The Golden Circle Iceland is one of the most popular day tours from Reykjavik.
The great thing about Iceland is that there are lots of things that you can do in a day trip from Reykjavik, so that even if you don’t have time to drive around the Ring Road, you can still see some of Iceland’s most famous and impressive sights. The Golden Circle route is a nice, easy day trip to take with small children – you can even take a buggy around most of it.
In this post I’ll be going over the main sights to see around the Golden Circle, how to get around the Golden Circle from Reykjavik, and how to do it with small kids in tow!
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A note on pronunciation: the Icelandic letter Þ is pronounced as a hard “th” as in “thunder”; the letter ð is pronounced as a softer “th” as in “feather.”
What is the Golden Circle, Iceland?
The Golden Circle in Iceland shouldn’t be confused with Iceland’s Ring Road. Iceland’s Ring Road is Route 1, a circular road that takes you around most of the country. The Golden Circle is a short route taking in some of the best natural attractions in the area near Reykjavik – you really don’t want to get them mixed up!
Generally, when people talk about the Golden Circle they mean visiting (usually in this order) Þingvellir (Thingvellir) National Park, Strokkur geyser and Gullfoss waterfall. We managed to get to these attractions, and also to Kerið crater lake.
The attractions around the Golden Circle route aren’t necessarily fixed – there’s more to see than the usual suspects. At the end of this post I’ve included a couple of extra things you could detour to see.
How do you get to the Golden Circle from Reykjavik?
Golden Circle Iceland self drive tour
If you have hired a car then you can do a Golden Circle self drive tour. Driving the Golden Circle is really straightforward – this is what we did. We just made sure we’d planned out our route and taken note of the timings between the sights beforehand.
The main tourist sites are well signposted so it’s unlikely that you’ll get lost; you can use a sat nav or navigate using google maps. You will find restaurants, cafes, shops and bathroom facilities at each of the main stops so you don’t need to worry about any of these things logistically.
Keep reading for how to self-drive the Golden Circle.
Golden Circle Iceland map
This Golden Circle map shows the main Golden Circle attractions and the best Golden Circle route, beginning and ending in Reykjavik. Main stops are marked in green. There are also alternative stops and detours marked in orange – read more about these at the end of this post.
Golden Circle guided tour
If you don’t want to drive the Golden Circle, then the other option is to take a Golden Circle tour from Reykjavik. These tours usually cover the main three attractions and are hugely popular. Book your tour as far in advance as possible.
We definitely noticed a big difference in the amount of visitors at these attractions – by far the busiest places were the Golden Circle and along the south coast of Iceland.
What to see and do on your Golden Circle tour
Þingvellir (Thingvellir) National Park
Þingvellir National Park was the first stop on our Golden Circle tour and is an easy 40 minute drive from Reykjavik. Þingvellir is important both culturally and geographically, and is a Unesco World Heritage Site.
When you arrive at Þingvellir, the first thing you’ll notice its geographical importance. Þingvellir is right on the tectonic rift between the North American and Eurasian plates and you can see the edges of both plates from here (although, contrary to popular belief, you can’t touch them at the same time). The gap between the plates is expanding by about 2cm a year and the whole valley is slowly subsiding.
From outside the main visitor centre you can get an amazing view across the valley and the lake, Þingvallavatn. You can then walk down Almannagjá gorge towards the culturally important site of the AlÞing, Iceland’s general assembly, and the oldest parliament in the world. This is where Viking leaders would meet to sort out disputes, and Icelanders would gather to trade and socialise. The site in front of the gorge was used for the AlÞing for centuries, beginning in 930 and lasting until 1798, when it moved to Reykjavik.
If you walk further down the gorge you’ll soon arrive at Oxararfoss, a waterfall tumbling over the plate edge. Other things to see at Þingvellir include visiting the church which you can see across the water and exploring the park’s many hiking trails. You may be able to go horse riding or fishing here too.
Many of the trails here are on boardwalks or well maintained paths. It’s easy to visit with small children and babies as you can get a pushchair along the main paths. Just keep an eye on children by the water and by the edges of the gorge.
Entry to Þingvellir is free, although you have to pay 500ISK for the car park.
Snorkelling in the Silfra Fissure
A fantastic option to take in Thingvellir National Park is snorkelling in the crystal clear waters of the Silfra Fissure, a crack in the lava between the two tectonic plates. This was one of the things that the husband and I were really looking forward to doing, although it took some organisation to manage it with the kids! If you have children aged 12 and over then they can join you.
We booked our snorkelling tour with Extreme Iceland. The husband went on the first trip of the day and I went on the second. This meant that one of us could look around the rest of Þingvellir with the kids while the other snorkelled. There are also escorted tours which include the Golden Circle and Silfra fissure snorkelling – click here for more details.
Snorkelling the Silfra fissure was a really fun experience, although I know I enjoyed it more than the husband did (he’s not a massive fan of diving). You have to be able to swim quite far and the water is extremely cold all year round. I did find my drysuit quite uncomfortable as it has to be super tight around the neck, wrists and ankles.
The waters were the clearest I’ve ever seen and the colours were amazing. In addition to the deep blues of the water there was an abundance of green-yellow algae covered in shimmering bubbles; we were treated to an underwater rainbow. The water is also absolutely pure and tastes pretty good!
If you can manage this excursion then I’d definitely recommend it – it was very different to snorkelling a tropical reef.
Geysir and Strokkur
The original geyser (and where the name comes from) is almost an hour away from Þingvellir National Park. It’s a scenic drive though (see the above photo) so it’s not exactly a pain!
Geysir used to erupt regularly but since some volcanic activity in 1916 it doesn’t go off anywhere near as often. Happily, just over the road Strokkur geyser has taken up the mantle and it’s here that everyone gathers to watch the show. This is a fantastic thing to see with kids – they are going to love it.
Strokkur goes off every few minutes so you aren’t going to be waiting long which is perfect if your kids have short attention spans. You can stand close to the bubbling pool and see if your kids can guess when it will erupt. Watch out for the bulging blue dome the water makes before it shoots up to 30m high, to the delight of everyone around it. It can even surprise you; we got drenched twice as it went off several times in quick succession.
The paths to Strokkur are boarded so it’s easy to get a pushchair around. The surrounding area is covered with atmospherically steaming vents and boiling rivers which aren’t roped off so keep curious toddlers away from the path edges. You’ll find hiking trails in the area but most people just stop to see the geyser erupt a few times and then move on.
Entry and parking for Strokkur is free.
Gullfoss is one of Iceland’s most powerful waterfalls. Conveniently located a few minutes away from Strokkur, Gullfoss makes up the last stop on most Golden Circle tours.
At Gullfoss you’ll find a network of boardwalks which take you to various viewpoints to admire the falls. In the distance, you may be able to see Langjokull glacier which feeds the river. You’re able to get very close to Gullfoss but you will need waterproofs as there’s a ton of spray. The kids didn’t want to get soaked so we admired the waterfall from a distance.
Don’t miss the topmost viewpoint as it gives the best view of both the tiers of the waterfall and the deep gorge that they plunge into. If you’re lucky and get a sunny day, you’ll probably see rainbows over the falls – we waited for the clouds to clear but no luck!
Again, the boardwalks are suitable for pushchairs. However there are lots of steps to get to the lower viewpoints so a sling may be better.
Entry and parking for Gullfoss is free. From Gullfoss, it’s 45 minutes to the final stop, Kerið.
If you don’t mind taking a slightly longer route back to Reykjavik, then you should visit Kerið crater lake on your way home. It’s worth a quick stop.
Kerið is a volcanic crater in burgundy-red earth with a contrasting blue lake at the bottom. Here you can walk down to the crater and around the lake, or walk around the top for far reaching views across the landscape. It was probably formed when an extinct cone volcano collapsed in on itself, rather than exploding.
By the time we got to Kerið the kids (and the husband) were tired so I wandered around by myself. Unusually for Iceland, there is a small fee (400 ISK) to look around; children under 12 go free. Pay at the kiosk by the car park.
You won’t be able to get a pushchair around Kerið; small children and babies will need to be carried. The edges of the crater aren’t roped off so you’ll need to keep an eye on the kids.
From Kerið it’s just under an hour’s drive back to Reykjavik.
More things to see around the Golden Circle Iceland
There are plenty more, lesser-known sights in the Golden Circle area so you don’t have to follow the crowds. If we hadn’t been snorkelling at Silfra we would have had time to stop in at some of these places. Of course, it depends on how much time you want to spend at the other attractions.
Solheimar eco-village is an interesting stop – this whole village is run by its community who all live and work together. Many are volunteers who stay for a short time. In the village you can find art galleries and craft workshops, and in the summer there are often festivals or concerts. You can also stay at Solheimar – click here to find out more.
Friðheimar farmstead is a good stop for your lunch. This is a family-run farm and restaurant where the specialties are tomatoes and cucumbers (unusual in Iceland). Try their tomato soup in the restaurant in the middle of the greenhouse! Tours of the farm and attached pony stables are available for small groups and must be pre-booked on the website. You can join a food tour of the Golden Circle which calls in at Friðheimar – details available here.
The Secret Lagoon at Fluðir is Iceland’s oldest swimming pool. You can bathe in the hot pools and watch a miniature geyser erupt every 5 minutes. Despite the name, the lagoon may not be so secret after all as booking online in advance is recommended! Adults 2800 ISK; children 14 and younger go free. You can get tours around the Golden Circle which include the Secret Lagoon from Reykjavik – get details and prices here.
Þjórsárdalur Valley is a couple of hours detour, along road 32. We didn’t have time to explore the area due to our snorkelling in the Silfra fissure. However, if you do have time, then there are several waterfalls and a Viking farmhouse, Stöng, which was destroyed during an eruption of the nearby Mt Hekla. There’s now a reconstruction of a Saga-age Icelandic farm here and it’s open from June to August. More information here.
I hope this post has helped you plan your day trip around the Golden Circle!
Have you taken a tour around the Golden Circle with kids? What was your favourite stop? We’d love to hear about your adventures in Iceland, so let us know in the comments!