Some activities in Iceland seem to be on everyone’s bucket list, such as relaxing in the Blue Lagoon, glimpsing the northern lights and taking a tour around Iceland’s Golden Circle. The Blue Lagoon is gorgeous but slightly overrated. The northern lights are elusive and some have been to Iceland more than once and yet still never seen them. The Golden Circle is stunning year-round and is an absolute must when visiting Iceland.
What is Iceland’s Golden Circle
The Golden Circle is a route you can drive or take a tour of, leaving from the capital of Reykjavik and heading east. It’s not a circle or even round. It passes by Þingvellir National Park, Bruarfoss waterfalls, the Fontana Geothermal Baths, Haukadalur Valley, and finally Gullfoss – Icelandic for Golden Falls, which is what the route gets its name from. From there, head back to Reykjavik on the southern highway, passing by the Skálholt Cathedral and Kerið Crater.
In total, it’s at least 180 miles of driving, depending on how many detours you take. Obviously, you can take as little or as much time as you want on the route, but I would allocate a full day to see all the attractions. As my tour with Reykjavik Sightseeing also included Snowboarding on Langjokull Glacier with the Mountaineers of Iceland, we were almost rushed through some of the Golden Circle attractions and missed others.
A Beautiful Sunrise at Þingvellir National Park
My tour with Reykjavik Sightseeing left the capital around 9:30 a.m. We were held up a bit waiting on a couple of the passengers, but it wasn’t too bad as it’s still dark at that time in November. Our first destination was Þingvellir National Park. At 10:10, the sun was just starting to peek above the horizon and we stopped on the side of the road so everyone could get some photos. Sunrises and sunsets in Iceland are both spectacular beyond belief. although they do look quite similar.
We made it to the national park around 10:45. Þingvellir (pronounced Thingvellir) is a fascinating location. First of all, it was the site of Iceland’s Althing, the world’s longest-running national parliament which held meetings there for nearly 800 years! The actual meeting site of the council happened to be where they filmed the entrance to the Vale scenes in Game of Thrones. We didn’t actually go to that part of the park on this tour, but I got to see it a couple days later on my Game of Thrones tour.
The park is also the meeting point of the European and North American tectonic plates, i.e. the continents. If you have more time and money, you can dive between the two plates and straddle the two continents. These plates moving apart are what cause the earthquakes and volcanos in Iceland.
Homemade Icelandic Ice Cream
Just a few minutes after we got on the bus, we stopped to get something I wouldn’t have expected in Iceland in November. Apparently, the locals there love ice cream just as much as other countries. We stopped at the Efstidalur II Cafe. Their kitchen wasn’t open yet for lunch, but ice cream and coffee were available. Of course, I had to get some ice cream. They had their own farm with cows and sheep, and all their products were homemade. If you’ve ever tried Skyr yogurt, you’ll know that Iceland is really good with their dairy products.
Geysers Get Their Name from Strokkur
The next stop on our tour was the Haukadalur Valley. The highlights here are the two geysers. The first is called The Great Geysir, which is where the word geyser comes from. It can spew boiling water up to 230 feet in the air. Unfortunately, this geyser is all but inactive.
On the other hand, Strokkur Geysir is quite faithful. It erupts every five or six minutes and gushes up to about 100 feet. We spent quite a bit of time getting our photos and videos of this geyser. Granted, I’ve never been to Yellowstone (although my mom only lives a couple hours away from there), but this was easily the most beautiful geyser I’d ever seen.
Within the valley are about 30 other small geysers, not to mention all the sulfur pools. The geysers get a lot more active after earthquakes, but there hasn’t been that kind of activity there recently.
Gullfoss Rightfully Means Golden Falls
Finally, we reached Gullfoss. Gullfoss isn’t the biggest or the tallest waterfall in Iceland, but it’s the most spectacular waterfall which is relatively close to Reykjavik (it takes about 2 hours to drive there directly). Sadly, on the very day we went, the lower trail to the waterfalls had been shut down due to the icy conditions; the plume the waterfall creates is absolutely massive and everything gets coated with water or ice.
I was still able to walk along the upper trail for its vantage point and photos, which I’m assuming were no less spectacular than the lower trail. Just because it isn’t the biggest waterfall doesn’t mean it’s not magnificent. I just can’t wait to get back and see it in the summer when everything is green. It’s not that I don’t love the snow, but it does make the photos look a little monochromatic.
Thankfully, the attempt to create a hydroelectric dam at the waterfalls fell through, but there have been developments there to cater to the massive influx of tourists as one of Iceland’s most popular attractions. There’s a large visitor center with a restaurant and gift shop where we stopped for our lunch. Prices were comparable to what I used to pay at Disneyland, but Iceland is crazy expensive in general. Expect to spend about $20 on lunch during your tour, unless you bring your own packed lunch from Reykjavik (which I highly recommend).
Snowmobiling on Langjokull Glacier
Our final activity of the day was snowmobiling on Langjokull Glacier with the Mountaineers of Iceland. They picked us up from Gullfoss in their Super Truck and brought us to their basecamp on the glacier where we were suitably insulated in layers of clothing and helmets. We then spent the next couple hours flying over the glacier’s terrain. Our tour also included climbing down into one of the small caves within the glacier (not the massive Ice Cave I did the next day with Reykavik Sightseeing).
Squeezing in the snowmobile adventure on your tour of Iceland’s Golden Circle makes it very hard to see all the other attractions along the route if you want to do everything in one day. You might want to consider spending a couple days driving around the Golden Circle, perhaps staying at one of the hotels or B&Bs near Gullfoss.
Missing Out On Kerið Crater, Fontana Geothermal Baths and Skálholt
As we didn’t get back to Gullfoss until after 7 p.m., several hours after the sun had set, we couldn’t see any more of the attractions along the Golden Circle. In the summer when you have daylight for nearly 24 hours, there’s no problem seeing all the attractions. My tour was in early November, which only gave us about 5 hours of daylight. As such, although our route home passed by Skálholt and the Kerið Crater, we didn’t get to stop at either.
The history of Skálholt goes back a full millennium. For 800 years, it was one of Iceland’s two ecclesiastical centers and you can visit their cathedral, although it was rebuilt only half a century ago. Iceland’s first school opened there in 1056 to educate the clergymen.
Kerið Crater is one of several crater lakes in the area. It’s nowhere near the size of Crater Lake in Oregon (which I visited as a kid), but with the red volcanic rocks on the steep cliffs surrounding the lake, it’s still beautiful. At least that’s what I’ve been told. Considering it was night time and everything was covered in snow, it was just as well my tour passed it up. Recently, they started charging a nominal entrance fee of 400 ISK ($2.75). Oh, and that last symbol in the word is pronounced “th” as in “this.”
Although most tourists flock to Iceland’s Blue Lagoon, there are actually over a hundred geothermal pools you can go swimming in. One of these is in Fontana along the Golden Circle. You can jump into their thermal baths for only 3,800 ISK ($26), compared to $59 at the Blue Lagoon.
One more waterfall you can visit on Iceland’s Golden Circle is Bruarfoss. Similar to Hraunfossar far to the north, the brilliantly blue water bubbles out of the lava beds into the river. The falls are located just a few minutes past the Efstidalur II Cafe, but apparently it can take up to an hour to hike to them. Just another reason I’ll have to return to Iceland someday. There’s just so many things to do around southern Iceland.
Taking a Tour with Reykjavik Sightseeing
Taking a tour with Reykjavik Sightseeing was a rather enjoyable experience. Their ultra-modern buses come with onboard WiFi, power outlets to charge your phone, audio guides in multiple languages, toilets, and really fun tour guides. They have several tours, including a dedicated Golden Circle Tour to see all the attractions. The tour I took was the Golden Circle and Snowmobile Tour, which is why I only got to see the main attractions along the route.
The Golden Circle and Glacier Snowmobile Tour
- Departure Point: Skógarhlíð 10, 105 Reykjavík, Iceland
- Departure Time: 8 a.m.
- Tour Duration: 11.5 hours
- Tour Price: 33,980 ISK ($230)
- Website: Reykjavik Sightseeing
- Phone Number: +354 497 5000
- E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
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Iceland is the most beautiful country in the world I’ve been to so far. There are hundreds of attractions around the country, of which I only saw a small handful. Here are some more adventures I went on while there, and a couple other articles I wrote to help you out.
- Why Iceland Didn’t Become My Favorite Country in the World
- How the Loft Hostel Made it Possible for Me to Visit Iceland
- Checking the Northern Lights in Iceland Off My Bucket List
- Exploring The Game of Thrones Filming Locations in Iceland
- Mind Blown on the Ice and Lava Caves Tour in Iceland
- Is Visiting the Blue Lagoon in Iceland Worth It?
- Spelunking and Snowmobiles on Langjokull Glacier
Here’s some extra reading to save hundreds on your next vacation or stage of your journey.
- 5 Steps to Book Cheap Flights
- Hostels: To Book or Not to Book
- Is Workaway Worth it for the Traveler?
- Click here to claim your $25 credit with AirB&B
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