Golden Circle in Iceland – The best places to visit

In this post, you will find details of the first two of our 14-day road trip to Iceland. The sites we visited are the busiest in Iceland and located not far from Reykjavik, the capital city. They are so famous that the Iceland tourism center has created a commercial name for the road trip that brings you through them — the “Golden Circle.” It’s worth doing and for me, it was the obvious choice to start with.

Why choose Iceland as a travel destination

Before this trip to Iceland, if I’d had to define the country in two words, I would have instantly said “Northern Lights.” However, I discovered that it offers so much more. Over our two weeks of traveling this land, we spent only a few minutes contemplating and admiring these auroras. In fact, Iceland surprised us with its wealth of natural and untouched beauty.

A sense of peace pervades us when contemplating the splendor that the earth offers us here. It is the land of glaciers, volcanoes, geysers, mountains, fjords—it is a patchwork of beautiful and distinctive landscapes, each one unique from the other. I could never have imagined such spectacles—lunar landscapes due to lava flows, white or black sandy beaches, gigantic cliffs, and glacier lagoons. One can only rave at every turn of the road!


In the photo, the only Northern light we saw, and it’s not because we didn’t spend several cold evenings in the dark! We saw this one from the airport car park, only 2 hours before our flight home. It’s not such an amazing one, but I have to confess that for us, it’s the most beautiful sight ever!

The landscape

Boiling mud
Vatnajökull Glacier

There are a lot of waterfalls to discover in the south of Iceland. A little clue is in their name: in Icelandic, “foss” means waterfall. Hence, “Skógafoss” is the waterfall of the Skóga river. There you go, you now know how to find them! 

Seljalandsfoss

Most of the waterfalls are spectacular due to their height, and each has a particularity that makes it unique.

There is one reason why there are so many waterfalls. The cliffs from which they fall were once the coast of Iceland and the rivers naturally flowed into the ocean. Since then, the sea level has gone down 5 km, replaced by flat and desert land.

These cliffs and mountains running parallel to the coast create a clear border between the coastal lowlands and Iceland’s Highlands. It is an exceptional landscape. The desert portion changes configuration all along the road. It started with a desolate landscape of black sand, on to fields of stones covered with green moss, and to a plain dotted with small craters.

Icelandic folklore

Another remarkable aspect of Iceland is its rich and extensive folklore. One study says that 10% of Icelanders believe in supernatural beings, 10% do not, and the other 80% are undecided. 

One of the most widespread beliefs is the belief in huldufólk. These are supernatural beings that live in nature. They look and behave the same way as humans but live in a parallel world. Also, they can make themselves visible at will. 

Other legends are about trolls. These beings from Nordic mythology are creatures who dwell deep in the wilderness. Their appearance ranges from monstrous to cute, but they are almost all unfriendly, no matter how charming they might look. They are characterized mainly by their opposition to men and gods.
There are also “Half-trolls” in Icelandic sagas.

I fell in love with this little country in the middle of the ocean!

Our road trip

We defined our route in broad outlines. We booked the first few nights and being in the off season, we are sure to find rooms available even at the last minute. Not having all our nights booked allows for us to adjust our schedule.

For the organization of the road trip, there are two things to remember. First, Iceland is an expensive country. The price of restaurants can blow up your budget quickly. Secondly, there are some really isolated places, where there are no establishments around. When I say nothing, I mean nothing, not even toilets. My advice is to opt for guesthouses with shared kitchens—there are many!— and do your groceries whenever you drive past a supermarket. 

Don’t worry, all 13 guesthouses we booked for the whole trip were clean, comfortable, and well-equipped.

Best things to do in Iceland

Here we are in the heart of the matter — what to do when you are in Iceland? 

Well, you are spoiled with choices, and that’s good. 😃 To help you pick, below you will find some places I visited and the activities I’ve tried. All you have to do is make your choice.

My personal opinion:
😍 Do not miss
😃 Go if you have time
😐 Not very interesting
😭 Unfortunately, we couldn’t do it

Day 1:  From Reykjavik to Geysir – 109 km

We left Reykjavik in the late morning, taking the road called the “Golden Circle.”

The stops we planned for the day

  • Thingvellir National Park
    • Distance from Reykjavik 48 km – 45 min
    • Visiting time 2 hours
  • Geysir’s geothermal field
    • Distance from Thingvellir Park 60 km – 55 min
    • Visiting time 30 min

😍 Thingvellir National Park

Map of the park

As we missed the first car park entrance, we parked at the north end of the site (P3 on the map). In the end, it turned out to be a good idea. We avoided the hustle and bustle of other car parks by staying along the main road. 

Almannagjá fault
For fans of Game of Thrones, Almannagja Fault is the Entrance to the Eyrie

For our hike, we walked the red path on the map. The trails were easy to reach and accessible to everyone. There were many people, the park being one of Reykjavik’s family favorites for nature outings on weekends.

The history of the site:

It is one of the most famous places in Icelandic history. It was here that the Althingi, one of the oldest parliamentary institutions in the world, was founded in the year 930. If you are curious about the history of the site, read more.

😍 The geothermal field of Geysir

The term “geyser” comes from the Icelandic word “geysir,” which means “to gush.”

The field where a dozen geysers are located is not large, but the scenery is breathtaking. Only one of them, Strokkur, is still active. It erupts every 10 minutes up to a height of 30 meters. An incredible spectacle!
Strokkur means “a churn.” I tried but failed to unravel the mystery of this nickname! After being inactive for years, it was reactivated by an earthquake in 1789 and depleted considerably during another one in 1896. Eventually, it was artificially reawakened in 1936 by drilling a 40-meter hole down through the bottom.

Here is a little reminder of how a geyser works.

The hot underground magma heats the groundwater. These are the hot springs, and in a geyser, its springs are channeled into a fault. When the water at the bottom of the pipe — closer to magma — reaches a temperature well above the usual boiling point, it becomes so hot that it transforms into vapor. This expanding vapor pocket has no other means but to expel the water above it to escape. Hence the fabulous jet of water! When the steam is finally released, the cycle starts again.

Day 2: From Geysir to Hella – 147 km

The stops we planned for the day

  • Gullfoss Waterfall
    • Distance from Geysir 10 km – 9 min
    • Visiting time 1 hour
  • Kerið crater
    • Distance from Gullfoss 56 km – 45 min
    • Visiting time 30 min
  • The city of Selfoss
    • Distance from Kerið 16 km – 14 min
    • Visiting time 30 min
  • Hike at Reykjadalur hot springs
    • Distance from Selfoss 18 km – 20 min
    • Visiting time 3 hours
  • The city of Hella
    • Distance from Reykjadalur 54 km – 50 min

😍 Gullfoss Waterfall

Literally, “Golden Waterfall.” Thirty-two meters high, it is one of the most majestic waterfalls in Iceland. The Hvitá River flows into the canyon in two falls, the highest of which is 21 meters. Its name comes from the crown-shaped rainbow that appears above the waterfall on sunny days.

The gorge was formed by water seeping through cracks in the basalt lava layers. The river’s significant flooding played a considerable role, increasing the waterfall flow to 2000 m3/s compared to 110 m3/s in normal times.

In the 1900s, the authorities considered blocking the canyon to generate electricity. Legend has it that the then waterfall owner’s daughter threatened to jump into the canyon if the river was altered to generate electricity. The project was then abandoned, but to this day no one is able to pinpoint the real reason.

😍 Kerið crater

Kerið represents to me the archetype of the volcano. Its caldera has remained practically intact, and its colors are incredible. Its crater, 270 meters long and 170 meters wide, is made of red volcanic rock and light green moss covers part of its 55-meter high wall. We were awestruck by the lake’s intense emerald green color. The contrast between its three colors makes the site magnificent and almost unreal. It’s the perfect volcano to paint!

Kerið is part of a group of volcanic hills called Tjarnarhólar. When it was formed, an internal landslide allowed water from the aquifer to fill its crater. Its lake is therefore not due to precipitation but comes from the water table.

Do you know that the famous Icelandic singer Björk held a concert in the Kerið crater? She sang from a floating stage while the audience sat on the slopes of the crater.

😐 The city of Selfoss

Selfoss church

The town sits on the banks of Iceland’s largest river, the Ölfusá.
Selfoss is a relatively large city with all the necessary amenities.

Along Árvegur Ölfusá Walk

We stopped there for 10 minutes. There is nothing special to do other than take a short stroll along the river. Take note that there are toilets in the supermarket at the city entrance. Very important when planning a road trip!

😍 Reykjadalur hot spring

It is finally time to go and discover the surrounding mountains and the famous thermal hot springs! After some research, we found a spot that ticked all our boxes — a hike which ends in a hot river bath. We were excited and headed straight to Reykjadalur.

On the road, we could see the site from afar. As with all geothermal areas in the region, one can see the steam fumaroles rising into the sky like a chimney from the soil. Learn more about the hike

😐 The city of Hella

Hella is a small town on the Ytri Rangá river. We only stopped there to spend the night, knowing that the city does not present any particular attractions.

Conclusion

It’s just the beginning of our trip, and we have already seen such beautiful places and learned so much history. We have finished the “Golden Circle” tour, and our next step will bring us towards the east. We were excited knowing that we were going to be amazed again and again during our trip.

Comments

  1. Iceland doesn’t even look real in some of those photos! It’s so, so pretty! Day two definitely looked the better of the two! The Gullfoss and crater both looked incredible! Nice to learn a little Icelandic in the post too 😉

    1. þakkir. Every day was different but always with new amazing discoveries. Kerid crater seemed unreal to me too.

  2. kasia

    Ahhhh Iceland! I’ve been twice and would go back in a heart beat!

    1. Now I can understand why. It a so beautiful land!

  3. It has been a few years since we have road tripped around Iceland. Each time we have been amazed by the beauty and diversity of this small island country. Reading this brought back great memories!

    1. I’m happy if I have brought you back great memories of Iceland. I think I will never be bored of looking at my pictures, again and again, to travel back to this amazing land.

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