So, you have booked your long awaited trip to Iceland! Hurrah! Now you’re pondering whether or not you should hire a car? Then your thinking if you do you hire one, is it worth it? Will you feel confident enough driving Iceland’s Golden Circle on your own?
Well, the answer is a resounding YES! Hiring a car and driving Iceland’s Golden Circle is so easy! As soon as you hit the road you’ll be relieved you aren’t a part of the tour buses shuttling people back and forth and revelling in the freedom of your very own Icelandic adventure!
What is the Golden Circle?
The Golden circle is a tourist route that encapsulates three of the most popular sights to visit in Iceland. These are: Þingvellir National Park, Geysir and Gullfoss Falls.
The name ‘Golden Circle’ is taken from Gullfoss, which means ‘golden waterfall’. Other than that, it’s nothing more than a clever marketing ploy.
A Map for Driving Iceland’s Golden Circle
This is our version of the Golden Circle with a couple of added extras, which were recommended to us by some of the locals.
This route is a 162 mile (260km) round trip and will take a day to complete.
Starting in Reykjavik the route will take you to:
- Þingvellir National Park
- Gullfoss Falls
- Flúðir (Secret Lagoon)
- Kerið Crater
- then back to Reykjavik.
Þingvellir National Park – Driving Iceland’s Golden Circle
History of Þingvellir National Park
In the year 900 the Icelandic parliament (The Althing) was set up to govern those living in Iceland under a united cultural heritage and national identity. It was held for the first time in Þingvellir Valley. This was the place were laws were made, calendars drawn and hearings heard until 1262. After this Iceland joined the Kingdom of Norway and then later the Kingdom of Demark.
Þingvellir Place in Icelandic Culture
Þingvellir was, and continues to be, culturally important to the people of Iceland, helping to create Icelandic language and literature as we know it today.
Celebrations are still held at Þingvellir such as the Millennium of the Althing in 1930; the foundation of the Republic of Iceland in 1944; 1,100th anniversary of the settlement in 1974 and a festival to celebrate the Millennium of Christianity in 1999.
National Park and World Heritage Site
The entirety of the National Park sits on top to of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge – a break between the American and Eurasian tectonic plates. The constant movement of these plates means Iceland experiences regular earthquakes and volcanic activity.
The shift in these plates has created a huge fissure called Silfra. Over thousands of years glacial water has trickled through volcanic lava rock, which works as an amazing filtration system giving Silfra some of the clearest waters in the world. It can take glacial water up to 100 years to trickle through into the fissure! For many the opportunity to snorkel or dive along this stretch of water ranks as number one on their Icelandic bucket list.
Getting Around Þingvellir National Park
You can easily spend a couple of hours wondering around Þingvellir National Park- discovering waterfalls, exploring the history of the area and gazing out at some of the amazing views on offer.
You can also visit a beautiful church and the Prime Ministers summer residence situated in the far corner, which also has it’s own little bit of history to discover.
There is paid parking at Þingvellir, however, you can park up the road away from the car park and it wont cost you anything. It will depend on how busy it is when you arrive.
When driving Iceland’s Golden Circle, it’s always handy to know where the cheaper parking options are.
This is one of the most entertaining stops while driving Iceland’s Golden Circle. The car park is free and so is the Geysir Centre on the same side of the road.
You can spent a fair bit of time simply wondering around the newly built exhibits, enjoying the beautiful architecture and decor, choosing from the many lunch options and perusing the well stocked gift and souvenir shops.
Once your ready to pop over to Haukadalur geothermal area you’ll be pleased to know this is completely free too!
As you enter you’ll follow a path of geothermal hot springs around to Strokkur, the most active geyser. It and errupts every 3/4 minutes and can spew hot water around 30 meters into the air!
Geysir, the original geyser that all other geysers around the world were named after, is mostly dormant now due to seismic activity affecting it over the years.
Gullfoss is an impressive show of power out on the edge of the Golden Circle. On your visit you will learn all about Sigriður and her fight to save the falls from being turned into a hydro electric plant and the rich history it has of being a long standing tourist destination.
You can enjoy a few different perspectives of the waterfalls from various walks around the top, which I think is worth doing, and the walk down to the lower viewing platform is a must.
The car park is free and the visitors centre is another nice place to spend some time in.
Flúðir (Secret Lagoon)
We chose to go to the Secret Lagoon over the Blue Lagoon for a couple of reasons.
Firstly, it’s much cheaper. For us it wasn’t about going to the ‘Blue Lagoon’, it was about experiencing Iceland. Secondly, we chose the Secret Lagoon because it is a natural geothermal area (unlike the Blue Lagoon) and it also has a little bit of history attached to it. Did you know it was made in 1891 and is Iceland’s oldest swimming pool?
The surrounding area is just as it was when it was first made. It is very natural and there is a little Geysir that erupts every 5 minutes or so.
There are swimming noodles to use along the sides, children are welcome and under 14 years old they are completely free of charge with a paying adult. The facilities are good and you can buy drinks to take into the the lagoon with you.
You can also buy a range of snacks such as chocolate bars, crisps and hotdogs relatively inexpensively for when your dried and out the other side.
We were really pleased with our choice to go to the Secret Lagoon and would certainly recommend it.
Kerið Crater is another interesting stop while driving Iceland’s Golden Circle. The volcanic crater is thought to have been made by a collapsed magma chamber 6,000 years ago and part of a line craters called Tjarnarholar.
You can walk right down to the bottom of the crater and walk around the periphery. If the water at the bottom is frozen many people like to take a gamble and walk out into the middle for a good photo opportunity. This isn’t quite my style, but I did enjoy the whole experience very much.
You’ll have to pay around 400ISK to see the crater (around £2.50), but this also includes your parking.
Selfoss – Driving Iceland’s Golden Circle
Selfoss is the biggest town in South Iceland. It is a 15 minute drive from the Kerið Crater and makes a great stop off at this point in the day to grab a bit of dinner. Plus it is on the way back to Reykjavik, if that is where you first came from.
If you don’t fancy this you can bypass Selfoss and keep going west. Rejkavik is just under an hours drive from this point on the Golden Circle.
Hveragerði is the town that lies at the bottom of the Kambar mountain slope – a road you will have driven down 45km from Reykjavik while making your way to Þingvellir National Park.
The mountain gives way to a flat and steaming 5,000 year-old lava field, with Hveragerði plonked right in the middle. As you look across the plains you will see narrow columns of stream rising from the ground all around the town. Hveragerði is best known for the Geothermal Park in the heart of town.
In the summer time the park is open everyday. However, if you want to visit in the winter you may need to ask about opening hours ahead of time. There is also a restaurant close by that uses the geothermal heat in its outdoor kitchen, which is very popular with locals and tourists alike.
From this point it is another 40 minute drive back to the city and your official Golden Circle route is complete!
Top Tips for Driving Iceland’s Golden Circle
- Leave early to get ahead of the tour trips
- Download the relevant maps you might need on to your phone from Google Maps. This means you can use them without data, which cannot be guaranteed around some of the island
- Make sure you have enough water in your washers
- Be confident you have the right insurance on the car depending on what time of the year you go. It’s best to get this sorted before you arrive as it can cost you more to change on the day
- Take some food or snacks with you to enjoy as you go.