Iceland: Golden Circle Road-Trip Itinerary & Guide
Whether it’s your first or fifth time to “The Land of Fire and Ice”, in this post, I’m sharing an Iceland Golden Circle Road Trip Itinerary and Guide for self-driving around the Ring Road, for 6 days based in Reykjavík.
In March I travelled to Iceland for the first time with three good friends and road-tripped the Golden Circle. Iceland was everything we expected and more.
Four seasons in a single day, more natural phenomena within 300 kilometres than you could count on both hands, and exceptionally expensive beer.
Everything people say about Iceland’s beauty and weather is true. It truly is a faraway glacial kingdom where thunderous waterfalls gush into icy pools; where blinding snowstorms swallow up roads; where giant waves spill onto black beaches.
Plus, we got to see the Northern Lights. They were magical.
Please note: this Iceland Golden Circle Road-Trip Itinerary is completely free! I’ve worked hard to make a useful resource for you. If it helps you plan your trip, I’d be grateful if you use my affiliate links. This gives me a small commission at no extra cost to you! Cheers 🙂
Why did you decide to visit Iceland?
Iceland is raw, dazzling, unadulterated nature.
Before Instagram propelled Iceland to stratospheric fame (at least, to me) a couple of years ago, I only knew of the country as a cold, mystical place beyond Scandinavia. The kind of island adventure I usually go for involves coconuts, palm trees, warm ocean… I was ready for a change!
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Along came photos of the Aurora Borealis, explosive streaks of purple and green in a sparkling night sky. Of snowscapes so pure white that they look almlagost alien. I remember seeing some kind of desktop background of the Northern Lights years ago, and thinking that they couldn’t possibly be real.
One sleepy Sunday morning, as soft rain fell against my windows at home in London, a too-good-to-ignore flight deal to Reykjavik appeared in my inbox. I texted some friends who’d seen the deal too. You in? I’m in. The trip was happening.
Getting to Iceland: The Basics
Where in Iceland did you travel to?
We travelled to Iceland in late March, which is winter season, and based ourselves in Reykjavík. We planned to comfortably drive around the Golden Circle early in the day and return to Reykjavík to experience the city’s cultural scenes later on.
Where did you stay in Reykjavík?
We stayed in a charming three-bedroom AirBnb apartment tucked away near the domestic Reykjavík Airport (RKV), a short drive away from the city centre. The apartment was warm and cosy, impeccably decorated, and best of all, I stayed in the top attic room which had big windows overlooking the harbour and neighbouring rooftops. The sunsets were beautiful.
How did you get around Iceland?
I’ve never been a fan of the guided tour, because often, you’re put on a bus with strangers and rushed from site to site with no chance of exploration, and no sense of discovery. My friends and I unanimously decided that we would prefer to drive around Iceland and road trip the Golden Circle, not only to save a huge amount of costs from guided tours, but also, to discover things for ourselves. We rented a car at the airport so we could hit the road and be fully independent after landing.
Where did you rent your car in Iceland?
Before the trip, I looked up the best car rental agencies in Iceland based at Reykjavik airport. We booked online, and by the time we landed, there was an automatic 4×4 Subaru Outback booked and waiting for us at the airport.
As an advocate of sustainable travel, I had reservations about driving diesel, but on the recommendation of the rental company, we went for a diesel automatic car which was safest for the weather. You hear stories of car doors ripping off because the Icelandic wind is so strong… we thought it might be best to keep the car doors on for this trip, y’know, for survival.
Iceland: Costs, Budget & Food
Was Iceland that expensive? How did you stick to a budget?
The legends are true – Iceland is notoriously expensive! Luckily we were able to save on spending by cooking most of our meals (we actually brought a suitcase with tinned supermarket food) and purchasing our tour experiences online using special offers and deals a few weeks in advance.
The car rental would probably have been one of the most costly items on our budgets, but a significant proportion of our rental fee was waived in exchange for photography and videography services as part of my collaboration with Lagoon. Our car insurance (the full coverage gold package) cost £45/day.
Costs of travelling to & around Iceland
A hand-carry bag simply wasn’t going to be enough for our clothes to fit into, but it didn’t make sense to have a suitcase each. My friend Kat and I split the cost of a larger check-in bag which we packed full of winter clothes and food. The check-in bag cost £74 (£37 each) with 23kg allowance.
Our Airbnb cost us £795.52 for five nights. Split between four people, the apartment cost us £198.88 per person, which worked out at around £40 per person per night. Between four people, our apartment was affordable, and provided an excellent base for us to wake up in and go home to after a long day of exploring in rain and snow. Being able to prepare food and bring snacks in the car prevented unnecessary spending.
As mentioned before, booking our tour and experience tickets before arriving saved us time and money, and meant we could plan our ‘explore time’ better. Booking in advance took a lot of guesswork out of the trip, especially because we were there for less than a week, and meant we had a good itinerary to follow.
Should I bring food and drink to Iceland? What groceries did you pack?
Since most food and drink is imported into the country, a simple meal can usually cost upwards of £20. We saved a lot of money (and had fun) cooking dinner together. We ate a lot of pasta, sandwiches, cereal bars and biscuits and brought most of our food and snacks in advance from the UK in our suitcase. We purchased the more perishable items such as bread, fruit, cheese and soya milk from a local supermarket.
We prepared sandwiches for lunch in the mornings and had a leisurely time brewing fresh coffee, preparing beans on toast or having a big bowl of cereal before heading out. It felt like we were locals for the week, which was lovely. Our apartment had all the basic staples left from the previous guests – olive oil, salt, pepper, coffee filters and so on – which really helped.
If you’re the kind of person who loves to get a coffee or beer at a local cafe or try different snacks when you’re out and about, it’s probably best to factor these into your budget. A drink can cost upwards of £4 so make sure you bring your own along!
At one point, I felt a little sniffly so I bought a bag of six oranges (which turned out to be blood oranges) which cost a whopping £14 at a supermarket! Take your supplements and other snacks from home if you’re on a strict spending budget.
If you have enough room in your budget, do try and visit some of Reykjavík’s stellar restaurants for a taste of traditional food. We celebrated our final evening at Grillmarket, where a tasting menu costs around £60 per person. It was worth it!
What To Pack For Iceland: Wardrobe & Gear
Preparing your Iceland wardrobe: What clothes and gear do you need to bring?
In the weeks leading up to our Reykjavík flight, I began sourcing waterproof, practical clothes that would keep me — an ever-cold, hyper-sensitive, climate-confused descendant of the tropics — warm and protected from the harsh elements that Iceland is famed for. Thermal leggings, waterproof trousers, snow boots. Waterproof gloves with touchscreen tips. I wanted to be ready for every eventuality, weather wise.
I’m glad I took the time to prep and pack properly: the key is layering. In a single day, we experienced warm sun and cloudless sky, then cold sheets of rain, then thick fluffy turrets of icy snow storming down so strongly that our car headlights could barely see more than a metre of black concrete road ahead of us. And here I thought the UK had wild weather!
Here’s a complete list of clothes you need for Iceland, applicable to any age and gender:
- Waterproof trousers
- Waterproof parka coat
- Waterproof 3-in-1 jacket with fleece
- Thermal top layers (vests, long sleeves)
- Thermal leggings
- Thermal zip fleece
- Waterproof touchscreen gloves
- Thermal socks
- Waterproof snow boots
- Thermal trapper hat
- Woollen fisherman’s knitted jumper Note: when you’re in Iceland, if you’ve got the budget, save some money to go shopping and purchase a lopapeysa [traditional Icelandic sweaters] and a classic yellow or brightly coloured raincoat! The clothes are extremely high quality and will serve you well.
Iceland: Photography Gear
Shooting in Iceland: What camera equipment do you need to bring?
As my camera and lenses are mostly weather-sealed, I didn’t need anything too specific for Iceland, apart from polarising filters. The polarising filters helped reduce glare on icy and snowy landscapes and when shooting waterfalls, preventing overexposed highlights. Although often the glinting light on ice structures looked ace! You don’t need anything fancy.
I shared most camera equipment with my friends who are also photographers, but here’s the main kit we brought along:
If you’d like a more to know about my travel blogging photography equipment, head to this post.
Check out this short video I made from this trip, with a mixture of iPhone and camera footage:
Here’s what we did: Our 6-day Iceland Golden Circle itinerary
If you’re looking for an easy 6-day travel itinerary for Iceland’s Golden Circle, here’s a detailed look at what we did:
Day 1 – Hello Reykjavík
- Land at Keflavík International Airport
- Collect rental car (Airport Office)
- Check into Airbnb on Reykjavíkurvegur
- Dinner at Le Kock (Diner)
- Ice cream at Valdís (Dessert Parlour)
Day 2 – Ice Ice Baby
- Vik Glacier Cave Tour and Hike
- Skògafoss (Waterfall)
- Seljalandsfoss (Waterfall)
- Reynisfjara (Black Sand Beach)
- Ytra Seljaland (Waterfall)
Day 3 – Seeing Dolphins & The Northern Lights
- Whale Watching (Elding) in Greenland Sea
- Gullfoss (Waterfalls)
- Faxi (Waterfalls)
- Thingvellir National Park
- Watching the Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis) dance at Grotta Lighthouse Reykjavík at around midnight!
Day 4 – Nature’s Finest
- Kerio (Crater Lake)
- Geysir (Geyser Hot Spring)
- Strokkur (Geyser Hot Spring)
- Bláskógabyggo (Snowy spot)
- Skaftafell (Waterfall)
- Solheimasandur (Plane Wreck)
- Reykjadalur Hot Spring (Thermal River)
Day 5 – A Spot of Culture
- Hestaþingshóll (Hill / Fjord)
- Whales of Iceland Exhibit (Museum)
- Reykjavík Art Museum
- Lunch at Cafe Loki in Reykjavík
- Hallgrimskirkja (Parish Church)
- Dinner at Grillmarket (Restaurant)
- Drinks at Loftid (Bar)
Day 6 – See You Soon
- Perlan Wonders of Iceland (Museum)
- Blue Lagoon (Geothermal Spa)
- Keflavik Airport to return car and fly back to London.
Check out my guide: 12 Amazing Things To Do In Iceland: Best Day Tours from Reykjavík 2024
What was the most surprising thing you learned about Iceland?
The tap water really does smell like boiled eggs! Showering was a fun experience, as was the steamy eggy smell that continued to linger in the bathroom. Drinking water that smelled like boiled eggs also felt psychologically contradictory, since it was the freshest, purest water I’ve ever tasted.
Road Trip Highlights: Iceland in 6 Days
The well-trodden Golden Circle
One week in Iceland took us to waterfalls and geysers, to wild dolphins playing, the dancing green Northern Lights. Since I’d never been before, we thought we’d start as we mean to go on: pick and choose the prime tourist spots.
The gorgeous sites of the well-beaten Golden Circle seemed like a good place to start our journey. I know there’s probably a lot of scorn when visitors come to Iceland and stay stuck to the tourist path, but everything was new to us, so it all felt magical.
The wildest thing about Iceland is the fact that everything, everywhere, looks like a postcard. Mountains roar in the distance of city lights. Waterfalls splash down in the least expected of places. Snow falling on winding mountain roads look like passages to Narnia. Fields of gold and roaring seas with black sands appear as you speed down the highway.
The fact that Iceland is so beautiful is almost hazardous — more than once we encountered some, for lack of a better word, reckless and feckless drivers on pretty dangerous roads that would pull over without warning to take a photo. Or worse, they would stop with no warning just to snap a picture!
Safety tip: in any country you drive in, please don’t stop your car on the road just to take a photo. Common sense!
My friend Shay was supposed to be secondary driver, but after we picked up the car from the airport (a smooth and straightforward handover), he ended up being the main navigator, and did an excellent job, too. I did my duties of shooting content, staring misty-eyed out at the stunning landscapes, and choosing new spots to visit.
We had a rough itinerary of what we wanted to see, and we’d booked a couple of tours in advance — whale-watching and ice caving were the most expensive — then we used Google maps to mark out the rest of the spots we wanted to visit and created a customised route that way.
Creating our route on the map really opened my eyes to how geographically stunning and rich Iceland is. Waterfalls, geysirs, natural phenomena and lakes and mountains, all within an hour from each other. If that’s how jam-packed the South West is, I can’t even imagine the beauty that sits across the rest of the country (and I fully intend to keep exploring).
My Top 5 Highlights of Iceland’s Golden Circle
It’s really hard to narrow the experience down to 5 top highlights! But these were ones I thought were amazing. I really recommend making time on at least one day to explore Reykjavík too — it’s full of quirky and independent shops, museums, cafes and restaurants. But without further ado…
The Northern Lights
Glacier Caving in Vík
Whale & Dolphin Watching
The Great Geysir
Bonus: Trying Icelandic Cuisine
If you’d like to watch my video travel guide to Iceland, check out the video below, read my guide: 12 Amazing Things To Do In Iceland: Best Day Tours from Reykjavík 2024:
1. The Northern Lights
Seeing the Aurora Borealis at Grotta Lighthouse in Reykjavík
One big surprise we had, in Reykjavik of all places, was seeing the Northern Lights. We watched them dance and twinkle for a good amount of time. Initially, we had umm-ed and aah-ed about whether or not to book a guided tour for the Northern Lights, but in the end decided to risk the adventure and hunt them ourselves using the fantastic northern lights/wind coverage map on the local Icelandic Met Office website. Two nights into our trip, we decided to chance it and drove five minutes from our Airbnb to Reykjavik Lighthouse.
And guess what? The Northern Lights turned up within minutes. Literal minutes. They started dancing, spreading and shape-shifting. Here are a couple of photos revealing the way the lights changed shape and spread within a single minute:
I was torn between wanting to enjoy the view and preserve the moment with my camera. I chose little bit of both! It took some time to adjust my camera settings properly, since I’d only brought along a 10-18mm wide angle. Turned out to be more than good enough for capturing the shot. The next morning, I opened the RAW photo up in Lightroom and turned up the exposure. Just like the night before, the haunting green lights magically appeared on screen. Magical.
If you’re interested in learning to edit your travel photos like a pro on Lightroom, why not take my course? I’m sharing all my tips and tricks in Lightroom CC Illuminated — enrol anytime!
2. Glacier Caving in Vík
Admiring Vík’s magnificent glacier cave and its ethereal icy structures
A pair of huge snow trucks brought us to Vík Glacier Cave, winding through dazzling white snowscapes so pure and unbroken that it almost felt I was hallucinating. I’ve only ever been caving in tropical weather, in Asia, so this was my first ice cave experience. Our tour guides provided us with crampons (I lol’ed too), which are sharp fixtures you attach to your shoes to help you gain better traction on snow and ice, as well as helmets to protect us from any falling blocks of ice that might have gone down in the cave.
The cave itself would almost have been hidden in the snow, were it not coloured black. The minute we stepped in, though, it felt like entering Narnia. It was amazing seeing layers and layers of ice and rock that have formed this magnificent ice sculpture. Nature, dude. We took our time roaming around the area and taking photos. Then passed out from all the excitement in the snowtruck heading back to Vík.
3. Spectacular Waterfalls
There’s a reason why Iceland’s waterfalls are so famous: they’re amazing.
There are waterfalls for days in the Golden Circle. From Faxi to Seljalandsfoss, Iceland will give you a newfound appreciation for the thunderous power of water through its beautiful waterfalls. Every couple of miles, there’s a cascade of water. I loved Seljalandsfoss, because walking the trail behind it and experiencing the magnitude of the spray from its cave made me feel like I was in Lord of The Rings or something. Epic.
On that note: best to bring your waterproofs and maybe a waterproof camera like a GoPro. If you’re anything like us, you’ll want to get right up close to admire the waterfalls, and you’ll get absolutely soaked. Fun! But the aftermath is not so fun if you’re in jeans, and even less fun if your jeans are wet and cold and it’s the middle of winter.
4. Whale & Dolphin Watching
Seeing wild dolphins whilst on a whale-watching tour on the Greenland Sea
We took a whale-watching tour with Elding that set off from Reykjavik Harbour and took us out onto the open waters. We had to pull big red thermal suits over our clothes — we were roasting after an hour! Kept us nice and toasty during the ride, especially standing out on the deck in the wind.
Although we didn’t see any whales, nature surprised us with a pod of gorgeous dolphins that danced and played in the waves that our boat left behind. I’d never seen wild dolphins before, so that was a definite bucket-list moment!
Elding also has a very kind policy whereby, if you don’t see any whales on your tour, you can reclaim another ticket free of charge to take the tour again at some point in the future. Even if you don’t spot any aquatic mammals, it’s so beautiful simply just being on the sea, under dramatic clouds, watching snow-capped mountains float by on either side of you.
5. The Great Geysir
Sulphuric explosions with a scent of boiled egg. Geography nerd heaven.
We visited the highly active geothermal field known as Geysir, where the dynamic Strokkur reliably blows boiling water hundreds of feet (over 30 metres) into the air every so often. I can’t think of anything more atmospheric or representative of Iceland’s epic geography than the steaming blowholes and boiling mud pits at Geysir, emitting plumes of smoke, erupting every so often, and giving off the scent of sulphur. Can you?!
6. Trying Icelandic Cuisine
Enjoying a traditional tasting menu at Grillmarket (Grillmarkadurinn).
To celebrate our last evening in Iceland, and to somewhat balance out all the homemade meals we’d been eating for most of the week, we decided to book a table at Grillmarket, one of Reykjavík’s most popular restaurants. There we ordered the Tasting Menu (11.400 ISK per person (only served for the whole table to share, minimum 2 persons). I felt really awful about the idea of eating whale, shark or puffin, so we avoided those delicacies — but the main tasting menu was sensational. If you can afford it, I really recommend going here!
Sjáumst fljótlega (See you soon)
Iceland dazzled us with mother nature. Experiencing its landscape was a true gift. As the climate grows wilder, and becomes more of a crisis, I find myself becoming increasingly concerned with being a sustainable tourist and using eco-friendly transportation.
I initially had some reservations about driving with a diesel 4×4, but Lagoon Car Rental explained that a car of the Subaru Outback’s quality is the safest choice for handling the weather and for reducing fuel costs in the long term.
My worries were alleviated by the fact that Icelandic people are highly environmentally conscious. They’ve begun pedestrianising certain parts of the country, especially around tourist sites, to counteract pollution and damage made by cars and people. A little goes a long way, and those small steps that cause frustration to the individual are the steps that create the biggest change for the environment in the long run.
Overall, my first adventure to Iceland was one of those trips. You know, the kind that stays with you forever. Thanks for the magic, Iceland — and to Lagoon, for helping us get around.
That Iceland could lose the very reason for its name is devastating, and the concept becomes alarmingly more concrete as days go by without urgent united global action. That said, Iceland’s geography is a true gift to witness in person. I’m grateful for the opportunity to explore it, and if you are able, I very much recommend visiting it, at least once.
- For efficient and reliable car rentals, check out Discover Cars.
- If you’d like to hunt for the Northern Lights yourself, check out this local forecast website – we got lucky with this!
- For epic experiences and excursions near Reykjavík, check out TripAdvisor’s top recommendations.
- Iceland’s official tourism site.
Thanks to my travel companions for sharing photography duties on this trip — @kdwcreatives & @shayolu