Iceland’s top tourist attraction is the Golden Circle. The Golden Circle consists of the Gullfoss Waterfall, Geysir and Thingvellir National Park – all natural wonders and 1 UNESCO Site.
Iceland was already on my list since Denmark and Iceland have a shared history, but this trip just made me fall in love with Icelandic nature. Here’s why the Golden Circle is a must-see – also for a cultural traveller.
First of all there is old Geysir. Although Geysir is almost inactive today, it did lend its name to hot springs all over the world. Apparently it could spout 170 m! It was the first geyser described in a printed source and the first known to modern Europeans.
One geyser Strokkur is active and will spout water 30 m into the air. It’s very fun and amusing to stand and wait the few minutes in between the eruptions. You might get wet, but you’ll probably be wet anyway from the weather.
Besides the famous old Geysir and Strokkur, fumaroles emanating steam and gas into the cool Icelandic air can be found. You will be able to observe the yellow sulphuric stains along the fumaroles themselves, a result of the steam crystallising around the rock bed.
At the southern part of the valley, Þykkuhverir, you‘ll find various bubbling mud pots. These spooky brown cauldrons are actually fumaroles that boil up through the loose ground; after a dry spell, these mud pools are likely to transform into a hardened fumarole.
A Geysir Center recently opened where you can learn more about these geothermical wonders.
Gullfoss or The ‘golden’ fall is only one of Iceland’s many waterfalls, but this is the largest volume fall in Europe! On a sunny day, the water takes on a golden-brown colour. This is due to the fact that it’s glacial water and therefore carries lots of sediments that glacial ice has carved off the earth throughout the years.
The fall has two stages which is difficult to see when the water amount is high. The first part is 11 m and the second 21 m high. I’ve heard from others, that when the water is low, you can climb down to a ledge on the left of the fall. As you can see in the February image, the amount of water was so massive, that we couldn’t see down the fall. In May it’s easier to see the two stages and steep fall.
The fall was almost destroyed once in an attempt to build an hydro-electrical power plant. Fortunately the landowner’s daughter Sigridur both walked all the way to Reykjavik to plea the case and also threatened to throw herself into the fall. In the end her lawyer won her case. There’s a statue of her by the fall.
THINGVELLIR NATIONAL PARK
Þingvellir National Park is where the Icelandic parliament or “Thing” met from more than 800 years, which makes it the world’s first parliament! It’s a UNESCO site, but aside from it’s historic interest, it’s also surrounded by magnificent nature.
WHAT TO SEE
The conditions at Þingvellir were thought suitable for an assembly: good pasture, firewood, and water. The site was also considered suitable for the actual meeting site, as slopes and flat plains were set up against a rocky cliff. And that’s pretty much what you see. The most important place of the Law Rock has not been found. The assembly met here from 930 to 1798!
THE WORLD’S FIRST PARLIAMENT
This is where Iceland began! With a little help from Norway… The Icelandic settlers and laws came from Norway due to land shortage and internal disputes in Norway. Shortly before 930, chieftains agreed to send a man named Úlfljótur to Norway. His mission was to learn the laws and customs that could become a model for the new society. He returned to Iceland where the first law was called Úlfljót’s Law.
His foster brother, Grímur geitskór, travelled around Iceland to find a suitable meeting place. The book “Íslendingabók” tells of Þórir Kroppinskeggur, who murdered his servant, and as punishment all his land passed into common ownership for the use of the Alþing.
The visitor center is located at the top of Almannagja, where many of the pictures above was taken. The nature surrounding Thingvellir could serve for several days of exploring. There’s hiking trails, camping sites, waterfalls, snorkling and much more.
It is also the visible site of the mid-Atlantic Ridge where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates meet. They are pulling away from each other, so the rift in the valley is becoming larger by the year! This really feels like you are in touch with the earth’s powers. You can go diving in Silfra Gorge between the plates, but please be experienced before going, since every year someone dies.
WEATHER & TRANSPORT
The weather in Iceland can change rapidly. I went in February, my husband juts returned from a second visit this May, and both times the weather was awful. Wind, rain and some snow. But that’s all part of the natural splendour of Iceland. In February there were fewer tourists though.
It’s possible to stay near any of the sites, there is even camping at Thingvellir, but we chose to stay in Reykjavik and rented a car and took the Golden Circle in 1 day! It’s about 300 km from the capital. It’s easy to drive and find directions, but be careful not to go off road. Tourists get into trouble all the time in the harsh nature of Iceland.
Want to see more of Iceland? Get more info on Rekjavik and more in Fire & Ice! Iceland is the land of contrasts.