As we fly over the glistening silver mountains of Iceland, now would be the perfect time to reflect back on the six most spectacular highlights that the famous Golden Circle route has to offer.
From magnificent waterfalls to sparkling blue lakes, there is so much beauty within Iceland. If you haven’t quite got enough time or are worried about a mileage limit on your rental car, then there is still so much beauty you can see within just the Golden Circle route. And as it’s a full circle, you’ll be treated to different scenery throughout the drive as well, rather than having to double back on yourself.
This is my overview of the six most spectacular sights to be seen within the Golden Circle…
1. Þingvellir National Park
When driving from Reykjavik, consider starting your day at Þingvellir (Thingvellir) National Park. This is a vast parkland and World Heritage Site that will reward you with sights of bright blue lakes, hidden waterfalls, a tiny church and perfect 360° degree views with snowy mountains as a backdrop.
There is parking throughout Thingvellir costing 500 ISK (Icelandic Krónur) for the entire day. One recommendation would be to head to the Thingvellir Visitor Centre and park there as it’s not far to walk before you find the viewpoint behind the centre. On a clear day, you can see all that the park has to offer and be faced with some of the most picturesque views.
Once finished with the viewpoint, follow the wooden walkways to take you on a walk through the tectonic plates and then onto hidden waterfalls. You’ll be first faced with one pretty waterfall, but if you can spare the time; walk past this and on for about a mile until you see signs pointing you to the Oxararfoss waterfall. This spot is hidden behind mountainous rocks so you’d never know it was there if not exploring. This is quite a popular waterfall for professional photographers and with the gushing waterfall, flowing river and black rocks, you can certainly see why.
If you have an empty water bottle with you, consider filling it up from one of the mini river flows. Icelandics are very proud of how clean their water is, and when filling your bottle here; you will see for yourself just how unpolluted it really is.
Once you’ve discovered the waterfalls, follow the roads around to the other side of the lakes you can see. This will allow you to photograph the quaint church you spotted from the viewpoint above and continue on to see yet more sparkling blue lakes and flowing streams.
If following this guide, be prepared for the fact that this will end in a fairly steep climb back to the start of the circular route you’ve embarked on. During the summer, this should be no problem; but the winter brings ice, sludge and mud. This is absolutely okay for the avid or average walker (myself included) – but just something to bear in mind as we weren’t expecting how much mud there was until it was too late!
2. Strokkur Geysir
Within the Geysir Hot Spring Area is your chance to see erupting geysirs and hot springs. There are multiple springs here to marvel at as they boil like witch’s cauldrons but it’s safe to say that Strokkur Geysir (The Churn) steals the show.
At first, you’ll spot a row of tourists and photographers poised with their cameras and mobile phones – they look like they’re queuing for something! In actual fact, they are just getting ready for Strokkur to blow and erupt steam over 20 feet in the air. Once you join the throng of people to take your own photographs, you will see why they were all poised – this geysir offers little to no warning before erupting. The steam spurts very high in the air so fast that you’d miss it in the blink of an eye if you’re not careful.
Insider Tip: Stand to the left hand side of the geysir and keep an eye on it. It will be here that you’ll spot the bright azure blue bubbles it has as it’s starting to erupt. On the other side, this is hidden by the sheer amounts of steam the geysir produces so could be easily missed if you’re not prepared or in the know.
Entry and parking for the geysirs is free, although small voluntary donations are welcomed.
3. Gullfoss Waterfall
They say that Gullfoss Waterfall is the A-List star and the crown jewel of the Golden Circle – after all, the Golden Circle was named after this waterfall (Gullfoss = Golden Waterfall). And when visiting, it’s so easy to see why.
From every viewpoint available to you here, you will think or exclaim aloud the word: “Wow!” It’s really quite difficult to put into words just how incredible Gullfoss is, but I’ll do my best.
There are a series of waterfalls that combine to produce the sprawling river and large waterfalls Gullfoss is famous for. All of this is found within the middle of a vast crater, which adds to the spectacular scenery. Look at the gushing water closely, and you’ll spot bright blue pockets of water in amongst the white spray and rippling waves.
I’ve attempted to describe and photograph the incredible views of this waterfall, however, it really is something else to see it firsthand. You need to experience that “Wow!” moment for yourself.
Entry to Gullfoss is completely free – you don’t even have to pay for parking!
4. Secret Lagoon
In amongst the incredible natural views the Golden Circle has to offer is a beautiful place with very few signposts directing you to it. I am of course talking about the Secret Lagoon – the Blue Lagoon’s lesser known distant relative and oldest of all the swimming pools in Iceland.
The Secret Lagoon affords you a morning, afternoon or full day relaxing within the perfect temperature hot spring pool; allowing you to just float there and relax completely. Unlike the Blue Lagoon, the Secret Lagoon doesn’t have any timed entry so once you’re inside, you’re welcome to stay for as long or as little as you like (until 8pm closing).
With just the one pool, you may expect it to feel a little overcrowded here; but if you come at the right time, then you can have a more private swim / bob / relax / float session. With the addition of great gusts of steam erupting from the nearby hot springs, you will notice that you can barely see people on the other side of the pool from you, so it will feel more private than you expect. Plus there is the unspoken rule here that guests should be quiet and respectful of others around and I’m pleased to say this was adhered to for the entire duration I was there – hopefully you’ll have the same experience!
Once you’ve finished relaxing, take a wander along the wooden paths and see the surrounding hot springs and even your very own miniature geysir. Personally, I think this adds to the special vibe the Secret Lagoon offers.
Entry costs 2800 ISK per adult, which allows you access to the pool right up until 8pm closing time. If you need to hire towels or flip-flops, then this is an additional 500 ISK per adult – you are welcome to bring your own though (recommended).
5. Kerið Crater
Although we didn’t quite have enough time to see Kerið Crater ourselves, I wanted to include it anyway as it is still a highlight within the Golden Circle.
If you do have time, I’m reliably informed that you will see stunning views of a bright blue pool at the bottom of a large crater and that it takes just a few minutes to hike down to benches at the bottom for the best views.
Entry is 400 ISK per person so may only be worth doing if you can spare at least 20 minutes here, if not longer.
6. Icelandic Horses
Throughout the Golden Circle and actually throughout most of the Icelandic farmlands, you will see hundreds of Icelandic horses. For those of us in the UK, they can be equated to a cross between the Shetland pony and those wild ponies found grazing in the New Forest. For those elsewhere in the world, I expect seeing these horses would be an absolute wonder for you.
Most of the horses seem to be tame and welcome strokes – you’ll spot quite a few cars pulling over to view and pet them. However, it is still best to take your care with these animals and leave them alone should you spot any strange, odd or threatening behaviour from them. That said, in the 4 days we were in Iceland, we didn’t see a single horse acting oddly, so I expect any horse related accidents are in the minority.
Viewing and stroking Icelandic horses is of course free. Riding them might be another story though!
There you are – my six best and recommended highlights when visiting the Golden Circle, and actually, these are sights you really shouldn’t miss on any trip to Iceland! Each of these attractions offer something different and unique but all involve spectacular sights, beauty and magic to add to your travels to Iceland.
Although you can drive the Golden Circle route in one day (approx 6-8 hours including photographs) or have a full day tour; we opted to split these attractions up across the whole time we were in Iceland. If possible for you to do the same, I’d recommend doing that. Thingvellir National Park itself warrants a few hours to explore it on foot and if you’re hoping to see everything in one day, then you may feel a little rushed and not be able to see and appreciate all of the beauty on offer.
Anyway, enough of my ramblings – what do you think? Which is your favourite of these? Or are there any sights within the Golden Circle that I’ve missed? Share your thoughts, comments and experiences below…
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