The Golden Circle

Þingvellir National Park

Despite the storms, we finally made it out of Reykjavik and managed to see the sights of the Golden Circle. The main stops along this tourist trail are the geysers, the Gullfoss waterfall, and Þingvellir National Park. We opted to do this with one of the many tour companies based around Reykjavik, rather than rent a car and do it ourselves. While this did make it more expensive, with the difficult road conditions it was definitely the best idea and we also ended up visiting places that we otherwise wouldn’t have even known about. Normally I’m not that big on doing organised tours, but we did ours with Time Tours and it was great. There were only about 12 of us in a little mini bus and our guide Alex was fantastic. He picked us up from our hostel at 8:30am and after quickly collecting the rest of our group from around Reykjavik we were immediately on our way.

Our first stop was just a quick one, in the small town of Hveragerði around 45km out of Reykjavik. The town is the main point where the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates meet and is also famous for its hot springs, but as we got there before the sun was even up it wasn’t really swimming weather. I did however try the deliciousness that is the snúður – essentially a cinnamon bun the size of my face covered in melted dark chocolate. Not the worst way to start the day.

From there we made another unexpected stop at Kerið volcanic crater. We arrived there just as the sun was coming up and personally I just spent our time there wandering around in complete awe at the beauty of the place.

Kerið Volcanic Crater
Kerið

Once we were on the road again and heading further out into the countryside, we started to see Icelandic horses pretty much everywhere, and because they’re hella cute we stopped to see a small group of them. We were feeding them some bread that Alex had brought, and James was a little bit apprehensive. Laughing, I told him not to be silly, they were just horses and they wouldn’t hurt him – to which one of them grabbed the slice of bread out of my hand and had a little gnaw on my finger at the same time. Famous last words eh.

Icelandic Horse
The cute one, not the one who bit me!

Again we made a slight detour off of our expected route, and before we reached our first scheduled stop at Gullfoss we stopped to check out the smaller, but equally as stunning, waterfall of Faxafoss.

Faxafoss
Faxafoss

We arrived at Gullfoss around lunch time and had a wander around the waterfalls, which hands down beat Niagara Falls in my opinion. Maybe it was because of the gorgeous snowy landscapes as far as the eye could see, or the lack of tourist boats & casinos, or just the general magic of Iceland. Once we’d walked along the upper side of the waterfalls the wind started to pick up slightly, so we headed inside to the restaurant to grab some lunch and on numerous recommendations went for the Icelandic lamb soup. It is a tourist spot, and in Iceland, so understandably was quite pricey but super tasty and you get unlimited refills which definitely makes it worth the money.

Gullfoss

Gullfoss
Gullfoss

After lunch we backtracked slightly to see the geysers at the site of the 10,000 year old Geysir. Like a lot of Icelandic names it is nice and simply self-descriptive – it comes from the Icelandic verb for ‘to gush’ and is where we get the English word. Unfortunately it no longer ‘spurts’, but luckily another one, Strokkur (from ‘to churn’) gives a rather impressive show every 5 minutes or so and is strangely hypnotic to watch and wait for.

Geysir
Strokkur erupting

Our final stop for the day was Þingvellir National Park, where Icelandic parliament was first established and where the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates are slowly pulling apart and have formed a lake which makes up most of the National Park. On our way around the lake, we took another slight detour down a little snowy track to a spring at the edge of the water. Here Alex told us all to plunge our arms into the icy lake to fill our water bottles with some of the most fresh, clean Icelandic spring water. Coming from Scotland and having lived in the French Alps, I kind of take it for granted that the water coming out of your taps tastes good, but even I could appreciate that Iceland are pretty fortunate to have this stuff as their tap water.

Þingvellir National Park
On the edge of Þingvellir Lake, braving the cold!

With all of us now sporting one completely numb arm, we drove on a bit closer to the edge of the North American tectonic plate, and from there we enjoyed a nice walk, criss-crossing all the little rifts and cracks in the ground before ascending to the top edge of the plate. The view from the top was, like everything else we had seen throughout the day, absolutely captivating, made all the more so by the sun slowly setting across the lake.

Þingvellir National Park
From the top of the NA tectonic plate

On our way back, Alex continued his stories of Icelandic culture, history, lifestyle and his own personal life, which he’d kept up the entire day. Admittedly I’ve not been on many organised tourist trips, but I was struck by how chatty and friendly he was. The whole thing felt more like a road trip with a small group of mates than part of the tourism business, and I think that’s one of the main reasons why the day was so enjoyable. All in all it was definitely the highlight of the trip for me, and just made me fall completely in love with this country.

Reykjavik

If memory serves (and it’s all a bit hazy) it started the way that all the best plans do: quite a few drinks into the evening, we decided to plan a trip to Iceland. My friend James and I had both been wanting to go for a while, and like so many other travel destinations this one had always taken a bit of a back seat. Living in Scotland, half the appeal for me when going travelling is being somewhere hot and sunny – not exactly what Iceland is best known for. But in the depths of Winter it’s hard to go anywhere nearby that offers much improvement in weather or temperature, so we decided that February was the perfect time to go.

Since I returned to the UK and a grown-up salaried job, running off around the world every 5 minutes is no longer really an option, but at the same time it means I’m no longer on quite so strict a budget, which is always nice, especially in Iceland which is hardly cheap. Nonetheless we opted to stay in a hostel, partly because Iceland is pretty damn expensive but also for the social aspects. We chose the Bus Hostel in Reykjavik, which is about a 15 minute walk out of the city centre. For some reason this made it about half the price of any other hostel as it is apparently too far away for all the lazy people who can’t be bothered walking the 1.5km to the main street.

Hostel Life
Bus Hostel, 9am

Either way it wasn’t an issue for us, and it actually turned out to be one of the best hostels I’ve ever stayed in. The atmosphere was great, with a huge, cosy, fairylight adorned common room constantly playing soothing Icelandic tunes and the cheapest bar in Reykjavik. As with any hostel though, it is the people who make it. Everyone we met there, from the staff to the locals who came for the cheap drinks to the other guests from all over the world, was absolutely lovely.

Reykjavik
Paper Cranes

We arrived in Iceland on Tuesday evening, and after finally making it to the hostel and locating the nearest shop to buy some food were too wiped out to do anything much. Which was unlucky for us, as apparently the Aurora Borealis was out that night and wouldn’t be seen again for the rest of the week due to cloudy nights.

On Wednesday we decided to explore Reykjavik a bit to help get our bearings and did some of the usual touristy things like visit the Hallgrímskirkja, Harpa, try the famous hotdogs at Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur, browse the shops for Lopapeysas, chill out in cute little cafes drinking coffee & eating chocolate, and wander the town centre. In the evening we attempted to offset the hotdogs and alcohol by having dinner at Gló, a mostly vegetarian restaurant just off the main street, Laugavegur, which served some of the prettiest & tastiest salads I have ever had.

Reykjavik Roasters
Reykjavik Roasters

Reykjavic Roasters
Latte Love

Glo Restaurant, Reykjavik
Dinner at Gló

Thursday was supposed to be spent venturing a bit further afield, and so we were up horribly early for being on holiday, but unfortunately a rather severe storm was approaching and there had been heavy snow and high winds the day before which made a lot of the roads undrivable for even the most seasoned Icelander, let alone us. We were advised by hostel staff to just stay indoors and certainly not to leave the city, but as the storm wasn’t due to hit until the afternoon and we were already awake, we headed into the city centre and went on a free walking tour with City Walk. I’d done these tours before in Melbourne and Sydney and they were both fantastic, and the Reykjavik version did not disappoint. Even though we’d been around the city ourselves the day before, having a guide to show you things which you otherwise walk right past, give you local knowledge, tell you stories and give a bit of history, makes such a difference.

Reykjavik
Colourful Reykjavik Houses

Our guide Marteinn was great, and when we asked him at the end of the tour if he could recommend anywhere to grab lunch he told us about this little place called Nora Magasin which supposedly did an amazing fish of the day and had great lunch deals. He even joined us for lunch along with a couple of other girls from the tour, and we all had some of the nicest, fresh fish I’ve ever tasted. By the time we finished lunch the storm was definitely getting closer so we decided the safest thing was to head back to the hostel. But not before we hit the Vínbúð to stock up on drinks for the day – after all, if you’re going to be stuck inside during a storm in Iceland, it’s much better with alcohol! Prohibition lasted until 1989 in Iceland, and this can still be felt in that alcohol can only be bought in government owned liqueur stores, of which there are only 50 in the whole country. And so as the sun began to set and the storm hit hard, we spent the late afternoon until late into the night back at the hostel, playing silly games & drinking with our fellow travellers – in my opinion, probably one of the better ways to wait out a storm.

Hostel Life
Bus Hostel Bar

More to come later on the rest of our Iceland travels 🙂