Exploring Iceland’s Golden Circle

by Joanna E
Exploring Iceland's Golden Circle

On our second day in Iceland, our group did a Golden Circle Classic Tour with Gray Line Tours. The Golden Circle Bus Tour was a full day tour that took us to some of the most popular sites in Iceland’s Southern Region combining nature, history, and some culture. If you’re planning a trip to Iceland, here’s a quick Golden Circle itinerary and tips for visiting Iceland’s Golden Circle in the Winter.

What is Iceland’s Golden Circle?

The Golden Circle Classic Tour is a route covering 300 kilometers looping from Reykjavík into the southern uplands of Iceland and back. The name is derived from the name of Gullfoss, which means “golden waterfall” in Icelandic. The three primary stops on the route are Thingvellir National Park, Gullfoss waterfall, and Geysir located in Haukadalur. Keep reading to learn more about these attractions.


Iceland Golden Circle Self Drive or Bus Tour?

One question we raised amongst the group was if she should do a self-guided Golden Circle tour or take a bus tour. Although we rented a car for our trip to Iceland, we still decided to do a Golden Circle Bus Tour. The pros of taking the Golden Circle bus tour was pick up and drop off to our hotel and the actual tour guide providing useful information. It also gave us the opportunity to rest in between stops. If you’re doing a self-guided Golden Circle tour during the winter make sure you’re comfortable driving in possibly snowy/windy conditions and your vehicle has snow tires. If not, there are MANY Golden Circle bus tours available for full-day, half day, and evenings.

How Long is the Golden Circle Tour Route?

The Golden Circle tour route is about 3.5 hours if you self-drive the whole loop. Since we did a bus tour the duration was around 8 hours. Our hotel pickup was at 10 am and we were back around 6 pm. This included stops at each notable site and breaks for lunch and the bathroom.

Golden Circle Stop 1 - Thingvellir National Park

Golden Circle Tour Stop 1 – Thingvellir National Park

Golden Circle Tour Stops

There are three notable stops on the Golden Circle route with other fun attractions available on site and in their surrounding areas. Here are some things to do and see on a Golden Circle tour.

Thingvellir National Park

Thingvellir (or Þingvellir) National Park is a UNESCO designated world heritage site is also the birthplace of the Althing Parliament of Viking settlers. It is also where the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates meet. Thingvellir National Park contains hiking trails as well as scuba diving in Silfra Lake which has a newly opened rift between the continental plates. Visiting Thingvellir National Park is free, but you have to pay for parking. Unfortunately, we only had an hour in Thingvellir National Park with our Golden Circle bus tour. If you’re a nature lover, I recommend doing a self-guided Golden Circle Tour at Thingvellir to spend at least a half day.

Gullfoss Waterfall

The second stop of our Golden Circle bus tour was Gullfoss waterfall. You can think of Gullfoss like Niagara Falls in Iceland. As mentioned, the name Gullfoss waterfall translates to “Golden Waterfall”. On a sunny day, the water takes on a golden-brown color and you can sometimes see rainbows. On our tour, we learned about the owner wanting to sell the waterfalls to a hydropower plant. His daughter loved the falls so much, she protested against the sale and even threatened to throw herself in. He never sold the property and there is a memorial sculpture of her near Gullfoss.

Iceland Golden Circle Stop 2 - Gullfoss Waterfall

Golden Circle Tour Stop 2 – Gullfoss Waterfall

Geysir

Iceland is known for its many natural hot springs including “The Great Geysir” which is the first known geyser to modern Europeans. It is also where the word “geyser” originated. (Think of it as the much-older Icelandic cousin to “Old Faithful” in Yellowstone National Park). Although The Great Geysir doesn’t erupt often, Strokkur and other smaller geysers do every few minutes. The water is boiling hot so keep your distance.

Golden Circle Stop 3 - Strokkur in Haukadalur Valley

Golden Circle Stop 3 – Strokkur in Haukadalur Valley

Tips on Visiting Iceland’s Golden Circle in the Winter

Although exploring Iceland’s Golden Circle is available year-round, here are some tips on visiting during the winter whether you opt for a bus tour or self-drive.

  • Check the Weather – If you’re doing a self-guided Golden Circle tour, I highly suggest checking the weather before you head out on the road. If weather conditions are bad and you’re not comfortable driving on icy roads, don’t risk it.
  • Dress Warm – It can get pretty cold especially when visiting Gullfoss Waterfall. Make sure to wear layers and cold-weather boots
  • Bring Money or Pack Food – This was the first full-day tour I’ve taken where food wasn’t included. Make sure to pack food for lunch or some money to purchase food. There are places to eat available at Gullfoss Waterfall & Geysir.

Exploring Iceland's Golden Circle

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