What is Iceland's Golden Circle sighseeing route and why is it so popular? Where should you stop when driving the Golden Circle? Read on and learn about Iceland's most popular route and the top detours along the way.
Hear anyone talk about excursions in Iceland, and it is more than likely that they will bring up the Golden Circle. It features near the top of almost every list of things to do in the country and is listed as a sightseeing tour on nearly every tour provider's website.
The Golden Circle consists of three equally stunning locations in southwest Iceland: Þingvellir National Park, the Geysir Geothermal Area, and Gullfoss waterfall. These sites are renowned across the world and are all as spectacular as they are unique. None of them is further than a two hour's drive from Reykjavík, and thus all three can be visited within a day.
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Thingvellir National Park
Þingvellir National Park is an amazing site, steeped in history and folklore, and surrounded by incredible geology. It has the honour of being the first of Iceland’s three national parks to be established, and it is the only one that is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Considered to be the first stop on the Golden Circle, the park is located only about 45 minute’s drive away from Reykjavík.
The roots of both how this island formed and how its civil society was created can be found at Þingvellir. It is a place where dramatic geology meets a millennium of fascinating history, and where visitors can while away hours learning about the processes of the earth and the roots of democracy.
- See also: National Parks in Iceland
The incredible geology of the park comes from the fact that it is situated directly between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates, in the rift valley that runs all the way through Iceland. This is the only country where this valley, the Mid Atlantic Ridge, can be seen above sea level, and nowhere is it more visible than in Þingvellir.
When you enter the park from Reykjavik, you drive towards a sheer cliff that is, in fact, the corner the North American continent. The Eurasian continent is several kilometres away, on the far side of the park, and is equally dramatic to look upon once you get to it.
It was a pocket of magma between these plates that rose as they moved apart which began the creation of Iceland millions of years ago. Their continued separation is the reason that Iceland has such fascinating volcanic activity; the island is still very young, and still very much in the process of formation.
Evidence of this process can be found all across Þingvellir. The area consists of long stretches of lava rock, and many volcanoes surround the park, rising above Þingvallavatn, Iceland's largest natural lake.
There has, however, not been an eruption in the area in the past 2000 years, and the park has grown very verdant as a result. The unique, haunting moss that creeps over the Icelandic landscape now covers the lava fields, and many parts of the area are forested with native birch trees and imported pines.
There are still regular earthquakes in the area, accommodating for the fact that the distance between the plates widens 2.5 centimetres (one inch) a year. The ravines opened by these quakes are filled with fresh water, which melts from the glacier Langjökull and travels underground through the porous lava rock towards the lake Þingvallavatn.
This long filtration process means that when the water emerges from springs in these cracks, it is devoid of any sediment and thus crystal clear. The visibility exceeds 100 metres (328 ft), which not only makes walking through the area that much more scenic but opens up opportunities for diving and snorkelling.
While these activities do not seem befitting of Iceland’s climate, advancements in dry-suit technology mean that the 2°C (35.6°F) water is more than accessible, even throughout the winter. Qualified guides take groups multiple times a day on this increasingly popular adventure, through the most beautiful of these ravines, Silfra.
Snorkelling in Silfra is available to almost everyone over the age of sixteen who know how to swim. The dry-suits are buoyant enough to act as a life-jacket, and Silfra has a gentle current helping guests along their way. The diving tours, however, require you to be a qualified PADI Open Water Scuba Diver and experienced in dry suit diving.
The underwater world here is incredibly beautiful, and the fact that the tour is conducted between the tectonic plates makes it all the more exciting.
- See also: Diving and Snorkelling in Iceland
Silfra is regularly voted one of the top ten dive sites in the world; it is not, however, without its dangers. There have been injuries and deaths within its waters, so only those who are qualified and confident in their abilities should take the dive, and only those who are physically fit and calm under stress should partake in the snorkel.
If you wish to see where the earth is tearing apart, but intend on staying fully dry, then it is possible to walk in the Almannagjá gorge, against the North American tectonic plate. This stunning valley displays how the geological processes in the area work, and leads to a lovely waterfall, called Öxarárfoss.
When taking this hike, fans of the HBO Series Game of Thrones will find it very familiar. This is the shooting location for the path up to the Eyrie, as well as where Arya Stark and Sandor Clegane journeyed through the Riverlands.
The incredible location and fascinating geology of Þingvellir, however, have nothing to do with why it received National Park and UNESCO World Heritage Site status. The reason it was able to claim these titles is due to its past; to follow Þingvellir’s history is to follow the history of the Icelandic people.
The first permanent settlers to Iceland came in the 800s and were largely vagabond clans who refused to bend a knee to the new High King of Norway. In 930 AD, however, they decided that some sort of collective government could ease disputes on the island, and each of the thirty or so groups present sent someone to represent them. They deemed their meeting place ‘the fields of parliament’, which translates to Þingvellir.
This first parliament was such a success that the tradition continued year after year, decade after decade, century after century. The institution endured even after the Icelandic Commonwealth was taken over by Norway in 1262, and after it transferred into the clutches of the Danish crown in 1380.
In fact, since its establishment over a millennium ago, it was only interrupted for one spell, from 1799 to 1844. After that, it was relocated to Reykjavík, but its function remained the same.
This history makes the Icelandic Alþingi (parliament) the oldest, still ongoing, representative parliament in the world. While the populations of Christian Europe endured feudalism without a thought to any democratic process, the ‘heathens’ of Iceland were creating a representative system that would act as a model to the many that followed it.
Because it was the most important site in Icelandic history for centuries, Þingvellir witnessed many of the major changes that the nation went through as it developed. It was, for example, where the country converted to Christianity in 1000 AD, fearing the violence threatened by the pious monarch of Norway, King Olaf I. It was also the site of many witch-trials, and many of the dramatic events detailed in the Icelandic sagas.
Even after the parliament site moved to Reykjavík, the area retained a great emotional value to Icelanders. It was here, therefore, where the nation chose to declare and celebrate its independence from Denmark in 1944 after the Nazis invaded it and the Allies took control of Iceland. The confirmation of the nation's first ever president, Sveinn Björnsson, was also held here on this momentous day.
The history of Þingvellir, in combination with its beauty and geology, make it clear why the park is such a popular destination. It is, however, but a third of the overall appeal of the Golden Circle.
The Geysir Geothermal Area
The second stop on the Golden Circle is the Geysir Geothermal Area, within the Haukadalur Valley. It is approximately a fifty-minute drive from Þingvellir, and en route, it is possible to see the volcanic activity of the earth grow more and more intense.
Steaming vents and chimneys are dotted along the way and notably concentrated in the village of Laugarvatn, located halfway between the two locations. This settlement has a spa that is heated by the currents of hot water beneath the surface of the ground, even having steam rooms that are situated right on top of bubbling hot pots, which reach a sweltering 60°C (140°F).
At the Haukadalur valley, however, this geothermal activity becomes even more intense; the steam rising from it is visible from miles away. The area is dotted with many hot pools, clay pots, and fumaroles, and the hills and soil are coloured vividly by the minerals of the earth. It would be a fascinating enough site even without the two geysers that make it famous.
The first of these is the one which gave all others their name: the Great Geysir itself. This is the earliest documented geyser in European literature, and its name comes from the Old Norse verb ‘to gush’, geysa. Geysir erupts rarely, but its neighbour, Strokkur, goes off every ten minutes or so, throwing water from 20 to 40 metres (66 to 132 ft) into the air.
The reason the original Geysir is mostly inactive these days is because of the tectonic activity in the area, as well as intrusive human intervention. Studies show that it has existed for about 10,000 years and that it tends to erupt in cycles; usually, a large earthquake will trigger it to start off, then it will slowly peter out.
Even when it is erupting, however, it is unpredictable in its timing and consistency. For example, in the early 1910s, it was known to erupt every half an hour, yet its activity had almost ceased altogether by 1916.
Tired of the fact that their country’s most famous landmark was so inconsistent, Icelanders dug a channel into the silica rim around Geysir’s vent in 1935, to lower the water table and encourage it to go off again. While it worked for a short period, the channel became clogged, and activity ceased once more.
In 1981, this channel was cleared, and it was found that Geysir could be forced to erupt on occasion by pumping in soap. There were many concerns about the environmental impact of this activity, however, and thus it was stopped in the 1990s.
Geysir has been largely dormant since then but has gone off occasionally, so the lucky still have a chance to catch sight of it. When it does erupt, it is much greater than Strokkur; in 2000, it threw water to a height of 122 metres (400 ft). The only time it was recorded blasting higher was in 1845, where it reached an estimated 170 metres (558 ft).
Geysers are a rare natural phenomenon, and part of what makes the Golden Circle so incredible is that there is one so active and reliable somewhere so accessible. The reason for their rarity is because of the specific conditions required for their formation. For a geyser to exist, it requires the following circumstances:
An intense heat source: For geysers to erupt, there needs to be magma close to the surface of the earth to heat the rocks enough to boil water.
A water flow: There must be a source of flowing underground water. In this case, the water is what has melted from Langjökull glacier and runs through the porous lava rock into the area.
A plumbing system: There must be an underground reservoir for this water to gather, and a vent, lined with silica so that the water cannot seep out of it, which rises from the reservoir to the surface of the earth.
Walking around the Geysir Geothermal Area is a fascinating and rewarding experience, but its appeal goes further than these exploding hot springs. The Geysir Centre, just opposite the geysers, has a large, boutique shop with many handcrafted and locally made Icelandic goods. The centre also has several restaurants, serving traditional Icelandic food made from locally sourced ingredients.
The Haukadalur Valley is an incredible place to stop and marvel at the nature. Just ensure that you respect the area, and do not throw anything into the hot springs or geysers. This should go without saying, but since an 'artist' filled Strokkur with (thankfully all-natural) food colouring to see what it would look like pink, it seems to be a point worth reiterating.
The third and final stop on the Golden Circle is one of the most spectacular waterfalls in Iceland, Gullfoss. It can be found less than ten minutes down the road from Geysir. Located in a plunging, ancient valley, this powerful falls tumbles down two drops, from an overall height of 32 metres (105 ft). At its heaviest flow during summer, an average of 140 cubic metres (459 cubic feet) of water pours down it every second.
Gullfoss is not only known for its breathtaking power but also the rainbows that are thrown from its spray on a sunny day. These only add to an already beautiful sight; other than the dramatic valley and falls, the area looks over rolling fields, right up to the magnificent ice sheet of Langjökull. Like with the springs in Þingvellir and the water at the Geysir Geothermal area, the river that flows down Gullfoss comes from this glacier.
The river is called Hvíta, and it is the best place for rafting in the southwest of Iceland. Accessible for newcomers, but still appealing to experts, the rafting tour takes you on an adventurous ride with the powerful currents, down an ancient valley dotted with fascinating geological features. For anyone who doesn’t mind getting a bit wet and having a little bit of a workout, this is an exhilarating excursion.
This tour is only accessible during summer; this is also the best season to visit Gullfoss. When there is no ice on the ground, a walkway opens that takes you right up to the edge of the falls, close enough to feel the spray on your face. The photo opportunities here are incredible, and one could spend hours marvelling over the awe-inspiring power of the water.
That is not to say, however, that Gullfoss is any less spectacular in the winter. While you cannot get as close, seeing it partly frozen, carrying chunks of ice into the abyss, is mesmerising. If you visit in winter, be sure to wrap up warm; the winds coming over the glacier are notoriously sharp, and you don’t want them to shorten your stay.
Gullfoss today is an attraction that lures people from across the world, and Iceland’s tourism industry would not be the same without it. It is incredibly fortunate, therefore, that it has remained preserved, and has not been meddled with in any way. After all, keeping it natural was once not everybody’s intention.
In the early 20th Century, foreign investors saw a huge amount of opportunity in damning Gullfoss and turning it into a hydro-electric plant. The owner of the falls at the time, Tómas Tómasson, had indirectly leant outsiders the right to do what they wanted with it. These plans, against his wishes, started to go ahead; but were incredibly difficult to enforce with Tómas’ daughter around.
This iconic woman, called Sigríður, refused to let the natural wonder she loved so much be destroyed. She did everything she could to preserve it, from threatening to throw herself into the falls, to walking the 200 kilometres of unpaved road to Reykjavík and back again multiple times to rally a legal case in Gullfoss’ defence.
Although her actions did not directly save the waterfall, they drew national criticism of the plans and ensured that the process of damning it was delayed. Eventually, the lawyer she enlisted in her protests managed to work with the investors, who were lacking in money to take action, to annul the contract. This lawyer, Sveinn Björnsson, may sound familiar; he was the same man who chosen as Iceland’s first president.
Sigríður has been immortalised in a stone memorial on top of the waterfall and is remembered as a hero for her efforts to save it. As a poor, uneducated woman fighting a capitalist, patriarchal society in the name of the beauty of nature, she helped pave the way for both feminism and environmentalism to prevail in Icelandic culture.
The Best Way to See the Golden Circle
As the most popular tourist trail in Iceland, many different ways to see the Golden Circle have emerged. There are hundreds of different tours, from dozens of different providers, that combine your Golden Circle with extra activities or more sightseeing locations. Some even allow you to see it in an entirely unique way, such as by helicopter or by plane, or underneath the midnight sun.
Of course, it is possible to rent a car and drive from point to point, in your own time without the hassle of departure times or other group members. Doing it this way allows you to take as many detours to lesser-known, nearby locations as you like, as will be discussed more in depth below.
For those who would rather avoid the pressure of driving in Iceland, there is a vast array of guided tours from which you can choose. Some are very simple and efficient, taking you to the three locations then straight back to your accommodation. Others make more of the day, and also take you to popular sites such as the beautiful crater lake Kerið and the Blue Lagoon.
As the Golden Circle can be completed in around six hours, including driving to and from Reykjavík, many combination tours have cropped up. The Golden Circle and snowmobiling tour, for example, whisks you around all three sites, then from Gullfoss, you are driven up to Langjökull glacier for an exhilarating blast across the ice.
- See also: Golden Circle tours
It is even possible to combine this excursion with a culture tour. For example, you can enjoy sightseeing for the day, then go to taste traditional Icelandic cuisine in the evening. Another option is to finish the tour with a visit to a local power plant, to understand how Icelanders utilise the geothermal forces shaping their country for energy and food production.
There are even multi-day tours, both guided and self-drive, that centre around, or at very least feature, a trip around the Golden Circle. Those with a short amount of time, for example, may enjoy the guided three-day south coast tour, which takes you along this trail, up to the Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon, and, weather permitting, into an ice cave.
Those here for several weeks, meanwhile, could do anything up to a 14-day self-drive that takes them not only around the Golden Circle but to almost every other point worthy of note around the circumference of Iceland.
Top 9 Detours on the Golden Circle
No matter your time in this country, your budget, or your agenda, it is nearly always possible to fit in a trip around the Golden Circle. With an incredible diversity of scenery available within a simple drive, it is an almost essential Icelandic experience for any traveller.
If you elect to drive the circle yourself, however, there are many detours you can take to fascinating sites nearby. Most of these are lesser-known, thus you can combine this classic sightseeing trail with visits to locations well off the beaten track. Below are the top nine detours that are recommended for those with the inclination and time.
1. Fontana Geothermal Baths
The Fontana Geothermal Baths is the name of the aforementioned spa in the town of Laugarvatn, on the way from Þingvellir National Park to Geysir. Laugarvatn is a picturesque village, perched on the edge of a wide lake, renowned for its geothermal activity.
Locals have enjoyed this area since 1929; the current spa, however, has only been open since 2011. Features of Fontana include three steam rooms, all atop of natural hot springs, and a traditional wooden Finnish sauna with fantastic views of the surrounding nature. There are also plenty of shallow pools that vary in heat, allowing kids to enjoy the site while the adults relax.
The Fontana Geothermal Baths open out onto the lake, where it is possible to wade and feel tongues of warm water rising from the earth between your toes.
If you make a stop here, make sure you try the rye bread that they cook for 24 hours in the hot sand; hot, newly baked rye bread with butter is as traditionally Icelandic as it is delicious.
If you're not driving yourself, you can enjoy both this site and the Golden Circle on the Golden Circle and Fontana Geothermal Baths day tour.
(Photo credit Fontana Geothermal Baths)
2. The Crater Kerid
Photo credit Aurora Travel - Golden Circle private tour
Many full day Golden Circle tours make a stop at the crater Kerið, so if you’re driving yourself you shouldn’t miss out on this natural wonder either.
The crater was formed about 6500 years ago and is completely oval with a lake in its bottom. The rocks surrounding the crater are fiery reds and oranges, with streaks of black and green running through them; these colours contrast beautifully with the azure waters. The shape of Kerið means that is also renowned for its acoustics; concerts have been held in it on several occasions.
This site is situated just by the road number 35, close to the town of Selfoss, and there is a small parking lot right next to it.
Note that there is also a small fee to be paid to visit Kerið, but it is just 500 ISK per person.
3. Secret Lagoon in Fludir
The Secret Lagoon, or Gamla laugin, at Flúðir is a great place to relax and renew your energy. It is the oldest swimming pool in Iceland, having been built in 1891. The temperature of the pool is 38-40°C year-round, sustained by the water entering it from the surrounding natural hot springs. There’s a walking path around the swimming pool for guests to admire this geothermal area.
Swimming classes were held in the pool from 1909 until 1947, but it fell into disrepair due to a new pools opening around the country. It has recently been renovated and modernised, however, with new changing facilities and a cafe, and was reopened in June 2014. Be aware that if you wish to visit this location, it is always best to book in advance, as it is growing ever-more popular.
Flúðir is situated on road number 30.
Photo credit: Breathe Iceland
In wintertime check out this Aurora Floating tour, and for late night soaking in the midnight sun throughout summer, check out this evening floating tour. You can even go on a full day yoga relaxation tour to the Secret Lagoon, all year round.
Here you can find a Golden Circle and Secret Lagoon bus tour.
4. Snowmobiling on Langjokull Glacier
Probably the most popular activity to combine with the Golden Circle is snowmobiling on Langjökull glacier. Langjökull glacier isn’t far from Gullfoss waterfall, but you’ll need a Super Jeep to reach it throughout the winter, and a 4X4 vehicle in summer.
You can either go on a Golden Circle snowmobile day tour from Reykjavík – or if you are driving the Golden Circle yourself, you can arrange a time to be picked up from Gullfoss waterfall and return to your car after an hour of rocketing over the glacier on a snowmobile. On a clear day you’ll have a fantastic view from the glacier, and the ride up there is an adventure in itself. This excursion is not to be missed by the adventurous travellers.
5. Fridheimar Tomato and Horse Farm
Photo credit Friðheimar
Friðheimar is a tomato, cucumber and horse farm that’s close to Reykholt, on road number 35. This is the perfect place to stop for a lunch between 12:00 and 16:00, to enjoy some delicious tomato soup with home baked bread.
If you’re in a small group you can often just drop in, but in case of a larger group getting there first, it is usually better to call ahead and reserve your place. You will need to book in advance if you want a tour of the farm or to go to a horse show. This is one of Iceland's most underrated locations, and is well worth a visit.
6. River Rafting in Hvita river
As mentioned above, Gullfoss is fed by the Hvítá, which is one of Iceland's most popular rafting rivers. Iceland’s oldest rafting base, Drumbó (short for Drumboddsstaðir) is just a short drive from the waterfall. With Grade II rapids, this tour is excellent for beginners and experts alike.
There are many reasons why this trip is so popular; the rafting is excellent, the surrounding scenery stunning, and you are actively encouraged to take a short break mid-journey to leap into the river from an 8-meter high cliff, in case you need more adrenaline.
There is also the option to go kayaking, but this should only be done by the experienced as it is a little more challenging.
After your adventure, you can soak in a hot tub or sauna, and even have a barbecue with the guides before continuing your journey.
Here you can book a Golden Circle tour with river rafting.
7. Sólheimar Eco-Village
Photo credit: Sólheimar eco-village
Sólheimar is an eco-village of approximately 100 people. Formed in 1930, it has always been a unique place with a distinct philosophy of maximising the potential of every person, notably without regard to their age or disabilities. Over the past few years, its unique charm and quirky vibe have drawn more and more visitors, and now over 30,000 come every year to see what it is all about.
The settlement, nestled seamlessly in the nature, has everything visitors could need, with a bakery, cafe, guesthouse and multiple art venues. It hosts workshops in arts such as candle-making, weaving and ceramics, to name a few. It also is home to the Sesselja House, an educational exhibition centre focussed around ecology and sustainable development.
Sólheimar is approximately 45 minutes drive from Þingvellir and Geysir, between them and to the South. When travelling from the former location to the latter, along the 365, turn right at the roundabout in Laugavatn onto the 37. At the end of this road, turn left onto the 35, and right onto the 354. You will find the eco-village on this road.
8. Þjorsardalur Valley
If you wish to explore some gems off the beaten track, and do not mind a bit of extra driving, it only takes a couple of hours detour to Þjórsárdalur Valley. Here, you can find a wealth beautiful waterfalls that most never get to visit, such as Hjálparfoss, Háifoss, Granni and Þjófafoss.
To get there you drive south on road number 30 from Gullfoss, then take a left turn onto road number 32. On the way back, go on a little loop to gravel road, numbered 26.
(Photo credit Safnabókin)
Skálholt is a remarkable historical town in Iceland. It’s where nation's first bishop resided, and where the first school in the country was established. It is considered Iceland’s first town, as by 1200, it had the largest population, even if it was just of 120 people. If you are driving through Skálholt, its cathedral alone is worth stopping for.
On this Golden Circle classic tour, you will make a stop at Skálholt.