The itinerary known as the “Golden Circle” is the most beaten touristic route of Iceland. If you stay in Iceland only a few days, Reykjavik plus the Golden Circle attractions will be probably the main highlights of your visit.
Despite including many beautiful natural attractions, the Golden Circle’s route is relatively short. In fact, the whole itinerary loops from Reykjavik for about 300km and for this reason it’s perfect for a day trip or a brief stay of 1-2 days (if you don’t want to rush). Having planned an itinerary covering the whole Route 1, me and my husband decided to visit only the main attractions of the Golden Circle in one day trip departing from Reykjavik and finishing in Southern Iceland. Unfortunately, we didn’t have enough time to take some detours (it looks like to complete the list of all the detours you need at least a week). Therefore, the itinerary you will find below covers only the “must see” attractions in the Golden Circle (for a total of about 87km). However, I will give you also some indications of places you can add to your visit if you have time and want to take additional detours.
The main highlights of the Golden Circle are the Þingvellir National Park (or Thingvellir), Geysir Geothermal Area and the Gulfoss Waterfall. I’ve added to my map also a little bonus stop to meet the friendly Icelandic Horses along the way (will discuss about this at the end of the article).
Tips for visiting the Golden Circle
1 – Start early and from Þingvellir National Park. Places tent to fill with people very quickly and Þingvellir has totally another aspect without crowd!
2 – Give yourself plenty of time to explore each place, especially if you are there for photography. Let’s say that 1h and a half per spot should be ok.
3 – Bring with you some waterproof clothes and waterproof gears for your camera. You will get wet at Geysir!
4 – Plan in advance where you want to have lunch, there are not many available spots along the way.
5 – Wear some comfy waterproof shoes, you will walk a lot and the weather is unpredictable.
6 – All the natural attraction on the Golden Circle, except the Kerid Crater, are free. However, if you come by car you may have to pay the parking.
First stop, Þingvellir National Park
Þingvellir can be considered the first “official” stop of the Golden Circle for all those tours departing from Reykjavik. The distance from the capital is about 40km and it takes about 36 minutes to reach the main car park.
The parking price at Þingvellir is between 400-600 ISK
The word Þingvellir in Icelandic means “Parliament”. In fact, when the Vikings arrived in Iceland around 874 AD they settled their parliament in what now is a National Park. Nowadays Þingvellir continue to be used by Icelanders for events of national importance (e.g. the declaration of Iceland’s independence in 1944) and for summer concerts.
Geographically, Þingvellir is situated on a rift valley created during the drifting of the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates.
This means the Park is situated exactly between two continents! Furthermore, it seems the tectonic plates are in constant movement, drifting away from each other of about 2cm per year. How awesome is that???
Walking in the Almannagjá Gorge (pictured left) take more or less half an hour if you (like me) want to stop every two steps for taking pictures 🙂
Many people tend to visit just this side of the park. However, if you have time and don’t mind a walk you can take a little detour in the surrounding area, which is of speechless beauty!
Furthermore, if you like GoT you will love this place as it has been one of the location of the tv series, especially the area near the Öxarárfoss waterfall.
Second Stop, Geysir Geothermal Area
After having spent most of your early morning wandering around the tectonic plates of Þingvellir is time to move to the second stop of the Golden Circle, the Geysir Geothermal Area. The most famous stop of the Golden Circle is situated on the Haukadalur Valley. During spring/summer you will see the place immediately from the road because of the colorful minerals which give the valley a super colourful outlook. However, the fumaroles smoking on the sides of the road will be already a sign you are getting closer to the geysers! The Geothermal Area is far from Þingvellir 60km and it will take about 1 hour to reach it from the National Park.
Be aware this area might be very crowded in peak season and you might be queuing to find a parking spot
It looks like the Icelandic geysers are the oldest known in literature. The Geothermal Area has been active for more than 10,000 years and it is strongly influenced by the seismic activity. In fact, until 1845 the Great Geysir (the bigger geyser of the area of which the area take its name) was active and sources report that it reached the height of 170 mt when erupting. After that period, Geysir became mostly dormant because of the seismic activity. So, if you see people waiting for more than 5 minute on the side of Great Geysir hoping for activity, ignore them! That geyser isn’t gonna erupt so they are loosing their time (time you can use to go around a bit in the valley to see the area from a different perspective!). Conversely, the only active geyser you can admire today is Strokkur. It erupts about every 10 minutes at a maximum height of 30mt. Having observed it for about half an hour I noticed it does two types of consecutive eruptions. The first is quick and less powerfull. If you arrive on the site at that moment you might be a bit disappointed thinking “that’s it???? Really???”. However, I strongly advise you to keep waiting because after this little outburst there will surely be the powerfull and strong eruption you were expecting!
Tip: pay attention at your position when watching at the geyser because you will get soaking if too close to the eruption! If you have time, walk by the other geysers as the landscape is truly beautiful and you can admire the most spectacular colours of the valley.
The Geothermal Area will be probably the most crowded place you will find on the Golden Circle not only because of the Geysers but also because it is the first spot on the road having services. In fact, just opposite to the geysers there is a Tourist Centre with three restaurants, souvenir shops and parking. Honestly, we planned to have lunch at Friðheimar while on the way, but we spent so much time in taking pictures and slowly admiring the landscape that it was very late. So we decided to lunch at the Tourist Centre and everything was ok and unexpectedly cheap!
Third stop, Gulfoss Waterfall.
Gulfoss, which in Icelandic means “Golden Waterfall”, was our last stop before heading to Southern Iceland.
The Gulfoss waterfall is situated at the top of the Canyon of the Hvita river. This is probably the most powerfull waterfall I’ve visited in Iceland not only because the average of water running per second is between 80 and 140 cubic meters but also because Gulfoss is literally immense falling from an heigh of about 32 mt. Despite it was late april when we visited, the waterfall was still partially frozen and the pathway running in the lower side was closed to visitors.
It looks like Gulfoss was privately owned until 1940, there were initial projects relative to its tranformation into a local hydro-electric plant which luckily were abandoned thanks to the efforts of at the time owner Tómas Tómasson’s daughter Sigríður who fought keep undamaged Gulfoss natural beauty. When, in the end, the last “owner” decided to sell the land and its waterfall the government created the actual natural reserve.
Gulfoss is far from Geysir about 10km (10 mins by car). However, I discovered that despite the short distance, climate and landscape were completely different. In fact, while at the Geothermal Area there was a pleasant temperature with a partially sunny sky this completely changed in Gulfoss. There it was freezing cold, super windy and with a partially dark sky. Furthermore, there was still snow and ice that made difficult to go around the waterfall. Therefore, even if you go at spring time be prepared to any type of temperature and climate conditions (if was wearing three jackets in this picture – right)!
Info: if you haven’t stopped at the Geothermal Area’s services you can find a smaller tourist centre at Gulfoss. There is a souvenir shop and a small café.
Bonus stop: meeting the Icelandic horses!
Photographing the Icelandic Horses was one of the things I signed as “must-do” on my itinerary. You can spot Icelandic horses practically everywhere in Iceland but on the Golden Circle route there are many farms in which horses are kept on the side of the street so it’s much easier to get close to these beautiful creatures and spend a little time with them.
Icelandic Horses were originally brought in Iceland by the Viking in the early Middle Ages. The breed is slightly changed since that time but they still are a symbol of thos special traditional heritage. Vikings venerated them as sacred animals because in Norse mythology horses had always an important role (some of them represented also a symbol of fertility!). The most known mythological horse is probably the eight-footed Sleipnir, beloved horse of the god Odin.
Most of the current horses are used by Icelanders for agriculture or competitions. They are treated very well and for what I’ve seen most farmers and owners consider them as part of their family.
Tips: Icelandic horses are very friendly because used to the human company. However, beware when approaching them near the fences, some of these are electrical and this might be a danger for you and them!
Moreover, horses will probably approach you because they expecting you giving them food but I would suggest you to not feed them as you don’t know what kind of food they are used to or if they are on a special diet. Lastly, most horses are kept in private farms land although they look like wild on a open land. So, despite Icelanders are quite patient with tourists petting and photographing their horses be always respectful of the boundaries and local people life!
What I can do if I have more time to spend on the Golden Circle?
As I said before, to avoid rushing we decided to visit only the main highlights of the Golden Circle. However, if you have time, you can easily add other spots to your itinerary.
The map below shows you my original (and perhaps too ambitious) itinerary for the Golden Circle. There are plenty of beautiful places deserving a stop on this route and I hope to visit them on a second round tour of Iceland!
Something you won’t certainly miss if you like snorkeling/diving is diving at the Silfra fissure at the Thingvellir National Park. We would love to do this experience but it was too cold for us!
Other spots you may add on the way are:
- Kerið Crater ( Entrance 350 ISK )
- Laugarvatn Fontana Geothermal Baths (less crowded than the Blue Lagoon. Entrance fee 3.800 ISK)
- Skálholt Cathedral (free entrance)
- Friðheimar Tomato and Horse Farm (restaurant – local cuisine)
- Secret Lagoon Hot Springs – Gamla Laugin ( Enrance fee 2800 ISK plus towel rent)
- Faxi Waterfall (free entrance)
- Sólheimar Eco-Village
Western Þjórsárdalur Valley (Hiking route, I would do it on a separate day)
- Gjáin Waterfall (free entrance)
- Langjökull Glacier
- Rafting in Hvita river (summer activity – organised tour)
That’s all and don’t forget to take load of pictures! The Golden Circle has some of the best Icelandic landscapes!