The Golden Circle — a route consisting of three major sites easily reached within a day from Reykjavík — is one of the most popular tourist activities in Iceland. In fact, if you only have two days in the whole country, we recommends you spend one of them on this particular pilgrimage. The Golden Circle highlights history, geology and natural beauty by allowing visitors to hit up a historic national park, an impressive geyser and a beautiful waterfall on one trip.
With public transportation lacking in Iceland, visitors have two choices for accessing the sites — joining a group tour or renting a car and doing a self-drive tour. We chose to self-drive for a few reasons —
1. It’s cheaper. Well, we broke even. Group tours are around 9,000 kroner, or $50usd per person, while renting a car is about 20,000 kroner, or $110usd per day. So even with the cost of fuel, with three people we were actually breaking even. Had we added another person to the mix we would have been saving. And the wonderful thing about the Golden Circle is that all three sites are actually free, so the car and fuel are the only fixed costs.
2. It’s more flexible. We we able to spend as much or as little time at each site as we wished, and we were able to make detours to check out nearby attractions or activities. Most importantly, to me anyway, I was able to request photo-ops ever 5 miles and was patiently indulged. I don’t think that would have worked with a busload of other people. Which brings me to my last point…
3. We hate other people. Just kidding. But really, my mom, sister and I get so little time all together, we really wanted to be able to converse freely without being rude to a group. Plus we got to pick out our own music and blast it! The day before we asked a shop owner for Icelandic music suggestions and walked away with three new albums: We Sink by Soley (our favorite and featured in my Iceland video!), Brekkan by Benni Hemm Hemm (in Icelandic!) and of course, Takk by Sigur Ros.
The flexibility just made this trip for us. I had read that the Golden Circle sites can feel a little bit like an assembly line in the summertime as tour buses rotate round, but even in peak season we were often the only car in sight. The first leg of the trip was a forty-five minute drive Reykjavík to Þingvellir National Park, though it may have taken us an hour as we stopped often to marvel at rolling farms, friendly horses, and stark churches.
Stopping so that I could photograph horses and Olivia could shriek and touch them would become a theme for our days on the road.
Our arrival at Þingvellir National Park was marked by a field of stone piles, a phenomenon that apparently exists all across Iceland. Funny enough, this valley of rocks was the most tourist-mobbed place that we stopped all day.
Þingvellir is a Unesco World Heritage site, Iceland’s first national park, and the most important historical site in the country. In fact, this site has significant importance on a global scale as well — it was here that Vikings established the world’s first democratic parliament in AD 930.
This was the one sight in the Golden Circle where I think we may have benefited from a tour guide. The park is huge, and it’s kind of difficult to discern where exactly “IT” is, “it” being The Thing you are supposed to be sure to see. If that sentence made little sense to you, then congratulations — you can’t understand the ramblings of a crazy person obsessed with checking things off a list.
While obviously nothing remains of the world’s first parliament (it was conducted over one of the ridges rather than in a building), you can peek inside one of Iceland’s first churches. Beside it are a few teeny farmhouses, one of which is the prime minister’s summer home.
Þingvellir has immense geological clout as well as historic — it sits perched atop the tectonic boundary between American and European plates. Does that sound familiar? That’s because I went scuba diving between those plates earlier in the trip!
The ridges, like those seen in the photo below, are a result of the techtonic plates moving apart at a rate of 1-18mm per year.
I was really excited to show my mom and sister Þingvallavatn, Iceland’s largest lake and site of my diving adventures. I marveled once again at the unbelievable cold and clarity of the water, and even convinced my sister to take a sip. It’s pure glacial water, after all — people pay a lot to drink that stuff out of a bottle.
For those that want to explore Þingvellir further, trail maps are available for a small fee at the Park Service Center.
Eventually we were back in the car again, on our way to Geysir, another 40 minute drive. On the way we passed Laugarvatn, a town of just 200 people spread around a hot spring lake. From here you can rent kayaks and rowboats and paddle around the lake, or take tours of the nearby caves. I routed us through Laugarvatn in hopes of convincing my mom and sis to visit the modern thermal baths overlooking the lake, but a mosquito attack as we exited the car put them off the idea.
Arriving at Geysir, we headed straight to the on-site restaurant to eat lunch while gazing out the window at spouting hot springs.
This turned out to be my favorite stop by far of the Golden Circle. Geysir is the jet-like hot water eruption for which all other geysers on Earth are named. Isn’t that amazing? It’s like getting to visit the original Tree or the original Rock which all other trees and rocks are named after.
Geysir once shot 70-80m high — impressive when compared to Old Faithful in the USA, which shoots from 25-55m. However, in the 1950’s tourists inadvertently clogged Geysir by throwing rocks into it in an attempt to set it off, and it hasn’t erupted the same since.
Fortunately, there are still active spouts to keep geology-loving tourists happy. Strokkur, a nearby neighbor of Geysir, is the most reliable geyser in the world. Strokkur erupts every 7-10 minutes at a height of 15-30m. I stuck around for several eruptions in an attempt to capture the whole thing on film!
For those that want to explore the Geysir area further, an audiovisual exhibition is available in the Geysir Center, and horse treks are available from Hotel Geysir.
A mere ten minute drive further brought us straight to Gulfoss, Iceland’s most famous waterfall and the final destination on our Golden Circle tour.
Unfortunately the weather had begun to turn a little gloomy at this point, and so we didn’t see any of the rainbows this double water drop is known for.
But perhaps more beautiful than the falls themselves is the story of the woman who saved them. In the 1920’s a group of foreign investors made plans to dam the Hvita River for hydroelectric power. The landowner refused to sell but the government gave special permission to the investors, inspiring the landowners daughter to walk all the way to Reykjavík (70 miles!) to protest. Her threats to jump into the waterfall were heeded and thanks to the investors allowing the lease to lapse, the falls were saved. Today, Gulfoss is part of a nature reserve and protected from development.
For those that want to explore the Gulfoss area further,snowmobile rides to Langjökull Glacier leave from the visitor center and cafe.
For those that are on a self-drive tour like we were, there are alternative routes back to Reykjavík so that the same route doesn’t have to be driven twice. In our case we were heading straight into a road trip up the Snæfellsnes Penninsula, so we had to double back most of the way before heading north up the coast.
Along the way we passed dramatic waterfalls, happy livestock and interesting architecture.
Once again, I have to emphasize that the self-drive option was worth it for the photography opportunities alone! If you’re visiting Iceland, chances are you’re circling round this golden route. I encourage you to gather a group of three or more and make the DIY option into a bargain!