The Golden Circle: How to get the most out of it
As you start planning your trip to Iceland, you’ll soon learn about the Golden Circle. The most visited attraction in the south of Iceland and for good reason. The classic Golden Circle consists of three main attractions:
First, we have Þingvellir (Thingvellir) National Park, a beautiful UNESCO Heritage Site, the only one in Iceland.
Thingvellir National Park in Iceland Photo: Banco de Imágenes Geológicas
Throughout the ages, Thingvellir has served an important purpose for Icelandic democracy, shortly after settlement the park was chosen to be the meeting point for parliament. Each summer people from all over the country would make the trip to Þingvellir, the location was thought to be optimal since it was relatively easy to get to from all corners of the island. To this day, long after parliament stopped gathering in the park, it has remained an important site for the Icelandic nation, most notably in being a celebration venue for national milestones.
Most Icelanders, if not all, have fond and varied memories from this park, once of celebratory gatherings, freshwater fishing, weekend outings with family and overnight stays at summer homes. However, there is more to Þingvellir than historic heritage. The national park is renowned for its beautiful landscape, located on top of the Mid-Atlantic Rift, visitors can clearly see (and walk between) the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates.
The second stop on the Golden Circle is Geysir.
Located in Haukadalur, the Geysir Geothermal Area is the mighty hot spring that all others draw their name from. Research has now shown that Geysir has been active for close to ten thousand years, while currently dormant its neighboring geyser, Strokkur, keeps visitors entertained, erupting every 6-10 minutes.
The last and final stop is Gullfoss (the golden waterfall).
Gullfoss greets visitors with its stunning beauty, where the glacial river Hvítá plunges down a 32-meter drop, watching this spectacular creation of nature it’s hard to believe that not too long ago foreign investors had big plans for utilizing the waterfall for electricity production, effectively destroying the waterfall. Thankfully, this never came to be, and as a result, we can still enjoy its untouched beauty.
Now the less well-known gems of the Golden Circle
Those three attractions form the Golden Circle but there is so much more to it, depending on time and interests there is an abundant selection of sights and activities to visit along the way.
“>Starting on the drive just out from Reykjavik, we soon get to the small town of Mosfellsbær, this little town located about 12 km away from the city, has a wonderful little bakery. To start the day off right, with breakfast in hand, this is a good place to grab a snúður and kókómjólk to go.
A little further along the way, you’ll then pass Álafoss, here you’ll find lots of precious handcrafted goods. A great variety of knitted wool clothing, available in a family owned store located in what used to be the oldest yarn factory in Iceland. Here you can also get your hands on handcrafted knives, made by Palli the knife maker, under the watchful eye of his beautiful German Shepherd that likes to hang around the shop when he’s not playing in the river out the back.
Continuing our journey to Þingvellir, we will soon turn into Mosfellsdalur, if you happen to be here in the summertime, stopping to buy local produce from farmers, such as vegetables, strawberries and flowers is always a worthwhile experience. In Mosfellsdalur you’ll also have the opportunity to visit Gljúfrasteinn, the newly re-opened museum that used to be the home of the Icelandic writer, poet, and Nobel prize winner Halldór Laxness.
Halldór Laxness’s house
Reaching Þingvellir, the first stop on the Golden Circle, there are lots to see and do after you have walked around the area and learned about the history, now is a good time to explore Þingvellir from a completely different perspective. Located in the national park, Þingvallavatn is the largest lake in Iceland, it stays at a relatively constant temperature of 3-4 degrees Celsius all year.
On the outer edge of Þingvallavatn lies Silfra, a fissure formed by the divergent tectonic drift. Silfra is well known to divers all over the world, having previously been rated one of the top ten dive sites in the world, in part due to its crystal clear water. The water in Silfra originates from Langjökull glacier, located roughly 50 km away from the national park, as the glacier melts the water seeps into the ground filtering through lava fields before ending up in Silfra fissure some 30-100 years later. For an experience that is truly like no other, floating between the two tectonic plates in crystal clear glacial water while staying warm in a massive dry suit. Snorkeling in Silfra is no doubt an excellent candidate for rock star bucket list items.
On our way to Geysir, we will pass through the charming little town of Laugarvatn, abundant geothermal heat is one of this town’s great attributes, leading to some world-class natural saunas and steam rooms, located at Fontana Spa.
Photo: Laugavatn Fontana Spa Iceland
After walking around the Geysir area, and possibly enjoying some typical Icelandic lamb stew, or going a completely different way and opting for the vegan or vegetarian option, it’s time to visit Gullfoss. The drive between the two places is short, about ten minutes, still, we have a worthwhile stop to make at a farm called Brú. Right next to the road, the farmer at Brú has been kind enough to arrange parking and a fence with very friendly Icelandic horses. Here travelers are welcome to visit. This is a great opportunity to get up close and personal with the Icelandic horse, but make sure you never stop along the ring road and pet horses without permission, often this is highly frowned upon by owners, not to mention causing grave danger to passing cars.
After getting some good shots of the horses we continue our Golden Circle tour. Arriving at Gullfoss, you’ll be quick notice some massive trucks on gigantic tires, parked at the back of the parking lot. These monster trucks have a very specific purpose, to bring adventures seekers to Langjokull Glacier where they will participate in guided snowmobile tours and perhaps explore amazingly blue ice caves. This is another activity on the Golden Circle that is hard to match.
Journeying on for about twenty minutes, it’s already time for another stop at the waterfall Faxi. This waterfall is located on the river Túngufljót, here you can set up your own little picnic or pop into the restaurant called Vid Faxa.
Drumbó – River Rafting
Drumboddstaðir is the next place on our map, this old farm now doubles as a rafting base, here you can take an exciting white water rafting tour on Hvítá, this tour will always give you a good time, beginner or an expert, you will find this activity easy to enjoy. Best followed by a BBQ on site and a couple of beers. Drumbó has a fantastic selection of Icelandic beers and there is even a Rafting and Icelandic Beer Tasting tour.
Efsti dalur II farm
For our ice-cream aficionados – make sure you don’t miss the barn at Efstidalur II, where you can enjoy some world-class homemade ice-cream, all while admiring the cows that provided the milk for it.
Still, on the lines of culinary pleasures, Friðheimar Farm has something that all tomato lovers are sure to enjoy, a menu solely centered around their homegrown tomatoes. Here you can enjoy everything from soups to ice cream, wonderful cocktails, and jam followed by a walk through the greenhouses. If you are lucky on your way out you may get a spectacular show of the Icelandic horse trotting by (see the schedule on their website if you don’t want to leave it to chance).
Post tomato feast at Friðheimar Farm, the Secret Lagoon is located at Flúðir. One of the oldest pools in Iceland dating back to 1891, this is a wonderful place for an authentic experience, enjoying the evening sun, the northern lights, good company and a tiny little geyser that erupts every five minutes. Not much food to be had, but an excellent selection of beverages.
Sólheimar Ecovillage is located about thirty minutes out from the Secret Lagoon, the only one of its kind in Iceland, a self-sustainable community started with the idea of enabling people with special needs to reach maximum potential and gain equal opportunities. Better hosts are hard to come by, a favorite for lovers of arts, crafts, and baked goods.
Skálholt historic church site
Skálholt is a place of great historical importance, this used to be the designated home of serving bishops. Today it is a center for music, the church possesses wonderful acoustics, a stunning altarpiece and beautiful windows that serve as a reminder of Catholic times. Make sure you explore the museum in the church’s basement.
For children, and all animal lovers, the petting zoo, Slakki, is a great stop to make along the way. Here you can visit and interact with many different kinds of animals, from kittens to calves, as well as getting in some, often much needed, playground time.
Reykjadalur – Smokey Valley
Getting close to the end of our Golden Circle tour, we are now headed towards Reykjavik, with a quick stop in Reykjadalur. Located about thirty-five minutes away from the city this valley is the backdrop to Hveragerði. The area tops the list for the most geothermally active areas in Iceland, as you approach you’ll see steam coming out of the ground all around. Reykjadalur has become somewhat of a popular hiking path, an easy hike up the valley will get you to a prime spot to bathe in a river where hot ground-water mixes with the cold river, creating the perfect temperature for taking a dip.
As you can see there are many things to explore on and around the Golden Circle, whether you opt for a fully guided tour, take part in some organized activities along the way, or jump in a rental car, there should be plenty of suitable options for everyone’s enjoyment.
Maps of the Golden Circle
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