The most popular day tour in Iceland is the Golden Circle. This is a looped road, full of Iceland’s amazing nature and historical wonders.
I often go on this tour to take pictures and to enjoy the scenery. It is about 300 Km long, so be sure to block out a whole day for this experience. In this post, I will describe this route and mention some of its interesting sights.
Please dress warm. Do not ruin your trip because you are not warm enough. Here you can read more about Icelandic weather.
If you are on your own and have a rental car, you can stop wherever you want and spend as much time as you want. But with the tour buses, you will only stop at few places and for only as long as the tour guide decides. If you are going to stop at all the places I tell you about, you will need more time. One day is not enough, but if you are staying in Reykjavik, you can visit some of the places nearby, since they are not so far away. If on the other hand you prefer a guided tour you can book it here
First of all, we start on the ring road and its number is #1, and we will travel east. Follow the sign to VIK to get out of the city. You are not going to VÍK at this time, but you will need to head in that direction.
When you are on road #1 traveling east, and when you pass the last gas station, you are on the right track. As you exit Reykjavík, you will notice how far you can see. You will see the beautiful mountains all around you. There is no forest to block your scenery. You soon get the feeling you are almost alone in this world, and it is a good feeling.
On your left (south) is the water reservation for Reykjavik called Gvendarbrunnar (Gvendur is a man’s name and brunnar means “wells”). There is also an outdoor recreation area called Heiðmörk. In Heiðmörk, you will find many hiking trails and a great area to take walks or to ride your bicycle. Many trees have been planted there. People can go there and have a BBQ together and play in nature.
On your way on the Golden Circle, you will realize how much geothermal power we have; if you compare it to the oil wells in the world, you will understand how rich this nation is. Our hot water is our oil, except it is clean and renewable energy.
Bláfjöll (Mt. Blue)
As you travel east, you will see great mountains on your left (south) This is Bláfjöll (Mt. Blue) with the great skiing for the residents of greater Reykjavik. If you are going to the ski area or to the Þríhnjúkagígar, the volcano chamber, you need to take the turn onto road #417 on your right.
The highest peak of Bláfjöll is called Vifilsfell, and there is a hiking trails that leads up it. Have a look at this map to find it. Close by is the Small Coffee House (Litla kaffisstofan) where you can ask for directions. It is a nice place to stop and have something to eat.
Inside the Volcano
In this area is also Þríhjúkagígar, a volcano chamber. This is a must-see! People are lowered down into the chamber in an open lift through a very narrow opening to the bottom of the chamber, some hundred meters down. But first, there is some walking to do from the parking area. You need to be fit and ready for a good trek.
The volcano tour is operated by 3H Travel, a fully licensed tour operator in Iceland. You can book a tour here.
I have not entered the chamber, but my nephew, who is a professional photographer, went and ended up publishing a book with very nice photos he took while there. You can see this book in all the best bookstores in Iceland. My nephew’s name is Kristján Maack. Have a look at his photos from Þríhnjúkagígar and many more.
This power station is the third-largest geothermal power station in the world. On the other side of the mountain Hengill (only 11 KM apart), is another power station called Nesjavellir. Nestjavellir is at Þingvellir/Thingvellir National Park, on the way back home from this Golden Circle tour. You can visit the power station and take a guided tour and learn more about geothermal power. The capacity of this power station is 303 MW of electricity and 133 MWth of hot water for Reykjavik district heating. When you take a shower in Reykjavik, you can smell the sulfur from the hot water.
Just 5 more minutes on road #1 on your left is an old ski hut. It is not open, but if you drive up to it, you will find some small hot springs. Be careful: the water is very hot and can easily burn you. If you have children on your trip, you have to watch out for them.
Now, you climb on top of the mountain and across it. You can see many strokes of hot water on your way, and when you start your decent, you will see the village Hveragerði. The road down the mountain is called Kambar. There are many hot springs and many greenhouses throughout the village where people grow all kinds of vegetable and flowers. This village is always nice to visit. If you go into the library, you will find a crack in the floor covered with glass. You can have a look into this crack and see how deep it is. This crack opened in a big earthquake some years ago.
There is one restaurant in the village that cooks all the food in a hot spring or by using the heat from it.
The next town is Selfoss, but if you want to keep on the Golden Circle, you will turn off road #1 just some hundred meters from Selfoss. Selfoss is a busy village. You can find all kinds of services there, such as grocery stores, bakeries, banks, hotels and mush more. You can take a look and maybe visit at a later time. It is only about 50 KM from Reykjavík.
If you do want to keep on the Golden Circle, turn left on road #35. This area is called Grímsnes. You will find a number of summer houses and two 18-hole golf courses in this area. This road will take you almost all the way to Geysir. You need to turn right on road #37 later on.
You will see road #36 on your right. Road #36 takes you to Þingvellir/Thingvellir National Park. Do not take that turn. You will get to Þingvellir/Thingvellir National Park on your way back.
About 10 minutes after your turn on road #35, you will arrive at Kerið Crater. It was formed about 6,500 years ago. It is oval, about 270m long, 170m wide and 55m deep. It is just by the road. Park your car and have a look. There is a small fee to enter the area.
This is a group of Cradles on your right soon after you leave Kerið. I am sorry to say we have taken a lot of red gravel and pumice from the hills and we have spoiled this area.
Next, you will pass a small village called Borg, and soon after that, you will come to a road intersection. Road #37 is on you left. This road will take you to Laugarvatn and all the way to Gullfoss and Geysir, but we will not turn off #35 just yet; keep going. On your right you can turn into road #31 and visit Skálholt.
Skálholt is one of the most historical places in Iceland. The present cathedral was build in 1963 and is the 10th church to stand on this site. It is worth the visit to go into the cathedral. Above the altar is a mosaic by Nína Tryggvadóttir, and the glass artwork is by Gerður Helgadóttir.
This is a cultural and educational center. The Summer Music Festival started in 1975 and has attracted many skilled musicians. Icelandic and foreign choirs have performed at Skálholt Cathedral.
Reykolt is a small village built up around geothermal power, which was discovered in the early 1900s. Today, there is a large greenhouse called Friðheimar, specializing in tomato production, vegetables and flowers. In the village, you will find schools, stores and other services.
You can go swimming, take a shower and have a look at the restaurants.
Soon after Reyholt, you will come to a road intersection. Road #37 runs right and left. Take a right turn onto #37, and in a few minutes, you will arrive in the Geysir area. Stay focused on the road and find a parking space for your car. Do not let the eruption from Strokkur affect your driving.
Geysir was the largest hot spring in the world, but it is no longer active. The hot spring Geysir in Yellowstone Park takes it names from Geysir in Iceland. When you walk up to Geysir, you will see the big hole in the ground with boiling water in it, but it will not erupt. Its stroke used to go up 70 meters every few minutes. We still have a large active geothermal hot spring in the area, and it is only meters away from Geysir; it is called Strokkur.
Strokkur is the most visited geothermal hot spring. It erupts every 8–10 minutes and reaches heights of 20 meters. All around this area are hot mud holes and smaller hot springs.
Be very careful not to step into the burning hot water. Keep on the pathway to be safe.
After a close look in this area, it is nice to sit down at the restaurant and have a cup of coffee and something to eat while you enjoy the eruptions from Strokkur. There is also a nice souvenir shop to have a look at.
You can also enjoy a nice lunch or dinner at Hotel Geysir across the road.
When you leave the Geysir area, you will see Gullfoss, our largest and most beautiful waterfall. Gullfoss is only about 5 minutes further on the same road you came by. Look for the sign Gullfoss on your left.
Gullfoss is in the river Hvítá. This is the same river you crossed to peek into the village Selfoss on your way. It is 32 meters high and the average flow rate is 140m3/sec. You will sense the power.
Be careful. The mist will make the cliffs slippery, especially in the winter. DO NOT climb over the fench.
You do not need to go all the way up to it; you even enjoy it better from a safe distance.
My words cannot fully describe its beauty; you just have to see it for yourself. Enjoy!
The way back…
Now, we do not go any further inland. We turn around and you can choose the way back. We can go back the same way we came or we can go to Lake Laugarvatn and then to Þingvellir/Thingvellir National Park and then on to Reykjavík. After Þingvellir/Thingvellir National Park, we can decide to take a visit at Nesjavellir power station and follow the pipeline into Reykjavik. Or we can visit Nesjavallavirkjun at another time. It is only 30 minutes away from Reykjavik.
When you are still on road #35, at the intersection, take a right turn if you are going back the same road. But if you‘d like to continue to Lake Laugarvatn, keep straight. The road changes from #35 to #37.
Laugarvatn is a small village af about 200 people. Originally formed around schools, there used to be 3 schools in this district: one home economics school, one sports school and one college.
Laugarvatn is popular as a summer resort. The environment is very pleasant, surrounded by hills, lava fields and a small planted forest.
Today it is best known to an an extension of the Gold Circle Tour. Lake Laugarvatn is very shallow, and you can rent a boat and fishing gear in the summer.
There is a geothermal spring on the shore, and they have built a spa called Fontana Spa.
In Fontana Spa, you can relax in the excellent geothermal swimming pool and in the three steam rooms, which sit directly over the bubbling hot posts and have almost 100% humidity.
When you leave the Laugavatn area, there is an intersection on the road. If you continue on road #37, it will take you to #35 again and then straight to road #1 and to Reykjavik.
But if you’d like to continue to Thingvellir National Park, take a left turn to road #365. Lyngdalsheiði is a heathy land between Lake Laugarvatn and Þingvellir/Thingvellir National Park.
On this road, to your right, there are some caves. Outlaw-families lived in them for some years early in the 20th century.
Þingvellir/Thingvellir National Park
This is the heart of Iceland. It has a stunning landscape with beautiful mountains all around and the largest and deepest lake in Iceland.
Thingvellir National Park was designated as a protected area by a special law that was passed by the Alþing on May 7, 1928.
Thingvellir National Park is one of three places in Iceland on the World Heritage list http://whc.unesco.org/en/about/
The other two places are Surtsey and Vatajökull.
I recommend you stop at the Sevice Center and pick up information about Thingvelli National Park. Besides enjoying the beautiful surroundings, you can do angling in the lake, go horseback riding, dive in one of the lava cracks or go hiking.
The continental drift between North America and Eurasian Plates can be clearly seen in the cracks or faults, which are all arround. The largest one is Almannagjá, and there is a road down the crack. It is now closed, but it was open for traffice some years ago.
Do not miss Flosagjá, a crack full of ice-cold, clear water. You can drop a coin and make a wish. Silfra is another crack full of water, and people dive and snorkle in this crack. Do not try this on your own. Go on a guided tour.
Thingvellir is a historical site. Our parliament was founded at Thingvellir in 930, and it is the oldest surviving parliament in the world. The parliament took place in an open-air assembly from 930 to 1798. Today, the Iceland Parliament Althingi is in the city center of Reykjavik.
If you still have time and energy, I recommend you visit Nesjavallavirkjun. It is the geothermal power station I mentioned earlier. It might be wise to go straight to Reykjavik and visit this area again at a later time; it is only 30 minutes away from Reykjavik.
But if you decide to visit Nesjavallavirkjun, turn off the road to your right at the intersection and take road #360 to Nesjavellir.
The Nesjavellir Geothermal Power Station is the second-largest geothermal power station in Iceland. The facility is located 177 m above sea level close to Hengill Volcano. Earlier in this post, I was talking about Hellisheiðavirkju at the beginning of the Golden Circle. Hellisheiðavirkjun is only 11 Km away, due south.
You can take a guided tour and learn more about out geothermal resources.
I recommend you keep on this road after you visit to Nesjavallavirkjun and climb up the mountain and follow the pipeline to Reykjavik. You can also turn around back to road #365 and head to Reykjavik.
I hope this information was helpful
There are many other interesting places on the Golden Circle route. If you are on your own, you can do whatever you want.
You could also take a tour with one of many companies offering the Golden Circle Tours. They have excelent guides with great knowledge of the country.
I would love to hear from you and learn about what place you liked most.
Please do not hesitate to leave a comment or a question below.
Founder of FactAboutIceland.com