I arrived in Iceland late on a Tuesday night, after being INCREDIBLY stupid and going to the wrong bloody airport in London. Yep. I actually did that. Thankfully, a cheap replacement flight a couple of hours later, and I’d arrived in the country I’d been getting excited about visiting for months on end after booking flights last year.
For my first day in Iceland, I wanted to experience one of the best-known routes, so I booked a Classic Golden Circle tour with Gray Line Iceland. While driving would have given more freedom, taking to the wheel solo and battling weather conditions on unfamiliar roads didn’t really appeal too much.
Honestly, even just gazing out of the windows at the scenery that went past was pretty mindblowing – the rugged, ever-changing countryside of Iceland is so incredible that pictures don’t do it justice. But I’m gonna try anyway…
Still mostly shrouded in darkness at 9.30am, our first stop of the day was at Skálholt – a small historical site along the Golden Circle tour route. For centuries, it was one of the most important places in Iceland. The Skálholt Cathedral is wonderfully atmospheric in the dusk light, and with few other visitors around, visions of old Icelandic ways and histories definitely sprung to mind.
To warm up after a stroll around the outside grounds, I ventured into the cathedral. Heading past the stunning stained glass windows, I made my way downstairs to the underground vault to explore the small museum inside. The walls are lined with relics including headstones of notable Icelanders, discovered during an excavation of the site in the 1950s.
Perhaps the most fascinating thing in the museum is the sarcophagus of Páll Jónsson, a well-known Skálholt bishop. You know me, I love anything death-y. And if you want to feel like you’re in the Famous Five a little bit, the ‘secret’ tunnel from the vault to an outdoor exit is a pretty fun way to leave the church.
I’d already marvelled a bit at Iceland’s countryside from the window of the coach, but my first real experience of Iceland’s best natural wonders came in the form of Faxi, a waterfall along Tungufljót River. The pure size and power of it was overwhelming – unlike anything else I’ve seen in Europe, and even giving Yosemite Falls a run for their money.
As I looked out over the river, snowflakes began to fall onto the already-white ground, I realised how happy I was to have come to Iceland during the winter. Pretty breathtaking, for sure.
Located along the Ölfusá River, when you first walk up to the Gulfoss waterfall, you can’t see where the falls hit the river below, so it almost looks like the waterfall is disappearing into the ground. With the snow surrounding it, dusted across rocks and where grass would normally be, this felt like a true winter wonderland.
One of the most popular attractions in Iceland, Gulfoss is one of THE waterfalls that you’ll see in the travel books and brochures. Which meant there were plenty of tourists around – but honesty, this epic spectacle is worth braving a few crowds for.
The visitor centre is home to a pretty impressive range of Icelandic crafts and souvenirs, which are always fun to check out, even if you’re not buying.
Perhaps one of the things Iceland is best known for is the geothermal features you’ll find – from the Blue Lagoon to the bubbling pools and explosive spurts from The Great Geysir. Eruptions of that one are actually pretty irregular, but you’re pretty much guaranteed some spurt-y geser action from its neighbour, Strokkur.
The route to the geysers lead through a field of geothermal pools, bubbling away and blowing out plenty of steam, which makes for a fascinating and almost eerie landscape. Well, if you weren’t there with hundreds of other people, it’d probably be more eerie.
I’ve think I’ve said this about Iceland til I’m blue in the face, but quite honestly I’ve never seen landscapes like these, and the hour we had to explore Geysir absolutely flew by.
Þingvellir National Park
Our final stop-off for the day before dark descended was Þingvellir (Thingvellir) National Park, a definite highlight of my Golden Circle tour. We were given a good 45 minutes to take a walk through the park. Our bus guide took the tour group on a walk, but I sidled off on my own to have a wander.
The beautiful and rugged lanscapes of the park are easy to see, even just taking a short walk down some of its paths. As I made my way down through a crevasse in the rock, to my right was a Game Of Thrones-esque expanse of oranges and browns, littered with patches of snow and ice. Ahead, a towering snow capped mountain, and to my left further down, water cascaded across rocks into a beautiful pool.
If I was heading back to Iceland and driving, I’d definitely dedicate more time to spend in Þingvellir – because it’s absolutely freakin’ beautiful.
Why take the Iceland Golden Circle tour?
There are quite a few ways to see the Golden Circle, but whichever way you choose, you’re guaranteed to see some incredible sights. I was personally really happy with my Gray Line tour, and surprised at how well I adapted to being surrounded by a coach full of other tourists – not my usual travel style!
If you’re visiting Iceland, I’d definitely recommend you take a Golden Circle tour – be it via bus or self-drive. It may be the most famous route with tourists, but it’s for good reason. The scenery is dramatic and often truly breathtaking, and it’s a great introduction to Iceland’s countryside if you’re visiting for a couple of days.
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