In recent years, Iceland has emerged as a must-do on travelers bucket list with a vengeance. Some aren’t even sure why they desire to go there with such a feverish passion. All they know is that it’s one of those places you “have to go” because it’s “amazing”. Once you’ve taken the big leap and decided to go, another vital question comes up. What is there to see and do in Iceland? You’ve probably heard a lot about driving around the South Coast and the Golden Circle. These are both plausible options due to their proximity to Reykjavik. If you can only choose one, let’s see what both have to offer in order to make your decision process easier.
You’ve picked up your rental from Keflavik or the city center, you’re ready to head out into the great beyond. Now it’s up to you to take your preferences and priorities into account when making your decision. Time is also a major factor to consider, so let’s look at the advantages and disadvantages choosing either the Golden Circle route or Iceland’s South Coast.
Day Trips from Reykjavik
There are a lot of different options available for day trips from Reykjavik. One of the most popular is the Golden Circle. Not only is it close, but you’ll also find some of Iceland’s best highlights. The circular route takes you around Thingvellir National Park, the famous Strokkur and Geysir geyers, and Europe’s most powerful waterfall: Gullfoss. You can explore all of these sites in the span of six to eight hours.
Advantages of Exploring the Golden Circle
One of the best things about the Golden Circle is that it’s perfect for a day trip from Reykjavik. If you’re short on time or your trip to Iceland is only a flying visit, this could be your perfect option. You pack in some of the things Iceland is most famous for (geysers and waterfalls) while also getting to explore the country’s history and geology at Thingvellir National Park. Adventure seekers can also go scuba diving in the park’s Silfra fissure.
Disadvantages of Exploring the Golden Circle
While there are some pretty interesting things to see on the Golden Circle route, some would argue that you miss a lot if you only spend time touring this area. The South Coast of Iceland is much more diverse and offers what are arguably more impressive spots.
Advantages of Exploring the South Coast
The South Coast has a lot to offer in terms of the sheer number of cool things to do. From glacier hikes to abandoned plane wrecks on black sand beaches, it’s hard to believe that so many amazing activities are all packed into an area so small. The sites that are farthest away from each other are all within a day’s drive, and it’s up to you do decide where you want to stop. Some places of interest along Iceland’s South Coast include Seljalandsfoss and Skógafoss waterfall, the DC-3 plane wreck at Sólheimasandur beach, the small town of Vik along with the black sand beaches and basalt columns in Reynisfjara peninsula, and all of the wonders of Vatnajökull National Park.
At the park, you can hike on a glacier, explore an ice cave or a glacier cave, or even take a boat ride among a sea of icebergs at the Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon. Last but not least is the Diamond Beach, with remnants of icy glaciers. They range in size from medium size rocks to ones as large as an SUV! And all of these sights are contained within a 235-mile (380 km) radius of Reykjavik. Hard to believe, right?
Disadvantages of Exploring the South Coast
The main disadvantage of traveling on the South Coast is the constraint of time. Because there are so many cool things to see and do, you’ll really need more than just a simple day trip from Reykjavik to take it all in. If you try to see everything in one day, not only will you feel rushed and not dedicate enough time to each location, you’ll also be exhausted after driving so many hours while trying to cram everything in. It’s pretty much impossible to do everything on the South Coast in a day unless you keep driving and never leave the car. And where’s the fun in that?
You’ll want to do things on your own schedule while leaving plenty of time to hike and walk around each of the sites, take pictures, and participate in any tours or excursions that pique your interest. Vatnajökull in and of itself will take at least a day! If you’re pressed for time on your Iceland trip, I recommend driving to Vik and stopping at the sights along the way on day one. Day two can be used to hike the glacier at Vatnajökull, visiting Diamond Beach, and going for a boat ride in the Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon. Of course, we recommend more than two days but if you have a major time crunch, then a couple of days is the bare minimum. Some people spend their entire 5-day itinerary here while others make it a stop on a 7-day itinerary around Iceland’s Ring Road.
Other Itinerary Options in Iceland
If you have some extra time, try driving to the Snaefellsnes peninsula. We’ve written a post about popular activities and attractions in the peninsula. The zone in western Iceland lies two hours north of Reykjavik, also making it ideal for a day trip from the capital. All international travelers land in Reykjavik and many will simply stay here the whole time and use it as their base.
Should I Drive Iceland’s South Coast or the Golden Circle?
Whether you choose to drive the Golden Circle route or along Iceland’s South Coast will ultimately come down to two factors. How much time do you have and what do you want to see and do? If seeing some highlights in a short amount of time is fine for you, go with the Golden Circle. There are definitely some impressive sites along the way. If you’re looking for more adventurous activities and have the time, definitely go for the South Coast. You won’t want to miss hiking Iceland’s most beautiful waterfall and Europe’s largest national park. Whichever you choose, you’re sure to have a great time.