The Golden Circle is a 300km driving loop, featuring many of Iceland’s most famous attractions. Many tourists conquer the Golden Circle loop in one day, but we suggest taking a 2-3 day road trip to see ALL the sights! Self-driving with a campervan allows for ultimate flexibility and money savings, especially in winter, but you can also book hotels along this route.
Watch this video for highlights of Iceland’s Golden circle:
A Note About Iceland in Winter
Although flights, hotels and activities may be cheaper when visiting Iceland in winter, many restaurants will be closed for the off-season. Days are also shorter, with only 5-6 hours of daylight in November through January. Plan daytime activities accordingly: from around 10:30am to 4pm. That being said, the weather is not as cold as you might think, with the temperature averaging around 0° C /32° F in Southern Iceland.
Itinerary: The Golden Circle
DAY 1). Take a hike/dip in Hot River
From the airport, head straight to one of Iceland’s many natural hot springs to cure your jet lag! While you could choose to visit the infamous Blue Lagoon, a better option for budget travelers is hot river: known for being free, gorgeous and secluded. To reach the swimming hole you’ll need to hike for about an hour on a challenging trail. In winter, hike out early in the day or you’ll lose daylight for the trek back!
DAY 1). Eat lobster bisque for lunch at Fjorubordid
Fjorubordid is known as the best place in Iceland for lobster bisque, and I have to admit, it’s the best I’ve ever tasted! This restaurant isn’t cheap, and it’s a bit of a detour off the loop, but the soup and the view are worth the extra miles! After enjoying a bowl of lobster bisque, take a walk on the black sand beach and then get back on the road.
DAY 1). Walk around Kerið Crater Lake
Kerið Crater Lake seems extraterrestrial in winter, with a powdering of snow and a surface that resembles cracked crème brûlée. It takes about 20 minutes to walk the rim, or simply step out of your car for a quick view and continue on the loop. Entrance fee is about $5-10 per person.
After your hike it will probably be getting dark. Grab some grub, then find a remote campsite. You might get to see the northern lights!
DAY 2). Pet the ponies
After you eat some breakfast (we suggest purchasing some Skyr from a local store), pull off and pet the ponies! Along the Golden Circle, you’ll see dozens of Icelandic horse farms. Just pull over and give a few furry horses a nose scratch.
Icelandic horses are smaller and hairier than horses in the United States. This, of course, makes them MORE adorable. Guillaume and I pulled over and approached a group of pony-sized horses and, to my surprise, dozens of them came forward to greet us! They loved the attention and nose scratches.
Without any natural predators, Icelandic horses have developed an even temperament and are not easily spooked. These gentle, friendly horses are beautiful creatures, occasionally showcasing colorful coats and blue eyes.
DAY 2). Eat lunch at Friðheimar, a Geothermal Greenhouse
Greenhouse farming is common in Iceland due to their harsh weather and infertile soil. Geothermal energy is used to heat the greenhouses and many homes around the country. In 2014, roughly 85% of primary energy used in Iceland came from indigenous renewable resources. 66% was from geothermal (source). Self-sustainability at it’s best!
At night, greenhouses glow along the dark landscape of Iceland’s interior. If you’re interested in touring a greenhouse, we suggest grabbing a meal (or bloody mary) at Friðheimar. This greenhouse farm provides most of the tomato crop for the entire country!
DAY 2). Stand near a Geyser Eruption
Strokkur, Southern Iceland’s active geyser, is happy to perform for tourists! The geyser shoots up 30-100 feet every 10 minutes, as if on cue. Don’t stand too close or you’ll get wet on a particularly violent belch! You’ve been warned.
Day 2). See Gullfoss Waterfall
A little farther down the road, you’ll find one of Iceland’s most popular tourist attractions – a double drop waterfall! Gullfoss is impressive, even on a foggy day. We were told it’s even more spectacular when sunlight hits the misty falls to create several rainbows. Make sure to walk to the top of the falls, as well as down at the lookout for the second drop. Total time needed: 30-60 minutes.
After you get your fill of the waterfall, grab some grub and find a campsite. It’s time to search for those northern lights again!
Day 3). Hike & snorkel at Þingvellir National Park
Our favorite stop on the Golden Circle was most definitely Þingvellir National Park. We spent an entire day exploring this spectacularly beautiful landscape and could have spent another day more! With hiking trails, waterfalls, historical buildings (Þingvellir is the site of Iceland’s first parliament) and a unique scuba/snorkeling opportunity, this stop should be at the top of your list!
Make sure you get there right around 10am in winter, so that you’ll be there for sunrise!
Day 3). Eat Dinner and Explore Reykjavik
Iceland’s capital city has a lot to offer, including traditional Icelandic food, the fierce looking Hallgrímskirkja church, local breweries and a phallic museum featuring hundreds of animal genitalia! Yes, there’s even a donated human specimen. Spend at least one evening walking around the city.
Iceland is such an amazing country to visit! And with the low airfares offered by IcelandAir, I know we’ll be back. You could easily spend 10 days here or choose to visit as a long stopover on your journey between Europe and the United States. Check out other adventures in this gorgeous country by clicking here.
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