Gulfoss

Golden Circle Iceland Self Drive – Everything You Need To Know

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Wondering About Doing A Self Drive Of The Iceland Golden Circle?

More and more, Iceland is becoming one of the most sought after destinations in the world to visit.  Many airlines crossing from Europe to North America (and vice versa) offer a stopover in Iceland.  A good way to make use of that stopover is to do a one-day Golden Circle Iceland Self Drive.

Planning A Self Drive Of The Iceland Golden Circle

You can check the availability of rental cars for Iceland with this reliable car rental company.

What Is The Iceland Golden Circle?

The Golden Circle Iceland Self Drive (sometimes called the Golden Circle Tour) is a scenic route that typically starts and ends in Reykjavik and is between 230 kms (144 mi) and 300 kms (188 mi) round trip, depending on how many stops you make.

Map of the Golden Circle

A typical Golden Circle Iceland Itinerary consists of the following: (Note: The letters on the map correspond to the sites listed below)

  • Start in Reykjavik
  • A – Thingviller National Park – 55 kms (34 mi) from Reykjavik
  • B – Haukadalur Geysir Geothermal Area – 60 kms (37 mi) from Thingviller
  • C – Gulfoss – 10 kms (6 mi) from Haukadalur Geothermal Area
  • D – Kerid Crater – 56 kms (35 mi) from Gulfoss
  • E – End in Reykjavik – 68 kms (42 mi) from Kerid Crater

We would consider these the main Golden Circle Iceland Stops and this represents the itinerary that we followed on our trip to Iceland.  Let’s take a closer look at these spectacular attractions in the Southeast of Iceland.

The Golden Circle Iceland Self Drive Tour: What We Did

Reykjavik

The Golden Circle Iceland Self Drive Route typically starts and ends in Reykjavik, Iceland’s capital and most well-known city

Reykjavik is about a 1-hour drive along the coast from the Keflavik International Airport.  If you are planning to do your self drive beginning at the airport, then you will need to factor in 1 hour each way from the airport to Reykjavik.

We rented a car from the airport when we landed in Iceland, then drove to our hotel in downtown Reykjavik to start our self drive at the beginning of the next day.  This allowed us to do all the things that we wanted to do along the Golden Circle route in one day without needing to rush.

The church in Reykjavik

Starting in Reykjavik is a great way to get acclimatized to the culture of Iceland.  The city just happens to be the northernmost capital in the whole world!  And despite its relatively small population of just over 300,000 people, it is surprisingly teeming with things to do.

For ideas of what you can do in Reykjavik read our blog post that gives you some suggestions.

Just walking around the harbour in the downtown area gives you a sense of what a culturally rich city Reykjavik really is.  There are countless cafes and restaurants along the harbourfront.  Small shops featuring local crafts, clothing, food, and art are scattered along the downtown streets. 

The waterfront in Reykjavik

Make sure you try one of the local seafood shops for some of the best-tasting fish in the world. 

Downtown Reykjavik

After landing in Iceland, we spent the evening just walking around the downtown streets.  We thought we would get a good night’s sleep and leave for our Self Drive around the Golden Circle bright and early the next morning.

Thingviller National Park

If you start in Reykjavik and follow the Golden Circle in a clockwise rotation, then the first major site you will come to is Thingviller National Park.  This park was given UNESCO World Heritage status in 2004 due to its global cultural significance and value.   There is a park fee of 1500 ISK per person.

Thingviller is on a fissure that runs through Iceland and forms the boundaries of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, the meeting place for two continental tectonic plates: North America and Eurasia. 

A great spot to witness the geological phenomenon of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge is at Silfra, the rift that lies in Lake Thingvallavatne which is located in the park. 

This is where we made our stop inside Thingviller National Park.  It is about an hour from downtown Reykjavik to Silfa and the easiest place to park is in Parking Lot #5 of the park.  You can actually put that in your GPS and it will take you directly here.

There is a small charge for the parking lots located through the park, but it is quite reasonable.  We paid 750 ISK.  From the parking lot, it is a short walk to the boardwalk that overlooks the Silfra Rift which opens onto the Lake. 

The surrounding area is a craggy moonlike landscape formed from lava rock.  A rise of cliffs beyond the rift is worth noting since it was used in the filming of the Game of Thrones.  The cliffs were the backdrop for the great Ice Wall that was used to defend against the White Walkers. 

Thingviller National Park

Bonus Activity at Silfra

If you can spare the time (and we think you should), opt for the Silfa Snorkeling Excursion while you are here.  This will add about 90 minutes to your day but is well worth it. 

This excursion gives you an opportunity to snorkel in the bone-chilling glacial crevice that is such an important part of Icelandic nature.  While it sounds frightening, it is a great experience.  And, while the water temperature is roughly 3°C (37°F) all year round, you are provided with a dry suit over top of a very warm under suit, as well as a waterproof hood and mitts. 

The only part of your body that is exposed is your lips and they go numb after about 30 seconds of being in the water.  Once you are in the water, a gentle current pushes you slowly along through the rift.

Read our blog about our experience snorkeling in Silfra!

The glacial water in Silfa is crystal clear and drinkable!  You can see the tectonic plates on either side of you and the crevice bottom beneath you.  At one point, we were able to reach out with both arms, touching the North Atlantic and Eurasian continental shelves at the same time.  Now that’s a Bucket List highlight!

Snorkeling in Silfra

The guides on this excursion are terrific, explaining every part of the snorkel before you begin.  They supply you with everything you need for the tour and even help you on and off with your dry suits and snorkeling gear. 

Between taking in the great views of the landscape at Thingviller National Park and our snorkeling adventure we spent about 2 ½ hours here.  Without the snorkeling it would have been around 1 hour, but, as I said earlier, we thought the snorkeling was worth it.

Because we had pre-booked the snorkeling tour (10:00am start), we had timed our arrival at Silfa for 9:30am, which meant we left our hotel in Reykjavik at 8:30am.  After finishing the snorkeling and spending some time just admiring the scenery, we left for our next stop just after 12:00pm.

Haukadalur Geysir Geothermal Area

The drive from Thingviller National Park to the Haukadalur Geysir Geothermal Area is 60 kms (37 mi) and took us just under an hour.  With a slight detour due to GPS problems, we arrived at the geothermal area around 1:30pm.

Haukadalur Geysir Geothermal Area is the site of many hot springs, fumaroles, mud pots, and geysirs (the word comes from the name of the famous Geysir located here).  The other major geysir that is located here (and is still very active) is Strokkur.

Strokkur signage

There is no admission to the Haukadalur Geysir Geothermal Park, and the 2 main geysirs, Geysir and Strokkur, are easily accessible by foot, not far from the main road and parking lot. 

While the Great Geysir was the most famous geysir in Iceland, it has been dormant since 2005.  It is still worth visiting as there are bubbling pools, hot springs, and volcanic landscapes all around the site.

The most visited geysir in Iceland is Strokkur.  It is located just 100 metres (328 feet) from the Great Geysir.  Strokkur erupts every 8 to 12 minutes and provides a spectacular show, spewing hot water and steam 30 metres (100 feet) into the air. 

Strokkur geysir

The area around Strokkur is also worth a walkabout as there are numerous hot springs, bubbling pools and a rocky, barren landscape that feels almost moonlike.

thermal pools

We picked up some deli sandwiches to eat on our drive to our next stop from the café.  While the sandwiches were good, they were a bit pricey for our liking. 

Insider Tip

Try the Bonus supermarkets in the various villages to pick up tasty, but reasonably priced lunch options.  This worked out well as there are plenty of places in Iceland to stop for a picnic and take in the scenery.

We spent a total of about 90 minutes at Haukadalur Geysir Geothermal Site before moving on to Gulfoss.

Gulfoss

From Haukadalur to Gulfoss is a short 10 km (6 mi) which takes about 10 minutes. 

Gulfoss, translated to English as “Golden Falls”, is considered the most popular (and spectacular) waterfalls in Iceland

While you may see it being referred to as Gulfoss Falls or Gulfoss waterfalls, it is just Gulfoss.  Why? Because the “foss” in the name means “falls”.  All the waterfalls in Iceland end in “foss” for that very reason.  Saying Gulfoss Falls would be like saying Niagara Falls Falls.

Gulfoss is situated on the Hvítá River and its waters tumble into the magnificent Gullfossgjúfur Canyon.  The canyon walls rise on either side of Gulfoss.  There is a path that follows along the side of the canyon with 2 viewing platforms overlooking each of the 2 stages of Gulfoss. 

Gulfoss

The walk along the path is relatively easy with plenty of places to stop and take pictures of the magnificent cascading waters below.

We spent about 30 minutes at Gulfoss, but didn’t go all the way to the end of the trail. If you want to go to both levels, you may need to allow 90 minutes.

Our picture in front of Gulfoss

There is also a café at the visitor’s centre at Gulfoss. 

Kerid Crater

Leaving Gulfoss we drove the 56 kms (35 mi) to Kerid Crater in about 45 minutes.  This is an easy and scenic drive through the beautiful glacier-carved valleys of Southeast Iceland.  If you pay attention, you may even spot some local Icelandic horses along the way. 

Icelandic horses

Bonus Activity – Secret Lagoon

If you have time and want an extra activity with a relaxing, rejuvenating break, stop at Secret Lagoon and take a dip in its geothermal waters. 

Secret Lagoon is about halfway between Gulfoss and Kerid Crater, about 30 kms (19 mi) from each.  While not as well known as Blue Lagoon on the South coast of Iceland, Secret Lagoon has the advantage of being much less expensive.  It is also just a geothermal pool and does not have silica like other Icelandic lagoons and spas.

We opted not to go to Secret Lagoon since we had other activities on our agenda and had plans to visit other geothermal spas on our Icelandic trip.

Once you get to Kerid you will need to pay a small admission fee.  We paid 450 ISK per person – a small price to pay for one of the most visually stunning landmarks in Iceland.

The large bowl-shaped caldera is lined with an unusual red-coloured rock that stands out amongst the green shrubbery and grey rocks clinging to its sides.  Those colours are reflected in the vibrant blue water in the basin below.

Kerid crater

There are paths around the rim of the crater as well as one encircling the lake at the bottom, so you have plenty of options to enjoy the beauty and serenity of this volcanic gem.

So, now that you’ve finished touring around Kerid Crater you have pretty much finished your Golden Circle Iceland Self Drive.  You just need to decide what you are going to do next.

If you are heading back to Reykjavik, you have about a 1-hour drive to cover the 68 kms (42 mi) from Kerid to Iceland’s capital city. 

We didn’t go back to Reykjavik after our day on the Golden Circle Tour.  Instead, we headed along the south coast to continue our trip along Iceland’s other great Self Drive – the Ring Road.

If you want to continue on further down the south coast or if you want to head back towards the airport here are some additional bonus place to visit:

The Blue Lagoon

The Blue Lagoon is Iceland’s most well-known natural geothermal spa.  It is located along Iceland’s Southeast coast about 23 kms (14 mi) from the airport.  If you are driving from the Kerid Crater it is 104 kms (65 mi) and will take about 1 ½ hours.  It is also just 25 minutes from the airport.

Map from Kerid Crater to the Blue Lagoon

The Blue Lagoon is fed by geothermal seawater emanating from thousands of feet below the earth’s crust.  This heated seawater contains silica, algae and other minerals that give Blue Lagoon its healing properties and unique pale blue colour.

The Blue Lagoon

There are a variety of packages that can be purchased for the Blue Lagoon depending on how long you want to spend in the Lagoon.  There are also several restaurants if you want to enjoy a meal here as well as 2 hotels on the property.

If seeing the Golden Circle and Blue Lagoon are high on your list check out this tour that will give you the best of both worlds.

Seljalandsfoss

Seljalandsfoss is another great waterfall easily accessible from the Ring Road along the south coast of Iceland.  It is about 85 kms (53 mi) from Kerid Crater and takes about 1 hour and 10 minutes to drive from there. 

Map from Kerid to Seljalandfoss

This was our favourite waterfall in Iceland.  The water from the falls originates from the glacier in Iceland’s interior and has a drop of 60 metres (200 feet). 

Seljalandsfoss

What is really unique about this waterfall is that you can actually follow a path that takes to behind the falls!  We were able to stand at the back of the Seljalandsfoss and look through the rushing curtain of water to the incredible landscape beyond.

Skogafoss

Just a half-hour past Seljalandsfoss is another magnificent Icelandic waterfall – Skogafoss.  This waterfall is visible from the Ring Road, but you will want to drive up to the parking area and get a close look.  But maybe not too close as you will get drenched!

Skogafoss has the same drop as Seljalandsfoss but is one of Iceland’s most powerful and widest waterfalls at 25 metres (82 feet).  The river below the falls is a well-loved fishing spot for locals as it has a large salmon and char population.

Skogafoss

Because of the strength of the waterfall and the amount of spray that it generates, there is almost always a rainbow hanging over the falls (well, at least when the sun is shining).

FAQs

Maps and Apps for the Golden Circle Iceland Self Drive

For the most part, we were using Google Maps to navigate our way around the Golden Circle.  We used an app called Road Trip Planner while we were getting ready for the trip, but in the end, we found that Google Maps worked just as well. 

We did run into a couple of glitches (one or two) with getting routed along a service road or private drive in some of the remote locations, but we sorted through those.

Can You Drive the Golden Circle Yourself?

Since we were visiting in the summer we decided to do the drive ourselves.  And we would highly recommend it.  The roads are quite good, and you can comfortably complete the drive in a day. 

Roads in Iceland

We drove the Golden Circle and did the extension from Kerid to Skogafoss in one full day (12 hours), overnighting in Hvolsvollur (only a few minutes from Skogafoss) and felt we saw everything we wanted to see.

There are also plenty of Golden Circle Tours available, and that may work out for you as well.  We were continuing on to do the Ring Road Self Drive, so we opted not to do a tour. 

Here is a well-rated tour of the Golden Circle Tour if you want to leave the driving to someone else.

We felt that by driving ourselves, we were able to spend just the right amount of time at each of the sites without feeling rushed.  If there were spots where we wanted to stay longer than we initially planned, then we were able to do that.

And, if there were a couple of places that we hadn’t planned on stopping but were of sufficient interest we were able to pull over for a few minutes without any issues.

Renting a Car in Iceland

There are both international and local car rental agencies in Iceland.  We opted to book ours months in advance (highly recommended), and booked through one of the major international companies. 

There are lots of options for rental cars from compact vehicles to full-size SUVs and Camper Vans.  There were 3 of us travelling, so we wanted the luxury of some extra room.  Plus, we were driving for a total of 8 days (we did the Ring Road drive as well) taking us around the whole of Iceland.

Looking for a rental car? Look at this reputable car rental company to check availability for a car in Iceland.

We opted for an all-wheel drive medium-sized SUV and we were happy that we did.  If you are just doing the Golden Circle, then you could do that easily in a medium-sized car (keep in mind that you will be in the car for the better part of the day). 

We have comprehensive and liability insurance for our personal vehicles in Canada, along with very good rental car coverage on our travel credit cards so we declined the rental car insurance policy.  That is a personal decision based on your personal needs and previous rental experience. 

Insider Tip

We were made aware that Iceland has very high and unpredictable winds and that one of the frequent insurance claims is for car doors that get blown off their hinges or otherwise made inoperable because of the high winds.

We were very careful when we got in and out of the car to make sure we held onto the door handles tightly and opened the doors slowly.

When Is The Best Time to Visit The Golden Circle?

The Golden Circle is open all year round and the experience that you have will be different depending on when you go.  We went in the middle of August.  This worked out for us because the weather was quite mild, and the days were much longer than in winter. Additionally the roads were good which may not be the case in the winter.

As an example, when we finished our day driving the Golden Circle and adding the Silfa Snorkeling tour along with our extended drive to Skogafoss and dinner, we arrived at our hotel in Vik at 8:00pm.  There was still quite a bit of light in the sky, and we felt we hadn’t missed out on anything.

If we tried to do that same drive in the winter, we wouldn’t have been able to do the Silfa Snorkeling without having to take an extra day.

However, while you may not get to spend as much time on the Golden Circle if you go there in the winter, you may just luck out and get an opportunity to see the Northern Lights at some point on your trip to Iceland.

✅ If visiting in the winter we recommend taking a tour that shows you the Golden Circle and the Northern Lights. This small group tour is an excellent option!

Where to Stay On The Golden Circle

Here is the thing about Iceland.  Reykjavik is the largest city with a population of 300,000 which accounts for 60% of the country’s population.  That means once you leave Reykjavik, you are not going to see a lot of built-up areas or large towns.  Also, the middle of the country is a large glacier with few roads and not a lot of people.

If you are planning on doing the Golden Circle in a day, then we suggest staying in Reykjavik.  There are lots of hotel options and you will have plenty to do in the evening after you get back. 

We stayed at Berjaya Reykjavik Marina Hotel, which was very conveniently located in the downtown waterfront area.  It was also close to lots of restaurants and cafes within easy walking distance.

Berjaya Reykjavik Marina Hotel lobby

If you do decide to stay on the Golden Circle, here are a couple that put you where the action is:

Hôtel Gulfoss – A family-run property and has been in business for over 30 years. Their spacious room reservations also include breakfast.

Hôtel Geysir – A new hotel that opened in 2019 offers stylish rooms and an onsite restaurant for dinner. Breakfast is also included.

Both are located at the northern end of the Golden Circle which puts you right about at the halfway point of the drive.

Where To Eat On The Golden Circle

We would highly suggest that you pick something up in Reykjavik and bring it with you.  Like with hotels, the food options are far more abundant and varied in Reykjavik than you will find on the Golden Circle Drive itself. 

But, if you do find that you are getting hungry, there are cafés/restaurants with limited offerings at some of the major sites.  You can also go to the hotels listed above for a heartier meal then you will get at a café.

Here is our recommendation of where to eat in Reykjavik

Restaurant Hofnin – This is an authentic Icelandic Restaurant that serves a variety of local food.  It is located on the waterfront.

Hofnin restaurant

Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur – located downtown, this hot dog shack has been operating since 1937.  We really enjoyed the hot dogs!

Hot dogs in Iceland

Fish and Chip Shack – this place has no name!  It is a portable trailer that is set up on the harbourfront in the afternoon (near the Berjaya Reykjavik Marina Hotel).  We had some of the best English-style fish that we have ever tasted here!

fish and chips in Reykjavik

Is the Golden Circle in Iceland Worth It?

Most definitely! The Golden Circle is a great way to spend a day in Iceland and get a feel for what this amazing country has to offer.  By visiting the Golden Circle you will be in one of the world’s great geological masterpieces.  What’s more, you will get a glimpse of the best that Iceland has to offer.

Should I Do A Self Drive in Iceland

This is a very personal choice.  If you are confident in your driving abilities, you have a valid driver’s license and feel comfortable driving for long stretches on some decent roads then you should be ok.  That may not apply in the winter when weather conditions are unpredictable, so you need to use common sense.

How Far Is The Drive To The Golden Circle From Reykjavik?

Well, if you are going to the first major site on the Golden Circle, Thingviller National Park, then the drive is 55 kms (34 mi) which will take you an hour. 

If you continue on to Gulfoss, the most outward point on the Golden Circle, that’s another 60 kms (37 mi) so add another hour for that.

You can do the round trip from Reykjavik in about 4 hours, but honestly, you wouldn’t be stopping to enjoy the sites.  We recommend planning from 6 to 10 hours if you want to relax and enjoy some of the most beautiful scenery that you will ever come across.

The Final Word…Would We Come Back And Do The Golden Circle Iceland Self Drive Again?

In a heartbeat!  We have talked about this a few times.  There is just something extra special about Iceland – the clean air, the unending natural beauty, and some of the best waterfalls that you will ever see. 

And all of that is available to you on a trip around the Golden Circle.  That is why, even though we’ve been here before, Iceland is back on our Bucket List!

Our selfie in Iceland