Pack Your Bags | Iceland's Golden Circle
If you haven't seen by now on Instagram, we are in Iceland. We've been here for a week now and have a little under a week left. We've been exploring non-stop. My head is buzzing with so many thoughts: logistical (do we have the food allowance sorted? i need to tell the students what time we leave in the morning!), parental (i need to buy more snacks for the bus. remember to get Harrison's shoe out from under the seat.), tourist (whoa - Iceland is exploding with people. things change quick when there is a tourist boom!) and personal (I realllllly want to buy a new wool sweater. and some OmNom chocolate).
In the midst of such chaos, I thought it might be good if I jotted down a classic day-trip from Reyjkavik for you. This is really THE day-trip that most people make. It's called the "Golden Circle" and features three main sites: Thingvellir National Park, Geysir & Gulfoss. Expect to spend about 4.5-5 hours in the car of driving plus the time you're going to spend visiting each of the sites. Plan to give this outing a full day of your time in Iceland, and you'll definitely want to have your own car to get you from place to place as there is no public transport.
While those are the three main anchors of the Golden Circle with a few "tier two" options you can add-in, I'm adding in a few extras of my own that I think really make the day all the better.
ICELAND'S GOLDEN CIRCLE DAY TRIP
This is the first stop you'll make on the Golden Circle is at Thingvellir National Park. This is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and is worth visiting for a few reasons.
1. It is the meeting plate of the North American and Europe/Asia tectonic plates. In between the two plates there is an enormous rift valley that offers a stunning view of how these two pieces of the world fit together.
2. It is the site of the first parliament in Iceland was held here, which earns it a place as a UNESCO World Heritage site. In 930AD, Althingi was held here at Thingvellir. There
3. You can scuba dive between the two plates in a fissure. Not only does this just sound amazingly cool- a dive between two tectonic plates!- but also, the water is stunningly clear. Don't expect to see loads of fish and sea life, but a chilly dip down into a gorgeous piece of the world.
In between Thingvellir and lunch, we had an hour of time to kill. We headed to Skaholt- a tiny stop that was about 20 minutes away from lunch. There we visited the tiny country church of Skaholt. A modern-ish church that is bright and airy inside. While the church is quaint and sweet to see, the visit is made more worthwhile to a visit downstairs where you can see the sarcophogas of a Bishop from the 1500's. Also, outside the church is a replica of an older Icelandic church- complete with grass and flowers growing on the roof.
When the idea of stopping in a greenhouse for lunch was suggested, I was a bit.... ho hum at the thought. However, I'm glad I was convinced to go because we had such a great time. When you visit Fridheimar, you can get an introduction to how this small family-run greenhouse manages to sustain year-round growth of such high-quality tomatoes. But the fun doesn't stop there.... eat lunch at the restaurant for the full experience! For the basic version (what we did), eat the homemade tomato soup and fresh baked bread. Eat as much as you like of both- alongside fresh butter, creme fraiche and cucumber salsa.... oh, and fresh basil you can clip right off the potted plant at your table. (Book a table in advance so you don't have to wait!)
If you have time to visit their stables, it is also really fun. They did a show for us where they showed us all the five gaits of the Icelandic horse and then had tea & coffee for us in the stables afterwards. We drank coffee in the sunny September light and met the stars of the shows in their stables. It was casual and perfect.
Find out about booking a table, a horse show and all the rest on their site here.
From Thingvellir, you'll want to continue on to Geysir. This is where we, in English, get the term geyser. It's a hot spring that, for years, was spitting out water ever few minutes. The classic Great Geysir has slowed down in recent years, but fortunately for the investors who built a massive and luxe visitor's center- the neighbor Strokkur Geysir is still going strong. Go by and watch it blow hot water into the air, and then duck into the visitor's center for some coffee and a kleiner (homemade Icelandic donut). The gift shop is massive and full of great things, but notoriously more expensive than the same shop's offerings in Reykjavik- consider it a tourist tax?
This waterfall, which translates from "Golden Falls" for the way the sunlight hits it in the summer evenings, is a great stop if you can only make it out of town for one waterfall. It's massive and easily accesible, and the various spots to view the enormous waterfalls are varied around the park, so you can migrate from far-off vantage points all the way up to the side of it where water will mist you will cold drops.
The scene is stunning- complete with rainbows scattered throughout the area from the constant mist and, with full admission, a considerable amount of fellow tourists. (But for good reason, you'll have a great time!)
After you've finished with the main attractions, head to Hestheimar for an evening ride on an Icelandic Horse. This small, family-run stable offers gorgeous trail rides throughout the day. (Fortunately for people like me, they work with people of all skill levels!)
We always spend the night out there and get dinner before the ride. It's always served in their cozy kitchen and is homemade and hearty. Think: homemade lasagna or roasted meats served hot bread from the oven and followed by warm apple cake and mugs of coffee. There are cabins available for rent, if you really want the full experience. (And by full, I of course mean, a misty morning in the Icelandic country and a hot breakfast of eggs and homemade pancakes covered in Nutella and powdered sugar.
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Looking for more tips and guides for Iceland? Check out my Iceland travel guide for all our favorite tops or my popular "Perfect Iceland Itinerary."
*images original to aspiring kennedy