The Golden Circle wasn’t always known as such. The first recorded mention of the Icelandic-language term “Gullni Hringurinn” was in 1979, on a RÚV radio show hosted by tour guide Birna G. Bjarnleifsdóttir. The listing for the item reads: “09:00: The Traveller. Birna G. Bjarnleifsdóttir hosts a program about recreation and travel. ‘The Golden Circle,’ one of the most common routes foreign travellers take in Iceland.”
Whether or not she coined the term, Birna couldn’t have known that it would achieve such longevity. Today, this bustling sightseeing route around Þingvellir, Gullfoss, and Geysír is—along with a dip in the Blue Lagoon—the most well-known day trip in Iceland. Buses pour around the narrow roads all day, with people hopping out intermittently for some nature and selfies along the way.
As well as its blockbusters, the route is scattered with tucked-away sights that the buses drive straight past. It’s with this in mind that we set out around the Golden Circle on a wet and blustery spring morning, exploring some lesser known places along the way.
The beauty of hiring a car instead of taking the bus is that it grants you independence—you can pull over whenever something catches your eye in a curious and spontaneous mode of travel. It’s fun to follow intriguing signposts that could lead to something, or nothing.
The first such thing to catch our eye as we head out of the city is the distinctive metallic spike of the church at Mosfell. The church is relatively recent, but there’s been a settlement at Mosfell for centuries. A wooden church dates back to the mid-1800s, and its history goes all the way back to Viking times. In fact, Egill Skállagrimsson of Egils Saga is thought to be buried in the region, and archaeological digs have taken place in recent years, turning up intriguing ruined sites that connect the saga era to the present day.
Þingvellir, the site of Iceland’s early parliament, lies nearby. On the drive there, we take a moment to investigate the roadside lake of Leirvogsvatn. Several snow-covered picnic tables suggest that it’s a beautiful stop in the summer. But the lake is yet to thaw, so we tread out carefully onto the thick frozen ice, pausing to take in the inhospitable, frigid wilderness.
Þingvellir itself is a large area of wooded cliffs and valleys. There’s a traffic jam near the car park. We pass by the hotspot of activity and decide to explore an all-but-empty sideroad. Just a few minutes later, we happen upon a beautifully wild area of Hvannabrekka, and walk down the cleft between the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates without an anorak in sight.
After a look at Vinnskoga—a “friendship grove” of trees, with plaques commemorating visits from dignitaries such as the Queen of England and François Mitterrand—we head for the Friðheimar farm and restaurant. The tables are in the courtyard of a spacious greenhouse, right amongst the tomato vines. It’s a cheery space, brightly lit and adjusted to a comfortable Mediterranean temperature. Their tart and steaming tomato soup, and fresh bloody Marys, are made from tomatoes plucked straight from the vine, and served with thick wedges of warm bread. It’s a delightful spot that would be worth the trip alone.
As we loop back towards Reykjavík, we see a smudge of white against the hills. It’s Geysir erupting in the distance. But in the spirit of the day, we turn left instead of right, and drive the meandering road through the maroon and green landscape, content with our mellow alternate take on The Golden Circle.