It's no secret that Iceland is drawing more and more visitors every year. If you're joining the ranks, skip the crowds at the most popular Golden Circle attractions and visit the area's lesser-known (but equally stunning) sights, restaurants, and lodges instead.

The "Golden Circle" loop in Southern Iceland completely deserves the title. It starts in Reykjavik, continues southeast to Selfoss, goes north to the Geysir geothermal area and Gullfoss waterfall, and then heads west to Thingvellir National Park before returning to the capital. Its 150 miles connect scenic vistas like nowhere else in the world.

Its arguably the most popular day trip for visitors based in Reykjavik, and stops along the way are some of the busiest in the country. And while the aforementioned sights are absolutely worth a visit, if you’d like to experience this unique part of Iceland the way locals do (and get away from the crowds at the same time) there are a few extra stops you may want to consider. 

Waterfalls, Hot Springs, and Natural Pools

The double waterfall, Hjalparfoss, after the midnight sunset

While most visitors flock to the Blue Lagoon, it's far from being the only spot in Iceland where you can take a dip in a natural hot spring. The Secret Lagoon, located in the small village of Fludir along the Golden Circle, is the oldest swimming pool in Iceland. The water stays approximately 100°F all year-round, and the pool now has brand-new facilities with showers, a bar, and a dining area. While this spot isn't exactly a secret anymore, it’s much less crowded than the Blue Lagoon — aim to arrive here before the tour buses at noon. When you're here, explore the entire geothermal area; there's even a “mini Geysir” that erupts every five minutes or so.

Aside from its natural hot springs, Iceland is also known for its majestic waterfalls — and we’re not talking about the ones mentioned in every guidebook. The Golden Circle is home to a bunch of lesser-known waterfalls that will take your breath away:

  • Hjalparfoss and Haifoss are both located off Route 32, about 30 minutes apart. Hjalparfoss, in the Thjorsardular Valley, is a double waterfall that streams out of rugged lava cliffs and plunges into a large pool. Haifoss, on the other hand, is located next to the Hekla volcano. It's around 400 feet tall, and when combined with the neighboring Granni waterfall, you get one absolutely amazing view.
  • While most tourists flock to Gullfoss, 11 miles south sits Faxafoss, a beautiful and powerful waterfall with far fewer visitors. Visit around midday and have lunch at the nearby restaurant.
  • Bruarfoss, dubbed “Iceland’s bluest waterfall," is located off Route 37. This hidden gem of cascading water — bouncing off rocks and flowing deep into a crevice filled with a turquoise-hued glacial pool — is a true spectacle of nature.
  • If you're heading to Thingvellir National Park, check out Öxarárfoss. It's a 65-foot-tall manmade waterfall located inside Almannagjá, the famous tectonic fissure. The waterfall is surrounded on both sides by lava formations.

Trails, Landscapes, and Other Sights

Mountains in Landmannalaugar

If you’d rather explore the region on foot, you’re in luck. There are several jaw-dropping hiking trails of varying difficulties in the region, like the Reykjadalur hot springs hike, close to the town of Hveragerdi. The area's crown jewel is a steaming hot river running through the valley, and since it’s not accessible by car, your only option is to walk. It's a short, less-than-an-hour stroll along a marked path that passes along hot springs and Djúpagilsfoss, a small waterfall. Don’t forget your bathing suit — after all, that's why you're here. The further up you go, the hotter the river gets, so you can choose a spot according to your preferred temperature.

The Highlands of Iceland is a hiker’s (and a photographer’s!) paradise, too. Langmannalaugar is located fairly close to the Golden Circle in the Fjallabak Nature Reserve, and it's known as one of the most colorful and stunning places in Iceland. "Colorful" because of its unique geological features — you’ll cross glacial rivers, see rhyolite mountains, and walk along endless lava fields. The best way to see its ins and outs is to hire a local guide and rent a Super Jeep to take you along the rough, unpaved roads. Otherwise, the most popular hiking trail here is 34 miles long, starting at Landmannalaugar and finishing at Thorsmork Valley

Near the town of Selfoss is the Kerið Crater, a blue crater lake surrounded by red volcanic soil. Scientists now believe that it formed when a magma chamber collapsed after a volcanic eruption 6,000 years ago. The crater is 180 feet deep and there's a path from the parking lot all the way to the lake, making this an easy stop.

Finally, a power plant may not sound like a typical attraction, but Hellisheiðarvirkjun — the largest power station in Iceland and second largest in the world — is worth the detour. The plant holds an interactive geothermal exhibition dedicated to Iceland’s commitment to green and sustainable energy, which makes up 70 percent of the country’s primary energy consumption. An earthquake simulator, a large mineral collection, and multimedia installations make this exhibit quite unique and interesting for both adults and kids.

Tip: Check out this article for more information about hiking options in the Highlands and this article for a comprehensive guide to South Iceland.

Where to Relax

Geysir Hestar Farm

The area around the Golden Circle has some excellent options for dining and lodging. You're going to need to take a break from all the sight-seeing!

  • Friðheimar Restaurant, in Reykholt, is a “tomato-themed restaurant.” While tomatoes may not be the first thing you associate with Iceland, the family that owns this farm-to-table eatery has found a way to beat the harsh Icelandic climate. In addition to classics like tomato soup, you'll find some more adventurous offerings on the menu — think cheesecake with green-tomato, cinnamon, and lime jam and homemade tomato ice cream. After lunch, walk around the farm and enjoy the peaceful surroundings.
  • Only four miles away from the beautiful Bruarfoss waterfall, you'll find the best ice cream in Iceland. Efstidalur is actually a bed and breakfast with an attached restaurant, ice cream barn, and café. The windows of the coffee shop open to the barn and the family cows — when they say their ice cream is made from fresh milk, they mean it.
  • If you’re a fan of craft beer, head to Ölvisholt Brewery in Selfoss. They offer smoked imperial stouts and amber-colored ales, and the old dairy farm that now houses the brewery is open for tours year-round. 
  • Skip the packed hotels along the Golden Circle and opt for accommodations in the Icelandic countryside, like at Geysir Hestar Farm. Family-owned, you'll get to experience their traditional Icelandic home-cooking and go on private riding tours (there are around 100 horses living on the farm). The main guesthouse has rooms for two and four people with a shared bathroom; if you're traveling with family or friends, opt for one of the wooden cottages. Each has plenty of beds, a bathroom, an equipped kitchen, a dining area, and a living room. While you're here, look out the window; you'll see Strokkur erupting every few minutes from the living room in the main guesthouse.

Tips for Beating the Crowds at the Popular Sights

Gullfoss waterfall

If you’re headed to Geysir or Gullfoss, try to get there before the tourist buses and shuttles arrive or after they leave — before 10 am and after 5 pm. Thingvellir National Park tends to empty toward the late afternoon/early evening. Have an early dinner, head over, and then walk around and explore in peace, without bumping into tourists everywhere.

Summer is the busiest time of the year for Icelandic tourism — if you can go in the off-season, you should. Spring and fall have milder temperatures, but winter means you can add hunting for the Northern Lights to your itinerary. Main roads should be clear at all times of year, though always do your research and plan ahead. The Land of Fire and Ice awaits.