If you’ve done a bit of reading around Iceland, you’ll probably know that the Golden Circle is one of the country’s main attractions. It’s undoubtedly appealing: it’s close to Reykjavik in the South of Iceland, it can be done in a day, has a variety of sights and won’t break the bank.
I’ve had the pleasure of doing the Golden Circle twice, once in the summer and once in winter. First off, I’ll say that it’s so worth doing both seasons: the landscape changes from earthy and vibrant to pure white and glistening. There was nothing like it, on both occasions.
My experiences differed both times when I went, so it’s worth checking from company to company what you’d be seeing so you see everything you want – if you’re taking a tour, that is. You can also hire a car and do it by yourself. You’d need to set aside about 3-4 hours for driving, and of course more for spending time at the sights. The luxury of hiring a car and doing it yourself is that your time isn’t controlled and you can stop off any place that interests you on the way, and miss anything out that a tour might take you on which you don’t really care about.
This is a map of the attractions involved in the Golden Circle. They are (in the most likely order you’d see them):
1. Thingvellir National Park
4. Kerid Crater
By writing this post, I want to show you what the options are – essentially, what’s actually part of the Golden Circle – and let you make your mind up about whether you’d like to experience it in the summer or winter (both! Always both!)
Sidenote: my photography skills have definitely improved from the summer visit to the winter visit. Be gentle.
Gullfoss – the Golden Waterfall
Ok, so this is the obvious one. If you go on a Golden Circle tour and they don’t take you here, I’m sorry, but you’ve been conned. It’s usually the last stop and it’s pretty much a show stopper (no, I don’t know why I’m starting with it here instead of going chronologically…).
Summer: Green, luscious, rainbows in the mist. Beautiful. Very easy to walk around. Makes you feel a bit like you’re in some happy fairytale in the middle of nowhere, or in My Little Pony world or something.
Winter: Not so easy to walk around, and by the time you’re on this part of the tour, it’s starting to get dark. But my gosh, a waterfall surrounded by ice and snow. It’s one of the most stunning sights I’ve ever seen. Also note that if it is very snowy and/or icy, they might “close” the path to get closer to the waterfall. I’ll let you in on a secret: Alan and I, as well as many, many other people, ignored it and just stepped over the sign’s weak attempt to keep us out. It was worth it, but just be careful and keep your wits about you, because I’m sure they decide to close it for a reason. I was just impulsively wreckless/there was no stopping me apparently.
Just like Gullfoss, if you don’t see the Geysers, you haven’t done the Golden Circle.
Now, this could get confusing (it confused me at least) but there are two main geysers, and sometimes they can get mixed up. There is the Great Geysir and Strokkur – Strokkur errupts every few minutes, whereas the Great Geysir is about 50m away and much more susceptible to earthquake activity. This means it goes through periods of more frequent erruptions, perhaps a few times a day, to sometimes a few years without any.
Summer: There are way more hot springs to wonder around than in the winter, because of ice. In the summer, we spotted a woman boiling eggs in a hot spring. The landscape is a lot more brown, but it’s more pleasant to be around. This area can get quite windy and I much preferred being here in summer.
Winter: Beautiful, yes. Enjoyable to be around when you’re holding your camera in place, waiting for the next erruption from Strokkur to come? No. Definitely not. My hands were freezing and I felt like the wind was going to force me to ice skate towards the gushing, painfully hot water. It was obviously still impressive and worth seeing such an iconic attraction, but summer all the way on this one.
Kerid (Kerið) Crater
This was on my summer tour, but not on my winter one. I’m not sure whether this is because of season or excursion company, but I was quite disappointed when it wasn’t featured – not even mentioned – on my winter tour. Especially as I had gushed to Alan about it. So look into the details if you’re on a tour to make sure whether Kerid is featured.
I thought this was a great addition to the summer Golden Circle tour and I’d have loved to see it in winter. Kerid crater lake is over 3000 years old and created from a volcanic explosion. The volcanic rock in this area is red rather than black, which is an incredible sight against the vivid blue of the lake.
If anyone ever tells you Iceland is a dull-coloured country, don’t take that. Iceland is a frankly radiant place, even if it is a volcanic landscape.
Summer: I remember when I first came to Iceland. I was a teenager and typically for my age, nothing impressed me. From this trip, there is photo after photo of me looking miserable (way to ruin all your childhood photos, Kirsten…), but when I came across views like this – wonderful, grand, dramatic natural landscapes like this – I couldn’t fail to be in awe. Of course, the photos of me still don’t reflect that (which is why you won’t be seeing any in this post!), but out of everything on this 2 week adventure, this scenery is still fresh in my mind. It permeated the “teenage angst”; sights like this in Iceland seem larger than life, and I couldn’t be more relieved and happy that Kerid crater (and the others) dug a hole in my mind and have never left.
Winter: Obviously this is where my blog post idea fails a bit, as I didn’t go here in winter. But you can learn from my mistake: check exactly where your Golden Circle Tour is taking you, or better yet, do it yourself with a car. Kerid has a lot fewer tourists than the other attractions and it’s so worth it.
So I’m not completely bailing on my summer/winter theme, here’s a picture found with the trusty help of the internet of Kerid in winter:
Thingvellir (Þingvellir) National Park
Congratulations, you’ve just stepped into a UNESCO World Heritage Site! This is the national park where you get to see the place where the first settlers created the laws of the country in 930AD. Sure, that might sound stuffy and boring to you, but let me put it into perspective: we’re used to seeing huge, impressive parliamentary buildings, right? Think of London’s Houses of Parliament, Washington DC’s White House, and so on. They’re made to look grand and majestic. But these little Icelandic houses are just as valued but look like tiny, unassuming things. So tiny, and yet the whole country’s laws and morals were decided right here.
If that’s not enough for you, this is also where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates meet, plus it’s a pretty vast, amazing landscape.
Summer: I love noticing the exact same mountains in the background in both summer and winter pictures, yet see them look so different from each other just for the simple fact of season. The summer here on the Parliamentary Plains looks like the perfect scene for settlers. You can imagine them thinking, “Yeah, here seems good”. It looks like somewhere you could frolick and explore. Again, Thingvellir was definitely a place that was a lot better in terms of walking around without concern for ice or body temperature – so I vote summer… until I remind myself of the pictures in winter.
Winter: Very cold if there’s a wind as you’re so exposed in this landscape. As you walk through the tall rock formations, you do feel a little like you’re in Game of Thrones, though: it’s snowy, mildly threatening and compels you to say “You know nothing, Jon Snow”. I actually preferred the snowy look in winter here than the slightly barren summer landscape.