The Golden Circle is, without a doubt Iceland’s most famous round trip. Along this 300 km long tour you’ll see several world-famous landmarks and nearly all of the Iceland’s most famous attractions can be found along the route. If you have seen only one image from Iceland in your life, it is most likely that it has been taken of one of the sights along this route. Departing from Reykjavik, there are various different tour operators offering Golden Circle tours. Some take you to only the three biggest attractions in three hours, whereas some take you to see a number of smaller and maybe less known attractions during a full-day tour. The options are countless and it is up to you what kind of a tour would suit you best.
The Golden circle passes through three well-known places of interest: Thingvellir National Park, Haukadalur geothermal area, where among other things Geysir and Strokkur are located, as well as Iceland’s most famous waterfall – the Gullfoss. Kerið crater is one of the most popular ones of the “additional” sights. Interestingly, Iceland’s probably best known attraction – the Blue Lagoon is not along this route.
Although we did not take the actual Golden Circle tour on our trip, we did visit all of the above-mentioned attractions. Before continuing any further, I must say that there are not that many countries in the world where there are that many world famous attractions within this short a distance from each other. Iceland is pretty unique in many ways and so were all these attractions. However, for years, I’ve been come across countless articles about how amazing these attractions are and how they take your breath away. I’ll be honest here, I’m just not that kind of a person that goes head over heels about something that easily, so the attraction must really be something special before I go WOW! So bearing this fact in mind and knowing that there were some really high expectations about these attractions, there was a rather huge potential for a big disappointment. So, how did I end up thinking about these afterwards?
Þingvellir national park
Þingvellir National Park is included in the Golden Circle, mainly because of the country’s first Parliament’s ruins are found here. However, the area is special also because here you’ll find the mid-Atlantic ridge, the place where two tectonic plates diverge. The area has been formed over the years as the tectonic plates gradually drift apart and new grounds emerge between them.
We visited Thingvellir, but only saw the ruins of the Parliament from a distance. Instead, we got to do something more exciting – a dive between the continents in Silfra fissure. The day was a rainy one, but despite the poor visibility, it was clear that Þingvellir is something pretty special – with rugged and rocky, yet really beautiful landscapes, it was no wonder that Þingvellir is included in the top attractions. Mind me, same type of landscapes can be seen elsewhere, so the landscape is not unique to Iceland, but it is pretty unique to world. So, if you are on a tight schedule, it is easy to say that Þingvellir is worth the visit and if not, you can easily find similar places further away from Reykjavik that are also located on the ridge…
Haukadalur geothermal area is known as the home of Geysir. Only few, however, know that the original Great Geysir itself is no longer active, and the one that people come to see is Stokkur, that is located only some 50m away from the original one. Stokkur is a really easy attraction, as it erupts on a regular pace. The geyser sprouts thermal water high up in the air every 7-10 minutes and the waters can reach the heights of up to 40 meters at best. I’m sure that on a sunny day the sight can be something pretty special, seeing the column of water sprinting up towards the blue sky. Even during our visit, when the sky was covered in clouds and with a white background, it still looked pretty amazing. Most fun was watching the eruption slowly gathering its power, seeing the water mass slowly starting to live its own life before the big splash. Watching the eruptions you easily feel like a little kid again – going wow! at the same time as you jump up and down with excitement as you see the eruption, shouting “yay, once more!”… Yup, surely this is worth a visit!
I did already write about Iceland’s waterfalls here. Gullfoss was a really nice one, but I’ve got to say, this was perhaps the one of the Golden Circle tourist attractions of which I was expecting the most. And as you know, high expectations easily turn into a disappointment, no matter how amazing the place or thing is… I can’t say that Gullfoss was a disappointment, but it was close to that. The fall, in all its glory and mighty roaming was really something, but still left me a bit cold (and wet after standing on the lower viewing platform just next to the water). When leaving Gullfoss, I could not help but wonder what it would’ve required for me to really go WOW in front of it.. I guess, with the high expectations nothing less from polar bears juggling with a few cods on top of the falls, I guess.. 😉 But to be fair, the Gullfoss just is something you have to see if you visit Iceland and I’d not suggest anyone to skip it, just do not expect it to blow your mind away.
Like most of the attraction on this list, Kerið is one of those really easy attractions to visit. The parking lot is right next to the path taking you around the walls of the crater, and one can easily walk around it in 10 minutes. So no heavy climbing or long walking to get a good view over the crater. That is, unless you do want to go to the lake. Then you need to do a bit of climbing of course to get back to the car. The landscape here (like in many other place) was pretty awesome. All the different shades of red, green and brown around the crater created a beautiful color splendor. When visiting the crater, it is easy to see that this is not an official Golden Circle destination anymore, as there was barely no people around compared to, for example, Gullfoss or Stokkur area. One interesting fact is that the crater lake is the only one with an entrance feel. The two euro fee is not a bad one, but it really surprised us – why does this one have an entrance fee but not any other place? I mean, we would have been happy to pay the fee for every single sight we visited, so we weren’t unhappy, just confused when we saw the entrance.. Despite the entrance fee, this was a beautiful place and I can easily recommend everyone to stop by if you happen to drive past it. Otherwise, I’d not say it is worth the effort to take a huge detour just because of this.
I have to say that the Blue Lagoon was quite a disappointment! This place is glorified in every single magazine and all over media. This place attracts more visitors than any other one in Iceland. Surely the Blue Lagoon is listed by the National Geographic as one of the 25 wonders of world and is pretty unique. But somehow it still left me cold, despite the warm waters. Just like Gullfoss. We went to the Blue Lagoon on the last evening of our trip, with the idea that this would be a nice and relaxing way to finish off the perfect holiday. Of course, it is virtually impossible not to feel relaxed after swimming in the warm waters, but somehow it was still impossible for me to fully relax. The place was too crowded (even in October) and too artificial (despite the pools being natural). Somehow it just did not feel like a natural place with all the construction going on around the pools, with the perfectly maintained buildings and countless staff members running around, while people were playing with their cameras. The place just is not authentic, at least not any longer. All this combined with an entrance fee of 35€, I just felt disappointed. Like I mentioned earlier, if there would be something I’d change on our trip, it would’ve been skipping Blue Lagoon and finding an other place where to bathe in thermal waters. I mean, in Iceland, there are a good number of options for this.
I do understand that the world-famous attractions are not world-famous attractions without a reason. And I’m not saying they are not worth a visit either.. But… Slowly, I’ve started to realize that the smaller and less known places are those that I actually end up enjoying the most and these are the ones that offer the best experiences. This goes for Iceland especially, as the best experiences on our trip came from those places that are not regularly included on the top 10 lists of Iceland’s best attractions…