Hidden Gems in Iceland: The Golden Circle
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The Hidden Gems on Iceland’s Golden Circle
By now, you’ve probably heard about the Golden Circle in Iceland. This is one of the country’s most famous tourist routes, easily accessible from Reykjavik and offering a fantastic variety of Icelandic nature. From epic waterfalls to volcanic geology and steaming geothermal energy, it’s got it all – and you can easily see it all in a day. But what about some of the hidden gems on Iceland’s Golden Circle?
Thanks to the fact that the area is so close to Reykjavik, the Golden Circle in Iceland is one of the busiest places in the country. The three main sights along the route – Thingvellir National Park, Geysir, and Gullfoss – are crowded at most times of the year. To a lesser extent, a couple of other spots have also become busier, such as Kerið Volcanic Crater, Friðheimar Tomato Farm, and the Secret Lagoon Hot Spring.
But with a campervan, you’ll be free to delve deeper into the area, turning up a few of the secret and quiet spots that remain. Here are the best hidden gems on Iceland’s Golden Circle.
1. Thórufoss Waterfall
From Reykjavik, it’s only a short 45-minute drive to get to Thingvellir National Park, the first stop on Iceland’s Golden Circle. But zip straight there and you’ll miss the chance for a quick detour you can make to see a quiet, pretty waterfall: Thórufoss. Chances are, you’ll have it to yourself.
Although it’s small, Thórufoss is still a beautiful waterfall and is often made even nicer by the lack of crowds. After all, there’s something special about feeling like you’re the only person for miles around. To get here, after around half an hour in the car from Reykjavik along Route 36 toward Thingvellir, turn up Route 48. Continue along the road for about 4km (2.5 miles) until you reach the parking area. From here, it’s a short walk to the waterfall itself. The trail even leads down to the riverside, letting you get up nice and close.
2. The Cave People Museum
A relatively new addition to the Golden Circle area, the Cave People Museum is a fascinating look into the Iceland of old. A museum-type attraction, visit here to see how a lot of Icelanders used to live, as little as 100 years in the past. This cave has been a home for several families over the years, but today, it has been set up as a look into Iceland’s past.
The visit involves a short 25-minute tour of the cave home, which replicates exactly what it was like living in one, from the antique furniture to the clothes worn by the guides. The home is also surrounded by some immaculate Icelandic nature, which again helps you get a feel for what it must have been like to live in the area back in the day.
To get here, after leaving Thingvellir and continuing toward Geysir along Route 365, you’ll come across a road with a sign labeled “Laugarvatnsvellir”. Turn down here and continue for about 5 minutes to arrive at the Cave People Museum. The cost is 2,000 ISK per person, and tours leave every 30 minutes.
3. Brúarfoss Waterfall
One sight along the Golden Circle in Iceland that is growing in popularity, Brúarfoss Waterfall makes this list simply because it still doesn’t feature on many day tours from Reykjavik. That usually means you’ll have only other self-driving visitors to contend with, but still, only the die-hard waterfall fans usually make their way to Brúarfoss.
The waterfall itself is stunning, often with beautiful blue water churning to white as it crashes over the rocks. It’s another smaller waterfall, especially when you compare it to Gullfoss Waterfall, but it’s one of Iceland’s more unique waterfalls and worth the quick detour.
To visit Brúarfoss, you used to have to hike along the river along a muddy trail. You can still choose to do that (look for the parking area just past the river with space for around 12 vehicles), but there’s also a new option. Recently, a parking area has opened right next to the waterfall (750 ISK). The waterfall might not remain so quiet for long.
4. Kualaug Hot Spring
If your idea of a great hot spring is a small, warm pool surrounded by mud in a quiet field, then Kualaug is for you. This hot spring has evaded the crowds of tourists for an age now, sitting just to the north of the Geysir geothermal area. To get here, you’ll need to take road F333, so a 4x4 campervan is required. You’ll know you’ve arrived when you get to the church surrounded by a small forest, a quiet corner of the Golden Circle undisturbed by visitors.
Kualaug itself is a small pool in a field, surrounded by a bit of a muddy swamp. There are some wooden planks thrown across the grass to get you to the pool with clean boots, but they have all mostly been covered in mud now as well. Still, muddy boots are a small price to pay for the joy of soaking in this remote hot spring – you’ll likely have the whole thing to yourself. One of the true hidden gems on Iceland’s Golden Circle.
5. Faxafoss Waterfall
Faxafoss is another waterfall on the Golden Circle in Iceland that is often skipped by passing travelers. To get here, between Brúarfoss and Geysir is Route 35 heading south. Follow it for a while and you’ll reach the parking area, the entire thing clearly signposted. Parking costs 700 ISK.
The waterfall is impressive thanks to its 80m (260ft) width, and there’s an easy path that takes you down to the bottom of the river to stand right next to the water. Here you’ll also be able to see a set of stairs built onto a hill for the salmon to get uphill.
As far as hidden gems on Iceland’s Golden Circle go, this is one of the busier spots, so don’t expect to have it to yourself. But still, not as many people stop here as there could be, as most have their sights set on the Friðheimar Tomato Farm down the road in the small village of Reykholt.
6. Brúarhlöð Canyon
After finishing your time at Gullfoss, with a campervan you’ll more than likely be continuing toward the ring road and South Iceland. A short drive away on the road you’ll take (Route 30) is Brúarhlöð Canyon, a great hidden gem on Iceland’s Golden Circle and worth a quick stop.
The water here in the canyon is a vivid blue, like Brúarfoss Waterfall (mentioned above) or even the water in the famous Blue Lagoon. There’s no extensive hiking to do here, rather it’s just a short walk to take in the views and enjoy the peace and quiet. One of the great hidden gems on Iceland’s Golden Circle.
7. Hrunalaug Hot Spring
Hrunalaug is a beautiful hot spring in the Golden Circle area that is overshadowed by the more well-known Secret Lagoon nearby. However, with some recent improvements to the infrastructure and a swish new website, Hrunalaug will likely see more visitors in the coming years. Still, it’s much quieter than the Secret Lagoon, and for that reason, we decided to include it on this list of hidden gems on Iceland’s Golden Circle.
The hot spring is located on a farm just outside of the village of Flúðir. It’s remote, beautiful, and quiet, with three pools steaming away in the middle of a field. It’s one of the more natural hot springs found in Iceland.
This historic hot spring has been here for a while, but it was often dirty and unkempt. The owners of the land have recently taken steps toward protecting the hot spring and the surrounding environment. Now, with a small fee for access, you’ll find new changing rooms, and they control how many people access the pool at one time, making sure things stay nice and quiet.
8. Thorláksbúð Turf Church
If you want to see a historic turf-covered church while on the Golden Circle, you’re in luck. Located near the river between Flúðir and Reykholt (Route 31), this quiet church made from wood sits behind a much larger, modern church. It’s a nice little stop to make for another glimpse into Iceland’s past. Without going into too much religious detail, just know that this spot, and nearby Skálholt, were very important seats of power for the church in Iceland.
This hidden gem on Iceland’s Golden Circle remains uncrowded, quiet, and peaceful. It’s a fitting atmosphere for the historic church, and a great chance to admire the turf-roofed houses that Iceland is famous for.
9. Farmer’s Bistro (Flúðir Mushroom Farm)
Many people know of the tomato farm, Friðheimar, located on the Golden Circle. It’s a popular place to stop for lunch, taking a tour of the large greenhouse filled with tomato plants and sampling their tomato-themed food. From tomato beer to soup, it’s a great experience. However, there’s another great farm restaurant in the Golden Circle area that is not nearly as famous – the Flúðir Mushroom Farm, also known as the Farmer’s Bistro.
If you couldn’t guess where Friðheimar focuses on tomatoes, the Farmer’s Bistro does mushrooms. Delicious meals await here, from their portobello burger to mushroom soup. The lunch buffet is a great option if you’re in the area around that time, or if you’ve visited the Secret Lagoon in the morning (or perhaps Hrunalaug Hot Spring instead?)
10. Hjálparfoss Waterfall
Technically outside the Golden Circle area, but since it’s an easy addition to any Golden Circle self-drive tour, we’re adding it to this list of hidden gems. To get here, take Route 30 heading south from Flúðir toward the ring road and south coast. But before you get there, you’ll take a left onto Route 32, which leads you into the remote and beautiful Thjórsárdalur Valley. Less than 30 minutes up the road you’ll arrive at this stunning waterfall, a great addition to any tour around the Golden Circle.
Hjálparfoss is technically two waterfalls combining into one, with two streams of water angled toward each other and crashing down the cliffs to meet in the pool below. Again, this is one of Iceland’s more unique waterfalls, made even more special thanks to some twisted basalt columns on either side of the waterfall. The waterfall is accessed by a short and easy walk from the parking area.
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