This was a trip I genuinely thought I would never go on. For one, Iceland wasn’t on my list of places I wanted to travel to or see. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever dreamed of going to a place with a cold climate with the exception of Alaska. And the second reason I thought I wouldn’t go on this trip was because my partner and I booked this tour package back in December 2020. We made this reservation far before vaccines were available to us and selected dates nearly a year out in advance; it was a decision made somewhat on a whim due to having an itch to go abroad and finding a good deal. And if it wasn’t for the very generous cancellation policy at the time, I still don’t think this is a place I would have visited.
But last October, we made it to Iceland! As a first-time visitor, I think the tour package was really helpful for us. Included in this package was a full-day guided tour of the Golden Circle that concluded with a stop at a geothermal spa and a rye bread making demo. I thought it was a great time overall, and I’m excited to share the great spots and experiences from this guided tour!
Geysir, known also as the Great Geysir, can erupt with boiling water spraying up to 70 meters in the air. The Great Geysir has stopped erupting in recent years, but Strokkur is nearby and still active. Strokkur is a smaller geyser than Geysir, however eruptions send hot water up to 20 meters into the air. I waited around for about fifteen to twenty minutes and caught two eruptions, a larger one first and then a smaller one. The larger eruption caught me by surprise, so I wasn’t able to get it on camera too well, but it was quite powerful to watch this natural phenomenon.
Fun fact: the English word “geyser” comes from this Great Geysir! Geysir is derived from geysa, an Icelandic verb meaning “to gush.” Around the Great Geysir and Strokkur, there are small bubbling hot springs, as well as a hotel and restaurant for visitors. If you’re traveling on your own by car, I would say that this is a good, relatively short pit stop that would need anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour. My tour group stayed for about an hour, and I was able to see Strokkur erupt twice and fit in a quick lunch.
Þingvellir National Park
Þingvellir National Park is home to one of nature’s more incredible geological phenomena. Here, you can see where the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates meet and catch beautiful views of mountains, valleys, and rivers. This park is a place of both historical and geological significance; it is not only the site of tectonic shifts, but also where Iceland’s parliament was founded. The parliament gathered at Þingvellir for several hundred years.
Every year, the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates drift apart by about two centimeters and Iceland gets a little bit larger. At the park, there is a path where you can walk in between the two continental plates. This is one of the park’s and Iceland’s biggest attractions for tourists, and frankly one of the coolest nature-related things you’ll ever do. It will take a good part of your day to walk all the way down the path and trails, but I think it will definitely be worth it to spend more time here. Next time I travel to Iceland, I will surely be dedicating a day to exploring Þingvellir National Park.
Gullfoss, meaning golden falls in Icelandic, is another extremely popular attraction. Water from the Hvítá river rushes down Gullfoss’ two cascades, which total 32 meters in height. This waterfall is so incredible that it has been referenced over and over in popular culture.
This is a must-see destination in the Golden Circle. With all due respect to all of the waterfalls I’ve seen, including Niagara Falls, Gullfoss is the most magnificent one I’ve come across. If you only have time for one part of the Golden Circle, make this your choice. While it will only take a few minutes to see, you’ll want to admire until you lose track of time. Though photos don’t do its beauty justice, take a few because Gullfoss deserves a place in your scrapbook!
Fontana Wellness and the Making of Icelandic Rye Bread
My tour ended with some time for relaxation at Fontana Wellness, which has mineral water pools and steam baths powered by a hot spring. (There is also an option to swim in the very cold lake right by the pools, for anyone feeling brave!) This was a lovely way to close the day and provided some healing for both my skin and mind. But what was equally as exciting was the rúgbrauð (rye bread) making demonstration.
I thought that the staff would show how to mix and proof the rye dough, but what I got to see instead was the process of fresh bread being cooked in bubbling hot sand.
First, the dough is made with rye flour (and a good amount of sugar) and put into a heat-safe pot and wrapped tightly so that water does not get in during the cooking process. The sand around this hot spring reaches temperatures of 200oC or higher and bubbles from all of the nearby water and heat. Because the temperature can be inconsistent, the staff member doing the demonstration stated that they cook the bread mixture for 24 hours just to be safe. After that time, the rúgbrauð can be taken out—and replaced with a new batch of dough if desired—and it’s ready to serve!
The best part of this bread demonstration? I got to sample the rúgbrauð! The bread was served piping hot and steaming with some toppings to make it even more delicious. Traditionally, Icelandic rye bread is eaten with lots of butter and sometimes smoked fish, so that’s exactly how I had my slices. The smoked trout here, which was really good, was caught and smoked by a family who lives right across the Laugarvatn lake. The bread itself was quite dense and sweet, though I learned after a few more days in Iceland that every family’s recipe is different and has varying levels of sweetness. I’m not sure if the bread demonstration is available at the spa every day, but seeing the bread-making was a delight!
Though I was somewhat skeptical about going on a guided tour, this tour around the Golden Circle hit the important spots and ended with a great spa and baking experience. If you don’t plan on driving while visiting Iceland, this type of tour is the way to go and is offered by several different companies including the one I used, Reykjavík Excursions. I enjoyed my experience, but next time I visit, I’d love to do a longer, more comprehensive tour around the Golden Circle on my own.