Greinasafni: Icelandic Times
The Golden Circle
Visitors come to Iceland for something different, away from the norm. Let others head south to the sun-baked beaches - they want to experience something unique. In that respect, the whole of Iceland meets that desire. However, for some, they do not have the time to see everything the country offers and taking the Golden Circle is like seeing a microcosm of the whole.
The Golden Circle generally refers to a trip to see some key sites: the world’s first parliament in Þingvellir (Thingvellir) National Park; the hot springs at Geysir, after which all the rest of the world’s geysirs are named; and the power of the waterfall at Gullfoss.
It is possible to take a trip around the Golden Circle in a few hours but the longer you can allow, the more you can see and experience. There are several tour companies who can take you on a Golden Circle Tour and their experience is very valuable, as they can point out a lot of features on the way that you might otherwise miss.
All along the route you will find features that are synonymous with, and often unique to, Iceland such as the caldera at Kerið (Kerith, crater lake) or the home of Nobel prize-winning author, Halldor Laxness, which has now been turned into a museum, the quaint little houses in the rocks reminding the visitor of the Huldafólk or Hidden People or the southern episcopal see at Skálholt, also the site of Iceland’s first school.
However, what makes the Golden Circle so famous - and popular - are the three key sites that tours focus on:
Þingvellir (Thingvellir) National Park
Þingvellir (‘Parliament Plains’) is the site on which the world’s first parliament, the ‘Alþing’, an open-air assembly, was held in 930. It continued to meet for two weeks a year until 1798. Following Ingólfur Arnarson’s landing in 870 AD, many others followed and the population grew steadily. That brought the need for laws and a place to settle disputes and the Alþing was the result.
However, Þingvellir is not just a fascinating historical site. It possesses a very unusual natural beauty that could have been lost to posterity had it not been for the efforts of two early-20th century men, Matthías Þórðarson and Guðmundur Davíðsson. Citing examples of protection of such special sites in the USA, the two lobbied for a national park to be established. This was finally set up in 1930. It was then placed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2004.
The Þingvellir area is part of a fissure zone that runs through Iceland. These faults and fissures that mark the boundaries of the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. The effects of the shifting of the plates can be seen dramatically here as they slowly pull apart in the fractured ground and rocks.
Besides history, natural beauty and a rare geological site, Lake Þingvallavatn is the largest natural lake in Iceland. South of Þingvellir is the largest high-temperature area in the country, where water, heated by contact with the rock still hot underground, is forced to the surface, where it much of it is converted into electricity and household heating.
For a country named, ‘Iceland’, there is an amazing amount of heat in evidence and nowhere more dramatic than the famous Geysir. Until a recent earthquake, it had gone quite quiet but when it does erupt, sending boiling water up to 70 metres high, it dwarfs its brother, ‘Strokkur’, which erupts every 5 - 8 mins. Strokkur is nevertheless a dramatic sight, sending a plume 18 - 30 metres high. Surrounding these two giants are smaller geysirs, bubbling hot mud pools and bright blue coloured clear pools of hot water.
A beautiful hotel with a restaurant, café and giftshop is at the site to provide refreshment and a place to enjoy the sights in comfort over coffee or a larger meal.
Just a few kilometres from Geysir stands the spectacularly powerful double waterfall of Gullfoss (Golden Falls) on the Hvítá (White River). The Hvítá has its source in the Hvítávatn lake on the Langjökull glacier, 40 km away in the highlands. The glacier is clearly visible amidst the mountains of the highlands from Gullfoss.
It’s a wild spot and as the river first plunges down a three-step staircase and, in two wide steps, plunges into a 32 metre-deep crevice, it throws up a terrific spray that displays multiple rainbows in the bright sunshine.
A bust has been erected to a nearby farmer’s daughter, Sigríður Tómasdóttir, who fought to preserve the falls when the government of the time was considering building a large hydroelectric power plant there, destroying one of Iceland’s natural wonders. The nation stood behind her and the government purchased the land for a national park instead.
If you get close to the falls, you will undoubtedly get soaked by the spray but, by climbing the staircase up to the top of the cliff, you will find a café and giftshop where you can both dry off and enjoy their delicious hot soup and snacks.
Named ‘The Gateway to Hell’, the Hekla volcano is one of the most famous and active volcanos in Europe. It is clearly visible from Gullfoss or Geysir, rising out of the plain in the east, normally covered by a large snow cap. It has begun erupting about every 10 years since 1970 and its eruptions are generally quite explosive. It is due to erupt once again, though it has not shown any signs of doing so, as of writing,.
Returning towards Reykjavik, the garden town of Hveragerði is a popular place to stop for refreshments and buy local produce. It lies in a thermal hotspot under the Hellisheði mountain plateau and has hot springs bubbling up all around it, with plumes of steam visible around the mountainside. These heat the greenhouses, along with the bright electric lights that make them clearly visible for miles around. A lot of food is grown here and the town has a flower festival every year in June that attracts thousands. With a good hotel, golf course, good trout and char fishing in its rivers, numerous famous artists and authors, it is another example of Iceland’s unique character.
Leaving Hveragerði in the valley, there is a climb up the steep side of Hellisheiði. Once at the top of this mountain, there is an awesome view of the countryside to the south and east. Lava fields are punctuated by plumes of steam rising high into the air that turn golden in the evening sun. Coming down off the mountain, the visitor can see an odd snake-like pattern of pipes carrying hot water to the capital from the new power stations that tap into the geothermal waters heated by the rocks beneath the mountain.
The Golden Circle encapsulates the unique flavour of Iceland in all its forms and beauty, its culture and history, past and present. A brief article like this can only hit some highlights but it’s worth taking the time to investigate all the many features that surround the tour. Then, if you have the time available, the rest of the country will only build on what you have seen on this, the most popular tour of Iceland.

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