There are not many places in the world where you need to seek permission from resident elves to build a road.

Early in the construction of Iceland’s Route 1, the so-called Golden Circle, the engineers hit a snag. The road went slap-bang through the elves’ habitat. There was nothing else for it but to call in an elf-whisperer, who persuaded the elves to move. Today, boulders are positioned along Route 1 to remind humans to respect elves.

What is the Golden Circle?

Not to be confused with the Ring Road that encircles the entire island, Iceland’s Golden Circle is a 300 km circular route that loops eastward from Reykjavik, connecting points of natural interest. Due to Its proximity to the capital, you can easily complete the Golden Circle as a day trip from Reykjavik. Therefore, it is a perfect excursion during a short stay or layover in Iceland

A map of the Golden Circle

The main stops on the Golden Circle are Thingvellir National Park, Geysir Hot Springs and Gullfoss waterfall.

Let’s take a closer look at each of these attractions.

Thingvellir National Park

This UNESCO designated site is important for two reasons: geological and historical.

Thingvellir National Park is of geological importance because it is located at the boundary of the American and Eurasian continental plates. These plates are constantly pulling apart and this movement has created a massive rift valley. On average, Iceland is expanding at 2 cm every year. That’s a land grab with a difference!

Also, Iceland is floating on top of a mantel plume, an upwelling of abnormally hot rock within the Earth’s mantel.

These two factors give rise to Iceland’s extraordinary volcanic activity which has shaped its landscape.

thingvellir-national-park
Thingvellir National Park

Thingvellir National Park is also the site of the longest functioning parliamentary assembly. First established in 930, Thingvellir is the beating heart of Iceland.  It is here that all of the major events in Icelandic history have taken place, from the adoption of Christianity in 1000 AD to the country’s declaration of independence in 1944.

For a grisly side of Icelandic history, don’t miss the Drowning Pool. In medieval times, drowning was a popular form of execution and provision was made in Icelandic law in 1281. At Thingvellir, 18 women are said to have been tied up in a sack and thrown into this pool.

drowning pool thingvellir-national-park
The Drowning Pool, Thingvellir

After an unscheduled but welcome stop for organic home-made ice-cream at Efstidalur, we carry on to Geysir.

The geysers of Geysir

Geysir, after which all other geysers have been named, is a thermal area of bubbling sulphurous pools in the Haukadalur Valley.

geysir
Geysir

The original Geysir is currently inactive. However, visitors come to gasp in awe at the mighty Strokkur geyser, which reliably shoots plumes of boiling water up to 40 meters in the air every five minutes or so.

Referring to the Strokkur geyser, I heard one visitor ask another “Does someone come to turn it on?” True story.

Gullfoss waterfall

Battling challenging weather – imagine horizontal hailstones whipping across your face like mini shards of glass –  Gullfoss waterfall is our next stop.

Formed by twin cataracts thundering into a narrow gravel canyon of the Hvitá river, Gullfoss, or the Golden Falls, is a dramatic sight. A pathway allows you to walk along the edge of the canyon, getting as close as you dare.

Gullfoss waterfall
Gullfoss waterfall

The Icelandic horse

Heading back to Reykjavik on Route 1, to my delight, we stop to pet a group of Icelandic horses.

Due to its height, the Icelandic horse is often mistaken as a pony. It is known for being sturdy and good-natured and for its unique four-beat gait which promises a smooth ride.

icelandic-horse
Icelandic horse

This is the purest horse breed in the world, having lived in Iceland in isolation since the time of settlement. An ancient law dating from 982 decreed that no horses could be imported, a law that has been upheld to this day. However, the flipside is that the Icelandic horse is more susceptible to equine disease that horses elsewhere.

Our Golden Circle day trip from Reykjavik nearly over, our guide offers us a final piece of elven advice. For all you elf watchers out there – over half of Iceland’s population believe in huldufólk or hidden people – here’s how to identify an elf. Look carefully to see if there is a groove between his upper lip and nose (philtrum). You can’t see one? Well, if that’s the case, you could be talking to an elf.

 

How to tour the Golden Circle as a day trip from Reykjavik

  • Iceland has a limited public transport infrastructure. If you choose not to hire a car, you will need to book a Golden Circle day trip.
  • I recommend the Golden Circle Classic tour with Reykjavik Sightseeing. They offer free cancellation up to 24 hours before departure, valuable considering Iceland’s fickle weather.
  • This 7.5-hour tour cost 5,900 ISK (58 USD); add an additional 990 ISK for a hotel pick-up.
  • There are departures every hour from 8 am to 12 am.
  • In addition to an excellent live guide, you are also given a tablet that provides additional information and audio commentary in ten languages. Bring your own headphones.
  • Admission to all of these places is free, which will help you cut the cost of your trip to Iceland.
  • Iceland’s weather is notoriously unpredictable and changeable. Make sure that you dress appropriately and always pack layers. Around Gullfoss waterfall, it can be particularly windy.

Do you have any tips on how to tour the Golden Circle as a day trip from Reykjavik? I’d love it if you could share your thoughts by leaving a comment below.
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