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Why Do a Golden Circle Self Drive Tour?
One of the most popular tours in Iceland is the Golden Circle Tour, which in a single day, can take you from the capital city of Reykjavik to some absolutely mind-blowing natural attractions. My husband and I decided to do our own Golden Circle self drive tour because we hate people. I’m kidding. We don’t hate people. We just hate being trapped on tours with hordes of people. As we were visiting Iceland with kids, the Golden Circle tour self drive option also gave us some extra flexibility to make stops when it suited us.
We chose to rent a car right from Keflavik International Airport (KEF) and planned our own Golden Circle Iceland self drive tour, starting and finishing in Reykjavik where we were staying. 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 day touring Iceland by car along this route, which was one of our favourite experiences on a 5 day Iceland stopover.
Update: While our first time doing the Golden Circle by car was in the summer (July), we have also driven it in the winter (November). Generally, the road conditions on the Golden Circle driving route are good, but we prefer to give ourselves a little leeway in scheduling this adventure (an option of days). Once we are actually in Iceland and have a better idea of how the weather looks, we choose the most favorable weather for the drive.
See also: Our Top Tips for a Reykjavik Car Rental
Golden Circle Drive – Video
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:
My Best Tip for Driving the Golden Circle
Before you get too far into this post (or in case this is as far as you get), I want to share with you my top tip for a Golden Circle tour Iceland self drive adventure. Are you ready? This route is extremely busy and the stops can get very crowded (even in the winter). Almost all of the bus and large group tours drive the Golden Circle route in a clockwise direction. I highly recommend driving the route in a counter-clockwise direction (starting with a dip in the Secret Lagoon and finishing with Thingvellir National Park). This will help you enjoy the experience with a few less people around.
Golden Circle Iceland Driving Map
The Golden Circle self drive route is not particularly complicated. Sights are well marked with, quite frankly, not a lot else to distract you along the way (except beautiful horses). The Golden Circle driving map below will give you an overview of the route.
Golden Circle Self Drive Tour FAQs
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 Thingvellir National Park (the Continental Divide), 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, Friðheimar Tomato Greenhouse (lunch) and Kerid Crater.
Is the Golden Circle Worth it?
While the natural attractions along the Golden Circle route can get quite crowded (even in the winter months), the sights (in my opinion) are still well worth seeing. This is especially true if you only have a few days in Iceland and will be spending most of your time in and around Reykjavik. Just be prepared for the fact that your pace may be reduced to a shuffle on occasion and you may need to get creative if you want photos without other people in them. But really, would you want to miss this?
How Long Does it Take to Drive the Golden Circle?
The direct driving time to do the whole loop non-stop is only about 3.5 – 4 hours hours, but with time to stop, enjoy, eat, soak in a hot pool etc., you can double that. It has taken our family roughly 8 hours in both the summer and winter (with good, clear roads). Most tours will run you 9 hours or more, although some companies offer an express tour that pares it down to about 7 hours.
Top Golden Circle Attractions
Those Gorgeous Icelandic Horses
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.
Thingvellir National Park
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.
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 !
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 !
Secret Lagoon 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
The most popular place to eat on the Golden Circle is Fridheimar Tomato Greenhouse, where you can enjoy delicious tomato based fare (soup, pasta, pizza etc.) and freshly baked bread while seated in their unique greenhouse setting. It’s a little touristy (all the major tour groups seem to stop at this place), yet still enjoyable. Make reservations ahead of time as it can get quite busy.
If you would prefer something a little more low key, the nearby Kaffihus Grund offers up tasty sandwiches and burgers, as well as more traditional Icelandic fare.
All the major sights along the Golden Circle loop have cafes, including Thingvellir National Park, Geysir and Gulfoss (people rave about the lamb stew at Gulfoss Kaffi).
Golden Circle Restaurant Map – I’ve plotted the restaurants out on the following map to give you an idea of where each is located with respect to the Golden Circle attractions.
Tips for Renting a Car in Iceland
Although I have written a whole post on tips for renting a car in Iceland, here are the top things you should know.
1. Car rentals in Iceland are very 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 use caution with these and read reviews carefully.
2. Hertz, Avis, Budget and Europcar all have rental car pickup points at Keflavik International Airport (KEF), while other providers require that you take a short shuttle. While taking a shuttle is not a big issue in summer, waiting for your shuttle in the peak of winter is another story.
3. 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 need 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.
4. 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.
I’ve Changed My Mind – I Want a Tour
There is no shame in bowing out of doing the Golden Circle drive yourself. What I would recommend, however, is a more personalized small group Golden Circle tour. In fact, I am going to go so far as to recommend a company that I have worked with before (for a blue ice cave tour).
Hidden Iceland has excellent guides and offers really fantastic small group tours. The company was founded by several experienced guides who chose to leave jobs working for larger tour companies because they felt that they could offer guests a better experience by starting their own company. Hidden Iceland offers small group personalized tours of the Golden Circle (12 people max) plus a variety of other Iceland tours (including private tours). You can find reviews and information on their Golden Circle tour here.
See also a list of Iceland’s most popular tours and attractions including the Blue Lagoon, whale watching and puffin tours with Get Your Guide.