Iceland Day Trip: The Golden Circle

Perhaps the most well-known tourist excursion in Iceland is the Golden Circle, a route that takes visitors from Reykjavík to the Haukadalur geysers, the famous Gullfoss or “Golden Falls,” and the Þingvellir national park, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

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Gullfoss, or “Golden Falls,” along the Golden Circle in Iceland

You can pay tour companies to take you on the tour from your Reykjavík hotel for around $90 USD per person, but we opted to rent a car for our entire stay in Iceland to give us more freedom. This also allowed us to take the circle counterclockwise, which meant we weren’t stuck behind tour buses the whole time.

While the geysers are a bit meager, the shopping center at Geysir offers some reasonably-priced food options along with not-so-reasonably-priced Icelandic clothing and gift items. Handmade and beautiful, yes, but not cheap.

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Tiny jars of $15 Arctic thyme sea salt

Lunch in the large dining hall at Geysir offers fascinating entertainment in the form of a looping video on the history of Glíma, which is the national sport of Iceland. From the handshake and dance to the belts and hops, it is, shall we say, gripping.

The Gullfoss waterfall is next on the loop, and it is breathtaking any time of year. In colder weather, the frozen water along the edge of the falls offers a beautiful contrast to the rushing cascades. As you’re headed that way from Geysir, take the straight shot when the road forks at the Gullfoss sign, and you’ll wind up at the secondary parking lot at the lower section of the falls. This allows you to avoid the larger throngs of people at the top and gives you a better view of the water without having to navigate the steep staircase.

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A field filled with furry, friendly Icelandic horses on the Golden Circle

Þingvellir national park isn’t as singularly dramatic as Gullfoss, but it offers you the chance to get out of the car and hike around some truly beautiful terrain. Þingvellir is also the site of Silfra canyon, which is a fault line between the North American and Eurasian continental plates. It is expensive to do, but you can dry suit dive and snorkel this spot with local companies departing from Reykjavík. The dive allows you to touch both continents where they meet, and the crystal clear water offers excellent year-round visibility.

Plan ahead if you’re heading to Þingvellir, because the parking area restrooms are paid access. On our visit, the card reader wasn’t working, and we didn’t have the exact change needed for entry (two 50 króna coins).