The Golden Circle is the most iconic drive in Iceland and one of the best in the world. We experienced this adventure first hand and discovered much more than the guidebooks could have foretold. Because the country has not been overly developed (yet), no large condo buildings are looming in the background, skyscrapers illuminating the skies, or kitschy salesmen pitching timeshares. There are few distractions from the jarring cliffs, cascading waterfalls, glaciers, mountains, and raging seas. Iceland is freeing and magnificent. Despite its increasing popularity in recent years, the entire country still feels like one vast National Park on the verge of discovery.
Game of Thrones fans visiting Iceland will feel as though they are stepping onto a film set, recognizing many familiar backdrops. Nowhere is this more evident than the Golden Circle. There were times we were sure Daenerys would come swooping down on a dragon.
Tour Pick-Up Reykjavik
We booked this portion of our journey, a three-day, two-night tour, knowing that we did not want to spend days driving long distances. South Iceland often experiences inclement weather which leads to flooding and closed-off roads. I will admit that I usually do not take group tours. I find them restrictive. The thought of sitting on a bus with 50 strangers gives me anxiety; however, I wanted to experience the country without the stress of navigation and with a knowledgeable guide.
I chose a local tour operator with years of onsight experience, offering small group tours ranging from 6-18 people. Our tour had 14 people in total, including myself, my travel companion Vanessa, and our driver Nick.
First-time visitors should be aware that the historic part of the city does not allow vans or buses. Therefore, most tours pick up from designated bus stops, usually a 5-10 minute walk from hotels. Pick up times range from 30 minutes to 1 hour, with travelers expected to arrive early. Although our pick up time was 8:30 am, Artic Adventures instructed us to arrive 30 minutes early. Since the pickup stops are outside, the temperatures are often frigid, and the atmosphere chaotic. Many tours share meeting spots and start times. The drivers pull up and haphazardly call out passengers’ names. It is difficult to hear the drivers and easy to become disoriented. Certain tour operators sub-contract local companies and rent vehicles to run their tours, making the initial encounter rather challenging.
Our driver, Nick, picked us up around 8:40 am in an 18-passenger van. After just a few minutes we knew that he would be the perfect fit for our adventure. He was funny, sarcastic, and highly organized. After introducing ourselves to the other people around us, we instantly made friends with three girls. These solo travelers were adventurous, interesting and proved to be exceptional companions. Although I loved nearly everything about our tour, the one negative I would give Arctic Adventures is the condition of their vans. While they provide free wi-fi (a high point in Iceland), we did not have in-seat USB chargers, the seats were uncomfortable, and legroom is lacking. I think it’s time for an upgrade!
Thingvellir National Park
Our first stop of the Golden Circle Tour was the viewing area of Thingvellir National Park. I cannot even describe the views and feeling one has while walking between the towering, jagged rocks. The top viewing areas provide glimpses of magnificent Silfra, snowcapped mountains, and the cliffs formed by ever-shifting tectonic plates. Game of Thrones fans will enjoy the filming location where Aria Stark and The Hound walk up to the Veil. We spent about an hour here and could have walked on for another hour or so as the path is quite long.
The park is a Unesco World Heritage Site
Our next stop was the Geyser Geothermal Area. The Geyser erupts every few minutes in a 30m high aquatic burst, providing a kaleidoscope of colors in hues of reds, greens, and deep browns, exhilarating all senses. Steam hangs over the flaring from hundreds of hot pots.
We spent around 45 minutes exploring the area and taking photos. Although this is one of Iceland’s most popular attractions and there are plenty of tourists, the area does not feel overly crowded. Visitors have plenty of opportunities to photograph the geyser eruptions.
The following stop on the Golden Circle and one of the most incredible sights in Iceland is the Gulfoss Waterfall, seen from a dizzying height. The two-tiered waterfall plunges an astounding 32m into the Hvita River. Rafting tours are popular in the summer months.
Although we did not see the famous rainbows which dance around in clear skies, we were mesmerized by the coats of icicles, snow caps, and the sheer size of the natural seismic wonder. Give yourself at least 45 minutes to walk around and fully appreciate this massive beauty.
Icelandic Horses & Seljalandsfoss
After leaving Gullfoss, we stopped along the road to feed some beautiful Icelandic horses. The horses are smaller than other breeds but are one of the oldest and best-tempered in the world. Extremely friendly, they provide a comfortable ride with tours available for riders of all skill levels.
Our next stop, Seljalandsfoss rewarded the group with a spectacular sight of three magnificent waterfalls, spilling out over the barren landscape. Although not as outwardly striking at first glance as Gullfoss, we enjoyed this stop more. Fewer tour operators and fewer people provided the opportunity for our group to get much closer to the falls. We recommend proper waterproof boots, pants, and jackets.
We spent a full hour exploring the area, climbed up the rocks, and got wet, peaking at a waterfall hidden behind two giant jagged rocks along the river. Make sure to walk down the full length of the path to experience the destination truly.
That evening we checked into one of the small “country hotels” located in Myrdalshreppur. Unimpressive at first glance, it proved to be comfortable, quaint, and provided decent food and drinks. Full, exhausted, and overwhelmed by the stunning natural wonders of the day, we fell asleep to the sounds of rain dripping on the rooftops.
There are few hotel options on the South Coast. This books up far in advance and is primarily utilized by luxury outfitters. In recent years, lodging options in Iceland have not caught up with the influx of tourism, so make sure you have rooms booked several months out.