If you only have a day or two in Iceland, you definitely need to experience The Golden Circle. It’s about as touristy as you get for Iceland, other than The Blue Lagoon, and that said, we saw 2 tour buses and a handful of other people the entire day we were out. The Golden Circle is made up 3 sights/stops, that are all accessible via Hwy 36 heading east just north of Reykjavik. We did a self drive tour because we had rented a car and it was the right choice for us since being on someone else’s predetermined schedule isn’t our thing. The loop took us the better part of the day (6 hours with stops), but the drive was anything but stressful!
We slipped out of Reykjavik around 9 am on a misty Sunday morning heading towards our first destination, Þingvellir National Park. If you’re into wool, consider stopping at the Alafoss outlet on the way. It’s off to the right as you go through the last round-a-bout on Hwy 1, before it cuts off to Hwy 36 in Mosfellsbær. As I recall it’s the round about after you pass the KFC (yes, they have KFC in Iceland). Awesome place to pick up reasonably priced handmade woolen goods.
Once you’re on Hwy 36 look around, drive slowly and enjoy the scenery. It’s so beautiful I was pretty much in tears as we drove along. Stop wherever you like to snap photos, because you won’t be holding up traffic out here!
It took us about an hour to reach Þingvellir from Reykjavik. We made two stops in the park. The first at the little pull out above the lake, where people have made little sculptures from stacked rocks. Apparently these are thought to cover houses where elves live, because yes, in addition to having KFC, the vast majority of Icelandic people believe that elves exist!
Our second stop was just up the road (look for the visitor centre). This is where the North American continental plate meets the Eurasian plate. You can see the where the plates separate and actually walk down in between them. It’s also the site of the first Icelandic parliament, which took place in 930 AD and was held onsite until 1798. Take your walking shoes and make sure to dress in layers (this is good advice for anywhere in Iceland, as the weather changes throughout the day) because you’ll want time to explore this area.
Walk down through the rift and then take a right up the stairs. Although most tourists will snap a few photos here and head back down to the paved path, continue down the other side of the hill towards the church on the dirt path. Go over the little bridge, and then venture down the road a bit and over to the right where you will find the Silfra fissure. Silfra is used as a diving hole (you’ll notice the stairs), and the water around it is crystal clear and super deep. Getting away from the masses lets you really appreciate this beautiful and historic site. And you’ll get amazing photos out over the marshy lava fields!
Once you’ve had a good wander around Þingvellir get back in your car (although there are washrooms at Þingvellir there isn’t anywhere to get food), and head on to Strokkur/Geysir. It’s about 40 min. east, and is well signed. You’ll see little towns, churches in the middle of nowhere, and tons and tons of sheep just roaming around. Watch your driving, they do venture into the road from time to time. You’ll also notice fields of little Icelandic ponies, that are a specialty breed brought over by the Mongols from Norway. These little guys are designed for tough winters with their wide bodies and short stumpy legs. We met some pretty friendly ones, ready to strike a pose for us on our way home!
Geysir is home to the geyser that all others in the world are named after. It erupts about every 5-7 minutes, but is unfortunately much less spectacular than it once was, asbecause people stoked it with soap in the 70’s, all but ruining it. There’s a couple other little geysers around the park and you can wander pretty close to them, so be careful! They seem to be much more trusting of tourists in Iceland than they are in North America. Soak in the smell of sulfur and let the warmth from the earth’s core heat you up on a cool Icelandic day. There’s a visitor centre, large shop, washrooms and cafe across the road. The food here is expensive and not great. We packed some snacks from home and shared a vegetarian sandwich, a juice and I discovered Koko Mjolk (Icelandic chocolate milk with a stripped cat playing soccer on the box, absolutely amazing!) and that rang through to about $15 CDN. Expensive, but par for the course in Iceland.
From Geysir, a quick 10 minutes up the road is one of the most spectacular natural sights I’ve ever seen; Gullfoss. The waterfall is incredibly wild and stepped in two levels. When you see it from afar, it looks like the water drops right off into the centre of the Earth, but as you walk out to the falls, and then look back, you can see the deep canyon that it flows down into. Over the years there was talk of utilizing Gullfoss to generate hydroelectric power, but now property of the government the falls are protected.
There are multiple areas to view the falls from, but by far the most spectacular is from the viewing area directly out on the falls. Walk down the steep stairs and along the muddy misty path to the rocky area that is fenced off (with a little rope, again they’re very trusting here). Climb up on the rocks and get right in there. Feel the force of the water and know what it feels like to be alive! This is one of the most visited sights in Iceland, and we were there mid-day on a Sunday in June with only a handful of other people. It was so peaceful and uncrowded, I would have lingered there all afternoon if I hadn’t been freezing.
On our way home we wanted to see more of the landscape so we took a slightly longer route back to Reykjavik. This would be convenient if you planned to make a detour to The Blue Lagoon. From Gullfoss we took Hwy 30 south towards Sellfoss and then Hwy 1 back to Reykjavik. You pass through lush farmland, more fields of ponies, and will see a very different landscape than along Hwy 36. I’d recommend it if you’re not in a hurry!
I’ve traveled a lot and the day we did the Golden Circle easily makes my top 5 travel days, full stop. We saw so much, enjoyed our time in our little micro car (a Citroen), and fell in love with a country I know we will return to over and over again.