I had been wanting to visit Iceland for a LONG TIME, and I was lucky to be able to visit this winter. Usually, I’m the kind of girl who doesn’t do much planning in the way of tourism—maybe I’ll know of the major sights to see from pop culture, but other than that, I like to wander and explore. With Iceland, though, I planned ahead. Like any self-respecting millennial, I consulted our good friend Google and researched where to go in Iceland (that was near Reykjavík). My search yielded the Golden Circle—among others.
I visited Iceland in winter: mid-February—dun, dun, dunnnnn! I thought about renting a car, but then remembered how much I absolutely hate driving at home in NY in the ice and snow. Plus, the thought of driving in a foreign country on roads I wasn’t familiar with in unpredictable weather, well, scared the crap out of me. I’ll add that in Iceland they do drive on the right (directional) side of the road, so there’s that saving grace for when I return in the summer months! To avoid the stress of worrying about driving, I went on guided tours. Side note: you should definitely rent a car and tour the otherworldly landscape yourself. Anyway, I pre-booked my tours about 1.5-2 weeks ahead of my arrival, because I wanted a smaller tour group and spots tend to go fast. The first tour I went on was the Golden Circle Tour, operated by Gateway to Iceland. Read on if you want to know how it all went down!
First stop: Þingvellir National Park
I have a thing for parks: state, national, I love them all! The preservation of wonders untouched by man gets me excited. Þingvellir (pronounced close to Thingvellir) National Park is a simplistic beauty. This UNESCO World Heritage Site sits between the mid-Atlantic ridge, where the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates meet. So, you can be in North America one second and in Europe the next–eek! Apparently there are hundreds of earthquakes per year, evidenced by massive cracks in the ground of the surrounding the area (very comforting, I know).
There is so much ground to cover at this site, which is why I would suggest renting a car and coming on your own time. Nonetheless, our tour guide was amazing and explained all there is to know about the site. If you’re feeling frisky (I wasn’t), you can even snorkel or dive at Silfra between the tectonic plates, in the clearest glacial (code word for cold) water in the world. For the Game of Thrones fans out there: I recently learned that the Bloody Gate to the Vale of Arryn was filmed at Þingvellir!
Second stop: Gullfoss Waterfall
The second stop on the Golden Circle tour was Gullfoss. Gullfoss is one of the largest waterfalls in Europe located on the Hvítá river. On a guided tour like mine, you’re probably going to get dropped off at the bottom of the waterfall and then be expected to walk up to the top, where the best views are, as well as the café and giftshop. At the café, you can have coffee, hot chocolate (apparently not sweetened, if you’re wondering), and Icelandic meat soup (made with lamb meat). Gullfoss has two drops (it only looks like one drop from the bottom), and was breathtaking against the winter backdrop.
Third stop: Haukadalur Geothermal Area
This was a quick stop before the main attraction, Geysir, which wasn’t too far away. In my opinion, the coolest part of this stop was looking out at the steamy body of water—I’m not sure if it’s a lake and I don’t know the name of it, but damn, it was dope. There were small pits along the shore that were boiling and spitting water. One interesting fact we learned while at this stop was that people would often bake bread underneath the ground because the volcanic activity keeps the earth nice and hot—super cool!
Fourth stop: Geysir and Strokkur
Of all of the stops on the Golden Circle tour, this was the most otherworldly. Geysir hot spring is a field of geysers and is part of the Haukadalur Geothermal Area. These boiling pits of red-colored mud reminded me of being on another planet. Disclaimer: the whole area smells of sulfur so, if you go, prepare your nose. On a more comforting note, the steam all around you will keep you warm enough to make you forget how cold it is!
You can hear the Earth’s churning and unease right beneath you, especially when approaching Strokkur, the most active geyser at the site. Stokkur is the most active hot spring in the area, and its eruptions are only minutes apart! We saw Strokkur erupt a number of times while at the site, however; luck wasn’t on my side, as I could not capture it on video (ugh!). Nonetheless, it was one of the most interesting things I’ve seen, and not knowing when it was going to go off again was also fun.
Fifth Stop: Gamla Laugin (Secret Lagoon)
The final official stop on the Golden Circle tour with Gateway to Iceland was a relaxing sunset bathe in the Secret Lagoon. The Secret Lagoon is a natural fresh water hot spring fed by a geyser right beside it. It’s basically the size of an Olympic swimming pool and is known as the largest pool in Iceland. The secret lagoon is often compared to the Blue Lagoon, but I liked the Secret Lagoon much better because it’s a no-nonsense and simple Icelandic experience of bathing in a hot spring. I also LOVED that it is surrounded by nature and unlike the Blue Lagoon, it’s a natural phenomenon. At some point I think everyone should experience bathing in a hot spring in the middle of winter—there’s no feeling like it!
BONUS: Icelandic Horses!
I LOVE HORSES! They are beautiful, gentle, and prestigious. Icelandic horses are just that and more. Their fluffiness and short stature makes them extra cute. We were able to stop by a farm that had Icelandic horses somewhere along the way on our tour, and I was not mad at all. This was a pleasant surprise!
There you have it. Although the Golden Circle tour could totally be done on your own if you rent a car, as it turns out, there’s nothing that compares to being guided by a local and learning the rich history of these sites and Iceland itself. I do plan to return to Iceland in the summer months and take myself on a road trip around the Golden Circle—now that I know the important history!