The most interesting and diverse day-trip from Reykjavik is to Iceland’s “Golden Circle“. I’m not certain where the name “Golden Circle” originated, but it is a golden travel opportunity. During this excursion you have a chance to see Iceland’s largest lake and explore the historic site of its first parliament (situated in no less than a rift valley). You’ll visit one of the world’s few sites of geysir eruption, and an amazing waterfall. By any standards, that’s a pretty good list of attractions to see in one day’s travel.
There are several commercial vendors that offer tours of the Golden Circle from Reykjavik for those who don’t want the hassle of car rental or driving (the most popular including Reykjavik Excursions and Iceland Excursions). But it’s awfully nice to have the freedom of a rented car, and very easy to navigate the Golden Circle yourself. The roads are of good quality and traffic is light. You have the freedom to start when you want, stop where you want for a view or a photo, and stay at any of the destinations as long as you want, so keep the car rental option in mind.
Most people tour the Golden Circle in a clockwise fashion, so that’s how I’ll outline it:
1) Lake Thingvallavatn: Usually trips to the Golden Circle take you north along the coast, then inland and uphill towards Thingvellir National Park, less than an hour’s drive from the capitol. Along the way you pass Lake Thingvallavatn, Iceland’s largest natural lake. On a clear day the lake is beautiful and it’s worth stopping to take in the view of its clear blue water, the volcanic islands in the lake and backdrop of snow-clad mountains. The lake provides excellent fishing opportunities (e.g. arctic char, brown trout), and its fissures are popular scuba-diving destinations (though be forewarned, the water is c-o-l-d!).
2) Thingvellir National Park: A unique place of both historic and geologic significance, and one of Iceland’s few UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Thingvellir was where Iceland’s first parliament convened in 930 A.D. and did so on and off until the 18th century. It was here that Icelandic law was created at “Law Rock” on which today you’ll see Iceland’s flag fluttering in the breeze. It’s also is an excellent example of a rift valley, caused by separation of the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates. The main cliffs of the Rift Valley are 6 kms apart, but because of more recent lava flows in the valley you can see and walk through the very clearly defined rift caused by the separation of the continental plates as you descend to the park’s historic sites. The park has a beautiful setting, especially on a sunny day, with the clear waters of the Oxara River flowing through its meadows to Lake Thingvallavatn. Many hiking options are available, ranging from less than a kilometer in length to a full day’s hike if you’re up to it. The small but lovely Oxarafoss waterfall is easily reached by a short trail.
3) Geysir: This is home to the first Geysir, sometimes known as Great Geysir, the one after which all geysirs are named. Sadly, the Great Geysir has been dormant most of the past century but not to worry. Immediately adjoining Great Geysir is Strokkur, an impressive geysir that erupts every five or six minutes. It’s great fun to linger and watch Strokkur erupt several times, from different angles and perspectives. Especially fascinating is a close view, watching the boiling water bubble and churn then suddenly explode from the ground! You can get much closer to Strokkur’s core than you could in Yellowstone National Park (which has the world’s largest collection of geysirs). In addition to geysirs, the region has several large warm water pools, steam vents, and a vague sulfurous smell to the air. There is a nice gift shop and restaurant across the road from the geothermal hot-spot.
4) Gullfoss: Iceland has dozens of dramatic waterfalls; of the ones I’ve seen I think this is its most beautiful. Gullfoss is formed by an elegant two step drop of the Hvita River, which then makes a dramatic 90 degree turn to flow through the base of a very steep and narrow canyon.
After completing the Golden Circle most people return to Reykjavik (sometimes with a stop at a geothermal greenhouse or geothermal electricity generating station). We decided to stay in the Golden Circle region in the small town of Fludir, at its small but charming Icelandair Hotel Fludir. One of the reasons we stayed here was because of the excellent reputation of its restaurant, which did not disappoint! (we had a wonderfully prepared and presented cod dinner — cod being a traditional Icelandic dish you should try when visiting)
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