Iceland has rightfully garnered attention from visitors wanting to get a glimpse of its otherworldly landscape. When “otherworldly” is just a hop, skip, & a jump away from both Europe and North America, well… you go!
With a four-day holiday weekend fast approaching, I played my own version of Spin the (Travel) Bottle, and cheap airfares determined that I would be getting cozy with Iceland.
The most popular way to experience the beauty of Iceland is via road trip- most notably by way of the Ring Road that encircles the country. Because my long weekend visit didn’t allow for a complete Tour de Iceland, I chose to focus on the southern part of the country.
Happily, there’s a mini “highlights of Iceland” circuit for visitors who, similarly, do not have a week to languish in far-off lands. Iceland’s Golden Circle is perfectly made for stunning natural scenery jam-packed into an extended weekend.
Stop #1: A Day in Reykjavik
Nearly all Iceland expeditions begin and end in Reykjavik. As the most compact European capital, I was still surprised to find that Reykjavik is “do-able” even in a single day! Especially during the months of June through August, when the famous Midnight Sun lights the sky till the wee hours of the morning. Speaking of which- remember to bring a sleeping mask if you’re a light sleeper. It’s decidedly odd trying to fall asleep at 11pm… in broad daylight.
Pay a visit to the iconic Hallgrimskirkja Church, stroll the shopping streets of Laugavegur, munch on a kleina pastry at a café in Austurvollur square. Reykjavik is a fun and satisfying city to just be, without feeling the need to check a bunch of touristy schtuff off your list.
Must Eat: Prir Frakkar restaurant is a fantastic place to taste some of Iceland’s… more exotic… delicacies. Although I’m a boring vegetarian, my carnivorous husband let me sneak tastes of the assorted animals he collectively called dinner. Prir Frakkar’s menu boasts smoked puffin (which tastes like the bastard child of pastrami& portabello mushroom), horse meat (just like beef!), and even minke whale (if your conscience will let you forgive Iceland’s policy of unregulated whaling- we decided to pass). There are also standard seafood dishes for those who are weak of stomach.
While you won’t need a car in the capitol city itself, it’s definitely worth renting a car for the remainder of your journey. It’ll allow you to travel at your own pace, rather than joining a slowish-moving tour group. Best of all, your own car means you can stop at whatever gorgeous photo opp strikes your fancy! Get out and explore, friends!
Getting an early start the next morning will allow you to hit the road before the busloads of tour groups do. (Because it’s hard to feel like an intrepid adventurer surrounded by busloads of tour groups.)
Stop #2: The Meeting of the Continents at Pingvellir
Tribal chieftains met here beginning in 920 (!) to develop national policy, and Pingvellir continued to be the site of Icelandic Parliament all the way through 1798. That, friends, is Serious History.
Pingvellir also happens to be the exact spot where the North American and Eurasian continental plates meet. You can actually see this rift, which continues under Pingvellir Lake.
Must Do: Dive Iceland offers a Midnight Snorkel/Dive Tour where you can snorkel and swim in the rift between the continents. It’s not often you can snorkel… in Iceland… above the meeting of two continental plates… at midnight. Jump in! (Don’t let fear of hypothermia keep you from taking the plunge- they provide reeeally thick wetsuits and hot chocolate for afterwards to keep you nice & toasty!)
Stop #3: Geysers at Geysir
This is the shooting spout of water for which all other “geysers” are named! While the Geysir geyser is still active, its neighbor Strokkur Geyser erupts much more frequently (every 5-10 minutes). The geysers are impressive, but it’s equally as amazing to walk amongst all the other bubbling mud pools and steaming waterways.
Stop #4: Gullfoss Falls
Everyone knows that Iceland is stunningly gorgeous. Gullfoss Falls is one of the classic reasons why.
Must Do: Stock up on snacks & water (and take a bathroom break) in the Gullfoss Café. It’s the only place for miles.
Stop #5: Snowmobile on a Glacier
Okay, snowmobiling isn’t an official Golden Circle stop. But it should be. Where else can you go from bubbling geysers to snowmobiling on a glacier in a few hours? I signed up for a couple-hour snowmobiling expedition with Arctic Adventures, and they picked me up from the aforementioned Gullfoss Café in a gigantic 4 x 4 Jeep to navigate Iceland’s rugged interior. After suiting up in provided puffy snowsuits, it was out onto the glacier!
Was it awesomely terrifying zipping across wind-whipped ice? Yes. Did I think I was gonna die every time we hit a small bump and my butt flew off the seat? Also yes. Was I happy I did it? It was snowmobiling on a glacier in Iceland, peeps. Of course!!
Stop #6: Kerid Crater
Iceland is pretty much one big geothermal zone, and Kerid Crater is one of the most easily accessible spots from which to appreciate this phenomenon. The crater was formed when hot magma coursing below the surface caused the ground to collapse. There’s a half hour hike around the rim that borders on awe-inspiring.
**Now’s probably the time to mention that I’m a known rule-breaker. Life is a lot more fun that way. Standard Golden Circle itineraries would have you traveling through the town of Hveragerdi back to Reykjavik. Which you can totally do. Or… you can break the rules. [Insert peer pressure HERE.]**
Unofficial Stop #7 (if “Danger” is your middle name): Laugarvatn Fontana Geothermal Baths
Because you should be handsomely rewarded for all that intrepid exploring. Because hot springs are the other half of Iceland’s rugged allure. And because it’s sooo darn relaxing.
Before heading into the baths, you’ll enter into gender-specific locker rooms where you must use the public showers to clean off. (Hint: shower before putting on your suit, not after. Icelandic six year olds were mad-dogging me until I realized protocol required that I rinse off nude. Do not anger the Children of the Corn.) After showering, you can suit up and head out to the baths, which are co-ed, so you can meet up with any travel partners!
Must Do: Order an Icelandic Gull beer from the bar and enjoy it sitting in the natural hot springs surrounded by the beauty of the country. Ahhhh. Yes.
Iceland’s Golden Circle is just one tiny corner of a country that’s larger than life. But somehow it serves as a microcosm of all that the land of fire and ice has to offer.
It’s important to be reminded of the wild, the raw, and the untamed- and to be reminded that we’re allowed to be a little wild & untamed, too.
Even if it’s only for a holiday weekend.
Miranda is a slightly neurotic wildlife veterinarian spending her days exploring one corner of the world at a time (6 continents & counting!). You can follow along as she chronicles her global adventures at www.SpendYourDays.com