If you’re new to Iceland, you’re probably looking forward to exploring a country of rugged and unspoiled nature, a land of ice and fire or vast and empty landscapes. Let’s say it upfront: empty landscapes aren’t exactly what you’ll find on the Golden Circle, one of the most touristic areas of the country. But the concentration of natural wonders along this loop close to Reykjavik makes it an absolue must. Follow me to the waterfalls, geysers and volcanic craters of the Golden Circle, a perfect introduction to Iceland.
📷 For more pictures have a look at my gallery about Reykjavik and the Golden Circle.
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What is the Golden Circle?
The Golden Circle is the usual name given to a route starting from Reykjavik, leading to many different attractions and forming a loop taking you back to the capital of Iceland. The total driving distance is less than 300 kms which makes it easily doable in one day, even with a lot of stops on the way.
From Reykjavik, the itinerary usually starts with driving to the north on route 1 and it’s this most common way of exploring the Golden Circle that I’m describing here; but of course as it’s a loop it could perfectly be done the other way around and head south first. In this article I’ll focus only on the main things to see along the way but don’t hesitate to escape the beaten paths or pull over on the side of the road to enjoy a forgotten lookout; you never know what you might see.
Þingvellir National Park
Shortly after leaving Reykjavik on route 1, turn right to road 36 towards Þingvellir National Park (pronounce “Thingvellir”). After following the banks of Þingvallavatn (“Thingvallavatn”), the largest lake of Iceland, you’ll soon reach the heart of the park: a rift valley marking the boundary between the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates. You’re literally standing on the edge of 2 continents!
There’s a lot to do in Þingvellir, more than I could recommend myself and you could spend an entire day here before visiting the rest of the Golden Circle. Have a look at the official website of the area if you’re interested in staying longer! If it’s just your first stop of the day, make sure at least to follow the huge crack just next to the visitor centre; you can even walk in the middle. It’s a strange feeling to think that the rocks on both sides are moving away from each other at a pace of 2 cm every year.
Þingvellir is also a place with a very rich history and part of the UNESCO World Heritage List since 2004 because of its cultural interest. It’s here that in 930 the first national parliament of Iceland was established. Actually, Þingvellir literally means “assembly fields”.
After Þingvellir National Park, turn left on road 365 until Laugarvatn where you’ll reach road 37. At the intersection with road 35 (the end of the loop), turn left in the direction of the 2 most famous spots on the Golden Circle, Geysir and Gulfoss.
Geysir is kind of the father of all geysers as it gave its name to the word describing this extraordinary natural phenomenon. It’s one of the most powerful geysers in the world: when it erupts, it can eject extremely hot water up to 70 meters! Unfortunately, it has always been very infrequent: in the past, earthquakes often contributed to revive its activity but it’s now mostly dormant. The last eruption was recorded in 2016.
Luckily there’s another very active geyser just next to Geysir called Strokkur, which erupts every 5 to 10 minutes, usually between 15 and 20 meters but sometimes as high as 40m! Have a look at the bubble forming at the surface of the water for a brief instant juste before the eruption.
The whole area is filled with geothermic activity: boiling water, steam coming out from the ground…
Don’t forget to climb to the top of the hills above the geysers: the sight is really beautiful, with the meanders of a river forming a gorgeous landscape and a great panoramic view over the geyser and all the surroundings.
The waterfall of Gullfoss is only a few kilometers further than Geysir. This is the furthest point on the Golden Circle: once you’re there you have to retrace your steps on road 35 to drive back to Reykjavik.
Gullfoss is a stunning and very powerful waterfall on the river Hvitá. It flows down from a wide river to a narrow canyon with 2 drops, respectively 11m and 21m high. There are a lot of different lookouts to stare at the waterfall. Just remember to wear waterproof clothes if you don’t want to get soaked by the mist created by the fall!
Don’t forget also to admire the gorgeous landscape behind Gullfoss. On a clear day you can even see in the distance one of the glaciers of Iceland called Langjökull behind vast beautiful plains.
What about food? There are several options for lunch along the Golden Circle. One popular place called Friðheimar (“Fridheimar”) is located next to road 35 in the village of Reykholt. If you like tomato this will be heaven for you. They have a lot of different dishes made with the tomatoes they grow under glasshouses, directly next to the tables where you’re sitting. They even serve tomato beer! I only tried the tomato soup served with bread and found it delicious.
The last main attraction on the Golden Circle before heading back to Reykjavik. Kerið Crater (“Kerid”) is also just next to road 35, a few kilometers before the intersection with road 36. It was the only natural place of Iceland where I had to pay to visit but it wasn’t very expensive (400 crowns – about 3€ or 3.5$) and definitely worth the price. You can walk around this ancient volcanic crater and go down to the beautiful lake at the bottom, but don’t try to swim as the water is freezing cold!
It’s now time to head back to Reykjavik. I hope you enjoyed this article and have fun exploring the many wonders of the Golden Circle!
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