We decided to self drive the Golden Circle in Iceland because we hate people. I’m kidding. We don’t hate people. We just hate being trapped on tours with hordes of people. So instead, we chose to rent a car and drive Iceland’s Golden Circle route on our own, starting and finishing in Reykjavik. There would be no early morning wake up call to accommodate various hotel pick ups, and no lingering around waiting for people who had not returned to the group on time. It would just be our family of four on the open road. In this post, I’ll share everything we enjoyed on this amazing Iceland day trip, which was one of our favourite experiences on our Iceland stopover.
Feeling impatient and don’t want to read the post? I get it (I can’t even go on a tour) — check out this 2 minute Youtube video instead:
What is the Golden Circle?
Iceland’s Golden Circle is an attraction-filled route that can be taken as a tour (bus, mini-bus, etc.), or self driven in your own vehicle. This is not to be confused (and it often is) with the Iceland Ring Road, which takes you around the whole perimeter of the island of Iceland and is a much longer journey.
What Will You See on the Golden Circle?
Along the way, you will see some of Iceland’s most spectacular geological features including Þingeller National Park (the meeting place of 2 tectonic plates), the Haukadalur Valley geothermal field and geysers, and the gorgeous Gullfoss Waterfall. If you so choose, you can add in a few cool extra stops such as the Secret Lagoon hot pools and Kerid Crater.
How Long Does it Take to Drive the Golden Circle ?
The direct driving time to do the whole loop, is only about 3.5 hours. We left Reykjavik at about 10am and were back around 4pm going at a leisurely pace, stopping for lunch and a swim. Most tours will run you about 9 hours, although some companies offer an express tour, that pares it down to about 7 hours.
The Golden Circle Map
Golden Circle Attractions
1. Icelandic Horses and Other Animals
While not officially a stop, along the Golden Circle route you will see the most gorgeous Icelandic horses that are worth pulling over for. This breed is unique to Iceland and has genetic traits that are perfect for the rough terrain and climate of the country. They even have two additional gaits outside of the traditional walk/trot/canter/gallop adapted to this rugged landscape. As shown below, there are also other animal attractions to enjoy along (and sometimes wandering on) the road.
2. Þingvellir National Park – Thingvellir
This historical natural site was the location of Iceland’s first parliament, the Althing, which may just be the oldest democracy in the world (930AD). This location also has very unique geographical features as it is the meeting place of two tectonic plates. You can actually walk between the plates in the rift valley.
3. The Great Geysir – Haukadalur Valley Geysers
This active geothermal field bubbles away, with the exciting main event being blasts of water spouting from The Great Geysir every few minutes (much to the delight of the crowd). It sometimes spouts as high at 60 meters !
4. Gullfoss Waterfall
When the sun peeped out from behind the clouds as we approached Gullfoss Falls, I thought I had found paradise. Fed by glacial waters, these falls drop into a 70 meter canyon. On a sunny day, you might even see a rainbow like this one !
5. Secret Lagoon – Our Favourite Iceland Geothermal Pool
We visited quite a number of geothermal pools in Iceland but The Secret Lagoon was our favourite. We happened to hit it on a beautiful afternoon, which helped enhance the experience. What we really loved, however, was the fact that right beside the pool you had boiling water just bubbling out of the earth, spilling towards the pool. Coming from safety-conscious North America, this made the adventure much more exciting for our children.
Golden Circle Restaurants
A popular dining spot along the Golden Circle route is Gullfoss Kaffi at Gullfoss Falls (people love their lamb soup). We chose instead to have a late lunch in Fludir at Kaffihus Grund, which had simply excellent food (and is just minutes from the Secret Lagoon).
Rent a Car in Iceland – Tips
This is quite an important topic and I plan on writing a whole post about renting cars in Iceland. In the meantime, however, if you are considering renting a car in Iceland I want you to be aware of a couple of things.
- Car rentals in Iceland are expensive and so is fuel. I mention this so you can avoid the sticker shock that we experienced. There are a few budget car rental places, such as the aptly named SAD cars (using older vehicles), but please read reviews carefully. We were very happy with our car rental from Reykjavik Cars. They receive very decent reviews and are only a short shuttle ride from Keflavík International Airport (KEF).
- Iceland is the one place that you want to buy the extra gravel protection insurance (GP) to cover windshield and body damage. Repairs in Iceland are extremely expensive and chips from gravel on the road are common. A car rental agency employee told me that they typically get about 5 car returns a day that needed to go in for body repairs. As we returned our car, a woman next to me was in tears after being told that she needed to pay $2000 in damages . By some miracle (and it truly was a miracle judging by some of the back roads we accidentally took), our car was fine.
- Names of locations can be a little confusing for tourists, unless you happen to have studied Icelandic in school. If you choose to rent a GPS with your car, ask the rental car agency to program in your destinations. It is not uncommon for tourists to get a little off-track in this country. To understand why, check out this humorous BBC article on a GPS tourist mishap in Iceland.
Where to Stay in Reykjavik
Hotels in Reykjavik are quite pricey, especially in summer months when most tourists choose to visit. Book as early as possible to avoid a very overpriced room. Our trip was booked at the very last minute and during the summer, which was cause for a little stress when I started looking at our hotel options. Thankfully, a well priced vacation rental saved the day. Sites like VRBO and Airbnb have some excellent Reykjavik vacation rentals for much more reasonable prices. Check out this gorgeous 2 bedroom Airbnb apartment we rented. It was in an excellent location, within walking distance of some great restaurants, cafés and shopping. The owners actually have quite a number of luxury apartments in Reykjavik if this one is fully booked (see www.facebook.com/rareapartments.is/)
For more gorgeous places to visit in Iceland see: www.visiticeland.com.
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