By Chris Ayliffe, Traveo
Let’s be honest, if you’ve found this article the chances are you’ve made your way through the same series of Golden Circle articles out there expressing the same superlatives for the stunning Thingvellir, the mighty Gullfoss, and the towering geyser named Strokkur.
And, don’t get me wrong, those locations are incredible. But, that’s just what’s highlighted on the main tourist boards and doesn’t offer you the chance of seeing some of the equally magnificent and much lesser-known attractions on this incredible travellers trail.
In this blog, I will walk you through some of my top personal highlights from the Golden Circle travellers trail, and hopefully give you some extra ideas to take you away from the crowds and more immersed in nature.
What is the Golden Circle?
In simplicity, the Golden Circle is a travellers circuit designed to take you from Reykjavik to Iceland’s top 3 most visited attractions: Thingvellir, Geysir geothermal area, and Gullfoss waterfall.
In a nutshell, Thingvellir sits directly in the middle of two of the world’s largest tectonic plates (North American and Eurasian plates). In fact, this region is so active that annually the plates are visibly splitting apart that the margin grows around 2 cm every year.
Thingvellir: Wikimedia. CC. Diego Delso.
You may have heard Iceland’s nickname of the land of fire and ice – this is because of the volcanic grounds it sits on and the mighty glaciers that cover a significant portion of the landmass. Thingvellir, is indeed a good opportunity to learn more about the volatility of Iceland’s fascinating land as one of the geologically youngest countries in the world.
Next, you have Geysir which is mainly known for the spouting hot spring, Strokkur. A short walk around the bubbling mud pots and steaming vents and you’ll get to enjoy a scented delicacy here in Iceland (if somehow you’ve avoided it by this point) – the intense smell of Sulphur which is very reminiscent of gone off eggs.
Strokkur Erupting: Wikimedia. CC. Andreas Tille.
The main event, however, is very much Strokkur. This hot spring blasts off huge volumes of water and steam every 10 minutes or so, and regularly reaches between 15-20 m high. Some tourist providers do over-exaggerate that it can reach up to 40 m high, and though this is technically true this is a very rare event.
If you do hang around long enough, Strokkur does like to surprise and will quite regularly perform two successive blasts directly after each other. It can be particularly funny when you see the selfie-brigade quickly setting their iPhones up in surprise!
Lastly, and by no means least, is the very impressive waterfall of Gullfoss. Translating directly to ‘Golden Waterfall’, this waterfall allegedly earned its name as the result of a wealthy farmer named, Gýgur, who threw his chest of gold into the falls to stop anybody collecting his fortune after his death – I know, kind of a di*k move!
Gullfoss Waterfall: Wikimedia. CC. Hansueli Krapf.
It’s hard not to be impressed by the sheer size and power of Gullfoss which cascades 32 m (105 ft) down two steps into the canyon below. Also, if you’re lucky enough to visit on a less overcast day, visitors regularly get the opportunity of seeing an equally impressive rainbow descending out of the mists from the thunderous falls below.
These are all fantastic attractions, they really are, but for me they are only the tip of the iceberg in this region. Whether you’re taking one of the Iceland self drive tours or taking a Golden Circle tour, they will normally all take you to these attractions as a minimum.
However, if you can spare a little extra time in the region, I suggest you try to tick off a lot of the spots on my following list.
7 Best Lesser-Known Spots of the Golden Circle
I know when you’re travelling there are often not enough hours in the day, especially if you’re like me and like to take a million pictures at every chance. However, I often find that the most rewarding sights and sounds are those that you find away from the crowds, even if they take a little bit of extra effort to get to.
In the following list, I will quickly walk you through the 7 best lesser-known spots you should definitely make a point of visiting if you’re willing to take your Icelandic adventure in the Golden Circle to the next level.
Bruarfoss Waterfall: Wikimedia. CC. Ilya Grigorik.
Around a 10-minute drive before you reach the Geysir geothermal area (if travelling from Thingvellir), there is a typically poorly marked car park just over a small bridge on the left-side of the road. It won’t look like anything special, but that’s because it’s simply at the start of the trail.
To get from the car park to the waterfall itself, you need to follow the trail for around 3.5 km (2.2 miles) upstream and through a small forested area. It takes around 1 hour to reach Bruarfoss, but along the way you will also pass two other equally impressive waterfalls: Hlauptungufoss, and Midfoss.
Bruarfoss itself is an impressive shelf of cascading waterfalls with the most surreal blue colour trickling through which is as a result of the glacial water the river is fed by.
There are ample positions you can grab a snap of this stunning waterfall from – up close, above, the centre of the bridge, or if you’re especially tired by this point, the bench!
Unlike a lot of waterfalls in Iceland, Bruarfoss is a little extra special – less people know of its existence and even fewer travellers are willing to take the time to hike to it. The hike itself, however, makes the whole experience that more enjoyable. I mean you came to Iceland for the nature didn’t you!?
- Thorufoss (Þórufoss)
Thorufoss Waterfall: Wikimedia. CC. Bromr.
Another waterfall that makes my list is Thorufoss. Though, again this waterfall is often completely overlooked, it’s actually a relatively quick stop and readily accessible across the seasons.
The waterfall can be found just along route 48 (on the left-hand side if you’re driving from Reykjavik to Thingvellir), with again, an awfully signposted car park just on the right hand side of the road (Google Maps will keep you right!)
Just to the right side of the car park is a small pathway that will take you right down to the base of the canyon, and to your right you’ll see the mighty waterfall itself.
If you’re travelling in winter, maybe it’s just me, but the walk through the several feet of thick snow is a lot of fun! At this time of year, unless it’s a really mild winter, the waterfall will be frozen over with some of the craziest icicles hanging from its perch. Be careful wandering closer to the falls as this will require a little bit of scrambling – just take your time.
For any Game of Thrones fans among you, this area was featured when a dragon swooped by and ate some of the sheep while the shepherd remonstrated angrily (season 7, episode 6) – probably an interesting scene to film!
- Fridheimar (Friðheimar)
Fridheimar: Wikimedia. CC. Pierre-Selim Huard.
Ok, so I’ve given you enough waterfalls to check out for a lifetime. Fridheimar, on the other hand, is made for the weary travellers seeking out some much needed refueling on their day of exploring.
Situated around a 5-minute drive from the village of Fludir, Fridheimar hosts a restaurant and bar within an absolutely stunning tomato greenhouse.
It is hands down the best place to go for a hearty bowl of tomato soup with some delicious glutinous home-made bread. Equally, for those of you not plagued with taking on the drive that day, why not try Iceland’s most incredible take on a Bloody Mary?
This is a stop to take a break, enjoy some good food and drink, and replenish your energy stores for the rest of your adventures that day.
If you’re looking for souvenirs (I’m not on commission, though I wish I was!) then check out their small shop which offers every possible way you can think of having tomato in a sauce – I particularly recommend the chutney!
- Skalholt (Skálholt)
Skalholt Cathedral: Wikimedia. CC. Villagehero.
Though quite a quick stop, Skalholt has a fascinating history that few travellers get to learn about while visiting Iceland.
As one of the country’s most important historic sites, Christianity was made the official religion of Iceland by law in 1000 AD, with the first bishop ordained in Skalholt in 1056 AD. This transformed the village into the episcopal see of all of Iceland (Hólar was made the second in 1106 AD).
This led to Skalholt becoming a centre of culture and education in Iceland for more than 700 years, especially with the visual impact of the cathedral which you can still check out today.
It’s a great stop on your journey to immerse yourself more in the cultural upbringing of Iceland, as well as offering you the chance to see the insides of a traditional Icelandic turf house which sits adjacent to the cathedral.
- Langjökull Glacier
For the adrenaline junkies among you, why not transform your visit to Gullfoss waterfall by including a snowmobile tour on top of the mighty Langjökull glacier.
There are several things you can do to spice up an adventure in Iceland, but few have the impact of jetting across the snowy elevations of one of the most spectacular glaciers in the country.
After a quick safety briefing just outside the Gullfoss visitors centre, you’ll be kitted out and taken onto the glacier in an all terrain vehicle. On either side you’ll get the most incredible views of the surrounding Golden Circle region before you finally take to the slopes.
Three words – It. Is. Awesome.
- Kerið Crater
Kerið crater in the snow: Wikimedia. CC. Antony.
Ok, so I’ve given you waterfalls, food and a glacier – how about something a little more volcanic?
Kerið crater is an ancient volcanic crater lake located in the Grimsnes area of South Iceland around a 20-minute drive from the town of Selfoss.
It’s one of several crater lakes in the area, known as Iceland’s Western Volcanic Zone – this includes the more recently turbulent Reykjanes peninsula and Langjökull glacier. It was created as the land moved over a localised hotspot, and remains one of the most obvious calderas travellers to Iceland can visit.
The crater itself is around 55 m (180 ft) deep, 170 m (560 ft) wide, and 270 m (890 ft) across.
With the small admission cost of 400 ISK, you can take your time circumnavigating the top of the caldera to get some stunning views from above. Then you can take the pathway down into the bottom of the crater for an equally surreal experience.
If you’re travelling during the heart of winter (December and January) the lake is often completely frozen over and able for travellers to walk on – bring your skates!
In summer, it’s completely liquid but you can still walk around the lake or even take a load off at the base of the crater on the bench that’s been put there at the bottom of the path.
- The Secret Lagoon
By now, everyone has heard of the Blue Lagoon on the Reykjanes peninsula. Almost all travellers who are now coming to Iceland have the Blue Lagoon on their checklist of things to see and experience.
Now, that’s great for some people, but for those of you keen to have a more authentic Icelandic experience you should instead check out the Secret Lagoon.
Located in the village of Fludir, this scenic spot is a more traditional Icelandic hot spring experience. You can walk around the grounds past a series of mesmerising bubbling mud pots, and take a dip in the pool with cleansing steam clouding around you.
I won’t lie to you, on some occasions this location can be quite popular. However, so are all of the spas in Iceland, especially the Blue Lagoon. So, my advice is if you’re looking for a more authentic way to spend your money and make a saving in the process, the Secret Lagoon is the hot spring for you to put on your checklist.
Any visit to Iceland’s Golden Circle is going to be a wonderful and memorable experience. However, sometimes it’s better to head off the beaten path and check out some of the lesser-known spots to escape the crowds, take on more of an adventure, and ultimately have an even better experience.
Whether you’ve opted for an Iceland winter package, an Iceland summer package, a small group tour of Iceland, a private guided tour of Iceland, or even just to go it alone, dare yourself to try something extra on your visit to the Golden Circle. After all, Iceland is made for an adventure, and everyone deserves that!