Guide to Iceland’s Golden Circle

Guide to Iceland’s Golden Circle

To truly appreciate Iceland, you must go beyond urban Reykjavik and experience the natural wonders which make this country so unique. After a few days in the capital city (read my recent article “Best of Reykjavik”) with a side trip to the Blue Lagoon (check out my article “Iceland’s Surreal Spa”), we spent a day exploring the Golden Circle — this island nation’s most popular sightseeing route. It’s chock full of historic sites, stunning scenery, and amazing attractions all linked together by a 300 kilometer looped road through the heart of the country. A full day excursion, up to nine hours, is required to absorb it all.

The three main locations included in all Golden Circle Tours are Pingvellir (Thingvellir) National Park, Geysir Geothermal Area, and Gullfoss Waterfall. Want to enjoy a more personalized and unique experience? Schedule a private tour and go off the beaten track and seek out the area’s hidden gems.

Thingvellir National Park is where the country’s original Viking chieftains first assembled to forge their national identity and laws. This UNESCO World Heritage site presents a mix of historical weight and serene natural beauty. Geology buffs (like my boys) will recognize that this rift valley is where the two halves of Iceland (the Eurasian and North America tectonic plates) are slowly drifting apart – two centimeters per year – forming the Mid Atlantic Ridge. Time spent in Thingvellir will provide insight into not only how the island was formed millions of years ago, but also how its civil society emerged.

Thingvellir National Park, Iceland

A geological journey along the Mid Atlantic Ridge between tectonic plates

Oxarafoss Falls, Iceland

Our visit to Thingvellir included a stop at Öxarárfoss

Geysir, Iceland

Geysir photo courtesy of “Reykjavik Erupts” tours

The Geysir Geothermal Area, located within Haukadalur Valley, is the site of intense geothermal activity. Dotted with hot pools, clay pots (acidic hot springs), and fumaroles (openings in the planet’s crust), the resulting minerals of the earth create a colorful palette in the surrounding hills.  The Great Geysir, first to be discovered, lends its name to all other geysirs around the world – the word comes from the Norse verb which means “to gush.” Although Geysir now rarely erupts, nearby Strokkur releases its steam approximately every ten minutes and throws water from 66 to 132 feet into the air, so keep those cameras handy.

The iconic Gulfoss, or Golden Falls, is where the Hvita River, fed by Iceland’s second biggest glacier, the Langjokull, thunders down 32 meters into a rugged canyon with walls that reach up to 70 meters in height. The falls come with their own history – early 20th century foreign investors tried to harness its power to produce electricity, which fortunately never came to fruition.

The perseverance and legal wrangling of a local farmer’s daughter (who even threatened to throw herself into the falls) helped bring attention to the importance of preserving natural resources. Since 1919, Gulfoss has been permanently protected by the Icelandic government. There are two viewing areas for the falls: the flat rocky platform that projects out into the river right above the falls, and the top of the canyon where you get a broader view of Gullfoss and the river. When conditions are favorable, you just might spot a rainbow…or two.

Gulfoss, Iceland

The rocky platform overlooking Gulfoss makes for great photo ops

On a private Golden Circle tour you will have the opportunity to experience other amazing sites besides the big three. Visit historic and cultural Skálholt, with its iconic wooden cathedral, home to numerous music festivals; Laugarvatn, a spa town with natural hot springs; and Kerid, an ancient (and stunning) collapsed crater lake surrounded by red volcanic rock – its bright spectrum of colors look positively unearthly.   Join a river rafting expedition through the canyons of the glacial Hvita River, Iceland’s largest. Stop for lunch at Efstidalur, a 17th century “farm-hotel” and restaurant. A delicious meal here comes with a view overlooking the glass enclosed cow barn (source of the milk that goes into their heavenly homemade ice cream). At the end of a long day of touring, stop for a cup of the best hot cocoa at cozy Golden Circle restaurant Mika — famous for their handmade chocolates. (We loved sitting out back at one of their garden picnic tables).

River rafting, Hvita River, Iceland

River rafting in the canyons of the Hvita River

Kerid Crater, Iceland

Kerid Crater’s colorful palette is unearthly

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Best of Reykjavik

Best of Reykjavik

Perched on the edge of the Arctic Circle and positioned on top of the world’s most active volcanic hot spots, Iceland checks all the travel adventure boxes – glacier hiking, fjord kayaking, cave exploring.  But no journey to the 66th parallel is complete without a visit to the country’s captivating capital. Reykjavik, the smallest, northern-most capital in Europe combines the hip with the wholesome – it’s a modern city with small town Scandinavian charm.

Originally under Danish rule, Iceland gained independence in 1944 and slowly emerged from its fishing-focused foundation with a little help from the 2010 volcanic eruption that paralyzed European air travel and put Iceland “on the map.”  Reykjavik, now a tourism magnet, maintains its Viking roots while embracing a cosmopolitan flair.

Reykjavik, IcelandOnly have time for a quick visit to Iceland? Spend a few days in Reykjavik — the old city center welcomes with its metal clad houses, mossy lawns, picket fences, and bustling pedestrian zone. Combine this with an array of appealing day trips – from bubbling hot springs to volcano hikes — Iceland’s famous geological wonders are at your doorstep.  Travel in summer for unending hours of daylight, or in winter to witness the Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights). To fully appreciate the country requires a longer stay — driving the 830-mile ring road that encircles this island nation can take a week to ten days depending on the number of stops made along the way.


Walking Tour: The best way to explore any city is on foot. Your wanderings will take you into pocket-size shops and quaint restaurants, with plenty of chances to meet the locals along the way. Or, take a Segway or bike tour if you prefer to explore by wheel.


Lake Tjornin

City Hall: Sitting on the shores of Lake Tjornin, this modern building may lack visual appeal, but it is worth a look: pick up brochures at the tourist center and walk around the super-sized three dimensional map of the country located in the lobby.

Laugavegur: This predominantly pedestrian street lined with cafes, galleries and shops, is truly the heart and soul of the city. Stop at Alafoss for Icelandic wool sweaters and pick up weatherproof gear at 66° North. (By the way, no one carries umbrellas in Iceland so pack a hat or hoodie!)  Hrim Housewares offers functional yet cool Icelandic design pieces all crafted from local materials. Grab a coffee at Reykjavik Roasters or fruit smoothies at Joe & the Juice. Purchase a travel guide at funky Edmundsson Bookstore, and sit down for refreshments at their café, Te & Kaffi.

Restaurants: A Reykjavik tourist brochure I picked up in our hotel’s lobby states: “Reykjavik dining is not cheap so it better be good.” Yup, that’s about right. But, the offerings do not disappoint. Iceland’s waters are some of the coldest and cleanest worldwide and thanks to government programs, one of the most sustainable.  Menus feature unique dishes like shark, Icelandic lobster, and puffin.  Dine at Sjavargrilled, or Fiskmarkadurinn and sister restaurant Grillmarkadurinn for an amazing selection of surf and turf.  Sushi Social is a delicious Japanese and South American mashup. Or for a novelty meal, try the “conveyor belt” service at O Sushi.  Enjoy lunch at Iceland Fish & Chips for the healthiest and freshest version of you guessed it: fish and chips.   Fill your picnic basket at Sandholt:  the tastiest sandwiches and mouth watering pastries to go.  Visit the circa 1937 hot dog stand, Baejarins Beztu Pylsur — it literally means “the best hot dog in town.”  Their menu reads: “hot dog, soda.”  Get one with the works: ketchup, mustard, remoulade, and fresh and fried onions.  Stop in any supermarket and stock up on farm fresh Skyr yogurt, high in protein and virtually fat free (it’s thick and creamy and is Iceland’s secret to healthy living).  At the end of a day of touring, warm up with a giant bowl of Thai-style noodle soup at cozy Noodle Station.



Hallgrimskirkja:  Where Laugavegur forks, walk up Skolavordustigur Street to reach this Lutheran Cathedral, one of Reykjavik’s most iconic buildings, named for the Icelandic poet and clergyman, and visible from almost anywhere in the city. Its design echoes the basalt lava-flows common in Iceland’s landscape.  Climb to the top of the tower and you will be rewarded with an amazing panoramic view.  Just outside the church, take a selfie with the statue of Norse explorer, Leif Erikson, and pay homage to the man who REALLY discovered America (600 years prior to Columbus).

Museums: My fishing-fixated kids loved the Viking Maritime Museum, devoted to the history of Iceland’s fishing industry and the great “Cod Wars.”  Head outside the city limits to visit Perlan, a science center built on top of the city’s salt water tanks.  (Climb up to the 360-degree outdoor viewing platform or walk through the world’s first indoor ice cave).  Check out the child-friendly Museum of Iceland (on the second floor kids can dress up in Viking attire complete with sword, shield, and chain mail).  Or, take a peek at the more adult-themed Phallological Museum!

Volcano House: This petite but information packed learning center focuses on the volcanic and geothermal history of Iceland, with interactive and hands-on exhibits. Watch the moving, hour-long documentary about the recent eruptions (1973 and 2010) and the effects on the people that lived through these horrific natural disasters. How they managed to restore their communities with little help from the outside world is humbling and awe-inspiring.

Puffins Reykjavik Iceland

Iceland has the largest puffin population in the world

Whales & Puffins: Recently, whale watching has slowly out-paced commercial whaling in Iceland (thanks in part to national/international animal preservation organizations).  For an up close view of these awesome creatures, hop on one of the harbor boats that leave daily year round and catch sight of Orcas, Humpbacks, and dolphins too.  From May to August, take a puffin tour of the surrounding islands and view the breeding grounds of these diminutive birds known for their bright orange beaks and matching webbed feet.

Blue Lagoon, Iceland

This geothermal spa is located in a lava field about 24 miles from the center of Reykjavik

Blue Lagoon: Thanks to Iceland’s volcanic activity, the country has a never ending supply of geothermal energy from natural hot water bubbling up from the earth’s core. It’s piped from mountain to town to warm up everything from homes to swimming pools.  Today, 85 percent of atmospheric heating is derived from geothermal sources. In the southwest, at power station Svartsengi, hot water passes through a heat exchange process to generate electricity. The runoff water forms a lake nearby and functions as a spa, the Blue Lagoon. Rich in salt and minerals and possessing an otherworldly milky blue hue, the naturally hot waters are known to have healing qualities. Depending on your schedule, it is possible to make a stop on your way to or from Reykjavik airport (there is a place on site to store your luggage). Arrive early before the crowds for the most relaxing and authentic experience. (More on the Blue Lagoon in a future post).

Reykjavik, Blue Lagoon

Golden Circle: This 300-kilometer looped route through the heart of the country covers many of Iceland’s most well-known sites both natural and historic.  This region, northeast of Reykjavik, brings you up close to the rift valley where the North American and Eurasian continental plates are slowly separating.  A full-day tour includes stops in Pingvellir (where the country’s original chieftains first assembled to forge their national identity and laws); Geysir (the gushing hot springs after which all such vents worldwide are named), and Gullfoss (the thundering Golden Falls).  Crisscrossing through this area are roads that meander through beautiful countryside, more green than many of Iceland’s rougher outlying landscapes. (Stay tuned for my upcoming article on the Golden Circle and our full day tour with local volcano experts, Reykjavik Erupts).

Check back soon to read about our adventure aboard Windstar Cruises as we circumnavigate Iceland on a seven-day itinerary.

Golden Circle, Iceland

Kerid, an explosion crater on the Golden Circle route


Laugarines shore, a recreational area in the outskirts of Reykjavik

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For more information on my trip planning services, please click here.

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