The Golden Circle or ‘Gullni Hringurin’ in Icelandic, is a popular route based in southern Iceland. It is touristy but there is a reason for that; it showcases the beauty of Iceland in three pit stops.
The Golden Circle route starts in Reykjavik (the capital city) and loops back around, covering around 190 miles (300 Kilometres). You can easily do the route in a day without feeling too rushed. There are three main stops on the Golden Circle:
1. The geothermal area which has ‘Geysir’ and ‘Strokkur’ geysers
2. Gullfoss Waterfall
3. Thingvellir National Park
There are also other stop-offs on the way if you have extra time, such as the Skalholt Cathedral, Kerio Volcanic Crater or Nesjavellir and Hellisheio A virkjun Geothermal power plants.
The golden circle is a perfect way to see a snapshot of the beauty and diversity of Iceland. If you don’t have enough time to drive around the ring road, then this route is an ideal way to spend your limited time in Iceland. We drove around the ring road and then did the golden circle to finish off our trip and it was just as impressive, just with more tourists.
There are loads of tour companies offering the golden circle tour, based in Reykjavik, which are quite reasonably priced, but I would recommend hiring a car and driving the golden circle yourself. This way you can take your time and go at your own pace and there’s no rush to be back on the coach for a certain time. Also, there are loads of little side roads which you can explore, which you wouldn’t be able to see if you were on an organised tour.
Renting a car in Iceland is easy and generally, Iceland is a straightforward place to drive around. However, it does depend on the time of year that you are visiting Iceland, as in the winter the roads become very icy and the weather can be unpredictable and can change very quickly. In Iceland, you can drive for miles without seeing another car, with just amazing landscapes, valleys, farms and Icelandic ponies to stare at out of the window.
Geysers at Haukadalur
You can drive the circle in any order, but our first stop was the geysers. There are two geysers, ‘Geyser’ and ‘Strokkur’. There is a large car park when you arrive and within a few minutes walk you are there. There is also a souvenir shop, which is handy for a toilet stop or to grab a warm cup of coffee.
As soon as you approach the geysers, you will be greeted with the distinct smell of rotten eggs (or as Rob says it smells like eggy farts). I'm not going to lie, it really stinks but it is worth the epic scenery and after 10 minutes you get used to it. I find it weird how the earth can create such a stench.
The original Geysir or Geyser which gave all other geysers their name no longer erupts on a regular basis. On the 17 June 2000 there was an earthquake which apparently awakened the Geysir and it now sporadically erupts, but you would be extremely lucky to see any movement, as it is considered almost inactive.
The boiling water is below the surface of the earth and the steam escapes from openings and vents in the earth. The Strokkur explodes boiling water up to 100 feet in the air every 5 – 10 minutes, so you don’t have to wait long to witness the natural wonder. Be prepared that there will be a swarm of people all stood around with their cameras and GoPros waiting for the perfect shot.
Until you see it, you will not appreciate its power and it makes you realise how powerful nature and the world really is. It was then onto our next stop….Gullfoss Waterfall.
The Gullfoss waterfall or the 'Golden Waterfall' was the second stop on our trip.
WOW, this waterfall is impressive and is huge at 61 foot wide. The Gullfoss comes from the Hvítá river, with the longest drop of 21 metres and 32 meters in total. You will hear the waterfall before you see if, from the sheer power of the water cascading down the two staggered levels. Due to the size and force of the waterfall, there is a heavy mist which surrounds the waterfall and it just adds to its impressiveness and dramaticness.
As with the Geysers, there is a large car park and after a short walk, you will come to a staircase, which does get quite busy. After you have made your way down the stairs, you will be met with the most incredible views. You can continue to walk and get closer to the waterfall, but grab your anorak, as you need to be prepared to get wet. The sheer size and beauty of Gullfoss will take your breath away and for me, I wondered how any waterfall could beat it. The word powerful would be an understatement. The only downside to this waterfall was the number of people, compared to the other waterfalls we saw around the ring road.
By this point, you have seen the pure power of the Geyser and the Gullfoss waterfall and you can’t believe that anything will beat that but then you arrive at your final stop… The Thingvellur National Park.
Thingvellur National Park
The Thingvellur National Park is where Iceland’s first-ever Parliament was based, dating back to 930AD and is a World Heritage site. It played a key part of the history of Iceland and laws would be recited from the high rock wall of Logberg (Law Rock). The views from the amphitheatre are pretty spectacular and is a great place to take a few holiday snaps, or just stop for a moment and take in the views.
In this area is also where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates are moving apart by 2cm each year, creating a large crevice. A friend of mine actually went scuba diving between the Silfra plates and said it was an incredible experience. Next time I go to Iceland, I would love to do this. There is also the option to go snorkelling if you don’t fancy diving.
The Thingvellur National Park is a great place to put on your walking boots and explore, including coming across a little cute church but watch out for the pesky geese, they can be quite aggressive, which I found out after a got a bit too close when taking a picture!
And there you are, you have seen the main sights on the Golden Circle tour and you can either head home or explore the local area a bit more. If you drove around the entire Golden Circle it would take you around 3 hours, but with the stops, it took us around 6 hours. You definitely could do this quicker if you wanted to, as we did spend a lot of time walking around and exploring the local areas. We like to get a coffee and take our time taking in the incredible scenery, rather than rushing around.
My opinion of the Golden Circle is that it is a perfect day trip which sums up what Iceland has to offer, but I didn’t enjoy it as much as driving around the ring road, just because of the number of people at each stop.