Highlights of Iceland | The Golden Circle
Iceland's "The Golden Circle" is a popular tourist route which includes the Geysir Geothermal Area, Gullfoss waterfall, and the Þingvellir (Thingvellir) National Park.
3 Jan 20 · 4 mins read
The Golden Circle
Iceland’s “The Golden Circle” is a popular tourist route which includes the Geysir Geothermal Area, Gullfoss waterfall, and the Þingvellir (Thingvellir) National Park, which became Iceland’s first listing on the UNESCO World Heritage Sites List in 2004.
This tourist route, derived from the name of Gullfoss–“golden waterfall” in Icelandic–covers around 300 kilometres from the capital Reykjavík into Iceland’s southern uplands and back. This allows travellers to take in the country’s most famous natural and cultural sites. This is a popular day tour as the whole route can be driven in three to four hours, although of course travellers are encouraged to have long stops at each site in order to fully appreciate the attractions and natural wonders.
There are three major stops on this route:
Þingvellir (Thingvellir) National Park
The Þingvellir (Thingvellir) National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that witnessed the establishment of the Viking Althing in 930, which formed the beginning of the Icelandic nation. In Old Norse, Þingvellir translates to “parliament plains“, and was the site of the oldest parliament in Northern Europe.
During the Viking age of exploration in the 9th century, the Vikings sailed from Norway and other Nordic settlements to stake claims to land on Iceland. From Iceland, they sailed further to Greenland and Vinland (North America, named by Leif Eríksson, Erik’s son, after the wild grapes he saw on the shore). There were no recorded human settlements before this time, but the island was known to the Greeks and to Irish hermits as Thule. However, “Thule” may refer not only to Iceland but to the other regions in the Arctic; the word was used to describe “the northernmost part of the habitable ancient world”.
A Viking assembly, the Althing, was established after the settlement period. Things, from the Old Norse þing, is used to describe these parliaments, and the name survives in the place names across Northern Europe, such as Tinganes (Faroe Islands), Dingwall (Scotland), Tynwald (Isle of Man), and Tingwall (Shetland and Orkney).
Fragments of the structure that housed the Althing remain, 50 booths built from turf and stone. In 1397, a Scandinavian union was formed at Kalmar, Sweden (Kalmar Union) bringing the separate kingdoms of Norway, Sweden, and Denmark under a single monarch. Iceland’s chieftains swore allegiance to the Norwegian king, and rule passed to the Danish crown. The rulers of Denmark increased their hold on the country in the 17th century. Iceland won the right for home rule in 1904, but later chose to break all ties with Denmark. On May 7, 1928, Þingvellir (Thingvellir) was turned into a national park and declared a “protected national shrine“, and it was here where the Icelandic republic was established in 1944.
Thingvellir is also where you can experience walking between two continents, as the Eurasian and American continental plates meet here, visible on the earth’s surface and continuously splitting Iceland into two at a rate of 1 mm to 18 mm per year.
For years it was Iceland’s only UNESCO World Heritage Site, until it was joined in 2008 by the volcanic island Surtsey, and by Vatnajokull National Park in 2019.
Geysir Geothermal Area
Glaciers, geysers, and waterfalls spot Iceland’s famously harsh and dramatic landscape. Because it is a relatively young island, you can practically see the countryside forming as volcanoes, lakes, and geothermal hot springs shape the environment.
Geysir is derived from the Old Norse verb that means “to gush”, and you can immediately tell why it acquired this name from the intense geothermal activity in the area. The Geysir Geothermal Area is dotted with hot pools and vents, including the earliest documented geyser in Europe, the Great Geysir, and its neighbour, Strokkur. Strokkur is the more active of the two, erupting every ten minutes and shooting water 20 metres into the air.
Iceland is also known for its many beautiful waterfalls. A short drive from the Geysir Geothermal Area is the breathtaking Gullfoss waterfall, which tumbles down from a great height of 32 metres (105 feet). Declared a natural reserve in 1979, Gullfoss may have gotten its name from the golden hue of its glacial waters (though there are other theories). Visitors to the waterfall can visit the Gullfoss Kaffi cafe and restaurant first for some refreshment; the cafe is only three minutes away from the wooden boardwalk that would take you close to the waterfall.
Travelling the Golden Circle
The Golden Circle consists of well-maintained roads, so you can decide to get a rental car and devise your own Circle tour, or to simply sign up to a group tour, like Odyssey Traveller’s Iceland tour, which visits not only the major stops of the Golden Circle but other natural wonders as well, such as the Snaefellsnes Peninsula, the volcanic crater Viti, and the Jokulsarlon glacier lagoon. On this tour, you will be driven by coach from your hotel and back, giving you a comfortable, hassle-free Icelandic holiday experience.
Articles about the Golden Circle and Iceland published by Odyssey Traveller.
The following list of articles published by Odyssey Traveller for mature aged and senior travellers to maximise their knowledge and enjoyment of Iceland when visiting:
- Questions About Iceland
- Visiting Iceland for Mature and Senior Travellers
- Lunar Landscapes and Geology in Iceland
For all the articles Odyssey Traveller has published for mature aged and senior travellers, click through on this link.
External articles to assist you on your visit to the Golden Circle and Iceland
- Thingvellir–Northern Europe’s First Parliament
- How many of these 10 hidden gems in Iceland have you seen?
- Inspired by Iceland: The official tourism website
- Travel + Leisure: How to travel to Iceland
- Ice, Fire and Feuds: On the Trail of Iceland’s Sagas
- Lonely Planet: Ten things to do in Reykjavík
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Iceland cultural and wilderness small group tour
Our escorted tour gives guests an insight into the history of this Icelandic nation. Travelling as a small group, our daily itineraries explore the Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon and others, national parks and majestic waterfalls as we learn about Iceland’s natural heritage and its Viking past from experienced local guides. There is a single supplement for solo travellers.
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