I’ve been dying to make an Iceland post ever since I went a few months ago. Pretty sure that I spent my entire time in the country with my mouth open in disbelief because it was just that surreal. It was a bit too cold to have my mouth open for very long… but you get the point.
Iceland’s Golden Circle itinerary is the perfect adventure for someone who only has a short amount of time in Iceland. It offers visitors a taste of the wonders of Iceland while giving them a sense of security to be able to see lots in a short time.
Not gonna lie… the Golden Circle is the most popular route in Iceland. So you aren’t going to have it ALL to yourself. However, there are only three main places along the circle that the tourists flock to. But the reason that this is called the REAL Golden Circle Itinerary is because there are other stops along the way that are just as, if not MORE worthy of visiting.
The best (and only) way to get the authentic Golden Circle experience is to rent a car. I was extremely nervous to drive in a foreign country but I drove all around and felt completely safe. Just make sure you get a vehicle with 4-wheel drive and all the insurance and you can relax and drive in peace!
GET AN EARLY START
Start out your day by waking up well before dawn. If you’re there in the winter, getting up before dawn can still be accomplished by waking up at a normal time. But if you’re there during the winter you need to make the most of every minute of daylight. So get going.
Travel during the summer months is ideal for getting an early start. I haven’t been there in the summertime but you’ll have a lot more flexibility with the light of summer.
Ideally, you’ll make it out of the city in good time and will get to watch the sun rise over the vast expanse of Iceland. When I made this trek, I had arrived in Keflavik at night. So this Golden Circle trip was my first view of the land of which I had dreamt about for years.
If you’re visiting in the summer, you can leave whenever you want since there’s a very high chance that the sun hasn’t set at all. But if you’re on a crunch and only have a day to see as much as possible, make the most of the time you have.
ÞINGVELLIR NATIONAL PARK
It’s free to enter Thingvellir National Park but you have to pay to park. Pretty sneaky of them… I don’t think I actually paid at all of the places and I got a warning or two but they still let me out of the country and I never had to pay. So do what you want with that information.
Thingvellir was one of my favorite stops along the route for one reason – you can literally walk between two tectonic plates. The main path goes directly through the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. My nerdy geology mind was geeking out the whole time and I couldn’t stop thinking about the fact that I was standing between two plates. If you’re really adventurous (and it’s the right season), you can even snorkel between the plates. I was there in November and had no time so sadly I wasn’t able to do that… guess I have to go back!
Another really unique feature of the site is that in 930 AD, the very first national parliament of Iceland was founded there. Parliamentary sessions were held there all the way up until 1798! Thingvellir national park has played an extremely important part in Iceland’s history.
Even though I arrived there first thing in the morning, there were a few tour busses shuttling in visitors. That makes it really hard to get pictures without people in them. But a decent thing about tour groups is that they stick in groups. So if you’re sneaky you can scurry between groups to get pictures away from the crowds.
There’s a beautiful waterfall right at the entrance called Oxagarfoss. It was my first introduction to Iceland’s waterfalls and it didn’t disappoint. It’s worth visiting the park just for this alone!
There are many hiking trails that you can take and you could easily spend several hours wandering around. I decided to try and drive along one of the roads just to explore and found myself at a dead end. It gave me an opportunity to get away from the crowds and just sit in peace and admire Iceland’s countryside.
Surprisingly, only a few articles online even mentioned this super-cool Icelandic farm. That’s why I decided to add it to my Golden Circle Itinerary. It’s a family-run dairy farm that has been there for generations and gives visitors an inside glimpse into farm life in Iceland. Did I mention that their ice cream is amazing? Plus they have adorable cows? It might not make sense to eat ice cream in freezing weather, but real ice cream lovers will know that that the cold is the best time to eat it.
Efstidalur Farm has a hotel, restaurant, petting farm, and ice cream bar. If I had been in Iceland for longer I would’ve loved to stay there because it was so quaint. But instead I just went in for some ice cream and to pet the cows. If you’re fortunate there will even be little calves in the barn that you can see. The farm is a great stop along your Golden Circle itinerary and one that is often missed!
No, the Efstidalur family is NOT sponsoring me to mention their farm in my article. I just enjoyed my time there that much that I knew I had to write about it. So if you’re taking this Golden Circle itinerary, be sure to stop to support a local business.
GEYSIR HOT SPRING
Did you know that the word ‘geyser’ that is prominent within the American vernacular is actually an Icelandic word? On the Golden Circle you’ll get to see the geysers that made it a household word. The actual OG one, named Geysir, is no longer spewing hot water into the air since an earthquake years ago messed up the underground chambers. But just next to it is another geyser that actually puts on a show. It’s one of only three geysers in the world that erupt regularly. One of the others is in New Zealand. The third one is none other than Old Faithful herself!
Strokkur Geyser, the erupting one, erupts every 4-10 minutes. When you’re there in the freezing winter it feels more like 4 hours between each eruption. You can do some hiking around the area but don’t expect to spend a lot of time there.
This is a good place to stop for a lunchtime break. There is a gift shop, information, and restaurant all located right across the street from the geysers. Like everything else in Iceland, the restaurant and gift shop is expensive but if you’re starving in the wilderness and didn’t pack any food this is a good place to refuel.
The Gulfoss Waterfall is one of the most impressive waterfalls in all of Iceland. In a way, it reminds me of Niagara Falls due to the sheer size and magnitude of the falls. You can climb really close to the waterfall which I suggest doing. Just make sure you’re wearing some sort of water resistant clothing because the mist and wind can soak you from a long way away. You could spend an hour or so here or only a short amount of time, it’s all up to you.
Also, the suffix “foss” in Icelandic means “waterfall”, so to call it the Gulfoss Waterfall is a bit redundant. But since not many people know that, it’s easier to put the word “waterfall” behind names of different falls in Iceland so that way foreigners can know that it’s a waterfall.
This waterfall is often overlooked on the Golden Circle and I can’t figure out why. It’s a beautiful waterfall that doesn’t have nearly the amount of people that Gulfoss has. My favorite thing about this waterfall is that you can walk right down to the bottom of it and feel the freezing spray. There were some guys that were there when I was who were actually swimming in the water… which was nearly freezing… in the winter… They seemed to be having a blast though which is all that matters I suppose.
Faxi Waterfall is the last big waterfall you encounter as you finish up your Golden Circle tour. It’s especially peaceful because it doesn’t have the immense crowds that Gulfoss has. Once you visit Gulfoss, you’ll be glad to find a waterfall that isn’t jam-packed with tourists.
The last stop along Iceland’s Golden Circle itinerary is the Kerið Crater. Once upon a time it used to be a big cone volcano but it eventually collapsed and created this crater. It costs 400 ISK for entrance to the crater but be sure to ask if they have any discounts. It’s worth a shot. Regardless, I think it’s worth the entrance fee and was pleasantly surprised by how cool the crater was.
Although it may seem like just a hole in the ground, this crater is really cool to see. It’s so cold that the water freezes over during the autumn and stays frozen well into spring. If you’re up for a bit of physical activity, hike down to the bottom. I felt brave enough to walk a few feet out onto the ice crater and threw rocks onto the center of the ice. Physics does some weird trick and if you hit the ice, it reverberates throughout the crater and sounds like aliens are invading. 10/10 would recommend.
There are hiking trails that take you all the way around Kerið Crater which will give you great views over the Icelandic landscape. Or if you prefer a more solid path, just hike down to the bottom of the crater for equally awesome views.
There isn’t really a specific place to pet the horses but they are everywhere throughout the Golden Circle! I had read dozens of blogs that said all I had to do was drive down the road in the country to find horses. Honestly I didn’t really believe them. Then I actually started driving the Golden Circle and discovered that they were all correct – Icelandic Horses are all along the road.
So if you’re looking for your horse fix, just keep driving until you see a herd and pull off the road. The horses are generally friendly because they know that visitors on the road pet them and give them love. This is yet another reason to drive the Golden Circle itinerary on your own… you have your own autonomy to pull over the car for whatever sight you want!