The Golden Circle Tour is one of the most popular things to do for visitors to Iceland. Most people visiting Iceland stay in Reykjavik and the Golden Circle route starts and finishes there and hits a number of well know sites in one day. There are numerous good bus tours available with many variations of the route. We decided to rent a car and drive the route ourselves. Driving on your own gives you the advantage of taking your time at places that you are personally interested in and gives you the flexibility to make side trips and see exactly what you want to see.
What is the Golden Circle Route?
Good question, what exactly constitutes the Golden Circle route? In our research we found many variations of what was described as the “Golden Circle Route.” Bus tour companies typically offered a number of Golden Circle tours: Classic Tour, Evening Tour, Tour with snorkeling or horseback riding or snowmobiling…. the list goes on. It seems that just about all the tours included these three stops: Gulfoss, Geysir and Thingvellir. We added a few more stops based on our personal interests.
There was about three and a half hours of actual driving time in the route we took. Most of the sites are accessible 24 hours as far being able to get out and take a look. However, many of the visitor centers, museums, restaurants and shops have opening and closing hours. We chose to take the route counter-clockwise to accommodate the open hours of visitor centers. It was early July when we visited so there was 20 hours of daylight during our stay so we had plenty of daylight to take a look at things.
The Geothermal Energy Exhibit
This was one of the top items on my list of things to see. Iceland uses geothermal energy to generate most of its electricity and also uses geothermal energy to pipe hot water to every home and business in the country. As we pulled into the parking lot, Susan turned to me, rolled her eyes and said, “I wonder how many engineers are going to visit this place today?” It turns out, quite a few. We pulled into the parking lot at 9:00AM on the dot, when it opened. We were the second couple to enter the exhibit and as we began talking to them we found that he was an electrical engineer from the USA. Susan and his wife exchanged knowing, sympathetic glances.
At the exhibit you get an explanation of the process of using geothermal energy to generate electricity and hot water for consumers in Iceland. Not only does the plant generate electricity, but it also heats hot water that is piped to homes and businesses in Iceland. Reykjavik also has hot water piping under the streets to melt snow and ice – no shovelling!
There are a number of exhibits, video presentations and guides explaining the process. You get to take a look at the rooms with the generators and can walk outside and take a look at the whole operation.
I found it interesting that the plant is so automated and efficient that on the weekends it takes two people to run the whole plant, but 5 people to run the visitor center.
Kerið Crater Lake
This volcanic crater is right off the main road, so is readily accessible. It is thought that about 3000 years ago this volcano erupted and the lake remains today. It is a short hike to the top of the crater for some great views and you can walk all the way down to the lake.
Skalholt is an important historic site in Iceland and was first inhabited in 1056. For around 700 years it was the main ecclesiastical site in the country. In addition to the current cathedral, built in the late 1950’s, there is a museum that explains a lot of the history of the site. Also on site is a school, restaurant and accommodations.
Gulfoss means Golden Waterfall in Icelandic. It is a double waterfall. The falls are about 32 meters (100 feet) tall and is in a canyon with 70 meters (230 feet) tall cliff walls. Very picturesque. A number of trails and overlooks give you a great view from a variety of perspectives.
We had a nice lunch at the visitor center above the falls. I had a great lamb stew that came with free refills!
Not too far from Gulfoss is Geysir. The word “geyser” was derived from the Icelandic word “geysir” which means gusher. The actual Geysir is now basically dormant, it hasn’t spouted regularly since about 1916. It is believed that a small earthquake shut off Geysir, but now about 100 meters (300 feet) away is Stokkur. Strokkur is another geyser that erupts on a very regular basis, about every 3 and a half minutes or so while we were there.
It was later in the day by the time we got to Thingvellir, so the visitor centers and museums were closing or already closed by the time we got there. There are quite a few things to see and do in Thingvellir National Park.
Thingvellir literally means “parliamentary plains” and was the assembly point for government from about 980 to 1798. It is one of the most important sites for the Icelandic people historically.
Snorkeling and scuba diving in the area is very popular due to the very clear water and the unique rifts in the area.
In addition, there is hiking, horseback riding and many other activities available.
For us, one of the most interesting aspects was that this is where the American and European tectonic plates meet and are still drifting apart. In geological terms, this separation is very rapid – about an inch per year. It was cool and amazing to walk down in the rift knowing that it is still spreading apart.
Overall, it was a fantastic day and a great way to see many of the most iconic sites in Iceland in a day. In retrospect, if I was to do it again I would probably start clockwise and make Thingvellir our first stop and leave the Geothermal Energy Exhibit for a separate trip on another day. The Energy Exhibit is only about 25km from Reykjavik. This would give us more time to spend in Thingvellir while the visitor center, information center and church are open and would give us time to add another stop or two to the day.