Iceland has always been a dream for me, so when I finally got to go there in last September I could hardly contain my excitement. I had heard so many great things about the Golden Circle and couldn’t wait to see if it was really as incredible as people made it out to be. Could there really be that many spectacular natural wonders in Iceland such a as people say? Was it really possible to complete the Golden Circle road trip, the top item from my Iceland bucket list, in one day?
As my friend Allan had already done the exact same route back in June, we left Dublin airport equipped with all the best tips and tricks for our road trip. He told me that while you can drive the entire Golden Circle route in one day you are better off taking two days to do it as there are so many interesting places you might want to return to again and again. If you’re only going to Iceland for a long weekend, a road trip around the Golden Circle is by far the best use of your precious time. If you have longer, I recommend checking out the ring road and the rest of Iceland.
Lonely Planet have some great Iceland guides you should check out, especially this guide on the weather and best times to go. Once you have decided where to go, and have settled on renting a car for an epic road trip, my friend Gemma has a great packing list you can read here or you can read what I packed for Iceland.
For those not clued into touring Iceland or Iceland’s most famous hot spots, The Golden Circle is one of the most famous driving routes in Iceland and is very accessible from Reykjavik. National Geographic named it as one of their top places to go backpacking in 2016! What makes it so special as it encompasses Icelandic history, fascinating geology and Iceland’s natural beauty all in one drive. While technically it covers just three main tourist spots, the route we took covered six, of which I will go into more detail below.
Golden Circle Road Trip Iceland
Stop 1: Nesjavellir Power Station
We set off from Reykjavik (check out my list of best places to stay here) at the crack of dawn (okay, it was more like 8.30am…but that is seriously early for me!) and drove towards Þingvellir National Park which was just an hours drive away and was supposed to be the first stop on our tour. Having our own car however, and the freedom that comes with it, meant we were able to take a few unplanned detours along the way.
Lauren spotted what she thought were geothermal springs in the mountains in the distance so we decided to investigate! We spotted an unmarked road heading down to a lake which seemed to lead to this mysterious smoke / steam, so we decided to take a risk and follow it for a few kilometres to see where it brought us. The view out the window of the water reflecting on the lake was just breath taking and as we started to gain altitude, driving about ten kilometres uphill into the mountains in search of the mysterious smoke, the view just got better and better. We pulled the car over to the side of the road a few times to take pictures as we couldn’t get over how other worldly the ground looked. It was like being on mars, with all the hard volcanic rock covered in this bouncy, green moss.
After about half an hour of driving, and stopping, then driving some more, we eventually found the source of all that smoke. Rather than being some wonderful act of nature, it was in fact a geothermal power station! Only in Iceland would you take a detour to view a power station…and have absolutely no regrets!
Stop 2: Þingvellir National Park
After our little detour, we were only about a 20 minute drive from the beautiful Pingvellir National Park. This stop was something I was really excited about as it felt like a real life history lesson. The site is part of a fissure zone running all the way through Iceland, where the European and North American tectonic plates (part of the Mid Atlantic Rift) are slowly pushing apart. It is one of the only places in the world where you can actually walk between two continental plates.
As if this did not make the region interesting enough, Pingvellir is also the birthplace of the Icelandic Nation. Even the name, which translates as ‘Parliamentary Plains’, gives a small taste of what went on here in the past. As far back as 930AD the Althingi (Iceland’s oldest and highest institution) met here to discuss matters of justice and to pass legislation.
There is so much to see here that you could easily spend a few hours exploring the area, walking through the rift, reading up on the area history, wandering over quint little bridges and small streams, photographing one of the most beautiful churches in the world (where two of my friends actually got married!) and standing in awe at the beautiful Öxarárfoss waterfall. There’s even a place where you can go snorkelling between the two tectonic plates – we didn’t get to do this but if I ever go back this will be my first stop!
Stop 3: The Great Geysir Geothermal Area
The next stop on our whirlwind tour of the Golden Circle was at Geysir, the site of the still active Geyser named Strokkur and the inactive Geyser (and the namesake of the word as it is used today!) Geysir. Confused yet?! The name of the area derives from the main Geyser which in Icelandic is known as ‘Geysir’. It rarely erupts and unless you happen to be in the area straight after an earthquake, you will unlike see any movement.
The first thing we noticed upon arrival was the steam rising up from the ground wherever we looked. The second thing we noticed, or should I say smelled, was the horrific stench coming from the sulphur and steam. It honestly smelled just like rotten eggs or a guys continual farts after Christmas dinner. It was painful. However, as soon as we saw the crazy blue colour of the water and how perfectly clear it was, along with the cheers from the crowd each time the Geysir erupted, we couldn’t help but shut out the smell and smile at how lucky we were to be there.
We joined a crowd of other tourists and waiting patiently for about 3-4 minutes in anticipation of seeing Strokkur erupt to the amazing gasps of the kids standing nearby. We stayed for about 20 minutes and saw it erupt around 4 times. It was quite addictive and I would have loved to have returned early the next morning if we had had more time.
Stop 4: Gullfoss – The Golden Waterfall
With a name that directly translates as ‘Golden Waterfall’ we knew that Gullfoss, Iceland’s most famous waterfall, would be a sight to behold. But that still didn’t prepare us for how spectacular it was to see up close in person. As we jumped out of the car and made our was down the path, we could hear the power of the water and see it splashing up into the sky before we saw a thing.
Our first glimpse of it was the view above, with rolling green fields, blue sky and even though you can’t see it that well in the photo, a stunning double rainbow right across the water.
Stop 5: Laugarvatn Fontana Spa
Just before we finished up day one of the Golden Circle, we were invited for a complimentary (perks of being a travel blogger!) visit to the Fontana spa, which is situated just a short drive from the Geysir and overlooks the beautiful lake Laugarvatn, which contains many natural hot springs that supply the spa.
We arrived at dusk and stayed until it closed at 9pm, allowing for us to enjoy the various baths and steam rooms by ourselves and to even get a peek at the stars while sitting in an outdoor hot tub with not a worry in the world!
One highlight of our visit involved putting on some weird rubber shoes (that were miles too big) and trudging down to the black sand beach on the lakes’ shoreline to see how hot the water was. It was BOILING. Literally boiling. We would jump from one patch of water to the next screaming, as one moment it would be freezing and the next it would be bubbling over. It was such a weird experience but one which I’m so glad we got to do. Once we had played around for long enough, we ran back into the spa and warmed ourselves up in the sauna…with a cold beer in hand! When in Iceland….
Stop 6: Kerid Crater Lake
Our last stop on our Golden circle road trip was Kerid Crater lake, a stop that I think many people fail to stop at. We were up so early that by the time we arrived, we were the only people there and the little National Parks Officer had not even showed up for work yet!
We had great fun walking around the top of the crater, posing for funny photos (see above!) and then walking, very slowly, down to the lake itself. The colours were amazing – the soil was blood red and contrasted amazingly with the blue lake and greenery surrounding the area.
Accommodation on the Golden Circle: Heradsskolinn Hostel
We seriously lucked out with the hostel we stayed in on The Golden Circle. Heradsskolinn Hostel is located right next to the Fontana Spa and overlooks Laugarvatn lake, which makes waking up here all the more special. When we were driving past it at first we didn’t know that it was the hostel we had booked, and were wondering if it was some sort of fancy hotel! Turns out the building was designed in 1928 by one of the greatest architects in Icelandic history, and that it was first used as a school, the first and only school in the Laugarvatn district.
Much of the decor inside the hostel sticks with the old schoolhouse theme, including old classroom desks and chairs in the kitchen area and lots of photos from years gone by. Even some of the staff are related to people that used to work in the school which make it all the more special. They have both dorms and private rooms, a small library, a restaurant/cafe and a night area to chill out in the evenings with a cold Icelandic beer. If you’re lucky, you might even see the Northern Lights in the sky over the hostel or make some new friends in a field nearby, just like we did!
Where to see the Northern Lights
Most people travelling to Iceland have one thing on their mind: catching a glimpse of the magical Aurora Borealis. Sadly Lauren and I were not very lucky on our trip as clouds seemed to drift on in every night and we didn’t get a chance to see them. If you’re lucky with the weather, however, and visit any time outside of the summer season when there is daylight 24 hours a day, you might have a chance to view them. Here’s a great guide on where to see the Northern Lights in Iceland, although in reality you can see them in most parts of the country if the weather is just right. Even outside of Reykjavik, if the night is clear and you walk or drive away from all the city lights, you should be able to spot them twinkling in the sky!