The Golden Circle is the name given to a 190 mile (300 kilometer) circular route from Reykjavik and back which encompasses many of Iceland’s most famous landmarks. Most visitors to Iceland’s capital take a Golden Circle Tour, which will cover the three most popular stops along the route: Þingvellir National Park, Gulfoss, and Haukadalur where the geysers are. Never much ones for guided tours, we did our own self-drive Golden Circle Tour with our rental.
All the sights on the Golden Circle route, which the exception of Kerið crater, are free to visit. A self-drive tour gives you the freedom to explore on your own time and even avoid the crowds of bus tours. As these are the most traversed tourist sites in Iceland, the roads are well maintained and all of the stops are just off the major roadways. It’s easy to visit anytime of the year and instead of paying for an unnecessary bus tour, splurge on the experience of snorkeling between the North American and Europeans continents at Silfra.
Don’t miss these stops along the Golden Circle on your self-drive tour:
Þingvellir National Park
We began at Þingvellir National Park, the seat of the Alþing. At Þingvellir – literally “Parliament Plains” – the Alþing general assembly was established around 930 and continued to convene there until 1798. Þingvellir was conveniently located for access from all regions of the country by old overland routes. During the Alþing session each summer, the members stayed in “booths” or temporary shelters. Overgrown foundations of such shelters from the later centuries are visible on the parliament site. All major events in the history of Iceland have taken place at Þingvellir.
Þingvellir is the only place on earth which tectonic plates can be seen above ground. The large abyss-like cracks in the earth that appear to literally split this area in half are actually the results of the separation of the the Eurasia and North American tectonic plates.
There is a tradition here in Þingvellir to throw money into Peningagjá (peningar = money in Icelandic) and make a wish. The water is crystal clear making it a beautiful sight watching your coin sink to the bottom. The myriad of coins in the water make it appear to sparkle under the Icelandic sun.
Stroll around the loop from the visitor center, across the river, and on to the Pingvallakirkja Church. Pingvallakirkja is one of the first churches built in Iceland and it was consecrated by the Norwegian bishop Bjarnhardur. The wood and the bell that the people used to build the church came from Norway in 1015. When the original church collapsed in 1118, the people used the private church of Pingvallabaer Farm. The church that you see today was built in 1859 and has three bells: one of 1118, one of 1698 and one of 1944 when the Republic of Iceland was born.
Geysir is named for The Great Geysir, or Stori-Geysir, which has been dormant since 1916 when it suddenly ceased to spout. It came to life only once again in 1935, and as quickly went back to sleep. Now the attraction at Geysir is Strokkur (The Churn), another geyser 100 meters south of the Great Geysir, which erupts at regular intervals every 6 minutes or so and its white column of boiling water can reach as high as 20-30 meters.
It is mesmerizing to watch as the water churns, the bubble finally appearing and just as quickly breaking as the geyser explosively erupts into the air.
The whole area is a geothermal park sitting on top of a vast boiling cauldron. Belching sulfurous mud pots of unusual colors, hissing steam vents, hot and cold springs, warm streams, and primitive plants can all be found here.
As you first approach the falls, the crevice is obscured from view, so that it appears that the mighty Hvítá river simply vanishes into the earth. As you continue along the misty path Gullfoss, meaning “Golden Falls”, suddenly comes into view. With a 105-foot double-cascade, Gullfoss plummets into the canyon below. On a sunlit day such as the day we visited, the mist clouds surrounding the hammering falls are filled with dozens of rainbows, providing an unparalleled spectacle of color and motion.
Gullfoss nearly wasn’t the breathtaking sight it is today. In 1907, an Englishman wanted to buy the waterfall to harness the power to produce electricity. It was located on Tómas Tómasson’s sheep farm and refused to sell it at the time, but later leased it to the Englishman.
Construction was planned to begin to build an electrical plant, but the farmer’s daughter used her life savings to hire a lawyer and have the lease voided. She even threatened to throw herself over into Gullfoss if the construction were to begin. Unfortunately, her attempts failed and the lease stood. But the Icelandic people were abuzz over her efforts and the construction never began.
In 1940, Gullfoss was sold to the Icelandic government and in it was designated a nature reserve in 1979. We have Tómasson’s daughter, Sigriður Tómasdóttir, to thank for the beauty we enjoy in this spot today.
Kerið is another stop along the Golden Circle. Kerið is a crater lake created from a cone volcano which erupted and emptied its magma reserve. Once the magma was depleted, the weight of the cone collapsed into the empty magma chamber. The caldera, like the other volcanic rock in the area, is composed of a red (rather than black) volcanic rock. The mossy green vegetation along the steep walls and the opaque and strikingly vivid aquamarine water of the lake below make for a breathtaking view as you teeter on the edge.
Kerið Lake Crater is the only site on the Golden Circle with a nominal entry fee of 400 ISK (about $3 USD) to help preserve it.
Know Before You Go