nominal admission. As such, this crater and lake have been used in ways that you wouldn’t find in national park. For example, Kerid has been utilized as one of the most unique concert venues in the world. Artists float into the crater on boats and platforms, while the audience lines the crater sides. It’s said that Bjork gave a concert here.

Tip for visiting: As you come up to the crater from the parking lot, some of the best views are as you walk to the left.

Crater and lake in the snow with purple sunset
The crater and lake are also very beautiful in the winter

To finish the trip, from the Kerid Crater, continuing on Route 35 will lead you back to Route 1 – The Ring Road, and back to Reykjavik.

The Iceland Golden Circle route is probably the single best day trip from Reykjavik, which is probably why it is so popular. But this popularity is for a good reason. If you only have a limited amount of time to leave the capital and see any of the natural wonders in Iceland, this should at the top of your list of attractions to see in Iceland.

A few final thoughts:

Driving the Golden Circle takes between 3 ½ and 4 hours of driving time to cover the ~150 miles, plus time for stops. Some stops can be quite quick (Skaholt Cathedral or even the Kerid Crater), but some can be more involved, particularly if you want to do any hiking in Thingvellir Park. Our recommendation is to get an early start from Reykjavik (no later than 9:30am) to make the most of the day.

Swimmers in the blue waters of the Blue Lagoon
It’s pretty obvious why it’s called the Blue Lagoon

Also, you will see hybrid Blue Lagoon and Golden Circle tours online. No, the Blue Lagoon is not on the Golden Circle. And yes, while it is possible to see both the Golden Circle and Blue Lagoon in one day, it is a very long day and really only possible (or enjoyable) in the summer. These tours are appealing because they unify the two largest attractions in Iceland, but they are both pricey and long, and you don’t get a lot of time in each place.

We don’t recommend these tours, particularly if you need to give up an interesting experience like the Friðheimar Tomato Restaurant or Silfra in Thingvellir. Yes, the Blue Lagoon is a place you should see at least once in your life. If you are curious about Iceland’s most popular attraction, please check our Guide to the Blue Lagoon and also our Visiting the Blue Lagoon FAQ.

Are you planning to go to the Golden Circle in Iceland what are you looking forward to most? If you’ve already been, what was your favorite part?

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Kylie Niesen

Tuesday 13th of June 2017

We really enjoyed reading this. Me and my wife have just booked a trip to Iceland and we can't wait. We're slightly worried about the cost of travelling there, but it looks amazing! Your photos of the blue lagoon look epic!

dorothy

Monday 3rd of March 2014

Thanks for this great information. We're leaving for Iceland in a week and this has given us the courage to do the GC on our own. Can't wait!

Becky

Tuesday 24th of September 2013

Thanks for a helpful post! Great information for my upcoming trip.

Laura @ TravelAddicts

Wednesday 18th of September 2013

Driving the Golden Circle was fairly easy -- more traffic than the rest of Iceland, but that was to be expected. We didn't really drive around in Reykjavik. Have fun on your trip!

MissBlog

Sunday 15th of September 2013

This is such a helpful blog! We are looking at going to Iceland in November and would like to drive the Golden Circle and to the Blue Lagoon.What was it like to drive around the Golden Circle/Reykjavik? Thanks!!

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