What is Iceland's Golden Circle sightseeing 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 sightseeing route and the top detours along the way.
If you hear anyone talk about excursions in Iceland, 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: Thingvellir 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 Reykjavik, and thus all three can be visited within a day.
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Thingvellir National Park is an amazing site, steeped in history and folklore and surrounded by incredible geology.
Considered to be the first stop on the Golden Circle, the park is located only about 45 minute’s drive away from Reykjavik.
The roots of both how this island formed and how its civil society was created can be found at Thingvellir.
It is a place where dramatic geology meets a millennium of fascinating history and where visitors can spend hours learning about the processes of the earth and the roots of democracy.
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. Nowhere is it more visible than in Thingvellir National Park.
When you enter the park from Reykjavik, you will drive towards a sheer cliff that is, in fact, the corner of the North American continent.
The Eurasian continent is several kilometres away, on the far side of the park, and is equally dramatic to look at once you get to it.
It was a pocket of magma which formed between these plates and rose as they moved apart that is responsible for 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 Thingvellir. The area consists of long stretches of lava rock, and many volcanoes surround the park, rising above Thingvallavatn, 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 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 Langjokull glacier and travels underground through the porous lava rock towards the lake Thingvallavatn.
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.
While these activities do not seem befitting 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.
Photo from Diving Silfra & Lava Caving Combo.
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 to move through the fissure.
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.
Silfra has been voted one of the top ten dive sites in the world.
The area is not, however, without its dangers. 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 Almannagja gorge.
This stunning valley displays how the geological processes in the area work, and leads to a lovely waterfall, called Oxararfoss.
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 Thingvellir, 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 read about Thingvellir’s history is to learn 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 Thingvellir.
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 even 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 Reykjavik, but its function remained the same.
Photo Credit: Wikimedia, creative commons, photo by Zenneke
This history makes the Icelandic Althingi (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.
It was because of these roots that Thingvellir was declared a National Park in 1930, precisely 1000 years after the parliament first met.
It was subsequently declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2004.
Because it was the most important site in Icelandic history for centuries, Thingvellir 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 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 president, Sveinn Bjornsson, was also held here.
The history of Thingvellir, in combination with its beauty and geology, make it clear why the park is such a popular destination.
It is, however, only one of three iconic sites on the classic Golden Circle route.
The second stop on the Golden Circle is the Geysir Geothermal Area, located within the Haukadalur Valley.
It is approximately a fifty-minute drive from Thingvellir. 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 rarely erupts 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 over time.
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.
Part of what makes the Golden Circle so incredible is that there is a geyser so active and reliable in such an accessible location.
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 natural 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.
Photo Credit: maxpixel.freegreatpicture.com
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 local ingredients.
The Haukadalur Valley is an incredible place to stop and marvel at nature.
Be sure to respect the area and do not throw anything into the hot springs or geysers.
This should go without saying but in the past, an artist filled Strokkur with natural food colouring to see what it would look like pink, so it seems to be a point worth reiterating.
The third and final stop on the Golden Circle route 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 waterfall 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 (4944 cubic feet) of water pours down it every second.
Gullfoss is not only known for its breathtaking power but also for the rainbows that arise 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 Langjokull.
Like with the springs in Thingvellir and the water at the Geysir Geothermal Area, the river that flows down Gullfoss comes from Langjokull glacier.
Summer is arguably 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.
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 been well preserved and has not been meddled with in any way.
After all, protecting nature in Iceland was once not everybody’s intention.
In the early 20th Century, foreign investors saw a huge amount of opportunity in adding a dam to Gullfoss and turning it into a hydro-electric plant.
The owner of the falls at the time, Tomas Tomasson, had indirectly loaned 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 Tomas’ daughter in the picture.
Photo Credit: Luc Van Braekel
This iconic woman, called Sigridur Tomasdottir, 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 Reykjavik and back again multiple times to rally a legal case in Gullfoss’ defence.
Although her actions did not directly save the waterfall, they drew attention to the case. This led to national criticism of the plans and ensured that the process of adding the dam 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 persuade them to annul the contract.
This lawyer, Sveinn Bjornsson, may sound familiar. He was the same man who was chosen as Iceland’s first president.
Sigridur 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.
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.
Of course, it is possible to rent a car and drive from one attraction to another, in your own time without the time and itinerary restrictions that come with a guided tour.
Doing it this way allows you to take as many detours to lesser-known locations nearby as you like.
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 attractions on the Golden Circle then straight back to your accommodation.
Others make more of the day by taking you to popular sites such as the beautiful crater lake Kerid and the Blue Lagoon.
As the Golden Circle can be completed in around six hours, including driving to and from Reykjavik, many combination tours have cropped up.
The Golden Circle and snowmobiling tour, for example, whisks you around all three sites. From Gullfoss, you are driven up to Langjokull glacier for an exhilarating blast across the glacial ice.
It is also possible to combine the Golden Circle with snorkelling in Silfra at Thingvellir or lava caving on the Reykjanes Peninsula.
It is even possible to combine this excursion with a rich cultural experience. For example, you can enjoy sightseeing for the day, then complete the tour with a taste of traditional Icelandic cuisine in the evening.
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. This tour takes you along the Golden Circle trail, along the South Coast to the Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon and into an ice cave.
Those here for several weeks, meanwhile, have plenty of options to choose from. A 14-day self drive package which encircles the whole Ring Road, taking in the stunning Westfjords area, is highly recommended.
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, there are many detours you can take to fascinating sites nearby.
Most of these are lesser-known, thus you can combine the classic Golden Circle sightseeing trail with visits to these off-the-beaten-track locations.
Below are our top nine Golden Circle detours that we’ve handpicked for you and highly recommend allocating some of your time to.
The Fontana Geothermal Baths is the name of a spa in the town of Laugarvatn, on the way from Thingvellir 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 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 feel warm water rising from the earth between your toes.
Photo credit Fontana Geothermal Baths
If you make a stop here, make sure to try the rye bread that they cook for 24 hours in the hot sand. Hot, freshly 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 Aurora Travel - Golden Circle private tour
Many full day Golden Circle tours make a stop at Kerid crater, 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 Kerid means that it is also renowned for its acoustics and concerts have been known to have been held there.
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.
Please note that there is also a small fee to be paid on entrance to Kerid.
The Secret Lagoon, or Gamla Laugin, at Fludir is a great place to relax and renew your energy after a busy day of sightseeing.
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.
Photo credit: Breathe Iceland
Swimming classes were held in the pool from 1909 until 1947, but it fell into disrepair as new pools opened around the country.
It has recently been renovated and modernised, however, with new changing facilities and a cafe. It 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.
Fludir is situated on road number 30. It can be easily visited by car or on a guided tour of the Golden Circle and Secret Lagoon.
The most popular option is to combine a Golden Circle tour with snowmobiling on Langjokull glacier.
It’s also possible to just book a snowmobiling tour at Langjokull glacier or upgrade to a tour which also visits a stunning ice cave.
Langjokull isn’t far from Gullfoss waterfall, which is where you will be picked up for the snowmobiling excursion.
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 adventurous travellers.
Photo credit Friðheimar
Fridheimar is a tomato, cucumber and horse farm that’s located on road number 35, close to Reykholt.
This is the perfect place to stop for lunch between 12:00 and 16:00. Here you can enjoy some delicious tomato soup with home baked bread.
If you’re in a small group you can often just drop in, but it is usually better to call ahead and reserve your place as it can get very busy.
You will absolutely need to book in advance if you would like to enjoy a tour of the farm or to go to a horse show.
This is one of Iceland's most underrated locations and it is well worth a visit.
The Golden Circle boats some of the most incredible waterfalls in Iceland.
The classic route takes you to Gulfoss waterfall, however, there are other hidden gems located close by which are well worth a visit.
Two stand out options are Helgufoss waterfall and Thorufoss waterfall.
Helgufoss waterfall is located just off of road 36, on the way to Thingvellir from Reykjavik.
Meanwhile, Thorufoss forms part of the river Laxa i Kjos and can be visited by following road 48 after Helgufoss but before reaching Thingvellir National Park.
The waterfall is signposted and there is a small area to pull your car in at the side of the road.
To visit both waterfalls requires access to a car, as Golden Circle tours don’t typically visit these off-the-beaten-track locations.
Photo credit: Sólheimar eco-village
Solheimar eco-village boasts a population 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, irrespective of their age, gender or ability.
Over the past few years, its unique charm and quirky vibe have drawn more and more visitors. Now over 30,000 people pop by every year to see what it is all about.
The settlement - nestled seamlessly in nature - has everything visitors could need, with a bakery, cafe, guesthouse and art gallery.
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.
Solheimar is approximately a 20-minute drive South of Laugarvatn, so it is ideally located to visit as part of an extended Golden Circle self drive tour.
If you wish to explore some more hidden gems off-the-beaten-track, and do not mind a bit of extra driving, it only takes a couple of hours detour to Thjorsardalur Valley.
Thjorsardalur Valley is considered to be part of the Southern Highlands of Iceland. It boasts a wide range of incredible natural sites.
Here, you can find a wealth of beautiful waterfalls that most never get to visit, such as Haifoss, Granni and Hjalparfoss.
Burfells Woods is another natural attraction, being a particularly large forest for Iceland.
Thjorsardalur is, in fact, quite the botanist’s paradise, with many species of wildflower, grass and moss growing in the area.
To get there, drive South on road number 30 from Gullfoss, then take a left turn onto road number 32.
Photo credit: Safnabókin
Skalholt is a remarkable historical town in Iceland.
It is where the 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 120 people).
Today it has an ordaining bishop and hosts many cultural events, including their famous summer concert programme.
Find Skalholt on Road 31, just off Road 35 in the direction from Geyser geothermal area to Reykjavik.
If you are driving through Skalholt, its cathedral alone is worth stopping for.
Whether you’re planning on joining a guided tour or opting for a self-drive, we hope you find our recommended list of the Golden Circles top 9 detours helpful in making your visit to Iceland that extra special. We’d love to hear your questions and experiences in the comments below.