Road Trip Down Iceland's Golden Circle Loop
Ask anyone who’s ever been to Iceland by way of Reykjavik, and one of the first things they’ll tell you they did while they were here was hit the road to embark on the Golden Circle loop. And, unlike some tourist traps that are obligatory yet in reality not worth the hype, the Golden Circle is, by all accounts, a can’t miss attraction. Spanning just under 200 miles, the Golden Circle is a driving route in southern Iceland that is packed with every natural wonder you could hope to see all in one convenient, easily accessible package. One of the reasons this loop is so popular is that it begins so close to downtown Reykjavik, with the first stop on the route just a short 45-minute drive away. From geysers, to waterfalls bigger than you ever thought waterfalls could possibly be, to greenhouses as inviting and warm as your grandma’s kitchen while she’s making your favorite meal, it’s truly hard to believe that so many amazing sights could coexist in the same space. While you could easily drive the whole route in 3 hours, don’t. Allow yourself an entire day, at least, to really take in all of the sights, stop for pictures (because you’ll be stopping EVERYWHERE), and enjoy. On my boyfriend’s and my trip through Iceland, we actually spent 1.5 days on the Golden Circle so that we weren’t rushing. My itinerary of the stops that we took can be found–in order–below, along with coordinates and tips. So if you’re planning a trip to Iceland in the near future, rent a car, grab your GPS, arm yourself with some coordinates (trust me. You’ll need them), and hit the road.
Or, if you’re not planning a trip just yet, keep reading anyway, if for nothing else but the pictures.
ÞINGVELLIR NATIONAL PARK — 64.2559° N, 21.1304° W
First up on the Golden Circle Loop is Þingvellier National Park. There are several reasons why this park has been dubbed a UNESCO World Heritage Site, one of which is that the park actually marks the point where two continents meet – the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. If you’re coming from Reykjavik, you will enter the park by way of the literal edge of North America, and as you gaze over the large valley that comprises Þingvellier down below the viewing platform, you’ll see the cliffs of Eurasia on the far opposite side. If you’re adventurous, you can actually scuba dive in Þingvellier’s Silfra fissure–the glacial water found between the two continental plates (I didn’t – if there’s one thing that freaks me out, it’s scuba diving).
In addition to the insane geographic wonder this place has to offer, it also played a significant role in helping to shape Iceland’s history. In fact, take a stroll through Þingvellier and you’ll be walking on the ground where the nation was born. And, Þingvellier (literally “fields of parliament”) played host to Iceland’s parliament–the AlÞing–for over 9 centuries.
LAUGARVATNSHELLIR — 64.2163° N, 20.8836° W
Not one of the main attractions on the Golden Circle but definitely worth a stop if you have the time, Laugarvatnshellir is a small cave off the main route between Þingvellier and Geysir. Some backstory–about 100 years ago, two Icelanders built a home directly into the side of the cave and started a family here. Although the cave’s been uninhabited for decades, the Cultural Heritage Agency of Iceland has recently worked to restore the site to its understated but intriguing greatness. Just so you know, the roads leading up to this “house” are unpaved and difficult to drive. I recommend going for it if you rented a 4x4, but until the roads get fixed, it might be too much of a time suck to maneuver if you have a smaller vehicle. We rented a Duster 4x4, and my boyfriend got a kick out of driving through the dips and puddles (though I didn’t find it quite as amusing from the passenger’s seat...).
GEYSIR — 64.3104° N, 20.3024° W
Easily drawing the biggest crowds on the entire Loop, Geysir is located on a geothermal field about an hour’s drive from Þingvellir. Geysir is famous for its natural geothermal activity, and you can get up close and personal with boiling mud pits, hot springs, and an active geyser, named Strokkur, that shoots water 100 feet straight up into the air every 7 minutes or so. The boiling hot springs and Strokkur (when it’s not exploding) are eerily deep and piercingly blue, and honestly just fascinating to experience. I was in awe the whole time, standing eagerly among other excited travelers waiting for each unannounced water explosion and trying to snap a good photo. To really see just how epic this geyser is, I recommend taking a good DLSR camera with you, speeding up the shutter speed, and shooting rapid-fire during the entire explosion. You might end up getting a shot like the one above (taken by my boyfriend!) in the process.
FRIðHEIMAR — 64.1775° N, 20.4449° W
If you asked me before my trip to Iceland whether one of my favorite parts of the trip was visiting a tomato farm in the middle of nowhere, I’d honestly think you were insane. 1. Of all of Iceland’s natural wonders, visiting a tomato farm wasn’t high up on our initial list of must-do visits, and 2. I kind of hate tomatoes.
But, if there’s one thing you will be while you set out to drive the Golden Circle loop, it’s hungry. We came across Friðheimar when searching for a nearby lunch destination while we were at Geysir. This farm, located in Reykholt, specializes in tomatoes and runs the entire operation inside of a warm, glowing, inviting greenhouse–a sharp contrast from the cold, unpredictable weather just outside its doors. Friðheimar is responsible for producing 18% of the entire country’s tomatoes, and is just one example of how Iceland is using climate-controlled greenhouses to drive sustainable initiatives and grow its own produce.
Realistically, if you’ve just visited the Geysir, you should probably head to Gullfoss (read below) first before making your way south towards Friðheimar and the rest of the loop, as it’s fairly close. However, since we didn’t find out about the farm until 2:45, and it’s only open to visitors each day from 12 - 4 pm, we booked it there in between sights to grab a bite before they closed their doors. If you do make it, you’ll enjoy a menu that (naturally) uses green and red tomatoes as the star ingredients. Go for the bottomless tomato soup and bread (served with delicious Icelandic butter, sour cream, and cucumber salsa), and don’t leave without trying their green tomato bloody mary. As someone who never orders bloody marys, this was probably my favorite cocktail in all of Iceland.
GULLFOSS — 64.3271° N, 20.1199° W
After we were full off of as many bowls of tomato soup as we could possibly eat, we raced against daylight to head back up the loop to check out Gullfoss. Gullfoss is the third and final main attraction on the loop, and it is seriously more massive than I can even begin to describe to you. Upon arriving in the parking lot, it’s a bit unassuming, because you can’t yet see the waterfall from where you’re standing. But a short 5 minutes’ walk up the path and down the stairs changes everything. I was speechless at the enormity of Gullfoss, and this was easily my boyfriend’s favorite stop. Keep walking up the path to get up close and personal with the top of the falls, but be careful–the rocks are slippery and, as is typical of Iceland, there are no real barriers separating you from falling in if you’re not careful. We went on a rainy day, but Gulffoss’ official site provides a crazy beautiful 360-degree panorama if you want to see the falls in sunshine.
MIKA — Skólabraut 4, 801 Reykholt
After Gullfoss, we were in need of a glass of wine and a slice of pizza, and Mika was both highly rated and, more importantly, close by. Known prominently for langoustines and handmade chocolates, we came instead for a giant pizza drizzled with raspberry-chili sauce, and it was pretty good, in addition to being unique. Unfortunately, we forgot to take a picture because it was late and we were exhausted, but it was definitely tasty!
If you have enough time to take 2 days exploring the Golden Circle instead of 1, this is where you need to turn in for the night. After spending a day taking in mesmerizing waterfalls, geysirs, and landscapes, imagine checking in to a transparent bubble hotel in the middle of the forest under the magical Icelandic night sky, complete with warm, cozy beds and ultimate seclusion. That’s what we did, and you can–and should–too (check out my full experience recap of our stay in the Bubble here).
SKÁLHOLT — Skálholti, 801 Selfossi
To start off day 2 of our Golden Circle Loop tour, we made our first stop at Skalholt, a spot that’s equally as important as Þingvellir in terms of helping shape Iceland’s story. Today, you’ll only see a roughly 50 year-old cathedral (the 10th of its kind to stand in the same spot you’d see today) and some buildings, but historic events in Iceland here date back as far as the 11th century.
KERIð — 64.0413° N, 20.8851° W
Our last stop on the Golden Circle brought us to Kerið Crater. If you thought you’d seen more than enough jaw-droppers for one 48-hour period, think again. Kerið is a stunning crater lake situated inside a volcanic caldera (essentially, a large depression in the earth caused by magma evacuating a chamber after volcanic activity or an eruption). Imagine a bright, almost fake-looking sapphire blue lake surrounded on all sides by rare, vibrantly red volcanic rock. You can walk around the perimeter of the crater, but there’s also a staircase that takes you down to the basin if you want a closer look.
And finally, a road trip anywhere in Iceland wouldn’t be complete without stopping to say hi to some Icelandic ponies. Please tell me you agree, because my boyfriend definitely didn’t, and I had to beg him to stop on the side of the road after seeing one too many of these adorable little guys pass us by. Finally, he pulled over, and I ran across the street like a little kid to go see some of these unique species up close. I knew they’d be friendly, but I didn’t know just HOW friendly, as all 8 of them came strolling up to the gate immediately to greet me. It was just bliss, though I’m not sure the boyfriend agreed, as he wouldn’t even get out of the car except to take this photo.
Drive It Yourself