If you’ve ever dreamed of an Iceland stopover or maybe just spoken with someone about their trip there are probably two big “must see” attractions that were mentioned; the Blue Lagoon and Golden Circle.
The Golden Circle is a lovely road trip (though more of a line than a circle) that highlights some of Iceland’s amazing natural wonders not too far from Reykjavik. This makes it the perfect day adventure for those with not a lot of time, though I highly recommend it for all folks headed to the far north.
Here were our stops and what I loved about each.
First of all, that funny looking “Þ” actually makes a “TH” sound like “Thor”. Easy memory jogger is that it kind of looks like Thor’s hammer. 🙂
This lake is actually the largest natural lake in Iceland. When driving on the main road, one can see the northern end on the way to Þingvellir National Park. We however, were adventurous, getting used to our map, and came equipped with 5 backseat drivers.
The short of it is…we got lost.
What a wonderful place to get lost though! After taking a road too soon we actually drove along the entire western side of the lake almost to the bottom. We found a nice pull out (because stopping on the shoulder is ILLEGAL and DANGEROUS – so say all the signs) and got some beautiful views of the lake, its islands, and a big volcano in the distance. Somewhere nearby there was a geyser or hot spring, and though we never found it (that whole getting lost bit) there was definitely a distinct smell of sulfur lingering in the air for quite a while.
2. Þingvellir National Park
Þingvellir (there’s that hammer again!) National Park is an Unesco World Heritage site – and for good reason. It was here that the first parliament in the world took place in the naturally formed amphitheater of the European and North American plates. It’s poetic in and of itself, but the views are also nothing to sneeze at!
There are several trails to take around the park. Since we were short on time, we opted for a route direct to the parliament site , through the plates, and ending at a beautiful waterfall. Expect to pay for parking, though everything else was free.
There are places in the park/in the lake where one can actually swim between the European and North American tectonic plates. It’s definitely for the more adventurous and I would highly recommend professional training or a guide as it can be a bit treacherous when not treated with respect.
Tourism in the area has inspired some of these sites to begin upgrading their facilities. At the time of this writing in 2017, Þingvellir was just in the beginning stages of renovation. All of the visitor’s center information was exclusively in Icelandic and the food/gift shop are was pretty tiny.
Like many countries in springtime they were also working on road construction and we had to drive a VERY bumpy road to reach the parking lot. If you have to same problem, no worries – as long as you follow the signs you’ll wind up in the right place! 🙂
The area known as “Geysir” is home to two big geysers and lots of little, steaming spots on the ground. If you’ve ever been to Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming, the experience is very similar – complete with sulfury air! (Just like Yellowstone, pay attention to the signs and don’t walk in undesignated areas. Sometimes the ground can be boiling and a fall in a hot spring here will probably make you a permanent fixture of the landscape.)
“Geysir” (pictured in the photo above) is actually where we get our english word for geyser! This beautiful and very hot natural phenomena no longer spews steam high into the air, but it does make for some lovely scenery. “Strokkur”, the other large geyser, steals the show these days with a very consistent and frequent spray of steam cascading over visitors.
There are a number of walking trails you can take around the area and even a few spots for holiday lodging nearby if you want to spend a little more time on the Golden Circle.
Across the street from the geyser’s is a well curated shopping area, museum, and food hall. This was probably one of my favorite places to shop simply because there was so much variety and so many different local brands represented. If I had a million dollars…..anyway, I opted for a cute print of baby puffins dancing that will (someday) go in our future nursery. We also enjoyed some delicious ice cream cones before heading back on the road.
4. Gullfoss Waterfall
Gullfoss is one of those places that at first glance you might drive by. You can’t see much of it from the road and it’s only after you park and begin descending the stairs towards it that you really understand how magnificent it is.
In the early 1900’s, developers wanted to take the falls and turn them into a large, hydroelectric, power plant. The owner refused saying, “How can I sell my friend?”
This turned into decades long battle of conservation spearheaded by the original owner’s daughter, Sigriður Tómasdóttir. Her battle brought to the world’s attention the importance of our natural spaces and she is often called Iceland’s first environmentalist. In 1979, the falls were dedicated to public viewing and no developers would try again to harness her raw power for their own gain.
We got exceedingly lucky on our trip to have some sunshine! This created a beautiful rainbow in the mist pictured in the photo above. If you plan on walking down to the first tier of the falls (a trek which I highly recommend) make sure you bring an umbrella or raincoat! As the falls cascade into the canyon below, the mist shoots back up and rains down over the path on passers by. It’s an out of this world experience not to be…”mist” 🙂
5. Secret Lagoon
High on everyone’s list for our Iceland trip was a trip to some sort of hot springs, lake, etc. Basically, we wanted to sit in hot water outside. The three areas we heard about were the famous Blue Lagoon, a smaller spa next to a geothermal lake called Laugarvatn Fontana, and Secret Lagoon. We decided to skip Blue Lagoon and try something a little less commercial. It was a tough decision between the other two options, but with our tight schedule and desire to not backtrack Secret Lagoon won the vote.
This place was awesome! It is the oldest thermal swimming pool in Iceland and is heated by natural hot springs. The whole vibe of the place was very otherworldly with the steam rising out of the ground around us and the rock walls of the swimming pools. If you need a break from the heat, a quick walk along the boardwalk circling the pool is enough to get you back in the game. We spent a little over two hours soaking here, and it was worth every krona! Check out their site here.
6. Honorable Mentions
Our tour of the Golden Circle wouldn’t be complete without one thing – horses! I was very much hoping to catch a glimpse of these fluffy beasts, but didn’t have high hopes as I knew we had limited time and one of the horse stables around the circle would probably be closed by the time we made our way south. It was pleasantly surprised when we discovered a tiny group of horses right next to a pullout on the road!
They were so friendly (pictured above with my hubby) and immediately ran over for pets and what I assume is horsey conversation – they certainly were talkative!
If you don’t get lucky enough to spot some of these beauties on your own adventuring up close, I would recommend the Icelandic horse park, FÁKASEL. This place has great reviews and was on my very long, pre-shortened list of places to go while we were in Iceland…I guess we will have more to see next time!
Another place I have to emphasize is Laugarvatn Fontana, the thermal pools we decided to pass on for this trip. We actually found it and walked around inside and I must say it is lovely. The geothermal lake is the main attraction, but the smaller warm/cold pools are great for variety as well. During the winter, there are times when one can sit in the hot springs and look up at the northern lights…uh..sign me up please!
Lastly, all the main stops on the Golden circle are actually in a straight line (well, relatively straight) from Reykjavik. To truly make the whole circle, pick something else on the southern part of the island. It is always a treat to see more of the countryside and there are so many great things to see that aren’t on the “big 3” list, from tomato greenhouse restaurants to hiking trails.
I hope you enjoyed reading about my first Iceland adventure and hopefully you’ve become inspired to start planning your next trip there as well!
Until next time,