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Going to Iceland and not driving the Golden Circle is like visiting Rome and skipping the Colosseum. Or worse, gelato! It would just be wrong.
Iceland’s most popular tourist trail, the Golden Circle offers some truly breathtaking sites, including three of the nation’s most famous landmarks: Þingvellir National Park, Geysir, and Gulfoss. Best of all, it is easily doable as a day-trip from Reykjavik.
Further Reading: What to do in Reykjavik (in One Day)
If you’re on a tight schedule and only have time for one Icelandic experience, this is a good option. You will be able to get a good feel for Iceland’s natural beauty, but you won’t have to travel too far away from the capital.
Though many tour companies offer packaged deals on Golden Circle tours, Sam and I opted to rent a car and drive the loop on our own, primarily because we are cheap and the tours were not We rented our vehicle from SadCars. We came to understand with alarming clarity why the rental company is called “sad,” and as an absolute shock to no one, the company has since closed down.
Driving ourselves was definitely the right choice for us. We enjoyed having the freedom to travel at our own pace, and the loop is easy to navigate for even the most directionally challenged individual.
I was concerned about the road conditions, since we were visiting in winter and had been warned that the weather in Iceland is extremely unpredictable. Not to mention, we live in Georgia where three snowflakes constitute the apocalypse and cause a Hunger Games-style run on grocery stores. But despite the periodic snowfall throughout the day, the roads are well maintained and driving the loop wasn’t a problem for us. We would recommend that you try to avoid driving in the dark, though, if you’re not experienced driving in winter conditions.
We made the most of the limited daylight hours and left our hotel right after breakfast at around 9:30am.
Þingvellir National Park
The first stop on the Golden Circle route is Þingvellir National Park. Þingvellir literally means “Parliament Plains,” and it was there, in 930AD, that the world’s first democratic republic was established.
Þingvellir is also where you can see the fissure between the North American and European tectonic plates that is slowly widening each year. If you’re a real glutton for punishment, it is also possible to scuba dive or snorkel here.
Not a planned stop, but when one comes upon a veritable Winter Wonderland of pure, magical snow stretching to the horizon, one must stop the car and frolic. I think it’s Newton’s 4th law of motion. Okay, back to the Golden Circle…
Iceland is a hotbed for geothermal activity. Geysir is considered the original hot-water spout, but it’s eruptions have been infrequent at best. Nearby Strokkur, however spouts streams of geothermal water roughly every ten minutes. You shouldn’t have to wait long to view the spectacle. Just be sure to have your camera ready!
If you’re ready for lunch, a cafeteria style restaurant is located nearby and offers food for a reasonable price (at least for Icelandic standards!). We stopped inside for a slice of pizza.
The third and final stop along the traditional Golden Circle route was by far Sam’s and my favorite. In a nation with enough natural beauty to rival Rivendell, Gulfoss waterfall manages to stand out.
Gulfoss is a majestic multi-tier waterfall, and one of the most iconic sights in Iceland. If you’ve ever seen a postcard from Iceland, chances are high that this waterfall was on it. The pictures I’d seen before our trip definitely didn’t do its raw beauty justice.
Be sure to take in the panoramic view from several vantage points, as each one offers a unique and equally stunning view.
Despite our leisurely pace and multiple digressions, we finished our tour of the Golden Circle in time to return to Reykjavik at dusk after a long but satisfying day.
What’s your favorite road trip destination?