Everyone that visits Iceland cannot miss the Golden Circle tour. But the ultimate question is whether you should see 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, 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 significant. But being herded onto and off a bus all day as you try to get around all the sites along the Golden Circle route seems ridiculous. Wouldn’t you rather have the freedom to stop whenever you wanted to take some photos, go toilet, or chill out staring at a waterfall?
What kind of rental car do I need in Iceland?
Depending on the time of year and your travel plans, you should be fine just getting a small sedan. We hired the cheapest car from Hertz, and it worked out perfectly. Since we covered a vast 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. Some roads can be closed, and the roads are very icy/snowy. Check the Iceland road conditions on this official website before heading out.
What is the best Golden Circle route I should take?
There are 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 hard to get lost. That’s not saying it can’t be done because we somehow missed the turnoff coming out of Reykjavik, but you have to ignore all the big signs pointing out the attractions along the way.
You are 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 and 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 sulfur and steam rise from the ground as you pull up to the information center 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.
We were a little underwhelmed 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 waterfall’s lips.
Make sure you take the steps down into the canyon and walk along the river pathway. Well worth the mini-hike, and you can feel the spray from Gulfoss as you explore the path.
While these are the three significant 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 many 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 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 boss today, you get to have a sleep-in and a leisurely start to the day. Most tour companies will leave before 8 am to have enough time to make it around all the sights and still be back in Reykjavik by 5 pm.
We left at 10 am, perfect because 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 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 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 had been renovated. There are other rooms there, with a big 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 are 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 amicable and went out of their way to ensure 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 busload of tourists did show up around midnight to watch the Northern Lights one of the evenings, but we didn’t 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 they have plenty of local knowledge that you should use, such as finding the private geothermal hot pools up in the hills…
It is the best place to stay if you plan to self-drive the Golden Circle in one day and then explore the south coast afterward.
Disclaimer: We were guests of Vatnsholt Hostel, and thanks to HostelWorld for organizing, but as always, our thoughts are always our own.
Have you driven than the Golden Circle before? Or did you take a tour bus? What were your highlights?