Iceland’s Golden Circle

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The Golden Circle.

The bread and butter of tourism in Iceland.

This popular 300 km loop from Reykjavik into central Iceland is the single most popular tour people take in the country.

Iceland landscape

The route typically takes groups to Þingvellir National Park, Gullfoss waterfall, and the geothermally active valley of Haukadalur. Some tours also include stops at the Kerið volcano crater, Skálholt church, or even the Langjökull glacier if you package the Golden Circle with winter activities like snowmobiling.

Here's a look at the popular sites you're likely to see on a tour of Iceland's Golden Circle.

Þingvellir National Park

The first stop most people will make in the Golden Circle is Þingvellir National Park, on the shore of Þingvallavatn lake. This site is important to Iceland for a few reasons.

Firstly, Þingvellir is the site of Europe's oldest Parliament. In the year 930 AD (less than 100 years after the Vikings settled Iceland), Icelanders held their very first meeting of Parliament, or Alþingi (Althing), in Þingvellir. Partly for this reason, Þingvellir was named Iceland's first national park around 1930.

Thingvellir National Park in Iceland

But the coolest thing about Þingvellir (in my opinion, at least), is that it sits in a rift valley on the Mid-Atlantic ridge, and is one of only two places in the world where you can see two of the earth's tectonic plates above the ground. Here, the North American and Eurasian plates are moving apart from each other at a steady pace of about 2 cm per year. This constant movement only adds to Iceland's very “active” nature geologically.

Þingvellir National Park
Tectonic plates!

Along with oogling the tectonic plates, another popular activity here is SCUBA diving or snorkleing in Þingvallavatn lake, which is Iceland's largest natural lake. At Silfra fissure, you can actually swim in between the two tectonic plates in some of the clearest water you will find anywhere in the world. The water comes from nearby glaciers, and therefore is very clean — and very cold — year-round.

Tectonic plates in Iceland

Gullfoss

After Þingvellir, you'll probably head to Gullfoss waterfall (“Golden falls”), one of the most well-known waterfalls in Iceland. This double waterfall, with its blue-green water and multiple viewpoints, is impressive — much more impressive in person that I expected it to be.

Gullfoss in Iceland

Even if you're visiting in winter, this waterfall is impressive – just make sure to pack your warm layers!

Gullfoss in Iceland
Partially frozen Gullfoss

Haukadalur

From Gullfoss, it's on to Haukadalur geothermal valley, which is home to the geysers Geysir and Strokkur.

Geyser in Iceland

It's actually here that the term “geyser” was born. Upon seeing these erupting pools of hot water for the first time, Europeans had no word to describe them (they had yet to see them in Yellowstone or New Zealand yet). They asked the Icelanders what they were called — and hence some form of “geyser” began to be used around the world.

Haukadalur, Iceland
Geysir actually comes from the Old Norse word “geysa,” which means “to gush.” Geysir, therefore, is often referred to as the “daddy” geyser. He used to erupt quite regularly, but has quieted down quite a bit in his old age. These days, the show is put on by Strokkur, which erupts roughly once every 4-7 minutes.

Strokkur geyser in Iceland
Strokkur geyser erupting

Obviously, when I was there I stuck around to see at least 3 eruptions.

Kerið Volcanic Crater

Another place you might stop is at Kerið, an impressive volcanic crater lake. Not all Golden Circle tours include a stop at this site, but some will.

The crater is actually the intact caldera of a volcano that erupted about 3,000 years ago and has since filled with ground water. Its rare for a caldera to be so well-preserved after an eruption, but scientists think that Kerið was actually a cone volcano that emptied its magma, and that the cone then collapsed inward (instead of exploding outward).

Volcanic crater in Iceland

The red volcanic dirt and rock here makes you feel like you're on Mars, and the fact that the lake was frozen when I visited was an added bonus.

Combining the Golden Circle with other tours

Many Golden Circle tours in Iceland will be combined with another activity, like a soak at the Blue Lagoon, snorkeling at Silfra, or even snowmobiling.

The tour I did was the “Pearl Tour” offered by Mountaineers of Iceland, which is conducted in a super jeep with massive tires and included snowmobiling on the Langjökull glacier.

Iceland
Super jeeps are cool!

Snowmobiling is not my favorite winter activity, but there's no denying that snowmobiling on top of an ancient slab of ice was pretty darn cool.

Snowmobiling in Iceland

Check out these other Golden Circle combo tours:

Which of these sites would YOU be most excited to see in person?

 

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Highlights of the Golden Circle in Iceland

 

*Note: I received a discount on the tour I did. But, as always, all opinions are my own.

 

"It's a dangerous business, going out your door. You step onto the road, and, if you don't keep your feet, there's no telling where you might get swept off to." - JRR Tolkien

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46 Comments on “Iceland’s Golden Circle

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  1. Looks beautiful! Fantastic!

      It was great! I’m astounded by the stark landscapes in Iceland. It’s a fascinating country!

    This looks like a great tour — especially the geyser part! Mountaineers of Iceland looks like the way to go — off-roading in a jeep seems like a no-brained.

    I’m on the fence as whether or not to do a Golden Circle tour or spend that day touring another part of Iceland (like the Snaefellness Peninsula). I’ll be visiting Pingvellir National Park anyway when I go snorkeling. Still not quite sure…

      It WAS a really good tour! I did 2 super jeep tours and 1 bus tour while I was there, and this one was definitely my favorite (the other super jeep one was good, too, except we literally almost died trying to get to a glacier… more on that later…).

      If you’re on the fence about the Golden Circle, maybe you could consider one of the “Gullfoss and Geyser Direct” bus tours I saw advertised there — they just take you to the waterfall and geysers and then back to Reykjavik, so it only takes a few hours as opposed to all day.

      There’s SO much to choose from in Iceland, it was very hard to pick!

    So Cool seeing these sights in the winter- It looks like there are some different options than the tour I took almost 13 years ago (I’m old).

    I also think the coolest thing about Þingvellir is the meeting of the two tectonic plates. I used my pictures from here when teaching a science lesson on it!

      I think different tour companies go to different sites, so that could also have something to do with it!

      So cool that you were able to use your Iceland photos for a science lesson! It’s definitely a unique country.

    The more I read about your Iceland posts, the more I seriously want to visit the place, like in 2-weeks kind of ASAP! Lol Your pictures are simply amazing Amanda! Looking forward to reading about the Iceland horses… they look a bit… unusual, to say the least

      Awesome!! If you book that ticket anytime soon, you’ll have to let me know. 😉

      And the horses are SO CUTE! But yes, very unique. I’ll have a post about them hopefully sometime next week!

    This quite an adventure. The volcano is very cool.

    Question about your Suffusion Theme, which I also have. How did you get that big blue comment button on there?

      Iceland is FULL of adventure!

      As far as the Suffusion question, I’m not sure which button you’re talking about? I just use the “blue” preset color theme! Lol.

    What an action-packed day! It must have been amazing! And the jeep was huge! 🙂

    The letter Þ that they have in a couple of their words you mentioned, is that like a p? I saw Adventurous Kate was referring to “Pingvellir”, and I’m guessing she’s done her research. 🙂

      The tires on the jeep were inSANE! Lol, but it was really fun to ride in.

      And as for the “Þ” letter in Icelandic, it’s actually pronounced like a “th.” Icelandic is so confusing… lol.

    Sounds amazing. Some of the photos remind me of growing up in Alaska. I’d love the geysers.

      I haven’t spent much time in Alaska, but I can imagine the similarities! Seeing the geysers was very cool, even as someone who’s seen some before elsewhere in the world!

    Love your pictures and your site! I’m so glad you’re doing an Iceland series and I’m bookmarking your posts as great references. We will be there in mid-June with two kids in tow. We’ll be renting a car and driving the Golden Circle though. I am most looking looking forward to seeing the geysers, Gullfoss and those adorable horses. Glad to hear you had a wonderful trip.

      Awesome! Iceland in June should be lovely. And good that your renting a car — that’s definitely the best way to see this great country!

    I commend you on being able to spell all those Icelandic words and finding the right characters to use! Iceland looks like such a spectacular, wild place. They just added a direct flight there from my hometown, so hopefully that means a trip will be in the works soon!

      You should definitely take advantage of that new direct flight!!

      And, as for the correct spellings and characters… that’s what Wikipedia is for! Lol.

    What an amazing journey you had! I would love to go to Iceland and your images and story now make me want to go even more. I really like the image of the geysir, it really shows the action well.

    Iceland AND winter wonderland? This is one of my biggest travel dreams and I’m drooling over your post here – but don’t worry, only metaphorically 🙂 Can you go in a boat if you want to be in the water between the tectonic plates yet rather not freeze to death?

      I don’t know about boating between the two plates… I didn’t hear anything about it, but that doesn’t mean you couldn’t! And, those who do go snorkeling/diving get really hefty wetsuits or drysuits, so I’m told it’s really not that cold!

    Wow! I love the landscape of the Golden Circle, so unusual and out-of-this-world!

      Yes, there was definitely more than one time that we all commented that it was like being on another planet or the moon! So cool though.

    Now that’s a different way to explore a glacier. Love the photo of the horses.

      We didn’t actually get to explore a glacier because of the blizzard, unfortunately. But yes, it WOULD be really cool to snowmobile on one!

      And stayed tuned for more cute horses soon!

    How lovely that you got to see all these sights in the winter with snow everywhere! It’s a very different scene in July.

      Yes, I’m sure it looks quite different in the summer! I quite liked it in the winter, though. Not too crowded, and the dusting of snow everywhere was very pretty!

    Great pics! Looking at some of them was like looking at another planet. The horses are so beautiful and the landscapes are just amazing. I’ve always wanted to visit Iceland and this makes me want to go even more.

      It’s a great country! Well worth being added to any bucket list!

    Spellbound! Such a fantastic view, such natural beauty.

    Wow, Iceland is insanely beautiful. But I do not think I would be swimming in any lake, no matter how clean, in those cold waters.

      Haha, I’m with you on that one! Though, if you do go snorkeling/diving at Silfa, they give you wetsuits/drysuits to keep you warm. However, one girl went snorkeling and said water somehow came through her drysuit and got her feet all wet, so they must not work 100% of the time! Brrr.

    Gorgeous! A friend just recommended your site to me as Im heading to Iceland this September, and am loving reading about your experiences there. Thanks for sharing!

      Awesome! Iceland is such a cool country. If you have any specific questions that I might be able to help you with, please don’t hesitate to ask!

    This looks stunning! I’d love to go snowmobiling there!

    The golden circle is for sure worth 10 star.
    Try to go over summer time also.

    Hi! Really enjoyed this post! We are going to Iceland in 3 weeks and really want to book this tour. How can we get a similar discount to what you received from Icelandishot.com?
    Did you book it on the web or was this done in person while in Iceland? Thank you!

      Hi Yareny. The discount was in exchange for writing about the tour on my blog, so unfortunately I don’t think there’s a way for you to get the same discount.

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