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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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?
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
$60 US for a private room for two people.
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?