All you need to know to visit the Golden Circle Iceland in winter. Self drive vs organised tours, main stops, facilities on the road and must have info to plan your winter escape to Iceland’s famous driving route. Our guide to planning the perfect day trip around Iceland’s Golden circle.
When I first started planning my winter weekend in Iceland, two places stood out as must-sees: the Blue Lagoon and the Golden Circle.
Both appear as tourist favourites in any Iceland itinerary and a quick look at photos is all it takes to understand why: the blue Lagoon is relaxation heaven while the Golden Circle, Iceland, has, to put it simply, some of the most beautiful natural landscapes I have ever seen.
The photos showed green lawns in the summer and magical snowy landscapes in winter and while they ignited my desire to go, they also sparked some questions: is it safe to visit Iceland Golden Circle in winter? Should I self drive or get on an organised tour? How long will it take to see it?
I love researching a destination so I took this winter planning as a bit of a challenge and I got my answers. Some of them came easy.
Yes, you can visit the Golden circle in winter. No, it is not overrated. Yes, you can visit the Golden Circle in one day.
Others required more studying and I couldn’t really answer until I went and saw the place for myself.
This post is my summary of all I have learnt in this process both via research, tips from locals and personal experience.
What is the Golden Circle Iceland?
The Golden Circle is a popular scenic driving route in Iceland famous for touching on some of Iceland’s most famous and iconic sites: Thingvellir National Park, Geysir and Gullfoss waterfall.
The route is about 300 km long (slightly less, according to google maps) and it loops from and to Reykjavik with easy-to-drive roads.
The proximity to the capital and the beauty of its vistas makes it very popular with day trippers and holidaymakers alike, who flock to its scenic lanes in the thousands each year.
How long does it take to drive the Golden Circle?
How long it takes to drive the Golden Circle depends largely on how many stops you decide to make and how long you want to spend in each location.
In principle, you can drive it in about 4 or 5 hours but this would allow you to see very little: rather than a scenic road, the Golden Circle is a route touching several attractions, most of them not road side.
To fully enjoy it, you need to stop the car and get out. At a very minimum, I reckon you need 6 hours to ‘do’ the very basic tour, longer if you travel in summer and you want to also take some of the hikes in the area.
We visited the Golden Circle in winter and opted for an afternoon 6h tour with Grayline.
It was fabulous and it allowed us just about the right time to get a good sense of the several attractions. However, this was largely due to the fact that in winter many of the paths were closed meaning we couldn’t do much more even had we had more time.
In summer, I reckon 6 hours would be way too few to enjoy the area and I would advice to plan at least one full day to explore.
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Golden Circle Iceland: self drive or guided tour?
The biggest question I had about visiting the Golden Circle in winter was: shall we drive or get an organised tour? The answer to this is largely personal and depends on how familiar or unfamiliar you are with the roads and driving in snowy conditions.
Personally, my advice is: unless you are very familiar with driving in snowy, wintery conditions, take a guided tour in the winter and self drive in summer.
In general, driving in Iceland is easy.
The roads are tranquil and well kept and at least in February there was much less snow that we had anticipated. On the day of our tour (late February) there was hardly any snow at all on the roads, while the landscape was still pearly white.
However, this doesn’t mean you should simply get a car and drive. Weather in Iceland is notoriously temperamental and visibility can get really scarce really quickly.
If you decide to drive, make sure you follow some basic safety procedures such as making sure the car has winter tires (ideally studded), you have checked the road conditions for the area you are going to and weather forecast.
Also, if you don’t like driving in darkness, time your day out on the Golden circle in winter around hours of daylight.
Main stops on the Golden Circle
The three main stops on the Golden Circle are Thingvellir National Park, Geyser and Gullfoss waterfall. The three stops are stunning and together make for a great introduction to Iceland.
- Thingvellir has important cultural meaning and is located in an area where two tectonic plaques meet, making it geologically very interesting
- Geyser is scenic and a perfect introduction to one of Iceland’s most famous characteristic, its wealth of geothermal energy
- Gullfoss is stunning and embodies the power and pristine beauty of Iceland’s waterfalls.
If this wasn’t enough, the three stops also have some good facilities and restaurants on site and we were told one of the restaurants in Geysir’s serves ‘the best lamb soup in the country’. I didn’t try it but it sounds like it would be a fabulous food stop!
Other stops and available activities along the Golden Circle are:
Snorkeling/Diving in Silfra. As unlikely as this may sound, snorkeling and diving are popular activities on the Golden Circle also in winter. Silfra features regularly as one of the best diving sites in the world due to the clarity of its waters and its peculiar location between two tectonic plaques.
Many organisations offer days out, you can find a sample of what is on offer here.
Certified open water divers may also be interested in this diving experience. Please note that I am NOT a diver and I am listing these activities for completeness: please do your own research to make sure such activities are safe and suitable for you.
Horse Riding on the Golden Circle in winter. Horse riding is very popular in Iceland and can be done, weather on the day permitting, in all seasons. A place that regularly receives stellar reviews is this one offering horseback excursions along Iceland’s lava fields.
Laugarvatn Fontana Wellness centre. Iceland’s famous geothermal energy can be enjoyed in the form of hot springs in several locations and the Fontana Wellness Centre is one that gained popularity over the course of the last year. You can visit the centre and soak in its waters as part of a day tour such as the one here
The Golden Circle in winter: our experience and travel diary
Since we are not used to driving in snow, we decided to visit with the Golden Circle in winter trusting one of Iceland’s best known bus companies: Grayline.
They offer big bus tours pretty much everywhere in Iceland and they are excellent. We were hesitant at the start, worrying a big bus would mean crowded sites and impersonal experience, but I have only praise for them. The service was excellent, the guide amazing (truly informative and fun in non annoying way – so rare!) and the bus was clean and comfortable, something you really want when driving with a snow blanket covering the landscape.
They picked us up from our apartments at lunchtime and we quickly set off to our first stop, Thingvellir National Park.
Thingvellir National Park
Thingvellir National Park is located approximately 45 km northeast of Reykjavík.
The park is famous for its incredible natural beauty but also for being one of the most important cultural sites in Iceland: this is the birthplace of the first democratic parliament in the world!
Thingvellir Cultural significance
Thingvellir National Park entered the UNESCO Register of World Heritage Sites in 2004, due to its importance in the history of modern democracy.
Iceland’s first settlers didn’t have a centralised government: they had come from Scandinavia and had organised their communities under the guidance of chieftains administering justice though local assemblies (things).
Over the course of the years the communities grew to such an extent that a centralised thing became necessary and Blaskogur (now called Thingvellir = parliament fields) was chosen as its location.
This Icelandic parliament started operating in 930 AD: it was an open air parliamentary assembly and it met annually over the course of 2 weeks to settle disputes.
The location of this ancient parliament can be visited from the main car park adjacent to the visitor centre.
Thingvellir natural significance
On arrival, you are first greeted by a beautiful view of the valley but the real star attraction here is the walk downhill towards the parliament.
Steep but not so much to be difficult, the walk follows a crack in the geological make of this area and showcases the other main characteristic of the park: the fact that is located in between two tectonic plaque, the European and the North America one.
The Þingvellir area (the Þ letter is usually anglicized in ‘th’) is part of a fissure zone running through Iceland: it is situated on the tectonic plate boundaries of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge who are consistently shifting away from each other.
This tectonic movement means that now there is a valley between the two plaques, growing by each year at the speed of about 1 cm. Walking in this valley effectively means walking in the rift between the Eurasia and the North American plaque, something I find positively mind blowing!
Visiting the parliament site doesn’t take long but this is one of those locations where I did feel we could have done with a longer stop. The area has beautiful hikes and you can explore them on foot and on horseback,something I am hoping to do on our next trip here.
You can find more info on the options in the area here
Facilities at Þingvellir (Thingvellir) National Park
Thingvellir has a visitor centre located just beside the main car park. Here you can find interactive stations with info about the park, food and toilet facilities (there is a charge for these).
The full multimedia programme lasts about 40 minutes and is available in several languages. Touch screens allow visitors to dip in and out and only select the piece of information most relevant to their query.
Where to stay in Thingvellir National Park
Several accommodation options are available in the park. I researched them in preparation of our next trip to the area and selected the following on the basis of available reviews (guidebooks + booking.com site + personal recommendations).
Visiting Gullfoss waterfall in winter
Our second stop along the Golden Circle route was Gullfoss.
From Thingvellir, we found ourselves passing Geyser first but our guide suggested to head to the waterfall first and in terms of the light we got, I believe he was right.
Gullfoss is stunning and one of those places that makes you suddenly aware of the power of nature, its immense beauty and your minuscule size in the wider scheme of things.
Gullfoss was by far my favourite stop of the day and I will go as far as saying it is the main reason why I recommend visiting the Golden circle in winter.
While during the cold season you are not able to get as close to the waterfall as in summer, the ice formations around it are powerful and so impressive I dare any first time visitor not to have one jaw dropping moment when you first get a glimpse of it!
Gullfoss is just stunning: the water drops 32 meters and but there is more to it than just its cascading flow. The large river, the tiered sides, the narrow ravine that make up the site all conjure to creating a stunning spectacle, made even better by the subdued yet sparkly tones of grey, white and blue created by the light hitting the ice.
In summer, I am told you can walk close to the fall: in winter the steep path is closed but the view makes up for it.
After threat of being turned into a power plant, Gullfoss is now protected and its incredible beauty is now safe.
Facilities at Gullfoss waterfall.
Gullfoss is well organised for tourists. Beside the parking there is nice building with a good shop and cafe and toilet facilities are free.
Our last stop along the Golden Circle was Geysir, a locality so famous for its geothermal activity it gave the name to the natural wonder that are the ‘geysers’.
The name Geysir gives away the type of attraction that makes people flock to this corner of Iceland: here is where you find the original geyser, the hot water spout shooting up towards the sky all other geysers have been named after.
The area is easy to visit and truly remarkable. You park in front of the geysers area and at first glance there is little to be seen. After impressive Gullfoss, Geysir may seem a let down: the area is flat, there is no greenery and steam comes up from the ground, giving it a somewhat uninviting look.
However, all it takes is to get close to to the steam ponds to tap into the wonder of this place.
Here you have several geysers, as well as many hot ponds with crystal clear yet scorching hot water. They are cordoned off to avoid accidents but they are truly interesting to see: even the non exploding ponds offer an insight on the peculiar geology of the area an you are likely to find yourself staring into them for a lot longer that you realised.
There is something mesmerising about them!
The star of the show here however are not the ponds but the gayer itself. The big one that gives the name to the locality is huge but now largely inactive. However, there is a smaller yet impressive geyser who erupts reliably every 5 to 7 minutes and this is where tourists flock.
You will see its impressive sprays more than once during your visit and each is magical. The best way to see it in action is to place yourself very close the pond (don’t cross the cordoned area!) on the side that allows you to peek into the water (left, coming from the main road, but only do this is the wind blows the other way!)
With this vantage point you will not only see the massive spray when it blows up to the sky but you will also witness the moment when the water created a bubble just before exploding.
We saw it happening 3 times and I could have stayed there forever!
Facilities at Geysir
Geysir is served by a good cafe and large shop located in the parking just in front of the geysers, restaurants and a hotel. The shop has amazing albeit expensive Icelandic design clothes and the restaurants serve high quality food.
This, with the location along the Golden circle, make Geyser and excellent last stop before returning to Reykjavik.
Our tour bought us back home in the late afternoon. From here we had to quickly get ready to visit the Blue Lagoon but the rush to get onto the next activity didn’t take away from the main take away from the day.
The Golden circle is one of those famous places that are famous for a reason and visiting it in winter treated us to some of the most spectacular landscapes we had ever witnessed.