Should I do the Golden Circle or the South Coast?

…what to see and what to miss in Iceland

A lot of people find planning their trip to Iceland overwhelming. There’s so much information about what to see and do all over the internet and all these different recommendations often do more to confuse than help: Do this, don’t do that and make sure you don’t make the same mistake my sister’s cousin’s former ex-workmate’s boyfriend’s lover did.

I’ve talked about it before but there’s a clear trend right now that visitors in Iceland are spending fewer days in the country than before. There are many reasons for that, most of which are not really relevant to this post, but what is relevant is the fact that there’s a lot to see and the less time you have the more difficult it becomes to decide how and where to spend it.

I think because of that, we get a lot of e-mails from confused travelers who want our input on whether they should rather visit one area over another. What they often don’t realize is that all of Iceland is beautiful in its own way and you can’t really make a bad choice. Even Reykjavík, which is the most densely populated area in Iceland, is located in beautiful surroundings with mountains and the ocean all around. Sometimes I look out my window and I’m awestruck over the light that is making the mountains extra beautiful or I almost have to hold back the tears because the city looks so beautiful under its thick blanket of snow. I’m a little over-emotional sometimes but it’s just so pretty, darn it.

I know a lot of people say Iceland is the most beautiful country in the world but I don’t like statements like that. I think every place has its own beauty that is special and real especially to the people that call it home. However, I do think Iceland is unique in the way that it has such diverse and vast beauty in a relatively concentrated area and literally around every corner, if you just stop and give yourself time to take it all in, there’s something there to take your breath away.

For contrast, the US has glaciers and geysers and beautiful waterfalls too but you may have to drive for 24+ hours from one attraction to the next to see them all whereas here you can see all of those things in one convenient day trip from Reykjavík.

I happen to think there are no right or wrong answers when it comes to deciding where to spend your time in Iceland. There are a few practical things to consider though, such as driving distances and weather and road conditions, so I’ve put together this practical guide to the different areas of Iceland and their relations to Reykjavík where most people start their journey. Keep in mind though that I’ve left the highlands out of this just to keep things simple and because most people don’t have time for that on their whirlwind trips. Maybe one day I’ll do a post specifically about that.

If you do the so-called ring road and drive in a circle around the whole island you will see at least parts of most of these areas. In my opinion, if you don’t want to just scratch the surface of the places you’re visiting you’ll need at least 10 days for such a trip and 7 days is the absolute minimum. I’m sure many who have done it in less time will disagree with that estimation but this is my professional opinion and I’m sticking to it!

By the way, if all this talk about east, north, west is confusing you, maybe this post about directions in Iceland may help.

The Golden Circle

The Golden Circle is the ultimate tourist trail in Iceland which is why it can feel quite crowded at times, especially in summer. It’s an easy day tour from Reykjavík which makes it popular both with the self-drive crowd and tour companies that send fleets of buses there every day.

The highlights – Þingvellir National Park, Gullfoss Waterfall and Geysir Geothermal area –  basically give you a sneak preview of what Iceland has to offer in six to eight hours.

The Golden Circle gets a bit of a bad rep because it’s so popular and people complain about it being overcrowded. That’s not entirely untrue but that doesn’t necessarily mean you shouldn’t go there. Personally, I always find it a bit strange when people visit a place they really want to see and then get all angry when they get there and realize that other people want to see it too.

The Golden Circle is beautiful and the sights are worth visiting. However, if you are one of those people who cannot stand crowds, even if it’s to see something pretty amazing, then you should probably skip it. You can also plan your day so you visit before or after the crowds arrive but most of the tour buses leave Reykjavík between 8 am and 10 am and return back to town in the late afternoon or early evening. It’s more difficult to travel outside of that time period in winter, due to the limited daylight, but in summer you have all the time in the world with the 24-hour daylight.

I think it’s a good idea to visit the Golden Circle if you’re only in Iceland for a short time for the reasons mentioned above: the convenience and the tasting platter of natural wonders. For some, it’s also a bucket list thing and they don’t care if it’s crowded or not – they just want to check it off their list.

If you’re looking for a nice minibus tour of the Golden Circle our guests are always very happy with the Hot Golden Circle tour. I am also always a fan of combining the Golden Circle with some sort of activity such as snowmobiling or tasting some local treats.

Just remember that if you decide you don’t want to go there, you’re not doing Iceland wrong. It just means you went somewhere else and saw something different but equally beautiful. Don’t they say that beauty is in the eye of the beholder anyway? I don’t understand, for example, why people turn their travel plans upside down to fit in a visit to that wrecked DC-3 plane in Sólheimasandur but that doesn’t mean it’s not a meaningful experience for those who do. Thankfully we’re all different.

South Coast

After the Golden Circle, the south coast between Reykjavík and Vík is probably one of the most popular areas in Iceland. Like the Golden Circle it has many beautiful attractions and although it’s a slightly longer day it’s still a convenient day tour from Reykjavík.

The south coast is known for its beautiful waterfalls, black sand beaches, glaciers and the quaint village of Vík but there numerous other stops along the way worth considering too (such as the DC-3 plane wreckage I mentioned above). The amazing thing about the south coast is that even the drive between these main attractions is gorgeous and when you see it for the first time you feel like you need to stop every 5 minutes for photos.

Like the Golden Circle, the south coast can feel a bit crowded at times but it depends a bit on where you stop and when. Like I mentioned about the Golden Circle, the south coast will feel less crowded outside of the main bus hours but just keep in mind that a lot of people also travel around Iceland in rental cars and they don’t follow the same schedule.

In my mind, the south coast is a great day tour as long as you don’t go further than Vík. You can break up the day by doing some sort of activity there (glacier walk being one of the more popular ones) and the great thing is that you can do them both as a bus/jeep/minibus tour from Reykjavík or add them to your self-drive adventure.

If you’re looking for just a no frill minibus tour of the south coast that has daily departure the south shore minibus adventure is a good deal year round.

The South Coast is not better or worse than the Golden Circle – it’s just different. It will probably feel a bit less crowded just because there are more stops along the way so the crowds maybe spread out a bit more evenly although that depends entirely on the day. Often times cruise passengers don’t have time to do the south coast so if there are big cruise ships at dock in Reykjavík you’ll really notice increased numbers of people on the Golden Circle but not so much there. But like I said, it all depends on the day.

If you need to choose between the two you just need to decide what is most important to you. If you like to see Þingvellir national park (one of my favorite places in Iceland) and geysers then maybe the Golden Circle is the better choice. If black sand beaches and glaciers sound more enticing then the south coast is the way to go. No matter what anyone says, you can’t make a wrong choice as long as you go by what is important to you.

Beyond Vík: Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon

Although we often talk about the South Coast as the area between Reykjavík and Vík, it actually stretches quite a lot further than that and some of Iceland’s most beautiful attractions can found beyond Vík. The biggest of those attractions is probably Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon where you can sail among massive iceberg and take in the breathtaking nature all around.

The drive from Reykjavík to Jökulsárlón is around 5 hours without stops but there are SO many things to see on the way that you will never make it without making multiple stops. I would say you’ll need at least 14-16 hours to do this as a day tour from Reykjavík but you’ll probably end up spending more time if you’re driving yourself.

Honestly, I don’t recommend driving all the way to Jökulsárlón and back to Reykjavík in a day. If the glacier lagoon is on the top of your list of things you want to see and you only have a day for it, there are good tours that offer that but I would always recommend you try to spend at least two if not three days exploring the south coast from Reykjavík to Jökulsárlón and back. If you are traveling in winter and you don’t want to drive yourself there are also great 2-day and 3-day tours you can do that include a visit to an ice cave and are good value for money.

When deciding whether you should do a tour that takes you all the way to Jökulsárlón instead of the South Coast to Vík or the Golden Circle you just have to ask yourself how important it is for you to see it. Are you willing to sacrifice all the other great things you could experience to see this place (and a few others on the way) and are you willing to do all this driving? It’s a long long day. If not, then the Golden Circle or the traditional South Coast tours are probably a better bet.

The West

When we talk about West Iceland we’re usually talking about the area north of Reykjavík up to about Holtavörðuheiði mountain pass. Although the Snæfellsnes peninsula is technically a part of this area I think it deserves its own category here.

I like West Iceland but I sometimes have a bit of a problem describing why exactly I like it. The Hvalfjörður area is beautiful and has surprisingly many accessible waterfalls with Glymur, the tallest waterfall in Iceland, as a king among kings. The close by Borgarfjörður is the home of one the most beautiful waterfalls in Iceland, Hraunfossar, and Deildartunguhver which is the highest flow hot spring in Europe. I have fond memories of Húsafell after spending my summers there as a kid and you can visit an ice tunnel in Langjökull glacier. Lesser known destinations such as Glanni waterfall or a quick stroll up Grábrók for the view is also totally worth it.

All of the places mentioned above are easily accessible from Reykjavík which makes is a nice day tour from the city. Although there are not many organized tours that focus just on the area there are quite a few activity tours that take you to those parts but just for the sights, a self-drive tour is probably your best option.

This area has a completely different vibe than the south part of the country. It’s a lot less crowded and maybe not as obvious in its beauty as some of the other areas. However, if you don’t care so much about the big attractions that you see all over your Instagram feed and you want to take things a bit slower I think West Iceland is a great option for that.

Snæfellsnes peninsula

The Snæfellsnes peninsula is one of the most beautiful areas in Iceland although like West Iceland its beauty is a bit more subdued and less obvious than the south. There are still a lot of attractions there, like the famous Kirkjufellsfoss waterfall and Kirkjufell mountain, but the drive is equally beautiful as the attractions.

You will need about 12 hours to visit Snæfellsnes from Reykjavík and back which makes it a long day but not unmanageable. If you spend the night you could also add a visit to Flatey island or a tour up to Snæfellsjökull glacier but even if you just want to drive and see the sights – two days are always better than one. 

Although Snæfellsnes is always becoming more and more popular it doesn’t come close to the Golden Circle and the South Coast when it comes to crowds. There are also plenty of places there worth visiting that none of the bus companies go to which means that you might have them all to yourself. At least for a little while.

In the past, the problem with Snæfellsnes was the lack of service but in the winter there were maybe two places tops that were open for lunch and dinner for example but all of that has changed now. There are considerably fewer options in winter than summer still but there are enough new places all over to keep you full and satisfied.

One thing I will say though (and this is just a personal preference) is that if the weather is not great I would probably choose the Golden Circle or the South Coast over Snæfellsnes for a day tour. The things I find the most beautiful about Snæfellsnes are a little weather dependent and I don’t enjoy going there as much when it’s foggy and the visibility is bad. My friend, a local whose family has a summerhouse in Snæfellsnes, doesn’t agree with me on this though which goes to show how differently we view things. This doesn’t mean I would necessarily cancel a booked tour to Snæfellsnes if I didn’t like the forecast – it’s just that given the choice (which I know a lot of you don’t always have) I would rather do the Golden Circle in bad weather than Snæfellsnes.

If you want to get a quick taste of Iceland and you have very limited time I’m not sure Snæfellsnes would be my first choice but for anyone staying longer than a day I think it’s a worthy contender and definitely worth visiting. I would also recommend you add it to your ring road adventure but for some reason, a lot of people skip it and drive straight from Akureyri to Reykjavík.

The North

When people talk about the north they are usually referring to Akureyri, Iceland’s second largest town/city and the capital of the north, and the surrounding areas. This is a big and beautiful area and there’s a lot to see and do. Most people at least explore Akureyri and go to the Mývatn area for the day but you could easily spend a week up there. The North has many of the same things as the south: waterfalls and geysers (although none erupting like Strokkur in the Geysir area) but they also have geological wonders like Lake Mývatn which is unlike anything you’ll find elsewhere in Iceland or just the world.

Personally, I also love the little towns in the north like Húsavík, Dalvík and Siglufjörður and I can always find endless things to occupy my time there. I also prefer the Mývatn Nature Baths over the Blue Lagoon just because it’s smaller and less commercial somehow.

The drive from Reykjavík to Akureyri is about 5 hours but unlike the drive from Reykjavík to Höfn, there are not a lot of obvious attractions to stop at on the way and you will have to pass some more severe mountain passes that can give you trouble in winter. If you want to drive and explore the areas surrounding Akureyri you would need a day to drive up there, a day at least to explore and a day to get back. If you plan on doing the whole ring road I would allocate at least two days for this area and not make the same mistake as many who drive from Egilsstaðir to Akureyri in a day and then straight on to Reykjavík the next day.

It’s not impossible to get a taste of the north as a day tour from Reykjavík but you would need to fly to Akureyri (or Húsavík although there are not as many convenient departures from there) and fly back in the evening. You can then either rent a car from Akureyri airport or do a day tour with one of the local tour companies that have adjusted the start times of their tours to accommodate guests flying in on the first flight of the morning. If you have a bit more time I would always recommend you try to at least spend the night because there’s a lot to see and experience but it’s good to know that a day tour is an option.

If you do decide to include Akureyri in your travel plans in winter and you are either driving there from Reykjavík with the intention of driving the same way back or flying – I would always try to do this midway through or at the beginning of your trip so you have some buffer time if the weather doesn’t cooperate. The mountain passes on the way to Akureyri close quite often in winter (not for a long time though usually) and flights get canceled in the most extreme weather. If that happens, you don’t want to have an early morning flight the next day that you might miss.

Speaking of winter, if you want to experience the idyllic winter scenes that you sometimes see in photos from Iceland it’s much likelier that you’ll be able to experience that in the north than here in the south as they tend to get more snow. But as I explained in this post about the Icelandic weather there are no guarantees and you can’t really count on anything.

Another thing to consider is the fact that the occupancy rates in accommodation in the north tends to be lower than in Reykjavík, especially in winter, because of the simple fact that fewer people go there. The main attractions like Goðafoss or the Mývatn area might have a considerate amount of travelers but nothing like the South Coast or the Golden Circle. The summer is a bit different with all the cruise ships that dock at Akureyri. Lower occupancy rates give you a chance to be a bit more spontaneous with your schedule but do keep in mind that certain times in the winter are very popular with the locals that go north for the skiing during school holidays and such.

You can come to Iceland just for the north and in fact, a lot of people do that. Especially in winter when some British airlines, for example, have offered direct flights to Akureyri. My advice would be to give yourself enough time to really enjoy it or if you only have time to do a day tour to do it at a strategic time in your schedule.

The Westfjords

The Westfjords are amazing for a number of reasons and the area has a special kind of magic about it that I really appreciate. Since it’s one of the older parts of Iceland, geologically speaking, there’s not as much geothermal activity there as in the south or the north but they have plenty of waterfalls, charming towns and endless hot pools that are lovely to visit.

In the Westfjords you will also find Látrabjarg, the western most part of Europe, that is a paradise for birdwatchers and puffin fans with its varied birdlife. Other worthy mentions are Dynjandi waterfall which in my eyes is probably the most impressive waterfall in Iceland and one of my all-time favorite places Rauðasandur beach.  It’s a big area and there’s plenty to see.

You will need a few days to explore the Westfjords to the level the area deserves and you will not visit on a day (or even a two-day) visit from Reykjavík. The roads are not great in parts of it and it will take you longer than you think to get from A to B. It’s also an area that requires you to take your time to really enjoy it. In the winter some of the roads in the Westfjords close down regularly due to snow and the weather and some winters they can even be closed for days. Some roads, like the road that connects the northern part with the southern part (so between Ísafjörður and Patreksfjörður) is closed for most of the winter so doing a circle around the area is not really an option.

I’m always a bit conflicted about what to advise people regarding the Westfjords. On one hand I think everyone should go there because it’s beautiful and lovely but on the other hand I think it’s risky to go there in winter if you don’t have a lot of time and you can’t afford to miss your flight back home and I’m not sure it’s worth the trek if you only have one day during your summer ring road trip.

I think it would be perfect to do a nice 5-6 day trip around the Westfjords and Snæfellsnes and if you are looking for remoteness and connecting to nature away from the crowds that’s probably a much nicer trip that the Golden Circle and the South Coast. But again, it all depends on what visiting Iceland means to you and what’s important.

If it’s your first time in Iceland and you only have 4-5 days, like many of you do, then I think I would save the Westfjords for another visit.

East Iceland

East Iceland is the one area of the country that I have spent the least time in, partly because it’s the farthest away from Reykjavík but also because I don’t have any family there that I would go and visit as a kid. I like it though and even wrote this post about 5 reasons why you should consider visiting East Iceland a while ago.

East Iceland doesn’t have as many obvious highlight attractions as the south or the north part of the country, for example, but on a recent round trip around Iceland with my husband, I liked our time there the best. It’s just has a different pace and energy than some of the more popular areas.

It’s ideal to visit East Iceland if you’re are going to drive the whole ring road but purely based on its distance from Keflavík Airport and Reykjavík, it’s less suitable for shorter trips. The drive to Egilsstaðir, the main town in the area, from Reykjavík is between 7 and 9 hours, depending on which route you take. You can, of course, fly up there for the day and rent a car to see the sights but they don’t have the same selection of day tours as you will find in other parts of the country which makes it diffuclt to get around if you don’t drive.

Each part of the country has their own tourism marketing bureau and East Iceland office has decided to focus on the slow travel approach and I think it’s a perfect fit for this area. There’s a lot of beautiful hiking around Borgarfjörður Eystri that you will need a few days for and you’ll also need some time to really get into the artistic spirit of Seyðisfjörður. It would be best to live there for a while, I think, but if you can’t move your whole family to a remote town in East Iceland a couple of days would at least be better than just driving through it.

One reason why the locals often flock to the East part of the country is that they often get much better weather in the summer than we do. This summer, for example, it was raining for days on end in Reykjavík while it was 20°C and sunny in the east. Not fair!

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