How to Self Drive the Golden Circle in One Day in Iceland

| August 12, 2013 | 25 Comments

Everyone that visits Iceland cannot miss the Golden Circle tour. But the ultimate question is whether you should visit the Golden Circle with a tour company, or self drive the Golden Circle in one day yourself? I highly recommend doing the latter.

And if you want to self drive the Golden Circle then hopefully these travel tips will help you on your next adventure to Iceland.

Self Drive the Golden Circle in One Day in Iceland

How to Self Drive the Golden Circle in One Day

Tour companies can be great. But being herded onto and off a bus all day as you try to get around all the sites along the Golden Circle route just seems ridiculous. Wouldn’t you rather have the freedom to stop whenever you wanted to take some photos, go toilet, or just chill out staring at a waterfall?

Visiting Gulfoss Falls Self Drive the Golden Circle in One Day

Visiting Gulfoss Waterfall – Self Drive the Golden Circle in One Day

What kind of rental car do I need in Iceland?

Depending on the time of year you go, and what your travel plans are, you should be fine just getting a small sedan. We hired the cheapest car from Hertz and it worked out perfectly. Since we were covering a huge distance during our entire trip, we wanted to make sure it was fuel efficient and comfortable.

If you are heading there in winter (November – March) you may want to consider picking up a 4×4. This is because some roads can be closed and the roads very icy/snowy. Just check the Iceland road conditions on this official website before you head out.

What is the best Golden Circle route I should take?

There is no set routes if you self drive the Golden Circle. You either head clockwise, or anti-clockwise. But the best part of the Golden Circle route is that you will have to try really hard to get lost. That’s not saying it can’t be done, because we some how missed the turnoff coming out of Reykjavik, but you do have to ignore all the big signs pointing out the attractions along the way.

Starting from Reykjavik head in a clockwise direction towards your first stop which will be the Continental Divide between the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates. You can go diving here as well as wander around for a good hour exploring the many pathways.

Or if the wind is howling and it is freezing like it was the day we did it, run around for 10 minutes grabbing some photos then bugger off again.

Silfra-Tectonic-Plates-splitting-in-Iceland.jpg

The next major stop along Highway 35 on your Golden Circle route is the geysir minefield, aptly known as Geysir.

Stinking like rotting eggs, the sulphur and steam rise up from the ground as you pull up to the information centre and cafe. This is a perfect stop for a bit of coffee and a late brunch snack. If you do stop to warm your insides then this also gives you time to judge your visit between any tour buses that might show up. Just wait half an hour and they will all be herded back onto their diesel belching coaches and you can enjoy the peace and tranquillity by yourselves.

Visiting Geysir during Self Drive the Golden Circle in One Day in Iceland

Visiting Geysir – Self Drive the Golden Circle in One Day

The final major stop around the Golden Circle is the cascading Gulfoss Waterfall.

To be honest we were a little under whelmed as we were there at the end of the winter season and a lot of the water was still trapped beneath the frozen lakes and glaciers to the north. Still, it was beautiful with the ice creeping up the frozen canyon walls from the bitter northerly winds, while dripping icicles hung precariously over the waterfalls lips.

Make sure you take the steps down into the canyon and walk along the river pathway too. Well worth the mini-hike and you can feel the spray from Gulfoss as you explore the path.

Gulfoss Waterfall Self Drive the Golden Circle in One Day in Iceland

While these are the three major stops along the Golden Circle, these shouldn’t be the only reasons you stop.

Around every bend, along every straight and over each hill there are a plethora of photographic opportunities to snap. I couldn’t get enough of the landscape. So while Adela was quite happy to keep her toes warm under the car heater, I was busy running around the car like a photography loony.

Plus have you seen how adorable the Icelandic horses are?

Self Drive the Golden Circle with Icelandic horses

Golden Circle Self Drive in Iceland

What time should I leave on my self drive around the Golden Circle?

Luckily as you are your own boss today, you get to have a sleep in and a leisurely start to the day. Most tour companies will leave before 8am so that they have enough time to make it around all the sights, and still be back in Reykjavik by 5pm.

We left at 10am which was perfect because it meant that most tour buses were a couple of hours ahead of us. This allowed us to have a lot more space at the major attractions and not have to jostle elbow to elbow trying to get the best photographs. We also didn’t return to Reykjavik (see below) so we could take our time at each stop.

Where to stay if you self drive the Golden Circle in one day

While most people will base themselves in Reykjavik, the capital of Iceland, we decided we wanted to stay further along the South Coast as that was where we were headed next. Our choice was simple, the beautiful Vatnsholt Hostel in Selfoss. Plus it is also one of the best places in the world to see the Northern lights.

Vatnsholt Hostel Review

Location

Vatnsholt is located just over an hour from Reykjavík off the main Highway 1. It is a perfect location after you have driven the Golden Circle as you don’t have to go back into the city.

The Rooms

Our room was private inside their old home which has been renovated. There are other rooms in there, with a giant shared kitchen and lounge, but we were the only ones staying in Vatnsholt Hostel at the time.

Vatnsholt Hostel Review

The sunset from Vatnsholt Hostel

Other Amenities

The kitchen inside our apartment was perfect and they had this crazy fancy shower with about 40 buttons inside. We spent ages just trying to figure out how to make it work! They also have free WiFi and one of the best restaurants that I have ever eaten at. The breakfast buffet selection in the morning is never ending (get the waffles) and make sure you eat dinner there at least once.

Staff

The owners are incredible friendly and went out of their way to make sure we were comfortable and well looked after. Make sure you ask Johann and Margret to show you the dancing goat video.

Social Atmosphere

There wasn’t much of a social atmosphere as it was the end of the winter season. A bus load of tourists did show up around midnight to watch the Northern Lights one of the evenings but we didn’t really chat to them.

Cost

$60 US for a private room for two people.

Overall

We fell in love with Vatnsholt Hostel and would have stayed longer if we had the time. Unfortunately we had to buzz off along the coast for a few days, but it would be the perfect base if you had an extra week or two in Iceland. The owners have also lived in the area for years so have plenty of local knowledge that you should use, such as finding the secret geothermal hot pools up in the hills…

It is definitely the best place to stay if you are planning to self drive the Golden Circle in one day, and then explore the south coast afterwards.

Disclaimer: We were guests of Vatnsholt Hostel and thanks to HostelWorld for organising, but as always our thoughts are always our own.

Have you drive then the Golden Circle before? Or did you take a tour bus? What were your highlights?

About the Author ()

Cole is one half of New Zealand's leading adventure travel blogging couple who have been wearing out their jandals around the world since 2009. He loves any adventure activities and anything to do with the water whether it is Surfing, Diving, Swimming, Snorkeling or just lounging nearby on the beach. You can follow Cole on Google+. Or consider following us via RSS Feed, Twitter, Facebook and subscribe to our Newsletter.

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  1. I’m going to Iceland! | The Travel Hack | June 21, 2014
  1. I also want to watch the dancing goat video. Maybe you can post it here Cole? :P

  2. Rueben says:

    Hey cool shot of the geysir. Iceland is cool aye. We wana go back one day and do some more exploring. Sounds like you’re living the dream Cole!

    • Thanks Rueben. It’s been nice to be able to travel the world and work from wherever I like but it has take a lot of hard work to get to where I am! It is also EXHAUSTING so it’s nice to settle down every few months to catch up on work. Shouldn’t complain though ;)

  3. Monica says:

    This sounds absolutely incredible. I’m reading so many amazing things about Iceland at the minute. So much so that I’ve just booked flights there for October and I’m having loads of fun researching all the things to do. I’ll definitely be hiring a car and driving around the Golden Circle.
    Thanks for all the info guys :)
    Monica recently posted..Secrets in the City: Secret CinemaMy Profile

  4. Steve says:

    Wow – this is great advice for Iceland. I still have to go there and experience the impressive nature by myself: especially outdoor activities like multi-day hikes are supposed to be unforgettable. Great piece and nice pictures!

    • Thanks Steve. Definitely worth a trip. If you can stay for longer than a week as well then you will have plenty of time for hiking and exploring a few more of the lesser known places.

  5. Beth says:

    This sounds amazing. Everyone always has such nice things to say about Iceland. Really hoping I can get over there soon!

    And when I do, I will certainly look into renting a car to drive the Golden Circle. Do you know how old you have to be to rent a car in Iceland?

  6. Gabriel says:

    Do you think you could walk the golden circle in a couple of days and simply camp along the way off the road where you won’t be seen? Great pictures also =).
    Gabriel recently posted..Wallpaper Wednesday – August 21st – Flower RiseMy Profile

    • Never thought about it to be honest Gabriel but definitely think you could! Not sure what the freedom camping rules are in Iceland but as long as you were fully prepared and went in summer then I don’t see why not :) Let me know if you attempt it because that would be EPIC!

  7. Jane says:

    This looks awesome! I’m hoping to visit Iceland for 7 days next May. Would you mind sharing your itinerary? All your photos look amazing! Thanks!

  8. Arthur Robidoux says:

    Thanks,this will give us an idea how to start our trip

  9. Ross says:

    Nice post and I’d agree that renting a car is definitely better than the tourist bus. I did the lap of the country and its one of the best places I was in. As you say there is a photo opportunity around every corner. Super country
    Ross recently posted..Kayaking in Dublin and WicklowMy Profile

  10. Ashley says:

    Love the photos! We´re planning a trip to Iceland at the moment. What dates did you visit in? We´re thinking of mid-late April, around Easter and not sure if it will still be icy or not.
    Ashley recently posted..Discovering Cadiz: Beaches, Booze and Eccentric LocalsMy Profile

    • Hey Ashley,
      We were there the first week of April. Less chance of seeing the Northern Lights then, but it is still possible. Around Easter will be fine in terms of ice. It is still freezing but it shouldn’t be icy. You will be fine with a non-4×4 car.
      Enjoy it!
      Cheers,
      Cole

  11. Lynne says:

    I am planning on going to Iceland with a friend as a stop-over to Amsterdam. We will be there April 2 and 3rd. We are staying in the suburb of Hafnarfjordur which is about halfway between the airport and the capital. We rented a car to do the golden circle and also to go to the blue lagoon. What was the weather like when you were there? Was there any concern for icy roads or snow? Also did you get a chance to interact with the Icelandic horses? I hear they are very sweet and love to be petted. Are they wild? If we get up and get going around 1000 AM would that give us plenty of time to see the golden circle before night fall? Also did you get a chance to see the Northern lights? That is something I would love to see. Thanks for answering my way too many questions but I appreciate it.

    • Hi Lynne,
      Sorry about my delay in replying. Been a very busy Christmas and New Year break for me :)
      Thanks for commenting and very jealous of you going to Iceland. I would love to return again. The weather was great when we went in April. Although still very cold in the evenings especially when the wind comes straight from the North Pole! Take plenty of base layers. Didn’t have any problems with the roads and we just had a little rental car with no 4 wheel drive. I do recommend checking weather just before you go though. I took some beautiful shots of Icelandic horses but never rode them. You can go on horse treks though but I didn’t get a chance. And yup saw the northern lights. But April is getting late in the season. Check out this post for more info on where we stayed and some photos: http://www.fourjandals.com/europe/eye-spy-in-iceland-photo-essay/

      You should also be fine to see everything if you leave at 10am. Just take your time driving and enjoy it. The distance isn’t far but if you want to walk around at all the sights then it does take a while. Hope that helps with your planning!

      Safe travels :)

      Cheers,
      Cole

  12. Lynne says:

    P.S. Lived in NZ for 2 years way back in the 70’s. Loved the country and the people. Beautiful place, so pristine. Want to go back there someday. Some of the nicest people on the planet live there.
    Lynne recently posted..Top casinos to visit when travelling in MacauMy Profile

  13. Stacy says:

    Hi: Is it possible to drive by myself to Thorsmork?

  14. Zahid Shafiq says:

    I plan a stopover in Iceland for a day (half-a-day, really!)om May 6, 2014.

    The plane lands at 6:40am, and the flight out is 4;10pm the same evening (couldn’t get a later flight, unfortunately).

    my question is: Can i do the Glden Circle in this time, keeping in mind that I will have to report back to the airport at 3pm ?

    If yes, how. Taxi? rent-a-car? Any idea of the costs associated with these options?

    Thanks for your advice.

    Regards

    • Hey Zahid,
      I think you could but you will need to hurry and might not get as much time as you possibly would want at each of the major stops. Renting a car is best and a small car will be fine in May as there shouldn’t be any snow.
      Enjoy it!

  15. Samuel Wilson says:

    Hi Cole,

    I am heading to Iceland to go to the All Tomorrows Parties but wanted to explore a bit beforehand too. I’ll be in the capital but wanted to know what you thought about getting out into the wilderness with a tent and a hired car. If so, where should I go if I wanted to see the spectacular sites and pitch up a tent.

    I’m accompanied with 2 friends and will be there in July.

    Thank you in advance!

    Sam

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