The Golden Circle is the most classic tourist route in Iceland. It contains three popular attractions: the Geysir Geothermal Area, Gullfoss Waterfall, and Þingvellir National Park. Herds of people visit the Golden Circle every day, either via bus tours or self-drive. As a traveler who likes to avoid popular tourist hours as much as possible, but who also sucks at driving (not economical anyways since I’m solo), I faced a dilemma. Luckily, I found Hidden Iceland, a small group travel agency whose mission is to “take you where crowds aren’t, without missing the must see places along the way.” After my experience, I can agree that Hidden Iceland is indeed the best Golden Circle tour if you want to enjoy an off-the-beaten-path feeling even when you are on the beaten path.
This post follows our day visiting several key landmarks. For the official itinerary, visit Hidden’s Iceland page: Golden Circle Platinum Tour.
*Big thanks to Hidden Iceland for sponsoring this experience. All opinions expressed in this post are my own.
Hidden Iceland Pickup
Our day started with a pick up at 8:30 AM in Reykjavik. Since I enjoyed the South Coast tour with Hidden Iceland the day before, I was extra excited for the Golden Circle tour today. The minivan was right on time to pick me up outside my hostel Hlemmur Square (psst, highly recommend this awesome hostel). I met our guide Ryan, who is actually one of the co-founders of the company. After our introduction, we drove to pick up the other passengers and went on our way.
The tour had 10 guests for the day, a nice small group. As we drove out of the city, everyone in the van got to know each other a little bit. Ryan was a great conversation starter and made the atmosphere fun and comfortable. He also explained our itinerary, which contained 5 main attractions. First stop: the Secret Lagoon.
The Secret Lagoon
We arrived at the Secret Lagoon when it just opened. This natural hot spring is not usually a part of the classic Golden Circle tours, but Hidden Iceland added it to their itinerary. Since I love hot springs, I really looked forward to this experience. Comparing to the extremely popular and commercialize Blue Lagoon, the Secret Lagoon retained an old-time authentic feel. Besides the new and modern changing room facilities, the pool area has been kept just as it was like it first opened in 1891. In fact, this it is the oldest swimming pool in the country. The water is of course heated naturally by the geothermal activity in the area. Next to the pool, there is a little geyser that erupts every five minutes or so, emitting steam into the air. Apparently, on a good weather day, you can even see the sunrise over the water.
For us, there were only a handful of other people around since it was early in the day. The mood was serene, magical and perfect. I would definitely come to the Secret Lagoon again if I return to Iceland in the future.
Lunch at Friðheimar
After our relaxing soak, we were all pretty hungry. Lunch was included as a part of the tour. With anticipation, we headed to a tomato Greenhouse farm named Friðheimar. This unique restaurant is tomato-themed. It was a pleasant surprise to walk into a beautiful dining area literally set amongst the greenhouse plants. The restaurant had just opened for the day, so once again we were the only guests. Our waiter seated us at a pretty table and gave us an interesting introduction about Friðheimar. We learned that four different kinds of tomatoes are grown on the property, and the process of cultivation is an impressive combination of nature and technology.
On the menu, every item has tomatoes in it, including drinks and desserts. I’m talking tomato draft beer, tomato ice cream, tomato cheesecake, tomato everything! I chose the tomato ravioli pasta as my main. The other recommended option was the tomato soup buffet, accompanied by unlimited homemade bread.
Everyone concluded that the food was delicious. My pasta was very filling and I loved the fresh chunky veggies that came it.
Friðheimar also has horse breeding program. So once we filled our bellies, we went searching for some Icelandic horses. We spotted these cuties in a pen right outside the greenhouse. A couple of them were in a hyper mood. While I was busy petting one horse, another snuck up on me from behind and started chewing on my jacket and hair. It was a hilarious playtime.
Our next stop was Gullfoss, one of the most iconic waterfalls in Iceland and a major attraction on the Golden Circle route. For me, the first sight of the falls was jaw-dropping. Gullfoss is absolutely huge. Watching the powerful cascade is a moment that reminds all how awe-inspiring nature can be. In the winter, the white snow adds an extra layer of beauty, making the scene a photographer’s dream.
From Gullfoss, the famous Geysir geothermal site is not too far away. Did you know that the English word “geyser” originated from this particular Geysir in Iceland? This landmark is another must-see on the Golden Circle. You know you’ve entered the activity zone when you notice yellow sulphuric stains on the ground and steam gas in the air.
Strokkur is the most active geyser in the area and erupts every ten minutes or so. The eruption usually blasts boiling water into the air about 15 to 20 meters, but it can go up to as high as 40 meters when it really feels like showing off. We had a front and center spot as it was not crowded when we got there. After a couple of minutes wait, we witnessed nature’s spectacle as promised.
Þingvellir National Park
Our last stop of the day was Þingvellir National Park. This UNESCO world heritage site is special for many reasons. First of all, the park is a geographic wonder as it lies in the rift valley of the diverging North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. It is fascinating to see the crack where the two plates are coming apart, and you can actually walk between the boundaries. Where else in the world can you say you’ve done that? Secondly, Þingvellir holds historical and cultural significance as it is the place where the first known parliament in the world was established. Here, many important decisions were made for Iceland as a country. And lastly, this park was the site for the filming of a little show you may have heard of, Game of Thrones! (I just had to throw that fun fact in there 🙂 ) So GOT watchers, see how many familiar sceneries can you find.
By the time we pulled into Þingvellir, it was the late afternoon and the park was very quiet. Ryan explained that Hidden Iceland visits this stop last because people are usually leaving the park at this time. This strategy obviously works as we had no distractions while enjoying the views. The tranquil, grand, marvelous views…
Hidden Iceland Golden Circle Tour Summary
I give Hidden Iceland two huge thumbs up for being the best Golden Circle Tour at avoiding crowds. We encountered minimal people at many of our stops thanks to their impeccable timing. In fact, we were the only ones at Friðheimar and Þingvellir (and both places are very popular). Kudos to our guide Ryan, who took good care of us. We got caught up in the storm for awhile on the way back to Reykjavik. However, Ryan stayed calm and handled the situation very well. He even bought us extra snacks! With such a small group, everyone got to chat with each other, and the vibe felt more like a bunch of friends traveling together rather than a tour company. It was especially cute when we shared peanuts and cookies while listening to Christmas jams in the car. 😛 I would definitely travel with Hidden Iceland again and check out some of their other tours if I return to Iceland one day.