Iceland, the land of blazing fires and freezing ice, is world-famous for its unique geothermal landscape and the untouched, unscathed raw natural beauty. With about hundreds of locations to visit and tens of different phenomenon to experience, Iceland puts forth a long list of destinations to cover in a short period. While it is next to impossible to visit every single place in the country, there are some extremely important destinations that one simply has to visit no matter what.
If you come in contact with someone who has come to visit Iceland, then it is an absolute fact that the concerned person is sure to mention the Golden Circle. It is one of the most important and one of the most irreplaceable part of sight-seeing in Iceland and holds some of the most important sights of this eccentric country. You will find Golden Circle tours on the top of most of Iceland’s “must-see” lists. The Golden Circle itself only has 3 main destinations that can be made right along the route but the number of detours that you can take from this main road of Iceland is innumerable and worth every split-second of your time.
Tidbits About the Golden Circle
The Golden Circle is one of the most popular and main routes in the country. It is almost a 300-kilometer-long journey around the circle and can be easily completed in a single day. The route holds 3 prominent places or destinations that are also some of the most famous and most visited places in Iceland. The popularity of the route, ease of driving, and many different sights along the way has urged various tour companies to arrange several tours for the circle. The big three of the destinations come together to create a powerful, fiery but equally beautiful representation of nature, and this why these spots are as famous as known by the whole world.
The Three Main Destinations on The Golden Circle
Thingvellir (Þingvellir) National Park
A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Þingvellir, pronounced as Thingvellir National Park is a treat not only for the admirers of nature but also the history enthusiasts. If you have started your journey from the capital city and have decided to travel clockwise, then Thingvellir National Park will be the first stop that you make on your 300-kilometer-long journey. There are three national parks and reserves in Iceland now. However, Thingvellir National Park was the very first national park to be constructed in the country and is the only one with the title of a UNESCO world heritage site hence, it holds an incredible amount of importance in the history of the place.
One may wonder what makes Thingvellir such an important part of the heritage of Iceland. The answer lies in the way it has entwined the geographical and geothermal qualities of the country along with the settlement of the roots of democracy in Iceland. Thingvellir National Park is the site for the construction of the very first parliament house of Iceland.
The park is located on the Eurasian and the North American tectonic plates which are claimed to be drifting apart every single day. The thrilling location of this site is reason enough to explore all the hidden, little-known, or unknown geological facts. It is the only place to directly witness the Mid Atlantic Ridge above sea level. A pocket of magma is said to have formed and risen several million years ago between these two places which resulted in the formation of Iceland. If you have started your journey from Reykjavik then you will first come face to face with the sheer cliff corner of the North American Plate. The Eurasian plate is located several kilometers away on the other side of the park but is every bit beautiful.
These drifting plates encourage the volcanic activities in Iceland and are also responsible for the formation of new geological formations. The area experiences regular earthquakes which result in the drift calculated to 2.5 centimeters every year. The earthquakes also form ravines in the which are then filled with freshwater seeping from the nearby glaciers. Silfra fissure is the most famous of such fissures in Iceland. Diving and snorkeling in Silfra fissure are quite popular among the visitors as well as the natives. You can take a walk up to the Almannagja gorge where you can see the earth spilling along with a beautiful Öxararfoss waterfall.
Thingvellir National Park has also been a shooting site for the HBO TV series Game of Thrones. Several scenes like the path up to the Eyrie or Arya Stark’s and Sandor Clegane’s journey through the Riverlands. Expect to be mesmerized with countless folktales, stories, and historical facts about the place while you gaze upon some of the most beautiful natural phenomena on the earth.
Geysir Geothermal Area
The next stop on the circle will be Geysir Geothermal Area which is about a 50-minute-long drive away from Thingvellir National Park. It is located in the Haukadalur Valley and as you drive closer to the area, you will start to notice an intense growth in the geothermal activities around you signaling towards your destination. The steam from the geysers can be noticed from miles away. Once you reach the site you will find about a hundred of small pools or hot springs, fumaroles and, geysers. Out of all these small geysers, there are two most prominent ones for which the area is primarily known for Strokkur and Geysir (the one after which the whole geothermal area is named).
Geysir is the bigger of the two geothermal geysers but has been dormant for a while now. The reason for its inactivity or selective activity can be traced back to the tectonic activity of the area as well as the mistreatment of the site by humans. It is recorded that Geysir used to wildly active till 1916 and erupted every half an hour or so but diminished after that. Since then it makes very selective appearances with no certain schedule whatsoever. Although whenever Geysir erupts, it is much more magnificent than all other geysers in the area. The recorded highest eruption of this geyser was 175 meters in the 1845 eruption. The most recent eruption was the scene in 2000 which went up to about 122 meters. On the other hand, Strokkur is a rather active geyser and erupts every 10 minutes or so releasing water into the air for over 40 feet.
What makes this destination so special is the simple fact that geysers are extremely rare to occur on their own and require some special conditions to meet such as the presence of an intense heat source, powerful natural water flow, and a plumbing system. Geysir geothermal area not only meets all those conditions but also remains accessible to such a great degree. While you are at it, do not forget to visit the enormous boutique shop and several beautiful restaurants located in the center of the area. The shops have a large collection of stunning handcrafted Icelandic goods and the restaurant serves mouth-watering traditional dishes of the place.
One of the most magnificent waterfalls around the country and could be seen as the unfolding of the bare, frightening, larger than life yet beautiful beyond comprehension force of nature. It the next and final stop on the Golden Circle tour and can be found only at a distance of about 10 minutes from Geysir Geothermal Area. This influential waterfall ascends to the ground on two levels and features a total height of 32 meters. One of the heaviest waterfalls, especially during the summers, it pours down an average of 140 m3 of water every second.
Langjokull glacier waters the river that flows down the Gullfoss waterfall known as the river Hvita. You can spot the glacier in the distance from the waterfall as well. Given the constant rainbow formations in front of the white foamy waters of the waterfall, the rocky green cliffs make a wonderful landscape for your pictures. Summer is undoubtedly the best season to visit Gullfoss but winters are no less in terms of scenic beauty. You will be able to see the brown cliff laden with snow while the electric blue colored water of the waterfall falls forcefully with huge chunks of ice.
Gullfoss waterfall is one of the main parts of Iceland’s natural beauty and has been well-preserved for that same reason. Many have tried to meddle with the natural beauty of the place for commercial gains but Sigridur Tomasdottir, the daughter of the owner of the falls in 20th century Thomas Tomasson, ensured that the natural aura of the place is well protected. Her actions indirectly influenced the cause and drew the attention of the authorities to the importance of the matter. The lawyer she worked with was later chosen as Iceland’s first president, Sveinn Bjornsson. A symbol of the rise of feminism and environmentalism, Gullfoss has a place in the books of Iceland that can never be replaced.
Bonus Sightseeing Spots
Fontana Geothermal Baths
A man-made bath and spa, Laugarvatn Fontana Baths falls on the way to Geysir Geothermal Area from Thingvellir National Park in the town of Laugarvatn. It is built on the edge of a lake which is popular for its geothermal activity. This spa has three steam rooms and a traditional wooden floor sauna facing fantastic natural views of the surroundings. While the adults can a moment of relaxation in the spa or the sauna, several shallow pools with variating temperatures are added to the bath so that kids can stay indulged as well. Another specialty of this place is the rye bread that is baked for 24 hours in the sand. Served with butter, this delicacy is sure to increase the satisfaction level of the tour several folds.
Kerid (or Kerið) Crater
Do not forget to make a stop at this 6500-year-old carter on your tour, especially if you are driving there yourself. This perfectly oval-shaped carter features a lake at its bottom now. You will find a fiery red and orange-colored rocks with some black and brown shades in between creating a beautiful contrast with the azure-colored water of the lake. Kerid crater is well-known for the fantastic acoustics that it provides which results in several concerts being held at the place. You will find Kerid around 10 minutes drive from the town of Selfoss, close to road 35. There is a small parking lot near the site and a small fee is chargeable at the entrance.
Icelandic Horse Farms
As you drive along the smooth paved roads, there are very high chances of you coming face to face with some gorgeous high-bread Icelandic horses. There are several farms on the roadside where you can make a stop and get some Instagram-worthy snaps with these powerful yet extremely sweet steeds of Iceland. Almost all of these farms are privately owned so make sure that you take the permission of the owners before approaching the horses. Also, take care of the fact that you do not park your vehicle on the road as it may result in accidents. Since the Golden Circle route is a paved road, the allowed speed limit reaches up to 90 km/h. Find a good parking spot and then go for a one-on-one with the horses. Rest assured, Icelandic horses are very friendly and easy to approach so you will not face any problem while interacting with these majestic creatures.
Taking a Detour
Making a few extra stops along the way will be very fruitful when traveling on the Golden Circle. There are several small and big attractions located only a few kilometers away from the main route which is worth visiting. So, if you are driving yourself, you need to make a detour and visit these gorgeous places as well:
- Efstidalur Ice Cream Farm: With a full-fledged ice cream parlor, this ice cream farm will be a proper answer to the question ‘why is a cold dessert like ice cream so popular in Iceland?’. The sheer number of flavors is completely overwhelming and when combined with the creamy texture, Efstidalur farm ice cream will open a whole new realm of unknown pleasures.
- Fridheimar Tomato Farm: Try and get to this greenhouse around lunchtime so that you can have your meal of the day surrounded by homegrown tomatoes. Open from noon to 4 pm, it is advised to make reservations in advance at Fridheimar tomato farm as it is quite popular among the visitors for its delicious delicacies and is often fully booked.
- Faxi waterfall: A small but wide waterfall, that is so unique to visit. It is less known by travelers and therefor you might have Faxi waterfall to yourself. Located in a broad area with flat farmlands where no one can predict the presence of a waterfall.
- Secret Lagoon: Located quite close to Fridheimar tomato farm, the secret lagoon is a must-visit place when you are out on a tour of the Golden Circle. Comparatively less crowded than the Blue Lagoon, Secret lagoon is equally beautiful and offers a more serene environment for you to relax. Consider visiting the lagoon first and then the tomato farm.
- Snowmobiling on Langjokull Glacier: It is a popular notion to combine the Golden Circle tour with Langjokull glacier snowmobiling tour. However, if you are driving by yourself and want to make a separate run to the glacier then make sure that you have reserved a tour guide to assist you with the gear and the snowmobile. If you are up for a more adventure, you can also add an ice cave tour to your trip.
- Helgufoss and Thorufoss Waterfalls: You can visit Helgufoss and Thorufoss waterfalls on your way to the Thingvellir National Park. Helgufoss is located off-road on road number 36 while Thorufoss will come after it when you follow road number 48. These two hidden gems are seldom included in guided Golden Circle tours so you will have to drive yourself if you want to visit these untouched sites of nature.
- Skalholt: A perfect place to be for history buffs, the small historical town of Skalholt has a remarkable past. The very first school of Iceland was established here and the first pope of Iceland had his residence in the town as well. You can find this quirky little place on road number 31 when heading to the capital from the Geysir Geothermal Area.
The Best Ways to Visit Golden Circle
There are several ways one can travel around the Golden Circle. One of the most popular options includes booking a tour with a tour agency. There are numerous tours that offer various kinds of packages for Golden Circle sightseeing. If you want to visit just the three main destinations on Golden Circle, then a classic single-day will be the ideal tour package for you. These tours last for a few hours only so you may even get some time to explore other places on the same day.
A classic golden circle tour would hardly take about 6 hours which opens the way to fit in some additional attractions. This is why packaged, or combined tours are more popular these days and include additional nearby attractions that are easy to reach and offer a convenient detour. For example, Golden Circle and Snorkeling Silfra, Golden Circle and Farm Visit, Golden Circle and the Blue Lagoon, Golden Circle and the Secret Lagoon, Golden Circle and snowmobiling, etc. During the winter time you can even add a northern lights hunt to your Golden Circle Experience. Depending on your preferences, you can choose from any of the available options. Although, make sure that you have done your research properly before deciding on a variant.
Another rather famous, and continuously gaining more popularity, way to experience the wonders of the Golden Circle is by taking a self-driving tour. Indeed, you will not be able to relax like on a tour bus with other passengers, the driver, and the tour guide but, driving by yourself will provide you a higher level of liberty. You can make as many stops as you feel like and can have a personalized schedule unlike when traveling with a group. If you ask us, self-driving is the best way to properly experience the Golden Circle. So, if you can drive and rent a sturdy car then consider driving around the route.