A Guide to Gullfoss: Iceland’s Most Iconic Waterfall

Gullfoss Iceland, Golden Circle

One of the most popular tours in Iceland is the Golden Circle with attractions like Þingvellir National park, Geysir geothermal area and Gullfoss waterfall. 

Gullfoss is a breathtaking waterfall cascading in two tiers down a big canyon. Its thunderous roar and the picturesque scenery is sure to leave you captivated by the power of nature. In this guide we will provide you with all the essential information so you can make the most of your visit to this iconic landmark. 

How to get to Gullfoss waterfall

Located approximately 120 km [74,5 mi] from Reykjavík city, Gullfoss waterfall is easily accessible by car through the scenic Ring Road (route 1) or via Route 35. It takes around 1,5 to 2 hours to drive from the city centre. If you prefer not to drive there are plenty of guided tours departing from Reykjavík city that offer transportation as well as all the benefits of having an experienced guide. 

The most popular way of visiting Gullfoss is taking the Golden Circle route, combining it with a visit to Geysir geothermal area and Þingvellir National Park

Exploring Gullfoss

When you arrive at Gullfoss waterfall you are greeted by the thundering sound of this powerful natural wonder. The walk from the parking lot to the waterfall lookout point takes about 5 minutes and from there you can walk up to the upper fall.

Gullfoss Visitor Centre
Upon your arrival it might be fun to start at the visitor centre. There you can read about the history of Gullfoss waterfall, learn about the geology and significance of the waterfall as well as getting familiar with the waterfall´s formation and cultural importance.

The upper and lower falls
Gullfoss waterfall is a two tiered waterfall; the upper falls, which drops 11 metres [36 ft], and the lower falls which plunge 21 metres [68 ft] into the impressive canyon below. You can take in the picturesque view from various vantage points along the walking paths, each offering a unique perspective. 

Hiking trails
If you have enough time and are seeking a closer encounter with the waterfall´s power, several hiking trails lead down to viewpoints near the edge of the canyon. If you decide to embark on this little adventure make sure you follow the designated paths and exercise great caution as it can be slippery and unstable. 

Photo by Golli

Practical Tips for visiting Gullfoss waterfalls

  1. Can anyone visit Gullfoss waterfall?
    Gullfoss waterfall is accessible for almost anyone. Even though some might not be able to hike up to the waterfall, the viewpoints close by the parking lot offer a great view of this majestic natural wonder.
  2. Where to park
    When arriving by car to Gullfoss waterfall you have a few different parking options that are free. You can either turn to the lower parking lot or continue on Route 35 to the upper parking lot. At the upper lot you will find some facilities, including bathrooms, a café and a souvenir shop.
  3. How to dress when visiting Gullfoss waterfalls
    Bring your waterproof jacket with you and wear sturdy footwear. The weather can be a bit chilly and the misty spray might get you a little bit wet, depending on how close you get. Keep an eye out for the stunning rainbows that often form over the canyon and be ready to snap an amazing photo as your souvenir!
  4. Best time to visit Gullfoss waterfalls
    If you want to avoid crowds, consider visiting early in the morning. A great travel tip for the summer months is to visit the more popular attractions at night. The endless, bright summer nights make for a beautiful, golden hour experience – with less crowds.
  5. Safety first
    Always respect the environment and adhere to any safety warnings and guidelines. Often the only warning are signs or small ropes indicating where not to go – so be vigilant and stay informed. 

Without a doubt a visit to Gullfoss waterfall is worth your while. Even though it might be one of the most photographed and talked about attractions in Iceland it is with good reason. The experience of the thundering waterfall falling into the canyon below will leave you in awe of nature’s power. 

 

Driving The Ring Road in Three Days

Iceland’s famous Þjóðvegur 1 highway, or the Ring Road, is a 1322 km long road that circles the country. Technically it can be covered from start to finish in less than 24 hours but rushing the road trip would defeat the purpose of experiencing the beautiful nature and eccentric small towns that Iceland has to offer. The optimal way to travel the Ring Road is in approximately seven days with plenty of pit stops, but it’s also entirely possible to have an enjoyable trip in much less than that. For those who have limited time to travel, here’s a guide to a three day trip around Iceland.

Where to Begin?

At the start of the trip, travellers have two options, driving north or south but for the purpose of this article, the northern route is chosen. Heading north takes travellers through the Hvalfjarðargöng tunnel towards Borgarnes which is a popular first quick stop for gathering snacks or having lunch, but for a little less crowded option we recommend Baulan, a small gas station twenty minutes past Borgarnes. Baulan is perfect for a coffee break and a hot dog before getting back on the road. About 40 minutes from Baulan marks the beginning of the drive through Holtavörðuheiði, a long stretch of road that ascends through barren hillsides. During the summer, Holtavörðuheiði poses no difficulty for drivers but during winter the road can get quite icy and it’s worth staying up to date on road conditions when travelling in the winter months. Coming back down from the hills, travellers are greeted by Staðarskáli, a good sized gas station and restaurant that was originally opened in 1960 and then reconstructed in 2008 under the N1 chain of gas stations. Due to its location right between Reykjavík and the North part of Iceland, it has been one of the most popular rest stops on the Ring Road. Although some of the old time charm was replaced by a more modern look by N1, it’s still a classic stop to restock on drinks and road snacks. Before getting to Akureyri, the road crosses Blönduós, a decent sized town named after the Blanda river that rushes through the area. Blönduós has a number of restaurants and gas stations to drop in, but for people who crave an old fashioned burger joint there is the North West restaurant in Víðigerði, some 39 km from Blönduós.

Photo: Golli. A collection of waterfalls in Borgarfjörður

After that the Ring Road heads into Skagafjörður, a large region known for its dramatic history during the Sturlunga Era and for its rich horsebreeding culture. The last proper stop before Akureyri is Varmahlíð in Skagafjörður, a tiny community that still manages a hotel and a swimming pool along with a restaurant and gas station. From Varmahlíð it’s about an hour drive to Akureyri with no other options for pit stops through the sometimes treacherous Öxnadalsheiði. 

Akureyri, Capital of North Iceland

Akureyri, the second biggest town in Iceland, is nestled at the roots of Hlíðarfjall mountain, a popular skiing area during winter time. It has a more “city feel” than the other smaller towns that are scattered around the country, and is an ideal place to stop for the first night of the trip. Akureyri offers numerous hotels, guesthouses and camping areas along with a diverse restaurant scene and a huge swimming pool with a funky waterslide. The climate in Akureyri is often a lot calmer than in Reykjavík and during summer it’s more likely than not to catch beautiful, sunny days there while Reykjavík has more unpredictable weather. There is no shortage of activities available in Akureyri and it is sure to leave an impression on any traveller passing through. In 2022, a new geothermal bath spot opened right outside Akureyri called Skógarböðin, or Forest Lagoon, a beautifully designed, modern take on the natural bath. It’s a great spot to unwind after the long drive and enjoy the surrounding nature. For breakfast in Akureyri there are a few options, but a great little café called Kaffi Ilmur is a great choice. Kaffi Ilmur serves breakfast all day long and has amazing Dutch specialty pancakes that should not be missed.

Photo: Golli. Akureyri is the second largest town in Iceland

Experiencing East-Iceland

Heading out east from Akureyri, the next stop should be Egilsstaðir, a small town with a big personality and a great natural bath called Vök, which is located on top of Urriðavatn lake. Visitors can soak in the hot pools and then take a dip in the lake to cool off. East-Iceland has a lot to offer and it’s the only part of the country where wild reindeer roam free. Because of the short trip and long drives between destinations, it might not be possible to go on many excursions, but travellers should try to squeeze in a reindeer safari to see these adorable animals in their natural habitat. On the South-Eastern edge of Iceland, close to Vatnajökull glacer is Jökulsárlón, a glacier lake that is a must see on the Ring Road trip. The lake runs directly from Vatnajökull and out to the ocean and carries with it beautiful icebergs from the glacier in all different colors of blue. Close by is the Diamond Beach where pieces of the icebergs have broken off and collected on the shore. It’s a stunning display of the ever changing elements of Icelandic nature.

Photo: Berglind. The Glacier Lagoon in East-Iceland

 For the second night on the trip, Höfn í Hornafirði is a great spot, a small coastal town on the  South-East tip, or travellers can duck into Hotel Jökulsárlón, a cozy hotel close to the glacier lake. About 20 minutes before entering Höfn there are the Vestrahorn mountains, a picturesque range of ragged mountains that seem to rise up from the black, sandy beach. 

The Scenic South Coast

On the third day, driving from Höfn, begins the home stretch, a beautiful, scenic drive along the southern part of Iceland. This part of the country doesn’t have the many hills and valleys of the western and northern parts and so the drive is smooth and peaceful. The southern route also has some of the most popular nature highlights of Iceland, and as travellers get closer to Reykjavík, there are numerous spots to stop and enjoy the views. Three hours from Höfn is Vík í Mýrdal, another small seaside town that is surrounded by dramatic mountain formations. There are a number of food options in Vík, including a craft brewery pub called Smiðjan Brewery that offers a good selection of local specialty beers. Thirty minutes from Vík is the famed Skógafoss, an iconic waterfall that can be seen right from the highway. Continuing west is another, smaller waterfall, Seljalandsfoss, where visitors have a chance to walk up close and get behind the gushing water. Close by Seljalandsfoss is Seljavallalaug, a beautiful natural bath, hidden from the views of the Ring Road. It’s a bit of a hike to get to the pool but the soak is worth every minute.

Photo: Golli. Seljalandsfoss on the South Coast

Getting back on the road from Seljavallalaug, travellers have the option of taking a small detour to see Gullfoss waterfall and Strokkur geysir. As part of the Golden Cirlce, these spots are a popular attraction for tour groups, but it’s easy and fun to get around there on your own. From the Golden Circle it’s a short one hour drive back to Reykjavík where it all started. A short trip like this around Iceland is only able to give a small preview of all the possible things to see and do around the country, but it is a great way to get familiar with driving on the roads and to hopefully get hyped for a longer return trip in the future.

The Golden Circle | Iceland’s Favourite Sightseeing Route  

Geysir Iceland tourism

Iceland is famed far and wide for its astounding natural spectacles. Cascading waterfalls. Bursting geysers. Wide stretches of untamed wilderness. But particular places have become more renowned than most. For instance, the Golden Circle sightseeing route is the most popular sightseeing route in Iceland. 

The route is named after one of its three impressive stops – the colossal Gullfoss waterfall, literally translating to ‘Golden Waterfall.’ From one perspective, this is something of a coincidence as this trail is considered the premium – and thus golden – sightseeing circuit in the country. It offers guests awe, reverence, and appreciation in equal measures.

In total, the Golden Circle covers 300 km (186 mi); a fairly considerable distance, but very manageable within a day, bearing in mind one is prepared to fill it with intrigue and adventure, of course.

Table of Contents

Where is the Golden Circle in Iceland? 

Gullfoss waterfall in Autumn
Photo: Private Golden Circle & Secret Lagoon tour from Reykjavik

The Golden Circle sightseeing route is located in West Iceland, about 45 km northwest of Iceland’s vibrant capital city, Reykjavik. 

For those leaving from Reykjvik towards the route’s most popular starting point – the notoriously unpronounceable Þingvellir National Park – expect to drive for one hour. 

Guests should leave the capital by following the major highway, Route 49, west toward the leafy town of Mosfellsbær. On the outskirts of the city, be aware that Route 49 becomes Route 1 without having to turn off. 

Continue along this main road, crossing four roundabouts as you drive through Mosfellsbær. At the fifth roundabout, swing into the first right turn onto Route 36, otherwise known as Þingvallavegur. There will be clear signs en route, leaving no room for doubt.

This road will take you across wide open wilderness until, eventually, the placid blue waters of Lake Þingvallavatn appear on your right hand side. When you spot what is Iceland’s largest natural lake—a beautiful sight in and of itself—you know you’re heading in the right direction.

Route 36 will take you right up to Þingvellir National Park’s modern Visitor’s centre, complete with its engaging information boards and easily-accessible walkways.

Congratulations – you have now reached your first stop on the Golden Circle route. So, what incredible sites lie ahead of you?

What sites are considered the Golden Circle route?

A map showing the topography of Þingvellir
 Photo: Adam Fagen. Flickr. CC. A map showing Þingvellir.

There are three major sites on Iceland’s Golden Circle sightseeing route – Þingvellir National Park, Geysir geothermal area, and Gullfoss waterfall. 

All of them can be visited within the space of one day. The majority of one’s time will be spent at Þingvellir National Park given the wealth of activities available there, but leisurely travellers may want to spread the experience out over a couple of days. 

A gentle approach is especially true for those who want to make extra stops along the way, but we discuss more about them later. 

For now, let’s focus on the main attractions, starting with Þingvellir (pronounced Thing-veck-leer). 

Þingvellir National Park

It is not an easy job, using words to justify exactly how the UNESCO World Heritage site, Þingvellir, is such a special place. 

Why, you ask? Because Þingvellir National Park is many things at once, the least of which being that it is often constituted as the first part of the Golden Circle route. 

The History of Þingvellir National Park

þingvellir national park
 Photo: Páll Stefánsson. þingvellir during the winter.

Þingvellir is a site of immense historical importance, not just for the Icelandic people, but humanity itself. 

For starters, Þingvellir was where the first democratically-elected parliament, the Alþingi, first formed back in 930 AD. It was in that summer that the nation of Iceland was born, marking the beginning of the Icelandic Commonwealth, which lasted until 1262. While the Commonwealth did not last, the Alþingi is still in operation today. 

Anyone with some knowledge of Icelandic would recognise that Þingvellir translates to ‘Assembly Fields.’ In ancient Germanic sites, a thing (Þing) describes the gathering of a government, while the singular vǫllr means ‘field.’

Playing dress-up as Vikings
 Photo: Golli. Festival-goers dressed as Vikings.

Every year since its founding, chieftains (or Goðar) and their clans would travel from across Iceland to assemble at Þingvellir, setting up temporary living quarters amid its craggy walls. 

For two weeks at a time, clans would discuss the law, settle disputes, forge alliances, and hold great games and feasts. Ordinary citizens would also attend, be they sword-makers, farmers, or merchants, using the gathering to peddle their wares, find work, and seek out adventure.      

Þingvellir was established as a national park in 1930. In 2004, UNESCO recognised the area as a world heritage site, lathering even more prestige onto this exceptional locale. 

Þingvellir’s Fascinating Geology & Nature 

Guests at Þingvellir National Park
 Photo: Golli. Walking in Þingvellir National Park

The landscapes of Þingvellir were formed by an eruptive fissure northeast of nearby Mount Hengill. What it left behind was a volcanic paradise composed of lush arctic flora and incredible geology defined by the park’s location atop the Mid-Atlantic Rift

The Eurasian and the North American tectonic plates make up the outer periphery of this protected area, creating what amounts to a shield-wall enclosing a wholly unique rift valley. 

Given that these tectonic plates are drifting apart ever-so slowly each year, the valley basin has been torn apart with fissures and cracks, many filled with water. 

Water filling in a volcanic rift.
 Photo: Golli. A volcanic rift filled with water.

By far, the most impressive rift is Almannagjá (Everyman’s Gorge), better described as a scenic, yet haunting canyon. Guests can walk down Almannagjá as part of the Execution trail, stopping at various display boards within their award-winning interactive exhibition to learn about the history that took place there. 

Visitors can look upon Höggstokkseyri (“the bank of the execution block”), where decapitations took place in the name of the Icelandic law. 

A short while north, they will stumble across Brennugjá (“the Burning Canyon”) where those accused of sorcery were burned alive at the stake.

Volcanic activity has been dormant at Þingvellir for over two millennia, but there is no telling when it will start up again.     

Explore a strange underwater world at Silfra Fissure 

A snorkeller at Silfra Fissure in Iceland
Photo: Golden Circle & Snorkeling in Silfra Minibus Tour | Free Underwater Photos

Þingvellir is where snorkelers and scuba divers discover the glacial beauty of Silfra Fissure. 

Glacial water from neighbouring Langjökull—Iceland’s second largest glacier—fills this strange underwater canyon, allowing for visibility of up to 150 m. 

There is little fish life in the fissure itself—Brown Trout and Arctic Char prefer to spend time in the wide open waters of adjoining Þingvallavatn—but the deep shades of royal blue and dramatic rock walls more than make up for it.

A number of operators run tours at Silfra Fissure, using a nearby parking area to adorn their guests in the thick dry suits, fins, neoprene hoods and gloves, and a mask and snorkel. It would be insincere to claim that exploring here is not cold, but with the right protection and only forty minutes or so in the water, the experience is more than worth it. 

After all, how often does anyone get to swim between our planet’s tectonic plates? 

Officials of the national park describe Þingvellir as ‘the heart of Iceland’. Given all this location has seen, not mentioning the impact it has had on Iceland’s national identity, it is impossible to argue with such an assessment. 

Öxarárfoss Waterfall

The auroras over Öxarárfoss Waterfall
 Photo: Golli. Northern lights over Öxarárfoss Waterfall

At a diminutive 13 m [44 ft] high, Öxarárfoss waterfall cascades over Almannagjá gorge, and is considered a must-see spot in Þingvellir National Park. 

Unlike most waterfalls in Iceland, Öxarárfoss is actually man-made, the water having been channelled into Almannagjá many hundreds of years before.

According to legends, the waterfall was named after a mythic axe that was used to slaughter a female troll infamous for killing weary travellers passing through the area. 

Öxarárfoss’ pure glacial water falls into a rocky pool filled with different-sized boulders, creating picturesque plumes of mist. Depending on the season, the volume and flow rate can change dramatically, making it a worthwhile stop for repeat visitors.  

In the wintertime, the waterfall completely freezes over, offering beautiful photography opportunities of a rare anomaly in nature. 

Geysir Geothermal Area

A couple at geysir geothermal area
Photo: Golli. A couple watches Strokkur explode!

The Geysir geothermal area not only provides a fantastic spectacle for visitors, but it will always be known for having offered its name to all geysers across our planet. 

Today, the Great Geyser (as it is sometimes known) is considered rather dormant, with only infrequent eruptions. The last time Geysir blasted its geothermal water was in 2016, following a 16-year hiatus. 

However, earthquakes and other underground changes are known to precede it, so there can be no telling when it might explode once more.

Strokkur is the star attraction here thanks to its reliable eruptions. Guests wait at the roped-off border, well away from the exceedingly hot water, and wait for the eruption to occur. 

Thankfully, this never takes long. 

As if following a schedule, it blasts its liquid plume up to 20 m [66 ft] into the air every five to ten minutes, providing constant chances for dramatic photographs.

There are a number of less impressive, but no less interesting hot spots that dot the surrounding area. These include Litli Geysir and many other smaller hot pools and geysers. 

On June 17, 2020, the site was granted protected status by the Ministry for the Environment and Natural Resources. 

Gullfoss Waterfall  

Visitors at Gullfoss waterfall
 Photo: Golli. Gullfoss waterfall in the wintertime.

There are many splendid waterfalls in Iceland, but Gullfoss is something special. Situated on the Hvítá river canyon, this dramatic cascade is 32 m high in total, dropping over two craggy tiers. 

It has a variable, but powerful rate of flow. In the summer, 141 cubic m (5,000 cu ft) each second. In the winter, 80 cubic m (2,800 cu ft) each second. There was, for a long time, discussions about whether Gullfoss could be used to generate electricity. 

Having fun at Gullfoss waterfall
Photo: Golli. Taking a selfie at Gullfoss waterfall.

In the late 20th century, the waterfall’s owners, Halldór Halldórsson and Tómas Tómasson, rented the site to foreign investors who were ultimately unsuccessful in their efforts to transform it into a hydro-dam. Today, Gullfoss is a protected area and owned by the state.  

Given its iconic status, it should come as little surprise that Gullfoss has made itself known in pop culture. 

Fans of the UK band Echo and the Bunnymen might recognise it as the album cover of Porcupine, while avid watchers of the historical-drama show Vikings will know it as the final resting place of one of the story’s characters. 

How long does the Golden Circle route take?

If you’re hoping to speed through the Golden Circle, know that it can be done in three hours. 

Of course, this does not take into account that you should spend ample time at each of the main attractions. Dare we say… anyone who completes the Golden Circle in three hours is not truly appreciating the sites on offer. 

It is far better to allocate a full day to enjoying this splendid driving trail. That way, you can fully enjoy each attraction as it comes without feeling the pressure of having to rush on to fight lady time. 

What other attractions are on the Golden Circle route?

Kerið Crater
 Photo: Golli. Kerið Crater in Summer

Noone likes to rush through pleasurable activities, so you may be happy to know that there are a great number of stops you can take during the Golden Circle to break up your day. 

If you’re feeling a little sluggish, the Fontana Geothermal Baths are sure to make you feel fresh once more. Iceland’s geothermal baths are known to be rich in minerals, and Fontana is no different. Not only are they good for aching muscles, psoriasis, and promoting healthy skin, but they provide a dose of psychological well being. Who could resist such soothing waters during a full day of adventuring? 

Another lovely and interesting site is Kerið Crater, offering insights into the region’s volcanic history. Guests will walk around the crater’s edge, peering down its blood red slopes towards the gentle pool within. Note that there is a parking-fee in place, so only stop by if you’re willing to part with the cash. 

What cultural stops are on the Golden Circle?

Then there is the quaint hamlet of Skálholt. If history is to be believed, Skálholt is one of Iceland’s oldest villages, and was for eight centuries, a major religious centre in so much as it was a centre of Catholicism. 

Catholicism in Iceland came largely to an end when Jón Arason, the bishop of Hólar, was executed there with his two sons in 1550. Today, the town’s lakeside cathedral is one of the larger churches in Iceland. 

Speaking of populated settlements, there is one that differs greatly from any other in Iceland. Travellers interested in sustainability and alternative living will want to stop at Sólheimar eco-village. Home to around 100 or so people, community leaders have placed a particular focus on ethical agriculture, artistic expression, and balance with the environment.  

For those with some extra time, pay a visit to the steep canyon walls of Þjórsárdalur Valley, located along the river Þjórsá. This secluded gorge is home to Háifoss, one of the tallest waterfalls in Iceland, standing at 122 m (400 ft). 

An adjacent viewing area allows for a great perspective of this feature. On top of that, Búrfells woods is found closeby; a veritable Eden of wildflowers and cushiony moss. 

Is the Golden Circle route free? 

Cliffs on the Golden Circle route
Photo: Private Golden Circle Day Tour with Friðheimar Tomato Farm Lunch & Kerið Crater

Unfortunately no, sightseeing on the Golden Circle is not completely free of expenditure. For one thing, the route is popular among tour operators eager to drive you from site-to-site themselves. Naturally, this comes with a price-tag attached. 

Even those who drive themselves will have to shell out on gas money. And, in all likelihood, snacks en route. As we’ve mentioned, there are numerous other stops along the way that require a bit of cash to enjoy fully. 

With all this said, enjoying the Golden Circle is quite cheap compared to many of the other excursions. On top of that, it is somewhat mandatory, so thus should be ranked highly on your itinerary, however long you’re planning on staying. 

Where to eat on the Golden Circle sightseeing route? 

Friðheimar farm
Photo: Golden Circle — Platinum Tour | Small group. Visitors to Friðheimar farm.

Exploring Iceland’s favourite sightseeing locations can be hungry work. Thankfully, there are plenty of places you can stop to grab a bite to eat on the Golden Circle, making it something of a foodie tour, as well as a journey of discovery. 

The restaurant, Glíma, is located closeby to Geysir geothermal area, and is named after the ancient style of wrestling. 

Aside from the soup and salad bar, Glíma is a fantastic choice for those sampling classic Scandinavian dishes, be they fish or lamb based. There are also paninis, pizzas, sandwiches. And many other varieties of other light meals, as well as cakes and ice cream afterwards.  

A delicious meal served on the Golden Circle route
Photo: The Elite Golden Circle with lunch at farm & luxury hot sea baths

Another option is Friðheimar farm. It is a family-run establishment that centres around producing tomato-based meals from their very own greenhouses / dining area. And it is capable of growing fresh vegetables all year round. 

You can take time to explore these geothermally-fuelled facilities before sampling their rustic menu. Surrounded by lush plant life, try their classic tomato soup—a bonafide favourite among travellers! 

Restaurant Mika is located in the historic town of Reykholt. It specialises in creating delectable lobster dishes, oven-baked pizzas, and sweet desserts. Mika places real emphasis on chocolate confectionery, so make sure to sample some during your time there. 

To top off this list, the farm-to-table restaurant Hlöðuloftið – part of Efstidalur II farmstead – allows guests to eat stunning homemade dishes in simple, stylish surroundings. Sourcing vegetables from nearby farms, producing their own meat and dairy, they also create beautiful batches of ice cream. 

Conclusion 

Geysir geothermal area in Iceland
Photo: Golli. Guests at Geysir geothermal area in winter.

The Golden Circle is such a mainstay of the Iceland tourist experience, it’s defunct suggesting you need to prioritise it. 

You, dear reader, already know as much. 

So much has been said and written about the Golden Circle over the last decade. One could be forgiven for thinking that it has been overhyped. 

Coming to such a conclusion would be a major error. While it’s true that the Golden Circle is the definitive sightseeing trail in Iceland, it’s famous for good reason. Every site mentioned on this circuit is utterly enthralling and worthy of however much time one chooses to spend there. 

Make sure not to miss it during your time in Iceland. Heavily inspired by the Norse sagas, J.R.R Tolkien once wrote, all that glitters is not gold, but the Golden Circle dazzles in such a way that no other sightseeing route on Earth can quite compare. 

Golden Circle Driving Itinerary

Gullfoss waterfall Iceland

One of Iceland’s top-rated and most popular attractions is the Golden Circle. As the name implies, it is a journey that takes visitors on a circle from and to Reykjavík, stopping at three locations along the way. 

These three stops are Þingvellir National Park, Geysir geothermal area, and Gullfoss waterfall. Each location has its own wow factor, whether due to its rich history or captivating nature. 

The whole route is just over 230 km [145 mi], which can be driven in about 3.5 hours without stops. Needless to say, each location should be enjoyed and explored, taking in nature’s beauty, making it the perfect full-day trip from Reykjavík city. 

 

First Stop: Þingvellir National Park

The journey’s first stop is Þingvellir National Park, a captivating sight, rich in Icelandic history ranging beginning in the 10th century. 

The drive from Reykjavík’s centre to the National Park is about 45 km [28 mi], taking approximately one hour to drive. 

The National Park’s historical richness comes from the general assembly, or Alþingi, established there around 930, which continued to convene until 1798.

Þingvellir National Park is also an incredible natural sight, standing on the continental divide between North America and Eurasia. Therefore, the area is divided between the two continents, and visitors can easily walk between them. This divide is due to Iceland sitting on two tectonic plates, leading to a crack forming between the continents, creating a no-man’s land in a way not belonging to either continent. This crack formed Silfra fissure, a spectacular sight and a popular diving and snorkelling spot. 

 

How Much Time Do I Need at Þingvellir National Park?

In order to explore Þingvellir National Park’s main sights, 1 to 2 hours is recommended. That way, visitors can walk around, explore the fissure and the park and soak in its history. 

 

Second Stop: Geysir Geothermal Area

The second stop is the famous Geysir geothermal area. The drive from Þingvellir National Park to there is just over 45 km [28 mi], which also takes about one hour to drive. 

The famous Geysir belongs to the geothermal area, which is also the home to its more active counterpart, Strokkur. Strokkur usually erupts every 6 to 10 minutes, and its height can reach 40 metres. However, it usually goes up around 15 to 20 metres. 

The area’s erupting geysers and bubbling mud pots create an environment so unique it resembles another planet but is, in fact, just one of Iceland’s unparalleled locations. 

 

How Much Time Do I Need at Geysir Geothermal Area?

The geothermal area in itself is not very large, so walking around the main sights takes little time. However, as the geyser eruptions are a fascinating experience, visitors might want to stick around and see the hot water explosion a few times. Therefore, spending around one hour at the Geysir geothermal area is recommended.

Strokkur geysir erupting in the geysir geothermal area Iceland
Photo: Golli. Strokkur erupting

 

Third Stop: Gullfoss Waterfall

The journey’s last but certainly not least stop is the Gullfoss waterfall. The drive from Geysir geothermal area to Gullfoss is a short one as it is only 10 km [6 mi], which takes about 15 minutes. 

The waterfall cascades down two tiers, where its upper waterfall has a drop of 11 metres [36 ft] and the lower one 21 metres [69 ft]. Gullfoss derives from Hvítá river and plunges into a deep canyon. The waterfall’s name means golden waterfall, describing the golden-toned mist that can often be seen glazing over the water. 

From the car park, a short path leads visitors to a viewing platform, allowing them to enjoy the view over the breathtaking waterfall. The glory of Iceland’s second-largest glacier, Langjökull, can also be enjoyed from the viewing point. 

 

How Much Time Do I Need at Gullfoss Waterfall?

To enjoy the breathtaking views of Gullfoss waterfall, factor in about 30 minutes up to one hour. 

Gullfoss waterfall in the Golden Circle by summer
Photo: Golli – Gullfoss waterfall

 

Other Golden Circle Activities

Besides the three main Golden Circle stops, many attractions and activities are around.

Laugarvatn Fontana and the Secret Lagoon offer a spa-like experience for visitors to enjoy Iceland’s warm, geothermally heated water. Laugarvatn Fontana is located by Laugarvatn lake where visitors can also jump into the cold water before enjoying a warm sauna. The Secret Lagoon is located in Flúðir village and is Iceland’s oldest swimming pool. Either lagoon is perfect to include in the itinerary, possibly at the journey’s end, before heading back to Reykjavík.

 

Skálholt is a historical place in Iceland, a former school, monastery, cathedral and dormitory for over 700 years. Today, it serves as a Lutheran church and an education and information centre for the Church of Iceland.

 

Kerið is a stunning volcanic crater lake and is truly a hidden gem. The crater is one of Iceland’s youngest volcanic craters, only 6.500 years old, formed by a collapsed volcano. 

Kerið Crater seen from above
Photo: Golli. Kerið Crater

 

Where to Eat When Driving the Golden Circle

When driving the Golden Circle, there are many spots to enjoy a good meal along the way. 

Geysir Restaurant is located in Geysir geothermal area in Hotel Geysir. The hotel and the restaurant were designed to blend the building into the environment by using materials reflecting the surrounding nature. The restaurant offers a wide variety of dishes, ranging from lighter dishes to Icelandic seafood and international dishes with ingredients sourced directly from regional farmers.

 

Located in the Bláskógabyggð region is Friðheimar, a restaurant and tomato farm. Friðheimar is a family-run business that grows delicious tomatoes year-round and serves guests tomato soup with freshly baked bread. Stopping at Friðheimar would be convenient after visiting Þingvellir before heading to Geysir.

 

Efstidalur is a farm, cafe and restaurant offering a variety of products straight from the farm, such as ice cream, skyr and feta cheese. The restaurant also offers beef from the farm and other local food. Eftidalur is conveniently located on the way from Þingvellir to Geysir, making it a perfect stop on the way.

 

Farmers Bistro is located in Flúðir village and is Iceland’s only mushroom farm. It also encompasses a restaurant serving food made from ingredients grown on the farm. The restaurant is located by the Secret Lagoon, so visitors can conveniently combine the two at the journey’s end before heading back to Reykjavík.

 

How Long Does the Golden Circle Take?

Driving the Golden Circle takes about 3.5 hours in total, without stops. Therefore, including stops at each location, visitors should factor in at least 6 to 7 hours to get the full experience. More time should be factored in if other activities are added to the tour, such as visiting the Secret Lagoon or others.

 

Can I drive the Golden Circle on My Own?

Yes, travellers can undoubtedly do the Golden Circle route in their own car. It should always be kept in mind that driving conditions can vary depending on time of year and weather, so driving with caution is essential. 

However, many Golden Circle tours are offered where visitors can enjoy the convenience of experienced guides and a driver, taking the group to the main attractions. Many tours combine other activities, such as snorkelling in Silfra fissure, visiting Friðheimar tomato farm, entering the Blue Lagoon or others. 

Available Golden Circle tours can be seen here.  

A Guide to Iceland’s Most Popular Waterfalls

dynjandi waterfall in iceland

Skógafoss Waterfall

This 60-metre [200 ft] waterfall is immersed in legend. The tallest waterfall in Iceland, Skógafoss is fed by two glaciers. Its icy waters plummet down to a pool below, where visitors can walk close to the falls, likely getting drenched in the process. 

The waterfall itself can be seen from two different viewpoints: at its base and from above. Visitors can climb a metal staircase to reach the top of the falls, where they are often greeted by the song of birds and a carpet of luscious greenery. A double rainbow typically accompanies this view, a result of the sunlight striking the water. 

skógafoss waterfall in south iceland

The legend surrounding Skógafoss details how the viking Þrasi Þórólfsson buried a chest full of treasures behind the falls:

“The chest of Þrasi is filled with treasures, 

located beneath Skógafoss waterfall,

the first man who goes there will find great richness.” 

Years later, three men set out to find this chest. They were successful. Yet upon trying to remove it from its watery hiding place, one of the golden rings, which served as a handle, broke off and plunged the chest deep beneath the waterfall, never to be found again. Travellers can find this infamous golden ring at the Skógar Museum. 

Traveling to Skógafoss

Located in the South of Iceland, Skógafoss is an ideal destination for anyone travelling on the Ring Road. Only a two-hour drive from Reykjavik, visitors who choose to drive to this destination can take advantage of free parking and the nearby campsite in the village of Skógar. Skógafoss is also accessible by bus line 51. 

Activities Near Skógafoss

Adventure enthusiasts who are eager to savour the natural beauty of their surroundings can hike in the area. A hiking trail can be found at the top of Skógafoss. It leads to the Fimmvörðuháls Trailhead, which many consider to be one of the best hikes in Iceland. This challenging trail spans 24.5 km [15.2 mi] with a 1300 metre [4265 ft] ascent and typically takes seven to twelve hours to complete.

For those who prefer a less strenuous activity, the Skógar museum is close to a five-minute drive from Skógafoss. The museum was opened in 1949 and is located beside a school building from 1901, an old magistrate’s house, a farmhouse, and a turf storehouse. Visitors can find national costumes, a tapestry, other artifacts, and the golden ring from the legend inside the museum. 

 

Dettifoss Waterfall

Dettifoss, a waterfall which boasts of nature’s strength, is known by many as “the beast”. The most powerful waterfall in all of Europe, this natural wonder is a spectacular vision.  Fed by the largest glacier in Iceland, Vatnajokull, Dettifoss is 100 metres [328 ft] wide with a 44 metre [144 ft] drop. Some say by placing one’s hand on top of nearby rocks, you can feel the power of Dettifoss reverberate through the landscape. 

Dettifoss offers two different vantage points. The upper view is accessible via a path along the river, where travellers may experience a chilling spray from the waterfall. For the lower viewpoint, visitors can embark on a steep downhill walk, which is also likely to result in being drenched in the waterfall’s mist.

dettifoss waterfall in north iceland

Travelling to Dettifoss 

Located in Vatnajökull National Park in Iceland’s northeast, this waterfall is a seven-hour drive from Reykjavik. However, it is only a 35-minute drive off of the Ring Road. Travellers can access Dettifoss from either the east or west side. Road 864 will take travellers to the west side of the waterfall, while Road 862 will lead to the east. There is free parking on both the east and west sides of Dettifoss. Some travellers may also prefer discovering Dettifoss from the comfort of a guided tour.

Activities Near Dettifoss

Dettifoss is not the only waterfall in the area. Explorers can hike a rocky 1 km [0.62 mi] trail to Selfoss. This waterfall is found in Jökulsárgljúfur canyon and is 100 [328 ft] metres wide. Often dwarfed by the magnificence of its neighbour, Dettifoss, Selfoss is worth the 30-minute trek. Travellers are often mesmerised by its horseshoe-like shape and the gentle spray of mist which compliments the Icelandic landscape. The Mývatn nature baths are also nearby, making a great stop on a tour of the area.

Hafragilsfoss waterfall is located downstream from Dettifoss and is only a five-minute drive north. Hafragilsfoss is fed by the same glacier as Dettifoss and stands at 27 metres [89 ft]. Nestled within rocky terrain, this waterfall can be viewed from the east or west. 

 

Gullfoss Waterfall

A popular Hollywood destination, Gullfoss waterfall has made an appearance in a myriad of films. Will Ferrell’s Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga, Lost in Space, Vikings, and Twice Upon a Time, have all taken advantage of the stunning landscape and thundering falls. 

Called the Golden Falls, Gullfoss lives up to its name. Rather than a single cascade, this waterfall flows over two rocky plateaus, carrying water from the Langjokull glacier to the pool below. In the summer months, the sunlight shines upon Gullfoss, causing the water to take on a spectacular golden hue. 

To travellers who are visiting Gullfoss in the winter months, it is prudent to take caution as the terrain can often by icy and slippery and requires caution when exploring. 

gullfoss waterfall golden circle
Golli – Gullfoss Waterfall

Travelling to Gullfoss 

The Gullfoss waterfall is in Iceland’s southwest in Haukadalur valley. It is a popular stop for those who are travelling along the Golden Circle. It can be reached from Reykjavik in only two hours by car. There is a visitor center and parking lot near Gullfoss and parking is free.  There are no city buses available from Reykjavik to Gullfoss, but many guided tours are available. 

Activities Near Gullfoss

Gullfoss Café is located next to the main parking lot where customers can purchase tasty delicacies. A nearby shop is also available, selling Icelandic souvenirs. 

Gullfoss also has a couple different walking paths that visitors can travel for a truly immersive experience. Different views of the waterfall and canyon are available, mostly looking from the waterfall above as it tumbles into the canyon below. A truly breathtaking view.  

Check out even more ways to see the Golden Circle.

 

Dynjandi Waterfall

For travellers with an inclination for waterfalls, Dynjandi is the place to be. Known as the “jewel of the Westfjords”, Dynjandi shimmers amidst the landscape. It stands at 100 metres [328 ft] tall with a width of 60 metres [197 ft]. However, it is not the only waterfall nearby. Rather, Dynjandi is one of seven other waterfalls in the area. In order to access Dynjandi, travellers must hike past these six other waterfalls. They are called: Strompgljúfrafoss, Göngumannafoss, Hrísvaðsfoss, Kvíslarfoss, Hundafoss and Bæjarfoss. However, most agree that Dynjandi, which has often been equated to a bridal veil, is the most spectacular in the area. 

dynjandi waterfall westfjords
Berglind – Dynjandi Waterfall

Travelling to Dynjandi 

A six-hour drive away from the nation’s capital, Dynjandi is not easily accessible from Reykjavik. This means the waterfall is not often crowded by tourist and is worth the trek for travellers who wish to avoid large crowds. For those travelling by car, there is free parking. 

It is also possible to reach the waterfall from the comfort of an organised tour. 

Activities Near Dynjandi 

In order to reach Dynjandi waterfall, travellers must make a fifteen-minute hike uphill on a well-maintained pathway. This hike is steep and may not be accessible to everybody. This journey will take travellers past six other smaller waterfalls along the path and serves to be a quick but beautiful hike. 

 

Gullfoss Footpath Closed Tomorrow Due to Icy Conditions

Owing to ongoing frost by the waterfall Gullfoss in Southwest Iceland, rangers from the Environment Agency of Iceland have taken measures to make footpaths in the area safer. Not all precautions have proven effective, however; incessant spray has rendered the gravel footpath leading to the waterfall extremely slippery. To ensure the safety of visitors, the footpath will be closed tomorrow (23rd of October).

Other footpaths in the area have been sanded and will remain open. The frost is expected to continue throughout the week. The footpath will open again later this fall if weather conditions improve.

Rangers have also put up signs recommending the use of crampons by Gullfoss and Geysir.

Lost in Space to Film in Iceland

Netflix series Lost in Space has received the green light from the Environment Agency of Iceland to film at Skógafoss and Dyrhólaey in South Iceland, RÚV reports. Around 100 people will be involved in the filming, which is to take place over several days at the locations.

Skógafoss waterfall is one of the most visited sites in South Iceland. The Environment Agency placed the fall on a list of sites in danger last year due to the impact of increased tourism. Filming at the location will take two days. The crew was granted permission to build a 20m2 platform over the river which will be secured with legs dug into the gravel. The application states it will be necessary to restrict access to the waterfall while filming is underway. In response to this, the Evironment Agency has asked the crew to limit the time of filming in consideration of visitors, most of whom only visit the fall once in their lifetime.

The crew also received permission for filming on the beach east of Dyrhólaey, another popular tourist site on Iceland’s south coast. The Environment Agency granted the project permission for off-road driving in order to transport equipment to the site, as well as digging three to five holes on the beach where electric smoke machines will be placed. The Environment Agency pointed out to the production team that the project may encourage other visitors to the area to engage in off-road driving. The location is a popular tourist site and therefore it is important to clarify the area is closed to all other off-road driving.

Gullfoss waterfall is the third and final shooting location for the project. Located on the popular Golden Circle route, the fall will be filmed from the lower platform using a drone. The show’s second season can expect high viewership – 6.3 million viewers tuned into the first season during the first three days of its release, according to Variety.