The Golden Circle
Ah, the Golden Circle. What once was a Sunday drive with the family has now become Iceland’s ultimate day tour. If you’re planning a trip to Iceland, you’ve no doubt heard about the Golden Circle. But what is it exactly, why is it so famous and is it worth your limited time in this beautiful country?
It’s a comfortable day trip from Reykjavik, with three beautiful, diverse and historically important destinations. This is essentially your crash course to Iceland’s geological history and historical settlement. It’s so famous because it’s unique, easily accessible and unforgettable and yes, the Golden Circle isn’t just worth your time. It’s almost mandatory for first-time visitors and should be at the very top of your list of things to do in Iceland. And here’s why.
First stop is Þingvellir National Park. The name of Þingvellir is anglicized as Thingvellir but as fans of the Old English letter Thorn (Þ) we’re keeping the original spelling. It’s one of those places on Earth that seem to have a different energy than its surroundings, a magical presence if you will. And this might be why the Vikings who settled Iceland chose it as their annual meeting place and the location for their parliament. Or at least that was Neil Gaiman’s theory in his novel American Gods. Aside from its historical and geological significance, this is simply a beautiful place of old mossy lava, birch woods, a picturesque lake (Iceland’s largest), canyons and fissures. If you’re not in the mood for historical information, just drink in the views and the magical atmosphere. If you are however curious about Iceland’s origins and history and want a little insight into the national soul of this country, this is the only place to start. Visit the site of the old Alþingi (Althing) parliament where Viking chiefs met, laid down the law, argued and fought out their disputes. As if that wasn’t enough, Þingvellir’s biggest attraction is undoubtedly Almannagjá, the scenic gorge between the tectonic plates of North America and Europe. It’s a place of geological wonder where you can literally see how the two tectonic plates are moving apart and no blog or Game of Thrones episode can do it justice, despite multiple attempts.
Next up is the geothermal area of Geysir, named after the enormous hot spring Geysir, the geyser all the other geysers are named after. While Geysir is undoubtedly the most famous geyser in Iceland, and probably the world, it erupts infrequently. When it does, expect a column of boiling water up to 100 meters high, making it one of the most powerful hot springs in recorded history. But that’s just Geysir. This area is riddled with hot springs that vary in size, shape and color. The most famous of these is Strokkur, Geysir’s little brother, which erupts every few minutes, hurling water up to 30 meters high. The area has a clear pathway that is safe to walk, and the spouts of boiling water are cooled instantly in the air so there’s no danger for visitors, as long as they stay on the path. History buffs and Icelandophiles will be interested to know that this area was sold to James Craig, later prime minister of Northern Ireland who charged an entry fee to the area around 1900. It was then sold and inherited in Britain before an Icelandic film director bought it and gifted it back to the Icelandic people. As a result, Geysir is a huge part of the Icelandic national identity and an area of great significance in our history.
And finally, the Golden Circle will take you to Gullfoss or the Golden Waterfall. Explaining this site’s significance to a non-Icelander can be difficult but we’ll give it a shot. Iceland is packed with waterfalls, each more famous, picturesque and magnificent than the next. These include Instagram-queen Seljalandsfoss, Hollywood movie star Skógafoss and Europe’s most powerful waterfall Dettifoss. We’re just stressing the competition because if Icelanders were to pick one waterfall to rule them all, Gullfoss would undoubtedly be it. This is a glorious waterfall of enormous power that allows visitors to get extremely close and personal, that always adorns a beautiful rainbow crown, making its presence all the more magical. Not to sound too dramatic but an encounter with Gullfoss is likely to be a spiritual experience. But even its appearance and awesome force isn’t what makes it so special in the mind of most Icelanders. Its special status has more to do with its history. For much of the 20th century, there were serious plans to dam the waterfall to generate electricity. The landowner resisted, stating famously “I will not sell my friend” and his daughter, Sigríður Tómasdóttir, was so determined to preserve it that she threatened to throw herself in it. As a result, she is often hailed as Iceland’s ultimate environmental activist. While this debate is somewhat recent, the idea seems unthinkable to modern-day Icelanders.
While the three stops of the Golden Circle should supply more than enough moments to experience in a day, many travelers add a local restaurant for lunch and a nice soak in a geothermal bath to their day tour. Luckily, there’s plenty of options in these parts. Don’t miss the absolute best of Iceland and enjoy your day around the Golden Circle.