The land is alive in Iceland, and there is evidence of that everywhere one turns: Lava flows from erupting volcanoes, steam rises from hillsides, hot-spring geysers burst forth, and waterfalls roar from above. Many of the country’s most beautiful sites are also extremely accessible. Here are seven stops that every first-time visitor should see.
Thingvellir National Park
The first stop on the Golden Circle itinerary is Thingvellir National Park, 30 miles northeast of Reykjavík. Located on the northern shore of the largest body of water in Iceland, Lake Thingvallavatn, this 57,000-acre park is set between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. Dramatic fissures cut through the landscape, and visitors can even snorkel or dive between them in the clear waters of the lake. Not only is the park notable for its geologic history, but it also holds a place in the history of Iceland: It was the site of the country’s first open-air parliament from 930 to 1798. Tour the visitor center before taking a self-guided walk to see Öxarárfoss crashing over a 39-foot cliff, and then pass an adorable white-clapboard chapel built in 1859. Thingvellir was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2004.
Geysir Geothermal Area
The Geysir geothermal area is another well-known stop along the Golden Circle. This Haukadalur Valley site is free to visitors and contains bubbling mud pots, sulfur-laden fumaroles and gushing geysers. The word “geyser” comes from Geysir, the name (meaning “the spouter”) of a currently inactive geyser that was known to spew almost 260 feet in the air. Today, the showstopper is Strokkur (“a churn”), which erupts every four or five minutes. Have your camera ready and set it on “slo-mo” to capture the best shot.