Updated: Mar 8, 2019
For years, whenever I thought of Iceland, I thought cold, snow, ice, and the Golden Circle (to be fair, the old "ice is nice" also came to mind). This past January, I took advantage of one of those crazy WOW Air sales and booked a round trip direct ticket from Los Angeles to Reykjavik for $292.
I think maybe our first mistake was to explore Southern Iceland before going to the Golden Circle, which we did last. If you're a fan of over-crowded, touristy spots, you may love this. If you're mildly anti-social and hate following posted signs, like me, you'll hate it. Nevertheless, the sights are still beautiful, of course - and if you have plenty of time in Iceland, I'd recommend seeing it all. However, there are many other spots which are less crowded and allow you to explore. Check out my list below for a review of Golden Circle attractions and, in my opinion, better alternatives.
This area actually has a few geysers, but the main one is called The Great Geysir. It goes off every 10 minutes or so, so you don’t have to worry about missing it. The spot was crowded with tourists, and the Geysir itself was pretty cool – if you enjoy watching water coming out of the ground. Not one of the most amazing sights I saw during the trip, but not the worst. Type it into YouTube and watch a video, it'll suffice.
Better Alternative: Jökulsárlón Lagoon
This, for me, is enough reason alone to go back to Iceland. We arrived here at sunset and I may or may not have cried a little bit. Jökulsárlón is what remains of a glacier, much of which has melted and continues to melt. It is also the deepest lake in all of Iceland, at 250 meters deep.
When we got here, the sky was all cotton-candy like, and you could see its reflection in the icy waters of the Lagoon. Giant ice rocks floated about, and seals were swimming around. It was like a scene from a fantasy movie. I have never seen anything like it before.
If you can, I highly recommend going at sunset in the winter time. The water in the lagoon acts as a mirror and reflects all of the pretty colors in the sky.
Skip: Kerið Crater Lake
I didn't even get a picture of this one. That is how boring it looked completely covered in snow.
I had seen photos of this crate lake in the Summer, and was very excited to see it in person. However, in Winter, it is underwhelming. The whole thing is covered in ice and snow and it all blends into one. As my sister-in-law put it as we first looked downhill at the lake, which was covered in ice: “What’s the difference between a crater and the bottom of a hill?” None, Jessie. There is none.
I still plan on checking this out again in the Summer - the colors are supposed to be beautiful. But if you're going in the winter, better skip it.
Better Alternative: Fjaðrárgljúfur Canyon
This was by far one of the best sights we saw this entire trip. The platform offers a view from the top, and it's breathtaking - even in the winter.
Fun Fact: I didn’t know this at the time, but I guess Justin Bieber filmed one of his videos here?
Skip: Gulfoss Waterfall
Ugh. This was the most disappointing sight of our entire trip. I think this may be the most famous waterfall in Iceland, and I had seen so many photos of it. But when we got up there it was just…meh.
The parking lot is right by where the viewing points are, so there is no hiking involved. We went in the afternoon and the whole place was crowded with tourists. I mean CROWDED. Like, impossible to get a good photo crowded. The actual waterfall was fine. It’s really pretty, but just not as overwhelmingly beautiful as other ones we had seen. I get really turned off when places are really touristy, so maybe I am a bit biased.
Better Alternative: Skógafoss Waterfall
The waterfall is 197 feet of pure beauty. There are stairs you can take to get to the very top, but be warned – it’s EXHAUSTING (did I mention the thing is 197 feet tall?). If you can make it all the way up, the view will quickly make you forget you just climbed one million steps. There’s actually a little metal platform you can go on that hangs off of the edge of the cliff!
This spot gets pretty crowded (but not as much as Gulfoss), so its best to go early in the morning. There is plenty of free parking, and a few restaurants in the area.
Have you done the Golden Circle drive? What were your thoughts?