The South of Iceland is the most travelled part of the whole country. Mainly because it’s close to the capital and to the airport, but also because there are tons of things to do and epic sights to see in the Golden Circle. Plus most folks coming to Iceland are coming for less than a week on that free Iceland Air layover, so they can’t get a ton further than the South. Unlike them, Dana and I travelled the rest of the country first and then saved the South’s Golden Circle for last.
Driving the Golden Circle Spots: Epic Waterfalls, Hot Springs and a Black Beach
The South of Iceland is a major hub of tourism, so it’s not surprising that it is the busiest region, with the most tour buses and tourist heavy attractions. But this is still Iceland, so a good portion of the sights are still simply gorgeous natural splendours that would merit inclusion in any World Wonder hall of fame.
Dana and I arrived in the South coming down the East coast of Iceland. We were escaping brutal weather which has since been explained to me as the tail end of Hurricane Jose, the one that struck the Caribbean and Florida hard. Well I guess Jose made his way north, wayyyyyy north.
Reynisfjara Black Beach Iceland
Our first major stop in the South (after eating delicious soup in Vik of course) was the Reynisfjara Black Beach. The beach was also our first taste of how crazy the Golden Circle is when it comes to tour buses and people pouring out of them, but let’s ignore that and look at the pretty, pretty beach.
The turn off for Reynisfjara is just a few kilometres south of Vik, and very easily missed if you’re not looking. But no fear, the beach itself is unmissable. Reynisfjara truly is a black beach, collared by striking cliffs and a cave ringed in pillar like rock formations. Moving up from the crashing waves, the fine black sand becomes coarser sand, then small pebbles until the ground is made of small black stones. Walking over these layers of rock, the volcanic ebony of the ground is a stark contrast to the pristine blue sky and the open ocean. Both ends of the beach are marked with unique rock stacks, clearly broken away from the cliffs after an ancient earth hiccup.
The cave at the east of the beach is a major photo op, which means it’s almost impossible to get a decent photo of just the cave. Luckily, the vastness of the entire beach means that just a few steps to the west and the crowds are foreign and the beach itself is all there is.
Fun fact for those Vikings (the tv show, not the legendary Norse folk) fans, the first episode of season 5, Floki, our favourite suicidal Northman sails off set on dying and ends up washing ashore on Reynisfjara Beach. The Vikings have arrived in Iceland!!!
Another major site in the Golden Circle Itinerary, Skogafoss is one of the more well known waterfalls in Iceland. It is very easily accessed and heavily visited due to it’s location in the Golden Circle, but it really is quite impressive.
Skogafoss was ALSO featured on Vikings, go Floki!
The turnoff for Skogafoss can’t be missed, mainly because you can see the falls from the highway and there are many signs. To be honest, by this point in our trip, Dana and I had seen around a million and one waterfalls, so we hesitated in visiting this one. But we were glad we did, it’s very beautiful, and there was a double rainbow! We did not climb to the top viewing area, mainly out of laziness, and because we were on our way to a hot pool. Sometimes hot pools win, no matter what.
But a turn off at Skogafoss takes no gas and very little time so it’s well worth it to stop in and have a look. And get some of that mist in your eyes.
The Secret Lagoon – A Much Preferred Blue Lagoon Alternative
Maybe not so secret, but the Secret Lagoon is an excellent alternative to the Blue Lagoon (which avid readers will notice Dana and I skipped).
The Secret Lagoon is located in the heart of the Golden Circle just outside of Flúðir. The oldest natural hot spring in Iceland, the Secret Lagoon is small, hot, and totally what a hot pool should be, relaxing. You don’t have to fight with crowds, you don’t have to sell a kidney to afford the entrance fee, and you can drink cold alcohol and not be bumped into by a stranger.
After paying our entry fees at the front desk, we were told very specifically that prior to going into the pool we were to shower, with no bathing suits. No bathing suits! “You must shower naked”.
The reality of this oddly strict instruction from kind of a laid back culture is the discovery that it is really hard to put a dry bathing suit on a wet body!
But, Dana and I are troopers, and we managed. We followed the instructions, as we definitely don’t want to break the pool rules.
We timed our visit to the Secret Lagoon perfectly, as the sun was about 30 minutes from setting, any groups were gone for the day, and the pool was very chill with maybe only another 25 people in it. We each grabbed a can of cold cider and if there is a heaven, this was it!
Héraðsskólinn Boutique Hostel in Laugarvatn
Budget Accommodation in the Golden Circle
There are a ton of places to stay in the Golden Circle. Like, literally hundreds. But Dana and I didn’t have any one in particular booked so we chatted with some folks along the way and received a glowing recommendation for one place in particular. Following that recommendation, we stayed at Héraðsskólinn Boutique Hostel, one of the cooler places I have ever stayed, and right in the heart of the Golden Circle.
A restored school that was first built in 1928, Héraðsskólinn was designed by Guðjón Samúelsson, one of Iceland’s foremost architects and designers. Sitting atop a knoll overlooking the lake, Héraðsskólinn has the cozy feeling of a heritage building mixed with a rustic decor that melts the hostel right into it’s glorious setting.
As Dana and I were driving into Laugarvatn, which doesn’t have a whole lot to it beside this hostel, we saw the school with it’s gables from afar and got excited knowing that this was our home for the next two nights! We checked in and were immediately struck by the rich character and peaceful vibe of the space, as well as the friendliness of the folks at the front desk. Plus we could also see/smell into the restaurant and we were starving!
After dropping our bags in our lake view room (2 single beds and 1 bunk bed, but since it was just us, neither of us had to sleep in the bunks!), we hustled out to the restaurant where we gleefully ordered Reindeer Pizza. Yep, you read that right!
Not three days earlier we had spotted a wild reindeer from the road and got VERY excited about it. I’ll be real and tell you I’m not sure which reindeer encounter I was more thrilled about it. Sure I love wildlife, but I also love pizza with meat on it. Tough call.
Anyways, enough about the pizza. Héraðsskólinn was perfect for Dana and I, as there are not very many budget options in the Golden Circle and we didn’t really want to stay in Reykjavik the whole time. There are tons of different types of rooms at Héraðsskólinn, we stayed in a private (shared bathroom), but there are also dorms in the basement with shared living space and kitchen facilities for self-catering.
Some awesome things about Héraðsskólinn:
They offer a Northern Lights wake-up service until 1am. This is VERY cool, because it means that if the staff spot the lights getting all active, they’ll come and knock on your door so you don’t miss out. Meaning you don’t need to stand in the cold staring at the sky needlessly. 10 points to Gryffindor! Spoiler alert: we did see the lights from Héraðsskólinn!!!!
The meals from the restaurant are excellent! Breakfast made me almost cry it was so good, and that reindeer pizza, and the reindeer meatballs I ate the next night (sorry Santa!), were on point!
The location of Héraðsskólinn is excellent. We used Laugarvatn as a base to explore the entire area over the course of two days and it worked excellently. Plus there is a ton of free parking for our, by this time, very very dirty rental SUV.
The views are excellent. Héraðsskólinn sits on a pretty swath of land overlooking the lake and with little else in sight, you feel pretty off the beaten path of the VERY beaten Golden Circle path.
There are slippers to borrow, and I love me some slippers! This is smart on multiple levels, as it makes people feel at home and all cozy, but it also keeps the noise of thumping boots down and the entire building cleaner. Well played Héraðsskólinn. That said, most of the slippers were kind of on the large side, so I found some that were my size and hid them behind a potted plant when we were out of the building. Because I’m both smart and sneaky.
For our last full day together in Iceland, Dana and I hit the highlights of the Golden Circle but also soaked in the ambiance. That pun will become clear soon enough.
We set off from Héraðsskólinn bound for Gullfoss, yet another epic waterfall in this country filled with epic waterfalls. You could say by this time we were getting a little waterfall’ed out, but the fact is there was not one waterfall that we visited that was not spectacular and worth the visit. Sure I have my favourites, but that’s for another blog.
Gullfoss is a massive 32 metre plunging cascade with viewing platforms both at the top of the cliff and mid way down the falls. Like Dettifoss, Gullfoss is a waterfall that has etched out it’s path in the rock so precisely, it’s actually impossible to see the bottom without getting yourself right in there. But then you’d be dead and no travel blog could be written.
Being in the Golden Circle, Gullfoss is heavily visited, and they have made it largely accessible for folks with mobility issues. Tour buses are everywhere, but if you’re in your own car, you can park in the closer parking lot. Take your rain jacket even on a sunny day, the spray from the falls is intense, and if you can, go the earliest you can to beat the crowds.
Geysir in the Golden Circle
After leaving Gullfoss the natural next stop is Geysir, just down the road about 10 minutes. Geysir is just what it sounds like it should be, a geyser hot spot where water bursts out of the ground at regular intervals. Apparently this location is where the word ‘geyser’ comes from, so I guess we do all know a little bit of Icelandic.
Admittedly, I often call geysers ‘geezers’, much to the chagrin of my mother, who I think in her old age is starting to take it personally.
Geysir is also very heavily visited and is a definite stop on any one day Golden Circle bus tour. So there are a lot of people there, all vying for a selfie with the spewing water. I was actually told by a woman that I needed to move so she could get a better picture. Seriously? All that said, Geysir is literally right off the road, so stopping for 20 minutes to have a look is not going to kill you. Plus, if you’ve never seen a geyser before they are pretty cool. Water erupting from the ground like clockwork doesn’t happen everywhere.
Dana had read about the ‘Blue Waterfall’ or as I now know the name to be Bruarfoss, on another travel blog, and with rather vague directions, we went searching for it. No decent signage and the fact that the tour buses don’t go, means finding this place wasn’t easy, but it was definitely worth it!
On the road between Geysir and Laugarvatn, about 20 minutes south of Geysir on Route 37, there is a sign for something called Brekkuskogur Orlofssvaedi BHM. Whatever the hell that means. No, I know what it means, it’s basically a large holiday cabin complex. Follow this road until you come to a sign for Bruara, which is the name of the river, and follow that sign. The road devolves into mud and potholes and you will eventually arrive at a pseudo parking lot/just the end of the road. Park here and then follow a kind of worn path. Jump a fence, or roll under it like I did, and keep following the path.
Not far, maybe a 10 minute walk from the car, you will come upon a bridge going over a gushing river. The low running but fast moving waterfall is turquoise blue and the surrounding flora is a deep crimson red, making for an eye shattering scene with very few folks around. Going back to our questions about glaciers, what makes the water blue?!
When we were at Bruarfoss, there were maybe five or six other people around. Bruarfoss has definitely remained one of few hidden gems in the Golden Circle, which is surprising because it doesn’t feel like anything is secret there.
If you want to make Bruarfoss a bigger hike, there is a legit parking lot on route 37 at the Bruara River crossing. It looks like the trail leads from that parking lot up to the waterfall along the river. Which would be very lovely on a nice day! Plus then you won’t be trespassing, like we probably were.
þingvellir National Park
Pronounced Thingvellir, this National Park is only a stones through from Reykjavik and definitely deserves a few hours. We had to go because this park is where the Bloody Gate scene in Games of Thrones was shot, but it is also a super interesting place for non-GOT peeps too.
þingvellir is one of Iceland’s most important historical sites as it was home and still is the ceremonial home, to Iceland, and Europe’s first parliament. Also a UNESCO World Heritage site, þingvellir is known for natural beauty, lake scuba diving, and many archeological sites from the Saga era, as well as the fact that it is the meeting point, and shifting point, for continental plates. Geology!
We drove into þingvellir and stopped a few times along the way, just checking out the view and weird little crevasses alongside the road. Crevasses that I assume came from those continental plates shifting. We parked at the bottom on Almannagja, the most dramatic rift in the park and which actually was the Bloody Gate.
We walked up to the visitors centre perched at the top of the rift and took in the high views of the entire park. Tour bus warning, again, there were many.
Dana and I then just kind of meandered around. The soaring walls of the rifts are extremely dramatic and almost make you feel closed in if it wasn’t for the great expanse of land on the other side of you. Waterfalls coming down the cliffs, historic sites of a small church and farmhouse, the archeological site of the Parliament location, and picturesque bridges and streams marked the park as we wandered.
Reykjadalur Hot River Valley
I will be honest, I was not impressed with Reykjadalur right off the bat. We pulled up, and parked the car, and all I could see was a trail that went seemingly straight up a mountain and then disappeared. Because well I thought we were going to a natural hot river. Yep, we were, but you have to hike 3 kilometres, mainly uphill, to get to that river.
Well shit. Doesn’t the river eventually come down here?
I’m not the laziest person out there, but when I’m all primed to be lazy, getting hit with a 3 kilometre climb is not at the top of my list. Luckily, Dana had faith enough for both of us, and I put on my best impression of a plodding donkey and followed her. She quickly left me in the dust because Dana is a mountain gazelle and I like cheese.
But Dana was definitely right, once we got to the top, and I realized what this place was, holy kabolee was I glad she had dragged me up that hill! The hot river is exactly what it sounds like, it is a flowing river that is hot and you just plunk yourself into it and bask. There were no stern Icelandic women telling us to shower before entering the pool, not that we could since we were in the middle of the mountains, so we got down to the bathing suits and wallowed joyously.
The river is not deep, literally less than a foot, so there is no swimming needed, but because of the significant work to get to the river, the water is not packed with people. And yes, most people brought a few beers with them. We didn’t, because we are human and make mistakes.
The water was generally a comfortable 38-40 degrees, though different sections of the river were hotter depending on where the water was coming from. Some spots could definitely burn you, so tread carefully, but really is there anything that beats a free flowing hot river? Well maybe if we had beers then yes, but no, the answer to the question is no!
Plus, did I say how gorgeous the river valley is? The hike up there, despite being uphill was very beautiful, and then once we arrived at the river, the surrounding rolling hills and lovely grasslands made for a lovely peaceful setting. What a way to spend our last evening in Iceland together!
I also decided at some point that the mud was probably therapeutic. I’m sure Gwyneth Paltrow would agree.
Touring the Golden Circle
We saved the Golden Circle area for last because we knew it would be busy and it’s the closest part of the country to the airport. Most folks either see the Golden Circle at the beginning or the end of their trips, depending on how long their trip to Iceland is. I would recommend the end, mainly because the rest of Iceland has so many mind boggling sights and variety, that you don’t want to only spend your time in one region.
I was glad we did make time for the Golden Circle, despite it’s reputation and reality for being so overrun with bus tours. The waterfalls, the black sand beach, and the hidden gems in the Golden Circle should not be missed and if you’re short on time, they really can represent the best parts of Iceland.
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