If you’ve only got time for one tour on your trip to Iceland, make it a tour of The Golden Circle. Why this tour?
Well, in just one unforgettable day, you’ll experience three of Iceland’s iconic forces of nature – Gullfoss, geysers and geological rifts. It’s a fantastic experience and one of the best Iceland tours.
Iceland’s Golden Circle route covers about 300 km in Southern Iceland, starting in Reykjavík before panning into central Iceland and then back to the capital again. En route, you’ll take in the rugged beauty and power of Mother Nature in all her Icelandic glory.
The sky was still deep blue when we left the ION Adventure Hotel at dawn, around 9am on an icy February morning. Visiting Iceland in winter does have its bonuses – you get to see the sunrise without getting up at silly o’clock!
Þingvellir National Park
Our first stop was Þingvellir National Park (pronounced Thingvellir), a UNESCO World Heritage Site and home to the world’s oldest parliament. This is where the Alþingi general assembly was founded in 30 AD and convened until 1798, before moving to Alþingishúsið in Reykjavík in 1881,
Þingvellir means ‘Parliament Plains’, and the views across the plains are breathtaking. Even on a dusky morning, when a vicious wind whips your face and the weak sun struggles to light the landscape, their beauty shines through.
The whole area is part of a fissure that ribbons through Iceland, caused by the drifting of the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. This rift, the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, widens every year by a few millimetres, and you can clearly see the deep faults in the earth’s crust, filled with crystal-clear waters.
Great Geysir, Strokkur, Litli Geysir
All over Iceland, wafts of eggy-smelling sulphur are a constant reminder of the activity beneath the surface, and the surrounding hillsides and plains are wreathed in mists from steaming springs and bubbling mud pools. But it’s Haukadalur, the geyser field, that really shows off the country’s geothermal power to full effect.
Great Geysir, the mother of Icelandic spouts that all other geysers worldwide are named after, is a little capricious and doesn’t often want to play anymore. She may occasionally comply after an earthquake or two and when she does, she blows an impressive 60 metres skywards.
More reliable is nearby Strokkur (the churn), who likes to show off and happily performs every 5-8 minutes. We waited while Strokkur rippled and rolled, taunted and tantalised until suddenly, the very second I looked away, it spewed upwards with such colossal force, I jumped out of my skin!
I just about got the shot – well, okay, half a shot – and then just as quickly, it was gone again in a wisp of vapour.
The nearby restaurant nearby is the perfect place to get a warming coffee or a steaming bowl of Icelandic lamb stew to fend off the shivers. There’s also a shop selling souvenirs at inflated tourist prices, of course, but the fabulous homemade Icelandic crafts are worth a look.
The third A-lister on Iceland’s Golden Circle tour is the majestic Gullfoss or The Golden Falls.
We heard Gullfoss before we saw it. As we carefully made our way down the icy path, the thundering noise of the River Hvita filled my head, and a chill spray misted the air. Gullfoss is magnificent, and despite the freezing weather, I stood mesmerised.
The mighty river tipped over the first step, thundering and foaming towards me with hints of turquoise shining beneath its surface. As Hvita pitched over the crevice, exploding into the canyon below, I felt completely alive and invigorated. And very, very tiny.
My brief taste of Iceland left me deeply in love with its wild, rugged beauty, the contrasting textures and colours of the landscape, the diversity of experience and the extreme forces of nature. The Golden Circle tour encompassed all that and more in one unforgettable day.
Ideally, I’d have taken an Icelandic road trip, but this is the next best alternative if time doesn’t allow for that.
Where to stay in the Golden Circle, Iceland
I stayed at the ION Adventure hotel on the night before my Golden Circle tour. The hotel is less than an hour from Reykjavík, and its location is an ideal starting point for touring the Golden Circle.
It’s set against a dramatic backdrop of lava fields, providing the perfect base for exploring all of the heritage, nature and adventure that Iceland has to offer. Inside the ultra-modern and sustainable hotel, the decor in the bedrooms combines clean, elegant lines with quirky local touches.
Unwind in the hotel’s Lava Spa and sauna, dine in the Silfra restaurant (I had the most fantastic lamb dish there), or have a drink in the Northern Lights bar. And after you’ve spent a day trekking across lava fields or diving tectonic plates, the ION Adventure Hotel’s outdoor hot pool is perfect for a relaxing soak.
You can even ask the hotel’s staff to let you know when the Northern Lights make an appearance.
Other popular hotels in or near the Golden Circle include:
- Blue Hotel Fagrilundur – A short drive from all of the major sights of the Golden Circle, this modern and comfortable hotel gets excellent reviews for its breakfast!
- Hotel Geysir – This hotel is within walking distance of Great Geysir and 6 miles from Gullfoss Waterfall. It’s highly rated for its fantastic location and excellent facilities.
- Hotel Gullfoss – Just 10 minutes from Great Geysir, this cosy hotel has a restaurant serving traditional Icelandic lamb and seafood dishes.
Adam Biernat’s website has some stunning Iceland photography.
Where to stay in Reykjavík, Iceland
I’ve stayed at the Reykjavík Marina Hotel twice and would definitely visit this vibrant hotel again. It’s located in a former paint factory in Reykjavík’s harbour district and is filled with artworks and curios that recall the area’s heritage.
The hotel’s harbourside location combines breathtaking views of the sea and mountain with easy access to the city’s shops, restaurants and cultural highlights, like the Harpa Concert Hall and the Reykjavík Museum of Photography.
The quirky decor, airy rooms and excellent restaurant make the Icelandair Reykjavík Marina Hotel an ideal base for your visit to Reykjavík.
Or, for something a little more intimate, the nearby Reykjavík Marina Residence features two historical houses that have been renovated and installed with large apartment-style suites.
Other options for your Reykjavík hotel include:
- House of the Snowbird – located in Reykjavík’s old town, this preserved historic house is just a few minutes walk from Hallgrímskirkja Church. Each private apartment has a fully equipped kitchen, and free parking and WiFi are provided.
- Eyja Guldsmeden Hotel – ideally located for sightseeing in Reykjavík, this hotel lies within walking distance of Hallgrímskirkja Church, Harpa Concert Hall, the National Museum of Iceland and Laugavegur, the main shopping street in Reykjavík.
- 201 Hotel – sitting just outside of Rekykjavik in Kopavogur means this is a more budget-friendly than hotels in Reykjavík itself. This hotel has a great location and facilities including self-service check-in, a bar and a fitness room.
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