A Guide to Iceland's Golden Circle
The Golden Circle is the most visited 300 kilometer route in Iceland spotted with some of the country’s natural wonders. There are many tours offered but you could always rent a car or campervan. By driving yourself, you have the flexibility to pick the stops you want to see, stay as long as you want and potentially avoid crowds that come from the tour buses.
We drove in our rental camper van and started from the Buubble Hotel. The Buubble Hotel was closer than starting from Reykjavik and in the middle of the Golden Circle. With only 5 hours of sunlight in November, this was definitely a plus to start closer.
Although they aren’t technically a Golden Circle attraction, they really should be! No trip to Iceland is complete without seeing Icelandic horses, which are much smaller & stubbier (and cuter in my opinion) than other breeds of horse. Through selective breeding and natural selection, they were made for Icelandic weather with a double coat to keep them warm.
As we started our drive, we passed by a few horse farms on the Golden Circle. We had to stop and see them for ourselves. We pulled onto a side road where we were lucky to have very friendly horses greet us. There are horse farms all over Iceland, so you are bound to see these beautiful animals.
Our first stop was Gullfoss Waterfalls, the "Golden Falls". It is an impressive waterfall where they once proposed to build a hydroelectric plant. The plan was thwarted by a local girl who threatened to throw herself into the waterfall & protested against the plans. Now it is one of the most popular waterfall in Iceland.
You can always feel the mist from this powerful waterfall and it can get quite icy in winter. Bring your ice cleats if you have them or walk very carefully. There are two viewing points, one requiring you to walk up (or down depending on where you're parked) a set of wooden stairs.
We waited for the sun to rise to catch a better photo. In winter this could take some time and we waited an hour but had to move on to our next stop. There are many beautiful waterfalls in Iceland and you can tell by their names; all of the names usually end in -foss which means waterfall in Icelandic.
Strokkur & Geysir Geyser
The word "geyser" originally came from the geothermal water spout named Geysir. Geysir is no longer active but Strokkur Geyser nearby erupts every 5-10 minutes. Strokkur can shoot scalding geothermal water up 30 meters (100 feet).
We waited patiently to catch Strokkur in action and found that it erupts fairly sporadically. It can really range anywhere from 2 minutes to 12 minutes. The longer the duration in between eruption, the more impressive the eruption. Sometimes the small eruptions throw off the timing and you have to wait all over again.
It was an impressive sight and a 10 minute drive from Gulfoss, not to be missed. There was steam constantly rising from the heat interacting with the warm sunlight, creating a golden atmosphere. Even in winter the area is very green, a stark contrast from freshly fallen snow all around. To get a better view, you could walk up a slope which was fairly icy so ice cleats would definitely be a plus!
There is a centre next to the parking lot with a restaurant & hotel.
Þingvellir or Thingvellir National Park
This park is most famously known for where the two continential tectonic plates meet and also the location of the first parliament in Iceland. A popular attraction at this park is the opportunity to snorkel or dive in the Silfra, which is the fissure between two tectonic plates - North American & Eurasian. We dived here but ended up taking 4 hours, more time than we had anticipated. We did not have as much time as we would’ve liked to explore the park. We will be posting a separate blog on our first dry suit dive in the Silfra soon.
The information centre is nearby on the other side of the main road with a café, washroom & souvenir shop. Right behind the information centre is a campsite where you can park up overnight or camp for 1400 ISK per person per night. On the website it says the campsite is only open till September but it was open in November when we were in Iceland. Not all campsites are open in winter so it is best to contact the campsite for more information.
We ended our day at Fridheimar Farm for an early dinner. This is a family owned greenhouse, famous for their tomatoes. This greenhouse uses geothermal horticulture as a farming method. Once the farm is closed, their bees are free to pollinate the plants. The farm leaves a box of the bees for guests to see.
This is a really nice place to visit and stop off at the end of your trip for a warm meal. It is a unique experience where the restaurant is in the greenhouse. Their menu has tomato incorporated dishes and all the vegetables come directly from the greenhouse. We had the tomoto soup & bread buffet, bloody mary, tortellini with spinach and cheese and ended with an apple and tomato pie. We loved the basil plant on the table so we could add some fresh basil leaves into our food. It was delicious!
Other Golden Circle Highlights
If you are visiting Iceland in winter, you have to plan your trip factoring in how many hours of daylight you would have. Unfortunately, we did not get to see Brúarfoss & Kerið Crater this time. Here are some other highlights on the Golden Circle you could include on your trip!
Brúarfoss Waterfall - This waterfall is lesser known which makes it such a hidden gem. The waterfall is only 2.5 meters high but with thousands of little runlets coming off of the river feeding into a perfect aqua blue coloured water. It's quite a stunning waterfall and we've read it may not be as obvious as the other highlights on the Golden circle. Click here for directions to little hidden gem.
Kerið Crater - This is a collapsed volcano forming one of the most distinctive crater lakes with an unbelievable aquamarine colour. The parking lot is right next to it and very accessible. The striking red volcanic rock with green moss, along with the blue water makes it very distinctive and a worthwhile stop on the golden circle.
Faxafoss Waterfall - Another waterfall close to the golden circle and has a salmon ladder right next to it.
Hellisheidi Power Plant - There is a geothermal exhibit at this power plant if you're interested on Iceland's green energy source.
Although the Golden circle is only 300 kilometres and only takes 3 hours to drive, there are many sights to see & photograph so give yourself plenty of time. We loved exploring at our own pace but we definitely would have liked more time to see all the highlights on the Golden Circle.
The signs all around are mostly in Icelandic & English so we saw quite a few people throw coins into the hot pools around the geysers right next to the sign “Do not throw coins!”. As with any other destination, keep in mind to leave only your footprints behind so other people can continue to enjoy the natural beauty Iceland has to offer!
Google Map of the Golden Circle
The map below includes Reykjavik, Thingvellir National Park, Strokkur Geyser, Gullfoss, Bruarfoss, Faxafoss & the Kerid Crater. Fridheimar farm was excluded for simplicity & is located in the centre of the circle.