The Golden Circle is probably the most popular tourist “attraction” in Iceland, after the Blue Lagoon. There are a few reasons for this; firstly, the capital Reykjavik, a convenient base for a quick trip to Iceland, is an ideal starting point. Secondly, it takes in several of Iceland’s most well known natural wonders and lastly, it is easily doable in a day. Unsurprisingly, you will therefore find that it is a route that can get very busy and for this reason, I opted for a private Golden Circle tour on my girls trip to Iceland.
I particularly recommend opting for a private tour over a group one if you are on a short trip; it gives you a level of customisation and flexibility to visit some of Iceland’s most beautiful spots in your own time, all while taking advantage of your guide’s local knowledge of the area and the location of hidden spots off the main tourist track.
What is the Golden Circle in Iceland?
The phrase “Golden Circle” is actually the name that has been given to the 186 mile long circular route that is so popular with tourists to the country. This route has along it (among others) three of Iceland’s mosts popular natural sites; Thingvellir National Park, Strokkur Geysir and Gullfoss Falls.
At its core, the Golden Circle is taking in these 3 main sites, a 140 mile round trip from Reykjavik, which is around a 3 hour drive if you were not to stop. However, you will find that many tours will visit other sites on the way, often looping down into Southern Iceland after the third stop at Gullfoss Falls and taking in anything from Waterfall Faxi, Kerid Crater, black sand beaches and even the Secret Lagoon or Blue Lagoon. Most Golden Circle tours are around 8 to 9 hours long.
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How to Visit the Golden Circle
You have a few options to choose between when touring the Golden Circle, you can self drive or take a tour, for which there are no shortage of choices from tour operators to Golden Circle variations.
For a full breakdown of all of our costs during this trip, read my post on planning a luxury trip to Iceland. Here I also share lots of tips for keeping costs down; spoiler, we spent less than £850 per person including flights, accommodation and all spending money.
Private Golden Circle Tour
I opted for a private tour of the Golden Circle as I find they give so much more value than group tours. Not only are they worth their weight in gold when it comes to avoiding the crowds at popular sites as much as possible, they can often provide skip the queue tickets and always have lots of hidden spots for you to visit off the main tourist route (something I personally find incredibly valuable).
As I was on a girls getaway to Iceland, I needed to find a company that offered larger private tours as there were 13 of us in total! I did a bit of research and found a great one called Discover Iceland who offered a range of luxury Iceland tours. After chatting with one of the representatives over email, I booked with them with the loose plan to follow the Golden Circle, but with options to customise however we pleased.
Small Group Tours
My second preference when opting for a tour is to try and pick one that operates with a smaller group. In Iceland, this seems to be mini-bus tours with a maximum capacity of 19 people. It still gives you a less commercialised experience and the opportunity for a bit of customisation maybe (should the rest of your group be on board), but without the price tag of a private tour.
On researching small group tours in Iceland I actually found there were many that weren’t too much more expensive than a big group tour, so this is an option I think is really worth considering.
You Might Like: Iceland Golden Circle Small Group Tour
I very rarely take group tours as it is just not how I like to experience a place. The ones I have taken in the past have felt very commercialised and for me, take something away from the experience.
Due to the sheer number of people often on these tours, you have to stick to a very strict schedule which I often find is rushed, with the biggest portion of your time getting on and off the coach. Plus, there is inevitably at least one person who goes missing at every single stop and you have to wait on the coach for ages for them to be located. It feels way too much like a school trip for me and I can’t help but feel “herded”. In short, not the travel experience I am looking for!
However, this is often obviously the cheapest option, hence the appeal for some. This group tour is the lowest price I could find, which gives you a good base for price comparison against other options.
Cheapest Option: Golden Circle Group Tour
Self Drive in Iceland
The final option is to drive it yourself. If I am staying in a location for a longer period of time, I often hire a car and like to explore places myself. However, as we only had 3 days in Iceland and there were 13 of us on this trip, a self drive wasn’t the best option for us here.
It is common in Iceland to hire your own car and explore that way though and I have only heard positive reports about it. The roads we drove on were wide, very well maintained and quiet, so if I were to visit again, it is definitely an option I would consider.
A Private Golden Circle Tour with Discover Iceland
When our minibus pulled up to pick us up I was a little surprised, it did not look like the kind of minibus I’m used to! This one was a 16 seater luxury Mercedes with blacked out windows, leather seats and mood lighting, I honestly didn’t know they made mini buses this nice!
We also had the loveliest driver who very patiently answered our endless questions and he knew all the tricks for avoiding the majority of the crowds at what are 3 of Iceland’s busiest sites. He was very easy going and happy to either walk round the sites with us or leave us to do our thing.
Thingvellir National Park
As the location of the establishment of the world’s first democratic parliament by the Vikings in AD 930, Thingvellir National Park is the most historically significant site in Iceland. There are other reasons you will want to come here as well though; the scenery is truly breathtaking (to be fair, where is it not in Iceland?).
Thingvellir National Park straddles the meeting point of the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates which are moving away from each other, creating some amazing valleys in the process which you can walk along. Not entirely surprisingly, the entire national park was named a Unesco World Heritage Site in 2004.
Thingvellir is only around 30 miles from Reykjavik, so you can get there in under an hour’s drive. It’s hard not to just look out the window for the entire day as the landscape is just so beautiful and completely different to anything else I have ever seen. I’m going to stop banging on about this; you’ll see this in the pictures and I suspect you may already know this!
First off our driver and guide for the day took us to a secluded spot by the valley created by the pulling part of the tectonic plates to take in the landscape free of anyone else. It was wonderful and there was no way we would have discovered this spot by ourselves in the short time that we had, another example of why I love private tours so much.
Walking Along the Almannagjá Fault
We then went to the main entrance of the site where you can walk along the main rift of Almannagjá and see the beautiful views across Thingvellir from the viewing platform. It was quite early when we got there and there was already a lot of people, but we could still wander through the fissure in relative peace.
Apart from staring at the natural scenery, on the walk there are a few main sites to take in. The first is the Alþingi site where Iceland’s parliament met when it was first established. You can also see the Law Rock where Iceland’s laws were recited when parliament assembled.
Further along the fissure, there is the Drekkingarhylur, the Drowning Pool, where women where drowned when found guilty of a multitude of crimes. As you walk along the fissure, there are helpful information boards to tell you the history and significance of different sites.
There is also a visitor centre where you can learn more about the history and natural characteristics of Thingvellir National Park through an interactive display.
Cost: Entrance to the park is free, but parking is 500 ISK per vehicle per day, entrance to the visitor centre is 1,000 ISK per person and 200 ISK per person for use of the park bathrooms.
Facilities: an on site café, visitor centre, souvenir shop and relatively clean bathrooms.
Opening Times: the park is open at all times and the visitor centre and café open 9:00am to 6:00pm every day.
Seeing Icelandic Horses
Not a traditional stop on the Golden Circle, but one of my cousins was particularly keen on seeing an Icelandic horse, so our guide took us to a few spots to see them.
The Vikings originally imported Icelandic horses and they have played an important role in the lives of the Icelandic people since, although they are now mostly just for leisure. Horse riding is quite a popular activity in Iceland which I’d quite fancy doing, but it didn’t work for the “fit for all” activity plan I needed for this trip!
Visiting an Icelandic Farm
Our next stop off was at Efstidalur, a family farm that has opened it’s doors to the public with a small hotel, restaurant, horse rental and an ice cream barn! We were just stopping for a quick refreshment so went straight to the ice cream barn (had to see what that was!). It’s a small café serving drinks and snacks (including ice cream, shocker) with windows on two sides that look into the barns.
We enjoyed watching the cattle that the ice cream is made from (everything is made from produce from the farm or local suppliers), including some very sweet calves who were all snuggled together under an infrared lamp. We had some coffee and ice cream (I had coconut, delish) watching the little calves wobble around and then be fed their lunch.
Well, there’s waterfalls and then there are waterfalls! Gullfoss Falls was our next destination, however we passed Strokkur Geysir to get here (they are very close) as we were planning to have lunch there.
Gullfoss is Iceland’s most famous waterfall, dropping 32 metres over 2 drops. From the lower car park you are level with the base of the second drop, a spectacular view with the spray making it all misty and magical. From here there is a set of steps that takes you to the very top of the falls where there is a path that runs alongside the edge.
Up here the view is completely unobstructed with a very low rope barrier set back from the edge which some people were very irritatingly jumping over to take pictures closer to the edge. Firstly, it’s a big drop and looked pretty slippy and also, people doing that is the reason may similar places have to install a big, unsightly metal barrier to stop people doing precisely that.
Wrap up warm here, it was the coldest and windiest part of our trip, particularly at the top. It was the one place we were definitely glad to get back into the warmth of our super duper mini bus!
Cost: entrance to the park is free, as is parking, but there is cost per person for use of the bathrooms in the car park. The ones in the visitor centre are free though!
Facilities: an on site café, souvenir shop, visitor centre and bathrooms.
Opening Times: the waterfall is a public space so can be accessed at any time. The café is open every day from 9:30am to 6:30pm.
Out of all of the amazing things we saw on the Golden Circle, this was my favourite. Firstly, Geysir and Strokkur are two different geysers (I wasn’t sure how to pronounce this word, so just called them upside down waterfalls, people get the gist).
Geysir is the geyser after which all other geysers are named (say that fast!), but is currently not very active, so luckily, the more reliable Strokkur geyser very close by erupts every eight minutes or so. Geysir, when it does erupt, has shot water up to 80 metres in the air, which I can only imagine is incredible, bearing in mind how impressed I was with Strokkur when it erupted at a measly 25 metres-ish!
It’s fascinating to watch; a pool with steam rising from it that bubbles bright blue water and then shoots straight into the air. Steam shrouds the water and hangs in the air for a few seconds so you don’t actually see the water descend.
We watched for almost an hour (fastest hour of my life, I swear) before we headed across the road to the Geysir Centre for some lunch.
The food was average, but very reasonably priced, especially for Iceland, at around £7 a head for a sandwich and a drink. We managed to get somewhere to sit but this place is busy, imagine a service station on the M25 in the summer holidays!
Cost: parking, toilets and access to the Geysir Hot Springs are all free.
Facilities: there is a massive restaurant on site with lots of food options and high end boutique.
Opening Times: Geysir Hot Springs area is always open and the Geysir Centre is open 9:00am to 10:00pm June to August, closing at 6:00pm the rest of the year.
Black Sand Beach
This is not a “extra” stop on the Golden Circle route, however when I polled my fellow travel companions on what they wanted to do, this was a strong favourite. I was also really keen to do this as I have a strange fascination with beaches that aren’t a gradient of yellow; I am dying to see a pink sand one! The sea is also one of my favourite things, the sound it makes with waves crashing always makes me feel very peaceful.
The stretch of beach our driver took us to was completely deserted, a welcome calm after the crowds of the that morning! It was also most definitely black, having been created by the volcanic ash and rocks being ground down over time to form sand. Yellow grasses on the sand bank make a great contrast and the grey clouds and mist that was in the air made it a beach experience like none other.
The beach is located between two sleepy fishing villages, Stokkseyri and Porlákshöfn on Route 34, off the typical tourist routes. We had a lovely walk along the coastline which we got to take our time with as it was our last stop of the day before heading back to Reykjavik.
Alternative Stops on the Golden Circle
Some tours have the option to add additional stops to your Golden Circle tour, with some of the most popular ones below (all small group tours):
- Golden Circle Tour and a Visit to the Secret Lagoon
- Golden Circle Tour with Kerid Crater
- Golden Circle & Blue Lagoon Tour with Admission
If you are really struggling for time, you can try this Express Golden Circle Tour (not a small group one, I couldn’t find an express one of those!).
Tips for Touring the Golden Circle
- Check where your tour actually picks you up from, your hotel or the BSI, the main Reykavik bus station. Some tours include pick up from your hotel, which they sometimes do with a shuttle service and then you join the main tour group at the BSI. If they don’t provide this service, you will need to arrange your own transport here at your own cost.
- Be aware that if you are staying in Reykjavik’s city centre that there is very limited vehicular access, meaning that even if your tour offers hotel pick up, you will need to arrange collection from your nearest bus stop (the tour operators are familiar with this). Luckily the restricted area is quite small, so it won’t be a long walk.
- The Golden Circle is a busy route, so try and get started early in the day. Our driver said he was going to do the route the opposite way round to most tours as apparently they tend to start at Gullfoss and work backwards to Strokkur Geyser and then Thingvellir, so it may be worth considering doing a similar route to ours above in order to miss the big crowds.
- Due to said popularity of this route, I would really consider visiting Iceland in the off season. We did this tour on at the very end of March on Easter Saturday and even with our guide trying to shield us from the worst of the crowds, it was undeniably busy, so I dread to think how many people are here in the summer during the high season.
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What to Wear on a Golden Circle Tour
This all depends on the time of year. We were visiting Iceland in March into the beginning of April and it was a little warmer than usual (5°C to 7°C), although there was still snow dotted around outside of Reykjavik. On our final day, there was a very heavy snow covering though and the temperature dropped again.
Unless you are visiting Iceland in winter, you actually need to pack more for the wind and the rain than the cold. We were PREPARED for some cold weather with thermals, layers and waterproofs, however the pleasant temperature meant we were actually a bit over dresses, but I would definitely rather it be that way.
The only time we could have been a little cold was at the top of Gullfoss, but that was only because of the wind. We actually took layers off throughout the day and it turned out with another mini snowstorm in the UK, it was actually warmer in Iceland!
I do recommend layering up though, I wore just exercise leggings (slightly thicker than usual), hiking boots and a medium weight windbreaker over lots of layers. I don’t think you actually need hiking boots though, a sturdy shoe will do, just make sure it is waterproof! The only bit I was a cautious about were the steps at Gulfoss, they are metal so I can imagine they get very slippy in the ice and rain.
Final Thoughts: Private Golden Circle Tour
If you only have a quick stop over in Iceland and want to see a diverse range of some of the amazing sights Iceland is known for, the Golden Circle has your name on it.
There are a lot of tour companies in Iceland, so I really did my research before selecting one to make sure we had the best possible experience and Discover Iceland were such a great choice. They do a really great range of luxury tours in Iceland and it was hard to pick just one, but our private Golden Circle tour was a great fit for us bearing in mind we had 13 people with an age range of 13 to 82 and varying activity levels.
For those that are based in Reykjavik but want to see a variety of natural scenery that Iceland is famed for, this is an excellent day trip.
– Check flight routes and prices with Skyscanner to find the most affordable and convenient flights into Iceland.
– Check Mr & Mrs Smith for a curated list of the best luxury boutique hotels in Iceland.
– Alternatively, you can view & book hotels in Reykjavik at Booking.com, Agoda or Hotels.com.
– For private and luxury tours, we obviously recommend the fabulous Discover Iceland. If you are looking for a group tour, try Get Your Guide for a great range of different options and easy price comparison.
– Book Flybus airport transfers, or if your are travelling in a larger group or would like a private transfer, we used Snæland Travel.
– Click here to buy your Lonely Planet Guide to Iceland, my favourite guide book brand that I almost always purchase when travelling to a new destination.
– You can check out my full list of tried, tested and recommended Travel Resources here.