Skálholt & Laugarás
Skálholt is a hugely important religious centre; it was one of two bishoprics (the other was Hólar in the north) that ruled Iceland’s souls from the 11th to the 18th centuries. Skálholt rose to prominence under Gissur the White, the driving force behind the Christianisation of Iceland.
The rural township of Reykholt – one of several Reykholts around the country – is centred on the hot spring Reykjahver and has an obligatory geothermal pool. The township is south Iceland’s centre for white-water rafting. Both Arctic Rafting and Iceland Riverjet are based in the area, offering a fun day of thrills and spills along the Hvitá river.
This national park, 23km east of Reykjavík, is Iceland’s most important historical site and a place of lonely beauty. The country’s first national park, it was finally made a Unesco World Heritage Site in 2004. The Vikings established the world’s first democratic parliament, the Alþing, here in AD 930.
One of Iceland’s most famous tourist attractions, Geysir (gay-zeer) is the original hot-water spout after which all other geysers around the world are named. The Great Geysir once gushed water up to 80m into the air but, sadly, it became clogged in the 1950s when tourists threw rocks into the spring in an attempt to set it off.
Laugarvatn (Hot Springs Lake) wasn’t named this way for nothing – this agreeable body of water is fed not only by streams running from the misty fells behind it, but by the hot spring Vígðalaug, famous since medieval times. A village, also called Laugarvatn, sits on the lake’s western shore, and it is the best places to base yourself in the Golden Circle area.
The Þjórsá is Iceland’s longest river, a fast-flowing, churning mass of milky glacial water that runs 230km from Vatnajökull down to the Atlantic. Including its tributaries, it accounts for almost one-third of Iceland’s hydroelectric power. Rte 32 follows the western side of the river, as it moves upstream and into the highlands.
Iceland’s most famous waterfall, Gullfoss (Golden Falls) is a spectacular double cascade. It drops 32m, kicking up a sheer wall of spray before thundering away down a narrow ravine. On sunny days the spray creates shimmering rainbows, and it’s also magical in winter when the falls glitter with ice.
The tiny settlement of Árnes, near the junction of Rtes 30 and 32, is a convenient base for exploring Þjórsárdalur, or an easy spot to layover on the way to/from Landmannalaugar (located 1¾ hours further on). Be sure to check out the highly informative Þjórsárstofa in the large white community centre, which feels more like a makeshift museum about the wonders further on.