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In Focus: Iceland's Golden Circle

By: Jessica
Last Updated: 27/12/2019

The Golden Circle is without a doubt one of Iceland's top experiences. More than just one attraction, it’s a popular tourist route that encompasses several top sights. Here you’ll come across both historical treasures—like the site of the world's first parliament—and unique natural wonders formed from volcanic and geothermal activity.

Since the Golden Circle is a must for most visitors to Iceland, we thought we'd take a few moments to explain what it is and why it's such a... well... golden experience.

Is the Golden Circle actually a circle?

In loose terms, perhaps. The “circle” refers to the fact that this roughly 230-kilometre route is often done as a loop, starting and ending in Reykjavik. But if you were to map it, the shape looks more like a shark (which, by the way, is an old delicacy you can taste in Iceland!). Of course, Golden Shark isn't as nice a name as Golden Circle.

A map of the Golden Circle in Iceland (Google Maps)

What makes this circle golden? 

Although there is no official story behind it, the "golden" part of the name could be attributed to one major highlight of the route, Gullfoss. Translated as "Golden Falls", this two-tiered waterfall often produces some stunning rainbows in sunny weather and is said to glow in a lovely golden hue at sunset.

A rainbow glows in the mist at Gullfoss waterfall in Iceland

What else makes up the Golden Circle?

Another beloved attraction—and a favourite photo opportunity—on the Golden Circle route is the Haukadalur geothermal area. This is where you’ll find the famous Geysir, from which the English word geyser originates, and its hyperactive counterpart, Strokkur. Have your camera ready for this! The Strokkur geyser shoots off a stream of boiling water every few minutes, so you won't miss it.

Watching the Strokkur geyser bursting


The final major highlight of the route is Þingvellir (Thingvellir) National Park, which holds both great historical and geological significance. Here you can take a walk in a continental rift valley and see the earliest assembly grounds of Iceland's parliament, established around the year 930 AD.

The Almannagjá trail in the rift at Thingvellir National Park, Iceland


Pro tip: Give yourself about 8 hours or more to be able to visit these attractions without rushing. There's a lot to see and do in the area, so you can make a whole day out of it.

What are other things to experience on this route?

Since the Golden Circle route encompasses such a naturally diverse part of South Iceland, there are many possible add-ons:

  • Stand on the rim of the Kerið volcanic crater, which now holds a small lake.
  • Soak in the warm geothermal waters of the Fontana Spa.
  • Indulge in some farm-fresh, homemade ice cream at the Efstidalur dairy farm.
  • Nibble on geothermally-grown tomatoes and freshly baked bread at the Friðheimar greenhouse.
  • Take a break in the geothermally-active village of Hveragerði, and perhaps hike up to the Reykjadalur valley to bathe in the naturally heated stream.
  • Visit the Langjökull glacier on a guided super-jeep and snowmobiling tour.
  • Experience the scenic plains like Iceland's ancient settlers on a guided horse riding tour.

Good to know:

You can experience the Golden Circle attractions in most of our self-drive tour packages in Iceland. If you want to add any of the guided day tours mentioned above, your Nordic Visitor travel consultant will be happy to customise your itinerary. The Golden Circle route can also be done as a day tour from Reykjavik for travellers on short stopovers. 

Post by: Jessica

When not writing about Northern European tourist attractions, Jessica Bowe is busy daydreaming about her next trip or scouring Instagram for travel inspiration. Originally from Wisconsin (USA), she's lived in Iceland since 2008 and has since become fully immersed in Eurovision mania and Scandinavian coffee culture.

Find Jessica on LinkedIn.

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Getting there

We'd love to give you the same amazing travel experiences as you read about in our blog! To visit the destinations and attractions mentioned in this post - and to discover a few new highlights along the way - check out these recommended Nordic Visitor tours.