The Golden Circle in Iceland: ultimate guide to visiting

Langjökull, Iceland's second largest glacier

The Golden Circle is a popular but beautifully scenic route in Iceland through some of the most famous natural landmarks in the country – and it’s my personal favourite region to explore in Iceland.

It comprises three of Iceland’s most well known attractions: Thingvellir National Park, Geysir geothermal area and Gullfoss Waterfall.

If you’re planning a trip to Iceland, I have no doubt that the Golden Circle should be top of your list. My guide to the Golden Circle will explain what you can expect and my top tips for how to make the most of it.

So read on for everything you need to know about this amazing sightseeing route in Iceland!

Author Bio: Jessie Moore

Jessie Moore is a luxury travel expert with years of experience travelling the world to find the best destinations, hotels and adventures.

What is the Golden Circle in Iceland?

The Golden Circle is a popular tourist route in Iceland that takes in some of the country’s most stunning natural scenery.

The 300 km route starts in Reykjavik, the capital, and heads east through Thingvellir National Park.

Trust me when I say that this park is utterly breathtaking. It’s home to the world’s largest lava field, as well as the rift valley that marks the boundary between the North American and Eurasian plates.

From Thingvellir, the Golden Circle tour then leads to Geysir, a geothermal area where hot springs and geysers provide a natural light show.

The final stop on the Golden Circle is Gullfoss, one of Iceland’s most iconic waterfalls – I was completely blown away by the scale of it!

When is the best time to visit the Golden Circle?

The Golden Circle can be visited year round, but you’ll get a very different experience at various times of the year.

When you visit will depend on whether you want sunshine and milder weather or the magical snowy vistas of the colder months.

In summer, the days are incredibly long – so long that you get the midnight sun! The weather is milder too, which I think makes it a great time to explore the outdoors if you have an aversion to the cold (like I do!).

This does also mean that the summer is high season. Tourist numbers are higher, plus accommodation and activities can be more expensive.

Do also bear in mind that Iceland is still not particularly warm in the summer months, so you’ll still need to wrap up warm.

In my opinion, winter is a magical time to visit Iceland, as the country is blanketed in snow and the Northern Lights often put on a spectacular display.

However, temperatures can be very cold and roads can be icy, making winter travel more challenging.

For those looking to avoid the crowds and enjoy more moderate prices, I’d recommend the shoulder seasons of spring or autumn as ideal times to visit.

Regardless of when you choose to visit, I know the Golden Circle will take your breath away.

Driving the Golden Circle

If you prefer to create your own Golden Circle itinerary, I’d recommend driving the Golden Circle yourself. There are plenty of rental car companies in Reykjavik, so it’s relatively straightforward to hire a car.

Driving the Golden Circle gives you the flexibility to explore at your own pace. You can decide how much time you spend at each attraction and also time your visits to avoid the big hordes of tourists.

Make sure that you hire a 4×4 vehicle when driving in Iceland, as conditions can be challenging – especially in winter. 

How long does it take to drive the Golden Circle?

The Golden Circle can be driven in as little as three hours, but I’d recommend allowing at least a full day to take in all the key sights.

Bear in mind that if you’re visiting in the winter months, the days are incredibly short so you’ll have more time restrictions. 

If you’re visiting in the summer months then you can be super flexible with timings. You could even go at night to visit the attractions under the midnight sun! 

Best hotels in the Golden Circle

The Golden Circle can easily be done as a day trip from Reykjavik, so it’s not necessary to stay overnight mid-route.

However, if you’d like to enjoy the Golden Circle at a more leisurely pace (which I’d recommend) – or if you’re heading somewhere else after – then here my favourite hotels in the Golden Circle:

1. ION Adventure Hotel

Address: 805, Iceland

Best for: Adventure and activities

ION Adventure Hotel Iceland

The ION Adventure Hotel in Iceland is an award-winning boutique hotel that prides itself on its sustainability and outstanding service.

I love that the hotel is modern, yet cosy, and provides stunning views of the surrounding Icelandic landscape.

Guests can enjoy a variety of activities both inside and outside the hotel, including horse-riding, snorkelling, snowmobiling, and more.

With its unique atmosphere and beautiful setting, the ION Adventure Hotel is a welcoming oasis in the middle of Iceland’s stunning wilderness.

2. 360 Hotel & Thermal Baths

Address: Mosató 3, 801 Selfoss, Iceland

Best for: Panoramic views

360 Hotel Bedroom

I’d really recommend the 360 Hotel & Thermal Baths in South Iceland, which is a luxury boutique lodge.

Perched on a secluded hilltop, the hotel offers breathtaking panoramic views of the surrounding countryside. Interiors are modern, spacious and welcoming.

The inviting spa is the perfect place to relax after a day of adventuring in the Golden Circle – this is undoubtedly where you’ll find me! A variety of treatments are on offer, all designed to restore balance and harmony.

While the food at 360 Hotel is simply exquisite, with each dish meticulously prepared using only the freshest, locally sourced ingredients. 

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3. Hotel Geysir

Address: Geysir, 806 Geysir, Haukadalur, Iceland

Best for: Impressive location

Hotel Geysir Bedroom

Hotel Geysir in Iceland is situated in the geothermal area of Haukadalur Valley, providing guests with an exceptional setting to experience the Golden Circle.

I love that this hotel offers a unique combination of design and art, together with modern amenities.

The building itself has been constructed using natural materials like wood and stone, giving it a contemporary yet timeless feel.

Inside, the spacious guestrooms provide all the comforts you could ask for while also offering stunning views of the geothermal area outside. 

4. INNI – Boutique Apartments

Address: Frumskógar 3, 810 Hveragerði, Iceland

Best for: Cosy home-from-home feel

INNI boutique apartments offer a unique blend of luxury and comfort in the geothermal town of Hveragerdi. The apartments have all the amenities needed for an unforgettable stay.

Relax in their geothermal steam room or all-natural hot tubs dug out from the geothermal river nearby, both surrounded by beautiful scenery.

Enjoy deluxe sleeping quarters and tastefully decorated living rooms with cosy fireplaces.

I think that the soft lighting and stylish decor give you that inviting sense of home while keeping true to the local Icelandic charm. 

5. The Greenhouse Hotel

Address: Austurmörk 6, 810 Hveragerði, Iceland

Best for: Foodies

Greenhhouse Hotel Iceland

Nestled away in the picturesque town of Hveragerdi is the boutique Greenhouse Hotel. With its designs inspired by nature and commitment to sustainability, it offers a beautiful and modern stay to guests.

Inside the hotel, guests can visit the food hall to enjoy all sorts of cuisine from delicious Icelandic dishes to international delights.

Plus, I’d highly recommend a visit to the ice cream parlou. It offers tantalising treats of artisan ice cream, handmade throughout the day with locally sourced ingredients.

Discover more of my favourite luxury hotels in Iceland.

Self-catering stays in the Golden Circle

1. Kerbyggd, Selfoss

Featuring a spacious design, beautiful panoramic views and all the amenities you could need. I love that it’s also complete with a private hot tub and located closest to the Keriõ volcanic crater lake.

Book here

2. Golden Circle Glamping, Selfoss

For a more unique place to stay in the Golden Circle, I’d recommend booking into a luxury dome. Relax on the terrace, eat at the in-house restaurant and snuggle up in the cosy interiors. 

Book here

3. Luxury Lodges – Urriðafoss Apartments

These luxury lodges offer guests a welcoming Icelandic stay, complete with river views, a terrace and a hot tub. Benefit from exceptional facilities and a convenient location in the Golden Circle.

Book here

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Things to see in the Golden Circle

The three key things to see in the Golden Circle are Thingvellir National Park, the Geysir Geothermal Area and Gullfoss Waterfall.

But don’t forget that there are also plenty of other things to see in and around the Golden Circle, from magical waterfalls to hot springs and glaciers. 

1. Þingvellir National Park

Trust me when I say that visiting Þingvellir (Thingvellir) National Park in Iceland is an unforgettable experience that immerses you in the geological and beautiful landscape of the region.

It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and carries significant historic and geological importance.

The park is home to a wealth of historic sites, including the Althing – Iceland’s historic parliament since 930CE – as well as the historic Laufás Church.

From a geological perspective, Thingvellir National Park offers various breathtaking features.

For example, the Silfra Fissure is a crevice between two continental plates that you can actually snorkel through – if you’re feeling brave!

Plus there is the stunning Öxarárfoss waterfall, which meanders through brightly-coloured rock formations in dramatic fashion.

All that combined with its diverse flora and wildlife makes Thingvellir a spectacular destination in the Golden Circle.

If you’re visiting in the colder months, be wary of walking across any iced over lakes. I did just this before I heard the ice cracking underneath me – I’m not sure I’ve ever moved so fast!

2. The Geysir Geothermal Area

The Geysir Geothermal Area in Iceland is a spectacular natural phenomenon that has been attracting tourists for centuries.

Geysir is an iconic hot spring, with strong jets of steam which shoot up to 70 feet in the air when it erupts. Even though I knew each eruption was coming, I still jumped every time!

But Geysir isn’t the only geothermal wonder here. Its bubbling waters are rivalled by Stokkur’s even more dramatic eruptions.

These spouts of steam occur every three to five minutes, keeping visitors entertained and in awe.

Also in the area is the Geysir center, which offers visitors a retreat from the elements. It features a restaurant, ice-cream café and a shop.

3. Gullfoss Waterfall

Gullfoss, also known as the ‘Golden Falls’, is a breathtakingly beautiful sight to behold.

Water cascades down through massive crevices in the earth, creating stunning rainbows as the spray unites with the sunshine. 

Gullfoss Waterfall Golden Circle Iceland

I visited in winter when the picturesque scene only gets better. Glistening ice covers the walls of the ravine and blankets the waterfall to create an even more spectacular illusion – especially when rainbows form over the water.

Situated along a river gorge downstream from Langjökull glacier, I’m sure that the beauty of Gullfoss Waterfall will leave you breathless.

4. Kerið Crater

Kerið Crater is a volcanic crater lake located in the Grímsnes area of the Golden Circle.

The colours of the caldera, created from volcanic material, range from dark brown to aquamarine blue. They’re a beautiful contrast against the verdant rolling hills and bright blue sky.

Kerid Crater Lake

Although stunning in its natural state, I’d recommend that the more adventurous visitors find joy in taking an impromptu ice skating tour across the frozen waters in winter!

5. Laugarvatn Fontana

Fancy a break from sightseeing and activities? I’d recommend taking your spa experience to the ultimate level at Fontana Geothermal Baths, a serene spa in Iceland.

Surrounded by breathtaking lake views, the natural spa is a relaxing oasis where you can unwind like you’ve never done before.

Rich turquoise waters filled with warm and soothing minerals surround you while you enjoy the revitalising sensation of geothermal hot springs.

Sink into the calming spa facilities, which include saunas, pools and steam rooms. I think it’s difficult to think of a better way to spend a few hours between Golden Circle stops!

6. Skálholt

Skálholt is a historical site with a long and storied history. Located in southern Iceland on the Golden Circle route, Skálholt was an important religious and cultural centre for centuries.

Magnificent Lutheran church or cathedral in Skalholt

The crowning jewel of Skálholt is the town’s unmistakable cathedral, built in 1794 following the old one’s destruction by an earthquake in 1788.

Visitors can also explore the museum, a 13th-century tunnel that lies beneath the cathedral, and the tomb of bishops.

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7. Langjökull Glacier

Langjökull Glacier, commonly known as The Long Glacier, is one of Iceland’s largest and most awe-inspiring natural wonders.

There are a number of ways to explore the glacier. I’d recommend taking a thrilling snowmobile or jeep excursion for a rugged adventure, or go skiing or hiking over the icy terrain for an unparalleled view.

Langjökull, Iceland's second largest glacier

For those seeking a unique experience, there is also an ice tunnel that you can explore. A 500-metre long man-made tunnel dug into the glacier, featuring incredible formations of crystal blue ice.

8. Helgufoss Waterfall

Nestled in the lush Mosfellsdalur valley, Helgufoss Waterfall is close to Reykjavik.

It’s certainly not the largest or tallest waterfall in Iceland – in fact, it’s rather small at just 12 metres. But I think it’s a wonderfully tranquil waterfall with gently cascading water.

Helgufoss in winter Iceland

Surrounded by idyllic views, Helgufoss Waterfall is a serene spot. It’s a wonderfully picturesque waterfall and a true delight for nature lovers.

Plus, as it’s one of the lesser known waterfalls in Iceland, I love that it’s much quieter than other popular tourist attractions. 

9. Brúarhlöð Canyon

The Brúarhlöð Canyon features a narrow gorge cut through spectacular rock formations and I’d definitely recommend adding it to your Golden Circle itinerary.

Spanning 500 metres along the banks of the Hvitá River, this rarely-visited beauty spot is a fantastic place for river rafting and enjoying breathtaking views.

Brúarhlöð canyon

On sunny days, I’d advise relaxing with a picnic lunch overlooking the mesmerising landscape, plus you can spot rare birds like dippers and phalaropes.

As a hidden gem along the Golden Circle route, you won’t find hordes of tourists here either.

10. Hrunalaug hot spring

I don’t think there is anything quite like a secluded hot spring to connect you with nature, and that is exactly what Hrunalaug provides! This hidden gem is located just five minutes from the Golden Circle.

Hrunalaug hot spring

Unlike the well-known Blue Lagoon, Hrunalaug is lesser known and offers a more authentic bathing experience. Although small, the cosy setting affords bathers a unique opportunity to enjoy a quiet oasis.

Note that there are no facilities here, including no toilets or changing rooms. But I think it’s all part of the experience!

11. Þórufoss Waterfall

For another lesser known waterfall along the Golden Circle in Iceland, pay a visit to Þórufoss (Thorufoss) Waterfall.

It is located on Laxá í Kjós, a river that’s renowned for its plentiful population of Atlantic salmon.

Thorufoss waterfall located on the Laxa i Kjos river near Reykjavik in Iceland

Thorufoss is unusual in that it is trapezoidal in shape, creating a unique yet captivating view.

If you’re a Game of Thrones fan like me, you may recognise this location as the Countryside of Meereen, where a shepherd boy’s flock gets incinerated by Drogon the dragon!

I can, however, assure you that there are no real-life dragons here!

12. Þjórsárdalur Valley

Believe me when I say that Þjórsárdalur (Thjorsardalur) Valley is truly a sight to behold.

This forest valley is packed with stunning features, the most notable being Haifoss waterfall which plunges more than 400 hundred feet into the gorge below.

Panoramic view of Haifoss waterfall

Surrounded by terraced cliffs and wildflower meadows, I’m not surprised that photographers from around the world come to capture its beauty.

For the more adventurous types out there, I’d recommend exploring Búrfells woods for some amazing rock climbing opportunities.

Don’t forget to keep an eye out for any Icelandic horses grazing in the fields. Be sure to take in every beautiful detail that Þjórsárdalur Valley has to offer!

It’s about an hour’s drive away from the Golden Circle but I think it’s well worth the detour.

Planning a trip to the Land of Fire & Ice? You may also like:

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Jessie Moore
Jessie Moore

Jessie is a luxury travel expert with years of experience travelling the world to find the best destinations, hotels and adventures.

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