When we think of Iceland, we imagine these beautiful landscapes with countless volcanoes and glaciers, horses and sheep, geysers and lava fields. We dream to hit the road and follow it all around the island, chasing landscapes that are all more spectacular than the others.
Unfortunately, I only made a short layover of a few days in Iceland, so I knew that my dreams of this ultimate road trip would not be realized this time. But to give me a taste of what Iceland has to offer, I booked a day trip excursion to discover Iceland’s Golden Circle.
The Golden Circle is a popular tourist route covering almost 300 kilometres from Reykjavik and offering some of Iceland’s most popular attractions. It’s Gullfoss (“Golden Falls” in Icelandic) that gives it its name and it is surely one of the best ways to see the beautiful Icelandic landscape when there is little time.
You can discover the Golden Circle by renting a car from Reykjavik, or by taking a tour with an operator. I opted for this last option. While having your own car allows you to take your time and visit places as you please, a guided tour is also a good way to learn more about the places you visit. My tour lasted nearly nine hours and I swear to you that my guide talked all this time. It can be a bit too much for some, but in my case, I love to be stuffed with information!
If you make a trip to the Golden Circle, here are the main attractions.
Þingvellir National Park
Þingvellir National Park is often the first stop in the Golden Circle. It is part of the UNESCO World Heritage list because of its importance to the history of Iceland. The road to the national park also allows you to see the beautiful Lake Þingvallavatn, the largest natural lake in Iceland.
The Gullfoss waterfall is another must when visiting Iceland. With a height of 32 meters, the fall descends on two levels before making its way in a deep gorge. The water from the Hvítá River comes from the second largest glacier in Iceland and the sediment it carries gives the fall a golden color, from which it takes its name.
Gullfoss is one of the most powerful waterfalls in Europe. At the beginning of the 20th century, the idea to use the hydraulic force of the waterfall to create electricity was considered, but legend has it that the daughter of the owner of Gullfoss threatened to throw herself into the water if this project became reality. The waterfall was eventually bought by the state and is now protected.
Trails allow you to see the waterfall from above or to observe from up-close.
The geysers of Haukadalur
Nearly a third of the country is an active volcanic area and the area of Haukadalur is a good place to observe this! Located 10 kilometres north of Gullfoss, Haukadalur is an area of geothermal activity, where you can see geysers and multiple puddles of bubbling water. It is on this site that you can see Geysir, the geyser which gave its name to all the others.
Geysir is quieter now (although, it seems, its discharge of water can reach a height exceeding 100 metres), but there is also on the site Strokkur, a geyser that explodes every 10 minutes. Safety ropes help prevent feet from getting into a boiling water hole. For those who, like me, had never visited a field of geothermal activities, this landscape almost gives the impression of being on another planet…
Skálholt has long been one of the most important places in Iceland. It was its political, cultural and religious centre and, for a time, the largest city in the country. The first school in Iceland was founded there in 1056. It is also where the first cathedral of the country used to be located. The present church was built in the 1950s. During our stop there, we could visit the cathedral as well as a replica of the first school.
Although Skálholt has lost its former splendor, the place is very popular during the summer as it holds festivals and cultural events.
The Golden Circle tours also sometimes stop at a geothermal energy station (this was my case) or in one of the surrounding greenhouses where a large part of Iceland’s fruit and vegetables are produced.