The Golden Circle is one of Iceland’s top tourist attractions. Easily accessible as a day trip from Reykjavik, it offers a taste of some of the truly incredible natural wonders the country has to offer. Encompassing three separate attractions, Þingvellir, Geysir, and Gullfoss, this well-trafficked area combines spectacular scenery, Icelandic history, and a chance to see geothermal action up close. Visiting the Golden Circle in winter not only helps avoid the crowds, but the snow-cover also lends an additional layer of beauty to already gorgeous landscapes.
Þingvellir National Park
When heading northeast from Reykjavik, Þingvellir National Park is the first place you’ll pass on your Golden Circle route. Steeped in both human and geologic history, this was my favorite stop. The broad rift valley central to the park is the result of the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates separating. Ever so slowly, the two continental plates are pulling apart, widening this rift. Adventurous visitors can even scuba dive in the rift, though I didn’t get to try that on my visit.
Once you park in the main lot and pass the visitor center, you’ll find yourself along a railing looking out at a wide, snowy (if you’re lucky) valley cut by channels of water beneath you. Don’t stop there though. There is a pathway that takes you down into the rift, and along the edge of the valley. Getting to walk between tectonic is pretty cool, particularly if you’re as fascinated with science as I am. Be careful during winter months, as there is a decent downslope on the trail and it could be slippery. Make sure you dress warm for this part. We spent more time outside here than at any of the other Golden Circle stops. Here’s my winter in Iceland packing list.
If you keep going along the path, you’ll be able to see the historic area where Viking congresses were held for hundreds of years. It played a huge role in Icelandic history and culture, and was designated as a World Heritage Site. You’ll also come across a pretty little waterfall where women were drowned as punishment for crimes.
The boring stuff:
Admission to the park is free, but there is a fee for parking. Hours vary seasonally. Check the official website for current information. It’s a 30-40 minute drive from the center of Reykjavik.
I’d seen geysers before when I visited Yellowstone as a kid, but I had no idea that their name derived from this one spot in Iceland. Sadly, Geysir itself rarely erupts anymore, but visitors can enjoy regular eruptions from smaller neighbor Strokkur.
Strokkur erupts every few minutes and visitors can enjoy a relatively close view of its pool. Watching the water move and churn as you wait for it to be launched into the air is fascinating. We saw at least five eruptions while we were visiting, so you should be able to get to witness this natural wonder. As a bonus, we stayed in the Hotel Litli Geysir across the street and were treated to a display of the Northern Lights over the Geysir field with Strokkur erupting in the foreground. How very Icelandic!
You can also take a look at the mostly dormant Geysir. It has to be quite a sight when it erupts, as its waters have been measured at incredibly high heights.
Don’t miss the rest of the Geysir area. You can follow the paths (please stay on the marked paths!) to see other geothermal features like hot pools and smaller geysers. Take special note of the Blesi pool that has been damaged by tourists throwing coins in it like it’s a wishing well. As a bonus, all of the geothermal activity in this area makes it a bit warmer than the average temperature. We didn’t even need gloves when we were wandering around.
Across the street, you can grab a meal at the Geysir visitor center. They have a counter service restaurant, soup counter, and a large souvenir shop. It’s where I tried my traditional lamb soup. Even though it turns out that I don’t like lamb very much, I’d still recommend giving it a shot while you’re in Iceland.
The boring stuff:
The Geysir area is on private property, but touring it is free of charge. There is parking available across the street at the Geysir Center. Geysir is about 50 minutes from Þingvellir National Park.
Your final stop on the Golden Circle is Gullfoss, the majestic two-tiered waterfall that thunders down into a canyon. This was our shortest stop along the route, though we took time to explore both vantage points that were open.
When you arrive at Gullfoss, there is a large parking area and a gift shop/cafe. Other than that, it doesn’t seem like there’s much else around. At least until you hear the faint roar of the waterfall. Follow that sound and you’ll soon arrive at the edge of a cliff with a view of this third natural wonder on the Golden Circle. From where you approach at the top, you can’t even see the lower tier of the falls.
There is a flight of stairs down to the lower viewing area. I liked this spot best because it gave a good head-on view of the falls. There’s also a path that takes you closer to the brink at this level, but it was closed for the winter when we visited.
After climbing back up the stairs, we walked along the path following the top of the canyon and got a reverse view of the falls. This sky high vantage point gives you a great perspective on the power of the water cascading downward. Watch your footing at the top, especially if it’s slippery out, because there was only a low rope marking the edge of the path.
The boring stuff:
Visiting Gullfoss is free! Even better: it’s open 24/7, so if you want to try to spot the Northern Lights over it, you’re free to do so. Gullfoss is about ten minutes from Geysir. Check out their website for more info.
Other tips for visiting the Golden Circle in winter
- Check the weather in advance! Icy, snowy roads can be treacherous. We specifically rented an SUV with four-wheel drive in case of bad weather. If you’re not used to driving in the snow, you’ll definitely want to plan around the weather.
- There are tons of Golden Circle day tours that depart from Reykjavik. We drove ourselves, so I can’t recommend any, but lots of them will pick you up right from your accommodations.
- Driving the loop will likely take you most of the day. Plan on having at least four hours in the car if you’re doing a round trip out of Reykjavik.
- Wear warm clothes with lots of layers. As noted above, we went from freezing at Þingvellir National Park to unzipping our jackets by Geysir.
Read more about Iceland here:
- 25 Pictures to Put Iceland on Your Winter Bucket List
- What to Pack for Winter in Iceland
- Your Perfect Six-Day Southern Iceland Itinerary