DIY Iceland Golden Circle tour
One of the first things you’ll notice in Iceland is the sense of freedom you have to explore this amazing
island as soon as you pick up your hire car, as there are very few limitations on when or where you can
go as long as you have a suitable car for your destination! That’s why we found planning out our own
itinerary was by far the best decision we made rather than getting overwhelmed with the choice of coach,
boat and 4x4 tours. The sheer volume of tours being advertised can make first time visitors think that it is
difficult to get to the main landmarks or access is restricted; let me tell you now this is not the case at all.
Generally speaking the main Golden Circle roads are the best maintained in the area as they get the
most traffic and the vast majority of landmarks are free with 24 hours unrestricted access.
So to make things a little easier I’ve put together my guide if you want to do a DIY Golden Circle holiday
to Iceland and still get the most out of your visit without paying the price of being shepherded on and off
Golden Circle big three
If all you want to do is tick off the main attractions these are the ones to aim for and could be done in a
single day but be warned you will be spending most of the day driving and not fully experiencing these
natural wonders. All three have ample parking with good visitors centers with knowledgeable staff, gift
shops, cafes and free toilets (apart from at the top Þingvellir view point which has a 200ISK charge).
One of the highlights without a doubt is at the northerly tip of the standard Golden Circle tour. Standing
32 metres height with two impressive drops the Gulfoss (or Golden) waterfalls is one of the must see
landmarks and a focal point for bus tours of tourists so if you want to beat the crowds get there before
9am. We got here for sun rise (7am) and we had the whole place to ourselves. There are multiple
viewpoints offering everything from up close to birds eye views of the falls so take your time to wander
round them all to take in this amazing landmark. This is also a great place to watch the Aurora Borealis
when on display thanks to the remote location and easy access.
Down the road south from Gulfoss on highway 35 is the famous regularly erupting Geysirs, which you will
smell before you see! The main Geysir erupts every few minutes so there is no reason to rush to get to
the front of the crowds of tourists that surround its perimeter. Entrance is free but there is a discreet
donation box at both entrances which shouldn’t be missed. You could comfortably do Gulfoss and
Geysirs in one day as they are only 10km apart but both can get very busy so it is nice to spend more
time making sure you take it all in and get the best views.
Þingvellir National Park
As far as inspiring landscapes go the fissure valley of Pingvellir National Park is a unique spot on the
planet where you can see the earth’s crusts being torn apart from a bird’s eye view. There is plenty more
to this area than just the main view point which you can drive to along highway 36 so pull off down the
361 and park in one of the first two car parks to take the 10 minute walk to get up close and personal with
the Öxarárfoss waterfall. Retrace your steps and head south to the church and then up to the viewpoint
walking through Almannagjá Gorge. Grab a nice hot chocolate in the visitors centre before making your
way back down; remember the toilets here have a 200ISK charge. Also check out the snorkeling in the
Spira on the way back to the car.
Best of the rest
This was a lovely surprise as we weren’t expecting very much when we stopped off but don’t let the
outside fool you. Make sure you don’t go in the main entrance but follow the wooden decking to the right
of the main stairway. Have a walk around the excavated ruins and then follow the path to the
underground entrance to the basement museum of the Cathedral. Here you’ll learn all about Skalholt and
how it was one of the key villages in early Icelandic history. Continue through the museum up the stairs
(don’t miss the donation box) into the main Cathedral which has some impressive examples of stained
This is one of the rare natural landmarks that have an additional entrance fee but at only 400ISK it is still
worth a stop off to stretch your legs and where else can you have a walk down for a picnic at the bottom
of a volcano crater?? Don’t worry it has been dormant for 3000 years. Be warned though parking is very
limited here and there are no facilities.
One of the surprising things you will soon notice if you’re driving around at night is the prolific number of
greenhouses that scatter the landscape. This is one of the oldest methods of harnessing the endless
geothermal energy that’s made Iceland so famous. Using these techniques farmers are able to grow a
range of vegetables including tomatoes, cucumbers, paprika and potatoes. A great way to experience this is to head down the muddy track off highway 35 and find this hidden gem in Reykholt, if you like tomatoes that is! The simple menu is based heavily around tomatoes and a truly unique place to have lunch and a Bloody Marry (or two) whilst learning how the locals make the most out of their natural resources.
The Blue Lagoon is obviously one of the first things that people want to include on their trip to Iceland
which if you’re happy being restricted to a ticketed entry time and crowds of tourists I’m sure you’ll have a
great time. If you want a more relaxed and personal experience this local thermal spa would be top of our
list. With five pools at different temperatures, geothermal steam rooms and a lake plunge pool with a
mountain back drop this has all you need for a relaxing change to all the endless walking and driving.
Prices are more reasonable than the Blue Lagoon at 3800K and they do one of the best all you can eat
buffet lunches we have eaten in a long time.
Ljosafossstod power station
A change of pace is the free information centre at the Ljosafossstod hydroelectric power station on
highway 36. Pop in to learn about how Iceland is a world leader in renewable energy and uses fossil
fuels for less than 1% of its national energy consumption. This is a great interactive experience for kids
and adults with very welcoming and helpful staff along with free coffee and orange juice once in the
Northern Lights (winter only)
I could write pages about the planning we put into seeing the northern lights as this was the main reason
we and most people travel to Iceland in the winter so I’ve done a more detailed blog dedicated on how to
read the forecast and best places to see one of mother nature’s most impressive displays.
Seltun Geothermal Area (half day/airport)
If you have half a day to spare going to or from Keflavik airport then taking a detour down through the
Reykjanesfólkvangur Nature Reserve on highway 42 is a great option. There are some spectacular views
across Lake Kleifarvatn and the remote Seltun geothermal area. Be warned though there is a short
section of this road north of the lake that is not tarmacced but don’t be put off it is nothing a basic 4x4 or
even a carefully driven salon car couldn’t handle (maybe not in the winter though).
Further a field
Seljalandsfoss and Gljúfrabúi Waterfall
If you’re up for driving slightly further afield one day the Seljalandsfoss and Gljufrabui waterfalls should be top of your list. Head west on highway 1 about 30km west of Skógar until you see the string of 4 or 5
waterfalls (depending on the time of year) on your left. Take the 249 north but continue past the busy
coach park next to the main Seljalandsfoss falls, after another 500 meters you’ll see another smaller
quieter lay by to park in. You’ll just see the top of the furthest left waterfall which goes behind a cliff which
is the much quieter Gljúfrabúi falls. You can only access this waterfall through a thin gap in the cliff face
up a shallow (3 inches) stream so make sure you have packed your waterproof hiking boots and jacket
because you will get wet! But the reward will be one of the best selfie locations you’ll ever get. If you’re
not wet enough continue down to Seljalandsfoss which has a dedicated walkway behind the falls which is
also a great experience.