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8 Must-See Golden Circle Highlights in Iceland (+ Itinerary)

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From incredible waterfalls and vast landscapes, there’s so much natural beauty within Iceland. And the best bit? Head to the Golden Circle and you’ll find some of the landmarks and attractions that Iceland is most known for – all within a short drive of each other.

Sunset and snow in Iceland's Golden Circle
Admiring the sunset while staying in the Golden Circle

Read on to discover the spectacular Golden Circle highlights you must make time for. We’ll also point out a couple of optional landmarks you could add to your itinerary if you’ve got time. We’ve even created an example Golden Circle itinerary for you.

By following our itinerary, you’ll be treated to different scenery throughout the drive rather than having to double back on yourself. There’s also plenty of opportunities for you to hop out of the car for a spot of hiking.

FYI: As always, this travel guide and itinerary are based on our own travels around Iceland. In other words, everything is tried and tested!

Skip Ahead Links

If you want to skip ahead to certain sections of this blog post, then you can do so via the links below:

How Your Golden Circle Itinerary Could Look

Iceland Golden Circle
Sneakpeek of the little car that got us around the Golden Circle without any issues

Our Golden Circle itinerary will show you six popular Golden Circle stops to add to your driving route plus two optional stops if you’ve got extra time to spare.

Here’s an overview of how it looks:

Stop 1. Thingvellir National Park: Where you can walk through two tectonic plates and see glistening lakes, roaring waterfalls and pretty churches.

Stop 2. (Optional) Laugarvatn Fontana: Where you can swim in geothermal pools and steam baths powered by Iceland’s natural hot springs.

Stop 3. Brúarfoss Waterfall: A stunning bright blue waterfall, which is something of a hidden gem compared to its distant relative: Gullfoss.

Stop 4. Geysir Geothermal Area: Where you’ll find hot springs at every turn and the almighty Strokkur Geysir (aka The Churn), which erupts every few minutes and by over 20 metres each time.

Stop 5. Gullfoss: One of the most famous waterfalls in Iceland and where the Golden Circle gets its name (Gullfoss = “Golden Falls”).

Stop 6. Secret Lagoon: A completely natural hot spring you can bathe in and significantly cheaper than the Blue Lagoon.

Stop 7. (Optional) Skálholt Cathedral: A historic church with picturesque surroundings.

Stop 8. Kerið Crater: Where you’ll find a deep volcanic crater filled with bright blue water.

Golden Circle Map & Driving Route

Here’s a quick look at how the above itinerary looks when plotted into the famous Golden Circle driving route. Please note these directions show what the route looks like if you start and finish in the capital city of Reykjavik.

Golden Circle highlights - driving directions and map
Click on the map to see a more detailed version of it

Driving The Golden Circle: How Long Do You Need?

You can technically drive the Golden Circle in one day, which would take around six to eight hours including time for photographs (plus another couple of hours to get to and from the capital city of Reykjavik).

Another popular option is to embark on a day tour if you’re not doing an Iceland road trip. Just bear in mind you’d get less time at each stop and you may even miss out on seeing some landmarks when doing it this way.

During our trip, we chose to split these attractions up across the whole time we were in Iceland so we weren’t rushing around and could appreciate them fully. We also wanted the opportunity to explore on foot without rushing.

As an example, Thingvellir National Park itself warrants a few hours to explore it on foot and there’s a 2-3 hour hike involved in seeing Brúarfoss Waterfall.

Therefore, if you’re hoping to see all of these Golden Circle highlights in one day then you would probably feel rushed and not be able to see and appreciate all of the beauty on offer.

Iceland Mountains
A snowy mountain as seen from Thingvellir National Park

3 Day Golden Circle Itinerary

We’d recommend seeing these highlights of the Golden Circle over three days as shown in our example itinerary:

Day 1: 

  • Thingvellir National Park Hike (3-4 hours)
  • Laugarvatn Fontana

Day 2:

  • Brúarfoss Hike (2-3 hours)
  • Gullfoss
  • Geysir Geothermal Area
  • Secret Lagoon

Day 3: 

  • Skálholt Cathedral
  • Kerið Crater

6 Must See Golden Circle Stops + 2 Bonus Stops

If you want to know more about each stop on this Golden Circle itinerary then take a look at the detailed info below.

Stop 1. Thingvellir National Park

Church in Thingvellir National Park, Iceland
This photo of a couple walking through Thingvellir National Park is one of my favourite photos from our trip

When driving from Reykjavik, consider starting your Golden Circle itinerary at Thingvellir National Park. Found just under an hour away from Reykjavik, it’s the first attraction you’ll come across.

Thingvellir is a large UNESCO World Heritage Site, which will reward you with walks beside bright blue lakes, hidden waterfalls and a tiny church. It even has multiple viewing platforms to give you the best views of the beautiful landscape.

There’s parking throughout Thingvellir costing 1,000 ISK (Icelandic Krónur) for the entire day. Our recommendation would be to head to the Thingvellir Visitor Centre and park there as it’s not far to walk before you find the viewpoint behind the centre. 

On a clear day, you can see all that the park has to offer and be faced with some of the most picturesque views. Once finished with the viewpoint, follow the wooden walkways to take you on a walk through the great Almannagjá fault and then onto hidden waterfalls. 

You’ll be first faced with one pretty waterfall, but if you can spare the time; walk past this and on for about a mile until you see signs pointing you to the Öxarárfoss Waterfall. 

Öxarárfoss Waterfall in Iceland's Thingvellir National Park
Öxarárfoss Waterfall in the snow

This spot is hidden behind mountainous rocks so you’d never know it was there if not exploring. This is quite a popular waterfall for professional photographers and with the gushing waterfall, flowing river and black rocks, you can certainly see why.

If you have an empty water bottle with you, consider filling it up from one of the mini river flows. Icelanders are very proud of how clean their water is, and when filling your bottle here, you will see for yourself just how unpolluted it really is.

Fresh water taken from a waterfall in Iceland
The water we drank from a pool near the waterfall

Once you’ve discovered the waterfalls, follow the roads around to the other side of the lakes. This will allow you to photograph the quaint church you spotted from the viewpoint above and continue on to see yet more sparkling blue lakes and flowing streams.

READ NEXT: Thingvellir National Park Hikes – Öxarárfoss Waterfall Trail

Stop 2. (Bonus) Laugarvatn Fontana

Golden Circle Stop: Laugarvatn Fontana
Photo Credit: Laugarvatn Fontana (used with permission)

Laugarvatn Fontana is just 40 minutes from the visitor centre at Thingvellir. The reason why we’ve labelled this as a ‘bonus’ Golden Circle stop is that you actually have the chance to soak in geothermal water later on within the Golden Circle as well.

If you’re pressed for time, we’d recommend waiting to soak in the Secret Lagoon. But if you have the recommended three days to spare, then by all means, do take the chance to head to Laugarvatn Fontana.

Here, you can relax in geothermal pools and steam baths powered by Iceland’s natural hot springs and even head to the Finnish-style sauna.

Laugarvatn is usually open until 10pm so you can certainly end your first day in the Golden Circle here – and take your time doing so!

Stop 3. Brúarfoss Waterfall

Brúarfoss Waterfall
The stunning Brúarfoss Waterfall with turquoise water

Brúarfoss is known as “Iceland’s Bluest Waterfall”. No matter the time of year, this waterfall is a stunning shade of bright blue and looks like it’s straight out of a magical storybook.

We recommend starting your second day in the Golden Circle here as you have to hike to see the waterfall, which takes around two or three hours to and from your car. 

You would need enough time to do this hike in daylight and as you can park right next to each of the other attractions on this day, we think it makes sense to start your day with a hike. Ideally, you’ll start early and hopefully see fewer tourists along the way too!

For a full look at what this hike looks like, take a look at this in-depth guide from Earth Trekkers.

Stop 4. Geysir Geothermal Area

Geysir Hot Spring Area, Iceland
Admiring hot springs in the Geysir Geothermal Area up close

It takes around 25 minutes to drive from where you parked your car at Brúarfoss to get to the Geysir Geothermal Area. There’s ample parking just across from the hot spring park itself so no need for any more epic hikes today!

The Geysir Geothermal Area is your chance to see erupting geysers and bubbling hot springs. There are multiple springs here to marvel at as they boil like witches’ cauldrons, but it’s safe to say that Strokkur Geysir (also known as The Churn) really steals the show.

Strokkur Geysir
We snapped this photo just as Strokkur Geysir erupted

At first, you’ll spot a row of tourists and photographers poised with their cameras and mobile phones. They probably look like they’re queuing for something! They’re just getting ready for Strokkur to blow and erupt steam over 20 metres in the air. 

Once you join the throng of people to take your own photos, you’ll see why they were all poised. This geyser offers little to no warning before erupting. The steam spurts high in the air and so fast that you’ll miss it in the blink of an eye if you’re not careful.

Top Tip: Stand to the left-hand side of the geyser and keep an eye on it. It will be here that you’ll spot the bright blue bubble that signals its eruption. On the other side, this is hidden by the sheer amounts of steam the geyser produces so could be easily missed if you’re not prepared or in the know.

Entry and parking for the geysers is free, although small voluntary donations are welcomed.

Stop 5. Gullfoss Waterfall

The stunning Gullfoss Waterfall in winter

Within about 15 minutes of the geysers, you can be at Gullfoss Falls.

They say that Gullfoss is the A-List star and the crown jewel of the Golden Circle. After all, this is how the Golden Circle got its name (Gullfoss = “Golden Falls”). And when visiting, it’s easy to see why Gullfoss is so special.

From every viewpoint available to you here, you’ll probably think or exclaim aloud the word: “Wow!” It’s really quite difficult to put into words just how incredible Gullfoss is but I’ll do my best.

Gullfoss, Iceland
Isn’t this a stunning shade of jade green?

There are a series of waterfalls that combine to produce the sprawling river and large waterfalls that Gullfoss is famous for. All of this is found within the middle of a vast crater, which adds to the spectacular scenery. Gullfoss is at its prettiest in the colder months as the water is a beautiful blue colour rather than murky brown.

We’ve attempted to describe and photograph the incredible views of this waterfall. But it really is something else to see it firsthand. You need to experience that “Wow!” moment for yourself.

Note: Entry to Gullfoss is completely free. You don’t even have to pay for parking!

Stop 6. Secret Lagoon

Secret Lagoon Spa in Iceland
After enjoying a dip in the Secret Lagoon hot spring

Found around 40 minutes south of Gullfoss is the Secret Lagoon. 

This is your second chance within this particular Golden Circle itinerary to bathe in geothermal water. This time it’s in the shape of the Secret Lagoon. This is a natural hot spring and the oldest of all the swimming pools in Iceland.

End your second day in the Golden Circle with a twilight session at the Secret Lagoon and simply bathe, float and relax completely. 

The Secret Lagoon doesn’t have any timed entry, so once you’re inside, you’re welcome to stay for as long or as little as you like (until 8pm in the winter, 10pm in the summer).

Once you’ve finished relaxing, take a wander along the wooden paths and see the surrounding hot springs and even your very own miniature geyser. We think this adds to the special vibe the Secret Lagoon offers.

Around the Secret Lagoon
One of the natural hot springs surrounding the Secret Lagoon
Hot springs near the Secret Lagoon
Another hot spring near the Secret Lagoon

For Iceland hot spring etiquette, take a look at our guide. Some of our Iceland travel tips might surprise you!

Stop 7. (Bonus) Skálholt Cathedral

Skálholt Cathedral, Iceland
Skálholt Cathedral in summer

Alas, it’s time for your third and final day in the Golden Circle. If you don’t have to rush back to Reykjavik or the airport, we’d recommend making a quick pit stop at Skálholt Cathedral.

This is a historic Icelandic church with such picturesque surroundings that we think it warrants a quick photo opportunity if you have the time.

Stop 8. Kerið Crater

Kerid Crater, Iceland
The infamous Kerið Crater

Drive for just 20 minutes from Skálholt Cathedral and you’ll find Kerið Crater, the last stop on this Golden Circle itinerary.

Here, you’ll find a large volcanic crater with bright blue water at the bottom. If you hike to the bottom of it, you’ll find benches dotted along the lake, which are perfect for epic Instagram photos. It costs 450 ISK to see Kerið Crater.

Don’t Miss When Driving The Golden Circle: Icelandic Horses

Icelandic Horses in the Golden Circle, Iceland
Icelandic horses saying hello while it snows

Throughout the Golden Circle, you’ll probably see hundreds of Icelandic horses. 

If you’ve visited England (outside of London), then these beautiful horses are a little like a cross between a Shetland pony and the wild ponies you can find grazing in the New Forest

For those of you who haven’t seen this type of wild horse before, then I expect seeing them in Iceland will be an absolute wonder for you.

Most of the horses seem to be tame and welcome strokes. You’ll spot quite a few cars pulling over to view and pet them. However, it’s still best to take care around these animals and leave them alone should you spot any strange, odd or threatening behaviour. 

That said, in the full five days we were in Iceland, we didn’t see a single horse acting oddly.

Where To Stay In The Golden Circle

Golden Circle Cabin in Iceland
The log cabin we stayed at within the Golden Circle

What could be better than staying in a quaint cabin in the heart of the Golden Circle? 

Although you could move around the Golden Circle throughout the three days and sleep somewhere new each night, there’s also nothing stopping you from picking a central location and driving to and from each attraction or set of attractions.

To help, here are a few options for where to stay in the Golden Circle:

  • Austurey Cottages: Charming 3-star cabins close to the hot springs of Laugarvatn. The cabins are spacious and bright with small kitchenettes and patios for cosy nights in. Check Prices
  • Blue View Cabins: These 3-star cabins are right in the heart of the Golden Circle and are ideal for those of you on a budget. The cabins are simple yet comfortable and cosy – and even come with private hot tubs outside for romantic nights under the Northern Lights. Check Prices
  • Heima Holiday Homes: Modern 3-star cabins, which have tons of room inside and are surprisingly cheap considering the quality of accommodation you’re getting. These cabins are in between Selfoss and Flúðir (where the Secret Lagoon is). Check Prices

FAQs About The Golden Circle in Iceland

If you still have questions about visiting the Golden Circle in Iceland, then hopefully the following FAQs will help you out. If not, please leave us a comment down below and we’ll reply ASAP.

Where is the Golden Circle in Iceland?

The Golden Circle is a driving route west of Iceland’s capital city: Reykjavik. The full route is roughly 190 miles or 300 kilometres long and it encircles three of Iceland’s most popular natural landmarks: Thingvellir National Park, the Geysir Geothermal Area and the Gullfoss Waterfall. If you’re visiting the Golden Circle as a day trip from Reykjavik, then you’ll reach the first stop (Thingvellir National Park) within approximately 28 miles or 45 kilometres. That’s about 50 minutes of non-stop driving.

Golden Circle highlights - driving directions and map
Thingvellir National Park is the first attraction you’ll come across when driving from Reykjavik (see point B on the map)

Why is it called the Golden Circle?

The Golden Circle is named after Gullfoss Waterfall, which is the most famous landmark in this part of Iceland. “Gullfoss” translates as “Golden Falls”, thus, the driving route becomes the “Golden Circle”. Interestingly, Gullfoss is known as being “golden” because the water turns brown in the warmer months. But during the colder months, the water is a stunning shade of blue and green.

This is what Gullfoss looks like in winter

How long is the drive from Reykjavik to the Golden Circle?

Thingvellir National Park is usually the first stop when people drive the Golden Circle route from Reykjavik and it’s where we recommend you start. It’s roughly 28 miles or 45 kilometres west of Reykjavik, which is roughly 50 minutes of non-stop driving.

How long does it take to do the Golden Circle in Iceland?

If you only have one day to see the Golden Circle, then it would take you roughly 4 hours to drive the full route (including the time to get to and from Reykjavik) without any stops. With stops, you should expect to spend 8-10 hours in this part of Iceland. That said, many people (including ourselves) divide the route into sections across several days to fully appreciate each natural landmark. You could easily spend 3-4 hours walking around a part of Thingvellir National Park, for example.

RELATED: Thingvellir National Park Hikes – Öxarárfoss Waterfall Trail

Don’t forget to wander the Öxarárfoss Waterfall Trail to see this beauty!

How many days do you need in Golden Circle Iceland?

To take your time within the Golden Circle, you should aim to spend around 3 days exploring this part of Iceland. Please refer to our itinerary above for some ideas of how best to pace your visit.

Can you do the Golden Circle in one day?

Technically, yes, you can do the Golden Circle in one day. It’s roughly 4 hours of non-stop driving (including the distance to and from Reykjavik). With stops, you’d need to spend at least 8-10 hours exploring. This might be trickier to do during winter when the sun sets as early as 3 or 4 pm. In the summer, the midnight sun (literally) will help you.

Can you drive the Golden Circle yourself?

Absolutely! Lots of people (including us) have driven the Golden Circle ourselves. The route consists of good roads. However, be aware of the rapidly changing weather. We drove through a couple of blizzards during our trip, only to find they cleared within an hour and out came the sunshine. These rapid changes caught us off guard sometimes, but we didn’t have any major issues.

Also, note that in Iceland, they drive on the right. If you’re from the UK, this might take some getting used to. Once you’re out of Reykjavik, you’ll find fewer cars and lots of relatively straight roads compared to the UK. When we visited in March, we saw maybe a handful of cars during the drive. I imagine spring and summer would be busier, though.

Empty roads in Iceland with mountains in the background
Oh, look, a car! This is one of only a handful of cars we saw while driving the Golden Circle route

Do you need a 4×4 to drive the Golden Circle?

No, you don’t need a 4×4 to drive the Golden Circle. Assuming you stick to the main roads, you should find they’re well-maintained and clear from ice and snow in winter. When we hired a car in Iceland, the company gave us a little white car, which was perfect for the two of us. We used it without any issues for a full 5 days in Iceland. We recommend using this reputable local company to find your rental car.

Car hire in Iceland
Here’s Scott posing with the car we used to get around Iceland

How much does it cost to visit the Golden Circle in Iceland?

As the Golden Circle is a driving route surrounding incredible natural landmarks in Iceland, there are few costs involved. You’ll need to pay to park your car at certain points, such as Thingvellir National Park and Kerið Crater. But you shouldn’t be expected to pay any entrance fees (except in the case of paid hot springs like the Secret Lagoon). Gullfoss and the Geysir Geothermal Area are completely free to visit.

Is the Golden Circle in Iceland worth it?

Undoubtedly, the Golden Circle is well worth seeing during your visit. This is one of Iceland’s most popular areas for several reasons. It’s such a special place! Here, you can see incredible waterfalls, witness geothermal activity and go on some amazing walks. If you love nature, then the Golden Circle in Iceland is one of the best places to visit.

Thingvellir National Park in the snow
Wandering through the snow in Iceland’s Thingvellir National Park

Can you skip the Golden Circle in Iceland?

Technically, yes, you can skip the Golden Circle. But for all the reasons mentioned above, we don’t think you’ll want to. If you’re visiting Iceland for the first time, then you’ll definitely want to make time to see everything in this area. You might even want to stay in the Golden Circle like we did!

READ NEXT: Where To Stay In Iceland For First Time Visitors

Read More & Plan Your Trip To Iceland

Our Golden Circle itinerary promises to show you six absolute gems of the Golden Circle in Iceland plus two bonus ones.

To be honest, these attractions should be must-sees on all first time trips to Iceland!

Each of these highlights of the Golden Circle offers something unique, but I think it’s also safe to say that they all offer spectacular scenery and natural beauty.

If you’d like to read more of our Iceland travel blogs, then here are a selection you might want to start with:

We hope you like our Golden Circle itinerary and enjoy visiting each of these spectacular highlights of the Golden Circle in Iceland! Is there anything else you want to know about this part of Iceland? Let us know in the comments and we’ll get back to you ASAP!

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Justine Jenkins

Justine is one half of the married couple behind the Wanderers of the World travel blog. She lives in Bristol, UK and has travelled extensively within Europe and beyond since 2013. After her trips, she shares detailed travel itineraries, helpful travel guides and inspiring blog posts about the places she's been to. When she's not travelling overseas, you'll find her joining her husband, Scott on various day trips, weekend getaways and walks within the UK, which she also writes about on Wanderers of the World. Aside from travelling and writing, she also loves reading, crafting and learning about nature.

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