The Golden Circle, a 300 km route that begins just a short drive from Reykjavik, is definitely a must-do when you’re visiting Iceland. The road takes you past some of Iceland’s most iconic and beautiful sites. It only takes about a day to traverse in it’s entirety which makes it an easy day trip if you are in Iceland for a short time. There are loads of companies that offer tours here, but my family and I preferred the freedom of exploring it on our own. We got to decide which sites to go, how long to stay at each site, and, most importantly, where and when to eat. It also allowed us to stop along the way at a few hidden gems where the tours don’t take you. So if you’re exploring Iceland without the help of a guided tour, then this guide is for you!
Without further ado, here’s our itinerary:
Þingvellir National Park
Kerið Crater Lake
Lunch at Friðheimar Tomato Farm
Swim in the Secret Lagoon
Gullfoss – The Golden Waterfall
Geysir Geothermal Area
Efstidalur II Farm and Restaurant
Rye Bread Experience at Laugarvatn Fontana
Snorkeling in the Silfra Fissure
Þingvellir National Park is an important place in Iceland both historically and geographically. It literally means “Parliament Plains” and as the name suggests, it was the location for Iceland’s general assembly, Alþing, from 930 all the way until 1798. Many events in the history of Iceland have taken place here, so it is held in high regard by Icelanders. It is also the only national park in Iceland to be listed as a UNESCO world heritage site. The park is situated right between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. Throughout the park you can see the evidence of the shifting plates which move about 2.3 cm a year. While there, try to imagine how much the park has changed since the settlers chose this site back in 930!
Head to Oxararfoss Waterfall, walk between the tectonic plates in Almannagja gorge, hike one (or more) of the numerous trails throughout the park, learn more about the past at the visitor’s center, or explore Game of Thrones filming locations. The geography here is so unique, you could spend hours just wandering! I wish we would have spent more time here, but we were anxious to see all the sites on our list so we just did a quick tour. If you have more time in your itinerary, it definitely can be added on here!
With turquoise waters surrounded by red cliffs covered in green, it’s not hard to see why Kerið crater is a stop most people make on their tour of the Golden Circle. Thought to have been formed over 3000 years ago by a magma tube collapse, it is really a sight to behold! The lake is 55 m deep and can look several different colors depending on the angle. There is a car park located right next to the crater making this quite an easy stop! We walked on the path that takes you all the way around the crater’s edge, which is a pretty easy walk. My brother and I walked down to the water’s edge which gave us a totally different perspective. Be warned, the path is steep so the way up is short but tiring! I think it’s totally worth it though.
Once you’ve worked up an appetite, make sure to stop at Friðheimar farm. Despite the long, dark winters in Iceland, they can grow tomatoes here all year round. How you ask? They take advantage of geothermal energy to power the lights and heat for the greenhouses. The restaurant is located right in the greenhouse so you can eat right among the plants! I didn’t used to be a huge fan of tomatoes growing up but I have to say, I had the best tomato soup of my life here! Everything on the menu, including dessert, features tomatoes in some way. We got the all-you-can-eat tomato soup buffet complete with an array of homemade bread to compliment your soup. Each table even has a pot of fresh herbs to add to your meal. My brother highly recommends the bloody Mary as well. This is super unique experience and not something you should miss!
Once you’ve stuffed yourself full of tomatoes, head over to the Secret Lagoon and relax. Located in the small town of Flúðir, you’ll find a large pool which stays at 38-40 Celsius all year thanks to the surrounding geothermal area. I was surprised by how modern the facilities around the lagoon were seeing as most of the pictures you see are like the one below. The cost of floating in the warm water is 2800 ISK (~$25) which is well worth it! I didn’t see anything here about a time limit so relax for as long as you want! There are changing facilities, showers, pool noodles to help you float and even towel/swimsuit rental if you need it. If you have the time, make sure to stop here to take a break from the touring to relax for a bit.
When you picture Iceland, Gullfoss may be one of the iconic images that comes to mind. Plunging down over 32 m and surrounded by high cliff walls, this waterfall is certainly spectacular. If you’re lucky, you may also get to see a rainbow or two. Like many popular Golden Circle sites, parking is easy but there will be crowds. I didn’t find them to be too bad on the walk to the falls but the visitor’s center was very busy. We walked all the way to the top of the falls. The mist is just pouring off of the falls (which you can see from the photos) so make sure you wear your rain coat! The sound and the sheer power of these falls was awesome in the truest sense of the word.
Gullfoss also has a pretty spectacular story attached to it as well. In 1907, foreign investors wanted to buy Gullfoss from the farmer who owned it to harness it’s power for electricity. The farmer refused but later leased it. His daughter, Sigriður Tómasdóttir, sought to have that contract revoked. She fought to keep the waterfall as it was and thanks to her diligence, people’s attention was brought to the issue. She is often called Iceland’s first environmentalist. Her son sold the land to the government so Gullfoss could be designated as nature reserve to permanently protect the waterfall and allow us to enjoy it today.
One of the three main stops along the Golden Circle tour, is Geysir. The actual Geysir is no longer active due to years of people throwing things down into it, trying to get it to erupt. Since it is a large, geothermal area there are more geysers to see. The one in the pictures below erupts every 10 minutes or so which makes it easy to see. I read that all geysers are named as such because of Geysir. Awesome, right? If you want to get photos of the geyser erupting, you may have to wait your turn to get a good spot. So, make sure to reserve enough time to see the geyser go off more than once. The only downside here is the smell. Pretty but stinky! Haha
Efstidalur II is a super cute farm and restaurant located in Laugarvatn. Several people online recommended you come and get ice cream here. I mean, you can see the cows when you order which shows you how fresh the ice cream is! It was so so good. My family and I also ate at the restaurant upstairs and that did not disappoint either. If you’re in the area around dinnertime, I suggest having it here. If you don’t have time, just pop in and get the ice cream. You won’t regret it!
Due to the geothermal activity going on underground, they can actually cook a loaf of bread by burying it in the sand. What?! During the tour, you get to watch them dig the bread out of the ground and then eat it while it’s hot! The tours are at 11:30 and 2:30 every day so make sure you’re on time if you want the experience! This was something we had planned on doing but got there about 10 minutes too late for the tour. Laugarvatn Fontana is also a geothermal spa so if you have time, make sure to check out the rest of the facilities too.
Þingvellir national park has a fissure between two tectonic plates that runs through it called Silfra. The reason this was a bucket list item for us is because it happens to be the only place in the world where you can snorkel directly in between two continental plates! We decided to snorkel instead of scuba diving and used Dive.IS who were really great. Filled with water from a glacier makes the temperature a toasty 35° F or 2°C. For this reason, you have to wear a dry suit all year round when snorkeling or scuba diving. I had an issue with the neck of my suit being really tight (it has to keep out all the water!) which made it harder to breath. So, I swam around freaking out for a minute (or 5) but I calmed down and the experience was totally worth it. Only your lower face will get wet and you stop feeling it after about a minute anyway 🙂 The water is said to be the clearest in the world so you don’t have to worry about swallowing it. The guides even suggest that you take a big drink! It is quite pricey at around $175/person but I am really glad we did it!
I hope you enjoyed my self-guided tour through Iceland’s spectacular Golden Circle! If you have any questions or things to add, comment down below!