The Extraordinary Sights of Iceland’s Golden Circle

The sights of the Golden Circle are so stunning that it doesn’t matter whether you visit in summer or winter, so I booked a seat on a minibus tour when I visited Iceland in early February this year. We left Reykjavik as the sun started to rise and returned as it set over the ocean. In between, we visited Thingvellir National Park, the Strokkur geyser, and Gullfoss waterfall–a circuit that’s a classic for a reason.

Iceland Gulfoss Golden Circle

Gulfoss, Iceland

Thingvellir

Thingvellir is hugely important for historic and geographic reasons. It’s both where the Icelandic Parliament was established way back in the 10th century, and it’s where the North American tectonic plate separates from the Eurasian tectonic plate. Democracy trembling in the earthquakes of the continents drifting apart.

The first assembly met here in 930, and continued to meet even as the Norwegians and then the Danish claimed Iceland for their own, until eventually the Danish king held absolute rule and the assembly was no longer allowed to serve its purpose. Today, the prime minister’s summer home sits in the valley near one of the possible locations of the ‘law rock’ from which the law was read and assembly decisions made.

While continental plates are rubbing up against one another in the Pacific and causing tsunamis, on this side of the world they’re pulling apart and causing earthquakes. Most of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge–the longest mountain range in the world–runs along the ocean floor, and the only place you can walk along it on land is here in Iceland. The Icelandic government have put a path down at the base of the ridge, so as you walk down the path you’re leaving the North American continental plate and entering a rift valley; off in the distance you can see the ridge of the Eurasian plate rising above this volcanic island. Few things in this world are singular, and I cherish those that are.

Geysers

Iceland quietly has so many original and unusual natural wonders. One of those is the spouting hot spring from which we get the word “geyser” — Geysir, the first such spring Europeans learned about. Geysir hasn’t spouted in many years, but literally yards away lies Strokkur, which makes up for Geysir’s inactivity by going off every 5-10 minutes, nearly as reliably as Old Faithful of Yellowstone in America.

These two springs sit in a valley full of geothermal activity, and every family in the area either has their own natural hot spring as a source of energy, or they rent from their neighbors. Geothermal energy is also what powers the capital city of Reykjavik, although those springs are not in this valley.

Gullfoss

By the time we got to Gullfoss, I was starting to creak in the cold wind. It’s colder in the interior of the island than it is out on the coast, so when I’d come back from the South Shore tour the day before and blithely remarked on how the weather wasn’t so bad, I was not prepared for Gullfoss. Both my camera and my phone just shut themselves down (happily, they recovered when I warmed the batteries later). It wasn’t even too terrible, numbers-wise; our guide said it was -14 Celsius, and I know I’ve been in worse in Chicago. The wind wasn’t awful and there was no precipitation. But it was still really, really cold, and I had to do some finger exercises to keep them from losing feeling.

But Gullfoss is a waterfall, so as you can imagine, dearest fellow travelers, I didn’t really care how cold it was. What a waterfall! The Hvítá River spreads wide across the landscape, and rushes down in several stages, before plunging to a much narrower space below. It’s dramatic and magnificent. The blue of the water and the white of the snow shone in the sunlight, and I had one of those moments of being aware that my eyes weren’t quite up to the task of taking in all that they were seeing.

Horses and Faxafoss

One of the reasons I booked the Iceland Horizons tour was I’d read that they made a couple extra stops that other bus tours didn’t: we stopped by the side of the road to meet some horses, and our last stop of the day was Faxafoss waterfall. Even knowing this, I hadn’t planned ahead and didn’t have any snacks to feed the horses, who were unimpressed with my lack of offerings, and who can blame them. They did let me admire them from a slight distance, though.

To end the day with a bonus waterfall, with no one else around but the people from my bus, was a pleasure.

Iceland Faxafoss Golden Circle

Faxafoss

Iceland Faxafoss Golden Circle

Cathedral of Stone, Temple of Water in Sibenik

Sibenik is famous for two things: its cathedral, and the nearby waterfalls of Krka National Park. Rightfully so, because these things of beauty stand out.

The Krka River

The Krka River

St James' Cathedral

St James’ Cathedral

St. James’ Cathedral is a World Heritage site, as its construction over a period of more than 100 years incorporated different styles and building techniques in a unique way. The only material used was stone from the quarries of the island of Brac, and it was fitted together in a way more similar to shipbuilding or cabinet-making than traditional building construction, which is one of the reasons it’s listed.

A Renaissance exterior

A Renaissance exterior

Also, being built between 1431 and 1555 meant that the cathedral bridged the Gothic and Renaissance styles. There are flourishes around the interior that echo famous cathedrals in other cities, and a baptistry famous for its intricate designs.

The transept

The transept

Cheery church iconography

Cheery church iconography

My favorite part, though, was the frieze around part of the exterior, which was decorated with faces carved in the stone. Stories go that these are the faces of donors to the project, and the unpopular donors are depicted in unflattering statuary.

The baptistry

The baptistry

The baptistry ceiling

The baptistry ceiling

If we don't look at the lion, maybe he won't eat us. Don't look at the lion, man...

If we don’t look at the lion, maybe he won’t eat us. Don’t look at the lion, man…

Krka National Park is lovely. I met some people who didn’t like how accessible it was–they wanted their waterfalls earned through a couple hours of hiking–but the waterfalls aren’t a spectacular reveal here, so I don’t see the point. The park consists of a blue-green river flowing over little ridges, small changes in gradation, one after another, so it’s more like collections of tiered falls separated by expanses of river. The water flows at a good rate, so by the time it reaches the lower falls, which are actually a decent height at 47 meters tall, it’s rushing over and splashing down magnificently.

Ribbit

Ribbit

The lower falls

The lower falls

It only took fifteen minutes of following this guy to get this shot

It only took fifteen minutes of following this guy to get this shot

I visited the park with a young French woman I met at my hostel. We walked along the boardwalks trying to photograph bright green frogs and iridescent dragonflies, stopped for lunch at the bottom of the lower falls, and then decided that despite the slight chill in the air, we’d brave going in. It was cold but fun, and we got a workout in walking against the current.

krka sibenik

Overlooking Sibenik

Overlooking Sibenik

Laure and I doing our best to look glamorous and not fall over

Laure and I doing our best to look glamorous and not fall over