Iceland's Golden Circle is certainly a must-see for any first-time visitor to the island. It is probably one of the most famous and popular tourist routes because it is easy to access even in winter and also because, despite its proximity to the capital Reykjavík, it offers a perfect combination of everything Iceland has to offer the visitor: natural parks, impressive waterfalls, hot springs and geysers and fascinating geological areas. It is thus a perfect destination both for those who choose to discover the island in its entirety, who can start their exploration from here, and for those who choose to stay here for a few days, perhaps combining a short winter tour with observation of the Aurora Borealis.
We love... the Golden Circle!
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Our first night on the island, however, flows peacefully. Even though we are in the city, in the middle of the port area, the silence around us is almost unreal and despite the fact that it gets dark very late at night and light very early in the morning, the dark curtains of the hotel allow us a long and peaceful sleep. So we start our day of exploration full of energy and enthusiasm! After a generous breakfast, we reach our car, which will take us around the Golden Circle route today, passing through Thingvellir National Park, the Geyser area and the Gullfoss waterfall. The drive is approximately 115 km out and 115 km back and takes about six hours to explore. The Golden Circle route should also include a visit to the Selfoss waterfall, which is a little further south than the other attractions on the itinerary. However, we chose to visit this impressive natural attraction during the last days of our stay on the island, on our return trip to Reykjavík (we will talk about it in one of our next posts on Iceland) and we are not sorry at all. In fact, cutting this stage short allowed us to fully enjoy the other destinations along the way, taking our time to visit them and enjoying to the fullest and in no hurry the magnificent views visible along the route by car.
So we are ready for the first stage, the Thingvellir National Park, which we reach in about 45 minutes.
Where to stay
We chose to do this itinerary during our on-the-road trip of the island, on our second day and just before moving on to the north of the island. Our base was obviously Reykjavík, specifically the Reykjavík Marina hotel, belonging to the Icelandair group (yes, the airline!). We recommend it, but if you are looking for more information about the hotel and Reykjavík, we have talked about it extensively in this post. Also, if you are planning an on-the-road trip to Iceland, we suggest you read this post as well, where you will find tips and advice for planning.
Thingvellir National Park
The Thingvellir National Park has a special charm: natural and historical elements coexist in the same place. In Thingvellir, in 930 AD, the first Viking settlers decided to regulate life on the island and manage disputes by establishing a collegial form of government, a parliament. The place chosen for the meeting was called Thingvellir, i.e. the ‘fields of parliament’. In this way, the world’s first democratic parliament, the Alþingi, was born. The institution was so successful that it survived for many centuries. The gatherings, however, were held in the open air and therefore not much remains of the institution today, except for the stone foundations of the old camps. But Thingvellir is also Iceland’s oldest national park and, due to its historical and natural features, has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2004.
The site is set in a natural environment of outstanding beauty, shaped by the turbulent collision of the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. The Thingvellir Plain is located on the boundary between the two tectonic plates, making it the only place in the world, above sea level, where the mid-Atlantic ridge can be observed. The two tectonic plates continue to move apart every year by a few millimetres, which makes the plain particularly fascinating and rich in rock crevices, lakes, rivers and cliffs.
We reached the national park via the Hakid Visitor Centre. Here you will find a large pay car park (Thingvellir Parking P1). The fee varies depending on the means of transport, but for a car the daily cost is no more than 1000 kroner (about CHF 7.00). Behind the visitor centre you’ll find an initial observation point and a little further on you’ll be able to walk along the path through the Almannagjá gorge at the edge of the North American tectonic plate. Here the Öxará River cuts through the western plate, creating some spectacular waterfalls. A little further on you will find the Lögberg (Law Rock). This is the place where the Alþingi gathered every year. After Iceland’s conversion to Christianity, the site was moved to the foot of the Almannagjá cliffs. The exact spot is indicated by the Icelandic flag. A few more steps along the Almannagjá and here is the famous Öxarárfoss waterfall. If you are tired or would like to have a snack, you will find benches and a few seats for relaxation here. The last stop in the park that you should not miss is behind the Þingvallabær farm. It is Þingvallakirkja, one of Iceland’s oldest churches. The original building was consecrated in the 11th century, but today’s construction only dates back to the mid-1800s. The small wooden church still has its charm and is well worth a visit. On the way back to the car park, the visitor centre has toilets and offers a small cafeteria and a souvenir shop.
We spent about two and a half hours in the Thingvellir area. The park is full of trails and observation points that can be explored on your own. Here you can find all the information about the park and here are some handy pdf maps.
The Geysir Geothermal Area
The second stop on our route along the Golden Circle is the geothermal area of Geysir. It is located 60 kilometres from Thingvellir, which takes about 50 minutes by car. Once you arrive at your destination, you can leave your car in the large car park on your right. From here, simply cross the road to the park entrance. We are located in the geothermal area of Haukadalur, a wide valley full of hot springs, fumaroles and pools. The hills here take on vivid and varied colours, the result of the particular minerals that make up the soil and which give off a characteristic sulphurous smell in the air. However, the region is world famous for its geysers, hot water springs that erupt suddenly from the ground, producing spectacular eruptions. Geysers are very rare and complex phenomena. If you want to know more about them, we leave the link to the Wikipedia page. However, few people know that this is where the Great Geysir, the hot water spring that gave its name to all the others, is located. The Great Geysir is very old indeed (some studies date its origin to over 10,000 years ago) and its jets of water can be over 100 m high. However, it has an unstable and discontinuous activity and is currently considered inactive. Fortunately, a little further on, the very active Strokkur is doing its job in style! To get there safely, follow the marked route. However, we recommend that you watch your step, as in some places the water leaking out of the underground and running along the ground can reach 100 degrees Celsius. Strokkur is fortunately quite punctual and reliable! You will be able to see one of its explosions without too much waiting: it usually erupts once every 5-10 minutes. Its jet is smaller than its big brother’s, stopping at around 15 to 30 m high, but its charm is equally indescribable. Of course, be careful not to stand downwind if you don’t want to take a shower! If, on the other hand, you have some free time and would like to take a walk, follow the path that climbs up behind Strokkur to watch the eruption from above. Opposite the park, the Geysir Centre, offers a large shop selling Icelandic handicrafts and various bars and restaurants. Here we ate a decent cake and drank a coffee before setting off again on the third stop of our golden circle.
The third and final stop on our route along the Golden Circle is the Gullfoss waterfall. Because of its power and the vast cloud of steam that surrounds it, it is probably one of the most vivid and surprising memories of our on-the-road trip in Iceland.
From Geysir it is just a 10-minute drive. On arrival you will find two car parks, one lower down (a little smaller) near the waterfall, and one higher up where you will also find a souvenir shop, a café-restaurant and toilets. We followed the road to the lower car park, where we easily found a place for our car. The waterfall is truly majestic and falls in a double drop into a rugged canyon. The sound of the water is thunderous and the air is full of steam: be prepared to get very wet and remember to protect your backpack (here* you can find some waterproof cover) and your camera! On sunny days the waterfall gives its visitors wonderful rainbows. Unfortunately, we were not so lucky, but a fleeting ray of sunshine in the afternoon gave us a little taste of rainbows. The area of Gullfoss is today one of the main tourist attractions of the island, but few people know that in the 20s the waterfall risked to be destroyed forever, to leave place to the construction of a dam on the river Hvítá that would have exploited its power for the production of hydroelectric energy. Tómas Tómasson, the owner of the land, refused to sell, but foreign investors managed to obtain permission directly from the government. Fortunately, however, after a fierce legal battle and many protests (Tómasson’s daughter Sigríður walked to Reykjavík to protest, even threatening to throw herself into the waterfall if the project was implemented), the investors failed to pay the agreed amount and the contract was cancelled. Today the Gullfoss waterfall is a protected nature reserve, which can be visited both in summer and winter. The short path from the lower car park, the one we used, allows you to get very close to the water and to observe the waterfall from a privileged point of view. However, it is normally closed in winter because of the ice that accumulates there. However, the waterfall can be visited all year round via the wider, safer path just above, which starts at the visitor centre.
Arriving by airplane
See the location in Google Maps. Most travellers choose to reach Iceland by flight. The island is well connected to the rest of Europe and Switzerland by the national airline Icelandair. All flights from abroad land and depart from Keflavík Airport, located about 50 km from the capital Reykjavík. During the summer, a domestic flight to the northern city of Akureyri also departs from Keflavík. The airport has rental counters for all major international rental companies. You can therefore easily pick up your rental car here. By car, the city of Reykjavík is about 50 minutes away.
Arriving by ship
The best way to drive the Golden Circle Route is undoubtedly to rent a car and experience it at your own pace and according to your interests and wishes. However, if you don’t feel like driving or don’t have enough time, know that many tour operators or tourist boards organise guided tours to the main attractions, often combining them with unique experiences in other places in the area: rafting, snorkeling, snowmobile tours, visits to remote volcanic craters. There really is a bit of everything! If you’d like to take a look at the different options available, in the box above you’ll find some of the many experiences organised by Getyourguide*.
A tour of the Golden Circle is recommended for all types of travellers at all times of the year. Not only is this itinerary a good starting point for a long Icelandic road trip, but it can also be combined with a short winter holiday in Iceland, where the Northern Lights can be seen between September and April. Unfortunately, we haven’t had the chance to see the beautiful northern lights yet. How about you? Have you already seen the Northern Lights in Iceland or elsewhere? If you have, let us know by leaving a comment below or, if you want it, by writing an article to publish on our blog!
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