5 Essential Golden Circle Stops: An EPIC Iceland Golden Circle itinerary

Your Golden Circle itinerary could take as little as half a day or as long as 10+ hours, depending on which route you take.

The Golden Circle is easily the most popular day trip in Iceland. And with good reason — the scenery is spectacular. You get a taste for everything the country has to offer, from volcanic landscapes to incredible waterfalls. And all the major Golden Circle stops are within 90 minutes of Reykjavik, making it a great option for an Iceland driving tour. In this post, I’ll walk you through how to plan the perfect one day Golden Circle itinerary for your trip to Iceland!

 

Note: This post contains affiliate links. If you decide to purchase through these links, I receive a percentage of the sale at no additional cost to you, which helps me keep this site up and running. 

 

How long do you need to cover the main Golden Circle stops?

 

Your Golden Circle itinerary could take as little as half a day or as long as 10+ hours, depending on which route you take.
Thingvellir National Park is one of the main Golden Circle stops.

 

One of the reasons the Golden Circle route is so popular is the short distances between sights. In a pinch, you could cover all five of the Golden Circle stops in this guide in about 6 hours. You’d have to rush and you wouldn’t have much time to walk around, though.

 

Ideally, you need about eight hours for a full Golden Circle tour. This would give you time to stop for a leisurely lunch, walk around to the best photo spots, and not feel rushed.

 

Of course, if you have your own wheels and you’re interested in some of the lesser-visited Golden Circle attractions, you could make a full day of it. Just remember that if you visit Iceland in winter, it’ll be dark by the time you get back.

 

Stop #1: Geysir Geothermal Area and Strokkur Geysir

 

Geysir Geothermal Area is the first of the Golden Circle stops in this itinerary.
The first stop on the Golden Circle Route in Iceland is to see the geysers erupt.

 

Setting out from Reykjavik, your Golden Circle tour starts with a drive through a geothermal area. Notice the mountains and steam vents all around. The volcanic energy is intense — it heats water below the Earth’s surface to temperatures so high that it must be cooled before use in people’s homes in the city.

 

If the skies are clear, you’ll soon get a view of Eyjafjallajökull — the volcano that erupted in 2010, spewing enough ash into the atmosphere that flights to and from Europe were grounded for days.

 

After about an hour and a half, you’ll come to the first of the top Golden Circle stops — the Geysir Geothermal Area. This is an extremely volatile area dotted with hot springs. Perhaps the most spectacular is the Great Geysir — the geyser that gave all other geysers around the world their names. It can send boiling-hot water 70+ meters into the air when it erupts. Unfortunately, it’s been inactive since the early 2000’s.

 

But don’t worry — you can still see a geyser eruption here. The nearby Strokkur Geysir erupts every 5-10 minutes, hurling water 15-20 meters into the air.

 

Seeing Strokkur Geysir erupt is one of the top things to do in Iceland and essential on any Golden Circle itinerary. But the eruptions only last for a split second. Be sure to have your camera ready — if you miss it, you’ll have to wait 5-10 minutes for the next one. Some eruptions are much smaller, so allow yourself at least 30 minutes to ensure you see a big one.

 

Practicalities for visiting the Geysir Geothermal Area

 

The Geysir Geothermal Area is clearly marked from the road. It’s on Route 35.

 

At the entrance, you’ll find a cafe, several restaurants serving fast food and sit-down meals, and a gift shop. The food is pricey and didn’t look very good. Pack a picnic instead — you can still eat it inside to escape the cold and wind. Clean restrooms are in the gift shop area.

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Be very careful when walking around the Geysir Geothermal Area. To reach Strokkur Geysir, you must walk from the parking lot for about 100 meters. Stay on the marked path — all of the surrounding water trickling around is extremely hot and can scald you if you touch it.

 

Stop #2: Gullfoss Waterfall

 

If you only have time for one Golden Circle waterfall on your Iceland self drive tours, make it Gullfoss.
Gullfoss is the most impressive Golden Circle waterfall.

 

The highlight of any Golden Circle itinerary and the most spectacular Golden Circle waterfall, Gullfoss should not be missed on a trip to Iceland. The waterfall drops over a hundred cubic meters of water per minute down two cascades, totaling 32 meters, into a canyon.

 

Gullfoss Waterfall was almost destroyed at the beginning of the 20th century. Foreign investors wanted to harness the river’s power to build a hydroelectric dam. The owner of the land opposed the construction, but accidentally gave up the rights to the waterfall. His daughter vehemently fought to get them back — including threatening to throw herself into the falls. Thankfully, she won the legal battle. The waterfall was saved, and her lawyer went on to become the first president of Iceland.

 

You can see Gullfoss from a variety of viewpoints. Of all the Golden Circle stops, this is the one worth spending the most time at. Start by walking down the steps to the lower viewpoint, which offers spectacular views of the gorge. Then, climb back up and follow the path to the upper viewpoint. This is the best place to get a sense of scale — you can clearly see both drops from here. Allow 45 minutes to visit both viewpoints, walk around the area, and take photos.

 

Practicalities for visiting Gullfoss Waterfall

 

Gullfoss Waterfall is about 20 minutes past the Geysir Geothermal Area, along Route 35. It’s clearly marked from the main road. The total travel time from Reykjavik to Gullfoss would be about two hours.

 

Gullfoss has several parking areas. Choose whichever one has more space. Tour buses often crowd the lower parking lot.

 

Be very careful when walking down the metal steps at Gullfoss. They are slippery from the spray of the waterfall, and in winter, they can be icy too. Additionally, protect your camera and phone from the spray — you will get soaked, especially at the lower viewpoint. The wettest section is actually just below the stairs, so walk another 20 meters before pulling out your camera.

 

Gullfoss also has a cafe, gift shop, and plenty of clean bathrooms. You have to pay to use the bathrooms outside, but the ones inside the gift shop are free.

 

Stop #3: See Icelandic horses and stop for ice cream at the Efsti Dalur dairy farm

 

All Iceland self guided tours must include a stop to meet Icelandic horses.
When driving the Golden Circle, be sure to stop to meet some Icelandic horses.

 

Icelandic horses are the country’s most adorable symbol. Small as they are, they’re extremely strong and able to do the hard work of keeping the country’s farms running. They have been purely bred for centuries — regulations on allowing them to leave the island are extremely strict.

 

All of that is to say, you can’t miss the chance to meet Icelandic horses as one of your Golden Circle stops. And one of the best places to do it is at the Efsti Dalur dairy farm.

 

As a bonus, the dairy farm produces delicious, fresh ice cream. Be sure to try some while you visit the animals — they always have a variety of flavors.

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Practicalities for visiting the Efsti Dalur dairy farm

 

The farm is clearly marked, about a half-hour drive down Route 37 from Geysir.

 

Allow thirty minutes to get your ice cream and meet the animals. The farm also has a full restaurant (pricey but popular), and clean restrooms.

 

During the summer, you can also book a horseback riding trip at the Efsti Dalur dairy farm.

 

Stop #4: Þingvellir National Park

 

Any Golden Circle Iceland trip must include Þingvellir National Park.
A highlight of the Golden Circle route is Þingvellir National Park.

 

The next stop on this Golden Circle itinerary is Þingvellir National Park (also spelled Thingvellir National Park) — one of southern Iceland’s most spectacular national landscapes, with huge historical significance as well. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

 

Þingvellir National Park is the only place on Earth where you can cross between continental plates on land. As you drive in from the dairy farm, you’ll notice huge stone “walls” lining the sides of the road — these are actually the edges of the tectonic plates. For part of this drive you’ll actually be in the no-man’s-land between the two continents.

 

Icelanders have long known Þingvellir was special. In the 10th century AD, the country established its very first Parliament — today, the oldest one in the world — in what is now Þingvellir National Park. Representatives traveled from all over the country to meet annually. It was the center of trade, connection, and governance for hundreds of years before the capital shifted to Reykjavik.

 

Today, the main reason to add Þingvellir National Park to your Golden Circle stops is because of its natural beauty. You can hike or ride horses around the park to experience this. The best hikes start from parking lot P2, right at the base of the North American tectonic plate. Walk to your right to see a beautiful waterfall. Or go to your left to see a lake, a church, and the best viewpoint in the park at P1.

 

You can also go snorkeling or diving between the continental plates at Silfra. This is its own half-day trip from Reykjavik.

 

Practicalities for visiting Þingvellir National Park

 

Access to Þingvellir National Park is off of Route 36. Be very careful here — the road is extremely narrow, quite dark in winter, and far too many tourists stop in the middle of it to take photos. The park has several parking areas (each with a small fee) — P1 is the most convenient.

 

The Visitor’s Center has displays on the area’s geology and history. But more importantly, it has a small convenience-store-type shop that sells affordable souvenirs, snacks and surprisingly decent coffee. Clean restrooms and a water fountain are in this building too. The other parking lots lack restrooms or facilities.

 

The hiking in Þingvellir National Park is very easy. At most, you’ll encounter a minor incline on the short walk up to P1 from P2. Trails are clearly marked, wide, and mostly paved or gravel.

 

Stop #5: Kerið Crater Lake

 

The Kerið Crater Lake is a bit further off the Golden Circle map, so there are fewer tourists.
The Kerið Crater Lake is a great addition to any Iceland driving tour.

 

As the least visited of the main Golden Circle stops, the Kerið Crater Lake offers a nice respite from the crowds. The impossibly blue lake goes 55 meters deep into the crater of a volcano. The rock all around it is fiery red. You’ll surely understand Iceland’s nickname as “the Land of Fire and Ice” after you visit.

 

You can walk around the top of the lake and down to the base. The views from the top are the best, but it’s worth getting both perspectives. You’ll need about an hour for this.

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Practicalities for visiting the Kerið Crater Lake

 

The Kerið Crater Lake is the only stop on this Golden Circle itinerary that charges an admission fee. This is because it’s on privately owned land — the fee helps the owners with conservation costs. You’ll have to pay 400 ISK to access it, but it’s worth the cost.

 

The crater is clearly marked along Route 35. It’s a 45-minute drive from Þingvellir National Park.

 

As it’s on private land, the Kerið Crater Lake has only a parking lot — no restroom facilities or cafes.

 

Back to Reykjavik – or to the Blue Lagoon

 

Any Golden Circle tour in Iceland can be easily extended to include the Blue Lagoon.
You can easily tack on the Blue Lagoon to your Iceland driving tour.

 

By now, you’ve been on the road driving the Golden Circle for quite awhile — you’re probably ready to head back to Reykjavik. In winter, it may already be dark. The route back is a straight shot down Route 1.

 

But if you still have some energy left, you can easily tack one more stop on to this Golden Circle Itinerary. You can stop at the Blue Lagoon for a few hours of relaxation and pampering. It’s on the way back into the city, near the international airport.

 

The Blue Lagoon is open well into the evening and has cafe facilities on-site if you’re getting hungry. Be sure to book your ticket in advance. Read my guide to the Blue Lagoon for more information.

 

If you have more time in Iceland, you could also extend this to a multi-day trip along the Ring Road to the South Coast.

 

Self-drive the Golden Circle route or do a Golden Circle tour?

 

Gullfoss Waterfall is one of the things to see on the Golden Circle in Iceland.
Doing a self drive Golden Circle tour is better for flexibility, but expensive if you’re traveling alone.

 

As the most popular day trip in Iceland, you can easily find a tour to cover all the Golden Circle stops in this post. But what if you want more independence? What about the crowds? And how expensive is it?

 

Overall, if you are comfortable driving in all weather conditions, I highly recommend driving the Golden Circle yourself. You’ll be able to time your stops to avoid the tour bus crowds. You can add additional, more off-the-beaten-path stops as you like — including the Secret Lagoon, or extending your trip to see the Northern Lights. And you can spend as long at each place as you like. If you have two or more people in your group, renting a car is also probably cheaper than taking a tour.

 

But if you’re not comfortable driving in Iceland, Golden Circle tours are a totally acceptable option. I did a bus tour and it was much better than I expected. Sure, the sights are crowded, but Iceland is a touristy country and that’s not entirely avoidable no matter what. I’m not super comfortable driving, especially not in winter weather. And as a solo traveler, I was able to find a tour for just over $50 — far cheaper than a rental car for one person.

 

If you decide to go with a tour, this is the best option to cover all the Golden Circle stops listed in this post. You can find shorter tours that cut out stops as well.

 

However you decide to do it, a Golden Circle road trip is an essential part of visiting Iceland. It packs everything the country has to offer into one easy day. Don’t miss it!

 

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A Golden Circle tour is one of the most popular day trips in Iceland. See Gullfoss Waterfall, Thingvellir National Park, Geysir and more with this Golden Circle itinerary. You can do a self-drive Iceland road trip or take a bus tour -- it's all amazing! #iceland #goldencircle #travel

 

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April
3 years ago

Driving in Iceland is super easy and I loved having the flexibility to stay as long or as short as I wanted to in each place. Gullfoss was far and away the most impressive stop on the Golden Circle. Just amazing. Great post. It has me missing Iceland.

LE Travels
3 years ago

This was fantastic! I am hoping to go to Iceland in the next year so I’ll definitely be saving this for future travels. Thanks for sharing!

Colson
Colson
3 years ago

We missed the dairy farm during our trip! In fact, I didn’t even know about it until now! I’m so bummed!

Yana from Beard and Curly

Oh wow. I would love to visit all these places. Iceland is such a beautiful country. Thanks for the tips!

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[…] If you only have a short stopover in Iceland, you may be wondering how to pack the most into your trip. Competing with the south coast for jaw-dropping landscapes and waterfalls is the ever-popular Golden Circle. […]

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