Iceland’s Golden Circle
Tourists from all over the world flock to Iceland’s Golden Circle, but what exactly is it? What attractions make it up? Reykjavik Excursions took us to Iceland’s most popular attraction for a day long trip.
Here’s everything you need to know.
The Golden Circle Route
Iceland’s Golden Circle tour usually starts from the capital city, Reykjavik. The Golden Circle route may vary in terms of attractions but there are three that are the most visited, the Geyser and Hot Spring area (Haukadalur), Gullfoss waterfall and Þingvellir National Park.
There are other attractions on Iceland’s Golden Circle route, including Faxafoss Waterfall, Kerið volcano crater, Hveragerði greenhouse village, Skálholt church, the Nesjavellir or Hellisheidarvirkjun geothermal power plant and will vary depending on the tour provider. They are all recommended sites for a self drive Iceland tour.
For the best price on Golden Circle tours visit Expedia.
Haukadalur valley – Geysers and Hot Springs
- Free Entry, Free Parking, Open to the public 24/7
(Visitor’s Centre 10am-10pm June – Aug, 10am – 6pm Sept – May)
- Public Transport: Strætó offer a bus service from Reykjavik to ‘Geysir’. Timetables, routes and prices are available on their website. The 51/52 route heads straight to Haukadalur valley.
- Click here for Google Maps Location
Haukadalur valley is often referred to as ‘The Geysir’ or ‘Strokkur’ which is the official name of the famous geyser (and the largest in the valley). The site is home to a large collection of volcanic features such as hot water streams and hot springs.
Haukadalur has many hot springs in all shapes and sizes, there is a walkway provided for visitors that allows you to get as close and as safe as possible to each feature.
As well as the largest geyser in the country, Haukadalur is home to one of the smallest, the ‘Litl Geysir‘!
There are many hot springs exposing the bubbling soul of the violent earth that lies beneath.
An eggy sulfuric steam provides warmth for visitors as they work their way around the valley.
The openness of the valley provides the very best of view and photo opportunities with the volcanic activity smoldering in the background. It is particularly beautiful during winter where ice meets fire on top of crisp white snow.
Some of the hot springs look like inviting hot baths, so calm and steamy, especially in the winter time.
But don’t go in there! Temperatures of the hot springs are a minimum of 200°C. Stick to the pathways provided, pay attention to signage, stay behind the ropes and tread carefully on the ice and snow.
The streams of running water around the valley are also way above 200°C. Touching it would be the equivalent of putting your hand inside a boiled kettle.
Remember the Strokkur Geyser is predicted to erupt every 8-10 minutes, walking around the valley will give great views of one of Iceland’s free attractions.
- Free entry, Free parking and open to the public 24/7. Gift shop and Café available.
- Public Transport: NAT (Nordic Adventure Travel) offer bus services to Gullfoss, check their website for timetables and prices.
- Click here for Google Maps
The Gullfoss waterfall has an incredible story behind it.
Translated to ‘Golden Falls’, Gullfoss is an incredible natural wonder crafted by the elements and is one of the most popular sites of Iceland’s Golden Circle. The structure of the falls forces ferocious water down three natural ‘steps’ straight into the depths of the earth.
Back in 1907, a man named Tómas Tómasson owned Gullfoss which was part of his newly acquired farm land. He was approached by an Englishman who wanted to buy Gullfoss to use the water to generate electricity. Tómas declined the offer but agreed to lease on a rental contract. Tómas‘s daughter, Sigriður Tómasdóttir, protested against the move and set out with the aim of terminating the rental contract. Sigriður used all of her savings to hire a lawyer from Reykjavik for assistance with halting the disruption. She often walked barefoot across rocky terrain to Reykjavik (106km away) and even threatened to throw herself into the falls if construction work began. Her lawyer could do nothing about the situation and the rental contract. Fortunately for Sigriður, the contract became void due to failed rental payments and Gullfoss was saved forever. Sigriður‘s determination and activism made her the first known environmentalist of Iceland and she is very well-respected there today. There is a beautiful memorial and an information board at Gullfoss where many tourists can enjoy the story and pay tribute.
The area surrounding Gullfoss is very well organised for visitors and caters comfortably for the bus loads of tourists that arrive every day. There are many viewing platforms, high and low, and a set of stairs that takes you right down to the side of the falls.
Tread carefully at all times and pay attention to signs particularly in winter and never cross the ropes by the pathway.
Only recently, a tourist fell into Gullfoss resulting in an emergency search.
In 1940 Sigriður Tómasdóttir‘s adopted son became the owner of Gullfoss and he sold it to the Icelandic government. Gullfoss was listed as a protected nature reserve in 1979 and it is now permanently protected allowing the public to enjoy this natural wonder forever.
Þingvellir National Park
- Entry is free but parking charges apply 500 ISK (3.80 USD/3.40 EUR) for up to 24 hours
- Toilets are located at the car park by the Visitor center and are open from 09:00-20:00. Service fee for the lavatories is 200 ISK
- Opening hours for visitor center (Apr to Nov 9am – 6pm, Nov to Apr 9am – 5pm)
- Visitor center phone number: +482-3613
- Click here for Google Maps
- Transport: BSI runs a daily bus service in Summer to Thingvellir from Reykjavik at 8:30am and a return service which leaves Thingvellir at 3:15pm. Consult www.bsi.is
Þingvellir is a National Park full of unique geological features that attract thousands of visitors each year. Almannagjá is a famous canyon that was formed as two tectonic plates separated. The gap in the center is known as Silfra and there are many Silfra diving and snorkeling tours that offer a once in a lifetime experience of swimming between a continental drift. There is also a point in the park where you can stand on top of the border between the two continents of Europe and America.
Þingvellir is listed the only listed UNESCO World Heritage site on Iceland’s Golden Circle. Þingvellir is located on the north shore of Lake Þingvallavatn and is home to the oldest existing parliament in the world, dating back to 930 AD.
Lake Þingvallavatn is a contender for the cleanest fresh water on earth attracting unique marine life such as the largest brown trout and char in the world.
The National Park offers some incredible pathways that expose the great geological features including volcanic rock and weather eroded cliff edges.
Faxafoss (Faxi) Waterfall
- Free entry, Free parking
- Camping at Campsite Faxi is very close to the falls
- Click here for Google Maps
Iceland has a number of enormous waterfalls and Faxafoss is considered one of the smallest even though it is mighty and powerful.
Hveragerði – The Greenhouse Town
You’ll probably smell this before you see it on Iceland’s Golden Circle. Just 45 minutes from Reykjavik, the town of Hveragerði is built on top of a volcanic magma chamber and the residents have cleverly capitalised on the steam and hot water rising from the ground. The town uses the natural phenomena for thermal green housing and spas. We passed by on our Golden Circle tour bus and the smell of sulfur was incredibly overpowering!
The town is spotted with greenhouses that are able to grow vegetables, flowers and garden plants all year round thanks to the constant supply of warmth.
Hveragerði is a haven for bathing in natural hot springs. Icelanders go here to relax as part of their lifestyle and dip in the ‘hot pots’. It is a known fact that natural geothermal water has incredible benefits for the body, mind and soul making it one of the off the beaten path spots on Iceland’s Golden Circle.
Other Golden Circle attractions
Kerið volcano crater
Skálholt CathedralClick here for info
Click here for Google Maps
The current cathedral in the town of Skálholt is relatively large when measured against other Icelandic churches. A lot of Scandinavian churches were refurbished to celebrate the millennia, and during this time, brightly colored stained glass windows were added to the Skálholt Cathedral. The cathedral is a beautifully picturesque place to visit on Iceland’s Golden Circle.
Nesjavellir Geothermal Power StationClick here for info
Click here for Google Maps
The Nesjavellir Geothermal Power Station is the second largest power plant in the country and it produces approximately 120 MW of electrical power. The Power Station provides around 1,100 litres of hot water per second to Iceland’s Capital Region. Geothermal Power Stations are unique and can only be found in countries that boast volcanic activity.
Hellisheidarvirkjun Geothermal Power PlantClick here for Google Maps
We passed by the third largest Geothermal Power Plant in Iceland which is located in Hengill in the South West. The sheer length of the building is phenomenal, it seemed to go on forever. The power plant has a Geothermal Energy exhibition that offers educational tours and presentations about sustainable energy. It’s a good educational stop on Iceland’s Golden Circle route.
Reykjavik Excursions also offer a South Shore Adventure Tour in Iceland which we recommend.
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We derived this list from personal experience after spending two weeks in Reykjavik and the South of Iceland.
We’d love to evolve this post and we invite you to leave your suggestions in the comments below.
We hope you enjoy your time in one of our favorite countries, let us know what you enjoyed the most.