A family adventure holiday to Iceland with kids really isn’t complete without visiting the extremely popular Golden Circle. This is a 300 kilometre drive of natural geological formations and sites that takes in old volcanoes, waterfalls, geysers and even some Teutonic plates. To get a real sense of the landscape of Iceland (home to so many myths and legends) as well as to be able to spend some proper time at each stop, plan your own road trip with kids around the Golden Circle, instead of hopping on a tour bus. It’s easy to do a road trip with kids in Iceland – here’s all the family travel tips you need.
Apart from flexibility, doing a self drive road trip with kids in Iceland allows everyone to have a good seat to take in the stunning lunar-like landscape of the country. More than just driving to each destination, some of the sights along the way are equally as spectacular and photo-worthy.
The Golden Circle in Iceland is a circuit that comprises four major tourist stops. Each has free entry, is very easy to find and within driving distance of Reykjavik.
Doing a big bus tour of the Golden Circle is very popular but, if you are in Iceland with kids, you won't be getting the best out of the experience. Apart from spending prolonged hours in the bus, potentially without good window seats, many of the bus tours will attempt to complete all the sites in one day which will make the kids tired and grumpy and the experience rushed and uncomfortable.
If you plan your own road trip with kids in Iceland you can comfortably do one or two attractions per day and this will allow a little extra time to really see what is at each site, explore off the main road, wait for the weather to pass if it’s raining or snowing or budget in some extra for chill out time at the hotel for the kids.
Thingvellir National Park in Iceland With Kids
The UNESCO park claims to be home to the world’s first parliament and is a striking, eerie and quite brilliant place. Despite the many other tourists you will see, Thingvellir is so magnificent it still retains its air of majesty and mystery.
From the carpark you walk along a steep wall face which is where two Teutonic plates meet. Keep going and there are waterfalls and gorges to be viewed including the site for snorkeling and diving right inside the rift valley (some of the best diving in Iceland). This is quite deep and extremely cold and only suitable for adults.
[For more travel tips on SCUBA diving with kids, see the suitcases&strollers interview with a PADI consultant.]
There are also plenty of hiking trails around Thingvellir, even in the winter as they are cleared of snow daily. To find out which paths are clear to hike, check the official map here.
You can also camp in Thingvellir National Park – the camp site is open from June 1 to September 1. Kids under 13 can camp free.
[For more travel tips on camping with kids, see the suitcases&strollers story here.]
Geysers – Geysir and Strokkur in Iceland With Kids
Kids will get a real kick out
of visiting the geyser park. Take some time to walk around and look at the
different steaming, bubbling pools because once they get to the Strokkur geyser
(the most reliable and popular geyser in the area), they won’t want to leave.
Strokkur shoots water up to around 30 metres in the air about every few minutes and is the most popular of the many formations and pools around the area. Visitors can stand quite close to the geyser and watch the waters pull back before every eruption.
There is a nearby visitor centre and hotel (see Family Friendly Accommodation below) with a shop and toilet facilities.
[For more travel tips on Iceland in general, see the suitcases&strollers story here.]
Gullfoss Waterfall in Iceland With Kids
This spectacular waterfall
gets better and better the closer you get. You can view it from above but even
more exciting is to follow the path down the stairs and walk right up to the
waterfall and hear it’s huge roar.
On a sunny day this is a pleasant spot but if the weather is cool it can be quite cold, especially as there is quite a lot of spray if you get close to the waterfall. The flip side is that in the winter the falls can sometimes freeze, another spectacular sight.
If you plan to get close to the waterfall – which is what is the most exciting for kids – it’s a good idea to wear a waterproof shell (or otherwise be prepared to get wet). You cannot push a stroller right up to the waterfall (there are numerous stairs involved) so infants will need to be taken in baby carriers.
Beware of young toddlers as the ground is also quite slippery.
Kerid Crater in Iceland With Kids
If you have ever dreamed of visiting a volcano with kids, Kerid is quite a safe and pleasant way to do it. You can park your car very close to the crater lake and from there it is a very short stroll along a path (easily done with a hardy stroller) up to the edge of the magma chamber thought to have been formed post volcanic eruption about 6,000 years ago.
Although there are no barriers around the edge of the crater, you can get close enough to see right inside without actually it becoming dangerous which is perfect for young kids. You can also walk almost all the way around the crater on the path as well down near the water’s edge inside the crater.
On the way back to Reykjavik look out for the quaint cairn (stacks of rocks) on the roadside that lend a magical, mythical feel to the landscape.
And make sure to stop in at the Fjorubordid Restaurant which specialises in delicious Icelandic lobster dishes. [To read more about Fjorubordid, see the suitcases&strollers story about Reykjavik with kids.]
Family Friendly Accommodation in the Golden Circle in Iceland With Kids
If you are planning a road trip with kids around the Golden Circle in Iceland, it’s worth planning to stop and spend at least a couple of nights at the very trendy Ion boutique hotel.
The chic and modern design hotel is juxtaposed against the deserted moss covered surrounding landscape and – for those who like design and architecture – makes for a very memorable experience. Don’t miss a visit to the Northern Lights Bar (which has a stunning view back over the valley) and the outdoor pool. [For more family travel tips on how to spot the Northern Lights with kids, see the suitcases&strollers story here.]
Ion is conveniently located an easy drive to either Kerid Crater or Thingvellir and its location makes for a good base to view the rest of the Golden Circle with kids.
Ultimately Ion is a hotel that is designed for couples, not families, so while they have highchairs, cots, wifi in the rooms and will welcome children, don’t expect lots of children’s facilities such as playgrounds or toy boxes. The deluxe rooms (the largest room size) are pretty cosy for a family of four (with two small kids) – it is much more comfortable to get two rooms next door to each other.
Directly in front of the two geysers is Hotel Geysir which has a geothermal water swimming pool and boasts views of the geysers at night accented with the Northern Lights in winter. All rooms have wifi so if you wanted to stay a little further along the Golden Circle with kids, this makes sense.
The Practicalities of a Road Trip to the Golden Circle With Kids
It is possible to do the Golden Circle on a large bus tour in one day from Reykjavik, especially during the long days in the summer. Many tourists do this as a stopover on their way elsewhere. While you may physically get on and off the bus and tick the boxes on all the major sites, this doesn’t really do the Golden Circle justice especially if weather is bad.
The best way to see the Golden Circle in Iceland with kids is to hire your own car and self drive the circle. This kind of road trip with kids means everyone will have a good view of the spectacular and ever changing scenery and will allow you to take leisurely lunch stops, rest breaks, take your time at each site and be at the dinner table by 6pm. Two to three days is a good amount of time to really experience the Golden Circle with kids without feeling rushed.
There are many car companies in Iceland that will allow you to pick up your car in Reykjavik. It is worth investing in a 4 wheel drive car in case you want to do any off road driving, but a small car will also suffice for the major sites. At the Europcar office you can also purchase a driving CD that, although clunky, talks you through fables and stories behind the major highlights.
If you are planning a road trip with kids in Iceland, there are several specific road rules you should take into account. There is a speed limit of 90 kilometres per hour, even on open roads, and you must drive with your headlights on at all times, even in the middle of the day in the summer. There are a lot of police patrols about, so keep these rules forefront of your mind.
[When planning a road trip with kids, don’t forget you will need kids car seats. For more travel tips on why you should pack car seats for kids, see the suitcases&strollers interview with a car safety expert.]
The weather is highly changeable in Iceland and what is sunny and clear can quickly turn to cold and rainy. As such, you will need to pack proper waterproof shoes (hiking boots are best), wind and waterproof jackets and outdoor gear that can cope with the sun, cold and rain. Bring a light backpack with you whenever you leave the car so you don’t get caught out.
It may sound strange, but bring swimming gear with you too. Iceland is dotted with some fantastic outdoor public thermal pools (and many hotels have them too) which make a great place to stop and unwind with kids.
Food and toilet stops are readily available at most tourist sites along the Golden Circle in Iceland. In many service stations you can even Ella’s Kitchen baby food pouches.