When you’re looking for excursions and places to visit in Iceland you certainly find many infos about Golden Circle. The so-called Golden Circle is at the top of every to-do list in the country and is listed as a one-day or more-day tour on almost all the websites of most of tour operators.
What is the Golden Circle and where it is
The Golden Circle consists of three equally wonderful places in southwest Iceland: Thingvellir National Park, Geysir geothermal area and Gullfoss waterfall. These sites are world famous and are all truly spectacular and unique. None of these places is more than a two-hour drive from Reykjavik, which is why all three can be visited in one day.
Thingvellir National Park: history, folklore and geology
Thingvellir National Park is an extraordinary site, rich in history and folklore, and surrounded by incredible geology. It was Iceland’s first national park (to date the country has three) and it is the only Icelandic UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s about a 45-minute drive from Reykjavik.
Walking in Thingvellir park is impressive and solemn at the same time, exciting. This place encompasses the origins of this island, both from a geomorphological point of view and from a social point of view: it is a place where geology, imposing and dramatic, meets a millennium of history and where visitors can spend hours learning about the processes of the roots of democracy.
The incredible geology of the place comes from the fact that it is located exactly between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates: the fault is visible (and passable!) and it runs through all of Iceland. The uniqueness of this place is that Iceland is the only country in the world where the mid-Atlantic ridge can be seen above sea level. The distance of the two plates (about 2.5 cm per year) is the reason why Iceland has such intense volcanic activity: it is an island still very young and in the process of formation.
The walkway allows you to walk in the Almannagja gorge, on the North American tectonic plate. Along this beautiful walk you can see how the geological processes in the area work and you’ll arrive at a delightful waterfall, called Oxarfoss.
During the walk, fans of the HBO series Game of Thrones will remember the route to Eyrie, when Arya Stark and Sandor Clegane travel through the Riverlands.
The importance of Thingvellir (which could be translated as “parliament fields”) is also linked to history, which makes it extremely important for Icelandic culture. This is where the world’s first democratically elected parliament, Alpingi, was formed in 930 AD.
The thirty clans that lived in Iceland at the time decided to meet annually in a place where disputes were resolved, criminals tried and where laws were established for the benefit of all. A sort of Icelandic Commonwealth was born, a period of independence and freedom for the Icelandic people before they were subjected to the Norwegian monarchy. The sessions of the Icelandic Parliament were held in Thingvellir until 1798. Even after Parliament moved to Reykjavik, the area continued to have great emotional value for Icelanders. It was here that the nation chose to declare and celebrate its independence from Denmark in 1944 after the Nazis invaded it and the Allies took control of Iceland.
Geysir: when earth snorts
The second stage of the Golden Circle is the Geysir Geothermal Area, within the Haukadalur Valley. Geysir is about a 50-minute drive from Thingvellir and along the way you can see volcanic activity growing more and more intensely.
Along the way there are puffer bellows and smoking chimneys, especially concentrated in the village of Laugarvatn. This town even has a geothermally heated SPA.
In the Haukadalur Valley, however, this geothermal activity becomes even more intense: the steam rising from the ground is visible miles away. The area is dotted with many geothermal pools, chimneys and fumaroles and the hills and soil are vividly colored by the minerals present in the soil. It would be a pretty fascinating site even without the two geysers that make it famous all over the world.
The Great Geysir is the first geyser documented in European literature and its name comes from the verb geysa. This geysir rarely explodes, but its neighbor, Strokkur, activates about every five to ten minutes, throwing a cloud of boiling water from 20 to 40 meters into the air.
Some curiosities about the Great Geysir
The reason the original Geysir is largely inactive is tectonic activity in the area as well as human intervention. Studies show that it has existed for about 10,000 years and tends to explode cicilically: usually, it is triggered with a kind of earthquake, which then slowly will run out. By the early 1910s, it was known to explode every half hour, but by 1916 his activity had almost ceased altogether.
Tired of the fact that their country’s most famous landmark was so inconsistent, in 1935 Icelanders dug a canal around Geysir’s outburst, to lower the groundwater and encourage it to start again: it worked for a short time, then the canal he was obstructed and the activity ceased once more.
In 1981, this channel was eliminated and it was discovered that the great Geysir could be forced to burst by pumping soap. There were many concerns about the environmental impact of this activity, which was stopped in the 1990s.
Since then Geysir has remained largely inactive but has activated occasionally, so the lucky ones still have a chance to see it. When it explodes, it is much larger than Strokkur: in 2000, it threw water at a height of 122 meters!
The third and final stage of the Golden Circle is one of Iceland’s most spectacular waterfalls, Gullfoss. This waterfall is less than a ten-minute drive from Geysir. Located in an immense and deep valley, this powerful waterfall falls down in two jumps, from a total height of 32 meters. At its maximum flow during the summer, the average range is 140 cubic meters per second.
Gullfoss is not only known for its breathtaking power, but also for rainbows that can be admired on a sunny day. These add to an already stunning panorama: in addition to the spectacular valley and waterfalls, the gaze overlooks undulating fields up to the magnificent glacial ice sheet of Langjokull. As with the waterfalls and springs of Thingvellir and the water in the geothermal area of Geysir, the river that flows to Gullfoss comes from this glacier.
The river is called Hvata and is the best place for rafting in southwest Iceland. The rafting is still only accessible during the summer, the best season to visit Gullfoss. When there is no ice on the ground, a walkway is walkable that takes you to the edge of the waterfall, close enough to feel the droplets on your face!
Golden Circle: where to sleep
The Golden Circle is easily accessible from Reykjavik, but if you’re planning a full tour of Iceland, it could be the first stop after Reykjavik or the last before you go home, depending on the way you plan to drive the Ring Road (the road that runs like a ring all over the country).
In our case, after walking the Ring Road clockwise and with various detours, the Golden Circle was the last attraction before devoting a day to complete relaxation and then returning home.
Ready to set off for the Golden Circle, we decided to discover other Icelandic jewels: horses!
We decided to give Sissi (and to us adults too) an even more exciting experience than the Golden Circle can offer: hosted by Hotel Eldhestar, we were able to discover also the wonderful and famous Icelandic horses.
Hotel Eldhestar is a cosy hotel located not far from the village of Selfoss (be careful not to be confused with the waterfall in northern Iceland!) and combines a luxurious atmosphere with the simplicity of the rural hotel. 37 spacious rooms, a warm and bright restaurant and hot tubs to relax at the end of the day make the stay really perfect. The hotel’s interiors are inspired by the colours and materials found in Icelandic nature, genuine craftsmanship and centuries-old traditions. Hotel Eldhestar is also green: built according to ecological guidelines, it was the first accommodation in Iceland to receive the eco-label Nordic Swan.
Located in the heart of Iceland’s southwestern countryside on Ring Road No. 1, about a 30-minute drive from Reykjavik, the hotel has beautiful views of the volcanic mountains and rivers, waterfalls, ocean, I can reach with short drive. The area around hengill volcano with its beautiful valleys and hot springs inspired the name: Eldhestar means Volcano Horses.
It is possible to get in touch with these beautiful animals by riding: from half a day to the whole day, with more or less complicated routes, suitable for different levels of riding and age.