Golden Circle Iceland: 7 Stops You Cannot Miss

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The Golden Circle is Iceland’s premier tourist trail, and although it is a route that has become undeniably busy and popular, particularly during the summer months – it is also a route that is undeniably spectacular.

This 300-kilometer circular travel trail takes in the best attractions and natural sights in the area surrounding Reykjavik. The Golden Circle can begin and end in Reykjavik, but really, the main attractions on the route are just the start of your adventure in this land of otherworldly and unusual natural scenery.

There are endless opportunities to customize your own itinerary, to get off the beaten track or to visit places further afield.

From powerful, plummeting waterfalls, steaming geysers, and historic and beautiful national parks, to volcanic craters and warm, natural hot springs. There is a lot to do and to see in Iceland’s Golden Circles. Here’s our guide to the highlights, and to the lesser-known spots along within the Golden Circle Iceland, to help you to plan your trip to the land of ice and fire.

Don’t leave home without: Lonely Planet Iceland (Travel Guide)

Golden Circle Iceland

What is the Golden Circle in Iceland?

The Golden Circle is the most well-known tourist trail in Iceland. This epic route takes visitors from Reykjavik, for 300 kilometers, plus however many detours and extra stops you wish to make – through some of the best scenery to be found anywhere in the country.

Its close proximity to the Icelandic capital has ensured that is has become a firm favorite amongst visitors, due to the relative ease of access and because of the short time needed to hit all the major points of interest.

The route stretches out towards the eastern interior, away from the coast, and the three main sights within the Golden Circle are Thingvellir National Park, Gullfoss Waterfall, and the geothermal geysers.

It’s an excellent way to get a quick taste of what Iceland has to offer if you are short on time within the country, or an excellent starting point for a trip that that can then take you much, much further afield within Iceland.

Our Top Recommended Tours of Iceland (including the Golden Circle):

  • G Adventures Explore Iceland– At the place where two continental plates brush up against each other is Iceland, land of fire and ice. Get up close to this unique country on a nine-day exploration of its natural highlights. Make your way through lava tube caves. Watch the living Earth in action at some of the island’s volcanoes. Explore the rocky, mountainous landscapes of the stunning Snæfellsnes Peninsula. Relax in incredible hot springs and keep your eyes peeled for whales off the coast. Find your element in a place of extreme elements.
  • G Adventures Best of Iceland– If you’re looking for a fast but full visit around Iceland, this seven-day trip fits the bill perfectly. It has tons of hidden gems that you won’t find anywhere else in the world, combined with free time to experience plenty of highlights, like erupting geysers, visiting glacier lagoons, and exploring breathtaking waterfalls and black-sand beaches. Be sure to pack your sense of adventure and get ready to feel Iceland under your feet.

Don’t forget: Iceland (National Geographic Adventure Map)

Thingvellir National Park Iceland

How to Visit the Golden Circle

There are several ways to visit the Golden Circle, but the best option will depend on how much time you have and how far afield you want to get. Being a well-established tourist trail, the easiest way to visit is on a day tour from Reykjavik, and indeed, with the increasing number of stopovers here on transatlantic routes from Europe to the USA, many travelers will be able to visit here, even if they are just on a long layover.

Tour companies run daily excursions out to the Golden Circle from the city, for a whistle-stop tour of the major sights, but while you will certainly see the most well-known places, it will be a long day and you will find yourself in a big group of people.

Another great option is to self-drive. Hire a car in Reykjavik and follow the road out of the city and into the countryside. The route is well marked and signposted, and it’s easy to find all the sights. This will give you the flexibility to spend as long as you desire at each point and to add extra points of interest, away from the tour buses.

If you have the time and can drive, then this is by far the best way to visit the Golden Circle.

Our top recommended tours of the Golden Circle:

Golden Circle Iceland

Best Time to Travel the Golden Circle

Iceland is a country that experiences incredible seasonal weather cycles and being located very far north, extremely cold weather can hit any time of the year. The most popular time to visit is during the summer period, between June and September when the weather is warm and storms and snow are much less likely to affect your travel plans.

During summer, daylight hours are long, and you could even travel the Golden Circle at midnight, with the sun still high in the sky. Of course, this is when the route is also packed out with tourists, tours can fill up and car rental can be booked out, so plan in advance.

The shoulder seasons of spring and autumn can be just as beautiful, and much less crowded too. The weather though will already be unpredictable and it won’t be uncommon for snowstorms to close roads, even close to the capital city. If you are inexperienced driving in icy or snowy conditions, self-drive may be more difficult when the weather begins to turn colder.

Winter is by far the least crowded time of year, but in the dead of winter, you will find that Iceland experiences almost 24 hours of darkness in places, and it will be impossible to really travel the Golden Circle, especially when accompanied by trying weather conditions.


Best Sights on the Golden Circle

From waterfalls and geysers to volcanoes and glaciers, here are the best sights and added stops to visit in the Golden Circle Iceland.

Thingvellir National Park Iceland

Thingvellir National Park

The first stop on most itineraries in the Golden Circle is the spectacular and historic Thingvellir National Park. Found just 50 kilometers outside of Reykjavik city center, this UNESCO World Heritage Site is a place of beautiful vistas and unusual geological activity.

This is a place where the European tectonic plate is slowly separating away from the North American tectonic plate, and the valley that has formed here is unquestionably unique.

Thingvellir has also played an important role in Icelandic history, as this is the site where the first Norse settlers held their first parliament as early as 930 AD. As well as history and hiking, Thingvellir has more recently become known as one of the world’s best snorkeling and diving sites, not an activity you would really expect to find in the cold climes of Iceland.

The rift that is forcing the two tectonic plates apart, has formed a deep fissure that is filled with pure glacial water, offering travelers an excellent opportunity to snorkel between two continents in some of the clearest water in the world.

Our top recommended tours of Thingvellir National Park:

Gullfoss Waterfall, Iceland

Gullfoss Waterfall

Gullfoss translates from Icelandic to English as the Golden Waterfall. This is Iceland’s most famous waterfall, and it’s a powerful and humbling sight to see. The water drops from a huge height, falling over several different tiers, and creating a huge amount of spray that fills the air.

The surrounds are equally spectacular, and while in summer the area is verdant and green, in winter, the waterfall is snowy, cold and covered in ice. This is one of the ‘traditional’ Golden Circle stops, and it can get busy, but equally, it’s a stop that can’t be missed.

Our top recommended tours of Gullfoss Waterfall:

Geysers in Iceland

Geysers

The third, primary stop on any Golden Circle itinerary, is the spectacular geothermal geysers. Iceland’s high level of turbulent volcanic activity means that there are many geysers across the country, but the most well known are found just outside of Reykjavik, in an area of dense geothermal activity.

Here, the huge geyser known as Strokkur violently explodes into the sky every few minutes, while the enormous geyser, called simply, Geysir, explodes much less frequently, but with much more force.

Surrounding these geysers can be found bubbling pools of mud and hot springs and the whole area is an interesting look at Iceland’s infamous underground activity.

Secret Lagoon, Iceland

The Secret Lagoon

Although the Secret Lagoon is not exactly that much of a secret anymore, it is well worth a stop when traveling the Golden Circle. It’s still much less busy than the infamous Blue Lagoon near Reykjavik, and it’s an excellent place to unwind and to enjoy Iceland’s long-running tradition of bathing in hot springs.

The lagoon is fed from a natural geyser and the water is channeled into the bathing areas. It’s best experienced during the colder months of the year when the hot temperature makes for a delightful change from the freezing snow and ice.

Our top recommended tours of Secret Lagoon:

Skalholt Cathedral Iceland

Skalholt Cathedral

Iceland is famous for the unusual architecture and distinctive settings of the many churches that can be found across the country, and Skalholt, a small community close to Gullfoss Waterfall, has a cathedral that is worth making a detour to.

It’s found in a stunning landscape, seemingly out of place in the wilderness of the countryside, and although the modern building is hardly very old, historically, this has been the sight of an Icelandic settlement for well over a thousand years.

Kerid Crater Iceland

Kerid Crater

The Kerid Crater houses a shimmering lake within its rocky walls and is one of the best detours on the Golden Circle. This volcanic caldera is formed from bright red rock, which in summer is covered in vibrant greenery and which in winter is iced over. The crater itself is huge and it’s possible to walk around the rim and even down to the water’s edge in places too.

Our top recommended tours of Kerid Crater:

Golden Circle Iceland - Hraunfossar Waterfall

Hraunfossar Waterfall

Hraunfossar Waterfall is a little further out from the Golden Circle than other detours, but it’s well worth the extra time and effort needed to get here. There is a spectacular cascade of water flowing down into the river, while close to the waterfall, is the unreal sight of an extensive lava field, where you can experience an otherworldly Icelandic landscape that formed when a volcano underneath the nearby Langjokull volcano erupted violently.

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Explore Iceland
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About Lina Stock

Lina is an award-winning photographer and writer that has been exploring the world since 2001. She has traveled to 100 countries on all 7 continents. Member: SATW, NATJA, ATTA, ITWA



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