On our recent trip to Iceland, I wanted to split our time between the city and exploring a bit of the Icelandic countryside. For a brief trip to Iceland, the Golden Circle checks all the boxes: waterfalls, geothermal wonders, stunning vistas. It’s a small sampler of what country has to offer and it will leave you wanting to explore even further.
The Golden Circle is a well-trodden tourist route (the popular sites can be downright mobbed at times) and there are a number of bus companies which offer single-day tours. I prefer to explore the Golden Circle on my own by car which allows you to stop whenever you see something interesting and pick and choose your own locations for photos.
What to See
We drove the route clockwise visiting these spots:
Þingvellir National Park (Thingvellir) is the site of Iceland’s first parliament (and, since 930 AD, the oldest continuously operating parliament in the world). The site also sits on the rift between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates, which are spreading apart at a rate of about 2cm per year. The combination of the history and unique geologic features makes Þingvellir a site of national pride for Icelanders and a frequently visited location for tourists. There’s a lot to do in the park (hiking, fishing, horseback riding, scuba diving, and visiting the historic sites), but for a quick overview we parked near the main visitor center where we enjoyed a panoramic overview of the plains and lake Þingvallavatn, and took a short walk down through the Almannagjá gorge, a fissure opened up by the spreading continental plates.
Öxarárfoss is a small but scenic waterfall also in Þingvellir National Park and can be reached by a short hike from the parking areas around the assembly site (we hiked in from P3). The Öxará river plunges over the edge of the North American plate before making a sharp turn south into a fault heading towards the historic assembly site.
About 45 minutes further up the road, we went seeking the bluer-than-blue Brúarfoss waterfall. It’s a bit off the beaten path, which was a nice change from Þingvellir (no tour buses!). We found the easiest access to the falls was via a trail near a neighborhood of summer homes just north of the Rt. 37 and Rt. 355 intersection. After some trial and error we found a road near the trail and place to park. The trail to the falls was muddy, but obvious, and once we heard the falls we were able to zero in on where we were supposed to go.
Geysir is a geothermal field with boiling mud pits, steaming pools, and the famous Strokkur Geysir which erupts about every few minutes. (Fun fact: Another spout in the same location, named “Geysir” inspired the word “geyser” now used globally to describe the phenomenon!) I find the best views of the active geyser from a bit farther up the hill where you can see its true height rather than right up against the rope next to the spout.
Ten minutes up the road from Geysir is Gullfoss waterfall. Gullfoss (and Geysir) are staples for anyone visiting the Golden Circle and they have the crowds to match. Gullfoss is a stunning double waterfall easily accessible from the road. There are viewpoints from an upper cliff, or a lower path that brings you right up to the falls (in good weather only; the lower path was blocked in the winter).
Where to Eat
For lunch we stopped at Friðheimar, where the theme is everything tomato! Friðheimar is a farm with geothermally-heated greenhouses that produces a number of crops with a strong emphasis on tomatoes. They harvest a whopping 370 tons of tomatoes a year (20% of Iceland’s crop).
In addition to growing tomatoes, the farm has branched out to add a restaurant where you can dine on a tomato-based lunch right in one of their greenhouses.
Three tomato-based entrees and three tomato-based desserts are on the menu, plus a variety of tomato drinks. I opted for the bottomless bowl of tomato soup which was coupled with unlimited house-made breads, and Andrew got the ravioli with their tomato sauce. We (of course) had to try the desserts and shared the tomato ice cream (with chunks of green tomatoes and tomato and strawberry sauces) as well as the tomato & apple pie (delicious as well!). Coffee and tea are complimentary and you are also welcome to walk the greenhouse to see tomato agriculture in action. Friðheimar is a fantastic and atmospheric place to have a meal—there’s information about geothermally-heated greenhouses at the entrance of the restaurant, a gift shop selling their tomato products, and the staff is happy to answer questions about the farm as well. It makes for a delicious and educational stop on a Golden Circle tour!
There’s a lot more to see in this area than a one-day trip will allow. We drove right by Kerið, a volcanic crater located very close to Route 35. (I’ve been on past trips to Iceland, and it’s an interesting water-filled volcanic caldera worth a look!). We were also keen on hitting up some of the hot springs, and had our eyes on the Secret Lagoon or hiking to the Reykjadalur hot springs. All the more reason to plan a return trip!