One of the attractive elements of visiting Iceland is you don’t have to travel too far from the city in order to immerse yourself in the wonders of nature. Perhaps one of Iceland’s most popular attractions that draws visitors to the island nation is the Golden Circle. This circuit contains several beautiful features that truly give you a taste of everything Iceland has to offer. You can drive the Golden Circle of Iceland in just over three hours, plus time spent at each stop, making it the perfect day trip.
What Is the Golden Circle in Iceland? Check out this Map…
If you’re interested in driving the Golden Circle, you will experience quite the adventure. Whether you choose to self-drive or you book a Golden Circle tour, you are in for some of the most beautiful scenery in the country. From Þingvellir National Park (pronounced like Thingvellir National Park) to the Gullfoss Waterfall to the Geysir geothermal area, there’s something for just about everyone.
Perhaps one of the most interesting facts about this area? It’s the original location of the Icelandic parliament, founded in 930. Elements of this governmental body still exist in Þingvellir National Park. Parliament was moved in to Reykjavik in 1798.
The Gullfoss waterfall also has an interesting history. Due to the massive amount of power potential behind these cascading falls, British developers leased the land in the early 20th century with the intention of building a power plant. Fortunately, the daughter of the owner valiantly fought against their plans and ultimately won out when they exhausted their resources, preserving this natural beauty, known as perhaps the most beautiful waterfall in all of Iceland.
What Is the Golden Circle?
The Iceland Golden Circle refers to a circle of road that loops from Reykjavik through the Icelandic countryside, winding about 300 km (or 190 miles) between the various attractions, making it easy for those who choose to self-drive, as well as tour operators, to navigate between points of interest. Along the way, visitors can also get glimpses of some of the other features of the Icelandic landscape, including the unique moss found on much of the lava-generated landscape.
Types of Tours
A day tour of Iceland’s Golden Circle can be a great way to spend your day, taking in the natural beauty of the country. While some people do choose to self-drive this route, there are many tours available because this is one of the main attractions for tourists. As you search for the right tour, there are a few key things to consider. The Golden Circle itself requires three hours to traverse, but each tour will also include time to take in the three attractions located along the way. In general, expect to spend between six and seven hours with your tour.
Before you settle on taking an official tour or driving the Golden Circle yourself, it’s essential to explore the pros and cons of booking a tour. One of the biggest advantages is there are a large number of tours available, which means you’re likely to find one that best suits your budget. In addition, if you aren’t already renting a car for other purposes, these tours are more affordable than booking a rental for this purpose alone. You will also gain the advantage of a tour guide who knows the Golden Circle inside and out and can provide additional information, taking you to all the hot spots.
However, this doesn’t mean a Golden Circle tour is your best option. If you already have a rental car, even with the cost of fuel, it can be cheaper to take the drive yourself because there are few fees. Tours also operate on a set schedule so if you prefer to take your time or want to spend more time at one location versus another, a tour can put a damper on your plans.
Self-Drive the Golden Circle!
For the adventurous tourist, a self-drive tour of the Golden Circle can be a great option. Driving this route is relatively simple and well-marked so you don’t have to worry about getting lost along the way. Despite Icelandic being the native tongue, most Icelanders also speak fluent English so there’s no issue if you do need to ask for help. When you drive the Circle yourself, you get to control the order in which you see the attractions, whether you make additional stops along the way and how long you spend at each location. This is ideal for those who prefer to take things at their own pace.
However, before you simply drive around Iceland, it’s important to recognize a few things about weather and road conditions in Iceland. If you’re there during the winter months, you can expect the roads to be slippery. For those who aren’t familiar with driving in winter weather, this can prove to be a challenge. During other times of the year, weather can also change rapidly, creating hazardous road conditions, even when the roads were previously clear. If you plan to drive yourself, consider these tips:
- Rent something with all-wheel drive if possible
- Fill up before you leave the city
- Be careful not to speed
- Don’t stop on the side of the road. Always pull into designated parking areas
- Use a map. Don’t rely on GPS as signals can be weak or absent in some locations
- Stay on designated roadways
- Always keep your headlights on
- Keep an eye out for animals in the road
When it comes to choosing which direction or order to drive the Golden Circle, it’s all up to what you would like to see. Perhaps the most common order is to stop at Þingvellir National Park. This park is located approximately 45 minutes from Reykjavik and is the closest attraction. After this park, most individuals continue down the road to Gullfoss waterfall and then take in the Haukadalur Valley geothermal area. The circle continues down to the Ring Road around the outer edge of Iceland and back to the city.
As you drive along the remainder of the Golden Circle, you’re likely to notice there are other places to stop along the way. Many of these are great additions to your drive that can be added without purchasing a more expensive tour. Some additional sites you may want to visit as part of your Golden Circle self-drive include:
- Fontana Geothermal Baths
- The Kerið Crater, a volcanic crater with a pristine lake in the bottom
- Þjórsárdalur Valley, where you can find a number of waterfalls
- Skálholt, a historical town
- Langjökull glacier (This requires a Super Jeep in winter or a 4×4 vehicle in the summer)
Welcome to Þingvellir National Park
Þingvellir National Park is located about 45 km (28 miles) from the city of Reykjavik and is typically the first stop for tours around the Golden Circle because it’s the first attraction drivers encounter. The national park features a few sites and activities you can enjoy while you spend time there. The ideal place to start is the Visitor Centre, where you will find a number of interactive exhibits and learn more about the rich history of this area. There is also a cafeteria to buy food and a souvenir shop in the building. Children are free and adults pay a low fee of 1000 krona, which is approximately $8, but varies depending on the currency conversion.
As you work your way through the park, you will find a number of hiking trails to take in the beauty of Icelandic nature, as well as the Þingvellir church. Visitors can also camp in the area if they prefer surrounding themselves with nature rather than staying in the city. Other activities available in the park include fishing, horseback riding and diving.
When it comes to tourism, Þingvellir National Park is popular with both tourists and locals, which means you’ll likely encounter a good mix of people during your visit. In total for 2019, about 1.9-million people visited the park, which is slightly up from the year before. Because the country saw a small dip in foreign tourism in the same year, this indicates a greater number of locals are also visiting the park.
In recent years, Iceland has experienced a boom in tourism, which is one of the biggest factors in the economic success of the country. In fact, more than two-million visitors make the trek to Iceland each year. While some of these individuals come specifically for the Golden Circle, there are many who add this day trip to their itinerary after they arrive.
Notable Flora and Fauna
The moment you set foot in Iceland, you’ll likely notice the landscape is quite different than what you’re used to back home. Þingvellir National Park is located in an area of Iceland that is known as Bláskógar, which translates to “Blue Woods.” The park is home to about 40 percent of the entire flora found in the country with about 172 species of plants, including the moss Iceland is known for. Birch, willow, various types of heath and dwarf birch are among the types of plants found in this national park. This is a great place to visit in the fall if you want to see a range of colors.
Lake Þingvallavatn is home to about 52 bird species that call the lake their home on a regular basis. Up to 30 other species can be seen here at various times of the year. Some of the other animals you may find lurking around the area include foxes and mink. While mink is not native to Iceland, several escaped when they were brought to the country for their fur in 1931.
But Nothing Compares to the Northern Lights…
If you ask most people who are planning a trip to Iceland what they would like to see most during their trip, the Northern Lights is often at the top of the list. These elusive lights can only be seen in certain areas of the world when conditions are exactly right, including solar flares, a clear sky and darkness. Because Iceland sees such a high number of dark hours during the winter months, with no more than three to four hours of sunlight per day during December, the chances of seeing the Northern Lights here can be significant. Seeing the Northern Lights in Þingvellir National Park can be ideal because it is away from the city lights without being too far out into the wilderness. For those who are planning their trip around this phenomenon, it’s important to note they are rarely, if ever, visible between April and September. Instead, plan your trip for late fall or winter and remember, there’s no guarantee of seeing the lights. However, if you choose to take a specific Northern Lights tour, many will offer a free second night if they fail to find the lights the first night.
The Gorgeous Almannagjá Gorge
One particular area of note within Þingvellir National Park is the Almannagjá Gorge. This gorge is formed where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates meet. This has created a unique gorge that features a hiking path down the middle that ends at an amazing waterfall. This was also one of the prime locations for the old Icelandic parliament meetings. However, the makeup of this area has changed dramatically over the years due to the slow movement of the plates, with the Öxará river diverted into the gorge, among other changes. These transformations are continuing to take place at a slow rate, which means you never visit the exact same place twice.
Silfra: One of Ten Top Scuba Dive Sites in the World
Scuba diving isn’t usually the first thing people think of when they’re considering a trip to Iceland. What most people don’t realize, however, is the country is home to one of the top ten scuba sites in the world. Located within Þingvellir National Park, Silfra provides a unique scuba diving and snorkeling experience unlike anywhere else. It doesn’t matter what time of the year you visit, with the wet suits and equipment available, it’s never too cold to take this plunge into what’s known as the clearest water on earth.
Silfra is formed in a rift that was created by an earthquake that occurred in 1789, opening a fissure between the North American and Eurasian plates that then filled with glacial water melted from Langjökull glacier. The water is filtered through lava rock for anywhere between 30 and 100 years before it eventually reaches the fissure, creating pure water that provides visibility up of more than 100 meters, ideal for scuba diving and snorkeling. Because of the unique location, you’ll find underwater tunnels, terrain and caverns the likes of which can’t be found in other areas of the world.
Did You Know the Icelandic Alþingi (Parliament) Was Founded Here?
In 930, the Icelandic Alþingi (pronounced like Althing) was founded as an outdoor assembly that met in the area of the present day Þingvellir National Park. These meetings brought together the leaders of the various peoples of the country and all free men could attend, creating the largest social event in the country. This assembly has been held every year without fail, with the exception of one year, even after the country fell under Denmark’s rule. At that time, the Alþingi transformed from a law-making body to a court of law to uphold the laws set forth by the government. This occurred until 1920 when the Supreme Court of Iceland was instated. These meetings were moved from their location in Þingvellir to Reykjavik in 1844.
In 1845, Alþingi was again moving toward becoming a legislative assembly and began consulting with the Denmark government to assist with ruling Iceland. In 1904, Iceland became a home-ruled country, still under Denmark rule and eventually broke free in 1918, at least as far as domestic rule was concerned. Iceland gained its independence in 1944.
The Geysir Geothermal Area
Iceland is commonly known as the island of fire and ice. The Geysir geothermal area located in the Haukadalur Valley is testament to the element of fire that lies below the surface. You will find the Haukadalur Valley about 55 km (34 miles) from Þingvellir. The activity in this area dates back more than a thousand years, with Geysir being the first known geyser, lending its name to numerous others found across the globe.
When you stop at the Geysir geothermal area, there are a number of amazing features. Not only will you find Geysir and its neighboring geyser, Strokkur, but you will see bubbling mud pots, hot springs pools and more. Unfortunately, while Geysir was once the most frequent feature to erupt, sending plumes of boiling water hundreds of feet into the air, earthquake activity in the area has greatly slowed this activity. However, Strokkur has picked up the slack and erupts every four to 10 minutes, giving tourists plenty of opportunities to enjoy the phenomenon.
Unbelievable Facts about the Geysir Geothermal Area
If you’ve never seen a geyser erupt or experienced the phenomenon of other geothermal features, you’re in for a real treat when you visit this part of the Golden Circle. Although temperatures tend toward the cooler side throughout the year, even in the summer months, the presence of boiling hot water can come as a big surprise. As you make your way around this area, there are a few things to keep in mind.
Did you know:
- Geysers are a rare phenomenon found in few places in the world with only 1000 known active geysers, most in clusters found in a limited number of locations.
- A sub surface reservoir holds all the water until pressure builds up to the eruption.
- There are two types of geysers: fountain geysers with powerful bursts of water and cone geysers characterized by short, steady jets of water.
- Geyser activity can be affected by other natural phenomenon, such as earthquakes.
- Intense heat and small cracks and fissures are required to form geysers.
But, Wait — There’s a Secret Lagoon?
One of the biggest questions people have when planning their Iceland trip is whether the Blue Lagoon is part of the Golden Circle. As two of the main visitor attractions, this is a natural question. The short answer is no. While located within driving distance of the Golden Circle, it isn’t actually part of the circuit. However, this doesn’t mean you’re out of luck. There’s actually a place known as the Secret Lagoon, located in Flúðir, which is found along the Circle.
Although this natural hot springs bath doesn’t feature the bright blue color most people recognize when they see images of the Blue Lagoon, it does offer a similar, mystical experience many visitors enjoy. The baths are open all year round with a more affordable price tag at around 3000 krona (or roughly $25) for adults and a reduced rate for seniors. Children are free with their parents’ admission. Swimsuits and towels are also available to rent.
The Secret Lagoon features new facilities with separate shower areas for men and women, a bar with food and drinks available and an eating area so you can easily make a day of it. With the natural rocks and surroundings, soaking in the steaming tub, especially during the winter months, can be strangely relaxing and an ethereal experience you aren’t likely to find anywhere else. The water remains a consistent 38 to 40 degrees Celsius (100 to 104 degrees Fahrenheit), which is similar to that of a hot tub. It’s also a perfect opportunity to catch the Aurora if you visit when it’s dark outside.
The Great Geysir
Although evidence indicates the Great Geysir has been active for more than 10,000 years, the first recorded evidence of its activity dates back to around 1294. Sources don’t indicate the phenomenon received a name until the 18th century, when it was dubbed the Great Geysir, which is derived from the Icelandic word, geysa, which means “to gush.” This general name was then passed on to any other hot springs feature that acts in the same manner. The Great Geysir obtained the additional descriptor of “great” because it was known to shoot its hot water more than 200 feet into the air from a spout that originates more than 65 feet below the surface.
Initially, the Great Geysir erupted on a regular basis, about every three hours, giving visitors to the area a show. Unfortunately, this frequency reduced gradually during the early 19th century due to a number of earthquakes in the area. The frequency continues to reduce. The geyser no longer erupts on a predictable schedule. In fact, the reduction in frequency has contributed to even more impressive eruptions, with an eruption in 2000 reaching more than 400 feet into the air.
Strokkur: Icelandic for ‘Churn’
Although it may seem disappointing that the Great Geysir doesn’t erupt as frequently and most visitors won’t get to catch a glimpse of its mighty power, don’t worry. You won’t miss out! With the reduction in frequency for the original geyser, its baby brother, Strokkur, has awoken. This geyser is located in the same area and is known to erupt every four to 10 minutes. Although these eruptions don’t reach the same heights, typically reaching around 65 feet, the burst of boiling water and steam that follows can be quite the impressive sight. It’s something you won’t want to miss when you’re planning your day trip.
When you arrive at the Geysir geothermal area, you won’t have any trouble finding the Strokkur geyser because there is almost always a group of people standing around, waiting for it to erupt. First, you will see the water at the surface begin to bubble, followed by a brief retraction of the water as the geyser seems to take a deep breath. Finally, the steaming hot water will shoot up into the sky, slowly falling back to earth, leaving behind a column of steam that rises into the atmosphere. If you miss it or want to see it again, you won’t have to wait long for the geyser to work itself up to another eruption.
The Geysir Centre
What’s a vacation if you don’t come back with at least a souvenir or two to commemorate your journey? If you’re looking for that perfect gift for someone back home or you want some items to help you remember this trip, the Geysir geothermal area is the perfect place to get your souvenir shopping done. The Geysir Centre is located directly across the street from the geysers and other thermal features and has just about everything you would want. In fact, it’s the largest souvenir shop in all of Iceland. They have everything, from clothing made out of genuine Icelandic wool, such as hats, gloves and sweaters, to books, jewelry, handmade candles, Icelandic chocolate and more. They even carry reindeer and sheep skins that make perfect home décor.
While the gift shop experience is what draws most people through the doors at the Geysir Centre, this isn’t the only feature you will find there. They also have a hotel, a campsite and a restaurant. Whether you choose to stay the night here or you continue on your Golden Circle journey the same day, there’s something here for everyone.
The final of the three main attractions when driving the Golden Circle is the Gullfoss waterfall. This waterfall is a spectacle unlike many of the other waterfalls you will see dispersed throughout the country. In fact, many consider this to be the most beautiful of all the waterfalls. While this waterfall isn’t located on the main road that makes up the Golden Circle, it’s just a short drive off the beaten path and well-worth the detour. In fact, the meaning of the name of this waterfall is “golden waterfall,” named after the gold hue the glacial waters can take on.
When you first reach the parking lot at the Gullfoss waterfall, you will find a café and small gift shop where you can fill up on traditional Icelandic meat soup. You can also find a number of other foods, such as a variety of sandwiches, lamb dishes, pork, chicken, fish and more. Most meals are served with a side of bread and butter. Desserts, soft drinks, beer and wine are also available.
If you aren’t hungry, you can simply move on down the path until you reach a gigantic waterfall that is comprised of not one, but two tiers of rushing water, at an impressive 32 meters in height. The average water flow of this waterfall is around 110 cubic meters per second and can increase up to 2000 cubic meters per second in times of flooding. This can fill about one Olympic-sized swimming pool per minute! This is a photo opportunity you don’t want to miss!
It’s All About the Hvíta River
Every waterfall requires two things: a high place with a drop off and a source of water. In the case of the Gullfoss waterfall, it all starts with the Hvíta River. This river starts in Hvítarvatn, a lake that is found at the foot of the Langjökull glacier. As this river makes its way to the ocean in the south of Iceland, it encounters a narrow gorge about 25 miles or 40 km from its source, creating the Gullfoss waterfall. Not only can visitors enjoy the amazing site of the water cascading down the falls throughout the year, but kayaking, canoeing and rafting adventures are available further down the river, with options for all skill levels. If you choose one of these excursions, you’re sure to get a view of Iceland few people ever get to experience.
But Have You Seen the Unique Rainbow Effect?
If you’ve ever spent time around any waterfalls, you know the mist thrown off by them, when combined with sunlight, can create some stunning rainbows. However, when you’re dealing with a waterfall the size of Gullfoss, you’ll see a rainbow effect unlike any other. While you may be lucky enough to see these rainbows during the winter months, because of the limited light, it’s far more likely to experience it if you visit during the summer months when it’s light out for nearly 24 hours. Because the water is clean, clear glacier water, when the light hits it, you will experience an array of amazing rainbows that highlight the beautiful falls.
Nesjavellir Power Plant
Located right in the center of the Golden Circle, tourists will find the Nesjavellir geothermal power plant. For most people, a power plant probably isn’t at the top of the list of places to go on a vacation, but even those who have never seen one will be impressed by this natural way of generating power for the country of Iceland. With all of the geothermal activity that takes place beneath the island, it’s no surprise the country would tap into this natural resource to get the power their residents need to live.
It all started in 1947 when an exploration and planning excursion began, taking about two years to determine whether this area would be the perfect place to create a geothermal power plant. At this time, a couple of experimental holes were drilled. Unfortunately, this was the end of the project until 1965 when the exploration resumed. The cornerstone for the power plant was laid in 1990 and construction began.
The Nesjavellir geothermal power plant actually serves two purposes for Icelandic residents. Not only does it provide 120 MW of electrical power, but it also provides around 1100 litres (or 290 gallons) of hot water per second. This means many residents don’t require a hot water heater to heat water.
That’s a Lot of Power…
Geothermal power is a type of clean energy that uses the earth’s natural resources to generate electricity for residents without the need to burn fossil fuels, which can have a negative impact on the environment. With the Nesjavellir geothermal power plant, holes drilled into the ground tap into the hot water and steam trapped below the surface. When this water and steam passes through the generators, it creates a significant amount of electricity without draining any natural resources as the water can be returned to the ground and will be reheated by the lava that lies deep below the ground. This means the use of geothermal energy is more efficient, cleaner and more cost effective than other types of power plants. These plants can also be more reliable because they are constantly running without the need to make sure the generators are fueled. They simply continually draw the hot water and steam from the ground’s resources.
Check Out These Statistics!
In Iceland, there’s a 99.96 percent renewable energy supply, with more than 600 hot springs and 200 volcanoes from which to draw heated water. About 66 percent of homes are heated using geothermal resources, with Nesjavellir generating the greatest amount of geothermal energy than any of the five geothermal plants located throughout Iceland. All other energy in Iceland is created using hydropower, rather than fossil fuels.
Prior to the increased use of geothermal energy and hydropower, Iceland was known as one of Europe’s poorest countries in terms of their reliance on imported coal and peat to generate the electricity their residents needed. However, now that the country gets about 99 percent of its energy from natural sources, the standard of living has greatly increased, while decreasing the amount of money their residents pay for their utilities. Because Nesjavellir also supplies hot water, it has become a valuable resource for Icelanders.
What About a Geothermal Bath at the Blue Lagoon?
Even though it’s not part of the Golden Circle, many visitors still prefer to enjoy a trip to the Blue Lagoon, whether they also take a side trip to the Secret Lagoon or they limit themselves to the lagoon experience. If you’re one of those people who wants to see what all the hype is about surrounding this blue-tinted natural lagoon, take note you should make a reservation as early as possible. In the peak travel times during the summer, it can be difficult to get an appointment if you try to book less than a month prior to your trip. In order to get the ideal time, book early. Each year, the lagoon sees around a million visitors.
The Blue Lagoon is a natural pond heated by the output from the nearby power plant. The bluish tint to the water is due to the silica gel found in the water. It creates a somewhat slimy feel to the touch, but it’s an excellent treatment for the skin, helping to clear up a number of skin conditions and giving you a beautiful, natural glow. In fact, you can also buy products you can use at home that create a similar effect. When you book your time, you get a cleansing face mask made from silica and algae, as well as access to the sauna and steam room, in-water bar and in-water massage. One drink is included with your admission, with additional drinks available for purchase. There is a premium package that includes a second mask, slippers, the use of a bathrobe and a table reservation at the restaurant. A luxury spa experience is also available.
Would You Like to Visit Iceland’s Golden Circle?
If you’re interested in visiting one of Iceland’s most popular attractions, the Golden Circle, this information will help you determine the best way to accomplish this goal. In short, you can complete this trip in as little as three hours if you simply drive the route, but if you plan to stop and take in the sites along the way, you’ll need to plan at least six to seven hours, depending on the total number of stops you’d like to make. Whether you self-drive this road trip or choose a day tour, hitting either the big three of Þingvellir National Park, the Geysir geothermal area and Gullfoss waterfall, or making some extra stops along the way, you’re in for a treat.