The Golden Circle is one of the most popular day tours in Iceland and with good reason: It contains some truly unique sights and natural phenomena.
The Golden Circle consists of three stops: Gullfoss, the “Golden Waterfall” from which the circle gets its name, the Geysir geothermal area with erupting geyser Strokkur, and Þingvellir national park. Þingvellir is where the Viking parliament used to meet every year and it’s also a great place to see the fissures where the earth’s crust is slowly drifting apart.
The simplest way to go to the Golden Circle is to take a guided tour with some of Iceland’s veteran tour operators. If you don’t feel you need a guide or if you have a rental car of your own, you can do a Golden Circle self-drive!
How to drive the Golden Circle – Getting started…
It’s pretty simple to find the right way out of Reykjavík city – just drive north. There’s only one way out of town in that direction, route 1 N. To get on that, locate Miklabraut, a.k.a. Route 49, drive due east and stay on the road through many roundabouts and through Mosfellsbær.
The First Turn
Once you’re out of the city and past Mosfellsbær, on the top of the hill, you’re looking for a right-hand turn on route 36. There is literally a road sign that says “Þingvellir” on it. (The funny-looking letter “Þ” is pronounced “th”). If you stay on route 1 and get to a tunnel, you went too far and have to turn around. It takes about an hour to drive to Þingvellir from Reykjavík.
Þingvellir National Park
Drive past lake Þingvallavatn and locate the visitor centre. There, you’ll be able to find your way into Almannagjá, a massive tectonic fissure where the Viking Parliament used to meet. Iceland’s parliament (Alþingi) was founded in 930 and, aside from a brief hiatus from 1800-1845, has been handling the affairs of Icelanders ever since.
The fissure where they met is literally the meeting place of the tectonic plates of Europe and America so Þingvellir should be an interesting stop for everyone, no matter their interests. You can go for a lovely hike through the park and even snorkel in the fissure between the plates!
Continue east on route 36, it’s pretty obvious which way you go, though the road numbers change a bit. Just look at the map and it will all make sense. Find your way to the town of Laugarvatn, where you have the option of adding a detour to the Laugarvatn Fontana geothermal pool, famous for its natural steam rooms. From there, follow route 37 which turns into route 35 and leads to Geysir. Don’t worry, there will be road signs.
Geysir Geothermal Area
If you didn’t know, a “geyser” is a hot spring which shoots water up into the air at regular intervals. Geysir is the hot spring from which all geysers get their name. Geysir doesn’t erupt anymore but the whole area is still named after him.
Don’t worry, there’s still plenty to see as Strokkur, his brother, erupts up to 30 metres in the air every 5-8 minutes. There are many other pools and springs in the area as well, some hot, some boiling, some clear, and some muddy.
From Geysir, drive about 5 minutes further on route 35 and you will get to Gullfoss. Gullfoss is a beautiful waterfall and you can walk along the path until you’re incredibly close to it. Here you’ll find a cafeteria and a visitor’s centre where you can learn about the history of the waterfall.
This beautiful waterfall is a national treasure but wasn’t always appreciated as such. early in the 20th century, there were plans to harness the waterfall’s energy for electricity. Sigríður Tómasdóttir, who grew up close to the waterfall opposed these plans and fought for the waterfall’s preservation, even going so far as to threaten to throw herself in the water, long before environmental activism was a thing in Iceland.
There, And Back Again
To get back to Reykjavík you can turn back around and either follow route 35, or route 30; both will lead you to route 1 South. The way back will take you through the charming town of Hveragerði, which is built on a geothermal area.
…And All the Other Stops!
Since the Golden Circle is a relatively short tour, you can either spend the rest of the day in the city or make a few other stops along the way. Luckily, there’s no dearth of beautiful stops and fun activities along the way. Generally, if you book an all-day tour they will add some of the things on this list to the above three. You don’t have time to do all of these in one day but you can pick and choose the ones you like.
• Wool works – Stop in Mosfellsbær to visit Álafoss, a wool factory with a long history. It’s a great place to pick up wool wear.
• Nobel Laureate’s house – Before you get to Þingvellir National Park, you can stop by Gljúfrasteinn, home of Halldór Laxness, Iceland’s only Nobel Laureate. (Although, unfortunately, the museum is closed for maintenance until January 2017).
• Horseback riding – There are a couple of good places to go horseback riding along the way.
• Snorkeling or Diving between the continents – Silfra is a tectonic fissure in Thingvellir. It is filled with water which originates in a nearby glacier which is filtered through the volcanic rock around, to become some of the clearest water you can ever experience. The visibility is up to 100 metres on a good day.
• Snowmobiling on a Glacier – Near Geysir, you can ride a snowmobile on a glacier. In the summer you drive yourself on route F35 up to Skálpanes, where you meet a guide with a snowmobile. In the winter, you need a pick up from the Gullfoss café or you can take a day tour from Reykjavik.
• Rafting/river jet – You can either go rafting or ride in a speedboat in the area of Hvítá.
• The Secret Lagoon – On route 30 you will find this geothermal pool in Flúðir. This is one of the oldest pools in Iceland which was recently restored.
• Friðheimar Greenhouse – Friðheimar is a greenhouse which uses geothermal heat and hydroelectricity to grow tomatoes amongst other things.
• Volcano-Lake Kerið – Kerið, or “the tub”, is a collapsed volcanic crater with a lake in it. The soil here is red and purple, and the crater is filled with an unreal acrylic blue lake. This is by route 35, but look out because it’s just a small sign.
• Horse Theater – Fákasel is a Horse Theater (yes, a theater with horses) right outside Hveragerði. Their theater performances are in the evening, so you could end your tour here. They also have a great restaurant.
• Geothermal Energy Exhibition – Between Hveragerði and Reykjavík you can visit the Hellisheiði Geothermal Power Plant and Energy Exhibition, where you can learn about the process of energy creation from geothermal heat.