Visiting Iceland? You have probably already completed a quick Google search - maybe Google brought you to this blog post, if so, welcome! - and The Golden Circle was the top search result.
To give you the lowdown, The Golden Circle is a marketing name given to a series of natural wonders in the south-west of Iceland. It is a 300km loop that you can complete by car or by tour bus, depending on your preference.
In December, my brother and I did a tour of The Golden Circle, and I’m here with a review about the tour, the sights you will see, and how long it will take you. As always, this is a no affiliate, honest opinion based on personal experience.
Read and learn.
SHOULD I DO A TOUR?
Please see this handy flow chart I have created for you to decipher whether you should do a Golden Circle tour or hire a car.
The fact of the matter is that all of these natural wonders are free. The money you spend on a Golden Circle Tour goes towards covering the costs of your bus journey, and pay your guides who, quite frankly, don’t tell you anything you couldn’t find out on a wikipedia page.
If being shuttled around various locations like cattle is your kinda thing, ride on. We booked our tour through Gray Line for 40 euros each, which included a 9 hour tour and pick up/drop off at our hostel. You can pay more, or less so my advice is to shop around. We weren’t overly impressed with Gray Line despite many good reviews from hostel friends. I would recommend also checking out Reykjavik Excursions for their tours as well.
If you want to experience these locations at your own pace (without having to spend 15 minutes in EVERY SINGLE GODDAMN GIFT SHOP along the way) take my advice and hire a car.
During our stay, we hired through Budget as you can pre pay, and they don’t have a young driver’s fee (yay!). We picked up and dropped off at Reykjavik Airport and you better believe we walked there. Yes, even the locals were surprised despite it being only a cool 20 minute walk from our hostel.
If you are a little more organised than we are, I’d recommend hiring from Keflavik Airport when you first arrive, (all international flights arrive and depart at KEF) that way you can save yourself a nice 5,500 ISK on your airport transfer which was the equivalent to 2.5 days car hire for us.
WHAT WILL YOU SEE?
Every tour and itinerary is different and there are lots of side quests you can complete if you have the time and daylight hours to do so. Keep in mind that we did this about 4 days out from the Winter Solstice, meaning we had about 4 hours of good daylight to make the most of our tour.
With Gray Line, this was our vague itinerary:
8AM: Hostel pick up and transfer to depot
8:30AM: Depart Reykjavik
10AM: Arrive at Skaholt Church
Skaholt is a site of historical and religious importance in Icelandic culture. Interestingly enough, the last Catholic Bishop (and his two sons) were actually executed here during the Reformation. It’s the site of the first school in Iceland, and also happens to be in the middle of nowhere. It’s beautiful. Also, there is currently an archeological dig happening in the fields near the church. There are lots of information boards for you to read about the dig and it’s quite fascinating.
This is a stop that not many tours do, and we were the only tourists in the area on a Sunday morning. Someone was playing the organ as we walked into the church which was incredibly atmospheric. However, it was also still somewhat dark while we were here which made taking pictures and admiring the surrounding landscape difficult.
Time allotted: 30 minutes
10:45AM Arrive at Faxi Waterfall
Ah, Faxi Waterfall. I spent my time viewing you whilst munching on a bag of Doritos (we weren’t allowed to eat in the bus) and not being impressed by your 7 metre drop.
This was my least favourite stop on the tour. It was kind of just a small waterfall on farmland in the middle of nowhere. Nothing too amazing, especially when you consider some of the other waterfalls Iceland has to offer. My brother and I ended up spending more time smashing in pot holes filled with water that had iced over, and looking at the mountains across the highway. Please click the link above for photos of the actual waterfall as I was so unimpressed I didn’t even care to take a photo of it… haha
Time allotted: 15 minutes
11:30AM Arrive at Gullfoss
Our first stop on the “official” Golden Circle. A much more interesting and beautiful waterfall, Gullfoss. All of the brochures talk about this "untouched” waterfall - I mean they did save it from being turned into a hydropower plant - but all I saw were tourists jumping barriers into geothermal fields and wrecking the precious nature with their unnecessarily large boots. Wow am I in a grumpy mood today.
The two-staged waterfall drops 30 meters before gushing down another 70 meters, picking up a healthy dose of mist which causes a rainbow during the summer… or ice if you visit in winter like we did.
Yes. I kid you not.
To battle the cold we got hot chocolates from the conveniently placed cafe and overpriced gift shop.
You can walk above the waterfall which is a really nice, slightly less wet walk than the trail that leads right to the waterfall’s edge. We had an hour to explore the area, which after a toilet stop, turned into about 45 minutes (there was a long line). This was plenty of time to walk along the trails and really take in the power of mother nature.
Time allotted: 60 minutes
12:50PM: Arrive at Geyser
After a short drive back towards Reykjavik we were at Geyser… yes this is where the term comes from. The infamous Geyser used to erupt 70 meters in the air consistently, now it’s a little bit more moody. But don’t worry, its little brother Stokkur shoots water into the air every 5-6 minutes at a cute 20 - 40 meters.
We were given an hour to explore the geothermal fields, bubbling geysers and again, wait in long lines for the bathrooms and aimlessly wander through overpriced gift shops. This time however, I felt that the time allotted was a little too long. Geyser is very cool, but there isn’t a lot going on beyond the occasional spurting of water and watching people get wet when they stand in Stokkur’s path. I definitely got the vibe that our time spent here was deliberately long in order to entice us to spend money in the shops and cafes.
Time allotted: 60 minutes
3:00PM: Arrive at Þingvellir National Park
Thingvellir National Park is the birthplace of Icelandic Parliament (Alþing) and of course it is secluded and in the middle of nowhere. I asked our guide why Parliament was established here and not elsewhere (like maybe in Reykjavik?) and apparently this was the most convenient location for all of the chiefs back in 930AD.
This area was BEAUTIFUL but we were only given about 50 minutes to explore two very small parts of the park. I spotted several trails and even a waterfall we didn’t even get a sniff at that would have been way cooler than some of our stops earlier in the day. This is one place where I wish we had more time to explore.
Time allotted: 50 minutes
4:50PM: Arrive back at Hostel
HOW LONG DOES IT TAKE?
The whole golden circle tour doesn’t take you long to complete in a car. Google says that it will take you a quick 3 hours to circumnavigate the whole course - it’s about 300kms in total. Obviously, being in a tour bus means that getting in and out of a bus eats up a lot of your time. We definitely could have fit in a lot more had we taken our hire car instead.
Overall, however, despite it’s touristy nature, we really enjoyed visiting The Golden Circle and it’s definitely a must-do when visiting Iceland, just don’t expect to be blown away (except by the strong wind…) Like everywhere, the best-kept secrets are off the tourist track… and we should aim to keep it that way.