The Golden Circle is an extremely popular route in the South of Iceland. Featuring the magnificent sights of Gullfoss Waterfall, Geysir Geothermal Field, and Thingvellir National Park, a trip around the Golden Circle is the perfect day tour from Reykjavik, and it is a must-visit when you go to Iceland!
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What is the Golden Circle
The Golden Circle is certainly one of Iceland’s most beloved tourist routes. It is sometimes referred to as “The Golden Triangle,” as it features three stunningly beautiful locations: an extremely powerful waterfall, a geyser which erupts frequently, and a UNESCO World Heritage site.
The beauty of the whole region is hallmarked by incredible landscapes and unique sites. The Golden Circle is undoubtedly a precious gem of rare geological features that can barely be found anywhere else in the world, but which are so close to each other that you can visit them in just one day.
When these beauties are combined with local hospitality and traditional cuisine, it is not surprising that the Golden Circle tops almost every visitor’s bucket list. The Golden Circle is the perfect day trip from Reykjavik and is a must-visit for everyone traveling to Iceland.
Activities You Can Do While Driving The Golden Circle
- Snorkeling in Silfra
- Jet Boat in Hvita
- Rafting in Hvita
- Glacier snowmobiling from Gullfoss Cafe
- Bathing in the Secret Lagoon
- Local food tasting
The Ultimate Places You Must Visit on the Golden Circle
The classic Golden Circle tour consists of Iceland’s three most popular tourist attractions: Gullfoss Waterfall, Geysir Geothermal Area, and Þingvellir (Thingvellir) National Park. The route covers approximately 250 kilometers (155 miles) and loops from the capital city to the center of Iceland and back. It is the perfect day trip from Reykjavík, especially for people on a short layover or those that simply do not have much time.
- Thingvellir National Park
- Geysir Geothermal Field
- Gullfoss Waterfall
Map of the Golden Circle - Major Attractions and Detours
Thingvellir (Þingvellir) National Park
Þingvellir National Park is one of Iceland’s most significant historic and geological sites. Iceland’s first parliament, Althing (Alþing), was founded there in the year 930 AD. Althing is the oldest still-operating parliament in the world.
Thingvellir is also renowned for its geology. Here, you can see where the Eurasian and the North American tectonic plates meet as well as the way those plates have been drifting apart. A visit to Thingvellir will allow you to become better acquainted with Iceland’s greatest historical site. As you explore, more natural wonders will be revealed with each step you take.
The national park has a large Visitor Center located close to a viewpoint that offers an amazing view of the area. From here there are footpaths leading down into the fissures between the continental plates. The Visitor Center also offers an interactive multimedia exhibition, a small buffet, and a souvenir shop.
National Park and UNESCO World Heritage Site
Thingvellir was declared a national park in 1930. A law was passed which designated Thingvellir "a protected national shrine for all Icelanders, the perpetual property of the Icelandic nation under the preservation of parliament, never to be sold or mortgaged."
Thingvellir was nominated for the UNESCO World Heritage List on July 2, 2004. The nomination stated that the site is of outstanding universal value and should be preserved as a cultural site as well as for its natural environment.
Althing, the World's First Parliament
Althing (Alþing) is the national parliament of Iceland. It was founded in 930 AD at the site where Thingvellir National Park is currently located. It was the first democratic national parliament to be founded in the world. Althing was an outdoor assembly held on the plains of Thingvellir until 1844 when the Icelandic Parliament moved to Reykjavík where it has operated ever since.
Geology at Thingvellir
Iceland resulted from massive movement between the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates. These plates have been drifting apart continuously, currently moving at the rate of about 2 cm (0.79 in) per year. This slow but violent process has been steadily forming the island’s landscapes over millions of years.
At Thingvellir, the Eurasian and North American tectonic plate boundaries are clearly visible. It is very interesting to see where Europe and America meet - but also move apart - in this stunning landscape. The Thingvellir area has a high concentration of volcanic activity and newly-formed lava fields can be seen in many places. There are several lava tube caves to be found in these fields.
This unique place, Silfra, is a newly opened rift between the continental plates. It appeared after a major earthquake in 1789. The fissure is filled with meltwater from Langjökull, Iceland’s second largest glacier. Incredibly, the water takes up to 100 years to travel 50 kilometers (31 miles) through a lava field before flowing into the fissure.
Therefore, Silfra has the purest natural freshwater on the planet with visibility that can extend to more than 100 meters (300 feet) underwater, making it the most unique diving and snorkeling site in the world!
Geysir Geothermal Field
The geothermal field around Geysir is a world-renowned area for geothermal hot springs. The Great Geysir is the hot spring that many other languages named all other spouting hot springs after. The geothermal field is believed to have a total surface area of approximately 3 km².
Most of the springs are aligned along a 100-meter-wide (328 feet) strip of land running in the same direction as the tectonic plate lines, from south to southwest. You can explore the hot springs, see the steam rising from the ground, and smell the sulfur in the air at this phenomenal natural wonder!
Here you will experience some of the rarest manifestations of underground volcanic activity. A frequently erupting geyser is a sight that is sure to fill you with wonder and awe. Walking along the footpaths, you will see the incredible power of the Earth. Furious fumaroles, bubbling mud pots, boiling hot springs, and steaming ground covered with colorful minerals can be found everywhere.
The Geysir Geothermal Area also has a great Visitor Center. It gives tourists the chance to taste some delicious local dishes and shop for some unique souvenirs, many of which have been manufactured by locals.
The Great Geysir
The Great Geysir is the oldest documented geyser in Europe. It is the one from which English and many other languages adopted the word geyser (géiser, geysir, gejzir, etc.). The name Geysir comes from the Icelandic verb 'geysa,' meaning 'to gush.'
The Great Geysir can hurl boiling water up to an average of 70 meters in the air. Once, in 1845, it is said to reached a height of 170 meters.
The Great Geysir was formed in the 13th century, at around the same time as the eruption of Mt. Hekla. A series of strong earthquakes hit the geothermal valley where the Geysir is located. It spouted multiple times a day up to the beginning of the 19th century. The frequency and the intensity of the eruptions are highly affected by earthquakes.
Around 1910, it was very active, erupting every 30 minutes. In the following years, the time between the eruptions increased up to six hours, until 1916 when the eruptions stopped.
In 1935, a man-made channel was dug around the edge of the geyser to revive its activity. It soon became too clogged and eruptions became rare yet again. In 1981, the channel was cleared so that eruptions could be forced on special occasions. Soap used to be pumped into the vents to make eruptions more dramatic. This practice was later discouraged due to environmental concerns.
An earthquake in the year 2000 revived the geyser and it erupted for two days straight, reaching 122 meters (400 feet) in height. The eruptions then became progressively less frequent until they stopped completely. Over the last decade, eruptions have decreased considerably and it is now considered almost inactive. Some minor eruptions took place in 2016, but nothing compared to its old glory. Whether its silence is eternal or temporary, no one knows.
The Great Geysir may not be an actively spouting hot spring at the moment, but its neighbor, Strokkur, most certainly is.
Strokkur ('the Churn') is currently the most energetic spouting hot spring in Iceland. It spouts every 5 - 10 minutes, generally to a height of less than 10 - 20 meters (32 - 65 feet), but sometimes reaching 40 meters (130 feet).
Not much is known about the age and history of Strokkur. It was set off during an earthquake in 1789, having been inactive for quite some time. In all probability though, it had been active before.
In 1815, its average height was estimated to have been up to 60 meters (197 feet). Strokkur continued to erupt until the turn of the 20th century when an earthquake blocked the conduit. In 1963, based on the advice of the Geysir Committee, locals cleaned out the blocked conduit through the bottom of the basin and the geyser has been regularly erupting ever since.
Geology at the Geysir Geothermal Field
The Geysir Geothermal Field lies on the outskirts of the neovolcanic zone from which it is drifting. It is, therefore, gradually becoming a low-temperature field. Magma may have forced its way out of the neovolcanic zone along one or more fissures, forming intrusions. This would explain the area’s sustained geothermal activity.
Earthquakes have caused significant changes in the neighboring landscapes and have created several new hot springs. Changes in the activities of the Great Geysir and the surrounding geysers are strongly related to earthquake activity.
Records dating back to 1630 show geysers erupting so violently that the valley around them trembled. In more recent times, earthquakes have tended to revive the activity of the Great Geysir which then subsides again in the subsequent years.
Hydrology at Geysir Geothermal Field
The geothermal field is located near active volcanic areas with the geyser effect caused by the proximity of magma. Surface water works its way down to a depth where it comes into contact with the molten rocks. The water then comes to a boil and finds itself under a huge amount of pressure from its own heat. This pressurized water results in hot water spraying out of the geyser's surface vent.
At a depth of one meter (3.28 feet), the water temperature at Strokkur geyser is about 90 - 95°C. It rises continuously so that at 10 meters depth the temperature is 112°C (233°F) and 130°C (266°F) at the depth of 23 meters (403 feet).
When the water inside the shaft reaches its boiling point, it creates steam. The geyser erupts when the superheated water transforms into steam, creating a large amount of pressure.
When water boils further down the shaft, the eruption is more violent, as happens in the Great Geysir. But Strokkur fills up in just a few minutes, making its eruptions less violent, unlike the Great Geysir that could spend about 12 hours filling with water after an eruption.
The next stop on the Golden Circle Route is the majestic Gullfoss Waterfall. It is, without a doubt, one of the most famous waterfalls in Iceland. The name Gullfoss directly translates to 'Golden Falls' or 'Waterfall of Gold.' It stems from the glacial river, Hvítá. The waterfall cascades stunningly down two huge steps (11 and 22 meters or 36 and 71 feet, respectively), descending into a deep gorge.
Gullfoss possesses immense power, which you can experience for yourself when you walk towards it. Here you can feel the spray of the glacial water on your face and, on sunny days, it is very likely that a rainbow will appear.
Standing next to this amazing waterfall and watching enormous quantities of water tumble with great fury into the deep and meandering canyon, you will appreciate the power of Icelandic nature. Gullfoss Waterfall is a magnificent natural site that no visitor to Iceland should miss.
About Gullfoss Waterfall
The water in Gullfoss Waterfall flows from Lake Hvítárvatn, which is on the southeast side of the Langjökull Glacier. Langjökull is the second-largest icecap in Iceland, after Vatnajökull. Water stemming from Langjökull Glacier fills the glacial river Hvítá, which in English is 'the White River.' This wide river then rushes relentlessly southwards.
Not far above the falls, the river turns sharply to the left and flows down into a wide, curved, three-step 'staircase.' Then comes the great fall, where the river abruptly plunges in two stages (11 and 21 meters or 36 and 71 feet), dropping into a crevice which is 32 meters (105 feet) deep. That crevice, which is about 20 meters (60 feet) wide and 2.5 km in length, is at a right angle to the flow of the river.
As one first approaches the falls, the crevice is obscured from view so that it seems as if this mighty river has simply vanished into the Earth. The average volume of water running over this waterfall is 140 m³/s in summertime and 80 m³/s in wintertime. The highest flood volume ever measured was a massive 2000 m³/s.
The Gullfoss Power Plant
In the first half of the 20th century, a man named Tómas Tómasson owned Gullfoss Waterfall. Tómas was going to sell the waterfall to the authorities so that the first hydropower plant in Iceland could be built by the falls.
Tómas' daughter, Sigríður Tómasdóttir, loved Gullfoss Waterfall more than anything and protested greatly. Sigríður was determined to preserve the waterfall in its present condition, even going so far as to threaten to throw herself into it.
Thankfully, Sigríður did not have to take such drastic measures as the power plant idea fell through. Now Gullfoss is a protected site. There is a memorial to Sigríður Tómasdóttir at the top of the falls with her profile. As you look at it, be thankful to her that the waterfall is still there for you to see in all its glory.
The Best Golden Circle Tours from Reykjavík
Due to its awe-inspiring locations and great accessibility, the Golden Circle Tour is probably the most popular day trip from Reykjavík. There are plenty of tour options, so here are the most popular ones:
Golden Circle Complete: A 9-hour extended day tour with three stops at the main locations (Gullfoss, Thingvellir, and Geysir) and seven additional stops at stunning locations en route.
Golden Circle Afternoon: A 6-hour express tour with three stops at the main locations (Gullfoss, Thingvellir, and Geysir).
Golden Circle & Secret Lagoon: A 9-hour extended day tour with three stops at the main locations (Gullfoss, Thingvellir, and Geysir) and a relaxing bath in Iceland’s largest geothermal lake.
Golden Circle and Local Food Tour: A 9-hour extended day tour with three stops at the main locations (Gullfoss, Thingvellir, and Geysir) and four additional stops for home-made local food, skyr, and beer tasting.
Golden Circle and Glacier Super Jeep Tour: A 12-hour extended day tour with three stops at the main locations (Gullfoss, Thingvellir, and Geysir) and an adventurous super Jeep tour up to Iceland’s second-largest glacier, Langjökull.
Golden Circle and Whale Watching Combo tour: A 11-hour day tour with three stops at the main locations (Gullfoss, Thingvellir, and Geysir) and a whale watching tour from Reykjavík. Only available in summer.
Golden Circle and Northern Lights Tour: A 11-hour extended day tour with three stops at the main locations (Gullfoss, Thingvellir, and Geysir) and a northern lights hunt. Only available in winter.
Golden Circle and Snorkeling Between the Tectonic Plates: A 9-hour day tour with three stops at the main locations (Gullfoss, Thingvellir, and Geysir) and an easy drysuit snorkeling trip in the clearest natural freshwater on the planet.
Golden Circle and Lava Caving: A 10-hour day tour with three stops at the main locations (Gullfoss, Thingvellir, and Geysir) and an easy tour of a stunning lava tube.
Golden Circle Super Jeep and Glacier Snowmobiling Tour: A 12-hour day tour with three stops at the main locations (Gullfoss, Thingvellir, and Geysir) and an adventurous snowmobiling tour on Iceland’s second-largest glacier, Langjökull.
Golden Circle and River Rafting Tour: A 9-hour day tour with three stops at the main locations (Gullfoss, Thingvellir, and Geysir) and an exhilarating raft trip down Gullfoss Canyon.
Self-Driving the Golden Circle
The Golden Circle route is quite easy to drive and navigate yourself. Even though it is not on the Ring Road, these country roads are generally well-maintained and always have some traffic, regardless of the season
In that case that you choose to drive this route yourself instead of taking a tour, here are a few tips on how to do so. First, rent a car that suits both the season and your plans. It is unnecessary to rent a 4x4 in summer unless you are planning to take a mountain road (F-road) to the Langjökull base camp. A large jeep is needed to get there. Otherwise, in summertime, even the smallest car can get around the Golden Circle without any problems. In winter, however, you might want to choose the safest option - a 4x4 - if there is heavy snow on the ground. This usually happens between November and March.
If you only want to visit the main highlights (Thingvellir, Gullfoss, and Geyser) it will take you 3 hours and 21 minutes to drive around the circle without stopping, starting from Reykjavík. The speed limit is 90 km/h (60 mph) outside of residential areas and 30 - 50 km/h (18 - 31 mph) in residential areas.
With 20 - 30 minutes stops at each location, it will take approximately 4.5 - 5 hours to complete the loop. This will not give you much time at the locations, though. With comfortable 30 - 60 minute stops and some detours, the Golden Circle tour can last anywhere from 6 - 10+ hours.
If you decide to rent a car and drive yourself around, keep in mind that driving conditions can be challenging in winter. Do not forget to check the weather forecast and road conditions before heading out. If you feel uncomfortable with driving on snowy, icy, or slippery roads in windy areas, it is better to be safe than sorry. Choose a guided tour instead of putting yourself at risk. Just take care and be safe!
Extra Stops on the Golden Circle Route in Iceland
If you have a whole day to spend on your Golden Circle adventure, you can expand the tour by adding a few extra stops. If you have the time, make sure you check out as many places as you can. The surrounding area is filled with beautiful nature and fun activities. These are the most remarkable stops around the Golden Circle in Iceland:
- Gjabakkahellir Cave
- Silfra fissure
- Thingvallakirkja Church
- Kerið crater
- Faxi waterfall
- Secret Lagoon
- Friðheimar Greenhouses
- Hvítá River Base
- Laugarvatn Fontana Spa
- Efstidalur farm
- Skálholt town
- Slakki Zoo
- Sólheimar Eco-Village
Gjabakkahellir is a lava tube cave in Thingvellir National Park. The cave was formed during an eruption around 9000 years ago. The tube is open from both directions so it is easy to walk through it. Gjábakkahellir is 364 meters long and it has a lot to offer explorers. During the wintertime, magnificent ice sculptures can often be found in this cave. There is only a 50-meter walk from the road to the opening of the cave.
Gjábakkahellir cave on the Golden Circle. Photo: Francisco Antunes
Snorkeling and Diving in Silfra Fissure
Silfra Fissure is one of Iceland’s best-kept secrets. It is located in Thingvallavatn Lake (Þingvallavatn) in Thingvellir National Park. The fissure displays amazing shades of blue. As Silfra is a part of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, snorkelers and divers will have the unique experience of swimming between two continents.
The water within this lake is particularly fertile as a rich vegetation thrives in Thingvallavatn despite the very cold temperatures. The views while you are snorkeling are stunning.
Thingvalla Kirkja Church
There has been a church at the site of Thingvellir since the introduction of Christianity. The attractive church that exists today, however, was built in 1859. In the summertime, the church is open to the public from 9am to 5pm daily.
If you are not visiting in summertime, hopefully, you will be lucky enough to visit when it is open. The inside of the church is very beautiful and is well worth visiting.
Thingvallakirkja church. Photo: Jon Gretarsson
Faxi Waterfall is located around 12 km from Gullfoss Waterfall and the Geysir Geothermal Area. Faxi is a small waterfall, but absolutely worth a visit.
The waterfall is on Tungufljót, a fabulous salmon-filled river, surrounded by beautiful Icelandic nature, which makes it a great spot for fishing. On a sunny day, this is the perfect place to stop, sit down, and have a picnic.
Kerið Volcanic Crater
Kerið is one of most recognizable volcanic craters in Iceland. It was once a typical cone-shaped volcano, but after an eruption some 3000 year ago, the top has collapsed into its empty magma chamber.
Keriðd has a very recognizable caldera. Its steep walls are approximately 55 meters (180 feet) deep. The caldera is 170 meters (560 feet) wide and 270 meters (890 feet) across. There is a small lake inside the caldera with a strikingly vivid aquamarine color which is due to minerals in the soil. You should not miss out on this natural wonder during your Golden Circle trip.
The crater is found just by the Route 35, only 15 km from the town of Selfoss. There is a small parking lot right next to it. There is also a small entrance fee, approximately 500 ISK per person.
Efstidalur is a charming, friendly, family-run farm that is the perfect stop between Gullfoss Geysir and Thingvellir National Park. The farm operates a little ice cream shop where you can enjoy different flavored ice creams produced using milk from the farm’s own cows.
It would be hard to find ice cream that is any fresher than that! As you enjoy the delicious ice cream, you can watch the cows who produced the milk to make it through the windows that separate the store from the barn.
The Secret Lagoon
The Secret Lagoon is a magnificent natural hot spring located in the geothermal area in a small village called Fludir (Flúðir), 25 km from Geysir. The Secret Lagoon is one of the oldest geothermal pools in Iceland, having been built in 1891.
The surrounding nature, rising steam, tiny geysers, and bubbling hot pots give the place a truly mystical atmosphere! The temperature of the water is about 38 - 40°C year-round. The Secret Lagoon is the perfect place for relaxing! Wash off the mist from Gullfoss while you relax, enjoy beverages, and connect to nature in the water of the lagoon.
Friðheimar Tomato and Horse Farm
Friðheimar is located 20 km from Geysir on Route 35. It is a lovely family farm where they grow tomatoes and cucumbers year-round via artificial lighting in geothermal greenhouses.
There is a small, cozy restaurant in one of the greenhouses where you can taste the crops. They offer tomato-based dishes, freshly-baked bread, and delicious food souvenirs in a charming environment surrounded by plants. A visit to the farm also includes an exhibition about the use of geothermal heating in Icelandic horticulture.
The farmers at Friðheimar also breed Icelandic horses. During the summer months, they have a horse show. The restaurant is open to the public every day between 12pm to 4pm, but the greenhouse visits and the horse shows are only available if booked in advance.
Hvítá River and Drumbó Base Camp
The milky-white Hvítá River is one of the most popular rivers in Iceland for rafting and river jet tours. It is also widely known by locals as an excellent location for salmon fishing.
The river originates from the glacial lake of Hvítárvatn. Meltwater from Langjökull, Iceland’s the second-largest glacier, accumulates in a lake that flows southwards as a river. This is the river that feeds the majestic Gullfoss Waterfall.
The lower parts of the river are absolutely stunning. The water has an odd, milky-blue color. Some 10 kilometers below the waterfall, the river is safe and calm enough to operate rafting and river jet tours on. The boats travel through matchless scenery as impressive basalt columns and rock formations frame the canyon. A ride through the canyon is a great way to explore this hidden gem of the Golden Circle.
Tours are available from Drumbó Base Camp (Drumboddsstaðir) as well as from Reykjavík. Drumbó is located 14 km from Geysir and 3 km from Faxi Waterfall near Route 35.
Laugarvatn Fontana Geothermal Spa
This spa is located in beautiful settings on the shore of Laugarvatn Lake, halfway between Thingvellir National Park and Geysir. Fontana is an appealing geothermal spa with a view of a natural lake and two prominent volcanoes.
The spa has several man-made pools that vary in depth, size, and temperature. There is a Finnish sauna with a large glass wall that offers amazing views over the lake. The lakeshore is just a few meters from the sauna, allowing direct access to the water so you can take a cooling bath after the sauna. There are three unique steam rooms built on top of natural hot springs and mini-geysers. You can even hear the water boiling and bubbling under your feet, beneath the ground.
After a pleasant hour or so of soaking, we recommend the excellent buffet served in the spa's restaurant. They offer a delicious selection of great local cuisine.
The Historical Town of Skálholt
Skálholt was one of the most important places in Iceland throughout the Middle Ages. From 1056 to 1785, it was one of Iceland's main cultural and political centers. It was the episcopal seat and a center of culture and education. The country's first official school was founded there in 1056 to educate clergy. There were extensive farming and smithies in the area along with a monastery.
Long ago, this little town was the largest city in Iceland. Today, Skálholt’s great historical significance attracts many visitors. The cathedral is famous for the music festival that is held over five weekends in July and August. Skáholt is located in the Golden Circle area, 25 km from Geysir and 15 km from Sólheimar Eco-Village.
Slakki Petting Zoo and Family Park
The Slakki Petting Zoo and Family Park is a lovely stop on the Golden Circle route. If you are traveling with children, this little zoo can be excellent entertainment for them. They will definitely enjoy this delightful break.
The park is bursting with cute creatures that you can get up close and personal with: sheep, puppies, kittens, rabbits, hens, chicks, piglets, calves, ducks, geese, mice, and even some aquariums. There is also a small, indoor mini-golf course and a lovely restaurant.
The family park is located on the Golden Circle, just 3 km from Skáholt and 28 km from Geysir.
Sólheimar is one of the oldest eco-villages in the world and, without a doubt, the oldest in Europe. Inspired by Christian values and the thoughts of the philosopher Rudolf Steiner, it was founded in 1930. The community has been operating ever since, with a current population of around 100 inhabitants.
Sólheimar is a world-renowned sustainable community. It is one of the largest organic vegetable producers in Iceland. They run a small store where they sell locally-produced organic vegetables, baked goods, candles, and soap as well as ceramics, handmade wooden toys, and art.
There is a cozy café in one of the geothermally-heated greenhouses and two guesthouses in the village. An educational exhibition on sustainable lifestyle and architecture is offered as well. The villagers often organize diverse events such as lecture programs, sports, music, and artistic events.
This unique village is very much worth a stop while on the Golden Circle. Sólheimar Eco-Village is located 20 km from Laugarvatn Fontana and 30 km from Selfoss in south Iceland.
When visiting Iceland, make sure to put the Golden Circle route on your bucket list. Whether you take a guided tour or choose to drive yourself in a rental car, the Golden Circle will surely be a full-day of delight during your trip to Iceland!