The Golden Circle is the name of Iceland’s greatest tourist attraction and treasure. It consists of three wonderful places that are located in the southwest of the island. They are all within close distance of each other, and the first place can be reached in around 2 hours from Reykjavik. All attractions can be visited in one day: Þingvellir National Park, Geysir and Gullfoss Waterfall. Many tourists set off from Reykjavik and return to it at the end of the day. Tourists who wish to travel farther usually stop at the end of the day around the town of Selfoss. When choosing this option, worth visiting some other interesting places along the way, but I will write about it later below.
The Golden Circle, or Iceland in a nutshell
The Golden Circle is Iceland’s “hottest” commercial product. All local tourist offices operating on the island has it in the offer. No wonder then that in the high tourist season, the parking lots around these attractions are overcrowded and the access roads are blocked by coaches.
A visit to Iceland during the pandemic, however, allowed us to avoid crowds and crowded parking lots. We didn’t stand in line anywhere, we didn’t have to jostle our cameras over the heads of other tourists. Such conditions can also be found in Iceland outside the high season. In the months of April-May or September, when the main tourist traffic is passing and the weather has not yet symptoms of severe winter – it is worth taking a trip.
When visiting Iceland, you should also consider what we care about, what we want to see and how much time dow we want to spend on sightseeing. For those who just want to “tick” the attraction, it won’t be a difficult decision. However, for those who would like to enjoy the beautiful views and spend time surrounded by the wonderful nature and the silence – I advise you to think carefully about the proper date.
The Golden Circle generates the largest tourist traffic on the island. Therefore, the high season and crowds of tourists nowhere else in Iceland will be as noticeable as in the vicinity of these three attractions. The only places that are equally crowded on the island are SPA Blue Lagoon and the capital of Iceland – Reykjavik. Most tourists simply do not explore the island further and focus only on these few places.
To see or not to see?
Is the Golden Circle an Iceland in a nutshell? Honestly, it actually sounds good and probably that’s why it sells well as well. However, to answer the question – no, there is no such thing as Iceland in a nutshell. To find out how Iceland really looks like, a 1-day trip outside the city and a visit to a crowded SPA is not enough.
However, I cannot imagine coming to Iceland and avoiding this attraction. The Golden Circle is definitely a must-see place and there are many reasons for it. Below I will try to explain them a bit.
On the route from Reykjavik, road 36
Route 36 from Reykjavik to Pingvellir and further to Geysir – is extremely picturesque. There are several viewpoints on the route, where it is really worth stopping to see the surrounding beauty.
That day, on the way we were accompanied by a blue sky and sun. Great visibility and a wide horizon forced us to stop in almost every possible parking lot. Now, when I look at these photos, I do not regret any time spent on these stops.
Golden Circle – Þingvellir National Park
Þingvellir (Thingvellir), or “Plain of the Assembly”, was the site of the Althing – the medieval Icelandic parliament, gathering representatives from all over the island. The first assembly was in the year 930. Parliament met and held outdoors for the next 800 years. Althing is considered to be one of the oldest parliamentary institutions in the world. During the assemblies of this parliament, the most important decisions in the country were taken. During the two-week session, Alhing was making laws – understood as an agreement between free people, and also settled disputes.
In the year 1000, it was decided to accept Christianity. Only men participated in the deliberations, but they came to meetings with whole families. During the deliberations, the women not only took care of the children and for cooking but also spent their time getting to know the inhabitants of the far corners of the islands. There was also a market at that time.
Over the years, the role of the parliament weakened and was limited only to the judicial function. The parliament was finally dissolved in 1798, but for the people of Iceland to this day the Althing has deep historical and symbolic significance.
On the 1000th anniversary of the first assembly, solemn celebrations were held there, and in 1944 the declaration of independence was announced. Then. the new parliament began deliberating in the new seat in Reykjavik.
Place of parliament assembly
Today, visiting Þingvellir, it is easy to find the meeting place of the parliament, as there is a tall mast with the Icelandic flag waving proudly.
This place is on the west side of Lake Þingvallavtan, on the way from the tourist centre. The trail starts from the Hakid viewpoint and then descends down the valley along the Almannagjá gorge.
This path leads to the place where the seat of parliament was placed. From the Law Rock, all major decisions and announcements were made. There you can also find the remains of the Althing – fragments of about 50 voting booths built of peat and stone.
In 1928 a national park was established in this area. In 2004, the entire area was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List. It is believed that the area of the park hides historical remains from the 10th century and is a valuable testimony to the ways in which the territory was used over 1000 years.
The park area is also very interesting due to its geological structure. It is located in the place where the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates meet. This means that significant seismic and volcanic activity is observed here. The surface of the land is crisscrossed by numerous fissures, the deepest of which is the deep Almannagjá gorge.
Almannagjá, or “Gorge of All People”, is also known as the Silfra Canyon. Its greatest width is 64 m. The canyon marks the eastern border of the North American plate. The walls of the valley are in constant motion. They are moving away from each other at a rate of about 7 mm per year, which in the last 9,000 years is estimated at the level of about 70 m.
This gorge also has bad fame. In the 16th and 17th centuries, sentences of the Icelandic judiciary were executed in this beautiful place, by the bridge over the Öxará River. It was here that women who had been convicted of adultery were drowned. Women sentenced to death were put in bags and kept under the water with a stick until they stopped moving. To this day, this place is called Drowning Deep Pool.
Church and summer residence of the prime minister
One of the oldest churches on the island – Þingvallakirkja, is located in the park. The first temple was built in this place in the 11th century. The church that can be seen today was built in 1859. Right next to it, there is a small municipal cemetery.
Next to the temple, there are five small houses built in 1930 on the site of an old farm. Currently, one of them is the summer residence of the Prime Minister of Iceland. There is also a tragic event connected with this place. In 1970, the then Prime Minister of Iceland, Bjarni Benediktsson, who died in a fire with his wife and four-year-old grandson stayed there.
The other buildings house offices belonging to the park authorities.
One of the most spectacular attractions of the park is the Öxarárfoss waterfall. The waterfall is 22 meters high and flows from the Öxará River. The pool at the foot of the waterfall is lined with large rocks against which the water crashes with a big bang. Although the waterfall is neither the tallest nor the most powerful in the country, its location is impressive. Following the main road to it, along the Almannagjá canyon, you first pass the river flowing from behind the rocks, which is falling down the valley. You walk over it through a footbridge, so you can see a rushing river on both sides.
Going straight on, the road leads up the stairs and then turns behind the rocks. You have to turn left, where at the end of the short path there is a waterfall, the culprit of all the fuss 😊
The park property includes the magnificent Lake Thingvallavatn (Þingvallavatn), which has an area of 84 km2 and is the largest lake in Iceland.
The lake is located 100 m above sea level, and its deepest point is 114 m. It is of particular interest to scientists because of the close relationship between its ecosystem and geology. Most of the lake area is covered with lava and water flows easily through it. The young age of the lava means high absorption of minerals in groundwater and this is one of the reasons for the great diversity of life in Þingvallavatn. Land subsidence, numerous chasms and lava created a diverse environment here, numerous fish hiding places in crevices and pits along the shoreline.
The lake is very fertile and rich in vegetation, despite the very low temperatures. One-third of the lake bottom is covered with vegetation and lots of algae. 150 kinds of plants and 50 kinds of invertebrates were found in the lake.
Therefore, the lake is eagerly and frequently visited by scuba diving schools. Diving in the park is allowed in two underwater crevices: Silfra and Davíðsgjá. Silfra, in the northern part of the lake, is one of Iceland’s best snorkelling spots. Therefore, there are many people who find this crevice unique on the international scale. Davíðsgjá is located in the northeastern part of the lake.
In the park, it is forbidden to dive alone, enter the caves while diving or diving deeper than 18 meters.
Other tourist information about the park
There are several car parking spots around the park. All car parks are paid, for a passenger car, the fee is 750 ISK (about 5,6$). You can pay for the ticket on the spot at the machine or on-line. However, it is worth remembering that you only pay for entering the park once. On the same day, you can move to other parking lots in the park, but you do not have to pay the next fee. Your car’s registration number will be in the system that will record the payment for the parking lot. At the next parking lots, cameras will scan your car with the information that the parking was already paid for.
Þingvellir GPS Points N64° 14′ 49.058″ W21° 7′ 28.372″
There are numerous hiking trails in the park. Outside of the meeting place of the medieval parliament, most hiking trails are associated with abandoned farms. Horseback riding is also possible in designated areas. There are also many footpaths throughout the park.
Golden Circle – Geysir
In Laugarvatn, in the Haukadalur Valley, there is a geothermal field where the world’s first geyser was discovered in 1294. The Icelandic name gjosa means “explode”, “squirt”. This is where the colloquial name geyser was born, which was quickly adopted all over the world to describe the same geothermal phenomenon. Geysir is the second most visited attraction in Iceland as part of the Golden Circle.
In Iceland, Geysir means both the entire geothermal area including the hot springs and the geyser itself, that one that was first discovered here.
The geyser was powerful and became very famous. At its peak, it was ejecting hot water and steam with such force that the water column was 80 meters high. Today (2020) Geysir is not active, but it wakes up for a while every few years. Most recently, it erupted in 2000 after an earthquake in Iceland. He then threw a column of hot water to a height of 120 meters. Since then, it only wakes up a few times a year or every few years. It throws a small stream of water up to a max. 10 meters. Due to the fact it is hard to see it active, therefore Geysir is no longer in the centre of attention.
The interest of tourists has moved nearby, where there is a younger and very active geyser – Stokkur. It erupts at intervals of 8-10 minutes and can throw water to a height of between 25 and 30 meters. So, there is something to look at and you don’t have to wait long for great results.
In addition to these two geysers, there are several smaller ones, incl. Strokkur. The water is bubbling in several places, but the terrible sulfur smell keeps you from being too close to the attractions. There are also numerous geothermal springs in the immediate vicinity, incl. Smiður and Litli-Strokkur.
The Geysir area is one of the most photographed tourist attractions in the world.
Free admission, free parking.
Geysir Geothermal area GPS Points N64° 18′ 49.512″ W20° 17′ 58.160″
The Golden Circle – Gullfoss waterfall
The Gullfoss waterfall (Golden Waterfall) lies on the Hvítá River and is the third most popular attraction in the Golden Circle.
It consists of two cascades, the higher one being 21 meters high and the lower one is 11 meters high. Water flows through Gullfoss at an average speed of 140 cubic meters per second. During the largest floods, water flowed at 2,000 cubic meters per second, which is really hard to imagine.
This attraction was close to disappearing. In the 20th-century plans were made to use the high energy potential of the waterfall. Hydroelectric power stations were to be built on the Hvítá River. The plans were boycotted and investors underestimated investment costs. Eventually, the investment was abandoned and the waterfall has been under strict protection since then.
Today, a visit to the waterfall is a great experience. It is amazing that you can walk right to the bank of the Hvítá River and see how it drops the water down the cascades of the waterfall. Its size and the roar of the water are a powerful force, inspiring both admiration and respect.
The waterfall falls straight into the narrow channel of the canyon, 32 meters deep, 20 meters wide. The canyon, the walls of which are 70 meters high, stretches for 2.5 km long. Everything makes a beautiful impression.
Gullfoss is called the “Golden Waterfall” because the high content of glacial water in the river makes it reflect the sun’s rays and sparkle with gold.
The waterfall can be visited all year round, around the clock. Free entrance. The car park has a gift shop, a tour desk and a café.
Gullfoss waterfall GPS Points N64° 19′ 38.220″ W20° 7′ 8.135″
Two additional attractions around Selfoss
For those who, after visiting the Golden Circle, do not intend to return to Reykjavik, but continue on the Iceland road trip on the No.1 national road, you will probably pass through Selfoss.
On the way, I recommend visiting two very interesting places.
The farm and the greenhouses are owned by the Friðheimar family. The secret of their success is the use of geothermal energy. It allows them to grow their crops under artificial lighting. They can also harvest them all year round, despite the harsh Icelandic climate. Both the watering water and the heating of the greenhouse come from renewable energy sources. The farm specializes mainly in the cultivation of several species of tomatoes. Although, they also have several other vegetables in their greenhouses.
What distinguishes this family from other farms is that they have opened their doors to tourists. There is a restaurant in one of the greenhouses that serve unusual dishes. Their cuisine base is tomatoes and freshly home-baked bread.
The menu includes traditional items: tomato cream soup served as an appetizer or Bloody Mary drink. Me, a true fan of tomato soup – can tell you that I have never eaten such a delicious soup as they serve there. Although I talk about the commonly known tomato soup and the crispy fresh bread, the soup is just a starter. In the restaurant, you can also order less obvious tomato dishes. Worth to try mussels with tomatoes, tomato beer, tomato ice cream or tomato jam!
The magic of this place is that the tables are placed inside a greenhouse with growing tomatoes! In the alleys next door, there are greenhouse workers. They carry out all the daily activities: planting, caring for, and picking tomatoes. While waiting for a table, you can walk around the greenhouse and take a closer look at it.
Better to book a table in advance
There are lots of tables in the restaurant, but it’s hard to get a seat without prior reservation. The restaurant is open every day all year round but only opens for 4 hours, between 12.00 and 16.00. There is also a small company shop where you can buy the family preserves. You can order all products online on the Friðheimar Farm website.
Friðheimar website Table reservation:
- Phone: (+354) 486 8894
- email: email@example.com
On-site parking is available. From Gullfoss, the journey takes 30 minutes.
Friðheimar GPS Points 64°10’39.0″N 20°26’41.6″W
Another interesting attraction near the city of Selfoss is the crater of the Grímsnes volcano. Kerið Crater is over 6,500 years old. It is part of a group of volcanic hills called Tjarnarhólar. Kerið is oval in shape, 270 meters long and 170 meters wide. The crater is 55 meters high and its bottom is now filled with water, forming a small lake. The lake is between 7 and 14 meters deep and the water never dries up.
You can walk around the crater along its upper edge. You can also use the steps and go down to the bottom – straight to the lake’s shore. This is a very interesting attraction, mainly because the crater has beautiful colours. The rocks surrounding the crater are fiery red and orange. In summer, when the crater is covered with moss, black and green stripes also appear. The crater also attracts attention because it is easily accessible. You can also go down to its bottom and the steep circular slopes of the volcano resemble an ancient amphitheatre.
The crater is a very picturesque attraction and the photos here look like they were taken on a different planet.
There is a large parking lot near the crater. Before entering the crater area, you must buy a symbolic ticket for ISK 400 (about 3,2$). It is worth booking about 45-60 minutes for sightseeing if you plan to walk around it and go downstairs.
Kerið Crater GPS Points N64° 2′ 27.611″ W20° 53′ 5.599″
Iceland, my other post
I encourage you as well to read my other posts about Iceland