Iceland Golden Circle: A Self-Drive Itinerary

Iceland is the perfect destination for nature-loving travellers who are short on time. Even in 48 hours, you can experience jaw-dropping waterfalls like Gulfoss, impressive geysers like Strokkur, and a national park (Þingvellir). These stops are along the stunning Golden Circle drive, as well as in the area surrounding Reykjavík. Since you can self-drive Iceland’s Golden Circle in just one day (with about 3 hours of actual driving), it’s ideal for anyone with a long layover.

We’ve put together the best 48-hour Golden Circle itinerary so you can make the most of your trip to Iceland:

Table of Contents

Iceland Golden Circle Self-Drive Itinerary:


iceland golden circle self drive
Slightly treacherous with moving rocks beneath my feet. I loved climbing in this canyon!
iceland golden circle self drive Þingvellir National Park
Access this canyon from the parking lot next to the waterfall parking lot, closest to the main road, and you might get it all to yourself.

One thing that I loved about Iceland was that all of the national parks are free. The rumors that Iceland is expensive are true, so it’s a relief that these incredible locations will not set you back at any krona.

Þingvellir National Park holds a lot of cultural, historical, and natural significance for Iceland. Not only does it mark the convergence of the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates but it’s also where the Icelandic Parliament was established.

There are several rift valleys throughout the park with incredibly clear water, some of which you can dive and snorkel in. Others are full of rocks, beautiful green grasses, and lush foliage.

The area became a World Heritage Site in 2004 and borders Iceland’s largest lake. One could easily spend an entire day just in this park and we devoted several hours to it.


Having fun trying to pronounce these names yet? Here’s an easier one: Geysir.

iceland golden circle self drive Haukadalur
Haukadalur’s Strokkur Geysir

The Strokkur geyser shoots water 15 and 20 meters into the air every 5-6 minutes. Sadly, the larger one, Geysir is no longer active… but I sure wish I’d been able to see it! These spots are busiest in the afternoons so come early (or late) to dodge the crowds.

iceland golden circle self drive geysir
Maksim standing near a bubbling pool of water
iceland golden circle self drive geysir
The fumes and the sun made for a beautiful afternoon

The area was formed by earthquakes and the bubbling, sulfuric pools are simultaneously beautiful, crystal clear, and billowing with pungent fumes. If you’ve ever been near an active volcano crater before, you’ll know I’m referring to that rotten egg smell. You will become very familiar with this smell during your trip to Iceland.

These geysers and bubbling pools are super cool to see and not far from the next attraction:


This is a pretty incredible waterfall, seeming to fall sideways in a staircase fashion into a crevice that is 105 feet (32 meters) deep. It seems to appear out of nowhere and vanish just as quickly.

This waterfall is notable not only for its massive size but also for the great measures taken to preserve it.

The waterfall owner’s daughter, Sigríður Tómasdóttir, is credited as Iceland’s first environmentalist thanks to her determination to preserve the waterfall. When European investors attempted to dam the waterfall to provide power, and profits, she threatened to throw herself into the waterfall.

Today, it’s one of Iceland’s most visited sights.

Kerið Crater Lake

Just a note on the crater lake, since Maksim and I decided to skip it (you’ll see why later in this post). The lake is notable for its red rather than black volcanic rock and is only half as old as most of its volcanic surroundings.

If you have time, you can make this your last stop on the Golden Circle before making your way back to Reykjavik.

Beyond Iceland’s Golden Circle:


The next morning, we decided to head a bit south of Reykjavik and explore an even more spectacular lake en route to yet another geothermal area that’s more popular with hikers.

The drive there was a beautiful adventure in itself, full of moss-covered stones and a seriously cool-looking sky:

The drive around the lake is beautiful, full of lookout points and places to stop. There are epic rock formations, black sand coves, and vast volcanic hillsides all around. It’s a truly incredible area that’s often quieter than the main attractions on the Golden Circle. It’s a vast lake, so you can easily spend all morning or afternoon exploring the area.


This area is full of geothermal fields and bubbling mud pots, including the famous Seltún. There were fewer tourists here than at the Strokkur/Geysir geyser and, while none of these shot up in the air, it’s still an incredible spot. Really, you feel like you’re on another planet! If you’re a hiker, then you will love Seltún.

The area is also known for its soil, which you can see in the photos. It appears green, red, and yellow in places. It’s also where German scientists proposed a hypothesis on the formation of sulphuric acid in nature based on a visit in 1845. Pretty cool stuff!

Say hi to the furry residents

No trip to Iceland is complete without some playtime with the furry Icelandic horses, which were developed in Iceland and kept pure thanks to stringent import and export laws. They are small but hearty and rarely suffer from diseases.

They’re mainly used for sheep herding and are notable for their thick, soft fur and manes. Seriously, these horses have the best hair.

You’ll see them everywhere as you drive around Iceland. I have to admit, at first I was a little shy about getting close to them but this one really wanted me to pet him, so I obliged.

It was a little awkward making friends with someone who has way better hair than I do, but we were able to put our differences aside.

iceland golden circle self drive icelandic pony
Sweet hair, bro


Maksim and I ended up here when he stopped by a gravel road and pointed, “There, I want to go down there.” (map)

I wouldn’t have even thought of it had he not been so curious… and I’m glad I went along for the ride.

This was the only spot during those first two days that we had entirely to ourselves. We explored an incredible black sand beach with black stone cliffs, where we climbed for at least an hour. It almost looked like a giant bowling ball had carved it out. There are also remains of an old fishing village.

Final stop: the Blue Lagoon

The Blue Lagoon is best to visit en route back to the airport. It’s on the way, plus you will have the most relaxed flight home after. Just be aware that is an extremely popular tourist destination and does get quite crowded! Those beautiful blue waters are worth it though.

The water is warmer in some places than others so move around to get the best spot. You can also buy a few drinks for around $10 each, which is about what I’d pay back in Los Angeles, so I didn’t think that was too bad!

The lagoon also has clay mud you can rub on your face if you feel like it. Fair warning; I have naturally dry skin and it did dry me out, but most masks tend to.

A final lagoon tip: if you want to get your hair in the water, coat it with conditioner first as the sulfuric water can leave it feeling dry and crispy.

When you land

Maksim and I booked an airport transfer that got us close to our hotel and, on the way back, we included a stop at the Blue Lagoon. You can also pick up your car from the airport or take a public or private bus to reach Reykjavík. Keflavík airport is about 50 kilometres or a 45-minute drive away from the city centre.

Where to rent a car

I recommend renting from SADcars because they’re pretty affordable. They do have a full-to-full policy, meaning you’re given a car with a full tank of gas and expected to return it full. Their cheapest cars go for 55€ per day, including third-party liability and CDW insurance. Other car rental companies have similar (if not slightly more expensive) prices, starting at 60-65€ per day.

The roads along the Golden Circle are flat and pretty easy to self-drive barring bad weather, so a 4×4 isn’t necessary. However, you should really purchase extra insurance. Iceland is known for extreme weather and cars are often damaged. The winds alone can bend back car doors like it’s nothing (always hold the door when you’re opening it!).

Where to stay

Maksim and I stayed at a wonderful Airbnb rental that was warm, cozy, and well-situated. There are tons of them in Reykjavik and apartment rentals (and small guesthouses) remain my favorite way to travel in Europe. If you’re looking for something more romantic, check out these honeymoon in Iceland tips.

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