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Driving the Golden Circle in Iceland

Endless fields of rocks, spouting hot-water fountains, epic waterfalls, shimmering lakes, meandering rivers, UNESCO World Heritage and friendly ponies. That’s in a nutshell what you can expect when driving on the Iceland Golden Circle Self Drive tour, maybe the most varied, easy and scenic drive anywhere in Northern Europe.

Iceland Golden Circle Self Drive Tour, Church in Thingvellir National Park

Iceland Golden Circle Self Drive Tour

A 300-kilometer (or 190-mile) loop through the inner landscapes of southeastern Iceland, the Golden Circle is heavily visited. In fact, it’s the single most popular region/activity in the entire country.

Iceland’s Golden Circle basically starts and ends in Reykjavik, the country’s capital and largest city. You can easily drive this circuit, which consists of various local roads, in a day. The total driving time is only about four hours. However, you’re absolutely recommended to spend the night as well. In winter, you might catch a glimpse of the northern lights; in summer, there’s the chance to enjoy an almost midnight sun.

Iceland Golden Circle Self Drive Tour, Midnight Sun

Because it’s so convenient—the entire circuit lies within 100 kilometers (or about 64 miles) from Reykjavik, the Golden Circle is often done on a long layover or quick stopover.

Iceland’s Most Popular Place

This popular tourist route may be entirely artificial, there are no natural features that separate the region from others, for instance, and the name has no relation to anything in Icelandic history or culture, but it does link together three totally awesome places. The Golden Circle is not to be confused with the Ring Road, which is an actual road that loops around the entire island and requires seven days or more to finish.

Three Fantastic Highlights

It’s amazing that this relatively small area contains three world-class attractions that are all vastly different. There’s a significant historic site, a geothermal area and a huge waterfall.

Iceland Golden Circle Self Drive Tour, Thingvellir national Park Tectonic Plates

Thingvellir National Park

A place of such cultural, historical and geological importance that it’s been designated as world heritage by UNESCO, Thingvellir National Park is located within a rift valley on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. This is literally where the European and North American tectonic plates slowly drift apart, creating deep crevasses and ravines.

The area’s history is significant as well, being the site of the Althing, said to have been the world’s first modern parliament. Starting in the year 930, chieftains from all over Iceland gathered at the Lögberg (or Law Rock) to discuss important matters as representatives of the people of Iceland.

Iceland Golden Circle Self Drive Tour, Strokkur Geyser

Geysir

A bit further down the road lies an active geothermal area known as Haukadalur. The two main highlights are Geysir and Strokkur, two geysers. The former is dormant but is where the word “geyser” comes from, while the latter is extremely active and erupts at least once every ten minutes.

Iceland Golden Circle Self Drive Tour, Gullfoss Waterfall

Gullfoss

The last major attraction you’ll come across when driving the Golden Circle is Gullfoss. This hugely popular waterfall, arguably the most visited in Iceland, consists of two massive cascades totaling a 32-meter (or 105-foot) drop. There are a couple of nice viewpoints, but you should expect lots of people and wind. Don’t forget to wear a waterproof jacket!

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