The moment that we’ve been waiting for had arrived. We’re ecstatic as finally, we’ll have the chance to experience Iceland in its raw and natural beauty. A host of wonders that are unique only to the land of ice and fire awaits us. Here are the highlights of the top sights to see at the Golden Circle Route in Iceland.
This is not to say that our first two days in Reykjavik had not been impressive. We enjoyed every bit of it as we sampled local food, met and interacted with friendly locals. Also, the sights and attractions – whether man-made or otherwise, were outstanding, to say the least.
This time it’s the first of our two-day road trip and we’re exploring Southern Iceland including the popular Golden Circle Route. This route covers about 300 kilometres (190 mi) from Reykjavík into the southern uplands of Iceland and back. A tour of the Golden Circle is a must and highly recommended whether one has a couple of days or a week, and even more in Iceland.
The most well-known stops on the route are the historical Þingvellir (or Thingvellir) National Park, the geothermal area in Haukadalur which has more than 30 hot springs and geysers including Geysir and Strokkur, and the mighty Gullfoss waterfall.
Driving in Iceland
All drivers and passengers must know the driving rules and traffic regulations in Iceland. This is to ensure their own safety and for the others as well and to avoid incurring and paying expensive fines.
Driving in Iceland is on the right side of the road and overtaking is on the left.
The general speed limit for cars in Iceland is 30-50 km/hr in urban areas, 80 km/hr on rural gravel roads and 90 km/hr on paved rural roads.
It is mandatory and required by law for drivers and passengers (including older children) to wear seatbelts. Younger children and infants must be seated in car-safety seats.
Car headlights must be switched on at all times, whether its day or night. The use of mobile phones (or cellular phones) whilst driving is strictly prohibited.
It is forbidden and illegal to drive after consumption of alcohol or drugs. Don’t drive under the influence, regardless of the amount consumed (even if it is acceptable in your own country).
Also, off-road driving is illegal in Iceland. Some of the roads particularly in the countryside may be rough, narrow and pose hazards even to the most experienced drivers.
Smaller bridges are mostly single lane so drivers should be aware of the oncoming traffic before crossing.
For safety reasons, it is always important to check weather and road conditions before your trip, especially during the winter season. Please check out this website.
Visitors driving (including their passengers) in Iceland are likely to have pleasant experiences by being safe and not paying fines. These can be possible by being mindful and respectful of the speed limits and other traffic regulations in the country.
Þingvellir National Park
From Reykjavik, we drove eastward along Route 49 which later became Route 1, Iceland’s ring road. Going northeast and turning right onto Route 36, it was pretty straightforward from there. The whole drive covers a little over 40 kms in under 50 minutes. The park is located on the northern side of Þingvallavatn, the largest natural lake of Iceland.
Þingvellir National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site is rich in history and geological features. The Althing, the national parliament of Iceland was established in the area. Founded in 930 AD, it was the oldest parliament in the world. A thousand years later or in 1930, the park was founded.
We saw cracks or faults as the North American and Eurasian continental plates pull away from each other like bitter lovers. The drift occurs at the rate of about 2.5 centimetres (1 inch) every year. On the northern shore of the lake, the Silfra fissure was wide enough for snorkelling and scuba diving. If we can return in the future, we want to try these activities. It would be a fantastic experience to swim and explore between two continents!
There is a Visitor Centre in the park where guests can learn the history and nature of Þingvellir and its surroundings. Admission is free. At the Information Centre, visitors can get general information about the park, maps, other places of interest and much more. There is a cafeteria which offers light refreshments.
There are hiking trails around the park which is a good way to explore and discover interesting sights. We can see majestic mountain ranges still draped in last winter’s snow, sweeping landscape and unspoilt nature around us. An Icelandic flag flirts with the air at a distance whilst a church stood nearby. Also, a small cemetery and what seemed like a row of houses can be seen.
Some scenes of the epic fantasy television series Game of Thrones were filmed at Þingvellir. We were at the park during spring when the region was not yet at its best. In addition, the sky was grey and overcast. I am sure the whole area will look fabulous when summertime ushers in. Truly, the park is an absolute nature lover’s delight.
Haukadalur and the Geysers
We continue driving eastward along Route 36 (later to become Route 365 then Route 37 then Route 35– don’t let this confuse you – why don’t they just name it as Route 36 only when it’s just one long stretch of road?). Some 60 kms in about an hour’s drive later, we reached Haukadalur. This place has outstanding geothermal features including the geysers. The grey sky now turned into a blue one.
The more popular geysers of Haukadalur are Strokkur and Geysir. The word ‘geyser’ which is an upward gush or burst of hot, boiling water into the air was derived from the latter. Geysir is now dormant, unlike the smaller Strokkur which erupts once at about every 6-10 minutes. The gush reaches a height of about 20 metres but sometimes can reach up to 40 metres.
Strokkur’s eruption was a sight to behold. We stood with other tourists around the makeshift circular fence with bated breath as we patiently wait like a predator for its prey. Initially, the geyser was quiet and timid which seemed like it was incapable of doing something spectacular. Then it started to show signs of restlessness, small bubbles of hot water appear on its surface. These bubbles transformed into a massive blob and the agitation becomes more intense as if a monster underneath was about to make his surprise, scary appearance. We readied our cameras like proper paparazzi.
Finally, with a mighty force and a loud swooshing sound, a column of boiling water shoots high up into the heavens. We started clicking our cameras, some with their videos to capture this natural wonder. In a second or two, the waters come rushing down leaving a thick plume of steam and smoke in its wake. In a flash, the geyser was back to its former innocent demeanour.
Everyone started checking their respective cameras making sure that they were able to document the whole shebang. A Chinese man adjusted the tripod of his camera. He was already on the site when we arrived and still there when we left about half an hour later. I can only hazard a guess that he’s covering everything in a time-lapse. We waited and watched 3 or 4 more eruptions before leaving.
The perimeter fence was at a safe distance away from the geyser. As a precautionary measure make sure to stay away in the direction of the wind. The waters are so hot that a strong gusty wind may cause injuries like burns to spectators.
Around the geothermal area, we can see varying degrees of smoke rising up in the air as if a forest fire had just been extinguished. There are about thirty or more much smaller geysers, hot springs nearby, which includes one called Litli Geysir (or Little Geysir).
Visitors do not have to pay an entrance fee to see the geysers. Across the road from the geothermal area are a hotel and a souvenir shop with spacious parking lots. The shop sells many items including, to my amusement, cans of “Fresh Icelandic Mountain Air.” Why should I buy these cans when outside I can have free air to suck in and enjoy to my lungs’ content? (pun intended)
A short drive from Haukadalur along Route 35 of about 10 kms in 10 minutes brought us to Gullfoss, one of the most popular and beautiful waterfalls, not only in Iceland but in the world.
It is not just a lovely waterfall but behind it was a story that could have changed its present status. The waterfall was owned by a farmer but foreign investors want to harness its power to produce electricity. The farmer refused to sell the waterfall to an Englishman but later leased it to him. The farmer’s daughter named Sigriður Tómasdóttir was against the deal and went out of her way to void it. She even threatened to throw herself to the falls should the construction commence. However, the court nullified the contract due to lack of payment of rental fees. Later, the waterfall was sold to the Icelandic government and now designated as a nature reserve.
However, some say that the popular story about Sigriður’s campaign to save Gullfoss was not true. Nevertheless, imagine if the construction of the dam came to fruition, then the public would not have the opportunity to enjoy this waterfall in its natural state and beauty. I am just wondering as to why a simple stone memorial to Sigriður was erected and can be found near the falls.
At an area atop but away from Gullfoss are a shop and a tourist information centre. Outside is a platform where one can admire an excellent view of the waterfall. However, there is a hiking trail along the falls for tourists to have a closer view.
Gullfoss is located on the Hvítá (meaning white) river which is fed by Langjökull, Iceland´s second biggest glacier. We took on the trail to have an up close and personal experience of the waterfall. As we approach, the falls seem to disappear into the earth’s depths.
Moving on, we passed through a crevice where the ceaseless drop of waters cause mists to rise and float in the air. It was said that you had not experienced Gullfoss unless its mists had kissed your cheeks. We were thrilled from the tingling sensation we felt as the mists not only kissed but hugged us too like we were long-lost friends.
Everywhere around the falls, we saw thick deposits of snow beginning to thaw. The falls look splendid in a mix of clear and turquoise waters. A glimmering rainbow above the mists seems to be the crowning glory of the falls’ majestic beauty. We can see a sizable number of hikers at an elevated portion of the falls looking like a minuscule, insignificant part of its sheer size and grandiose character.
Gullfoss is a multi-tiered, staircase type of waterfall with multiple cataracts. It is difficult to describe its personality in words. Photographs cannot do justice to the waterfall’s might, roaring force and the thunderous noise it makes as it conducts its daily business. The waterfall can be best experienced by being actually there. We were extremely privileged and blessed to have this wonderful opportunity.
It was just past midday but we have covered already the top sights to see at the Golden Circle Route in Iceland. We can’t wait to explore and discover more of Southern Iceland’s other surprises. It’s time to move on and hit the road once again.
Please watch the Golden Circle Route sights in this video.
Video Credit: Milosh of Amazing Places on our Planet
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A trip to Iceland would not be complete without visiting the Golden Circle Route. Have you been and done this tour? What was your experience like? If not, do you plan to visit someday?
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