Having just returned from a magical trip to Iceland, we can tell you that, if you only have time to do one excursion during your Reykjavik city break, it should definitely be the Golden Circle Tour. Sure, the city itself is a great place to explore and is easy to get around, and the Blue Lagoon is something worth looking into as well, but this captivating day trip shows you Iceland in a nutshell and should be at the top of your list of things to do. Yes, it may be quickly becoming the cliché thing to do here and, yes, there are plenty of other fantastic natural sights to see elsewhere on the island, but this is the ideal introduction for first-time visitors.
If you don’t already know, the Golden Circle Tour takes you to three of the major sights just outside of Iceland’s capital. These are Gullfoss, arguably the country’s most spectacular waterfall; Geysir, an area populated by bubbling natural springs; and Thingvellir National Park, the setting in which Iceland’s first government was formed and various Game of Thrones scenes have been shot. There are full day, eight-hour trips available, as well as half-day adventures for those with limited time on their hands. You can also choose to join a larger group on a coach or opt for a more personal tour with just a few others on a minibus. Whichever combination you choose, though, it’s sure to be a memorable day.
Straddling Two Continents
We decided to take a full day minibus tour in order to give us more time at each of the sights. However, our first stop was somewhere not included in the main billing of the excursion but somewhere which turned out to be a lot more interesting than we expected. We were told we would be stopping at a bakery in the town of Hveragerði and assumed it would be to fuel ourselves for the day ahead. Whilst we did enjoy some of the bakery’s offerings, the real reason our driver wanted to show us this building was because it offers the chance to stand with one foot in Europe and the other in North America. In 2008, Hveragerði was the epicentre of an earthquake which reached 6.3 on the Richter scale and this event has left a giant crack in the floor of the building where the two tectonic plates have been ripped apart.
Having straddled two continents at once, we headed back to the bus before making yet another bonus stop on our journey. Iceland is teeming with beautiful waterfalls and so, before reaching Gullfoss, we stopped to enjoy Faxfoss. This was our first real sighting of the natural beauty that has brought so many tourists to Iceland in recent years and was a great way to whet our appetite for what was to come.
A Useful Icelandic Expression
By this time, the weather had started to close in a bit and rain was soon pouring down the bus windows. Visibility became so bad that we could hardly see the lights of the car in front as we headed over the mountains towards our first major natural wonder. We began to doubt whether we would actually get to see anything or if the weather would scupper our only chance to enjoy this popular tour. The driver used this time to tell us a bit more about his country. He recounted myths and legends regarding trolls and elves (which a lot of Icelanders believe in) and informed us about a number of active volcanoes in the area – a couple of which are due to erupt at any moment.
But just as hope of ever seeing the sun again started to fade, he told us about the Icelandic expression ‘if you don’t like the weather, just wait five minutes’. With high winds and undulating terrain, the climate is known to change drastically and suddenly. And sure enough, a few moments later, we could see brighter skies on the horizon.
By the time we reached Gullfoss, the clouds had parted and the sun had made another appearance. After about an hour and a half driving, we were eager to see what all the fuss was about and we weren’t disappointed. We could hear the waterfall before we saw it. The unmistakable sound of rushing water filled the air as we pulled into the car park. And then it came into sight. Standing on the upper viewing platform, we could see the water thundering into the abyss.
Gullfoss is a two-stage waterfall which descends a total of 32 metres into a jagged canyon. The view was fantastic, but we were keen to get a closer look. We took the stairs down to the lower level and followed the path alongside the raging torrent to the point where we began to feel the spray on our faces. If you’re happy to get wet, you can make your way to a rocky vantage post which is just metres away from the waterfall’s first drop and experience just a fraction of the force created. It’s a fantastic photo opportunity and a unique chance to get amongst the action.
A Young Upstart Takes Centre Stage
Back on the bus, it wasn’t far to the next stop at Geysir. This is the name given to the most famous and indeed the first ever recorded hot spring. It’s now used to describe the entire area where many hot springs can be found and has also given us the English word ‘Geyser’, which has become a more general term for natural phenomena of this kind. Ironically though, Geysir is no longer the star attraction. There was a time when you could rely on it to erupt every twenty minutes or so, but Icelanders now think of it as sleeping as it rarely springs into life. In its place, a young upstart known has Strokkur has grown to be the headline act. Erupting every four to seven minutes, it puts on a regular show which always has a crowd waiting in anticipation.
As we gathered around to watch a performance which always receives an encore, we watched as everyone had their shutter fingers at the ready in hope of catching the perfect photo. And it wasn’t long before Strukkur greeted his audience with what they were waiting for. The bubbling pool of water suddenly bulged upwards before an impressive plume spewed into the air to the sound of oohs, aahs and cheers. Having been given 90 minutes to explore the area, we had plenty of opportunities to catch the show numerous times, as well as grabbing some lunch in the traditional Icelandic restaurant nearby. They are also currently building a hotel by the roadside, so future guests will be able to stay locally instead of travelling on tours from Reykjavik.
Before it was time to leave, we wanted one more chance to see Strukkur’s power. Whilst it was definitely worth seeing again and again, the decision to stand downwind of the spring was perhaps not the wisest. We headed back to the bus with water dripping off our faces and clothes.
Beauty In Every Direction
The final stop on what was already an amazing day was arguably the best. This time it was not a single point of interest, such as a waterfall or hot spring, but an entire national park ripe for exploration. The bus dropped us off close to one of the Thingvellir’s many trails and the driver gave us a little bit of background concerning why this area was so important, before informing us he would meet us at the upper viewing platform later.
Endless beauty lay before us in every direction. We could see for miles. The path took us past more waterfalls, over bridges, alongside streams, close to the church which stands in the place where an open-air assembly once formed the first Icelandic government, and, eventually, up a slope to a viewing platform which offers unrivalled views of the area. From here, you can look out over the lava fields and jagged terrain created by hundreds of years of volcanic and seismic activity, and across the Thingvallavatn Lake which lies nearby.
Sadly, at this point, it was time to head back to the capital. On the return journey, the bus was mainly quiet as everyone pondered what they had seen during a very exciting day. The nothingness was occasionally broken by the driver pointing out more sites of interest, but we were all either too tired or too overawed to offer any response. We were dropped back at our hotel and left to enjoy the remainder of our short Reykjavik city break.
I enjoyed everything we did in Iceland - the Blue Lagoon, looking out from the top of Hallgrimskirkja Church, and generally exploring the quaint highstreet. However, the day we spent on the Golden Circle Tour will stay with us for a very long time and is something that we would recommend to everyone visiting this land of fire and ice.