Ah, the Golden Circle. This is a typical day trip done in a loop from Reykjavík, including Thingvellir National Park, Geysir and Strokkur geothermal area, and Gullfoss waterfall. If you’re not going to rent a car, look around at bus tours, there are plenty. Some will add horseback riding, or a couple other stops to try to distinguish themselves.
Here’s the thing: if you can rent a car, carefully plan your out-of-Reykjavík time and do so. If you’re more than one person, this will definitely pay off. Driving in Iceland is simple for any driver who has at least moderate common sense and confidence… but that’s a subject for its own post.
What are my specific credentials? I lived in and curiously explored Laugarvatn and the surrounding areas for over 6 weeks in the summer of 2015 and have gone through them with students and a professional Icelandic tour guide twice. I have been to the key Golden Circle sites at least four times now. It’s worth doing, and here are some tips to make it a unique day.
Time is money, but also enjoyment
If you are into photography and quiet, and are visiting in the summer, I recommend not leaving Reykjavík until late afternoon or early evening. Sleep in and have a late start, and plan to be out until the wee hours of the morning. Trust me. The key sites are crowded from about 9am-7pm.
Your first stop will be the stunning, culturally/historically/geologically significant Thingvellir. It’s about 45 minutes from downtown, but you’ll be in the park a little before that. Watch the speed limit and only pull over in a spot meant for it.
You have two parking options, and there is a pay and display system to help support the upkeep of this sacred land under millions of feet every year. The first will be at the top of the rocks. There’s a visitor center and pay toilets. It’s also mostly intended for bus parking, but there’s room for cars.
Just a little bit past this entrance off of route 36 is the road back to the bottom parking area. There are a couple smaller lots at the bottom with a few portable toilets.
Before you go, study up!
Know your stuff – this is arguably the most important site in Iceland. As a responsible tourist, you need to read up on its critical role in the nation’s history and the world’s geology. There are plenty of great articles about these topics online, so I won’t rehash it all here. You will also see it spelled properly, as Þingvellir. That first letter is called a thorn, and was also part of old English. It has a soft “th” sound, which is why it is Anglicized as Thingvellir (and ignorantly as Pingvellir). The double l is pronounced as a soft, fast “tl,” making the pronunciation more like “THING-vet-lear.” Its translated meaning, breaking the word in half, is parliament (Þing) plains (vellir).
Stops to make while at Thingvellir, in any order, more or less:
- The top. Take in the view of the lake and the rift, check out the big map. You are standing on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, on a piece of living earth; a valley that widens slowly every year. It’s like nowhere you’ve ever been. Nowhere. PS: large parking lot and bathrooms with a great view.
- Walk down inside the rift. Yes, inside! There are old photos of cars being driven through here several decades ago, before Iceland was on the world’s radar. There are a couple little paths to explore, but PLEASE do not go anywhere that is roped off or signed no walking. This space in the rift is called Almannagjá, pictured above.
- Take a detour to the bridge that bows in front of lögberg (law rock) and the flag pole. This is where parliament (Alþingi) met back in 930 for hundreds of years. That’s the world’s oldest representative democracy!
- Check out the waterfall from the bridge (picture above). That’s a river flowing over the edge of the American tectonic plate!
- Keep strolling and staring! Then, keep following the rift and go up the rock stairs and follow the path around to Öxaráfoss (pictured below), an even more spectacular waterfall hidden away from easy view! If it’s sunny you’re almost guaranteed some rainbows here. This is another super-special spot. Soak it in. (You might also get damp if it’s breezy, FYI, so, there might be literal soaking.)
- Head back toward the smaller parking lots and keep heading toward the big lake. You’ll find a traditional chapel (open 9-5 during the summer), small graveyard, and the official summer residence of the Prime Minister. This building has several steep peaks to maximally get rid of snow and rain, and you’ll see them as an architectural feature around the countryside on larger buildings.
- If you’re a water fan, you might want to drive back along the road that takes you to the smaller parking lot and check out the lake, Thingvallavatn (vatn at the end of a word means water/lake). It has unique species in it, and tends to be quiet and peaceful.
You’ll see lots of articles about scuba diving in the rift at Silfra. It’s pricey. But looks amazing. On a time and money budget? Just, for crying out loud, appreciate how perfectly clear that water is. Mmm.
Next stop, Laugarvatn, normally a drive-through blink. But I know better.