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Iceland’s iconic Golden Circle is spellbinding. Don’t miss Thingvellir National Park’s remarkable geology, watch Strokkur erupt at Geysir and witness nature’s power at Gullfoss.
Written by:
Julia Hammond
Content Writer
Published:
8 Apr 2024
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The Golden Circle is Iceland’s most famous sightseeing circuit and its unmissable scenery is a reminder of nature’s power. It incorporates breathtaking Gullfoss waterfall, Geysir’s jaw-dropping geothermal activity and the extraordinary geology of the landscapes within Thingvellir National Park.

The Golden Circle and its significance

The Golden Circle in Iceland is the country’s most famous scenic driving route. You can reach it easily from both Keflavik Airport and from Reykjavik. It winds through a region packed with natural wonders and cultural gems. As a result, some dub it “Iceland in a nutshell”.

In fact, the idea of a route like this proved really popular with visitors. This means that there are now similar driving itineraries that loop different parts of Iceland.

These include the Diamond Circle, Westfjords Way and the Arctic Coast Way. But what sets the Golden Circle apart from the others is the way it spans Iceland’s past, present and future. It tells a story that includes everything from the country’s early history to recent geological and environmental change.

A Trio of Extraordinary Attractions

Thingvellir National Park

Iceland is located on the mid-Atlantic ridge where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates are pulling apart at a rate of about two centimetres a year. The resultant tear in the landscape is visible in several places, among them Thingvellir National Park.

Thingvellir (Þingvellir) means “assembly plains” and it was here that the Alþing general assembly met for more than 800 years, until 1798. Walk down into the steep-sided Almannagjá fault until you reach a flagpole which some say marks the Lögberg (also referred to as Law Rock).

From this spot you have a panoramic view over the River Öxará and the hills beyond. Further on, the path opens out; follow this flat and easy trail to reach pretty Öxarárfoss waterfall, another highlight of Thingvellir National Park.

Geysir Geothermal Area

Day visitors will want to push on to the Geysir geothermal area, the Haukadalur Valley, known for its geysers, mud pots and steaming fumaroles.

Geysers form when heat in the bedrock causes underground water, in this case meltwater from Langjökull glacier, to become superheated. Pressure builds and the water is dramatically ejected as a jet of steam and boiling water droplets.

The name derives from the Icelandic word “geysa” which means “to gush”. Though Great Geysir, once the most active geyser in the area, now rarely puts on a show, Strokkur (The Churn) has taken its place as the focus for tourists. It bursts into life every five to ten minutes to the delight of an expectant crowd, sending water up to 30 metres into the air. You’ll want to record the moment it bursts into life, so be sure to have your camera ready.

Gullfoss Waterfall

Gullfoss, located on the glacier-fed Hvitá River, completes the trio of major Golden Circle attractions. Translating as Golden Falls, it lends its name to the sightseeing route.

While not the largest waterfall in the country, it’s certainly one of the most impressive, not least because the force of the water has created a striking steep-walled canyon.

On average in summer approximately 130 cubic metres of water per second tumble over two steps in the rock to form two magnificent waterfalls collectively known as Gullfoss.

First, the water plunges 11 metres over a faulted rock face; then it crashes down a second drop of 21 metres. In winter, the flow is a little diminished but no less spectacular, particularly when the surrounding countryside is covered with ice and snow.

Kerið Crater

Kerið was formed more than 3000 years ago. It’s likely that a cone-shaped volcano once stood here, but following a catastrophic eruption it collapsed onto itself forming a caldera. Water has collected in an almost-circular hollow to form a pretty lake.

Though it’s relatively shallow – the depth of the water typically fluctuates between 7 and 14 metres – the dazzling shade of turquoise water contrasted with the vermillion earth that encircles it makes this a curiosity with tourists. It’s also a firm favourite of photographers, particularly at sunset when the colours intensify.

Friðheimar Greenhouse

A tomato farm might seem an unusual stop on a sightseeing tour but it’s fast become a destination in its own right. Get acquainted with Friðheimar’s impressive eco-credentials as you learn how they harness green energy and use the latest in agricultural technology to grow tomatoes year-round.

Reserve a table to dine on tasty tomato-based dishes inside their heated greenhouse. Hang around and sip a glass of wine as you listen to live music or join one of their regular knitting nights.

Laugarvatn Fontana Spa

Fontana perches on the shore of Laugarvatn. At this geothermal spa, cool off with an energising dip in the lake whenever you fancy a break from the warm water of its waterfront pool.

While you’re there, sign up for the bread-making activity: here, the ground’s geothermal heat is used to slow-bake rye bread. Your host will don rubber boots and grab a shovel to dig up a baking tin that’s been buried in the black sand.

Watch as steam rises from the loaf as it’s unwrapped. Spread thick with locally-churned butter and topped with smoked trout caught in the lake, there’s nothing more delicious.

Silfra Fissure

Silfra fissure is an intriguing part of the mid-Atlantic ridge that bisects Iceland. Following seismic activity in 1798, an underground spring spilled out into the void created as the plates were flung apart.

Suit up to keep the cold at bay; the water temperature maintains a steady 2°C to 4°C year round. Dive or snorkel between the ragged edges of the two mighty tectonic plates – the only place in the world where this is possible.

Silfra’s extraordinarily clear glacial water takes decades to travel through the porous lava. This lengthy filtration process produces exceptional visibility, often more than 100 metres. Nearby, you can also dive at Davíðsgjá (David’s Crack), another freshwater fissure boasting crystal-clear water.

Combo Tours: Expanded Golden Circle Adventures

The Golden Circle’s location means it’s often packaged up with other activities. Some combo tours pair sightseeing with a visit to Sky Lagoon, Blue Lagoon or Fontana, Iceland’s most luxurious geothermal spas.

Alternatively, select from a wide range of other add-ons including snowmobiling on Langjökull glacier, horse riding, ATV off-roading experiences, thrilling super jeep adventures or a visit to a lava tunnel.

From autumn until spring, Northern Lights hunters also descend on this accessible part of the Icelandic countryside for a chance to witness the ethereal aurora borealis.

Two women looking at Gullfoss Waterfall in the golden circle.
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    Golden Circle Direct

    Want to see the sites of the Golden Circle but have a limited amount of time? Consider this express Golden Circle tour! Experience the landmarks of the classic Golden Circle in South Iceland on this unforgettable day tour. The Golden Circle encompasses the must-see sights of Þingvellir National Park, the golden Gullfoss waterfall, and the bubbling geothermal region of Geysir.

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    Super Jeep on a glacier in Iceland
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      Golden Circle and Glacier Super Jeep Tour

      Experience the iconic Golden Circle of Iceland in unparalleled style and comfort with our luxury Super Jeep tour. Perfect for families, friends, or solo explorers, this adventure takes you off the traditional paths and into the heart of Iceland’s breathtaking landscapes, including a snowmobile ride across the majestic Langjökull, Iceland’s second-largest glacier.

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      Tourists lined up at a safe distance to watch the powerful eruption of the geyser in the Golden Circle, Iceland. The sky is partly cloudy, casting a soft light on the scene, highlighting the geyser's spray against the sky
        8 hours

        The Golden Circle & Friðheimar Greenhouse

        This best-selling tour of Iceland’s most famous south Iceland landmarks includes a visit to Friðheimar Greenhouse. The Golden Circle encompasses the must-see sights of Þingvellir National Park, the golden Gullfoss waterfall, and the bubbling geothermal region of Geysir. Experience the classic Golden Circle landmarks with a sustainable twist, a stop at Friðheimar!

        From €73/person
        Two people inside the Lava tunnel in Iceland.
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          Golden Circle & Lava Tunnel - Combo Deal

          Nature, culture, and history prevail in this combination tour, which takes you to the sites of the Golden Circle and inside the Lava Tunnel Raufarhólshellir cave. Experience a new world of Iceland's natural wonders -- Gullfoss waterfall, the Geysir geothermal region, Þingvellir National Park and the raw beauty of a lava tunnel. This is an easy, guided tour with no caving experience required.

          From €146/person
          A woman relaxing at Sky Lagoon in Reykjavík, Iceland.
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            Golden Circle & Sky Lagoon

            Plan for a fantastic day of seeing the classic Golden Circle landmarks capped off with a visit to the dreamy Sky Lagoon! The Golden Circle encompasses the must-see sights of Þingvellir National Park, the golden Gullfoss waterfall, and the bubbling geothermal region of Geysir. After touring the sights, relax at Reykjavík’s newest luxury bathing experience, the Sky Lagoon.

            From €152/person
            Geysir erupting in front a group of tourists in Iceland on the golden circle
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              The Golden Circle & Fontana Wellness

              Experience the classic Golden Circle landmarks before heading to the healing Fontana Wellness facilities! The Golden Circle encompasses the must-see sights of Thingvellir National Park, the golden Gullfoss waterfall, and the bubbling geothermal region of Geysir. Cap off your sightseeing day with a healing visit to Fontana Wellness.

              From €100/person
              Tourist riding a snowmobile on Langjökull glacier in Iceland.
                10 hours

                Golden Circle & Glacier Snowmobiling

                Experience the landmarks of the classic Golden Circle in South Iceland with an exciting snowmobile ride on this unforgettable day tour. The Golden Circle encompasses the must-see sights of Þingvellir National Park, the golden Gullfoss waterfall, and the bubbling geothermal region of Geysir. Cap off your sightseeing adventure with a thrilling snowmobile ride on Langjökull glacier!

                From €213/person
                Woman in a dry suit snorkeling in the Silfra water in the Þingvellir National Park, Iceland.
                  3 hours

                  Snorkeling Silfra

                  Snorkel between the North American and Eurasian continental plates in this once-in-a-lifetime experience. The Silfra fissure in Þingvellir National Park is filled with glacial water that has been seeping through underground lava rocks for decades producing the clearest water on earth. The fissure allows for over 100 metres of visibility.

                  From €129/person

                  Off the Beaten Track: the Golden Circle’s Hidden Gems

                  Nature lovers will be interested to learn that Gullfoss and Öxarárfoss aren’t the only waterfalls along the Golden Circle route. Brúarfoss, for instance, is a delightful waterfall known for its unusually blue colour.

                  The broad but short Faxi Falls (also known as Vatnsleysufoss) is worthy of attention; some say it resembles a horse’s mane blowing in thewind.

                  On the Laxá í Kjós River, meanwhile, the 18 metre high Thórufoss (Þórufoss) drew the attention of scouts seeking filming locations for Game of Thrones.

                  What’s the Best Time to Visit the Golden Circle in Iceland?

                  The Golden Circle in Iceland is very much a year-round destination and each season is an enticing prospect for different reasons.

                  • From late spring to mid-summer, purple lupines bloom on the shore of Laugarvatn and beside Faxifoss.
                  • In autumn, the surroundings are transformed into a delicious mix of russet, ochre and burnt orange, adding a photogenic pop of colour into an already breathtaking landscape.
                  • As winter bites, the spray from the Golden Circle’s waterfalls freezes, coating the rock with a layer of ice, while the steamy water vapour intensifies in the frigid air. Snow blankets the surrounding hills giving the area a magical quality. Occasional road closures are possible at this time of year, but you’ll usually be fine in a 4x4 with studded tyres.

                  How to Travel the Golden Circle: Guided, Private and Self Drive Tours

                  Once you’ve decided on a visit to the Golden Circle, you’ll need to figure out how you want to do it. The good news, any style of travel is possible, whether you prefer to be guided on a group or a private tour, or if you prefer to set your own schedule with a self-drive itinerary.

                  Express, full day and multi day tours give you the flexibility to spend as long as you like exploring the area, enjoying insightful and entertaining commentary along the way as you give all your attention to the scenery.

                  Renting a car gives you more flexibility and the opportunity to set your own pace.

                  In summer, when the Golden Circle is at its busiest, capitalise on a late sunset and choose to start early or finish late in the day to dodge the peak hours.

                  The Importance of Sustainability

                  Sustainable tourism is a vital component of preserving the natural beauty of the Golden Circle in Iceland. As global citizens, we are all custodians of our planet and as such should embrace eco-friendly travel practices wherever we can.

                  If you plan to self-drive, consider renting an electric vehicle; for those who prefer to let others take the wheel then it’s reassuring to learn that all of Icelandia’s day tours are carbon neutral.

                  Be mindful of the fragility of the natural environment; stick to marked trails and ensure there’s no physical trace of your visit once you leave.

                  Find out more about one community’s commitment to sustainability with a visit to Sólheimar eco village, where you can carbon-offset your trip as you plant trees in the local forest and lunch on dishes made from locally-grown organic produce at the Græna kannan café. They remind us:

                  “We did not inherit the land from our ancestors – we borrowed it from our children.”

                  Practical Advice for Your Golden Circle Trip

                  The main three attractions of the Golden Circle in Iceland – Thingvellir National Park, Geysir and Gullfoss – are free of charge, but you’ll need to stump up for parking at each site if you’re driving yourself.

                  It’s a short, easy walk to each site, though in icy conditions you may be grateful of cleats or crampons at Gullfoss which can get slippery underfoot.

                  If you plan to participate in popular activities such as diving at Silfra fissure, horse riding or snowmobile excursions, all specialist equipment will be provided. Note that it’s advisable to pre-book tours and activities, particularly in peak season.

                  A moody sky looms over a rugged landscape with a fence in the foreground, leading the eye towards distant mountains bathed in the warm, golden light of a setting or rising sun.

                  If you’re keen to experience the Golden Circle first-hand, take a look at the tour options. From a time-saving express circuit to longer trips and combo packages, you’re sure to find something that’s perfect for your needs.

                  Questions and Answers About the Golden Circle

                  Recommended tours

                  Two women looking at Gullfoss Waterfall in the golden circle.
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                    Golden Circle Direct

                    Want to see the sites of the Golden Circle but have a limited amount of time? Consider this express Golden Circle tour! Experience the landmarks of the classic Golden Circle in South Iceland on this unforgettable day tour. The Golden Circle encompasses the must-see sights of Þingvellir National Park, the golden Gullfoss waterfall, and the bubbling geothermal region of Geysir.

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                        Plan for a fantastic day of seeing the classic Golden Circle landmarks capped off with a visit to the dreamy Sky Lagoon! The Golden Circle encompasses the must-see sights of Þingvellir National Park, the golden Gullfoss waterfall, and the bubbling geothermal region of Geysir. After touring the sights, relax at Reykjavík’s newest luxury bathing experience, the Sky Lagoon.

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                          This best-selling tour of Iceland’s most famous south Iceland landmarks includes a visit to Friðheimar Greenhouse. The Golden Circle encompasses the must-see sights of Þingvellir National Park, the golden Gullfoss waterfall, and the bubbling geothermal region of Geysir. Experience the classic Golden Circle landmarks with a sustainable twist, a stop at Friðheimar!

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                              Experience the classic Golden Circle landmarks before heading to the healing Fontana Wellness facilities! The Golden Circle encompasses the must-see sights of Thingvellir National Park, the golden Gullfoss waterfall, and the bubbling geothermal region of Geysir. Cap off your sightseeing day with a healing visit to Fontana Wellness.

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