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Whether you go for a self-drive option or join a day tour, here are the essential Golden Circle stops.
Updated post: 13/04/20 | April 2020
Iceland is one of the few 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 The Golden Circle 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.
To make sure that you don’t miss the route’s highlights, here are the essential Golden Circle stops that should be included on a day’s itinerary.
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 essential Golden Circle stops.
Admission to all of these Golden Circle stops is free!
Essential Golden Circle Stops
Stop 1: Thingvellir National Park
This UNESCO designated site is an essential Golden Circle stop 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 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.
Stop 2: Ice cream at the Efstidalur Dairy Farm
The next stop on our Golden Circle itinerary is for organic home-made ice-cream at Efstidalur.
This family-run working farm, a short distance from Thingvellir National Park, sells a variety of products straight from the farm, including the famous ice cream, skyr and feta cheese.
The ice-cream is delicious, and you get to enjoy it whilst watching the cows through a window between the cafe and the cowshed.
In the summer months, Efstidalur offers horse-riding.
Stop 3: Haukadalur Geothermal Area (& Strokkur Geysir)
Our next Golden Circle stop is Geysir, after which all other geysers have been named. This is a thermal area of bubbling sulphurous pools in the Haukadalur Valley.
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.
Stop 4: Gullfoss waterfall
Battling challenging weather – imagine horizontal hailstones whipping across your face like mini shards of glass – Gullfoss waterfall is the next stop on our Golden Circle itinerary.
Formed by twin cataracts thundering over a total height of 32 meters into a narrow gravel canyon of the Hvitá river, Gullfoss, is a dramatic sight. It is also known as Golden Falls, from the golden hue that is often cast from its glacial waters.
However, Gullfoss Waterfall came very close to destruction at the beginning of the 20th century when foreign investors tried to rent the waterfall to generate electricity. Although the owner of the land opposed the construction, he accidentally signed away the rights to the waterfall.
His daughter was less than happy at this prospect and took them to court, even threatening to throw herself into the river. Fortunately, she won the legal battle, and the property was sold to the protection of Icelandic Government
Gullfoss offers a number of viewpoints. To get spectacular views of the gorge, walk first down to the lower viewpoint. Then, follow the pathway along the edge of the canyon to the upper viewpoint, getting as close as you dare.
Stop 5: The Icelandic horse
Heading back to Reykjavik on Route 1, to my delight, we stopped 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.
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.
Should you self-drive The Golden Circle or visit these stops on an organised tour?
As Iceland has a limited public transport infrastructure, to tour the Golden Circle you will either have to to hire a car or book a day trip from Reykjavik.
For maximum flexibility, driving the Golden Circle is your best option, as long as you are comfortable driving in all weather conditions. In addition to visiting the essential stops on this Golden Circle itinerary, you can also take in a few more off-the-beaten-path stops such as Kerid Crater Lake or Laugarvatn spa.
However, if like me, you are less comfortable about driving in all-weathers, there is no shortage of Golden Circle organised tours departing Reykjavik. 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 costs 6,900 ISK; add an additional 1,400 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.
What you lose in flexibility, you gain in comfort and convenience.
Can you combine a visit to The Blue Lagoon with the Golden Circle?
First things first. The Blue Lagoon is not in the Golden Circle but is close to the airport at Keflavik.
If you are pushed for time, you can combine the two into one day trip if you like. Alternatively, if you are driving, make an early start and squeeze both into the same day.
What to bring on a trip to the Golden Circle
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.
I also suggest bringing waterproof protection for your camera.
Where to stay when touring the Golden Circle
As the Golden Circle is within easy reach of Reykjavik, most people decide to stay in the city.
If you want to be in the thick of things, then the downtown area of Reykjavik, close to the Laugavegur shopping street, is your best bet. Here you will find most of the museums, restaurants and bars. However, if you are a light sleeper be aware that there a high concentration of few bars that stay open until late in the weekend. But if you are also out burning the midnight oil, this won’t make any difference!
But if you would like to stay close to The Golden Circle, Haukadalur would be a good base.