The Golden Circle Iceland tour is one of the many must-dos on any visit to Iceland. Read on to get an idea of what to see, when to go, and travel tips and info if you’re planning things to do in Reykjavik and beyond.
Iceland has been on my radar for quite some time. I’ve even written previously about quirky things to do in Iceland since the country is definitely among the most unique places on the planet.
Iceland is a Nordic island nation of about 100,000 kilometers square (or 40,000 square miles), nestled in the Atlantic Ocean between Greenland and Europe.
One of the most popular activities for tourists here is to travel Iceland’s Golden Circle, a 300 km round trip from Reykjavik, Iceland’s capital, and looping into the southern uplands of the island and back.
There are three primary, must-see stops along the Golden Circle route, which include Pingvellir National Park, The Gullfoss waterfalls, and Haukadalur, which is a geothermal area, home to two geysers, Strokkur and Geysir. Geysir has been dormant for a number of years, however, Strokkur erupts every five or ten minutes.
Secondary stops along the Golden Circle tour include two geothermal power plants — Nesjavellir and Hellisheidarvirkju — as well as Skálholt cathedral, the volcanic crater of Kerid, and the town of Hveragerdi.
Table of Contents
The Golden Circle Tour allows travellers to experience the diverse culture of the land, from breath-taking scenery to the many historic buildings. In the summer months, herds of sheep can be seen roaming through the lush green land.
The weather can turn without very much warning in Iceland. It is always a great idea to pay special attention to weather reports so that you can be ready for anything along your trip. A beautiful, peaceful morning can easily and quickly turn into a major snowstorm.
Read on to find more travel information about Iceland’s Golden Circle.
Golden Circle Iceland Road Trip Key Points
Key things to remember before embarking on your Golden Circle Tour experience:
• the price of gasoline in Iceland can be very expensive. As of August 2016, the cost is around 191 Icelandic Krona, or about $1.64 USD per litre (almost $7 per gallon.)
• pre-booking a car rental is the best and smartest way to go.
• travelling between September and May will keep your travel costs down.
• once you break free from the traffic of Reykjavik, your trip will be much easier.
• while the trip can be done in 3.5 hours, spreading it out over the course of a full day will be more beneficial, as you won’t need to rush through the vast number of sights and unique experiences.
Thingvellir National Park
One of the first stops along the Golden Circle Tour is The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage site, Thingvellir National Park. Thingvellir National Park contains the Silfra Fissure, and the entire park has played a major part in the history of the land. You will find formations, lakes, streams and waterfalls here.
The Silfra Fissure is a fissure between the Eurasian and North American continental (tectonic) plates and is the only place on Earth where snorkelling and diving between two continental plates can be experienced.
The rift valley marks the crest of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge and the boundary of the two tectonic plates.
Iceland’s first Parliament is also located within the boundary of Thingvellir National Park.
Strokkur and Geysir Geysers
A self-drive Iceland tour would definitely not be complete if you did not visit these two geysers located in the valley of Haukadalur, at the bottom of Laugarfjall hill. Geysir has remained dormant for years, but Strokkur is famous for being one of the most reliable geysers on Earth, erupting intensely hot water and steam into the air every five or ten minutes.
Stokkur was first reported in 1789, after an earthquake shook the area, either creating or unblocking the conduit for hot steam and water. In 1896, another earthquake occurred and essentially deactivated the geyser. Later on, in 1963, locals succeeded in unblocking the entire plumbing system and the geyser has been operational ever since.
It’s a little-known fact that the term “geyser” was actually named after Geysir in Iceland. “Geysa” means “to gush”.
A geyser is compiled of boiling, stinky water, and vents in the earth surrounding the geyser release steam. Mineral deposits and fumaroles (gas and smoke) are also usually present, indicative of a geyser close by.
Geysir called it quits after an earthquake shook the tectonic plates just enough to stop feeding the geyser, but is thought to have become active in 1294 when first reports of geyser activity in the general area came to light.
There is a restaurant and gift shop in Haukadalur, which is the perfect place to warm up with lunch while taking in the views before continuing on with your Icelandic Golden Circle Tour.
The Gulfoss Waterfall is an iconic landmark of Iceland and offers a natural, untouched look at nature with some pretty spectacular views.
The magnificent Hvita (White) River, fed by Langjökull, Iceland’s second largest glacier, leads to the Gulfoss Waterfall. Water violently splashes and crashes over the cliff 32 meters down in two stages, into a narrow but rugged canyon, leading down to a finish line that is nearly impossible to see as it disappears into the earth. Rainbows can frequently be seen around the Gullfoss Waterfall on a bright and sunny day.
A large staircase along with a concrete path allows visitors to walk along and actually look down into the waterfall. There are frequent high winds in this area, so be sure to dress warmly.
In the early 20th century, foreigners wanted to invest in the area to turn the power of the Gullfoss Waterfall into electricity. An Englishman wanted to buy the waterfall from a farmer, who owned it at the time, but the offer to purchase was refused, and an offer to lease the land was accepted.
The farmer’s daughter — Sigriður Tómasdóttir — wanted to avoid the contracted deal and began a lawsuit to do just that. The trial lasted for many years, with the farmer’s daughter making frequent trips to Reykjavik (often barefoot) to follow up on the progress of her case. She also dramatically stated that she would throw herself over the edge of the waterfall if construction began. In the end, the lawsuit fell through, but the original lease contract was disposed of due to the lack of rent payments having been made.
The struggle that Sigriður faced in order to preserve the waterfall and protect it from construction or damage did well to put the waterfall in public view, and brought much attention to the importance of preserving nature, and she is often referred to as Iceland’s first environmentalist.
In 1940, her adopted son acquired the waterfall and later sold it to the Icelandic government, and in 1979, the waterfall was officially designated as a nature reserve and was to be protected for the public to enjoy the sights and wonders of it.
Kerid Crater Lake
Kerid Crater is one of several crater lakes in the southern Iceland area, a part of the land known as Iceland’s Western Volcanic Zone. A colorful and contrasting display of reds from the volcanic rocks (as opposed to black), and greens from sporadic grass growth stands out against the beautiful blue lake. Tourists often travel to the waterfront, as it is a quick hire from the volcano, which collapsed many years ago. Striking scenery to be found here!
Kerid is one of the three most well-known craters in the area and is about 3000 years old, roughly half the age of the two surrounding volcanoes, Seyishólar and Kerhóll.
Kerid was once thought to be the result of a volcanic explosion, as is the case with most volcanoes, but upon further investigation, it appears that Kerid was actually a cone volcano that erupted and simply emptied its reserve of magma. Once the volcano had emptied, it simply collapsed onto itself.
Interestingly enough, the water inside the crater is not from rainfall, and it is actually the same level as the water table.
Hellisheiarvirkjun Geothermal Power Plant
For travellers wondering what to do in Iceland to pad out their Golden Circle itinerary, a stop at Hellisheiarvirkjun should be in order.Hellisheiarvirkjun is a geothermal power plant located within southern Hengill with 30 active wells that are roughly 2000 meters deep. Steam and water are separated by two intake pipes.
The steam is used to drive turbines, which in turn, generates electricity, which is then sent to Landsnet for distribution. This power plant began its operation on October 1, 2006, and underwent some expansion in 2009, it generates about 300 megawatts of electricity, perhaps reaching 400 megawatts by the time the expansion is complete.
Nesjavellir Geothermal Power Plant
The Nesjavellir Geothermal Power Plant is the second largest of the two island power plants and is located near the Thingvellir and Hengill volcanoes. It is operated by ON Power.
Nesjavellir’s history began in 1947 during the drilling of boreholes to evaluate the area’s power generation potential, and research wasn’t completed until May of 1990 when the cornerstone was laid.
This power plant is capable of producing 120 megawatts of power, and delivers over 290 US gallons of hot water per second, servicing the capital area of the land.
The Skálholt Cathedral
Along the Golden Circle, you should visit the Skálholt Cathedral, which is a historical site near the Hvita River and was one of the most important places in Iceland from 1056 to 1795 as a political and cultural center. Iceland’s first official school, Skálholtsskóli (now Reykjavík Gymnasium, MR) was founded as a way to educate clergy.
In the Middle Ages, Skálholt was home to a bishop’s office and farming, and for a short time, a monastery. With room for dormitories and quarters for teachers and servants. Skálholt was often referred to, in writings, as the lasted city in Iceland.
The actual Skálholt Cathedral of today was built between 1956 and 1963, as part of millennial celebrations.
One of the most popular things to do in Iceland — Hveragerdi — is located just 45 km from Reykjavik, It is known as the hot springs capital of the world and can best be seen from the vantage point of the mountain slope of Kambar, spreading out across a 5000-year-old lava field.
Hot pillars of steam shoot up from the ground throughout the year, but the area is most striking during the summer months when the area is a lush green colour.
The most interesting fact about this town is that not many people can say they have hot springs literally in their back yard, but it can definitely be said about Hveragerdi. The geothermal park is enjoyed by many who indulge in a natural clay foot bath, soaking feet in a natural hot spring.
Locals can even bake their famous black bread using the geothermal ground as an oven, and eggs can also be boiled in the hot springs to enjoy alongside the baked bread.
The Quake 2008
On May 29th of 2008, a new hot spring broke ground as the result of an earthquake that shook the southern part of Iceland, offering one more amazing spring for locals and tourists alike to enjoy. Unfortunately, the earthquake caused severe damage to the epicenter of the quake, damaging homes and shaking their contents.
There is even an exhibition about the earthquake, called Quake 2008, in Hveragerdi . The exhibit provides tourists and the general public with information about the quake, including the causes and derivatives of the earthquake, while showing the experience of the residents, how it affected buildings, local environments, and other damaging effects.
The exhibit includes an Earthquake simulator so that visitors can experience what it feels like to be in a 6-Richter quake. Interestingly enough, when they broke the ground to build the foundation for the exhibit, a large, ancient fissure was discovered. Using this as part of an amazing display, the fissure is lit up through a transparent section of the library floor and at the tourist information center.
Today Hveragerdi is an excellent place for shopping, fitness centers, and hiking. It is a place to not be missed on your tour of the Golden Circle.
A road trip through The Golden Circle of Iceland is bound to be one of the most memorable trips you’ll ever take. From geysers and hot springs to volcanoes and gorgeous landscapes and beyond, this is one trip that should quite definitely be on your radar.
Is Golden Circle Iceland on your bucket list?