How to Spend One Day in Iceland’s Golden Circle

tourist drone image of oaxarfoss falls in thingvellir park along golden circle iceland
Oaxarfoss Falls in Thingvellir Park

The Icelandair Stopover: Discovering the Land of Fire and Ice

In recent years, Iceland, known as the Land of Fire and Ice, went from a country most people confused with Greenland (it’s ok, we did too) to a highly sought-after destination for international tourism. There are several factors contributing to this rise in visitors, one being what brought us to this otherworldly place – the Icelandair Stopover. In this post, you’ll learn our suggestions for a 1-Day Golden Circle Iceland Stopover.

When flying Icelandair between the United States and Europe, travelers have an option to add on a night in Iceland at no additional airfare cost. We found ourselves with this itinerary – a twenty-two hour stopover, to be exact – in early July 2023. This overnight stop occurred at the end of a longer trip to the Bavaria region of Germany, but ten days of consuming dark beer and loaves of bread did not suppress our ability to conquer one final venture. 

Iceland’s Midnight Sun

It was twenty-two hours packed with waterfalls, volcanoes, coastlines, geysers, and not too much sleep. We were fine with that – we knew we might not be back to Iceland for a long time (maybe ever), and if that meant sacrificing a full night of sleep, so be it.

Fortunately, we were there in July, which meant we would not be short on sunlight. Because of its northern location, Iceland experiences a midnight sun in the summer months leading up to and following the summer solstice, or twenty-four hours of sunlight, which occurs towards the end of June. 

Our itinerary had us landing at Keflavik Airport around 7:00p and leaving the following day at 5:00p. We decided that the best option for us to see as much as possible in the limited amount of time we had, we needed to rent a car.

There are guided tours available, but we wanted the flexibility of being on our own time schedule. And we wanted to avoid the tour groups – more on that later.

Spend An Evening in Reykjavik

We landed in Keflavik around 7:00p, and by the time we had inspected our rental car and drove the forty-five minutes to Reykjavik (like us, you may not have realized the airport is so far away from the main town), it was close to 9:00p.

Fortunately, most places in town were open pretty late – we weren’t sure if this is the case year-around or only during the sunny summer months. Despite it being late on a Tuesday, Reykjavik’s restaurants and bars were full of locals and tourists alike. 

There were several great dinner restaurants to choose between – there were certainly traditional Icelandic cuisine options, featuring locally abundant ingredients of seafood and lamb. The traditional food of Iceland is heavily influenced by its maritime location, with an abundance of seafood, as well as its historical isolation, which has led to some unique preservation and preparation methods.

All that being said, it was chilly outside (more on that later), and that left us craving the warmth of Indian food. We settled on Austur-Indíafélagið, where lamb biryani mingled with the aromatic symphony of vegetable masala and eggplant bharta.

You may already be aware that Iceland is pretty expensive for foreigners. This same meal typically would cost us around $50 at home. In Iceland, our bill came out to $150. There are definitely less expensive dining options, but you should expect higher prices wherever you go.

After dinner, we had a nightcap at Einstök Bar, the taproom of a local craft brewery – the white lager was excellent! Another example of Icelandic pricing – the bill came out to be $30 for two drinks. 

Our plan for the next day was to spend much of it on the road outside of the city. We weren’t sure what the food situation would be out on the road, so we made a stop at a grocery store – many were open until midnight – for some Icelandic bread, crackers, smoked local trout, and berries ($45). 

For accommodations, we stayed in an old bicycle shop that had been converted to a guesthouse right in the heart of Reykjavik. It was perfect for what we were needing – privacy, easy check in and check out, and great location with street parking options. Even better, it was one of the lower cost options we found.

The Old Bicycle Shop Guesthouse

old bicycle shop guesthouse in reykjavik iceland for tourists
The Old Bicycle Shop Guesthouse

The Golden Circle

If you have spent even a small amount of time researching Iceland, you are likely already aware of the Golden Circle – you and every other tourist flocking to Iceland, that is. This is where having your own rental car comes in handy. If you are a morning person, this is your moment. If you are not a morning person, you’ll want to fake it for one day. We promise you that it is worth it to forgo a full night of sleep to be able to get on the road before the tour buses do. 

Our recommendation is to leave Reykjavik at 5:30a. Yes, it’s early – but you have the Midnight Sun beaming down on you and (hopefully) you have booked a place that has a coffee pot so that you’ll have plenty of caffeine to power you through the day. We had just five hours of sleep, and would do it the same way if we had to do it again. It was more than worth it to get out before the crowds. Besides, you can always sleep on the long plane ride awaiting you at the end of the Golden Circle.

Like we said, it was 50’s – 60’s fahrenheit. We were comfortable wearing a light layer of long sleeves under a medium-weight jacket. Around midday it did get VERY windy. We’d definitely recommend sunscreen and sunglasses – that northern sun is pretty powerful.

We had cell phone reception the entire day, but just in case, we downloaded a map before getting on the road.

Thingvellir National Park

We went clockwise from Reykjavik, and so our first stop was Thingvellir National Park. Most stops on the Golden Circle charge a parking fee, but another benefit of starting early is that they don’t charge until they open at 9:00a. 

It took us about forty minutes to get to Thingvellir. We were the first ones at the trailhead, which is something we never regret on our hiking travels. Thingvellir is not a large park – from what we could tell, there was one main pathway into the park, which was situated in a valley between two tectonic plates. We stopped briefly to read about the geological features of the park and then continued on to Oxararfoss Waterfall.

Being the only ones at the waterfall was magical! We then backtracked and broke off onto another path that took us to a church and some historical sites located within the park, including the site of the first parliament of Iceland – established thousands of years ago.

While these sites were neat and the surrounding views were beautiful, we did not feel that we needed to spend much time at the park (we wanted to get to the next sites before the tour buses) and were back on the road after about an hour and fifteen minutes. If your travels allow, you could certainly spend more time in Thingvellir National Park.

tourist picture of oaxarvoss falls thingvellir national park golden circle iceland
Oxararfoss Waterfall

Geothermal Area

The geothermal area contains geysers, thermal pools, sulphur pots, and a short climb up to a cliff for panoramic views of the area. If you are like many of the other visitors and hope to capture the geyser that erupts every ten minutes, just know that it is quick, so you’ll want to have your camera ready.

We weren’t interested in waiting, so chose to move onto the thermal pools and admired the erupting geyser from a distance. If you have never experienced a geothermal area before (we have been to one in Lassen Volcanic National Park and Yellowstone National Park), it is worth a stop here.

Overall, we spent about thirty minutes at the geothermal area, and that included a stop at the nice visitors center for a much needed coffee.

Gullfoss Falls

Gullfoss Falls is a large, impressive waterfall. This is where we started experiencing the tour bus groups – and it made us grateful that we left Rejkavik early to experience Thingvellir and the geothermal area without the crowds.

The falls were neat – it is a short walk from the parking lot. If you want to go all the way to the waterfall, you will get drenched. We were not interested in that and chose to admire it from a distance. There are several viewing platforms – we followed the path down and to the right, which we thought gave us a great view of the entirety of the falls.

Overall, we spent about fifteen minutes here.

Secret Lagoon

You have likely heard of the natural hot spring lagoons in Iceland. There are a few in and outside of Reyjkavik. We had been advised to avoid the ones in Reyjkavik as they are very crowded. The one we had been recommended to was the Blue Lagoon, which is near the airport. To visit the Blue Lagoon, you must make a reservation in advance, and it is about $90 per person. The experience does sound incredible, but with such a short visit, we knew we would have to choose between seeing the Icelandic landscape or visiting the Blue Lagoon. If you are set on this lagoon, it is possible to just do one or two sites on the Golden Circle and then the rest of the time at the Blue Lagoon.

Fortunately, there is another lagoon along the Golden Circle called Secret Lagoon. It is not as swanky as the Blue Lagoon, but it was less expensive and less crowded. They do require reservations, but we made ours the day of as we were getting closer and had a good idea of what time we’d arrive.

tourist couple visiting ssecret lagoon along golden circle iceland
Secret Lagoon

It was a neat experience – we spent about forty-five minutes and $65 total. There are locker rooms to change into your bathing suit and back into dry clothes at the end. While we were glad we experienced it, ultimately it is just a large swimming pool – if you’re short on time, this could be one stop to skip.

Kerid Crater

The final stop on the Golden Circle is Kerid Crater. We pulled into the parking lot, saw that it was packed with cars, and glanced to the entrance where there was a crowd of people, and decided to skip it.

While this is where the self-guided Golden Circle technically ends and takes you back to Reykjavic, we needed to go straight to Keflavick Airport, and so we found an alternative route that brought us past additional sights worth stopping at.

Black Sand Beach

As you make your way towards the coast, you can stop at the black sand beaches. There was some construction when we were there, so check suggested routes to get there, but we parked at the entrance of the Þorláksvöllur Golf Course. There was a path that led you to a cliff overlooking the beach with access to walk down to the beach.

tourist couple visiting blank sand beach coastline of golden circle iceland

Again, there are likely various options for getting to the beaches – the names of the ones we visited were Hafnarskeidh and Thorli beach. There were few people there when we arrived. The contract of the black sand on the blue water was really incredible.

The next two stops had good reviews, but we were cutting it short on time so we were not able to stop. If you have more time than we did, it would be worth looking into them:

Strandarkirkja – 12th century protestant church, views of the coastline, seals

Eldborg next to Geitahlíð – volcanic crater (if, like us, you skip Kerid Crater, this could be a good alternative)

There were several volcano hiking trails we passed by – check out AllTrails if you have the time and interest in one of these.

Hrafn Shipwreck + Lighthouse

As we neared the airport, we had just enough time to visit the xx Lighthouse and Hrafn Shipwreck – they were interesting to see and it felt nice to be able to walk around after a longer stretch of the drive.

tourist couple visiting hrafn shipwreck along golden circle iceland
Hrafn Shipwreck

And that’s it! We made our way back to the airport where security and checking in was a quick, easy process. If you are carrying on your bags, make sure you don’t have many liquids – they only allow you to take one ziptop plastic bag of liquids through security.

Considerations for Visiting Iceland

Renting a Car in Iceland

When renting a car from Keflavik Airport, you will recognize many of the rental car company brands, including Avis, which is who we went through. Although these companies are familiar to you, please be aware that the expectations and experience with them are different than what you may be used to in other countries.

Before we landed, we had read many reviews for this Avis, and several of them, including recent reviews, shared that upon returning their rental car, they had been charged for damage to the car that they did not believe they had caused.

Because we were aware of this prior to leaving the parking lot, we were prepared to make sure that did not happen to us. And we were glad for the extra precautions because when we did return the car, the staff member spent about fifteen minutes inspecting the car.

For a complete guide on what you need to know about renting a car in Iceland, read our comprehensive step-by-step Iceland rental car post.

quick word on being cautious – there are several hidden speed cameras on the more popular highways, so it would be wise to obey the speed limit.

Cost of Visiting Iceland

As stated, Iceland is real expensive. While we certainly don’t mind indulging on our travels, there’s something about paying three times what something would cost at home. We chose to get snacks – smoked trout, crackers, hummus, etc. – from the grocery store to graze on throughout the Golden Circle drive.

If you don’t mind paying high dollar, there are many great restaurants in Reykjavic and many of the visitor centers at the Golden Circle stops had food options.

How to Dress for Iceland

We visited in July, and felt that the best approach was to bring layers. It never went above 60 degrees Fahrenheit, but we did need some outerwear in the morning that we were ready to shed by mid-day. We highly recommend sunscreen, chapstick, and sunglasses – the northern sun is intense and different from what we were used to in a way that is difficult to describe.

Also, it was very windy starting in the mid-morning – those with longer hair might find themselves a tangled mess by the end of the day.

Getting Around Iceland

We found that cell phone signal was strong along the Golden Circle. As always, we recommend utilizing AllTrails to discover and navigate hikes. We utilize the paid version and feel that the features are worth the reasonable cost. You can check it out here.

Overall, we were glad we decided to take advantage of the Icelandair Stopover. Because of the extremely high cost of visiting Iceland, we aren’t sure we would want to spend an extended amount of time in the country. The quick stopover allowed us to see the highlights in a short amount of time.

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