As I wrote in my first post about our weekend trip to Reykjavik, we only had a very limited amount of time – one and a half days, to be exact – in Iceland.
Wanting to make the most of it as first time visitors, we decided to take one of those day tours around the Golden Circle, which would take us to see three of the most famous natural phenomena in Southern Iceland.
What is the Golden Circle Tour?
There are a myriad of different tours available, but the Golden Circle Tour is the most popular of them. It takes you on a round trip from Reykjavik. Along the way are three stops: Thingvellir National Park, the Geysir hot springs, and Gullfoss, the Golden Waterfall.
We opted for a tour that ended with a 2 hour visit to a local spa, where we could rest and recharge after hours of sitting on a bus and walking around. It started around 8:30 in the morning, and we were dropped off at around 5pm.
Thingvellir National Park
This park comprises a large stretch of land northeast of Reykjavik. The park lies in a rift valley, where the Northern American and Eurasian tectonic plates meet – and actually slowly drift apart. It was here that the first Icelandic parliament, Althing, was established around 930 AD.
The stop is probably the least immediately spectacular on the tour, but the landscape is impressive. From the vantage point, you look out over a grassy plain, interspersed with smaller and larger streams of water, and surrounded by massive cliffs of black lava stone. In the valley, there’s a small church and a row of three white houses, and in the background, you can spot large, snow-covered mountains.
The day we were visiting, a Sunday in mid-February, there was some misty rain, which meant lots of fog, but I didn’t mind at all, since it gave the scenery such a eerie, mysterious feel.
Geysir hot springs
The second stop on the Golden Circle Tour was the hot springs area of Haukaladur. The largest hot spring in Iceland, named Geysir, has been inactive for around 300 years, but this could change any moment, for example due to an earthquake.
The largest currently active hot spring, called Strokkur, is the second largest in the world, and shoots a fountain of hot water up to40 meters into the air roughly every 5 minutes. It’s really a sight to see – unfortunately my camera didn’t fully cooperate!
Around Strokkur are dozens of other, smaller hot springs. Most of them aren’t active, at least they don’t erupt, but they produce hot steam, and the trademark smell of sulfur hangs over the entire area.
In the geothermal area, you’ll also find a larger cafeteria, as this is where most buses will take their lunch break.
The final sightseeing spot on the Golden Circle Tour was Gullfoss, the Golden Waterfall. It is huge and crashes down in two levels. We were told that when the sun shines, you can see where the waterfall got its name, as the water will shimmer in golden hues. On a cloudy February Sunday, the water looked blue, though!
There are two vantage points, one on a bridge at the top of the waterfall, and one facing the lower level, separated by a wooden staircase. Gullfoss is absolutely breathtaking, and I’d have loved to get even closer than we were!
Our final stop, on our way back to Reykjavik, was the Fontana Spa, a natural spa built on top of hot springs, with thermal pools, saunas, and even an ice cold lake, accessible directly from the spa. All of the pools and saunas were outdoors, so the first steps out of the changing room were quite a challenge! But once we plunged down into the balmy pools, all was forgotten.
We also tried the steam sauna, which is built directly over a hot spring and uses the spring’s steam, and even dipped into the lake, which can’t have been much above freezing temperature, before retreating to the safe, warm natural pool again.
The spa also bakes Icelandic rye bread according to the traditional method, where the dough is placed in a pot, tightly sealed, and buried in a hot spring for 24 hours. It’s not an exact science, and it doesn’t always come out perfectly, but it’s fascinating to see these old methods up close.
Would I recommend the Golden Circle Tour?
It really depends. My overall impression was: good, but way too touristy and crowded. I usually loathe those tourist traps where you’re just shuttled around in a giant bus and everyone gets out their selfie sticks. I did enjoy all four of the stops, but everywhere we got, there were eight large buses parked already, and tour guides were herding their tourists to make the next departure time.
If you, like us, have a very limited time available in Iceland and want to see these sights, a Golden Circle Tour is a viable option. You’ll definitely get good value for money, and you’ll be able to tick three must-sees off your list.
But I’d clearly recommend to rethink and budget a bit more time, which would allow you to rent a car and drive around yourself, maybe exploring some smaller hot springs or waterfalls a bit farther from the city, without the tourist overkill.
I’ve caught Iceland fever – I’d love to explore the island for a week or so during the summer, maybe even experiencing the midnight sun, and we may take a stopover on our October trip to the US to try and see some northern lights…
Have you taken a Golden Circle Tour, or ventured out on your own? I’d love to hear about your experiences!