Did you know that 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.
Route 1 is your highway to exploring the natural wonders of Iceland’s Golden Circle. Read on to discover which of Iceland’s Golden Circle stops you can’t miss and how to tour them.
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What is the Golden Circle, Iceland
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.
How I Visited Iceland’s Golden Circle
I joined this day tour to visit the Golden Circle on a wet and blustery day in March.
Iceland Golden Circle Map
You will need a map if you rent a car to tour Iceland’s Golden Circle. But even if you settle back and let a tour guide and driver do the work for you, it’s helpful to be able to visualise your route.
On this map, I have included the most popular Golden Circle stops as well as a few that are less visited. I consider the stops that I have highlighted below as must-sees.
- Laugarvatn spa
- Efstidalur Dairy Farm
- Bruarfoss waterfall
- Haukadalur Geothermal Area (Strokkur Geysir)
- Gulfoss waterfall
- Kerid Crater Lake
Must-See Stops on the Golden Circle
Thingvellir National Park (Þingvellir 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 gruesome 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.
If you have time to spare, stop by the Visitor Centre. There are displays on the area’s geology and history and a small shop that sells souvenirs and snacks.
Hiking within Thingvellir National Park is very easy and is along good, clearly marked trails. For the more adventurous, you can snorkel or dive between the continental plates at Silfra. Great for bragging rights!
Haukadalur Geothermal Area (& Strokkur Geysir)
Our second 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?”
Although I was faced with challenging weather when I visited Gullfoss waterfall – imagine horizontal hailstones whipping across your face like mini shards of glass – it was no less spectacular for this.
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 the Icelandic Government
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.
Pet an Icelandic horse
No trip to Iceland’s Golden Circle is complete without stopping to pet one of these cuties.
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 flip side is that the Icelandic horse is more susceptible to equine disease than horses elsewhere.
Golden Circle Stops Worth a Detour
It may not be as big and famous as the Blue Lagoon but it is much more budget-friendly.
Reykjadalur Hot Springs
Alternatively, why not soak in the Reykjadalur Hot Springs?
It’s a one-hour walk to these natural hot springs, which is scenic but challenging in places. Once you arrive, changing facilities are limited.
Ice cream at the Efstidalur Dairy Farm
Stop for organic homemade 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 can enjoy it whilst watching the cows through a window between the cafe and the cowshed. In the summer months, Efstidalur offers horse riding.
As this Golden Circle stop wasn’t included in the day tour that I took, I missed out on seeing it.
But there’s a very good reason why it wasn’t included on the day trip. Tucked away between Laugarvatn village and Geysir geothermal area, to reach Brúarfoss you need to hike over two miles (one-way) along the Brúará River.
Although Brúarfoss (‘Bridge Falls’) is a relatively small waterfall in Icelandic terms, what it lacks in size it makes up for in beauty. It is famous for the brilliant colour that has earned it the label of ‘Iceland’s Bluest Waterfall’.
Brúarfoss is located between Þingvellir National Park and Strokkur Geysir. Park your car at the small Brúarfoss Waterfall official parking lot, which is just off Route 37.
The town of Skálholt is a Golden Circle stop for all of you history fangirls and fanboys out there.
From 1056 to 1785 Skálholt was the centre of Christianity in southern Iceland (the other episcopal seat was Hólar in the north of the country). This was also where the first school in the country, Skálholtsskoli, was founded.
Today’s Skálholt has a large evangelical Lutheran church, Skálholt Cathedral, and hosts cultural events in the summer.
Kerid crater lake
This shallow, neon blue lake sitting in a volcanic caldera of rare red rock is a geological oddity. The Kerid caldera is thought to have formed when the magma in the centre of the volcano depleted itself, rather than being carved from a more dramatic explosion.
The Kerid Crater Lake is located 15 km north of Selfoss, off Highway 35.
How to Tour the Golden Circle
As Iceland has limited public transport, you will have to hire a car or book a day trip from Reykjavik to tour the Golden Circle
For maximum flexibility, driving the Golden Circle is your best option. In addition to visiting the essential stops on this Golden Circle itinerary, you will also be able to take in the more off-the-beaten-path stops such as Kerid Crater Lake or Laugarvatn Spa.
It is perfectly safe to drive the Golden Circle in winter and a 4×4 vehicle is not necessary. This is one of Iceland’s major tourist destinations and roads are cleared frequently.
However, if like me, you are less comfortable about driving in all weathers, there is no shortage of Golden Circle organised tours departing Reykjavik. What you lose in flexibility, you gain in comfort and convenience.
Here is my pick of the best from GetYourGuide, my go-to platform for booking excursions. All of these offer free cancellation up to 24 hours before departure, essential considering Iceland’s fickle weather.
- Reykjavik: Golden Circle Full Day Tour with Kerid Crater
- From Reykjavik: Golden Circle, Kerid Crater, and Blue Lagoon
- Reykjavik: Golden Circle Tour & Secret Lagoon Early Access
Golden Circle Iceland FAQs
How long does it take to tour the Golden Circle in Iceland?
You can easily complete the Golden Circle route in one day. With no stops, you could drive the route in three hours or so.
But what would be the point of that? You need to allow time to enjoy the places of interest and take photos.
What should I bring when touring the Golden Circle stops?
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.
Is the Blue Lagoon in the Golden Circle?
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 join a combined Blue Lagoon and the Golden Circle day trip. Alternatively, if you are driving, make an early start and squeeze both into the same day.
Where to Stay When Touring the Golden Circle
If you would like to stay close to the Golden Circle, Haukadalur is a good base. But as it is within easy reach of Reykjavik, most people decide to stay here.
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 is a high concentration of bars that stay open until late on the weekend. But if you also burn the midnight oil, this won’t make any difference!
Mid-range – Hotel Frön
I stayed at this 3-star hotel on Laugavegur which is perfect if you are visiting Iceland on a budget but are looking for a bit of comfort. A big bonus was the free breakfast.
Splurge – Canopy by Hilton Reykjavik City Center
In an unbeatable location, a 2-minute walk from Laugavegur Shopping Street and 500 meters from Harpa Concert & Conference Center, this stylish 4-star hotel features a fitness centre and a bar.
Budget – Freyja Guesthouse and Suites
To reduce your Iceland trip costs, take a look at this property, a 3-minute walk from Hallgrímskirkja Church. It has excellent online reviews and is a bargain by Icelandic standards.
So is The Golden Circle Worth it?
There’s a very good reason why touring the Golden Circle is one of the most popular things to do in Iceland. To gain an appreciation of Iceland’s extraordinary landscape in one easy day trip from Reykjavik, it’s unbeatable.
However, your enjoyment may be moderated by the weather. When I visited, we were battered by wind and rain, which put a damper on the day, both literally and metaphorically.
That said, the primaeval power of Strokkur geyser and the thundering Gullfoss Falls will be etched into my memory for many years, not to mention the cute Icelandic horses. If this is your one chance to explore Iceland outside of Reykjavik, grab it with both hands.
I hope that you enjoyed reading about my experience of Iceland’s Golden Circle Stops
If you have found this article useful, make the most of your trip to Iceland in the company of a few of my other travel guides:
- How to Spend One Day in Reykjavik: Iceland’s Capital of Cool
- Iceland Solo Travel: Itinerary, Trip Costs & Essential Tips
- Review of the Blue Lagoon, Iceland: Is it Worth it?
Bridget Coleman has been a passionate traveller for more than 30 years. She has visited 70+ countries, most as a solo traveller.
Articles on this site reflect her first-hand experiences.
To get in touch, email her at email@example.com or follow her on social media.