For anyone visiting Iceland, most of them would have heard of the Golden Circle. Well, what is this Golden Circle? It’s a tour of the main attractions that more or less define Iceland, and is a must do for first time visitors. Whether you are going to follow a guided tour or self drive, the route for the Golden Circle is a 300km round trip that can be completed in a day trip from Reykjavik or extended over a few days to enjoy more of the incredible Icelandic scenery.
Continuing with my series of blogs on Iceland, this one is about the Golden Circle. You can link to my previous blogs on the South Coast and Snæfellsnes Peninsular, and Reykjavik and Blue Lagoon for more information about those areas.
Icelandic weather is very unpredictable and we got to experience this when we went on our tour of the Golden Circle. The day before our tour, the weather forecast was for a heavy snow storm to hit most of Iceland the next day. After checking with the tour company, they told us that the tour would still go on, but they will inform us in the morning if there was any cancellation. The next morning as we waited for the tour bus to arrive, we could see that the sky seemed darker and light snow was already falling. By the time the bus arrived at our apartment, snow was falling steadily and getting heavier. This was going to be an interesting trip.
The Icelanders take their weather very seriously, and hazard warnings due to bad weather are a life and death matter here. There is a website where visitors can check the latest weather and road conditions before they set out. Most of the remote areas have poor or no cell phone coverage, and you won’t want to be stranded out in a blizzard in the middle of nowhere with no means to call for help. Besides the website, there is also a smartphone app where you can call for help and it will try to pinpoint your location using GPS during an emergency. So first thing Icelanders do in the morning is check the weather forecast.
The Golden Circle route covers 3 main sights; Þingvellir National Park, Gullfoss Waterfall and Geysir geothermal area. The first stop for us was Þingvellir National Park (pronounced as Thingvellir in English). This place is important to Iceland historically, culturally and geologically. Historically and culturally, this is the place where the Vikings had their first parliament in 930AD. Until 1271AD the chieftains of the various Viking tribes will meet annually at Þingvellir to hold parliament where laws were passed and official announcements issued. A lot of the villagers would also gather here during the assembly and a natural market place would be formed for merchants selling wares, food and drinks, people looking for jobs, and entertainers performing. From here the first Icelandic state was also formed. Geologically, Þingvellir is also a rift valley where the North American and European tectonic plates are moving apart, and it’s these geological forces which form Iceland.
After more than an hour of tense driving through the blinding snow storm where we encountered a car plunging into the snow banks at the side of the road when he tried to overtake our bus, we arrived at Þingvellir National Park. We got off the bus only to be greeted by snow and rain blowing into our faces.
After a rather hurried walk into the rift valley and a short explanation from our guide on the Viking parliament and history of Þingvellir, we went back to the bus to take shelter from the snow and rain. If the weather was good, we would have stayed longer, but the biting wind chill was really too much to bear for a longer stay.
The term Golden Circle is a touristy term for the route, but it’s thought that the word ‘Golden’ comes from the next attraction, Gullfoss, which in Icelandic means Golden Waterfall. Well, this waterfall isn’t gold, but it’s the largest waterfall in Iceland and is extremely popular with visitors. The weather had gotten better by the time we reach Gullfoss, but as usual, everywhere was frozen including the carpark and we had to endure a slippery walk to the restaurant where we had a quick lunch before walking towards the waterfall.
So after being captivated by the majestic sight of Gullfoss, we were on our way to Haukadalur where the famous geysers are located. Haukadalur is actually on the road to Gullfoss, and we had passed it earlier. Here, there are 2 geysers which are quite famous. One is Geysir, where the word geyser comes from, and so all geysers are named after this mother of all geysers. Unfortunately, Geysir does not erupt frequently now and is usually dormant. However, there is a smaller geyser called Strokkur which erupts every 7-10 minutes. When we were there, it seemed to erupt more frequently like every 5 minutes.
A compilation of several of Strokkur’s erupts while we were there. You can see that this is one of the more fun and exciting things to watch in an otherwise bad weather day.
So we had seen the 3 main attractions that defines the Golden Circle. Most of the tours will also include 1 or 2 more stops depending on the time schedule. For our tour, we opted to visit Skálholt, which is considered to be the first church in Iceland. This is the church where the bishops of Iceland stayed and extended their religious and political power for more than 700 years. It also has a rather dark history when the last Catholic bishop was executed here in 1550AD after Iceland converted to Lutheranism.
So after Skálholt, we went on our way to the last stop of the day which was an Icelandic horse farm. Those of us who wanted to get up close to the cute little horses were quite happy. There are several of such farms which cater to tourists and offering riding lessons.
There are many tour companies that offer the Golden Circle route, the difference is in the number of places that are covered besides the 3 main attractions of Þingvellir National Park, Gullfoss Waterfall and Geysir geothermal area. If they cover more places, then you would probably spend less time at each place. Besides this, the size of the group also affects the time allocated. In our case, the tour that we followed had 50 people and we traveled in a large coach. The guide had to give ample time for the large number of people to get back after each visit. I think that a smaller group size would be ideal. In summer, with the longer days, the tours should be able to spend more time at each attraction compared to when we visited in winter. So these are some of the things that you should consider if you want to follow a group tour.