The natural beauty, the other-worldly landscape, the stunning lava fields and volcano craters, the beautiful waterfalls, the black sand beaches and basalt columns, Iceland is a destination like no other. More than a million visitors come to this country. And many of them, who come for a short time, visit the Golden Circle and the Blue Lagoon in one day. Thingvellir National Park, Geysir geothermal area, and the Gullfoss waterfall are the photogenic trio that make the Golden Circle route in Iceland. It is the most famous route in Iceland and closest to Reykjavik. Now let’s find out whether these Golden Circle Iceland stops are worth it.
Disclaimer: This helpful post contains some Affiliate links. If you click on any of the links in this post (AND make a purchase) I may receive a small commission at absolutely no cost to you. As such I thank you in advance should you decide to click & buy.
Golden Circle Iceland Map
Thingvellir National Park is about an hour’s drive from Reykjavik, it lies just under 50 km northeast of the capital. Time taken to reach Geysir geothermal area from Thingvellir is just 45 min to an hour. Gullfoss is only a 10-15 min trip from Geysir area. It is easy to cover the Golden Circle route from Reykjavik in a day. And during summer months when daylight hours are long, you could consider doing Golden Circle and Blue Lagoon in one day.
Golden Circle Iceland route is a year-round destination due to its proximity to Reykjavik. This route is well maintained and accessible even if you are visiting Iceland in winter.
Golden Circle Iceland Stops: Thingvellir National Park
The first and the most important stop in the Golden Circle route is Thingvellir National Park. Iceland has several areas of great geological importance and Thingvellir National Park is one of them. It is the only place in the world where you can see the rift between 2 tectonic plates above the land. Thingvellir Park rests on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge and the North American and the Eurasian tectonic plates meet here. These tectonic plates shift each year apart by about 2 cm.
The literal meaning of Thingvellir is ‘parliament plains’. It is an UNESCO World Heritage site.
The first parliament of Iceland met here in AD 930. And it remained there all the way until 1798. So Thingvellir besides being of geological importance, is also relevant in Iceland’s cultural and political development. It is the birthplace of Iceland as a nation. Because of its history, Thingvellir became Iceland’s first national park in 1930.
What to do in Thingvellir national park
On the way to the park, you get great views of Lake Thingvellirvatn. Thingvellir has a large paid car parking area right outside. Once you get into the park, you would come upon a platform outside the visitors’ centre from where the continental rift is very visible. You should go to the rift valley between the two continental plates.
One of the park’s popular walks is along the Almannagja Gorge. If you look up the cliff, you are staring at the North American continental edge! This part of Thingvellir is extremely popular, so expect crowds while walking the Almannagja Gorge. As you go further, the crowds thin out. Many travelers visit the park for its excellent hiking routes. One easy and popular trail leads to Oxarafoss, the main waterfall site in Thingvellir.
There is an opportunity for divers to scuba dive (you need to be certified for a dry suit) in the Silfra Fissure. Or, you can snorkel here. The water is crystal clear with visibility of upto 100 m. The fissure in Silfra opened up following a major earthquake. The glacier water flows to Silfra through a lava field, going through the best natural filtration system on the planet.
Imagine diving or snorkelling between two continental plates in the clearest fresh water possible!
Game of Thrones sites
GoT fans love to come to Thingvellir and identify the sites in the popular HBO series. Not as recognisable as King’s Landing in the old town of Dubrovnik. The Almannagja Gorge was used to represent the Gates of the Moon, which lead towards Eyrie. Lake Thingvellirvatn was used to represent the bay from where Arya Stark leaves Westeros to head towards the new world.
The visitor centre at Thingvellir park has a small cafeteria in case you are in need of some sustenance. After a trip across Iceland’s ring road, we visited Thingvellir early morning before heading to Reykjavik. The early morning visit was a good idea due to lesser crowds.
Golden Circle Iceland Stops: Geysir Geothermal Area
Geysir area is one the several areas in Iceland with continuous geothermal activity, and the most popular. It is the second stop on the Golden Circle Iceland route. Geysir is one of the most famous geysers in the world. The English word “geyser” is derived from the Icelandic word “geysir”. In Icelandic, geysir is derived from a verb meaning ‘to erupt’. Geysir is dormant currently, but it must have been quite a sight erupting about 60 m or more into the air in the past. The original site is marked by a stone, you can see geothermal colours around the site.
The main attraction at Geysir geothermal area has now shifted to Strokkur. This geyser erupts every 5-8 minutes, shooting hot water for about 25-35 m into the air. Keep your cameras ready, it is not an exact 8 minute interval.
In Icelandic, the name Strokkur means churn.
Other hot springs and mud pools
There are hot springs and bubbling mud pools in the surrounding Geysir area. Blesi Hot Spring is the main hot spring here. Make sure you remain on the marked path and don’t stray away. Obviously, never touch the HOT water. There is a strong sulphur smell in the area. I found the mud pools in Hverir geothermal area on our North Iceland itinerary to be far more impressive. But just the sight of Strokkur eruption makes a visit to Geysir geothermal area worthwhile.
Another hot spring in the Geysir geothermal area is called Konungshver. From Konungshver hot spring, there is a path that leads to the top of Mt. Laugarfjall. There are 2 observation platforms here, one looking over the geothermal area and another away from it into Haukadalur valley.
There is paid car parking near Geysir geothermal area, but we parked on a side road next to Strokkur that was free.
Golden Circle Iceland Stops: Gullfoss Waterfall
Gullfoss is one of Iceland’s iconic waterfalls and the last stop on the Golden Circle route. This waterfall in unique because you get to view these falls from the top. All other waterfalls including the beautiful Seljalandsfoss and Skogafoss, the main South Iceland attractions are best viewed from the bottom.
Gullfoss translates to ‘Golden Falls‘. The waterfall has 2 stages: the shorter cascade is 11 metres in height, and the second stage is 21 metres. It is good to visit Gullfoss anytime during the day. But make sure you stick to the marked trails around the waterfall, as the terrain in surrounding areas is slippery. You would get drenched by the waterfall’s spray if you get too close so wear a rain jacket.
The Gullfoss Visitor Centre has a shop, a cafe and restrooms. There is paid parking outside the visitor centre.
Adding Blue Lagoon to Golden Circle in a day
[UPDATE: Blue Lagoon is temporarily closed. The closure will remain in effect until December 7, at which point the situation will be reassessed.]
During the long summer months, Blue Lagoon remains open for longer hours. When we visited Blue lagoon on our first day of Iceland ring road itinerary for 12 days in June, it was open until 12 PM. During summer months, it is possible to combine Golden Circle and Blue Lagoon in one day. Blue Lagoon is the most popular geothermal spa in Iceland so expect crowds.
This popular attraction is about 160 km from Gullfoss. And soaking in the hot spring water after a long day of sightseeing the Golden Circle stops is perfect. The water here is rich in sulphur and silica. You need to pre-book your Entrance Pass to Blue Lagoon early as it is a popular destination. Blue Lagoon has all amenities on the site: a fine-dining restaurant, a cafe and a spa.
Verdict on the Golden Circle Iceland route
The Golden Circle stops are not just popular because of their proximity to Reykjavik. Each of the Golden Circle Iceland stops are beautiful and worthwhile to explore.
The best of the lot, in my option is Thingvellir National park, because of its unique geological and historic importance.
You can easily do the Golden Circle route on a self-drive car rental option. Or take a day tour from Reykjavik.
Browse through the best Golden Circle tours from Reykjavik:
That said, what makes Iceland one of the foremost travel destinations in the world is to go beyond Reykjavik and the Golden Circle route. The country is stunning and waiting to be explored.
Stay and Food recommendation
We stayed at the design hotel ION Adventure for 2 nights to be close to the Golden Circle stops. We had booked the Thermal Junior Suite which had excellent views and room amenities. The hotel has a fine-dining restaurant (Silfra restaurant) and a bar (Northern Lights Bar), both are really good. What was fabulous was the small private geothermal pool on the hotel premises. Soaking in this hot water in the silence of the night with cold air hitting your face is bliss.
Check out these posts to plan your trip to Iceland –
For a complete road trip itinerary: The Ultimate Iceland Ring Road Itinerary: 12 Days self-drive road trip
If you have 5-7 days to explore Iceland: Iceland in 5 to 7 days: Three Epic Itinerary Options
For estimating your Iceland Trip Cost and planning tips, read Iceland Trip Cost + How to plan a road trip to Iceland
For exploring the capital, see Reykjavik sightseeing
For travel tips on North Iceland, read North Iceland Highlights: The Diamond Circle Route + Travel Tips
For travel tips and top attractions in South Iceland, read Iceland South Coast Itinerary: The Best of South Iceland attractions
For travel tips and attractions in West Iceland, read West Iceland attractions: Best Things to Do in Snaefellsnes Peninsula
Read about the 15 Top Things to Do in Iceland in Winter
Pin it for later!
Have you visited the Land of Fire & Ice? What has been your favorite destination or experience there?
Subscribe to Zest In A Tote Digest, my monthly newsletter, for travel tips and inspiration.