All About The Snæfellsnes Peninsula

Kirkjufell mountain on the Snæfellsnes Peninsula

The Snæfellsnes Peninsula is one of Iceland’s most beloved regions, capturing so much of what makes this Nordic island special. But what sites, tours, and attractions can be found here? 

Located between the cultural hub that is the Capital Region and the wild, sparsely populated Westfjords, the Snæfellsnes Peninsula is considered by many to be a microcosm of the whole country.

Nicknamed “Iceland in Miniature,” visitors can expect to discover a treasure trove of natural sights, including moss-laden lava fields, epic mountain ranges, and scenic black coastlines. The region can be visited in both the winter and summer, with each season transforming the unique aesthetic of the natural landscape.

For those with only a short time to spend in the country, it could very well be argued that this often-overlooked area boasts the very best that Iceland has to offer.

A Brief History of the Snæfellsnes Peninsula

Side-stepping its incredible nature for a moment, the peninsula is enriched by a deep cultural history. Aside from its ties to the nation’s fishing industry, Snæfellsnes and its nearby localities have been the setting for many known Icelandic sagas, such as the poetic masterpiece that is Laxdœla saga.

However, it is Bárðar Saga Snæfellsáss (The Saga of Bárður) that remains, perhaps, most significant to the region. The earliest manuscript dates back to the 15th century and tells of the earliest settlers who called this hostile, yet enchanting land home.

This epic mediaeval tale follows the half-giant and guardian spirit, Bárður, in his quest to protect the Snæfellsnes Peninsula. All the while, he struggles with family betrayal, despotic kings, and unruly natural events. Like the majority of Icelandic sagas, it is a story of epic proportions, where the morality of its characters are as grey as a typical winter sky.

A statue of Bárður can be found in the small town of Arnstapi. Today, the spirit of this iconic Icelandic character not only watches over the sparsely populated hamlets that dot Snæfellsnes, but also the millions of travellers who venture through every year to discover its many highlights.

Exploring Snæfellsjökull National Park 

Snæfellsjökull National Park
Photo: Golli. Snæfellsjökull National Park

The Snæfellsnes Peninsula has had a larger influence on culture than merely acting as the stage of Icelandic sagas.

For instance, avid readers will know of Jules Verne’s classic science-fiction novel, Journey to the Centre of the Earth. Within its pages, the Snæfellsjökull ice cap plays a major role, serving as the gateway to our planet’s molten underbelly,

Verne clearly had an eye for memorable locations – places forever destined to leave their mark on global culture – for today, the glacier acts as the shining crown of its own national park.

The glacier sits cloaked like a pearlescent hood atop a silent stratovolcano. This once volatile titan of volcanic energy last erupted just short of two thousand years ago. But the impact of its violent past is clear throughout the entire peninsula, be it in its lava fields or troll-like basalt sea stacks.

Established in 2001, Snæfellsjökull National Park stands as one of Iceland’s three national parks, alongside the UNESCO Heritage sites Þingvellir National Park and Vatnajökull National Park.

Covering 170 sq km [66 sq mi,] guests are advised to stop by the welcoming and informative Visitor’s Centre at Malarrif. Here, they can acquire the lowdown on the best hiking trails in the area, as well as learn more about the history of the region. Travellers should note that there is no entrance fee to explore this park, making it an excellent choice for budget-conscious visitors.

What is there to see on the Snæfellsnes Peninsula?

There are so many sites of interest found on the Snæfellsnes Peninsula that a total breakdown of every location is, frankly, unfeasible. Every bend in the road, each trail, and every scenic hike promises sights, sounds, and experiences beyond description.

However, there are notable sites that this article would be remiss not to mention. So, in somewhat of a tribute to Iceland’s earliest settlers, let us begin as they did… by arriving from the ocean.

Beautiful Beaches on the Snæfellsnes Peninsula

djúpalónssandur black sand beach
Photo: Golli. Guests enjoying Djúpalónssandur black sand beach

As is true across the island, volcanic coastlines are a mainstay of Snæfellsnes. Their dark glass pebbles are a direct result of immense glacial floods that have, over the millennia, defined the entire peninsula.

Black sand beaches like Djupalonssandur – found at the base of Snæfellsjökull glacier, far on the western edge of Iceland’s left arm – offer exquisite ocean views. There are also many fascinating geological formations created by lava flows that dominated the area in previous centuries.

But it’s not just the consequences of the volcano that are worthy of a mention. At Djupalonssandur, visitors can test their mettle by way of the Lifting Stones. Divided by their size, these four enormous rocks were used to test the strength of local sailors seeking work as fishermen. Only those capable of raising them were offered employment.

If feats of physical strength are of little interest to you, the tranquillity of the nearby Djúpulón and Djúpudalslón tidal lagoons offer a serene way to spend your time. Adjacent hiking trails offer the opportunity to see incredible basalt sea stacks and the mighty rock-arch, Gatklettur.

To the north of Djupalonssandur, the beachside, Skarðsvík, offers something that is rarely seen in Iceland – yellow sand! While the waves on this shoreline are known for being quite temperamental, forcing observers to keep their distance, it is amazing to see a place so reminiscent of the Mediterranean during your Iceland vacation.

Volcanic sites on the Snæfellsnes Peninsula

Vatnshellir Cave Tour in West Iceland
Photo: Vatnshellir Cave Tour.

As mentioned, the jewel of the cape, Snæfellsjökull, serves as the centre-point of its own national park and is the namesake of the region itself. Knowing the peninsula’s volcanic origins is a great start when seeking out other areas defined by the lava.

One such location where you can gain insight into Snæfellsnes’ volcanic history is at Eldborg crater, “the fortress of fire,” far on the eastern side of the peninsula. Stood at 60 m [18 ft] over the black, tufty hills surrounding lava fields, this symmetrical spatter cone was active between 5000-6000 years ago. Reaching the crater takes approximately 1.5 hours, requiring a scenic, but somewhat challenging 2.5 km [1.6 mi] hike.

Heading west, guests can make a stop at the colourful lava cave, Vatnshellir. Formed by an eruption 8000 years before, this hollow tunnel is one of the oldest in Iceland and is rich in vibrant minerals.

At 200 m [656 ft] long, it is only possible to visit the cave by way of a guided tour. Your guide will provide you with all of the necessary equipment, such as crampons and helmets, and be sure to offer educational tidbits about geology as you adventure through the cave.

There are many other sites that offer similar insights into the region’s volcanic past. These include the likes of Berserkjahraun lava field and the Saxhóll Crater, which acts as a more accessible alternative to Eldborg.

Wildlife on the Snæfellsnes Peninsula

A mother Sei Whale and it's calf.
Sei whale mother and calf. By Christin Khan.

Regarding the animals that call the Snæfellsnes Peninsula home, the most visible resident would be its seabirds.

Species include guillemots, razorbacks, gulls, and kittiwakes, many of which can be spotted nesting among the sea stacks dotting the coastline. The towering Lóndrangar is a particularly good site for birdwatchers.

There are many songbirds in the area too, namely whimbrels, golden plovers, wheatears, and meadow pipits. While hiking, it is a common occurrence to hear these gentle creatures in full song, adding to the often paradisiacal ambience that characterises Snæfellsnes in the summer.

Aside from these, other typical birds include ravens, ptarmigans, and white wagtails, not to mention the many migratory species that arrive to the peninsula during the summer months.

What other animals can be found in Snæfellsnes?

But, for many travellers, birds are of only a trifling interest. When it comes to mandatory stops, wildlife lovers will want to stop for a little seal-watching at Ytri-Tunga beach, which is named after a nearby farmstead. The most common species that lounge on the shoreline here are Grey Seals and Harbour Seals, though many others come by to pay a visit.

Spotted seals in Iceland
Photo: Golli. Spotted seals lounging by the coastline.

Despite the permeating myths about Iceland being a habitat of theirs, Walruses are not native. Still, they have turned up from time to time, sparking a novel wave of local interest when they do. With that said, there are theories that the peninsula was once home to a large colony of Walruses. The sheer number of bones and skulls discovered there certainly says as much

In point of fact, a chess set made out of carved Walrus bones was discovered in Snæfellsnes several years ago, breathing further life into this hotly contested debate.

Still, it is wise not to expect Walruses at Ytri-Tunga today. Regardless, it is important to respect the local wildlife species that call the beach home. Seal watchers would do well to ensure they provide the animals with enough space so as not to frighten them, but even at a distance, these wonderful creatures make for brilliant photography subjects.

Speaking of Iceland’s mammals, both mink and Arctic Foxes live on the Snæfellsnes Peninsula, though they are rarely spotted. While such animals are notoriously shy – not to mention, wily – it is worthwhile to keep an eye out while driving or hiking. The shock that comes with noticing the whipping movement of a furry creature in Iceland is sure to make anyone’s day.

arctic fox Iceland
Photo: Golli. An Arctic Fox on Snæfellsnes

Whale watching on the Snæfellsnes Peninsula

Finally, it is not at all uncommon to see whale and dolphin species off the coast of Snæfellsnes. Minkes, humpbacks, and even killer whales are sometimes spotted not far from the shoreline. As if this region is not spectacular enough, the sight of these majestic ocean giants breaching the water is sure to remain with visitors for years to come.

Those eager to see Snæfellsnes’ cetaceans can maximise their chance by taking whale-watching tours from towns like Olafsvik, Grundarfjörður, or Stykkisholmur. Of course, wildlife sightings can never be guaranteed, but operators across Iceland have a fantastic track record for reliably locating and observing these creatures in their natural habitat.

Mountains on the Snæfellsnes Peninsula

A mountain on the Snaefellsnes Peninsula
Photo: SBS. The mountains of the Snaefellsnes Peninsula

Guests to Snæfellsnes will, no doubt, be in awe of the often mist-shrouded mountain range that carves its way down the centre of the peninsula. While worthy of appreciation in their entirety, there are a couple of mountains that are worth a greater focus.

Kirkjufell is among the most iconic mountains on the Snæfellsnes Peninsula. Translated to ‘Church Mountain,’ this beautiful feature towers above the local town of Grundarfjörður at a height of 463 m. Its steep grassy slopes and sharp peak have helped Kirkjufell become an instantly recognisable symbol of Iceland over the last few years thanks to its wide appearances in countless tourism campaigns.

Fans of the fantasy series, Game of Thrones, will likely recognise Kirkjufell as the “Mountain like an arrowhead,” a filming location from seasons 6 and 7. While the show portrayed this titan of the landscape as fairly foreboding, it is in equal parts beautiful. There is also a pleasant waterfall on-site, Kirkjufellfoss, that makes for a perfect foreground subject when photographing the mountain.

Another mountain of interest is Helgafell, though it lacks the fame associated with Kirkjufell. Here, an ancient temple dedicated to the Norse God of Thunder, Thor, was erected by the area’s first settler, Þórólfr Mostrarskegg. While the temple no longer stands, a historic church, built in 1907, has replaced it as the mountain’s spiritual centrepiece.

Due to these reasons, Helgafell is considered a sacred place by many Icelanders. This is especially true considering the superstition that anyone who climbs to its peak will be granted three wishes. At only 73 metres high, the hike only takes around ten minutes, so don’t miss this opportunity to have your dreams fulfilled.

Other Cultural Sites on the Snæfellsnes Peninsula

A black church in West Iceland.
Photo: Richard Gould. CC. Wikimedia. Búðakirkja black church in West Iceland.

Many of the towns and villages on the Snæfellsnes Peninsula are quaint in and of themselves. But given the exquisite beauty of the surrounding nature, visitors should prioritise these sites instead of anywhere overtly urban.

The lonely black church, Búðakirkja, is the most prominent landmark in the tiny hamlet of Budir. It sits atop the Búðahraun lava field. It has become something of an unlikely visitor’s attraction on the peninsula, particularly among photographers eager to capture its dark steeple and gothic aesthetic.

This 1987 version is the second incarnation of Búðakirkja.  The first was been constructed in 1703, though visitors can still see the original bell and chalice on display.

Flatey Island can be visited from the Snæfellsnes Peninsula
Photo: Golli. Flatey island in Breiðafjörður fjord, West Iceland

There are a handful of other villages worthy of passing through during your time in Snæfellsnes. Often charming in their old-timey simplicity, these include settlements such as Ólafsvík, Hellissandur, and Stykkishólmur.

Speaking of Stykkishólmur, this town is home to a dock that operates the ferry, Baldur. It makes daily trips across the vast bay of Breiðafjörður between Snæfellsnes and the Westfjords.

En route, the ferry will stop at the small island of Flatey. This isle presents a gentle slice of Icelandic life rarely seen in modern times. While most visitors would only spend a few hours here, overnight stays are possible at Flatey’s single hotel.

Waterfalls on the Snaefellsnes Peninsula 

A waterfall in West Iceland
Photo: SBS. Snæfellsnes has many beautiful waterfalls, like Kirkjufellsfoss.

Having mentioned Kirkjufellsfoss, it would be a shame not to be aware of the other beautiful waterfalls in this region.

One of the lesser-known falls is Svöðufoss. It will require a half-hour hike from the parking lot to arrive at this stunning feature. Rauðfeldsgjá Canyon, another dramatic location, is found nearby. So, why not enhance your visit by pairing these two natural attractions together?

Closeby to Olafsvik town, the thin outpouring of glacier water that is Bjarnarfoss is also a worthwhile stop. At 80 m [262 ft] high, Bjarnarfoss is among Snæfellsnes’ more impressive waterfalls. This is thanks to its distinctive tiers and basaltic columns. Powerful gusts are capable of blowing its narrow stream upwards over the lip of the falls, creating surreal visuals.

Like Kirjufellsfoss, Kvernárfoss and Grundarfoss waterfalls can be found just outside of Grundarfjörður. Locals claim that a sizable elf population lives beside these stunning cascades. But that can neither be confirmed or denied by us. Either way, both sites are popular stops on horse-riding tours. And visiting is sure to add further depth to your time on the peninsula.

How to get to the Snæfellsnes Peninsula?

carbon neutral Iceland 2040
Phot: Golli. Travellers heading into Snæfellsjökull National Park

There are a number of options when it comes to visiting the Snæfellsnes Peninsula. First off, there are many guided tours that will take you there directly. One example is this small-group tour with a home-cooked meal at a local horse farm.

However, those looking for a more intimate experience might instead opt for a private tour of the region. Otherwise, Snæfellsnes is included as part of multi-day tours around the country.

However, independent travellers will want to venture there on their fruition. Driving from Reykjavík will take approximately two hours. This makes it a viable destination for those with only limited time in Iceland.

The directions are simple enough to follow. Head north on Route 1 until the town of Borgarnes. At this point, signposts will easily lead drivers towards Road 54 (Snaefellsnesvegur). It is this route that will take them the full circumference of the peninsula.

One should expect circling the coastline to take five hours considering the many stops along the way. With this in mind, it is important to allocate at least one day to explore the region.

Those looking to explore at a more leisurely pace should take two days. You can even plan to stay overnight at a local hotel, cabin, or rentable farmstead.

In Summary 

Gatklettur rock arch in West Iceland
Photo: Private Tour – Snaefellsnes Peninsula. Gatklettur rock arch.

The Snæfellsnes Peninsula is in close proximity to Reykjavík. So, anyone with more than a few days in Iceland should make time to discover this fantastical region for themselves.

It offers sights and experiences that perfectly characterise the rest of the country. It is quite possible to get a taste of the area in a single day. For these reasons and many more, make sure to prioritise the Snæfellsnes Peninsula as part of your itinerary.

Check out the below map to see the entire route for yourself.

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. 

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. 

Up to 80% of Flocks Could Be Scrapie-Free in Next Five Years

icelandic sheep réttir

The ARR gene, associated with scrapie resistance, was recently discovered in sheep in West Iceland, igniting optimism for breeding scrapie-resistant herds. Experts estimate that with strategic breeding, up to 80% of sheep herds could possess the protective gene within four to five years.

A landmark discovery

In early 2022, researchers discovered several sheep from an East Iceland farm that carried the scrapie-resistant gene ARR. This was the first time the genotype had been found in Iceland, and genetic researchers recognised that the discovery could prove pivotal to winning the fight against the disease, which has plagued Icelandic farms for over a century.

As noted in an article in IR magazine, scrapie is not transmitted through bacteria or viruses but is believed to originate from a prion protein, which leads to a deadly, progressive disease that deteriorates the nervous system of the affected animals. Unlike bacteria and viruses, prions present a unique challenge, being almost indestructible. Before the discovery of the ARR gene, when the disease was diagnosed in a sheep, veterinarians would need to cull the entire herd – and sometimes even sheep from surrounding farms, as well.

As reported by RÚV yesterday, the ARR gene has now also been unexpectedly discovered in sheep in West Iceland, more specifically in Vífilsdalur in Dalasýsla. Further investigations of related livestock in the region revealed its presence on three additional farms: Háafell, Geirshlíð, and Sauðafell.

80% resistance over next four or five years

Speaking to RÚV, Eyþór Einarsson, a sheep farming consultant at the Icelandic Agricultural Advisory Centre, suggested that the unexpected discovery of the gene gave reason for increased optimism in breeding scrapie-resistant sheep.

Eyþór noted that several farmers are now in the position to exclusively breed lambs that possess the protective, or potentially protective gene, ensuring that all lambs surviving the winter would carry the gene. He estimated, therefore, that these farmers could breed up to 80% of their herds with the protective gene within the next four to five years.

Eyþór added that with the gene being identified in this unrelated livestock — that is, in West Iceland — the process could be significantly accelerated. The unexpected discovery of the gene in the region raises hopes that it could be found more widely across the country; he encourages farmers to continue diligently sampling.

Eyþór also mentioned that a certain diversity was beginning to emerge in the stock carrying the gene. In addition to the two coloured rams previously identified, several yellowish ewes, both horned and polled, have now been added. This discovery should make it relatively easy to breed a colourful and diverse stock within a few years.

Iceland Weather: Storms, Road Closures, and Avalanche Risk

winter tires reykjavík

Iceland’s Ring Road (Route 1) is currently closed over Öxnadalsheiði heath, between Akureyri and Reykjavík, due to weather. Yellow weather warnings have also been issued across much of the country today due to strong winds. The Icelandic Met Office declared an “uncertainty phase” in the East Fjords this morning due to the risk of avalanches.

Seyðisfjörður alavanche risk

There was heavy precipitation in Seyðisfjörður last night, with continuing precipitation at higher elevations and a strong E-ENE wind in the mountains, according to a notice from the Icelandic Met Office. Precipitation should slow throughout the day, and the wind speed is expected to slow and change direction to a northerly. Experts are monitoring conditions closely.

Strong winds and blowing snow

Gale-force winds are expected today across much of Iceland, including the Westfjords, West, North, East, and Southeast. Wind speeds in these areas could reach speeds of 20 metres per second. Blowing snow is in the forecast for most of these regions as well. Poor driving conditions can be expected as a result of weather, as well as traffic disruptions and road closures.

Travellers and affected residents are encouraged to monitor weather and road conditions before setting out.

Three New Rescue Ships for ICE-SAR

Jóhannes Briem ICE-SAR ship search and rescue

Three new rescue ships have been added to Iceland’s Search and Rescue organisation ICE-SAR’s fleet recently, including the Jóhannes Briem. The latter ship’s home port is Reykjavík, where it was handed over to ICE-SAR team Ársæll on Saturday. ICE-SAR is working on renewing its fleet to improve accident prevention and response across Iceland.

Jóhannes Briem was built in Finland at the Kewatec shipyards. It has a cruising speed of up to 30 nautical miles and is powered by two powerful Scania diesel engines and worm drives. It contains state-of-the-art equipment including a thermal camera and side-scan sonar, as well as having better crew equipment than the association’s older ships.

Jóhannes Briem is the third ship of its kind acquired by ICE-SAR recently, with the other two going to search and rescue teams in Flateyri, in the Westfjords and Húsavík, North Iceland.

At Jóhannes Briem’s handover, ICE-SAR announced it had already ordered a fourth ship, which is to be based in Snæfellsnes, West Iceland.

Rare Bird Flu Detected in Eagle and Eider Duck

White-tailed Eagle Haförn Hafernir

A white-tailed eagle and an eider duck found dead in Iceland in September both tested positive for a severe strain of bird flu that has never been detected in Iceland before. The risk of infection for poultry and other other birds in captivity is low, according to the Food and Veterinary Authority.

Samples taken from a white-tailed eagle found dead on a skerry near Barðaströnd in the Westfjords in mid-September tested positive for a severe bird flu virus of the strain HPAI H4N5. An eider duck that was found dead in Ólafsfjörður, West Iceland recently was infected with the same strain of bird flu virus. The strain has not been detected in Iceland before and is not common.

Spread of bird flu low

The samples were studied at the University of Iceland’s Keldur Institute for Experimental Pathology. The results underline the importance of ensuring good infection prevention when dealing with poultry and other birds in captivity. Based on the data available at this point in time, however, it can be assumed that the spread of avian influenza viruses is low in Iceland and the risk of infection for poultry and other birds in captivity is therefore low.

Sequencing may determine origin

Few reports of sick or dead wild birds have been received by the Food and Veterinary Authority (MAST) since spring, after reports of widespread bird deaths among kittiwakes, puffins, and other seabirds subsided. Sample tested by MAST ruled out bird flu as the cause of those deaths.

As of July, only five samples have been taken from wild birds. Three of them tested negative for bird flu, while the two mentioned above tested positive. Researchers are hoping to sequence the samples of the viruses in order to determine whether the new strain arrived from Europe or from migratory birds arriving in late summer from nesting sites in the western Atlantic. HPAI H5N5 has been detected in only four samples in Europe recently, all from wild birds in Norway and Sweden, and in a few samples from wild birds, red foxes, and skunks in eastern Canada.

 

The Food and Veterinary Authority (MAST) reminds the public that reporting sick and dead wild birds is a key element in monitoring the presence and spread of bird flu.

Unusually Dry Summer in West and Southeast Iceland

Stykkishólmur - Stykkishólmshöfn - Breiðafjörður - Snæfellsnes

Rivers and streams have been shrinking and even drying up entirely following several weeks with little to no rainfall in Iceland. In Stykkishólmur, West Iceland, where measurements stretch back to 1857, last July was the second-driest one on record. In West and Southwest Iceland, rainfall has been less than 10% of the average for July and early August, according to Meteorologist Einar Sveinbjörnsson.

“Around July 20 it caught my attention that for example east of Lómagnúpur mountain [in Southeast Iceland] there were already numerous dry streambeds,” Einar wrote yesterday on his Facebook page, where he maintains a weather blog. “It was impossible to find usable drinking water. That was about four weeks ago. Since then, there has been almost no rain in that area.”

While Iceland experienced a rather wet spring, the weather shifted in July across most of the country, with Stykkishólmur reporting just 4.7 mm of rainfall that month and only 0.5 mm since. In Höfn, Southeast Iceland, rainfall measured 11.6 mm, a record low (although notably, the town’s records do not go as far back as those in Stykkishólmur).

Einar observes that the dry spell has affected water levels in many rivers across the country, even glacial rivers fed by meltwater during the summer. Norðurá river at Stekkur and Fossá river in Breiðafjörður measure at just 1% of their average flow rates for this time of year.

According to Einar, the North Atlantic fronts that usually unload their rain over Iceland have instead moved over the British Isles and Northern Europe, where weather has been unseasonably wet. Ireland has been experiencing record rainfall and downpours have caused floods in Norway and elsewhere.

Protest Job Loss Due to Whaling Ban

Páll Stefánsson. Whaling in Iceland, 2010

Local councils in West Iceland are urging the Minister of Fisheries to lift the ban on whaling implemented just one day before the season was set to begin. The last-minute decision has left some 200 employees of whaling company Hvalur hf. unexpectedly unemployed and will have a significant financial impact on the western region.

On June 20, Minister of Food, Agriculture, and Fisheries Svandís Svavarsdóttir temporarily halted the hunting of fin whales until August 31. The decision followed on the heels of a report that found whaling breached Iceland’s animal welfare legislation. The ban was implemented to enable an investigation on whether it is possible to ensure that hunting conforms to the legislation.

Only one company, Hvalur hf., was set to hunt whales this season. The company is based in Hvalfjörður, West Iceland, and typically employs around 200 people, most from the region, at the height of the hunting season. Both the municipal council of Akranes and the local council of Hvalfjörður have encouraged the Fisheries Minister to lift the whaling ban.

Tax and income losses

The Municipal Council of Akranes (pop. 7,986) published a resolution criticising the timing of the decision. “The ban was unexpected and a curveball to many Akranes residents who were counting on employment and income during the summer whaling season,” the resolution reads. The council estimates that it will lose tens of millions of ISK (hundreds of thousands of dollars) in local tax income due to the decision, affecting its ability to finance services to residents. The council stated that the ministry should carry out investigations before making such an impactful decision, not the other way around.

The local council of Hvalfjörður has also published a short statement on the temporary whaling ban, stating that its financial impact is significant, both directly and indirectly. “Hvalfjörður’s local council is not taking a stance on whaling with this statement but urges the Minister of Food to reconsider her decision,” the statement concludes.

Widespread Bird Deaths in West and South Iceland

Puffin Iceland

Locals have reported dead puffins and kittiwakes in the dozens and even hundreds in recent weeks, RÚV reports. Such deaths are unusual at this time of year in Iceland and their cause is unknown. While bird flu is unlikely to be the cause, extreme weather may be a possible explanation.

Borgarnes resident Pavle Estrajher spotted five dead puffins on the shore in the town last month. When he made a post about them on Facebook, he received many comments from others who had found dead puffins in the region. Snæfellsnes peninsula resident Jón Helgason reported seeing hundreds of dead puffins and kittiwakes at Löngufjörur beach on the peninsula’s south coast, for example.

Bird flu not the cause

The widespread deaths of Kittiwakes cannot be attributed to bird flu, according to Brigitte Brugger of the Icelandic Food and Veterinary Authority (MAST). Samples from the birds analysed by MAST ruled out the illness. “In any case, no bird flu viruses were found in these samples that have been taken,” Brigitte stated.

Some have suggested that extreme weather may have caused the deaths, including meteorologist Einar Sveinbjörnsson. The wave height in West Iceland’s Faxaflói bay was forecast at 8-9 metres during last month, unseasonably extreme weather for late May. Previous reports of widespread bird deaths in Iceland have usually occurred in wintertime and been attributed to extreme weather or scarcity of food.

Iceland’s puffin population has declined by 70% over the last 30 years, according to the latest figures. Residents of Grímsey island in North Iceland report, anecdotally at least, that the island’s puffin population is strong.

New Westfjords Ferry Expected this Autumn

Breiðafjörður ferry Baldur

Regular malfunctions that have plagued the ferry Baldur, which connects West Iceland and the Westfjords, may soon be a thing of the past. RÚV reports that a replacement for the aging ferry is expected to arrive in Iceland in mid-October. The replacement ship named Rust, and like its predecessor, is from Norway.

Baldur is the only ferry that sails between West Iceland’s Snæfellsnes peninsula and the Westfjords. It has experienced regular breakdowns in recent years, occasionally stranding passengers at sea for hours. A journalistic investigation conducted by RÚV programme Kveikur last year found multiple safety issues on board, though many have since been rectified.

Baldur sails between Stykkishólmur, West Iceland, and Brjánslækur in the southern Westfjords, stopping at Flatey island on the way, and is a vital link for the area, particularly in winter, when many roads in the region can become impassable. Stykkishólmur Mayor Jakob Björgvin Jakobsson stated that he expected Baldur’s operator Sæferðir to ensure regular ferry trips until the new ship arrives.

Jakob stated that Rust fulfils modern safety requirements and, unlike Baldur, has a backup engine, meaning that engine failure would not strand the boat at sea. Rust is, however, smaller than Baldur, and can accommodate one fewer loaded truck. Jakob expressed his hopes that the government was arranging the construction of a new ferry that better meets the region’s needs in terms of transport and tourism.

Read more about Iceland’s ferries.