The Golden Circle serves up the most popular of Iceland’s many attractions in a driving route within easy access of Reykjavík and the airport at Keflavík. Here’s how to visit the Golden Circle on a day trip from Reykjavík. 

The Golden Circle is a popular driving route in Iceland that easily collects 3 of the country’s biggest landmarks in just a few hours from Reykjavík.

As one of the best things to do in Iceland, the Golden Circle is the perfect introduction to the country; a teaser to what the land of fire and ice can deliver on a longer itinerary in Iceland.

See the impressive Gullfoss in all its glory, spend a few tense minutes waiting for Strokkur to erupt at Geysir, and wander the historic location of Iceland’s first parliament at Þingvellir.

But you can also collect some of the less-known sites on the Golden Circle and soak in some of the country’s best and most natural geothermal pools.

Here’s what to see on the Golden Circle including a route map with all the stops and recommended tours if you don’t have your own car.

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Trip planning Iceland

WHAT IS THE GOLDEN CIRCLE?

The Golden Circle is a 155-mile (250-kilometre) circular drive that begins at Reykjavík and visits the 3 most popular tourist destinations in Iceland

  • Thingvellir – Iceland’s historic parliament set on the Mid-Atlantic ridge;
  • Geysir – A geothermal area containing geysers, one of which erupts every 10-15 minutes;
  • Gullfoss – One of Iceland’s most dramatic waterfalls.

Along the route, there are other interesting stops and many of Iceland’s best geothermal pools.

GOLDEN CIRCLE ROUTE & MAP

The Golden Circle route is marked on the map below. If you were to simply drive the entire 155 miles, it would take 3 hours and 30 minutes. But with so many interesting things to do on the way, exploring the Golden Circle takes all day.  

The route is on good quality, paved roads and driving in Iceland is easy so there is nothing to stop you from completing the route in your hire car. Otherwise, a wide range of different bus tours run from Reykjavík.

How to use this map / Click on the top left of the map to display the list of locations, then click on the locations to display further information. Click on the top right corner of the map to open a larger version in a new tab or the star to save to your Google Maps.  


THINGS TO SEE ON THE GOLDEN CIRCLE

1 – ÞINGVELLIR NATIONAL PARK

The first official stop on the Golden Circle is Þingvellir National Park. The only UNESCO world heritage site on the Iceland mainland, Þingvellir is important both geologically and historically.

The word Þingvellir is an old Norse word meaning assembly (Þing) and field (vollr). It was the site of the Alþing, Iceland’s parliament, from 930 CE to 1798 CE. One of the oldest surviving parliaments in the world, little remains today except for a few remnants of the 50 booths that were built of stone and turf. Nonetheless, it’s an interesting stroll through a historic area.

Set on the mid-Atlantic ridge where the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates meet, Þingvellir is split in two by a rift gorge called Almannagjá. A small waterfall, Öxarárfoss, runs over the rift and a series of walking trails explore from within and above.

There’s a unique diving spot on a fissure between the two plates called Silfra. It’s said to have the clearest water on earth and you’ll need to join a tour to go in.  

FACILITIES AT ÞINGVELLIR

The site has a modern visitors’ centre with a rotating interpretative display and park information. There are toilets, a cafeteria, and a souvenir shop. Þingvellir is free to visit but there is a fee of 750 ISK per day to use the car parks, payable by card on the machines or via checkit.is. There are 3 main car parks at Þingvellir –

  • P1 Hakid is near the visitors’ centre at Hakid
  • P2 Fossplan is near Öxarárfoss and Almannagjá
  • P5 Valhöll is near the site of the old parliament

There is an additional car park, P3 which is small but free and around 35 minutes’ walk away.

Allow about 2 hours to explore the Þingvellir area.

2 – GEYSIR

Geysir, sometimes called The Great Geysir, is a hot spring that intermittently spouts jets of steam and hot water high into the air. Located in the Haukadlur Valley, it is the second official stop on the Golden Circle.

Unfortunately, Great Geysir is very unreliable. In the year 2000 it erupted non-stop for two days to a height of 120 metres. Then, for three years afterwards it erupted up to 8 times a day, but since then it has gone very quiet.

Fortunately, right next door, Strokkur is the most active geyser in Iceland, erupting every 10 to 15 minutes to a height of about 20 metres. Just before it erupts the surface of the pool is a little more volatile and the water drifts back from the edges, giving you time to get your camera ready.

FACILITIES AT GEYSIR

The geysers are a 5-minute walk past steaming vents and bubbling pools from the free parking lot. In the visitor centre you’ll find plenty of facilities including a large souvenir shop, toilets and a very busy self-serve café.  

Allow about 45 minutes to visit.

3 – GULLFOSS

The last of the three official stops on the Golden Circle is Gullfoss. One of the finest waterfalls in Iceland, it plunges 32 metres in two tiers into a tight gorge. At the top, the waterfall is 175 metres wide, but by the time it reaches the narrowest part of the crevice it’s only 20 metres wide.

This compression creates an incredible crashing torrent of water as it makes an abrupt turn into the narrow crevice. The result is a massive waterfall disappearing into a void, leaving behind a magnificent plume of spray.

There are upper and lower viewing platforms at Gullfoss, and you can expect to get wet at both of them.

FACILITIES AT GULLFOSS

There are 2 parking lots at Gullfoss, both of which are free, as well as toilets, a café and a souvenir shop.

Allow about 30 to 45 minutes to explore the area.

WORTHY DETOURS OFF THE OFFICIAL GOLDEN CIRCLE

The 3 official sites on the Golden Circle are some of the most popular attractions in Iceland. But a small diversion off the official route, on our Ring Road itinerary for example, will uncover some more gems in the area.

SKÁLHOLT

A short detour off the Golden Circle will bring you to the tiny village of Skálholt, known for its large modern cathedral. It was an important centre in Iceland from the year 1000 when Christianity was made the official religion of the country.

After centuries of turbulent history, the new cathedral was built in 1963 to signify Skálholt’s contribution to Iceland’s religious story. Inside the cathedral there’s a small modern art collection as well as artefacts from previous churches on the site, and various archaeological finds from the region.

The cathedral makes an interesting landmark amongst the hills that surround the area.

The cathedral in the village of Skalholt on the Golden Circle

KERIÐ CRATER

Although it’s not one of the official stops, Kerið Crater is nonetheless a thoroughly interesting destination on the Golden Circle. Formed by a volcanic explosion 3,000 years ago, Kerið Crater is fascinating for its near perfect shape and vibrant colours.

The rim of the crater is almost perfectly circular, and the slopes are a combination of bright red from iron deposits and lush green from moss and grass. The base contains a vivid lake coloured by minerals seeping in from its slopes.

There is a free parking lot right next to the crater but there’s an entrance fee of 400 ISK to walk around the rim and down to the lake.

Fun fact: Craters are formed by the outward explosion of rocks and other materials from a volcano. Calderas, like the one at Askja, are formed by the inward collapse of a volcano. 

OTHER WATERFALLS ON THE GOLDEN CIRCLE

While Gullfoss is by far the most dramatic waterfall on the Golden Circle, there are three other smaller waterfalls which only require a short detour off the main route –

  • Helgufoss is a 12-metre-high cascade that drops over a mossy cliff. Although only a few minutes’ drive from the main Golden Circle route, you may have this serene location all to yourself.
  • Þorufoss is a single 18-metre-high cascade in the Laxá í Kjós river. It’s 100 feet wide and set in a pretty valley, making it one of the most scenic waterfalls on the Golden Circle after Gullfoss.
  • Faxi Waterfall is right next to the Golden Circle route on the return loop to Reykjavík. While only 7 metres high, the 80-metre-wide falls create an attractive photo opportunity. 

GEOTHERMAL POOLS NEAR THE GOLDEN CIRCLE

There are a range of invigorating geothermal pools in Iceland and many of them are close to the Golden Circle. Each offering a slightly different experience, soaking in a hot pot is a great way to break up your day trip to the Golden Circle or to relax in after a long day exploring.

Here are some of the best geothermal pools near the Golden Circle.  

LAUGARVATN FONTANA

A stylish complex set on the edge of a lake, Laugarvatn Fontana is a geothermal bath and wellness centre with a strong focus on the healing properties of the natural springs.  

There’s a sauna, steam bath, hot tubs, and relaxation pools of varying temperatures. Refresh with a bout of ice therapy by jumping in the lake after your soak. All the facilities you need are onsite including changing rooms, towel hire and a gift shop. The café serves geothermal bread, which is baked underground for 24 hours.  

Laugarvatn Fontana geothermal centre near the Golden Circle

SECRET LAGOON

The Secret Lagoon (also called Gamla Laugin) is a large outdoor pool, naturally heated by the nearby hot spring. The spring flows continuously into the pool, taking 24 hours to complete a full cycle. This leaves the water rich in nutrients and a delightful 38-40°C (100-104°F) year-round.

There are changing rooms, toilets, and a small café that sells a few snacks. Most importantly, you can buy a beer or a wine to take out to the pool for a drink while you soak in the natural surroundings.

Secret Lagoon is located in the town of Flúðir, a 5-mile (8-kilometre) detour from the Golden Circle. It’s one of our favourite things to do in Iceland.

secret lagoon iceland itinerary 1

HRUNALAUG HOT SPRINGS

This natural hot spring, set on private land in the hills above the Secret Lagoon, consists of three tiny pools of different temperatures. One is a watering trough for sheep, the second a larger but shallow circular pool, and the third a rectangular pool.

Only the rectangular pool, at 40°C, is really hot enough and deep enough to comfortably sit in on a cold day. There is room for about ten people, so it can often feel busy. But come here in the early morning or evening and you might just have this natural environment all to yourself.

It’s a 5-minute walk to the geothermal pool from the parking lot. There are no facilities, although there is a turf-covered hut you can use as a changing room. The owner requests 1,000 ISK in cash to use the pool.

REYKJADALUR THERMAL RIVER

High up in the Reykjadalur valley, the hot springs of the Hengill volcanic area have mixed with a babbling book to form a thermal river. This river contains a series of wonderful pools with temperatures ranging from 36°C – 40°C (96°F – 104°F). It’s the perfect spot to soak your limbs.

It is also one of the most scenic geothermal pools in Iceland. Surrounded by mountains and steaming vents, the warm temperatures and wet conditions have allowed wetland plants to thrive. Tiny succulents, reeds and moss-covered rocks create a wave of green amongst the red and black volcanic hills.

It makes a great end to the Golden Circle, but it does involve a 1-hour hike (each way) from the parking lot. All the information is on our Reykjadalur thermal river guide. Allow 2 hours 30 minutes to 3 hours.

GOLDEN CIRCLE TOURS

Driving in Iceland is pretty straightforward so if you have your own rental car, there’s nothing to stop you from doing the Golden Circle at your own pace as part of a Reykjavík itinerary. But if you don’t have a hire car, there are plenty of tours that run from Reykjavík. Here are a few options:

Golden Circle + Kerið Crater

Golden Circle + Kerið Crater & Blue Lagoon

Golden Circle + Kerið Crater & Secret Lagoon

Golden Circle + Langjökull Glacier

Golden Circle + Northern Lights

Langjokull iceland highlands 2

OTHER PLACES TO VISIT NEAR THE GOLDEN CIRCLE

While in the area, here are some other destinations we recommend.

Fagradalsfjall Volcano – See the black steaming lava flows from Iceland’s latest eruptions in 2021 and 2022. It’s just a 1-hour drive from Reykjavík or you can join a tour including the Blue Lagoon.

Landmannalaugar – Dramatic colourful mountains in the highlands with beautiful sightseeing and great hiking. It’s just over 2 hours’ drive in a 4×4 from the Golden Circle, alternatively, join a tour from Reykjavík.

Thórsmörk – A maze of rivers cutting through a black sand valley floor and overlooked by moss-covered mountains and 3 towering glaciers. Highland buses run from Reykjavík, Hella and Hvolsvöllur.

Dyrólaey & Reynisfjara – The waterfalls, beaches and puffins of the South Coast of Iceland are about 1 hour, and a 30-minute drive from the Golden Circle. Head there yourself or join a south coast tour from Reykjavík.

Kerlingarfjöll – A geothermal area tucked in mountains; this remote destination is great for hiking in a unique location. It’s a 90-minute drive from Gullfoss in a 4×4.

Langjökull glacier – A 1-hour drive north of the Golden Circle. Roads lead right to the glacier where you can join a snowmobile tour. You’ll need a 4×4 to navigate the roads or you can join a Golden Circle / Langjökull tour.

HOW TO SEE THE GOLDEN CIRCLE

Our suggested Iceland Itineraries include trips from 3 to 10 days covering all the main locations in the country. Our 3-day and 5-day trips cover the Golden Circle.

Alternatively, try our Ring Road Itinerary which starts with Reykjavík and the Golden Circle.

Fissure at Thingvellir on the Golden Circle Iceland

MORE ICELAND READING

Iceland is an excellent destination for semi-adventurous travellers who like to get off the beaten track and immerse themselves in stunning scenery. Here’s some more reading from us to help plan your journey to the land of fire and ice.

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Complete guide to visiting the Golden Circle in Iceland including the 3 main locations, plus more hidden gems along the way.