Iceland's Golden Circle is one of the top destinations to visit and see the unique nature of this stunning country especially for tourists who are short on time. Easily accessible as a day trip from Reykjavik, many visitors take a one day package tour around the Golden Circle. In fact, we took a coach trip around the Golden Circle when we visited Iceland for the first time over 10 years ago. I had the opportunity to travel to Iceland again in June 2017 for about 4 days with a few awesome colleagues from my day job. We decided to rent a car and do some self-drives around the southern part of Iceland, keeping our home base in Reykjavik to avoid the hassle of changing hotels every night on such a short trip. Read on to learn more about the advantages of doing a self-drive around Iceland's Golden Circle vs taking the bus.
Go to Places the Buses Don't Go, Like Kerið Crater Lake
The stopping points on the Golden Circle for the various coach tours leaving Reykjavik are pretty standard and you don't have the flexibility to travel to out of the way places. That's the great thing about doing a self-drive around the Golden Circle, you can stop at places that the coaches don't go. For example, we visited the stunning Kerið Crater Lake. Standing at the top of this volcanic crater, we looked down on shimmering blue water highlighted against a backdrop of red rock. Amazing.
Take Your Time and Take a Hike to the Water's Edge at Kerið Crater Lake
Day trips by coach are often quite rushed with limited time to explore the various stopping points on the Golden Circle. For us, it was June and the sun would be up until midnight. We weren't in a rush at all. We took the time at Kerið Crater Lake to hike down to the water's edge to see the lake from a different perspective. I doubt we would have had time to do this on a coach trip.
Warm up with Tomato Soup or Sample Green Tomato Apple Pie at Friðheimar
Google Maps is my best friend on a road trip. I love watching the GPS marker showing our position and looking for cool places nearby to eat when my stomach starts to rumble. That's how we discovered Friðheimar on our drive around Iceland's Golden Circle. Friðheimar is actually very popular and some coaches do stop here for a lunch break. If you want to take a proper rest, make sure to phone ahead for a reservation.
Since we were driving ourselves around the Golden Circle, we were on our own schedule and decided to wing it. It was indeed crowded at Friðheimar when we arrived but there is an option to buy a cup of tomato soup and delicious homemade bread and eat at benches and standing tables near the counter. We also couldn't resist trying Friðheimar's tomato apple pie served in an adorable tea pot.
Friðheimar is the kind of place I would have missed if I had taken a coach tour of the Golden Circle. When I book a day trip by bus, I often go on auto-pilot and go along for the ride on a predetermined route. With a self-drive, we had the luxury to look up places of interest and stop for lunch wherever took our fancy.
Stop to Smell the Flowers or Pet the Icelandic Horses
SIDEWALK SAFARI SPOTLIGHT: Looking for other ideas of what to do near Reykjavik? Visit the iconic Blue Lagoon and bath in the steaming waters under a midnight sun.
Take a Detour to Iceland's Faxi Waterfall
There are so many things to see on Iceland's Golden Circle. Doing a self-drive day trip means we had the flexibility to take detours whenever we felt like it. One of my colleagues had heard good things about Faxi Waterfall which has a mysterious man-made side-channel. We plotted a course on Google Maps and spent some time simply watching the gushing water and beholding Iceland's beauty without another tourist in sight.
Watch Iceland's Geysir Blow Again and Again
Geysir is a must-do stop for coaches and self-driving tourists alike on the Golden Circle. Geysir erupts like clockwork every 6-10 minutes. Since we were driving ourselves, we were able to take our time and watch a few rounds of hot water and steam erupting from the earth. If we missed the magic moment the first time, we just waited and took a picture the next time. Geysir is mesmerizing to watch and it's quite mindful to stand there watching and waiting for the moment it goes off.
Pull Over Whenever You Want Along the Golden Circle for Beautiful Views
Don't Feel in a Rush at GullfossGullfoss is another must-stop destination on the Golden Circle for buses and self-drivers alike. Once again, we had the luxury to take our time and do a leisurely hike to the edge of the waterfall. My colleague even took some time to fly his drone around the area. The biggest advantage of a self-drive for us is not feeling rushed. Because we weren't in a rush, we were rewarded with this amazing rainbow that appeared in the mist generated by Gullfoss.
Hike Out to Iceland's Brúarfoss Waterfall
A self-drive day-trip around Iceland's Golden Circle is all about detours. We heard that Brúarfoss was simply amazing but definitely off the beaten track. We plotted a course on Google Maps only to find ourselves in a place where we could hear the waterfall but were unsure how to get there. Since we were driving ourselves, we had time to be persistent and find our way to the waterfall. One of my colleagues flew his drone to try and find it. My other colleague and I decided to hike to the waterfall using Google Maps GPS and some guidance from sporadic tourists walking in the other direction along the trail. It was well worth the 1 km or more hike from where we parked the car to see the icy blue water tumbling over the rocks and under a bridge doubling as a viewing platform.
Stop for Ice Cream at Efsti-dalur on Iceland's Golden Circle
We were greeted by a curious dog. Efsti-dalur is part of a working farm. We looked through a window in the ice cream parlour and could see the cows that so generously contributed to our sweet snack.
Efsti-dalur's ice cream was definitely worth the detour. Fully refueled, we continued on the home stretch of the Golden Circle back toward Reykjavik.