The Golden Circle is a well-known destination in Iceland, and it’s easy to see why. The Golden Circle is part of a road loop that can be seen in a day from Reykjavik and hits some of Iceland’s most famous landmarks.
With all the tourist attention, why should you go?
The Golden Circle is easy to get a taste of what Iceland is all about in a short amount of time. Many of Iceland’ visitors are coming only a stopover. The Golden Circle loop can be done in a day and hits beautiful landscapes, waterfalls and amazing natural phenomenon.
Many tour operators take visitors along the route, some that you can even book last minute. You can also drive yourself; it’s an effortless drive. There is only one place that you need to pay to play. Once you park at Thingvellir National Park, you have to pay. From what we understood, once you pay for parking once, you can park at any of the parking lots within the park. You can also walk between them, but we were #lazy.
The Golden Circle is open year round and offers new sights all year round. What’s important to note is where the Golden Circle sits in relation to the world. The Thingvellir National Park lies right on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge This is where the two tectonic plates are splitting apart. Not only is this scientifically AWESOME, but it also creates a volatile environment, with fissures, volcanic activity and more.
So yes, you should see the Golden Circle and here are the stops you should make along the way.
Related: 8 best stops along Iceland’s south shore
When I first saw a picture of Gullfoss, I thought it looked like a slice of pie. Ya, maybe I was hungry, but the shape of this mighty waterfall is very triangular.
Gullfoss is one more recognizable waterfalls of Iceland, and one of the main stops Iceland’s Golden Circle. It is majestic and its cascade then sudden drop has left visitors in awe of its power The waterfall has a fantastic history, including the spark of Iceland’s environmental movement.
At the site, there’s a memorial of one particular person that helped protect the waterfall and the surrounding lands. Sigridur Tomasdottir was the eldest of 13 children. As tourists started to visit the powerful waterfall in the 1870s, she and her family would guide them through the rough terrain.
She fought tirelessly against the development of the waterfall for hydroelectricity in 1907. While she lost the court case, in the end, she won. By 1929 the generator was still not built, and the contract was cancelled due to non-payment. Now the lands are protected for generations to come.
Sigridur died in 1957 when she was 87.
What’s more fun than watching water spurt out of the ground because of science?! Nothing, I tell you. I went to Old Faithful in Yellowstone National Park, USA in 2014 and my mom called it “anticlimactic,” but I enjoyed it. This one – called Strokkur – was much better.
Strokkur is one of many geysers within this area, an active geothermal area because Iceland is sitting on top of tectonic plates, causing friction and pressure build up underneath the surface, resulting in volcanoes, earthquakes and geysers.
Geysir – the namesake of the area – is no longer active. After an earthquake essentially plugged the hole, Geysir really only sees activity when there’s an earthquake. But don’t fret, in the area, you can see Strokkur, the constantly-erupting geyser. You won’t have to wait long for this one, every 8 to 10 minutes, you can watch the water explode up from the ground.
Not only does Strokkur erupt more often, but you can get pretty close to it. It’s entertaining to watch. It’s like the water gets sucked back into the earth before exploding 15 to 30 metres above you.
Photo tip: to get the “bubble bursting” photo, make sure your camera is on a rapid-fire setting with a high shutter speed.
Also in this area are other geothermal pool that you cannot swim in – because it would likely burn you alive – but you can watch, like litli-geysir.
Related: Experience Iceland in a campervan
We waited until our second last day in Iceland before setting off into the Golden Circle. With all the buzz about it, I almost felt like I knew what to expect from the loop.
It turns out I knew nothing. Thingvellir was one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen, and it has such a fascinating history.
Way back in 930AD, the Vikings who populated Iceland threw away the idea of kings and lords. Instead, they set up the world’s first democratic parliament. They held annual assemblies here, basically ruling that way until conflict and strife tore it apart.
If that doesn’t spike your interest, the place also has such rich natural history. The entire rift valley is splitting apart at a rate of almost two centimetres a year. This causes fractures and fissures that can be explored. Thingvellir was labelled a UNESCO world heritage site in 2004.
There are a couple of key spots to explore within the park, but the first stop you should make is right off the main road at the cliff top visitor centre. While it doesn’t look like much from the road, as you get closer to the cliffside, the landscape opens up to such stunning views of the valley. From here you can follow the path that runs along the rift and walk down to the valley floor.
From this visitor centre, you can see the Thingvallavatan, an 84 square kilometre lake, where Silfra fissure is. The lake is clear as glass, as pure glacial water is filtered down before reaching this point. You can also see the prime minister’s summer residence, the mountains of central Iceland and of course the open, rugged land that is Thingvellir.
Prime Minister’s summer residence and church
Before we knew what this place was, we were actually in search of Icelandic sheep. I spotted a couple, and we seemed to be on a path around a farmhouse and suddenly SHEEP! It wasn’t until after that we realized we were actually at the Prime Minister’s summer residence.
The farmhouse (Thingvallabaer) was built in the 1930s and is used at the park warden’s office and summer residence of the Prime Minister.
Beside the house stands one of Iceland’s oldest churches. Thingvallakirkja was consecrated in the 11th century when Iceland adopted Christianity as its religion, but the building itself is from 1859. Some of the religious items inside are much older.
This waterfall, set against the black rock of the park, was one of the most beautiful waterfalls in Iceland.
There are two ways to get here. You can either park in the valley or on top of the rift. From above you can get views of the entire park. From before it’s an easy walk to the base of the waterfall.
This waterfall was actually man made. Öxarár river was diverted to flow down to the valley to ensure there was an adequate water supply for Vikings who attended the annual parliamentary assembly.
Related: Horseback riding in Iceland – the perfect souvenir
Snorkelling in Silfra was an unbelievably amazing adventure in the Golden Circle.
Silfra is an underwater fissure in Thingvellir National Park. The water of Thingvallavatn is stunningly clear, giving you fantastic visibility of the underwater world.
It’s the largest lake in Iceland, about 84 square kilometres, and the deepest part of the lake is about 114 metres deep. Most of the water comes underground channels from the Langjökull glacier. It takes about 20 to 30 years for the runoff to get there!
But what is so neat about Silfra is that it sits on the tectonic plates being pulled apart. One side it the North American plate and the other is the European plate. At Silfra, you can either dive or snorkel this fissure and touch either side of the tectonic plates.
But, daaaaamn it’s cold. The water is around 2 to 4 degrees Celsius – aka, just above freezing. That means you have to suit up before heading into the water.
We went with Dive.is and had a freaking blast. Each group is made up of about 6 to 8 people plus your guide. Our guide, AJ, was fantastic and put up with our crazy antics and silly stories.
First, you have to jump into a dry suit. The suit itself isn’t enough to keep you warm, so you’ll also get a thermal onesie to put on. If it all works correctly, the only body parts that will get wet are your hands and your head.
After you get your suit on, you’ll put on boots, gloves and a hood. Wear thermal socks to keep your feet as warm as possible in the chilly waters. Once you have your suit on you’ll get a mask and fins and work your way into the water. The suit will have a balloon effect, and you’ll basically just float on the surface.
To keep warm, just stay as still as possible. The gentle current will do most of the work, the less you move your hands and face, the warmer you will be. That’s because your body heat will actually warm the water trapped in your neoprene gloves and hood. If you move, that water will filter out, and cold water will rush in. So keep still and use your feet, which are protected, to steer.
Yes, it’s cold, but the underwater views were worth it. So take a chance and jump in!
There’s nothing like dipping your body into a warm, relaxing pool and feeling the cold Iceland day melt away.
The hot spring is right on the shore of Laugarvatn. It boasts a sauna, heated wading pools and a geothermal pool. The hot spring, which has been in use since medieval times, sits comfortably about 35 to 40 degrees Celsius.
One of the recommendations – for the brave – is to sit in the sauna for 15 minutes, then take a dip in the lake and then jump into the hot spring.
Just, don’t do it in winter. In October, the lake was cold enough to instantly freeze my feet. So I took a hard pass on the dip in the lake.
What would be your number one stop on Iceland’s Golden Circle?
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