2 Must-Do Trips for Iceland First-Timers: Golden Circle & South Coast

For such a small island, there are countless waterfalls, cliffs, caves, crevices and other natural wonders to behold on Iceland. There are definitely some spots that are more tourist-laden than others, mostly because they are fairly easy to get to from Reykjavik. With only two full days in the country, we decided to stick to two popular routes that would take us to some of Iceland's most famous landmarks: the South Coast and the Golden Circle.

Black sand beaches at Vik

Black sand beaches at Vik

Vik is a small town on the south coast of Iceland about a 2.5-hour drive from Reykjavik. Along the way is some otherworldly terrain. The mossy rocks are like nothing I've ever seen! Also along the way are two spectacular waterfalls: Seljalandsfoss and Skogafoss. You can walk behind Seljalandsfoss for an incredible view, and at Skogafoss there are probably rainbows and mountain goats floating around. When you get to Vik, the black sand beaches are aplenty and glaciers peek out from behind the mountains.

Atop Skogafoss

Atop Skogafoss

It's common to pull the car over and stop along the road in between these landmarks to capture the scenery along the way. Plan to spend some time at each landmark and to pull over frequently in between. For most people, that 2.5-hour drive is actually more 5-6 hours. We booked an evening reservation at the Blue Lagoon and had to book it along the South Coast to make it there on time. I don't recommend doing that since it's a long drive, but that drive along route 427 was so much more desolate, which was nice after following tour buses around all day!

Behind Seljalandsfoss

Behind Seljalandsfoss

The Golden Circle is probably the most popular tourist destination in all of Iceland. There are three major landmarks along the drive: Þingvellir National Park, Geysir, and Gullfoss. You can spend days just at Þingvellir, where the site of the original Icelandic parliament is preserved. It lies in a rift valley that marks the crest of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge and the boundary between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. You can even scuba dive between the plates!

Geysir

Geysir

If you've ever seen Old Faithful, Geysir is home to two of its hot spring brothers, only you can get much closer to them than you can at Yellowstone. I thought the cafe and gift shop were pretty cool there too. Inside is a museum and some cool artifacts on the history of Icelandic wrestling.

There are hundreds of waterfalls on Iceland, but Gullfoss is truly something to see. It's magical!

We stopped at Laugarvatn between Þingvellir and Geysir for lunch. It says that 200 people live there, but there are also 12 hotels and some hot springs, so I'm thinking there might be a few more people there in the daytime to keep these businesses running. 

Þingvellir

Þingvellir

If you're in need of a hot dog or a lopapeysa (Icelandic wool sweater) while you're out and about, never fear. There are food and gift shop stands at every landmark, gas station and little town along both of these routes. It never ceased to amaze me how much of Iceland was geared towards tourism.

Read more of our Iceland adventures here.