The name Golden Circle might be a tourist-industry tag, but it’s also apt, as this broad circuit east from Reykjavík covers many of Iceland’s best-known features and touches on the root of much of its history. The key area is Þingvellir, whose dramatic and geologically unstable rift valley marks the place where the Icelandic state sprang into being in Viking times. South from here is the religious centre of Skálholt, where Iceland’s last Catholic bishop was assassinated in 1550; travelling northeast takes you past the spa town of Laugarvatn to Geysir, the original hot blowhole that has lent its name to similar vents worldwide, before sealed roads end on the edge of Iceland’s barren interior at Gullfoss’ thundering twin cataracts.
The tangle of routes connecting all this together runs through the beautiful countryside: fertile, flat, framed by distant hills and startlingly green in summer, thanks to one of Iceland’s longest rivers, the Hvítá. This originates around 140km northeast at Hvítarvatn, an isolated lake below Langjökull on the Kjölur route, and flows swiftly to Gullfoss, where it drops into the plains above Skálholt before running south to the sea.
Wild and romantic though the region is, don’t expect to appreciate it in solitude: most of the sights suffer year-round visitor overload, with tour buses clogging car parks until well into the evening.
The three best sites on the Golden Circle
While there are many additional stops and routes you can take to get off the beaten track of the Golden Circle, it is certainly worth visiting the three best sites, however crowded they may be.
Þingvellir National Park
Þingvellir has the official UNESCO World Heritage Site due to its unique geology in which two tectonic plates meet, the North American plate and the Eurasian. Slowly pulling apart a few centimetres per year, the plates are the main reason for Iceland’s volcanoes and spectacular landscapes. For a truly surreal experience, diving between the plates in Silfra is possible.
Thingvellir National Park, Golden Circle © Michael Ver Sprill / iStock
Located in Haukadalur Valley are a series of hot springs and geysers that promise a spectacle of nature. Strokkur, the stronger geyser shoots an impressive jet of boiling water 20 metres into the air every 5 – 10 minutes and is arguably the most iconic geyser in the world.
Geysir, Golden Circle © Nick Pandevonium / iStock
Found in the Hvítá river canyon is the incredible Gullfoss waterfall. In a dramatic display, water pounds down 32 meters and roars with sound.
Gullfoss, Golden Circle © Foto Voyager / iStock
Featured Image, Golden Circle Highway © Bgwalker / iStock