Hopping on the Golden Circle Tour in Iceland? Let’s Choose the Right One!
If you’re heading to Iceland, there is a good chance you’ve heard of the Golden Circle Tour. In fact, you might have seen photos and know that you want to check out the Golden Circle already! Luckily, Penguin and Pia are here to help! Eric did a classic Golden Circle tour when he stopped over in Iceland with a buddy on his classic Europe trip. You can find that exact Golden Circle tour here.
There really isn’t a best Golden Circle tour since they are overall quite similar. That said, it really depends on what you want to see and your budget. Tours differ slightly by length (full-day or express tour) and by the included attractions or add-ons (like seeing the northern lights). Because of this, the price can vary quite a bit so you will have to do a bit of research – but we’ve provided you the options to shop around.
You might also be interested in doing the Golden Circle as a self-drive. If this is the case for you, we’ve provided you with a Golden Circle map of the main attractions to help you plan! This post, however, is going to focus on the tours that head out there so that Iceland travellers can choose the best one for them.
Full Disclosure: This is NOT a sponsored post. This was a tour paid for with our own money. Eric had a great experience and now we’re telling you about it. It’s something that family/friends frequently ask about before planning their trip to Iceland anyways. Ready to check out the Golden Circle? Let’s go!
Golden Circle Tour Map
If you are curious, here is a small map to show you the main attractions on the classic Golden Circle tour as well as a few additional ones (the Secret Lagoon, Kerið Crater, etc). If you are self-driving the route, this is just to show you the general locations and distances relative to Reykjavik and to one another.
If you need a rental car, you can compare rental car prices for your trip to Iceland here. As general advice, definitely book a car ahead of time in the busy season to avoid disappointment. It’s a well-driven route with good highways and lots of parking – but this can change in the busy season of summer and somewhat in the winter (for northern lights tourism).
Golden Circle Tour Options
While the Golden Circle route is typically a visit to the three main attractions Gullfoss waterfall, Geysir and Strokkur, and Þingvellir National Park, there are a few different tours options available. These other Golden Circle tour options allow you to check out the Golden Circle and another significant natural wonder or two. Here are a few of the options explained so you can understand the different tours.
Golden Circle Classic Day Tour
As we mentioned, we did the “classic Golden Circle Day Tour” which included three stops (Gullfoss waterfall, Geysir and Strokkur, and Þingvellir National Park) and then returned to Reykjavik. You can find that exact tour here.
Golden Circle Express Tour
The express tour was created for the specific purpose that those flying through on an Iceland stopover might want to see the landscape as well. Well, an afternoon-only tour does just that – it gets you to places quickly. This tour is great because if you only have one full day you can discover Reykjavik in the morning but still get out into the countryside to experience Icelandic sights. If you are short on time in Iceland, check out the Golden Circle Express tour here.
Golden Circle with Volcanic Kerið Crater
There are other combination tours that include checking out neat attractions like the Kerið Volcanic Crater. If you want to want to do the classic Golden Circle Tour but also peek into a volcanic crater in Iceland, this is the day tour for you!
Golden Circle Tour with Secret Lagoon Swim
If you want to explore the Golden Circle but also get a chance to dive into the famed blue waters of Iceland’s geothermal landscape, you can book a tour that includes a stop to the Secret Lagoon. Keep in mind, this is different from the famous Blue Lagoon (which Eric has also been to). You can check out this Secret Lagoon tour here.
Golden Circle Tour with Northern Lights
If you are heading to Iceland in the winter time, there is a good chance you’re interested in seeing the Northern Lights when you are there. Eric has seen the Northern Lights just outside of Reykjavik with a few friends. Even though it was cloudy that night it was still a cool experience. Check out the Golden Circle and Northern Lights combo tour.
Ultimate Iceland 3-Day Tour Experience
Okay, admittedly this tour goes well beyond the Golden Circle but WOW would it be an amazing experience. This is a bucket list item for us because of the glacier hike. Here is a massive tour that includes the Golden Circle, the Northern Lights, an Ice Cave tour, and a Glacier Hike! It’s a 3-day tour that also includes accommodations and transport – so if you’re heading to Iceland and want to see everything in one go with minimal hassle, this Ultimate Iceland Tour might be for you.
The Classic Golden Circle Tour
Alright, so here we are with all the details of the classic Golden Circle tour we did. If you want to book a tour and want to spoil yourself with a few photos beforehand, then read on to see what you can expect! If you don’t want to see the pretty photos, then stop reading here…. you’ve been warned!
What’ll You’ll Need for the Tour
We booked the tour before we got to Iceland a few weeks before. While the confirmation had a few “need to bring” items like boots and your tour ticket, we wanted to write a more comprehensive list of what you might need on the day. This is from Eric’s experience in May so consider some of the items to be more seasonal than others. Here’s the full list and a few add-ons that we would suggest you bring:
- A good raincoat/wind breaker. This is Eric’s Northface. It’s water-resistant and has been around for years.
- Hiking boots or hiking shoes with a good tread. We both have a pair of Merrells that we love.
- A hat, gloves, and scarf (definitely for winter but also the summer wind can be surprisingly chilly!)
- Bathing suit and maybe a towel – if you are heading to the Secret Lagoon. Check your ticket for the inclusion of towel rental.
- A change of underwear (if you do swim) – sitting in wet clothes on the bus is no fun.
- Cameras/phones for photos.
- A daypack. This is our Northface daypack – we love it.
- Snacks. We like food.
- Water bottle. Stay hydrated while hiking and bottled water is expensive!
- Sunglasses – season and day depending.
- Money for tipping/lunch/coffee at cafe/souvenirs.
Start of the Golden Circle Tour – Leaving Reykjavik
Our pickup from Reykjavik was very easy. When we booked the tour we could specify that we were to be picked up from our place at KEX Hostel. A mini bus then showed up to grab us and a few others who were heading out on tours that morning.
We drove through Reykjavik, picked up a few more people at various hotels and headed for BSI Bus Terminal where many of the day trips and tours leave from. This is also where the FlyBus goes to from KEF Airport – you likely came here already if you took the shuttle bus from the airport!
We showed our tickets (which we had printed out beforehand, check your tour for applicable ticket formats) and off we went right on time. We drove for about 40 minutes and as we left the city behind the Iceland landscape started to greet us. Just rocks, moss, and hills as far as the eye can see form a tiny highway that seems to disappear over the horizon.
The bus itself was comfortable, the driver was safe and great, and we had a guide who told us things along the way and generally kept time and kept the tour organized. Lots of the tours do the route differently (and stop at additional places) so we’ll just cover the main attractions in the other we saw them. First up was Gullfoss!
Also called the “Golden Falls” in English, Gullfoss is an incredible first sight that honestly makes you go “wow” as you’re walking towards them. You hear them first – then you see them. We parked in the parking lot and had to walk into the park area to see the falls. The hike wasn’t overly difficult but it was a little longer than you would have thought given how loud the falls are. It was a beautiful day so we really enjoyed the walk in.
As you walk, be sure to stick to the marked trails and be careful in all seasons. Ice is unforgiving, rocks can roll and shift, rain can make things slippery, etc. When you get down to the lower observation areas, be extra careful to stay within the ropes. One side of the rope is safety and enjoyment, the other is death. No, seriously. You don’t mess with Icelandic nature. Be a responsible visitor, please!
Keep in mind that we travelled in May so the cliffs would usually be showing off a green grass and moss covering. We actually didn’t mind the leftover snow and ice as it made the tour feel more snowy and magical yet still warm enough to enjoy. After LOTS of photos and plenty of time to just stand there and enjoy nature (just close your eyes for a few seconds), we headed back to the bus in the parking lot. If you want to check out the official site for Gullfoss, you can see it here.
Strokkur Geyser + Lunch
We drove along for a time and distance that was shorter than the first trip out to Gullfoss from Reykjavik. When the shuttle bus came to a stop, we had arrived at the entrance for Strokkur Geyser! Actually, our first stop was the chalet/information centre that is located right across the highway from the park entrance.
We were a little hungry, so we decided to go all out and get a bowl of Icelandic Meat Soup (kjötsúpa) made with lamb. It was delicious and perfect on the chilly day! Lunch was not included for us but some tours might have it – be sure to check tour details.
After fueling up on lamb stew, we headed out toward the geysers and hot springs. The area is like walking through another planet – maybe Mars – with boiling water, steam, and awesome colours everywhere. It’s easy to stay on the trails since the area is quite open. If you didn’t already see the crowd gathered, you will eventually. Head on over to Strokkur and wait for it to blow – it’s usually every 4 to 8 minutes!
There is something about having nature be predictable that is a super odd feeling – but it’s awesome to experience in person. Having something that can do something incredible at a reliable rate almost makes us humans spoiled when we are there. In any case, it’s always a sight as new people arrive and see it blow for the first time. Never gets old.
After we watched Strokkur blow its lid a few times, we walked the area a little more to explore the other thermal hot spots. In general, the area is well-marked and it’s pretty clear where the dangerous spots are. This is nice when the water is literally boiling hot.
We checked the time and wandered back to the bus having had plenty of time to explore. If you want to check out information on visiting Strokkur, you can find that here.
Þingvellir National Park
We drove for quite some time between the geysers and the National Park but the drive was worth it. It was nice to rest in the warm bus watching the landscape go by. The last stop was Þingvellir National Park (usually Thingvellir in English). We parked and were told we had plenty of time to explore which we used to full advantage. Fun Fact: the park was used as a Game of Thrones filming location. So if you are a fan, it might be extra special!
The park is also very popular because of the fact that two tectonic plates – the Eurasian tectonic plate and the North American tectonic plate – meet here at what is called the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. One of the coolest things that you can do is a day trip to snorkel or dive IN BETWEEN the plates in freezing cold water. We have a friend who did it and said it was an absolutely incredible experience. Don’t worry, you wear a dry suit to stay warm!
The park itself is beautiful and massive so while we only saw a tiny piece, it was great to explore with lots of walking paths in different directions. You can get good views of Þingvallavatn, which is the largest natural lake in all of Iceland. Our guide told us a few other neat things about the region – but we won’t spoil them all for you!
After a good amount of exploring time, we returned to the bus to start the journey back to Reykjavik. If you want to check out the official site for Þingvellir National Park, you can see it here.
End of the Tour – Returning to Reykjavik
With the sun setting slowly, it was time to head back. Honestly, we were SO sleepy after a day outside and hiking about. The bus was very silent – a different vibe from the morning drive out there! The drive wasn’t too long since the Park is closer to Reykjavik than the other attractions. Once in the city, we dropped people off at various hotels. We ended up just getting off somewhere downtown to grab our dinner but we could have gone back to the bus terminal for a free transfer.
And there you have it, our awesome day on the Golden Circle Tour in Iceland. Would we do it again? Absolutely. Honestly, it was worth the money. Doing this tour was an excellent “zero-hassle” way to see all 3 locations and it was a safe, fun, and enjoyable the whole time. If you want to learn more, you can check out this classic Golden Circle Tour here. Lisa has never been to Iceland so we are keen to go back – and we would probably add on seeing the northern lights! If you go to Iceland, please remember to respect the landscape and let us know what you think!
As always, Happy Golden Circle Waddlin’!