Looping for just under 200 miles out of Reykjavík, the Golden Circle links south Iceland’s premiere sights. You’ll be treated to erupting geysers, waterfalls that cleave green fields in two and historic national parks that bear open wound signs of continental disagreement. However, while the Gullfoss Waterfall, Thingvellir National Park and Haukadalur Valley are considered the backbone of the route, this guide will introduce you to some of the region’s lesser-known hot spring gems.
Of course, this being a Nordic country, it’s also important to remember the best time to visit Iceland. Summer brings surprising verdure; winter pretty snow blankets, and spring sees waterfalls at their thundering best, fuelled by the snow melt.
The Icelandic capital is a destination in its own right. Despite its diminutive size, its colourful houses and designer favourites pack in burgeoning art movements, rich gastronomy and a nightlife scene that’s gaining international attention. And, it’s not just Reykavík’s artisan cafés and bars that are making waves. The snow-fringed moonscape of its famed Blue Lagoon makes for otherworldly heated soaks while, come the summer, its whale watching tours are some of the best around.
Thingvellir National Park
As the meeting point of the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates, millennia of geological activity has formed a colossal rift valley, speckled with rivers and waterfalls and suffixed by the country’s largest lake. You can trace for yourself the seismic activity manifested in dramatic fissures and cragged faults. It’s the ideal backdrop for camping, hiking, fishing and horseback riding.
But, there’s more to Thingvellir than its remarkable geography; it’s a place of true cultural significance. The world’s first democratic parliament was founded here in the 10th century and, today, you can still the stone ruins of this unique saga.
This geothermal valley is Iceland at its violent best. Unsurprisingly, Geysir – the etymological source of erupting spouts the world over – has been bringing in the tour groups since the 18th century for its size and origin story. However, we recommend next-door Strokkur. Erupting every ten minutes, you can almost set your watch by its fierce outbursts. Linger a little longer to walk among the area’s hot springs, mud pots and steaming fumaroles, which have been unfairly overshadowed by their noisy neighbours.
Translating directly as the Golden Falls, this is the country’s best-loved waterfall. Its double cascade zig zags furiously, plunging over 30 metres in the process, before disappearing – as quickly as it had arrived – into a narrow ravine. In photos, you’ll often see rainbows splashed over it and you’ll be forgiven for dismissing this as promotional trickery. However, on sunny days, it’s common for its giant kickback of misty spray to play host to every colour in light’s visual spectrum. But, don’t worry if you’re visiting in winter as delicate icicles add a picturesque glitter.
The Golden Circle’s last stop comes as a relaxing counterpoint to Iceland’s otherwise unsettled topography. Hike out into its valleys to join the locals in unwinding with a dip in its naturally heated waters. Here, lava fields and green hills are punctured by geothermal vents and rivers. In the ruthlessly efficient Nordic tradition, they’ve even harnessed its steam in greenhouses and gardens with the town’s botany and horticulture attracting thousands of visitors to its annual flower show. Return now to Reykjavík or explore Iceland’s south further.