The Best Things to Do in Iceland in Winter

|August 9, 2017
Anthropologist, social media guru, Icelandic nature and food enthusiast.

Iceland is a land of contrasts, of glaciers and hot springs, of darkness and eternal light. When planning your trip to Iceland you should ask yourself, what is the best time to visit?

Many visitors to Iceland opt for a winter break, when the nights, snow and ice are at their most captivating. Here’s a quick guide to the best things to do during this magical time of year…

Is Winter a Good Time to Visit Iceland?

Absolutely. While it can get cold (it’s not called “Sunland”!), Iceland is absolutely beautiful in winter. Snow blankets the landscapes, the Northern Lights are visible for longer, and it’s the only time of year to experience the country’s unique ice caves.

The colder climate brings some challenges that aren’t there in warmer months, but Iceland in winter is an unforgettable experience quite unlike what you’ll find anywhere else on Earth.

Here’s a quick guide, starting with one of the country’s most popular winter attractions…

Ice Cave photos captured by Norris Niman

See the Northern Lights in Winter

The Northern Lights, also known as Aurora Borealis, are among the most enchanting things you’ll see in your lifetime. Caused by sun particles entering the Earth’s atmosphere, the result is a cosmic ballet of dancing lights in the night sky. People travel from all over the world to take a Northern Lights tour.

Beautiful night view of the reflection of the Northern Lights in the water of the ocean and snow-capped mountains

Because they’re only visible at night, and daylight hours reduce greatly during the winter months, this is the best time of the year to see this phenomenon.

These lights are special, even for us Icelanders, and we’ve been lucky enough to witness them many times. They can be seen when the first lights of the season are spotted over the city of Reykjavik. Even for those of who have seen throughout their lives, the Northern Lights are too wonderful to keep to yourself. When it happens, you call your mom straight away to make sure she doesn’t miss this marvel, you jump on social media to tell your friends, and then you bask in this spectral beauty.

If all of this sounds appealing, you can check out our Northern Lights tours, where we offer 1-day tours right up to 4-day treks allowing you to experience the natural wonder that is the Aurora Borealis.

Take an Ice Cave Tour

Only available in winter, the enchanting ice caves are a once in a lifetime experience for most visitors.

Backpacker across the ice cave in Iceland

These natural phenomena form within glaciers in Iceland’s coldest months, forming spaces, shapes and shades of blue that you’ve never seen before. We have a range of ice cave tours: some combine these visits with a glacier hike or a snowmobile ride, which can take place in Skaftafell, on Langjokull and often on Solheimajokull.

Go Skiing

It should come as no surprise that country called “Iceland” has embraced skiing!

Skiing has been popular in this country for some time. Our ski areas (we won’t call them resorts because that is not technically what they are) are small and the mountains aren’t particularly high.

Still, downhill skiing in Iceland is a fun experience. Close to Reykjavik, Bláfjöll (or the Blue Mountains) is family-friendly and perfect for beginners. If you want a little more action, Akureyri, the capital of the north, has a wonderful ski area and is a very charming city.

The small but incredibly appealing towns of Dalvik, Isafjordur and Siglufjordur all have ski lifts and slopes worth exploring.

If you end up in Dalvik, it’s worth remembering that this is also one of the best places on the planet to go whale watching.

Hike to the Hot Springs

Winter is prime time for hiking and for visiting geothermal pools and hot springs – especially in the same tour!

The hot springs in Reykjadalur are always a fine way to spend half a day. It’s a relatively easy hike up to a valley where the river meets the hot springs, making it the perfect temperature for a bath.

The Secret Lagoon or Gamla Laugin (the old pool) is a delightful place to visit on its own, or as a part of a Golden Circle Tour.

The Blue Lagoon is always a popular choice and so are several of the local pools in Reykjavik.

If you time your winter visit to Iceland just right, it’s perfect to use the darker hours of the day for a dip, where you could spot the Northern Lights as you float around in the warm water of a hot spring. The pools are also considered a much-needed remedy to soothe tired legs and minds after a long day of hiking and exploring.

Don’t forget to pack the right gear! Getting cold is a sure way to dampen the mood on those hikes. The temperatures won’t be frigid, but we would advise doing some research on how to layer your clothes in an effective way.

As luck would have it, we have written a post on what to wear on a hike.

Food and Drink Tours

The atmosphere changes in Iceland at winter. As nights get longer and the temperature drops, indoor get-togethers get cosier.

Icelandic bars can go shoulder to shoulder with any in the world: the décor tends to be homely or chic, we’re great at cocktails and know what we’re doing when it comes to beer as well.

If you’re not sure where to start, our beer and drink tours include a Reykjavik pub crawl and a beer and brewery tour.

Icelandic food doesn’t get the credit it deserves. Indeed, we love fresh ingredients, innovation and especially quality seafood. The Reykjavik Food Walk will bring you everywhere from classy restaurants to mouth-watering food markets.

Further afield, in Stykkisholmur, the Viking Sushi Tour is a tasty tour of local seafood delicacies. The tour also includes sightseeing, where you’ll bear witness to incredible landscapes.

What to do on Rainy Days – Indoor Activities in Iceland

For most of winter in Iceland, you can comfortably engage in outdoor activities. But if you want to spend some time indoors, we do have an enviable range of galleries and museums. You’ll find a full list in our indoor guide to Iceland.

Perlan museum in Reykjavik

Driving in Iceland in Winter

Driving at this time of year can be a challenge, with less hospitable weather and some roads closed off. If you aren’t used to driving in snow and strong winds, we would recommend joining a guided tour instead.

Super jeep on top of Landjokull Glacier in Iceland

There are many economical options to explore Iceland while still joining a tour, the most popular being multi-day tours in the south and south-east, where hotels are included in the overall price of the trip.

If you do decide to rent a car, it’s important to give yourself time, always respect road closings and weather warnings, know the conditions of your insurance and be mindful of other drivers. We have a guide to driving in Iceland.

Festivals in Iceland in Winter

Iceland has a number of indoor and (yes) outdoor events in winter.

These include:

Iceland Airwaves

A world-famous music fest, that draws bands and fans from every corner of the globe. Previous performers in Iceland Airwaves include Bjork, Vampire Weekend, Robyn and even Yoko Ono.

Christmas Markets

Iceland is a perfect place for Christmas markets, with its winter wonderland appearance, winter festival atmosphere and – of course – close proximity to Santa Claus! Christmas markets are part of Iceland and pop up throughout the country in December.

New Year’s Eve

We like to ring in the new year in style, with partying, reflection and (of course) spectacular fireworks. Reykjavik is an especially good place to enjoy NYE celebrations.

Fireworks over Reykjavik

We have a full calendar of these events and more in our comprehensive Iceland festival guide.

See you in Iceland in this Winter!

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