The Golden Circle is a 300-kilometre route, around the South of Iceland, which takes you on a journey to see a myriad of wonders hidden within this secretive, secluded country. The amazing sights you'll see on your way are not to be missed if your find yourself in Iceland for even for just 24 hours!
You can see the Golden Circle on a tour bus or rent a car and do the drive yourself. There is something so freeing about going it on your own since you can control your schedule but we opted to go on a small, bus tour. We LOVED our guide, and there is nothing like hearing stories from the locals about the new country your visiting. While driving can be more personalized, gas is very expensive in Iceland so be sure to keep that in mind. If you decide to drive it - check out my google map of all the places to see.
Our guide was so funny, crazy and passionate about the history of his country. We learned about the myths of the ancient Vikings who were as violent as they were benevolent. Our guide would tell us stories of ancient myths and legends to pass the time as we drove from location to location. His voice boomed through the van as he acted out the stories of these Viking warriors.
Our first destination was Þingvellir or "Thingvellir" National Park. Þingvellir is more than just a stunning landscape. It is a site of historical, cultural, and geological significance to the country. The National park is the meeting point where the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates meet. They call it the rift valley since it looks like the earth is cracking down the centre. You can walk in between the giant crack in the earth - an unforgettable experience. You can almost reach out and touch both side, standing on two continents at once.
The volcanic walls show hundreds layers of earth piled on top of each other. You can literally see distinctions between eras and aeons in the layers of rock.
Þingvellir is also the place where the first National Parliament of Iceland was established in 930 AD. Today, the site where their parliament first stood is marked by a lone Icelandic flag flying out there in the wilderness. The name Þingvellir is derived from the Old Norse word meaning "assembly field".
Some of the piece of earth where the rift has caused the ground to hollow have created pools of crystal clear water. One of these pools called 'Nikulásargjá' was visited by King Frederick VII of Denmark in 1907. When he and his people came to visit, they threw coins into the pools, as is traditional in Europe for good luck. The custom continued, and to this day, the bottom of these pools sparkles with millions of coins that lie the bottom, lending itself to the name "the coin fissure".
To the north of the valley, you can see the stunning blue shores of Þingvallavatn, the largest natural lake in Iceland. So still and silent, like nothing but the ages, has touched it for years. Since Iceland is a relatively new continent, looking out on this land is like looking at what Europe looked like 100,000 years ago. Like stepping back in time.
After finishing up at the rift, we got back on the bus and continued down to the Gullfoss Waterfall. We quickly put on our raincoats as we got off the bus. The massive spray of water from the falls made it feel like it was raining when we stepped outside.
The Gullfoss or Golden Falls is a part of the Ölfusá river. When the river comes to this southern point, it plunges down a "staircase", down 32 meters to the ground. The rush and weight of water pouring down has created a deep crevice, about 20 meters wide and 2.6 kilometres long. Because of the "staircase" effect, as you approached the falls, the crevice is obscured from view, and it looks like the river just disappears into the earth.
The sheer force of these walls has deemed it impressive enough to become one of the natural wonders of the world. There have been many discussions and attempts at harnessing the power of the falls and turning it into a power plant. This would completely ruin the natural beauty, and many people have done their best to protect the purity of the falls. Currently the land is own by the Icelandic government, and hopefully, it will remain as the world made it, for years to come.
Across from the viewing area of the falls, there is a small tourist centre with information, guides and maps of the area. There is also a small gift shop and cafeteria inside where they serve up traditional, rural Icelandic food. We ducked inside for a bowl of their famous lamb soup. It was so hearty and filling, the perfect food to warm our chill bodies.
Next on tour was a stop off at Haukadalur, a valley just south of Gullfoss where you can see the two most famous geysers in Iceland. These geothermal geysers come from their location atop the Laugarfjall rhyolitic dome.
The two geysers are named Strokkur and Geysir. The one named Geysir gets its name from the Old Norse word for "gush", and in fact, we get the word geyser from this very spring. Strokkur erupts ever 5 to 15 minutes is a burst of bright blue water. Watching it bubble up, growing larger and larger until it explodes is a tense and exciting experience and the burst of exaltation that the crowd exude is almost as good as the explosion itself. Geysir on the other hand only bursts sporadically, so the chances of seeing at full bloom are pretty slim.
There are a few dozen other small geysers around the valley, simmering just atop the grass, noticeable only by the thin white steam coming off their pools of water.
We headed back into the van and on the way to our next destination, pulled over to the side of the road to see some of the famous Icelandic horses which were grazing in a nearby field. These horses are the same exact bread brought over by the Vikings in the late ninth century. They were never bred outside the country, and no other horses have ever been bred with them, so they're pure lineage is a piece of Viking history.
They are short in stature and almost fuzzy looking. They are absolutely adorable and more than a few of us wanted to take them home.
Kerið Volcanic Crater
On the way back down to Reykjavik, we stopped off at Kerið. Kerið is a volcanic crater lake, also called a caldera, which is a massive depression caused by the evacuation of volcanic magma from the surface of the earth. The crater is over 3,000 years old and made up of a bright red rock, unique as many other volcanic craters are black.
The red hue, surrounded by bright green moss covered hills and the blue water gives the crater an almost fairytale-like appearance. The bright colour of the water is due to the minerals in the soil. It has been thousands of years since the volcano exploded and is more than safe to look over the edge. From here, you can look out at the surrounding vista where you can see similar, still active volcanos brewing in the distance. On a rare day, you may even see one erupt!
We drove up into the hillside where the Hellisheiðarvirkjun geothermal power plant is housed. Here, they turn to steam from earth into power for the land. Dozens of igloo-like buildings dot the entrance the powerplant and once inside there is a information centre where you can learn more about geothermal power and its importance to Iceland's growth and stability.
On the drive back to our hotel, we passed by moss-covered hills where people had torn away the moss in order to write names, scribbles and quotes - they call this "nature graffiti". In recent years, people have vandalized the hills with offensive writing to the extent that the near by energy company Orka Náttúrunnar has sent fixers to repair the moss. This kind of moss on these hills takes decades to grow and has been there since the 1920s. Although the destruction of such natural beauty is a shame to see, there was something very striking about seeing messages from a hundred years in the past, screaming out to you from the wide empty expanse of the Icelandic landscape.
Iceland is a truly remarkable country. While many travellers come here on an extended layover on their way to Europe, driving the Golden Circle is a wonderful way to explore so many facets of the country in a short period of time. Whether you decide to rent a car and do the tour yourself or jump on a guided bus trip, you are bound to discover so many amazing things along the way!