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 Iceland excursions, they will be more than likely to bring up the Golden Circle. It’s featured near the top of almost every list of things to do in the country, and nearly every tour provider will list it as a sightseeing tour on their website.
These sites are renowned across the world and are as spectacular as they are unique. None of them is further than a two-hour drive from Reykjavik, making it possible to visit all three within a day.
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 only a 45-minute drive away from Reykjavik.
It is a place where dramatic geology meets a millennium of fascinating history. Here, visitors to Thingvellir can discover the roots of this island’s formation and how Medieval Icelanders created its democratic society.
The park’s incredible geology comes from its location between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates, the rift valley that runs through Iceland.
Iceland 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 kilometers away, on the far side of the park, and is equally dramatic to look at once you reach it.
A magma pocket formed between these plates, rising as they moved apart. This venting was responsible for creating Iceland millions of years ago.
Their continued separation is the reason that Iceland has such fascinating volcanic activity. The island is still young and remains very much in the process of formation.
Visitors can find evidence of this process 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.
The park has grown verdant since the last eruption, over 2,000 years ago.
The unique, haunting moss that creeps over the Icelandic landscape now covers the lava fields, while many parts of the area are forested with native birch trees and imported pines.
There are still regular earthquakes in the area, each responsible for the distance between the plates widening 2.5 centimeters (one inch) a year.
The ravines opened by these quakes are filled with freshwater that 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 crystal clear.
While these activities do not seem befitting Iceland's climate, dry-suit technology advancements 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.
Snorkeling 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 that helps guests 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 guides conduct the tour 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 dive, and only those who are physically fit and calm under stress should partake in snorkeling.
If you wish to see where the earth is tearing apart but want to stay fully dry, it is possible to walk in the Almannagja gorge.
This stunning valley displays how the area's geological processes work, and it leads to a lovely waterfall called Oxararfoss.
When taking this hike, fans of the HBO series Game of Thrones will find it very familiar. The gorge was the shooting location for the path up to the Eyrie, and where Arya Stark and Sandor Clegane journeyed through the Riverlands.
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, 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 after Norway took over the Icelandic Commonwealth in 1262, and even after it transferred into the Danish crown’s clutches in 1380.
Since its establishment over a millennium ago, the parliament was only interrupted for one spell, from 1799 to 1844.
After that, it was relocated to Reykjavik, but its function remained the same.
Photo from Wikimedia, Creative Commons, by Zenneke
This history makes the Icelandic Althingi (parliament) the oldest, 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 created a representative system that would act as a model to the many that followed it.
Because of these roots, Iceland declared Thingvellir a National Park in 1930, precisely 1000 years after the parliament first met.
UNESCO subsequently declared it a 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.
For example, the country converted to Christianity here in 1000 AD, fearing the violence threatened by Norway's pious monarch, King Olaf I. It was also the site of many witch trials and other dramatic events detailed in the Icelandic sagas.
Photo by Tucker Monticelli
Even after the parliament site moved to Reykjavík, the area remained relevant to Icelanders.
It was here that the nation chose to declare and celebrate its independence from Nazi-occupied Denmark in 1944.
The confirmation of the nation's first president, Sveinn Bjornsson, was also held here.
Thingvellir’s history, combined 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 earth’s volcanic activity grow more intense.
Steaming vents and chimneys are visible along the way and notably concentrated in the village of Laugarvatn, located halfway between Thingvellir and Geysir.
This settlement has a spa that is heated by hot water currents beneath the ground’s surface. Its steam rooms sit 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. Visitors can see the steam rising from miles away.
Many hot pools, clay pots, and fumaroles dot the area, and the minerals of the earth vividly color the hills and soil.
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.
Geysir 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 neighbor, Strokkur, goes off every ten minutes or so, throwing water from 20 to 40 meters (66 to 132 ft) into the air.
The original Geysir is mostly inactive these days because of the local tectonic activity and intrusive human intervention.
Studies show that it has existed for about 10,000 years and that it tends to erupt in cycles. Usually, an earthquake will trigger it, and it will then 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-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.
This channel was cleared in 1981, and it was found that Geysir could be made to erupt on occasion by pumping in soap.
There were many concerns about this activity’s environmental impact, and it was stopped in the 1990s.
Geysir has been mostly dormant since then, though it still goes off occasionally, giving the lucky a chance to catch sight of it.
When it does erupt, the results are much larger than Strokkur.
In 2000, it threw water to a height of 122 meters (400 ft). The only time it was recorded blasting higher was in 1845, where it reached an estimated 170 meters (558 ft).
Geysers are a rare natural phenomenon.
A geyser so active and reliable and in such an accessible location is part of what makes the Golden Circle so incredible.
Their rarity is due to 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 runoff that 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 before rising from the reservoir to the surface.
Photo from Kyle Burton
Walking around the Geysir Geothermal Area is a fascinating and rewarding experience, but its appeal goes further than these exploding hot springs.
The Geysir Center, just opposite the geysers, has a large boutique shop with many handcrafted and locally made Icelandic goods. The center 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 guideline should go without saying, but an artist once filled Strokkur with natural food coloring to see what a pink eruption would look like, 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.
Visitors can find the waterfall less than ten minutes down the road from Geysir.
This powerful waterfall is located in a plunging, ancient valley and tumbles down two drops, from an overall height of 32 meters (105 ft).
During its heaviest flow in the summer, it pours an average of 140 cubic meters (4944 cubic feet) of water 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 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 marveling 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 partially frozen and carrying chunks of ice into the abyss is mesmerizing.
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 without it, Iceland’s tourism industry would not be the same.
Therefore, it is incredibly fortunate that it is well preserved and has not been meddled with in any way.
After all, protecting nature in Iceland was not always everybody’s intention.
In the early 20th Century, foreign investors saw a huge opportunity to add a dam to Gullfoss and turn it into a hydro-electric plant.
The owner of the falls at the time, Tomas Tomasson, had indirectly loaned outsiders the right to do with it what they wanted.
These plans started to go ahead against his wishes but became incredibly difficult to enforce when Tomas’ daughter entered the picture.
This iconic woman, called Sigridur Tomasdottir, refused to allow the destruction of the natural wonder she loved so much.
She did everything she could to preserve it, from threatening to throw herself into the falls to walking the 200 kilometers of unpaved road to Reykjavik and back again multiple times to rally a legal case in Gullfoss’ defense.
Although her actions did not directly save the waterfall, they drew attention to the case. This awareness led to national criticism of the plans and ensured that the dam-building process was delayed.
Eventually, the lawyer Sigridur enlisted in her protests managed to work with the investors (who lacked the money to take action) and persuaded them to annul the contract.
This lawyer, Sveinn Bjornsson, may sound familiar. He was the same man who served as Iceland’s first president.
Today, Sigridur is immortalized in a stone memorial on top of the waterfall. Icelanders remember her as a hero for her efforts to save it.
As a poor, uneducated woman fighting a capitalist, patriarchal society for the beauty of nature, she helped pave the way for feminism and environmentalism in Icelandic culture.
As the most popular tourist trail in Iceland, there are many different ways to see the Golden Circle.
You will find hundreds of different tours from dozens of 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, 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 Golden Circle's three attractions, 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.
Since visitors can complete the Golden Circle 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, the tour drives you up to Langjokull glacier for an exhilarating blast across the glacial ice.
It is also possible to combine the Golden Circle with snorkeling 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, centered around, or featuring, 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 from which to choose. A 14-day self-drive package that 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 travel plan, it is nearly always possible to fit in a trip around the Golden Circle.
With the incredible diversity of scenery available within a simple drive, it is an essential Icelandic experience for any traveler.
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 so that you can combine the classic Golden Circle sightseeing trail with visits to these off-the-beaten-track locations.
Below are the top nine handpicked Golden Circle detours you should consider.
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, though the current spa was opened in 2011.
Fontana features 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.
If you stop here, make sure to try the rye bread that the spa bakes 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.
Many full-day Golden Circle tours make a stop at Kerid crater, so if you’re driving, you shouldn’t miss out on this natural wonder either. The crater was formed about 6500 years ago and is oval-shaped with a lake at its bottom.
The rocks surrounding the crater are fiery red and orange in color, with streaks of black and green running through them. These colors contrast beautifully with the azure waters.
Due to its shape, Kerid is renowned for its acoustics, and artists sometimes hold concerts there. This crater is situated by Route 5, close to the town of Selfoss. It also has a small parking lot next to it.
Please note that there is also a small fee to be paid on entry to Kerid.
Photo from Golden Circle Tour with the Secret Lagoon
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 pool’s temperature is 38-40°C (100-104°F) 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 from Golden Circle Tour with the Secret Lagoon
The pool hosted swimming classes from 1909 until 1947, but it fell into disrepair as new pools opened around the country.
However, it has recently been renovated and modernized, 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 in popularity.
Fludir is on Route 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 that also visits a stunning ice cave.
Langjokull isn’t far from Gullfoss waterfall, where the tour operators will pick you 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 travelers.
Fridheimar is a tomato, cucumber, and horse farm located on Route 35, close to Reykholt.
The farm 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 sometimes drop in, but it is usually better to call ahead and reserve your place as it can get quite busy.
You will need to book in advance if you would like to enjoy a farm tour or go to a horse show.
Fridheimar is one of Iceland's most underrated locations, and it is well worth a visit.
Photo from Wikimedia, Creative Commons, by Bromr
The Golden Circle has some of the most incredible waterfalls in Iceland.
The classic route takes you to Gulfoss waterfall, though there are other hidden gems close by that are well worth a visit.
Two stand-out options are Helgufoss waterfall and Thorufoss waterfall.
Photo from Wikimedia, Creative Commons, by Bromr
Helgufoss waterfall is located just off of Route 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 before reaching Thingvellir National Park.
The waterfall is signposted, and there is a small area on the side of the road where you can park your car.
You will need access to a car to visit both waterfalls, as Golden Circle tours don’t typically visit these remote locations.
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 maximizing every person’s potential, irrespective of their age, gender, or ability.
Over the past few years, its 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.
It is also home to the Sesselja House, an educational exhibition center focused on 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 and do not mind a bit of extra driving, a detour to Thjorsardalur Valley only takes a couple of hours.
Thjorsardalur Valley is 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 an unusually large forest for Iceland.
Thjorsardalur is quite the botanist’s paradise, with many wildflower species, grass, and moss growing in the area.
To get there, drive south on Route 30 from Gullfoss, then take a left turn onto Route 32.
Photo from Wikimedia, Creative Commons, by Qasmed
Skalholt is a remarkable historical town in Iceland. It was home to the nation's first bishop and established the first school in the country. By the year 1200, it was considered Iceland’s first town, with just 120 people.
Today it has an ordained bishop and hosts many cultural events, including its famous summer concert program.
Find Skalholt on Route 31, just off Route 35 from the Geyser geothermal area to Reykjavik.
If you are driving through Skalholt, its cathedral alone is worth a stop.
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.