Preparation, Things to Do

Golden Circle Add-ons

Kerid

Kerið” by Shaun Versey is licensed under CC BY 2.0

So you’ve read our post about whether you can skip the Golden Circle, and you’ve decided the answer is, “No way, I’m not skipping that!” The next question is how to actually do the tour. If you have a rental car, you can cover the Golden Circle with your own personal list of stops and timetable. If you are doing an organized tour, we’ll list some tour companies that offer stops at some of the places listed below.

[Update: See our Golden Circle tour with Kids!]

For the organized tours, you’ll have to choose the level of service you want. We’ll look at three categories: Large bus tours, small bus tours, and personal tours. Note that our advice here will generally mirror that found in the post about how to get from the airport to Reykjavik.

But one difference between the airport run and the Golden Circle is what sites you will actually see. All tours will cover the big 3 on the Golden Circle:

  1. Thingvellir (Þingvellir) is a national park. This is where the first Icelandic Parliament met (in the year 930!) and is comprised of two different continental plates—the one that eventually formed North America and the one that eventually formed Europe. It has miles of walking trails, a waterfall, and a visitor’s center.
  2. Geysir is part of a larger geothermal field. Geysir is the original geyser, a word that describes a hot spring that periodically erupts a column of hot water. While Geysir used to erupt reliably, the main attraction today is Strokkur, a nearby geyser (lowercase g!) that erupts impressively every few minutes.
  3. Gullfoss is a huge, world famous waterfall, with two sections of falling water at 90 degree angles. It’s impressive and there are paths available to get incredibly close to the powerful water. (Be careful!) There’s a small visitor’s center, gift shop, and café on site.

There are many more “secondary” attractions you can add that are either on the way or close by:

golden circle add ons full with gullfoss© Mapbox   © OpenStreetMap

Let’s look at each of these, loosely categorized by the type of activity:

Go to a spa

The Blue Lagoon is far and away the most famous spa in Iceland. But it is also far and away the most expensive. Two of the options in our map above are spas: Laugarvartn Fontana and the Secret Lagoon. Take a look at the prices for these 2 compared to the Blue Lagoon:

Adults Kids 14-15 Kids 2-13 Kids under 2
Blue Lagoon – summer $54 $27 Free Not allowed!
Blue Lagoon – not summer $43 $27 Free Not allowed!
Adults Kids 13-16 Kids 12 and under Family Rate
Laugarvatn Fontana $26 $15 Free $65
Adults Kids 16 and under
Secret Lagoon $19 Free

(Blue Lagoon prices are for 2016.)

Can you skip the Blue Lagoon and head to Fontana or Secret Lagoon instead? Many families say yes. The Blue Lagoon is very crowded, and you need to make a reservation. Kids under 2 are simply not allowed in. And, they only allow 2 kids per adult. So if you have 2 adults and 5 kids, you can’t get in, even if all of the kids are 2 or older.

Laugarvatn Fontana  is a beautiful Spa and geothermal bath facility. Not only will they let your kids under 2 in, but Fontana even has a shallow pool for them to play in.  They also offer a “rye bread experience” at 11:30 AM and 2:30 PM. This costs about $12 per person, and is free for kids 12 and under.

The Secret Lagoon just opened in the summer of 2014. (Perhaps it will soon be known as the “formerly secret lagoon.”) From the water, you can watch a little geyser erupt while you float around in the steamy water. And there is a geothermal area you can explore around the lagoon. [Update: See our Secret Lagoon visit here.]

Go on an adventure.

Reykholt river rafting.

Between Thingvellir and Geiser runs the Hvítá river. Several companies run whitewater rafting trips here. I don’t think there are world-class rapids here- just a fun family adventure. If you’re designing your own tour, you can add on rafting with Arctic Rafting

Or if you want a full day tour that includes the Golden Circle and rafting (for an 11 hour trip!) you can try Arctic Adventures.

Silfra snorkeling.

Both Dive.is and scuba.is will take you snorkeling between the two continental plates. They claim that the water is so clear and pure that you can drink it as you snorkel. They provide all of the equipment you need, and hot chocolate and cookies after you are out of the water.

Note that there are minimum height and weight requirements for this trip. You must be 12 years or older, weigh 100 pounds or more, and be 5 feet or taller. None of my kids actually meet all of these criteria, so this may or may not be a good activity for your family.

Both companies offer snorkeling as a standalone tour, or as part of a full day Golden Circle package.

Dive.is: Standalone tour, Golden Circle package.
Scuba.is: Tours are listed here.

(Both dive.is and scuba.is offer both options: just snorkeling or a full day Golden Circle tour plus snorkeling. Both have the same requirements for age and size for snorkeling. Snorkel.is is slightly cheaper, and both companies have excellent reviews and have been responsive to my e-mails.)

See another waterfall

Faxi
FAXI í Tungufljóti” by Álfheiður Magnúsdóttir is licensed under CC BY 2.0

While you’re in the neighborhood, why not check out another impressive waterfall? Sure, it’s not Gullfoss. But Faxi (The Horse’s Mane waterfall) is still worth a visit. Maybe visit here before Gullfoss. Note that if you’re trying to find this on a GPS program, you may need to call it Vatnsleysufoss.

See a greenhouse … or a greenhouse city.

Fridheimar is actually a greenhouse that grows tomatoes and serves a lunch IN THE GREENHOUSE. Note that this is not an ideal place for picky eaters. The main lunch option is unlimited helpings of their tomato soup and homemade bread and butter plus dessert, though there is usually another option, such as a pasta dish. (Perhaps the tomato soup will be more appealing to kids when you are surrounded by tomato plants in the greenhouse?) Lunch is served from 12-4, and you can make a reservation by e-mailing them at fridheimar@fridheimar.is.

A second option, related to Fridheimer only by the use of geothermal energy, is visiting the city of Hveragerdi . Noting here is a must-see, but it’s a reasonable stop on the way or the way back to the Golden Circle attractions. There you will find a geothermal park, where you can soak your feet in a foot bath, or cook an egg using geothermal energy.

In 2008, an earthquake struck Iceland, near Hveragerdi. Inside of the Sunnumörk Shopping Center in Hveragerdi  is a small earthquake museum , which is free except for the optional earthquake simulator.

For food in Hveragerdi, your options range from elegant to basic. At the top end is Restaurant Varma, a highly rated “Slow Food” restaurant. Check out the kids menu at the end of this PDF document, and see what your kids think of “Lamb fillet and a shank of lamb cooked in the hot spring, mini-potatoes and Icelandic wild-herb infused sauce . . .” (Yes, that’s on the children’s menu.)

Stepping down to a more casual restaurant, Kjöt og kúnst still has a decent children’s menu. Along with chicken nuggets and hot dogs, kids can order a traditional Icelandic rice pudding as their meal.

[Update June 2016: We went to Kjöt og kúnst, and didn’t have a very good experience. See more details in this post.]

Or for a faster meal, stop by Hverabakari sf, a bakery with a selection of breads, soups, and sandwiches. Hverabakari  doesn’t seem to have a web site, and it’s a little hard to find. GPS coordinates are: 63.9996501,-21.1898326

Visit a power plant

Hellisheidi Power Station is the 6th largest geothermal power plant in the world.  It has a small but modern visitor’s center that is open every day from 9 AM – 5 PM. Admission is about $7 for adults, and free for kids 16 and under.

We strongly preferred a much lesser-known power plant: Ljósafoss Power Station. It’s completely free, houses a nice interactive museum, and even has free coffee drinks, hot chocolate, and orange juice!

See a crater

Kerid Crater was formed by a volcano. Scientists believe that an underground magma chamber that emptied, leaving behind the 180 foot deep crater. (Source: http://kerid.is/formation-of-kerid/) Today, a lake has formed at the bottom, and it glistens with different colors of blue and green because of minerals in the water.

(See the picture at the top of this post of Kerid Crater.)

In 2013, the landowners around Kerid began charging a modest admission fee; adults are $3 and kids under 12 are free. There are still ongoing disputes about this.  But as of 2015, the fee is still being charged.  Given how crowded the Golden Circle is becoming, a $6 or $9 fee for your family might be a good value to keep the crowds down a little. (For a while in 2014 there was a fee to see Geiser, but that is back to free for now, besides an optional donation.)

[Update June 2016: As of May 2016, Thingvellir National Park is charging about $4 for parking.]

See a cathedral

Skalholt (http://skalholt.is/3905-2/?lang=en) is where Iceland’s first bishop settled, back in 1056. (Yes, that second digit is a zero.) Today there is a more modern cathedral there, built on the site of one of Iceland’s earliest cathedrals. The cathedral has impressive stained-glass windows and a museum in the crypt downstairs. Open from 9 AM – 6 PM.

See a petting zoo

If the weather is nice over the summer, try the petting zoo Slakki. There are animals to pet and see, miniature golf, digging machines, and more. Most of the visitors here are from Iceland, so you’ll get a taste of Icelandic life in a non-touristy spot. See our visit to Slakki.


The drive from Reykjavik to Gullfoss (the furthest out of the 3 Golden Circle sites) will take you at least an hour and a half. While you’re out in that part of the country, it probably makes sense to see a couple of other sites. For example, here is a sample itinerary, assuming you have a car:

  1. Leave Reykjavik around 9 AM and head to Thingvellir. (9 AM won’t put you in front of all of the tours in the summer- Reykjavik Excursions has an extra tour from May 15 – October 31 that leaves at 7 AM!)
  2. Head to Laugarvatn Fontana. Fontana is right off the road from Thingvellir to Geysir, and so this doesn’t add any extra driving. From June 10th through August 21st, the spa opens at 10 AM. Otherwise, you have to wait until 11. It should work either way, though you may have to linger a bit more at Thingvellir in the winter. If you’re hungry when you get there, grab a snack at the café at Fontana. For under $5 you can get a fruit smoothie made with Skyr, an Icelandic yogurt.

3a. Head to Fridheimar greenhouse for lunch. This adds about 15 minutes to the drive. Lunch is served from 12-4.

3b. If tomatoes and tomato soup isn’t your thing, but you want a nice lunch, head a little further down the road to Efstidalur. This is a farm hotel, with a restaurant that serves hamburgers with beef from the farm.  Plus, they have an ice cream barn. Yes, that last word is barn.

  1. Drive on to Geysir / Strokkur.
  2. Drive on to Gullfoss. Get a snack in the café if anyone is hungry.
  3. If you can make it there before they close at 5 (and the kids aren’t done for the day) head to the Hellisheidi Power Station. This adds less than 10 minutes to the drive, but it does require you to drive back to Reykjavik a different way.

I think most families might skip the power station and just head back to Reykjavik, especially if everyone is enjoying the Fontana spa.

I don’t think any tour company will offer this exact itinerary, unless you book a custom tour. You can get pretty close with some larger tours, though. Check out our post to see details about the options. [link]

That covers most of the optional add-ons to your Golden Circle tour. Anything we missed?

Golden Circle Add-ons was last modified: September 6th, 2017 by Eric