The Golden Circle Route in Iceland refers to a popular tourist route that starts and ends at Reykjavik, covering a wide variety of sights that Iceland has to offer all in the space of a few hours drive. The popularity of the Golden Circle route is due to its proximity to Iceland’s capital city, Reykjavik. Heaps and heaps of Golden Circle day tours leave Reykjavik every day, making it a really convenient option for tourists who are visiting the country for only a short amount of time and want to see as much as they can of Iceland’s varying landscapes.
The typical stops on the Golden Circle Route are – Pingvellier National Park, Geysir Geothermal Area and Gullfoss. This is what most tours do. Without stopping, the Golden Circle Route takes as little as 3.5 hours to drive – but if you are doing a self drive like us, you can end up spending a good majority of the day exploring the area as you can add in a lot more sights.
My tip for visiting the Golden Circle is that there are actually better sights out there than what the Golden Circle offers. If you only had time for the Golden Circle, then of course that’s what you will naturally want to go for. But if you’re doing a week in Iceland, chances are you will have seen the same types of sights but better elsewhere. Think of the Golden Circle much like a bit of a ‘taster’ of Iceland all congregated in one small area. That said, there are also some unique spots on the Golden Circle that you can’t see easily elsewhere – like the famous geysirs and the conveniently located Kerid crater.
We spent a good part of the day driving around the Golden Circle route (we were on route from Landmannalaugar to Snaefellsnes Peninsula, both of which I will blog about next) and here are some of the attractions we stopped by..
1. GEYSIR GEOTHERMAL AREA
The Geyser Geothermal area encompasses two major geysers in the area. The Great Geysir and Strokkur Geysir. They’re about 50 metres apart from each other but unfortunately, The Great Geysir is now largely dormant and only erupts every few days. Hence, the more popular geysir to visit is Strokkur Geysir. It’s one of the more interactive natural wonders in Iceland and is kind of like watching a show as the waters erupt from the ground. When we were there, I would say it erupted about every 5-ish minutes, sending all this steam and boiling water in the air. A note on the water – it is hot (and smelly) so be sure to keep your distance. We watched at least 5-6 eruptions here before we wanted to move on. So much fun.
2. GULFOSS FALLS
After spending the first part of my trip exploring all the breathtaking waterfalls on the South Coast, I was a little underwhelmed by Gulfoss Falls. I mean, it is completely magical, massive and nothing like I’ve ever seen before and I can see its appeal if you only had one day in Iceland and were doing the Golden Circle tour. But if you’re seeing all the other sights, this would be one of the less impressive ones. In particular, the intense crowd of hundreds really made it feel all the less appealing. I love seeing natural wonders in their natural habitat – basically in silence and only a handful a people. Here it wasn’t so much the case with tour buses dropping off people every few minutes. Anyway, you can walk down along the side of the waterfall down a few steps to see it all up close. Like all waterfalls go, you’re going to get wet so be sure to pack waterproofs and maybe look into protecting your camera too. Mine got a bit wet, as you can see!
Bruarfoss is not typically on the Golden Circle list of things to do as it’s actually near private property and very hard to access – there’s almost no where to park. But it totally should be a stopover if you are doing a self-drive. I loved this waterfall so, so much better than Gulfoss. It’s one of those off the beaten path locations and is extremely incredibly difficult to find. On our mission to locate it, we bumped into about three other cars of lost tourists driving into the same dead ends trying to locate the same falls. Here’s my major tip. In Google Maps, do not put in Bruarfoss. This will lead you to a private driveway up to someone’s farm and end up with you doing an awkward 3 point turn in their driveway as you awkwardly try to get out of another lost car’s way whilst the actual owner of the property is trying to get out of their property (been there, done that, so sorry). Instead, put in Bruarfoss Waterfall Access Bridge and follow the directions to this. This should get you to the right area. Drive as far as you can until you reach some parking spaces that don’t look like private spots. Then, hope for the best that there are people around to lead you through the bushes to uncover this magical gem because from that obscure parking spot to the waterfall itself, you’re going to have to climb past barbed wire and walk through unmarked paths to get there – though the walk itself is not long, maybe 5-10 minutes max. So another tip would be to go during the middle of the day / when you think it is busiest so that there are others around helping point you in the right direction. If there’s no one there, just follow the sounds of the water.
You’ll be greeted by one of the bluest of blues you’ll ever see and to think this is basically near some one’s back garden is ridiculous.
4. KERID CRATER
Also along the Golden Circle route is Kerid Crater. It’s a stunning volcanic crater made up of red rocks contrasting with the deep blue colour of the lake at the middle of it. Entry fee is 400ISK each and it takes about 30 minutes to walk around the entire crater along the top. You can also take the steps to the bottom and walk around the lake as well. It’s an interesting spot to think it used to be a volcano sitting here.
If you’re heading back from the Golden Circle to Reykjavik, then a really recommend route is Nesjavallaleio – it’s basically a scenic stretch of road from Pingvellir to Reykjavik. There’s no need to stop along it, but rather enjoy the view when driving. We loved the sights we saw on Nesjavallaleio – it was the perfect way to end our time exploring the Golden Circle.
Note: We decided to skip Pingvellir National Park because we didn’t have enough time and felt that the other locations we were visiting around the country allowed us to uncover similar sights to here. Of course though, there is the Silfra Fissure which is unique to Pingvellir – a place where you can snorkel between 2 tectonic plates. So if you do have time, do check it out.
Next up: we’re going into some less visited places of Iceland.. stay tuned for our next post!
Photography: Connie Cao & Rowena Cao