There’s no doubt that the best way to explore Iceland is with a rental car.
Iceland car rental means independence. It gives you the freedom to discover off-the-beaten-track delights and linger as long as you want in your favorite spots.
You can access the entire country from the Ring Road, which goes right around the perimeter for 848 miles. However, some of the greatest delights are to found on smaller roads leading off into the interior.
One of these must-drive routes is the Reykjavik’s Golden Circle.
Heading Out on the Golden Circle
To get the full benefit of Iceland’s Golden Circle, set aside at least 8 hours. This will give you just enough time to enjoy all the sights along the way.
Alternatively, if you’re spending some time in the capital, you can spread your trip over two or more days. It’s the ultimate day trip when you’re interested in a break from the unique sights that Reykjavik has to offer.
The entire route is 190 miles long and features most of the country’s major sights.
Whether you’ve got time to spare during your trip to Iceland or want to pack as much as you can into a few days, the Golden Circle is the way to go.
Tips for Exploring the Golden Circle
To make the most of your Golden Circle adventure, make sure you leave with a tank full of gas. You’ll find plenty of places to refuel along the way, but the first one only pops up 2 hours into your trip beyond the National Park.
If you’re traveling on a budget, these gas stations are a great place to pick up an inexpensive and delicious quick meal like Icelandic hot dogs, french fries and ice cream. Although they offer excellent dining, the cafes and restaurants along the way can be a little pricey.
Alternatively, stock up on snacks and drinks before you leave Reykjavik.
Pack your bathing costume to make the most of the incredible bathing spots along the way and take your hiking boots along for exploring the amazing sites you’ll visit. A camera is a must, as is a memory card – you’ll be taking a lot of photos.
A hooded rain jacket is a good idea during the summer months. If you’re on the road during fall and spring, bring warm clothing to guard against Iceland’s unpredictable weather.
When you take a hire car on your trip along this popular road, you can choose from two routes.
The longer, scenic route heads out on Highway 1 and Highway 435 among beautiful mountains. The shorter more direct route goes straight for the main sites along Highway 1 and Highway 36.
Whichever route you choose, these are the places you have to see during your road trip, in no particular order.
1. Thingvellir National Park
This UNESCO World Heritage Site is usually the first stop for anyone heading out on the Golden Circle.
This is where the North American and European tectonic plates meet. It’s the only place worldwide where you see the edges of the continents above sea level.
The sheer cliff face you see upon entering the park is the corner of North America, while the edge of Eurasia is a few kilometers away on the far side of the park. For novelty’s sake, you can even scuba dive or snorkel in this intercontinental no-man’s-land.
The Oxarafoss waterfall is one of the main attractions in the park. It’s also the site where several of the scenes from Game of Thrones came to life. You won’t find any White Walkers hanging around here, but you will clear waters for dipping in and stunning views over the valley you traversed to get there.
You can admire the lava fields, which have been overgrown with lush fields of grass and flowers since the last volcanic eruption over 2,000 years ago. You’ll also get to see Iceland’s largest lake on a visit to the park.
Despite is glorious natural abundance, Thingvellir was once the center of Icelandic cultural history and the site of the country’s first parliament.
Expect to spend between 45 minutes and 2 hours exploring these lovely surroundings and brushing up on Icelandic history.
2. Laugarvatn and Fontana Geothermal Baths
This picturesque village is about 47 miles from Reykjavik and is a hotspot of geothermal activity. It’s also the site of one of the country’s best-known spas at Fontana.
At this relaxing destination, you’ll find three steam rooms powered by natural hot springs, shallow pools for kids to dip in, and a gorgeous lake where hot currents of water rise up from the earth to warm your toes.
Don’t leave here without trying the traditional homemade rye bread, baked for 24 hours in the hot sand. It’s the ultimate after-spa treat when slathered with fresh butter.
3. Geysir Geothermal Field
The Geysir Geothermal Field is one of the top stops along the Golden Circle. Here you’ll see the magnificent Strokkur geyser in action, spurting hot steam and water 50 feet into the air every ten minutes.
The 10,000-year-old Great Geysir is a little sluggish nowadays, barely stirring unless an earthquake shakes it into action for a few months afterward.
There is an abundance of steaming, bubbling hot pools to admire here too and a stop off at the onsite restaurant is in order for soup lovers. Their tomato soup has rave reviews all over the internet.
If you’re in a rush, you could spend just 20 minutes here to get the full effect of Strokkur in action. Otherwise enjoy exploring this interesting area, you could even spot some fossils along the way.
Take a hike to the Konungasteinar stones to see the carved initials of ancient kings and beautiful panoramas over your surroundings. Be sure to pick up a map before you set off, it’s filled with interesting information about the area.
4. Gullfoss Waterfall
Just ten minutes along from Geysir, you’ll come across this stunning stepped waterfall along the Hlvita River, tumbling down two drops before plunging onward towards the sea.
You can spend hours admiring the resulting spray and rainbows or the dramatic falls, valleys, and rolling fields all the way to the Lanjokull ice sheet. Try to view the falls from both viewpoints if you have time. At one point, it seems as if the water plunges directly into the earth and disappears out of sight.
The sights are so amazing that a local farmer, Sigridur Tomasdóttir, once threatened to jump off the falls if the plans to harness it for hydroelectric power ever came to fruition. The lawyer she hired to help defend this landmark later became Iceland’s first president.
Adventure seekers can take a thrilling raft ride down the Hlvita river and through the ancient valley. This rafting trip offers a mix of everything from exciting rapids to tranquil moments drifting in the wilderness. You can even take the plunge off the surrounding cliffs into the glacial waters below.
5. The Ecovillage of Sólheimar
You’ll find out why Sólheimar’s considered rated one of the best ecovillages in the world when you visit this interesting stop. It’s close to Thingvellir and the Geysir Geothermal Area.
Here, you can browse among quaint workshops featuring art and a host of organic pursuits like baked goods and other eats as well as horticulture and forestry displays. Stock up on some of these unique items at the local grocery store before you leave.
You can also stop off at the Friðheimar Tomato and Horse Farm nearby where you can try some of Iceland’s famous tomato soup right there among the growing plants, tour the greenhouses, and stock up on artisan preserves.
Book in advance if you want to see their magnificent locally-bred Icelandic horses going at full tolt in thrilling displays of horsemanship.
6. Kerið Crater
This perfectly oval 6,500-year-old crater with its aquamarine waters is well worth viewing along the road your next stop. The sides are awash with attractive fiery red, orange, black, and green striped rocks.
If you’re lucky, you could even catch a concert while you’re in the area, the wonderful acoustics make this a popular destination for musical events. Kerid Crater is also one of the best places to view the Northern Lights during your trip to Iceland.
7. Secret Lagoon in Fluðir
If you fancy a dip in the 100-degree natural springs that Iceland is famous for, take the ten minute trip off the main road to Fludir.
Here you’ll come across the country’s oldest swimming pool, set up in 1891. It’s the perfect way to unwind and refuel yourself for the next leg of your trip. If you’re feeling a little peckish after your swim, you can head to the nearby restaurant on the hill for hearty portions of food made from fresh local ingredients.
Thanks to its wonderful warm water, the popular floating tours and attractive hikes around the pool, this area isn’t much of a secret anymore, so it’s wise to book in advance if you want to stop off for a dip here.
8. Reykjadalur Thermal River
If you’d prefer a more secluded swim and you’re up for a hike, the Reykjadulur Thermal River does the trick.
The bathing area is about 2 miles from the entrance and accessed via a path through the lush hillsides dotted with steaming ponds and mud pools. You’ll find a place to change and a restaurant on arrival.
It’s the ultimate place to relax with a view of some of Iceland’s most iconic landscapes. Alternatively, if you just want to admire the view, you can book a horse trail through the hills.
9. Langjökull Glacier
Snowmobiling on Lanjokull Glacier is a top attraction along the Golden Circle route. This is Iceland’s second-largest glacier, spanning 361 square miles.
You’ll need a 4×4 to access this exciting activity, so plan ahead if you want to join in the fun.
The ride up to your starting point is an adventure in itself. Don’t miss this one if you’re into big adventure and exhilarating thrills.
You can also explore the 500-yard long manmade ice tunnel under the glacier. There are 5 separate rooms branching off from the tunnel and even a chapel for weddings.
This small town was Iceland’s first settlement and has been around since 1200. It’s the site of the country’s first school and home to a historic church that’s well worth admiring on your way past.
Alternatively, you can stop in for an amble around the basement for more information about the history of this interesting town.
Nearby, in Laugaras, the Slakki Petting Zoo is a treat for children and adults alike with its population of foxes, bunnies, goats and more. You can also browse among the organic farm stalls in this village where you’ll find unique products from the surrounding farms.
11. Þjórsárdalur Valley
This is one of the reasons you need a rental car for your Iceland trip. This lovely fairytale destination is a few hour’s drive off the usual Golden Circle route and surely one of the country’s least appreciated hidden gems.
Þjórsárdalur Valley abounds with lovely waterfalls like Haifoss, Granni, Hjalparfoss, and Thofafoss. You’ll also find spectacular lava formations, caves and basalt columns.
Although it’s close to the highlands of Iceland, the valley is lush and green and a wonderful destination for nature lovers and those who love to explore on foot.
Start Planning Your Journey Here
You’ll find no shortage of amazing road trips, exhilarating activities, and stunning scenery in Iceland. Keep reading our blog for more inspiration on things to do in Iceland and find out why so many tourists have traveled here in recent years.
The first step in planning your trip around the Golden Circle, or anywhere in Iceland, is arranging the best car rental Iceland has to offer.
We have a great selection of vehicles to suit your budget and travel interests. Get in touch and we’ll arrange it all for you.