The must-do activity for anyone visiting Iceland is to take a day to drive the Golden Circle, a 185-mile (300 kilometers) inland route featuring some of the country’s best attractions in southern Iceland.
Thingvellir is the first place to visit. It’s the site of Iceland’s – and in fact the world’s – first parliament, the Althing. Dating from 930 AD, when the country’s various chieftains would meet to settle disputes and work out ways to harmoniously share this harsh island, this place is steeped in history and is stunningly beautiful. The land seems to go on forever and contains a lake with fishing and one of the world’s best diving spots: Silfra Rift. Thingvellir is where the earth’s tectonic plates meet and at Silfra you can see the crack where Europe and North America are drawing slowly apart, and you can go Fissure Snorkeling in Lake Silfra in Thingvellir National Park.
The next stop is a tour of Gullfoss and Geysir. First is Gullfoss, a 105-foot (32 miles) double waterfall that is Europe’s largest. The water comes from a glacier and is cold, the edges frozen into wonderful shapes in the colder months. At any time of year the mist rainbows are stunning.
Iceland is known for the underground hot springs that power the country, and at Geysir the land literally erupts into jets of streaming, hot water rising up to 200 feet (60 miles). While the geyser that gave this area its name rarely puts on a show anymore, nearby Strokkur erupts every five minutes or so.
Also nearby are the hothouses of Hveragerdi which provide much of Iceland’s food, and Skalholt church, Iceland’s religious heart from the 11th – 18th centuries.
To see the Golden Circle, you can take a tour by bus or in a hardier four-wheel drive – a more common option during the winter when it’s snowing and cold. You can drive yourself, but some of the roads are quite rough and snow can make roads impassable. Icelanders are very good at digging cars and people out of snowdrifts, but don’t get into that situation – in the colder months, it is better to just go on a tour. There are hostels and camping sites along the route, but it can also easily be done in one day.