It's an essential tour on any Iceland itinerary. Hiring a car and taking your time means you can really enjoy all that this region has to offer
11 stops you shouldn't miss
If you're short on time, it's easy to take a whistle-stop tour of the Golden Circle. Setting off from Reykjavik, a day tour will usually take in the three key sights: Gulfoss, Geysir and Þingvellir National Park.
But if you have your own transport and are able to spend a night or two in the region, there is so much more to see.
Here are 11 Golden Circle stops that shouldn't be missed.
Geysir and Strokkur
Erupting hot springs across the world are named after Geysir, situated some 30km northeast of the spa village of Laugarvatn. The jets of steam can be seen from miles away – but these are more likely to come from neighbouring geyser Strokkur, which sends a hot spout of boiling water and steam 30m skywards every few minutes.
You know when Strokkur is about to erupt – the bubbling develops into a blue dome across the circumference of the pool, through which the boiling water bursts. It's a spectacular sight, and you'll probably want to wait around to witness two or three eruptions at least.
Geysir itself is unpredictable, and only erupts infrequently – you could wait years to see it. It's still worth walking along the path from Strokkur to take a look though – the large, deep pool is much bigger than Strokkur, so you can imagine how high the steam jets would shoot if it did erupt.
Paths continue around the geothermal area (and be sure to stick to these, as wandering off the paths could be dangerous) with various smaller pools – such as bubbling Little Geysir – to marvel at.
Parking at the geothermal area is plentiful, and there's a visitor centre alongside, with café and shopping.
A short distance up the road from Geysir is Gulfoss (Golden Falls). Here the fast-flowing Hvita River is channeled through a 2km long canyon after cascading down two drops – one of 10m, the other 20m.
In winter, parts of the falls can become frozen – while in late spring and early summer the meltwater from feeder glaciers renders the falls even more spectacular, with mist and spray rising up from the water.
Even though Gulfoss is firmly on the Golden Circle tour itinerary, which means that crowds are possible, the large viewing area means you can still get a good view. The viewing area is situated right above the waterfall – giving you a bird's-eye view of the thundering falls disappearing into the crevice.
There are paths to other viewing areas, but take care in icy weather – and heed warning signs if the paths are closed. Also keep to marked paths and stay well away from the edges – there are no safety barriers.
Þingvellir National Park
The historically significant, UNESCO World Heritage Site of Þingvellir is not to be missed. The national park is located in a spectacular rift valley, where the North American and Eurasian continental plates are gradually drifting further and further apart – at a rate of around 1.5cm every year.
It's the best place in Iceland to see the continental drift, with paths and boardwalks leading along the foot of one of the most spectacular rift walls, allowing you to get up close to this geological wonder.
At the visitors' centre there's a great lookout. Perched right on the edge of the North American continental plate, this offers superb views across the valley, with the distant mountains framing the scenery beautifully.
It's at Þingvellir (the Assembly Plains) that the first Icelandic government was formed in 930 AD. The assembly continued to meet for two weeks every summer – with people travelling for days to attend – until 1798.
Key sights in the national park include the flagpole marking the place where important speeches were given, and Öxarafoss – a small but beautiful waterfall created by the River Öxara tumbling over the edge of the rift wall.
Laugarvatn Fontana Geothermal Baths
While many tourists head to the Blue Lagoon for a geothermal soak, the pools at Laugarvatn Fontana are an enjoyable (and more affordable) alternative.
There are a number of different pools to explore and enjoy, all heated naturally to different temperatures using geothermal energy.
There are also three steam rooms – with hot steam simmering directly from the ground through grids in the cabin floors – and a Finnish sauna with large picture windows giving excellent views of the lake.
For a truly Finninsh experience following a sauna, the brave can take a dip in the chilly lake – a wooden jetty leads out to allow easy access – before heading back into one of the warm pools to recover.
It's a magical place in the evening when the sky begins to darken and the spa is lit by a soft glow – and on a clear night you may be lucky enough to see the Northern Lights.
If you have time, booking onto the geothermal bread baking tour is recommended. Your guide will lead you to the outdoor geothermal bakery, where a pot of freshly baked bread is dug out from the hot sand. You then get a chance to try the warm bread with some butter. It's delicious, with a cake-like texture, and a flavour that's unlike anything we had tasted before.
If you enjoyed Gulfoss, but hanker after a more tranquil experience without crowds of tourists, this waterfall is for you. When we visited in late March we had the place to ourselves.
A few kilometres south of Geysir along Route 35, Vatnsleysufoss (also known as Faxi) is smaller, at 7m high – but no less beautiful than its northern neighbour.
This is the wide and rapid Tungufljót River – and there's a path that leads down the side of the valley that takes you quite close to the thundering falls. Again, heed health and safety warnings and steer clear of the edge.
Friðheimar Tomato Farm
Continue along Route 35 from Vatnsleysufoss and you arrive at Friðheimar Tomato Farm, in Reykholt.
This was one of our favourite stops. The greenhouses contain thousands of tomato plants, grown using eco-friendly methods.
Three different varieties of tomatoes are grown year-round, using lighting powered by green electricity, and geothermal energy for heating. Around 370 tons of tomatoes are produced each year, with 600 bumblebees – imported from Holland – working hard to pollinate the crop.
There's an atmospheric restaurant right inside the main greenhouse. Sadly we hadn't booked a table (booking in advance is advised) – but luckily there was space for us at the bar where we had the most delicious freshly made tomato soup, served with home-baked caraway seed rolls.
There's also a super little shop where you can buy pretty much any tomato-related product you can think of, from chutney and soup to sauces and salsa – all produced in Friðheimar's kitchen. Oh, and fresh tomatoes of course!
There's been a church at Skáholt since 1056, and in the 13 th century, the village was Iceland's largest settlement.
The current church, perched on top of a small hill and with fantastic views across the plains, was built in 1963 – the previous building was destroyed in an earthquake at the end of the 18 th century. Be sure to head inside to admire the striking stained glass windows, which on a sunny day create beautiful rainbow patterns on the white stonework.
Ongoing archaeological excavations alongside the church have revealed ruins of several of the village buildings, dating from the 17 th and 18 th centuries, including the bishop's residence, a school and various store rooms.
There's also a dark subterranean passageway that in the Middle Ages would have linked the church to the school. A turf-roofed replica village house, next to the church, gives you some idea of how the buildings might have looked in medieval times.
To get to Skáholt, head southwest along Route 35 from Friðheimar and turn left along Route 31.
Kerið volcanic crater
Back on Route 35, you'll soon reach the Kerið crater. Formed about 6,500 years ago, this picturesque crater is up to 270m wide and 55m deep. It's filled with water, which is frozen over in winter.
You can walk right around the rim of the crater – allow about 20 minutes, with plenty of stops for photos.
If you have time it's also worth clambering down into the crater, where a footpath circumnavigates the pool – giving you a unique perspective of this remarkable geological feature.
Not really in the Golden Circle region, but certainly worth a detour if you have enough time. Around an hour's drive southeast from Selfoss along Route 1, this famous waterfall is unusual in that you can walk behind it. It's an awe-inspiring experience – as you stand behind the curtain of water, you're just a few feet from the falls. The noise is deafening, and you can feel the force of the water – and it's quite likely you'll get a little bit wet!
Heading back towards Reykjavik along Route 1 brings you to the small town of Hveragerði.
Surrounded by an extraordinary, steam-cloaked landscape of lichen-covered lava flows and steaming, bubbling geothermal pools, the town is home to a large number of hothouses, where vegetables and tropical plants are grown, harnessing the heat from geothermal energy.
Hiking is good in the area too. You can take a short wander around the geothermal area just out of town – stay on the paths! – or there's a popular, longer hike through the lush green valley of Reykjadalur, or 'Steamy Valley'. This walk takes about 45 minutes each way and follows the course of a thermally heated river, with numerous hot pools to take a dip in – these get hotter as you head upstream, and some are too hot to bathe in, so take care!
At the start of the Reykjadalur trail is the excellent Hot River Café – a wonderful place to relax and enjoy spectacular views across the geothermal valley.
Where to stay
We took four days to complete this trip, which gave us time to enjoy all the sights, without feeling rushed.
We spent two nights at the excellent Golden Circle Apartments. These spacious, modern self-catering apartments are ideal for families, and are in a superb central location in Laugarvatn, right alongside Laugarvatn Spa. From Golden Circle Apartments it's easy to reach the key sights at Geysir, Gulfoss and Þingvellir.
We then stayed at Hotel Eldhestar for two nights, which gave us time to enjoy a short trek on Icelandic horses, and explore the Hveragerði region. Eldhestar is a very comfortable hotel, with family rooms and wonderful hot tubs for soaking sore muscles after an afternoon in the saddle.
Green Adventures January 2019
You'll see beautiful, strong and sturdy little Icelandic horses wherever you go in Iceland. If you want to really get to know them though, a visit to Eldhestar, near Hveragerði, is a must.
You can take an hour-long guided trek, which is suitable for all abilities – even if you've never ridden before. It's a great way to experience the Icelandic horse's unique gait – a quick-paced trot called tölt. More experienced riders can go on a multi-day trek through breathtaking Icelandic scenery.