A Day Trip Around the Golden Circle (with NiceTravel!)
When I decided that I wanted to go to Iceland, I knew I wanted to do a tour around the Golden Circle. Simply put, the Golden Circle is a popular tourist route in southern Iceland that features Thingvellir National Park, Gullfoss, and Geysir. Most tours were 8 hours, so I knew it would be a long day.
Originally I was going to do a tour that included a couple of hours of Icelandic horseback riding, but at the last minute, I decided against it. I haven’t ridden a horse since I was 9, right before I was body slammed by one and wound up in the hospital. To say that Icelandic horses seem much more chill than the huge horse that I was riding that day is an understatement, but I decided it was best not to take any chances while I was in a foreign country. (Also: I read that a lot of these “horseback riding tours” were less “riding through the forest” and more “riding in a circle” before dismounting, so I didn’t think it was worth the extra money.
My friend pointed me towards Viator.com to research different tours and there were tons of different options. I was a little overwhelmed with choices and if you know me, I’m a little indecisive when I have endless options.
But in the end, I chose the tour that hit up all the big sites, but also included Kerid crater lake and seeing a few Icelandic horses up close. It cost me all of $83. Not bad. NiceTravel emailed me a week or so before the tour and told me that I’d be getting picked up at Bus Stop 6, a short walk from my hostel. This was convenient since it was also the place where I was dropped off after the Blue Lagoon.
That Friday morning, I walked around the corner from my hostel to Bus Stop 6 to find a smattering of people standing around. I had no idea how I’d know which bus I was supposed to get on because, to be honest, I had booked a trip with NiceTravel but I actually thought I’d booked with “Viator” at the time. I asked every bus driver that showed up if I was on their trip.
As expected, the bus that I was supposed to be on was one of the last to show up, but my name was on my drivers’ list and took a seat in the front row. The driver did a final headcount and we were on our way.
A Few Things About Iceland
As we drove down to Thingvellir National Park, we passed a couple of small forests – groups of trees, really – and our driver, Martin, remarked that while Global Warming is negative for the planet, for Iceland it has meant that Iceland can now grow forests. In the first tiny forest that he pointed out, he said that Queen Elizabeth II of England had planted the first tree there in 1990 and other world leaders have also since planted. But he pointed out that Trump and Putin still (unsurprisingly) have yet to visit and plant a tree.
I’d forgotten at the time, but at Thingvellir Park is the spot where you can stand on the Eurasia, and North American tectonic plates, and Martin told us that the tectonic plates drift apart by roughly 2cm every year and whenever they drift back together Iceland experiences earthquakes.
We were told that the big evergreen trees that populated these “forests” had been imported from Alaska because the trees that are native to Iceland are typically “dwarf” trees, so they’re very small. Martin told us that there’s an old Icelandic joke that goes: “If you find yourself lost in an Icelandic forest, all you have to do is stand up!”
Thingvellir National Park
Our small bus pulled into the parking lot at the top of the park – where the two tectonic plates meet, or rather, are breaking away. Martin said to meet in an hour down near the second meeting spot at the base of the park. I popped into the gift shop to buy food and go to the bathroom but then I headed to the railing where other tourists were gathering.
I saw people standing on the two tectonic plates and I asked a fellow tourist if he could take a photo and he obliged.
After I walked down the pathway between the two mammoth pieces of rock that grew in size with each step I took that descended me closer to the second meeting spot. I took a LOT of photos. It was a gorgeous day and the skies were blue, so how could I not?
I slowly made my way down to Alpingi, where the first ever Icelandic parliament was held in 1944. The remnants of the old parliament house were covered over with grass but they were still discernable if you looked closely.
Next, we stopped to view the small lake where women used to be put in bags and drowned if they were found guilty of a crime. Lovely.
The park was really, really gorgeous. Much more than I expected. If you have the chance to go, take it.
After the park, we made our first additional stop at a dairy farm for some ice cream. This establishment was a small green house that included a barn – for the dairy cows, an ice cream shop, a restaurant, and a hotel. They really could do it all there. It was adorable. There were a couple of dogs sunbathing on the gravel when we pulled up. They looked at us and decided to continue sleeping.
I went inside the ice cream shop and debated getting something. Do you think they have dairy-free ice cream? I contemplated. And decided against asking as I turned my head and saw the cows through in their barn through the plexiglass window who supplied the milk for the ice cream. Now, my doctor has me off dairy for now, but for this (and for a lot of this trip), I made an exception. I got the ice cream and it was delicious. I also saw two little calves hanging out next to the doorway after.
As the bus pulled back out of the driveway, I looked out my window and spotted a baby lamb and some cats. At that moment I was gutted that I hadn’t wandered further down the gravel road away from the ice cream house. I’m still not over that mistake.
The Great Geysir
The famed one called “Geysir” wasn’t working when we were there, but another one that’s in this same area called Strokkur was very happily spouting every 5 minutes or so. There are a half-dozen or so geysers in the area with small groups of people around all of them, taking photos of the bubbling puddles. Aside from Strokkur, none of the others were spouting.
I joined the huddled masses around Strokkur when I first crossed the street and took out my iPhone, ready to take photos. The perimeter of the Geysir was lined with tourists also holding their iPhones, waiting to get that perfect Instagram-worthy photo. It was funny, really. But you know what was funnier? Seeing which way the wind was blowing and watching the people in the wind’s direction run for cover when Strokkur erupted and the water was blown in said-direction.
Just to be clear, this water is boiling hot. So, I wouldn’t have wanted to be on that path. Don’t worry – no one got burned, that I know of, at least.
Behind Strokkur was a huge mountain; okay, it was really a larger hill, but for me, personally, it was a mountain. We had been given an hour or so in the vicinity, and after I’d missed seeing the kittens and lambs, I told myself I’d wander when given the option so I wouldn’t miss any other baby animals, and although I didn’t think there were any kittens up on the top of the hill, I suspected the view was pretty cool.
So up I went. I marched myself up the hill rather quickly and the path wasn’t dangerous at all (unlike Israel) and it was lined with the little blue flowers that line most of the roads I traveled on while I was in Iceland so it was super pretty. The view from the top was gorgeous and I took it all in, took some photos, and then made my way down. I watched Strokkur erupt once more and then ran back to the bus (late, oops).
Our next *extra stop* was to finally see the Icelandic horses up close! I don’t exactly remember the setting, but I believe the horses were hanging out around a fenced in area off the side of the road, down a small hill from the farm on which they lived. I squeed. They were adorable. We were told not to put our hands to their mouths because they would bite us (not because they’re malicious, but because most hands that are put near their mouths have food in them). We were there for maybe five or ten minutes and then we were back on the bus and on our way.
Gullfoss (“Golden Falls”)
Our next stop was the big one – in my opinion at least. I’d heard that Gullfoss was gorgeous and I couldn’t wait to see it up close. Gullfoss, you see, had been privately owned by an Icelander, Tómas Tómasson, and his daughter, Sigríður Tómasdóttir, spent her life giving people tours of the falls. When her father was planning to sell Gullfoss and to private investors in the first half of the 20th century and build an energy plant on it – essentially demolishing the falls.
It’s widely believed that Sigríður threatened to throw herself into the falls if her father completed the deal. This, in addition to the lack of money that the investors had, was the reason the falls were saved. Tómasson entrusted the falls to the Icelandic government after that to ensure their preservation.
To honor Sigríður, there is a stone monument with her face and name on it at the falls.
Gullfoss is massive and beautiful and breathtaking. However, there were also a ton of tourists. But I was there at the beginning of their summer, so I expected nothing less. I took a ton of photos, inhaled the fresh air and the mist from the water and I walked up the stairs to get back on the bus.
We made our way after Gullfoss to another, smaller waterfall on the path called Faxi, aka Vatnsleysufoss. It was also gorgeous.
Kerid Crater Lake
I was really excited to see this spot because it looked beautiful in the photos that I’d seen. It’s about 3,000 years old and according to Wikipedia,
“Although volcanologists originally believed Kerið was formed by a huge volcanic explosion, as is the accepted norm with volcanic craters, more thorough studies of the Grímsnes region failed to find any evidence of such an explosion in Kerið. It is now believed that Kerið was a cone volcano which erupted and emptied its magma reserve. Once the magma was depleted, the weight of the cone collapsed into the empty magma chamber.”
It was really amazing to look down into the lake and there’s a narrow, steep footpath on which you can descend closer to the lake. It’s a gorgeous sight; it’s amazing to think that you’re standing in a volcano, too!
Almar Bakery, in Hveragerdi
Our last stop, before heading back to Reykjavik, was at a bakery called Almar in a little town called Hveragerdi. In 2008, it was in this little town that 4.5 magnitude earthquake caused a huge amount of destruction and in the shopping mall next to Almar, there was a small, free exhibit about the chaos that ensued.
Obviously, I went to take a look.
They had black tiling across where the earthquake had caused a massive split in the ground. It was probably two feet wide. There were photos of the destruction, as well as the front of a small house that had been cracked during the quake.
It was amazing, and horrifying, to see.
Back to Reykjavik
We arrived back in downtown Reykavjik around 5pm after a long, amazing, and exhausting day. I exited the bus at Bus Stop 6, same as before, and walked back to my hostel to rest.
I learned so much about Iceland from Martin, too. I definitely got an education on Icelandic history and culture. It was a long, but amazing day.
Would recommend. 10/10.