A 190-mile (300km) route passing through terrain rich in stunning scenery and historic places, the tour known as the Golden Circle, Iceland is not to be missed. But is it worth taking a guided trip or is it possible to hire a car and drive the full circuit? We evaluate the two options.
Highlights of the Golden Circle
Thanks to its proximity to Reykjavik, the Golden Circle has become one of Iceland’s top attractions, particularly as this one-day route allows a short – but certainly spectacular – introduction to the country’s southwest uplands.
Regardless of whether you’re going it alone or putting your feet up in the back of a tour bus, you’ll stop for photos and moments of speechlessness at the following places:
- Þingvellir National Park
30-miles (49km) north east of the capital lies Þingvellir National Park. “Þingvellir” means “Parliamentary Fields” which makes sense: this is where Iceland’s first parliament met in 930 AD.
It’s also sat between two continents as the meeting point for the American and Eurasian tectonic plates. You can marvel at the Mid-Atlantic Ridge and stand with one foot on each continental plate, something made even rarer by the fact that most tectonic boundaries are found under the ocean.
Visitors also come to scuba dive and fish in Þingvallavatn Lake, home to some of the largest brown trout in the world.
- Geysers in the Haukadalur region
Replete with geothermal activity, the Haukadalur valley is the second stop on Iceland’s Golden Circle tour. Although Geysir, the country’s most famous gesyer has been dormant since 1916, nearby Strokkur has instead stepped up and provides visitors every ten minutes with displays of boiling water squirting up to 100 ft. (30m) in the air.
- Gullfoss Waterfall
A short distance away, Gullfoss Waterfall is a truly splendid sight. Here, the crashing froth of the Hvítá River plunges down in two steps of chaotic, rushing water. What’s more, from the viewing point, you can’t see the second 69 ft. (21m) drop. Instead, the falls seem to be pouring directly into the earth.
- Kerið Crater Lake
Once the location of a cone shaped volcano, Kerið Crater Lake formed when the top of the volcano collapsed on its empty magma chamber. The final stop on the Golden Circle tour, the lake is renowned for the beautiful patches of red rock that line the water’s edges.
Reasons why you should drive the Golden Circle, Iceland
- By hiring a rental car, you will have more time and opportunities for photos as only you decide where – and when – you stop.
- The whole trip takes 6-8 hours with stopping time included, making it ideal for a day-trip from Reykjavik.
- It’s far cheaper to drive. While coach trips from the capital cost around $84 per person, a two-day vehicle rental can be as cheap as $72. It’s also not necessary to rent a 4×4 to drive the Golden Circle, although winter tires or snow chains for poor weather are a good idea.
Reasons why you may prefer to take a guided tour of the Golden Circle, Iceland
- Weather can change from sun to snow in a matter of a few hours, so if you’re not entirely comfortable driving in less than perfect weather conditions, leave the vehicle handling to the experts.
- Unless you’ve read up on your Icelandic history and folklore, there’s plenty more to learn about the region and going with a guide may leave you feeling far more knowledgeable.
- Tours vary between provider and you can choose from coaches or minibusses. Coaches have more room but consider that minibusses transport fewer passengers; this most likely means it’ll take less time for everyone to get on and off the vehicle at each stop, giving you more time to admire each sight.