Golden Circle Tour – the best of Iceland in a one day trip

Golden Circle Tour

With only a short stopover in Iceland I had planned for a day in Reykjavik, a visit to the Blue Lagoon and a day trip featuring the highlights of the island. The thing I didn’t know was what those highlights were. Iceland has a branding issue when it comes to its destinations. Apart from the capital (Reykjavik), how many people can name another city or place in Iceland?

Even after its most famous volcano erupted in 2010, disrupting the travel plans of millions of people, can you actually name the volcano? That would be Eyjafjallajökull, which pronounced approximately like AY-yah-fyah-lah-YOH-kuul, doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue like Mount Etna, Bromo or Vesuvius.

Fortunately once you are on the ground in Reykjavik tour options are abundant. I can’t recall a country that is better organised for tourism than Iceland is. At the airport there is information on every tour available on this little volcanic outpost.

By the time the 40 minute bus journey from the airport to downtown Reykjavik was over, I had picked out the Golden Circle Tour. This tour covers a broad selection of highlights in the Southwest which can be covered in a whole day, giving you a taste of the land of fire and ice. There are a number of tour companies that offer the tour, most of which offer the following highlights.

Kerið Volcanic Crater Lake

Think of Iceland and think volcanos. The Kerið volcanic crater lake has its caldera intact and is the most accessable crater of is type from Reykjavik.

Kerið volcano crater
[Kerið volcano crater]

Strokkur Geyser

Did you know that Iceland gave the world the word Geyser? Geysir is a geyser located at in the Haukadalur geothermal area. Also in the park is the Strokkur geyser, which erupts every 5 minutes or so, making it one of the most regular geysers in the world. Most tours stop for over an hour here, so you will get plenty of chances to see it go off.

Strokkur Geyser
[Strokkur Geyser]

Gullfoss Waterfall

The Gullfoss waterfall (“golden falls”) is a classic example of lack of marketing on Icelands behalf. How many of you have heard of the Gullfoss Waterfall? This should be marketed along with the great waterfalls of the world, yet it rarely gets a mention. It has a mercifully Anglo friendly name so it would be a breeze to promote as well. It is a sight to behold.

Gullfoss Waterfall
[Gullfoss Waterfall]

National Park Þingvellir

Iceland is home to the worlds oldest parliament, which first sat in 930. This was located within the Þingvellir national park. The Alþingi (assembly) met here and the Rock of Law was the platform where speeches were held. The location was picked as it was the most accessible location for representatives from most of the island, and the rock sits on an acoustic-friendly location. What they didn’t know though was that they were straddling two continents.

Rock of Law
[Rock of Law]

While Iceland is politically located in Europe, physically the island sits on the Eurasian and North American Plate on the the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. The park features the rift valley which is a sort of no mans land in terms of continents. This is where the two continents are separating at 2.5 centimetres per year. Home sick Americans can touch this wall (pictured), which is the edge of the North American continent.

Rift Valley
[Rift Valley – Walking along the edge of the North American continent]

Tour Details

This tour takes all whole day and there are a number of tour companies offering this tour. If you are doing a short stop-over and would like to confirm a tour in advance, book the Golden Circle Classic Trip at Viator.

You can also include a tour to the Blue Lagoon afterwards (which is highly recommended doing while visiting Iceland.)

This tour starts and finishes in Reykjavik. For places to stay search for hotels in Reykjavik.

To get to Iceland check flights to Reykjavik.

The rest of my tour photos can be found in the Golden Circle photo gallery.

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  1. The first crater photo looks beautiful. Sounds like you had a great adventure here! I’ve always wanted to visit Iceland after watching Journey to the Centre of the Earth 🙂

    – Lily

  2. James, what a place to have a stopover!  The rugged scenery you captured very well in the photos.  I haven’t seen geysers like that since I was in northern Chile.

  3. Hi James,
    I went to Iceland for a few days in April this year, absolutely loved it. Went to Gígjökull glacier lagoon (used to be a lagoon, now it’s full of ash!). Our guide warned us not to wander off because parts of the ground were like quick sand! Quite an eerie feeling standing at the foot of the Eyjafjallajökull glacier – the entire landscape is black and white, very weird.
    Would go back tomorrow if I could.

    • I would be happy to go back as well. Certainly alot more to see for me.

      • I didn’t get to see the Northern Lights so my return is mandatory until I do. I really liked Reynisfjara Beach – which I think is the most southerly point of Iceland – black sand, crashing waves, howling wind, and ravens – there’s also a WW2 plane wreck near there.

  4. Mama told me that the people there are either real friendly or down right rude. That the water is undrinkable also.

  5. I would go back to Iceland in a heart beat if I could. I had the most wonderful time….froze my tutu off, cut I would not have missed a minute of the beauty and friendliness of the people. There were five of the family there and we all think of this is a vacation of a lifetime.

  6. I read Jim’s reports and am sold on making a July 2013 (approximately 10 days from July 4th). Looking for a travel partner. I can be reached at Can not wait to do the Golden Circle and the Husavik region recommended my Icelandic friend Hallie.

  7. Hi James,
    Thanks for the photos and description. My friend and I are booked for a circle tour and thermal baths but didn’t know it was all day or what we would see. Looking forward to it more than ever, thanks to you.

    • Does anyone have recommendations for tour companies that pick up and drop off at the Cruise Ship Terminal?

  8. Hi James
    I’m going to Iceland the first week in April and plan to rent a car to explore a bit. Do you happen to know if there are entrance costs associated with the different attractions you mentioned in your blog?

  9. Mireille Bohnen says

    this day trip you mention is it also available during November or February?
    Can you do it by car?
    thank you,

    • Silviu Alexandry says

      Hello there
      Me and my girl just been there for Xmas holiday and was exceptional!
      This is a pure country!
      And yes, you can do the Golden Circle by car like we did it.
      But be aware for the car s navigation, as ours went wrong and we end up wandering somewhere in the middle of the road circuit in a secondary road…
      In the middle of nowhere..all covered in snow
      We ‘ve struggled to find our way back driving beside a beautiful lake and hope finding main road before dawn..
      Good luck! And have fun.

  10. Thanks for the tips! Heading to Iceland this week and definitely doing the Golden Circle as part of my stay 🙂

  11. Curtis Miller says

    Gulfoss is supposedly “a classic example of lack of marketing on Icelands behalf”. At the site of the waterfall, they say it is better than Niagara. Not a chance. It’s worth the trip, but nothing over the top. There are a number of waterfalls on the west coast of the US at least equal to it. Iceland tourism is all about marketing & stopovers on Iceland air. It’s a pleasant visit and very nice people. But be prepared to spend plenty of money, especially during high season.

  12. Fully agree with you. When on a stopover here, do the Golden circle! 🙂

  13. hоw much are are the gold circle tours?

    • I don’t usually publish the price as they change often and there are different tour options. Have a look at the Golden Circle tours list and pick out one that is best for your needs.

  14. I did the Golden Circle Tour on my stopover and it was awesome, so thanks for the recommendation.

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