A walkthrough of what you can expect from the most famous Iceland tour – the Golden Circle tour.
I wasn’t sure if I would love the Golden Circle tour in Iceland.
For some reason I thought it would be an excellent tour to get a feel for what Iceland was all about… but possibly not the best thing I would do during the trip. Well, that was wrong. Very wrong. I actually think the Golden Circle tour was my favourite thing we did in Iceland.
Every time we got off the bus there was something else incredible to see. An enormous waterfall, a stunning landscape, a giant crater carved out of the earth… it’s just bam, bam, bam. And then it’s topped off with the visit to the Blue Lagoon. A top-notch bucket list experience, really.
The Golden Circle tour is one of the most popular tours in Iceland and will enable you to see its biggest highlights in one day. It was wonderful to see Iceland in all its barren, bare-faced beauty. Here’s my guide…
Golden Circle stops
This tour stops at these main locations in Iceland, which are:
- Thingvellier National Park
- Geysir hot spring area
- Gullfoss Waterfall
- Kerid Crater
- Blue Lagoon
However, you may also make shorter stops at:
- Laugarvatn geothermal bakery
- Icelandic farm
How much does the Golden Circle tour cost?
Well, it depends on what you book.
You can decide to drive the Golden Circle yourself, in which case your costs would only be entry fees to each of the attractions.
If you opt for a guided tour, there are three main ways to do the Golden Circle Tour in Iceland. You can either book a tour with entry to the Blue Lagoon included, you can book a tour with entry to the Blue Lagoon not included or you can do a tour that bypasses the Blue Lagoon entirely. Of course, if you get the Blue Lagoon entry it’s a LOT more expensive.
I ended up going for the all-in option booked through Viator. It was a heft of cash to drop on one day trip but I think I would have massive FOMO if I skipped the Blue Lagoon. It’s pricey but it is what it is.
|Tour||Length of tour||Cost of tour|
|Golden Circle tour with Blue Lagoon entry included||11 hours||£174.74|
|Golden Circle tour with Blue Lagoon entry (own cost)||11 hours||£106.37|
|Classic Golden Circle tour (no Blue Lagoon stop)||7 hours||£55.70|
Where do you get picked up?
There are only certain locations that you can get picked up from in Reykjavik. However, you can find them easily on Google Maps.
Luckily, the stop for us was directly outside the hotel so it wasn’t too difficult. There were several buses that went past, all with different tours, so it’s good to know the name of the tour you’re doing and the name of the travel company you made your booking with.
What is the bus like?
We were in a mini-bus rather than a regular-sized one, which was great.
There were around 15 people in our tour group so there weren’t like 100 people getting off each time. The bus was quite luxurious. Not only was there Wi-Fi on board, but there were also USB charging points at every seat. So you didn’t have to worry about running out of battery on your phone – an essential considering how many photos you’ll take.
The bus doesn’t have a toilet on board but everywhere we went had toilets and pretty plush ones at that. You don’t really have to worry about bathroom breaks – even though there was a lot of driving to all the different destinations you never went too long without a pitstop.
The Golden Circle tour in spring
I visited Iceland at the very beginning of May.
There are benefits to doing the Golden Circle tour when the days are a little longer. Our guide mentioned that there isn’t so much of a rush to cover everything in the spring because the daylight hours are longer. That means they get to make a couple of extra stops on the way.
But it’s also not peak season. The tour guides over the course of the trip mentioned that the summer coming up was set to be particularly busy in Iceland. While there were large numbers of tourists while we were there, including us of course, none of the locations felt overrun by them.
Now let’s kick on with a breakdown of the Golden Circle stops.
The Golden Circle itinerary
Thingvellier National Park
I was super excited for our first real glimpse of Iceland outside of the city.
The first thing to mention about Thingvellier National Park is the tectonic plates. It’s here you can walk between the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates, just like it’s any old regular path. In fact, it’s the ONLY place in the world where you can walk between two continental plates.
The views here are crazy. The park is a UNESCO world heritage site and you can see why – I loved the shimmering pools of water, lit up by the sun, undulating through the barren landscape. With only a few small trees in sight, it’s bleak and rocky but undeniably beautiful. And don’t forget the looming mountain range on the horizon, cloaked in thick white snow.
We headed up to the viewing platform first, where you’ll jostle for space with all the other tourists pouring off the buses. But the crowds will dissipate, and there are plenty more things to see along the way. In fact, it felt like everywhere you walked there was another view.
We were instructed to get to the meeting point in around 45 minutes. Once we were there, our tour guide pointed us in the direction of another waterfall. It involved a short uphill walk and I found myself getting so warm I had to take off my fleece from under my jacket. Yep, in Iceland! It wasn’t something I expected but I was super happy about the weather.
At the top was this lovely waterfall. There were some crowds around but we didn’t have to work too hard to get some nice pictures right at the front. After a quick visit to the toilets – which were modern and well-equipped – it was back on the road for our next stop.
Laugarvatn geothermal bakery
The first of our extra stops on the tour was a quick pitstop at this geothermal bakery where they bake rye bread in the sand.
If you watched the Netflix series Down To Earth with Zac Efron then you might have heard about this place already. If I remember correctly, he actually boiled an egg in one of the geothermal pools here.
We walked down to the water where our guide pointed out the sand where the bread is buried in little mounds. You can actually book a tour here where you can enjoy freshly baked rye bread straight out of the sand, topped with a thick layer of Icelandic butter of course – yummy!
There are also bubbling pools close to the water, which you can see by the clouds of steam coming off them, which you can’t touch. You can safely dip your fingers in the lake though. It’s lovely and warm, which is rather strange because you’d think it was freezing cold looking at it.
It’s kind of crazy the amount of natural resources in Iceland. As we were driving around our tour guide pointed out greenhouses where they grow bananas and strawberries and various other things.
Plus, there are swimming pools everywhere as a result of all the geothermal activity – apparently Icelandic people really love swimming. Icelandic life sounds pretty great to me all in all.
Seeing the Gullfoss Waterfall for the first time was a proper wow moment. I think I found myself going ‘woah’ without even really realising it, almost because you can’t not really. I’ve seen a lot of waterfalls in my time but nothing comes close to this – it’s spectacular.
There’s an interesting story behind it too. Apparently, many years ago the waterfall was set to be harnessed to create electricity. Investors had a contract drawn up to build a hydroelectric plant at Gullfoss, a move that would destroy the waterfall forever. It came down to one woman, Sigrid Tomasdottir, who objected to the plans.
She frequently walked all the way to Reykjavik to protest and, at one point, she even threatened to throw herself in the waterfall if the contract went through. Luckily, it didn’t come to that. Her lawyer, who later became the president of Iceland, was able to get the contract torn up.
It’s crazy to think about this not being here. It’s considered one of the most magnificent waterfalls in the world and it’s not hard to see why. The width of it is ridiculous and makes it feel enormous and like a real force of nature. Then the fact that it’s actually a two-step waterfall, with one drop of 11 metres and then the next one of 21 metres.
It’s so hard to capture into a photo. I kept taking pictures and being like why is the magnitude of this not being conveyed in the pictures? But maybe that’s because a photo can’t capture everything.
It was absolutely freezing for one, which you probably can’t tell from the pics. Despite the fact that it was relatively mild for Iceland the wind chill here was crazy. You were just blasted by the wind from the moment you stepped outside the bus. I can’t imagine how cold it is in winter!
Despite the cold, I wanted to soak this up for as long as possible. The sense of scale, the power of this enormous natural wonder, the blast of the wind… it felt like one of those moments when you see something special.
This was one of the extra stops on our trip – and one of my favourites.
I mentioned earlier that our tour guide said that we might have a bit of extra time for one of two extra stops. This was the second one of those – a 15-minute stop at a farm. A farm with horses and lambs!
First of all, we headed into the inside enclosure where there were a number of pens. Inside them were sheep and some lambs there were only a few days old – they were so sweet. As was the noisy adult sheep who baaahed at us, clearly wanting to protect her babies. Next, we headed outside where there were Iceland horses being all wild and beautiful.
There were a handful of horses in a circular enclose that seemed wild and untamed. They kept tossing their manes around and cantering around in circles like they had all this wild energy going on. It reminded me of the 90s movie Legends of the Fall. They had the bear inside them.
On the other side was another group of horses in shades of grey, ginger, and dark brown. These ones seemed a lot calmer and were more than happy to pose for the camera. They were all gorgeous.
Geysir hot spring area
The next stop on the Golden Circle tour is the famous Geysir hot spring area. Geysir is the most famous geyser in Iceland. It was the first ever geyser mentioned in print and the first one known to modern Europeans, which is perhaps why the word ‘geyser’ is derived from it.
Geysir used to go off all the time – every 30 minutes or so – but it’s much less frequent these days sadly. It hasn’t erupted since 2016, although it’s still considered to be active.
Strokkur is the big money shot today. This geyser pops off every seven minutes, hurling a shot of water 100 feet in the air, which is pretty incredible to see. Even better, you don’t have to wait too long as it goes off every seven minutes or so. You’ll probably see the steam and the crowd of people surrounding it first, phones poised in their hands, waiting.
You do have to be a little careful though – there’s a patch of wet ground where the water goes when it goes off. If you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time you could end up getting soaked! I don’t fancy that.
Little Geysir is an interesting one. It’s just off the path and clearly signposted and is only about a metre wide. Basically, the perfect size for a human if they slipped in. I’m not sure if everyone else thinks these morbid thoughts here, but that’s what I was thinking about!
It’s also nice to walk around and explore all of the bubbling water pools. It was such a nice day and the water was almost turquoise in colour.
There isn’t a proper fence separating the geysers – only a small rope barrier. I guess they hope people are sensible enough to steer clear. You would think so but our tour guide told us that a tourist was wandering in amongst the smaller hot springs when he was there the other week. He had to go and tell them that they couldn’t walk there.
Geysir Glima Bistro
We also grabbed our lunch at Geysir Glima Bistro.
There are a bunch of restaurants here but our guide pointed out the best one, which is on the far right of the row of buildings. It doesn’t look like much from the outside but when you walk in, wow, it’s cool AF.
This place was enormous with huge high ceilings and lots of natural materials – it definitely felt like the outside had been brought in. And – randomly – it had old black and white films of Iceland wrestlers playing on the screens. I’m not quite sure of the connection but I liked it.
That’s one of the things I noticed in Iceland – all of the infrastructure around the tourist destinations is of such a high standard. Nice coffee vans, nice toilets, nice restaurants. You don’t get that everywhere.
In terms of the menu, it’s basically a lunch place with sandwiches, soups, and bigger meals like burgers and chips, all done to a high standard. I really fancied a soup. They had traditional meat and fish soups, but having just seen all the lovely farm animals I wasn’t feeling it.
I got the vegetarian option in the end – an enormous bowl of creamy tomato soup. It was so tasty – I’m not a huge soup person but I loved it! In fact, I still find myself daydreaming about how nice it was now. And it came with three slices of rye bread and butter. What’s not to like?
If you’re visiting Geysir this is the perfect spot to warm up after!
The next stop on the trip was the Kerid Crater.
It’s another of Iceland’s natural wonders to add to the list – I know, another one! It’s stunning – it’s like the landscape has been scooped out with a spoon, leaving behind a bowl-like crater and ridged caldera. It slopes down to a large pool filled with greeny-blue water.
The history of what caused the crater is really interesting. Apparently, the area used to be a volcano. Scientists believe that it erupted and depleted its magma reserves which caused it to collapse. This left behind this deep crater which is what we see today.
And, actually, even though the crater itself is deep the water isn’t. In fact, it’s only reported to be 7-14 metres deep depending on rainfall. It’s the mineral formation underneath the water that gives it its beautiful turquoise-blue shade.
We walked around the edge of the crater first. There are some seriously stunning views to be seen – just be careful you don’t get too close to the edge, right? Then you can wander down to the water itself for a closer look before heading back to the bus.
It’s worth noting that as of February 2023 there’s now an entrance fee of 450 ISK.
The Blue Lagoon
And the last stop on our Golden Circle Tour was the Blue Lagoon.
A lot of people kind of drag the Blue Lagoon. And, in some ways, I’m not surprised. It’s popular. It’s touristy. The price is eye-watering. These days people seem to be saying you should swerve the Blue Lagoon and go to the cool new hot spring destination instead.
Well, I disagree. I’ve waited forever to go to Iceland and I wanted to see what it’s all about. I think you have to make your own mind up about things rather than listen to some random on the internet you’ve never met. And that’s speaking as some random on the internet
Anyway, I really enjoyed the Blue Lagoon. The ticket prices are eye-watering but by this time I’d made peace with the fact that Iceland is just expensive. We spent more on the day trips when we were there than the actual holiday itself, which says it all really. Painful but true.
Thankfully, I didn’t get the eggy sulphur smell that I’d heard so much about. In fact, it was quite lovely in the late afternoon sunshine. We floated around in the water, took a LOT of photos, and then headed to the bar to get a drink. After that, we got our free facemask and floated around some more. And then it was time to get changed and head back to the bus.
As I mentioned, you can book a Golden Circle tour in Iceland without a Blue Lagoon ticket which is a lot cheaper. But after a busy day of sightseeing, I really enjoyed having some time just to unwind and relax.
That was my review of the Golden Circle Tour in Iceland. If you’re planning a trip to Iceland then you might also be interested in these blogs:
- What to pack for Iceland in spring
- Iceland in spring: a guide