Updated on January 24th, 2023
The unmissable Golden Circle is the most popular tour in Iceland for good reason. After all, where else can you explore the land between two continents, snorkel in glacial waters, get soaked in spray from an epic waterfall and watch a geyser explode every 5 minutes? How about soak in healing mineral rich lagoons, hike on a volcanic crater and even learn how the power of nature is harnessed to create electricity. And all in one day and in easy reach of Reykjavik? Look no further than my perfect Golden Circle itinerary for everything you need to know.”
Golden Circle, Iceland
I was in North Iceland for a yoga retreat in Akureyri & had already been bowled over by the beauty of its landscapes & its people. My original plan was to take at least 10 days after the retreat to explore the full Ring Road. However, travel anxiety took over as I prepared for my trip (yes, even avid travellers have this after the 18 months we’ve had!). I decided to cut my visit short & instead gave myself 5 days to explore the best that the south of the country had to offer.
As part of this, I could not miss the chance to discover the wonder of the infamous Golden Circle route. If you are interested in history then it is not to be missed as the site of the Viking parliament, the meeting of two continents, one of the most impressive waterfalls I have ever seen (& I have been to Niagara, Victoria & Iguazu Falls) & a geyser which shoots boiling water 40 metres into the air…every 5 minutes. Add to that relaxing lagoons & volcanic craters & it’s a packed agenda!
Has that piqued your interest? If so read on for all the details of what not to miss on your Golden Circle itinerary.
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Where is the Golden Circle?
The Golden Circle is a 300-kilometre route that starts & finishes in Reykjavik. It is THE most popular tour in Iceland & will take around 7-8 hours in total. This includes approximately 3½ hours of driving. The key sights along the way are Þingvellir (Thingvellir) National Park, Gullfoss waterfall & the Geysir Geothermal Area. In addition, you may also like to add Kerið Crater, the Secret Lagoon, Bruarfoss Waterfall, Ljósafoss Power Station or even the Blue Lagoon to your itinerary.
The basic Golden Circle will take one day but if you plan to see most or all of the activities in this itinerary, you will need at least 2 days.”
Summertime (June – August) will usually be the answer to this question in Iceland! Not only is the weather milder, but most importantly, the days are longer. The closer to the winter solstice (21st December) you travel, the shorter the days will get. The minimum daylight could be as low as 4 hours. In addition, the road conditions will be better in the summer months as the snow in wintertime may make some routes impassable. I went in September & although it was busy, the crowds were manageable & I never felt like there were too many people (& I hate crowds!).
For me, the ideal scenario will always be to drive yourself. This allows you to be fully flexible with your schedule & also stay overnight if you really want to discover the area. However, I chose to take a tour. I had spent 4 days driving alone on the South Coast Road in Iceland. I had loved it but also felt that I wanted to relax a bit & be driven for a change! The other advantage of taking a tour is that you have access to the guide with all their invaluable information & quirky Icelandic sense of humour.
Along the way there were numerous interesting places that we learned about which I just wouldn’t have had chance to by choosing to drive myself. In addition, our guide gave some fantastic insights into Icelandic life. Therefore, I would thoroughly recommend taking a tour.”
I went with Grayline Tours & had a pick up (almost) from my hotel at 10am. I liked this option as the tour was on a small minibus rather than a large coach, which will always suit me better. There are loads of choices & all tour operators will offer their version of the Golden Circle tour. Many add on extras to the basic itinerary & I have tried to capture a full range here so you can pick & choose which suits your needs best. Some even include snorkelling in Silfra Fissure or snowmobiling on a glacier.
Þingvellir (Thingvellir) National Park
Þingvellir (Thingvellir) National Park lies 40 kilometres to the northeast of Reykjavik. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site & THE most important place in Iceland. The Park has huge historical significance as the location of the first-ever parliament (not just in Iceland…in the world). It was the meeting point in the days of the Vikings (from 930AD) to set the rules & punish anyone who broke them. Back then everyone who could travel would meet here once a year. Those who had broken the law would be punished. The men were beheaded & women drowned in the pool nearby. It was a brutal punishment from a brutal time.
A short walk from the car park brings you to the flag which marks the site of these all-important meetings & if you venture beyond to Öxarárfoss waterfall you reach the place which hosted the gruesome punishments.
The parliament only moved to Reykjavik in 1798 when it was also decided to elect members of the various groups to make the decisions for the rest of the population.”
But Thingvellir National Park is not just about history, it also marks the point where two mighty tectonic plates meet. Here you walk in No-man’s-land through the gap where the North American & Eurasian plates are pulling apart. The plates are separating on an average of 2-3 centimetres each year. Some years, they hardly move at all, others it could be as much as one foot after a significant earthquake. Ultimately, this could split the island into two, but so far, enough magma has emerged to fill the gap.
You can walk around the park at your leisure (although on a tour you may only have 45 minutes) & apparently there is a good 10km hike to discover the best of the area. Just make sure you stick to the trails as there are numerous fissures that can cause injury if you venture off the marked track.
I had already met the fissure once in the north of Iceland where you can stand with both feet on different continents. Read all about this & the other fascinating features in my post on Myvatn Geothermal Area.
One of the features within the park which is worth exploring further is the Silfra Fissure. As the earth is pulling apart, the gap here is filled with water. The water in Silfra Fissure comes from the Langjökull glacier (the second-largest glacier in Iceland). It can take over 50 years to reach this point, filtered through layers of volcanic rock on its journey. So, why not consider donning a dry suit & experiencing an adventure which is unique in the world – snorkelling in the glacial water between continents?
The temperature is 2-3oC year-round but visibility can be as high as 100 metres. If this excites you then don’t miss my guide to everything you need to know before you snorkel in Silfra. You will not regret it!”
The next stop on my Golden Circle itinerary was spectacular Gullfoss Falls. And it blew me away! Gullfoss sits on the Hvítá River & thunders down the canyon, falling 32 metres in the process. However, it is less about the height, more the sheer volume of water which is mesmerising. Personally, I don’t know what 80 meters3 per second looks like, but after visiting Gullfoss, I recognise that it is huge! It’s hard to believe how this much water can be flowing anywhere this consistently.
Make sure you take some time at the viewpoint to take in the sheer size of the falls before heading down the path to see them at close quarters. And if you do choose to follow the path, make sure you are wearing good shoes as the rocks can get very slippery & prepare to be soaked from the spray (you will need waterproofs!).
Back in 1875, there was a risk that these amazing falls would be silenced when it was approved to build a hydroelectric project further up the river.
The landowner’s daughter walked barefoot to Reykjavik to protest & even threatened to throw herself over the falls if the project went ahead. Thankfully the plans fell apart & Gullfoss was saved.”
To see these spectacular falls for yourself, check out my video below:
Geysir Geothermal Area
And here you will meet the mother of all geysers! All other explosive hot water springs the world over are named after this one. And it is one of the few Icelandic words that has made it into everyday language across the globe as a result.
Ironically, Geysir is not actually active at the moment. Historically she needs some significant volcanic activity to “wake up”. Even recent earthquakes measuring 6.5 on the Richter Scale have not been enough to kick start her again. But when she blows, she is powerful, with water shooting to around 80 metres in the air. In the year 2000, she reached a height of 120 metres. Geysir has been sporadically active for around 800 years.
However, if it’s geysers you’re interested in, you will still not be disappointed as her neighbour Strokkur is a very regular contributor to the landscape here. Strokkur sends its explosive plume of hot water up to 30 metres into the air, roughly every 5-10 minutes. So, if you are exploring the Geysir Geothermal Area, you can expect to see Strokkur erupt at least 6 times during your visit. If you miss capturing it on film, just wait around for a bit & she’ll do it again!
Venture away from the geysers, & you’ll find several bright blue steaming & bubbling pools to discover in the area. Once again, make sure you stick to the paths as there are warning signs that some of these are sitting at around 100oC, definitely not to be messed with! To see the area in all its explosive glory, then check out my video below:
Kerið is a 6500-year-old explosion crater & it is possible to walk around the rim in under 20 minutes. The crater consists of bright red earth with a vivid green lake inside. Unfortunately, I missed out as I would love to have taken this hike. If you visit in winter, tread carefully as a friend of mine slipped & broke her wrist.
Secret Lagoon (Gamla Laughin)
If you are a fan of the spas on offer in Iceland, then you should choose to add the Secret Lagoon to your Golden Circle itinerary. Located in the village of Flúðir, it is the oldest swimming pool in Iceland. The healing waters are taken from the hot springs nearby & even a small geyser.
It gets busy in the afternoon so if you can, either time a visit for the morning or evening. You may even get lucky & have your soak coincide with a showing by the Northern Lights!”
If you fancy a break from the driving & enjoy a hike, then a great option is to take the 7km round trip walk to Brúarfoss Waterfall. It is famed for its colour, namely “Iceland’s Bluest Waterfall” & does look spectacular. It may not be quite Gullfoss spectacular but it looks beautiful nonetheless! You will need 2-3 hours for the round trip.
Ljósafoss Power Station
One of the things that impressed me most about my trip to Iceland was how they harness the power of the earth to provide cold water for drinking (direct from the glaciers), hot water for washing (geothermally heated) & the energy to create the electricity they need. To learn more about all of this you can head to Ljósafoss Power Station where they have a state-of-the-art multimedia exhibition that explains all you need to know.
The final place to add to your Golden Circle itinerary is the infamous Blue Lagoon. It is not strictly on the Golden Circle route, however as it sits so close to Reykjavik, a soak in its opaque aqua waters could be a fantastic way to finish your tour. I didn’t make it here as on this trip, I ran out of time but having sampled the waters of the “Blue Lagoon of the North”, I will definitely be paying a visit when I return. The water here is rich in silica mud, mineral salts & blue-green algae so apparently really does leave your skin glowing & soft.
In 2012 the National Geographic even named it as one of its “25 Wonders of the World”.”
To add it to your Golden Circle itinerary then check out the tours below.
Where to stay when visiting the Golden Circle
As stated, the joy of the Golden Circle is that it is so close to Reykjavik. While in the capital, I enjoyed my time at the CenterHotel Plaza & the Apotek Hotel by Keahotels. Both are very centrally located. Alternatively, if you are going to take a couple of days to explore the area, then consider staying in Selfoss.
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