The Golden Circle is one of the most visited regions in Iceland. It is a true tourist hotspot, the area being conveniently located near the capital Reykjavik and home to 3 of the most popular sites in Iceland.
The Golden Circle extends over 70 km at its widest and runs from Thingvellir National Park in the west to Gullfoss Falls in the east. The “Golden Circle” is a recent name in Iceland and is understood to group 3 major tourist sites: the Thingvellir National Park, the Geysir geyser zone, and the Gullfoss waterfall.
In this article, we'll cover:
The three natural sites that make up the Golden Circle are all stunning and definitely worth a visit. Below we will go into detail on these different natural features.
Thingvellir National Park is an iconic place for Icelanders, steeped in history, in fact the most important site in the entire history of the Icelandic Nation. This naturally-formed amphitheater was the birthplace of the Alþing, considered to be the oldest parliament in Europe, created as early as the year 930.
It has become an official UNESCO World Heritage site since 2004.
Don't miss your chance to see this piece of world history, and the park is particularly appreciated for its hikes. Located right on the border of the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates, there is significant seismic activity in the area as evidenced by the faults and cracks present throughout the site. Additional information in our article dedicated to Thingvellir.
If the name “Geysir” sounds strangely similar to our English word geyser, well that's because we stole it from Icelandic. It describes the stunning phenomenon of hot water gushing from the depths of the earth. In Icelandic, Geysir means “to gush”. The “Grand Geysir” itself is no longer active on a regular basis, although on rare occasions, especially during large earthquakes (or when soap is added to the water), it can wake up spectacularly.
The geyser that currently still "gushes" today is the Strokkur, a hole filled with blue water surrounded by a simple rope to indicate the danger zone. When it erupts, the water bulges upwards into a beautiful bubble that crests the edge before exploding in a jet that can reach up to 30 m. Additional information in our article dedicated to Geysir.
Gullfoss (the Golden Fall) is a succession of two impressive falls on the Hvítá River. Its name comes from the rainbow that can often be seen above. 32 m high and 70 m wide, it is one of the most beautiful waterfalls in the country. Its flow reaches about 130 m³/s, making it one of the most powerful in Iceland. Find out more in our article about Gullfoss.
Whatever the means of transport, reaching the Golden Circle is easy as pie and the region is accessible all year round.
The Golden Circle is so easy to get to by car it has driven a lot of tourism to the region. Departing from Reykjavík, Road 36 leads to Thingvellir in just 45 minutes. Thingvellir is often the first site people visit upon arriving, then it's a 70km drive from Thingvellir from Gullfoss to the east, with Geysir at the halfway point, for a total 1h drive by car.
Each site provides parking, which is convenient, but in summer however as the sites are very popular, go there at the end of the day or early morning to be sure to get a spot.
Buses allow you to get to the Golden Circle via line 610. Additional information on bus lines: http://www.publictransport.is/
For visitors who do not have a rental vehicle, you should know that organized excursions offer half or full-day Golden Circle tours from Reykjavík. Here are a few suggestions:
The Golden Circle is accessible all year round. Even in the dead of winter the roads to the various tourist sites are mostly open and clear. The various sites are also very charming during this season: Gullfoss is partly frozen in winter, for a spectacular effect.
To fully enjoy the Golden Circle, you'll need a full day or a half day for those who don't want to hike around Thingvellir too extensively. For tourists who wish to visit other sites of interest in the region (see below) you will need an additional half-day.
A visit to Gullfoss rarely takes more than an hour, but it takes a little longer to walk around the Geysir site. Finally, Thingvellir National Park offers fairly long hikes and there is plenty to do in the park.
Ideally, you should try to sleep nearby, particularly because in Geysir it really is preferable to visit the site in the evening and thus avoid the crowds.
Besides the three Golden Circle sites (shown in blue on the map), there are a range of other interesting things to see. As you can see above, organized excursions combine their tours with visits to other sites near the Golden Circle. Whether with a tour guide or on your own, it would be a shame to miss them:
For diving enthusiasts, Silfra is a legendary location. In fact, Silfra is considered one of the 3 top diving spots in the world. The dive site is located over a rift between the European and American plates! The car park to access the dive site is located in Thingvellir Park. Learn more about Silfra.
The Secret Lagoon, known as Gamla Laugin in Icelandic, is located in Fluðir near Geysir. It is a popular hot water bath, more often compared to Myvatn Nature Baths than to the Blue Lagoon as it is much smaller and less touristy. Learn more about the Secret Lagoon.
Laugarvatn is another very modern complex that offers relaxation in hot springs. Located in Laugarvatn since 1929, Fontana is very popular with Icelandic people, including for its restaurant which offers geothermally heated dishes. More information about Laugarvatn Fontana.
Located halfway between Thingvellir and Geysir, the splendid Brúarfoss (or Brúarárfoss) waterfall is definitely worth a visit. A short 45-minute walk will get you to its magnificent turquoise waters. Learn more about Brúarfoss.
Kerid is a small crater located south of Thingvellir. This crater features at its heart a small lake with beautiful deep blue contrasts due to the varying depth of 7 to 15m; this is known locally as a maar. An oval measuring approximately 270m by 170m wide, the total depth of the crater from the rim is approximately 55 m. Learn more about Kerið.
As the points of interest are all located within a small perimeter, it can save you time and money to find nearby accommodation. Whenever possible, we recommend you stay overnight near Geysir or Gullfoss rather than Thingvellir for example.
Indeed, the first two sites are the most popular and if you sleep nearby, that means you can go there easily in the evening when the majority of tourists have left. Also, these two sites really are worth admiring in the evening light in both summer and winter, as the effect is superb.
For those looking for hotels or guesthouses, there are several in the immediate vicinity of Geysir. The Litli Geysir Hotel, for example, has great value for money and is ideally located 200 meters from the entrance to Geysir.
It is also a strategic choice to sleep very close to Gullfoss so that you can admire the falls in the evening or very early morning and have the place almost to yourself.
The Gullfoss hotel has an excellent reputation and is located only 4km from the waterfall of the same name.
The Gljásteinn Skálinn Hostel is another option for travelers on a budget but has excellent value nonetheless; this youth hostel is only 5 minutes away by car.
Finally, a bit more secluded, south of the falls but about 20 minutes away, the Jaðar Holiday House is a spacious holiday home ideal for family vacations.