Everything you need to know about visiting Iceland in Winter

Iceland in winter

I’ve made it no secret, Iceland is one of my favorite countries in the world, perhaps maybe because it is so similar to New Zealand, and New Zealand is awesome. 

I can’t believe it’s been a year and half since I stepped foot in the great white north. I visited in summer with my best friend from college for a week road-tripping around the country with Tiny Iceland on an epic 7 day free stopover with Icelandair.  

But I have been dreaming about going back in winter, mostly to see the Northern Lights and live out all my winter fairytale fantasies. Luckily my friend Jessica, the blogger behind Curiosity Travels and who will be helping me out with my workload this year, just finished a winter trip there and piqued my interest even more. 

After some pushing and prodding she agreed to share her thoughts about traveling Iceland in winter – enjoy!

Iceland in winter

To most people, having an extended stopover in Iceland during the dead of winter would sound like a miserably cold idea.

I was afraid that might be true.

Still, the flight from London to Seattle via Iceland for 6 days was a bargain and I could fit in the trip right before my 90 day Schengen visa expired.  Win! In denial of all the things that could go wrong, (blizzards, Vitamin D deprivation, etc.) I purchased the ticket and hoped for the best.

Iceland in winter

While I didn’t know it then, this trip ended up being one of the best of my life.  Turns out, Iceland in winter is just dreamy! Sadly though, most people don’t get to experience this, instead skipping the country from late-November to February assuming subzero temperatures and continuously dark days, as I almost did.

From snowy landscapes to Northern light displays, winter on this Arctic island offers so many things which other seasons just can’t provide.  In fact, even if you’ve visited in summer, the country just might warrant another visit just to experience the seasonal contrast.  Still, in order to be prepared for a visit to Iceland in winter there are a handful of things you must know.

Iceland in winter

The days are short, but the light is beautiful

Although in the Arctic Circle, winter in Iceland doesn’t mean complete days of darkness.  In Reykjavik during the winter solstice in December, the shortest day of the year, the sun rises at 11:20am and sets around 3:30pm.  In the more Northern parts of the country this can be a bit more extreme.

Although strange to most of us, there is one benefit to these short hours of light—the whole day is beautiful. Since the sun never reaches a high position in the sky, the light during these hours creates a warm glow covering the country.  The sunrises and sunsets last for a couple of hours at a time and light is also soft, making it perfect for photography.

While it is definitely difficult to get out of bed at 8am (or even 9 or 10) when it’s still completely dark outside, the city is well lit and most Icelanders have already been up and about for a while.  Normal life goes on as usual before the sun rises, and also after the sun sets. Don’t assume that just because it’s dark there will be nothing to do.

Iceland in winter

The weather is unpredictable

“If you don’t like the weather, wait 5 minutes,” is a common saying all year round in Iceland.  In winter, this phrase takes on even more drastic implications.

Within the shortest time span a snowstorm can turn to sunshine and vice versa.  At one scenic spot, I didn’t want to get out of the car because of the strong wings and icy snow.  A friend decided to weather it, but I just watched. Luckily, 10 minutes later the sky had broken open revealing the most beautiful afternoon light and the beginning of a typical two hour long sunset. I exited the car dry and warm and stayed that way, happy I waited it out.

Dressing in layers and being prepared for all scenarios is crucial when taking trips around the island.  It’s also important to check the weather before heading out, and always be willing to change plans if things take a turn for the worse.  Still, the weather won’t get in the way of what you’re doing on most days, and you can usually be sure to have at least a few hours of sun.  Icelanders are used to a snow storm anyway, so even if you find yourself in one, life carries on regardless!

Iceland in winter

It’s not insanely cold

Forget everything you think when you hear the word “Iceland.”  Summer on this Arctic island is actually characterized by expansive views of green landscape, waterfalls and hot springs. While snow may blanket almost every inch of the country during winter, it isn’t any colder than other popular winter destinations around the world.

Due to a position right in line with the Gulf Stream, Iceland stays relatively temperate regardless of its latitude. In fact, New York City gets colder than Iceland during these months. Wear layers and prepare for temperatures hovering around 0 degrees Celsius (32 degrees Fahrenheit) or only a few colder, and you’ll be fine.

Iceland in winter

The prices are lower

Maybe only surpassed by Norway and Sweden in Europe, Iceland is a very expensive country to visit. To lessen the dent in your wallet, winter is the perfect time for a visit.  While it still won’t be a budget destination, it can become more affordable as you’ll save up to half on accommodation, car rentals and sometimes even tours.

Although the prices are lower overall, you might find yourself spending more money on food and alcoholic beverages in the winter. Not only are the holidays a time to splurge on meals, but the short days make for early drinking.

One of the easiest ways to use up your daily budget in Iceland is by drinking it.  If you are visiting in winter in hopes to save money, make sure you try to keep out of the bars as the tax on alcohol can be up to 50%.

One way to even further save money in winter is by finding an Airbnb apartment where you can cook and have a cozy place to retreat to at the end of the day. Not only will these be easier to find in winter when there are less tourists, but you’ll also get a good deal.

Iceland in winter

Bring your swim-suit

Just because its winter doesn’t mean you can’t get your swim on.  Iceland is spotted by hundreds of volcanic hot springs which aren’t only used for the local hot water and geothermic energy, but also in many public baths.

The most popular spot to warm up and relax is at the Blue Lagoon near the airport. You’ll only be freezing for about 5 seconds while you take off your towel and dart into the water, but from then on you can simmer in the lagoon for as long as you want.  There’s even a bar serving a variety of frozen drinks and beer.  Or if you don’t feel like paying he hefty entrance fee at the Blue Lagoon (€35) you can always also just take a dip in one of Reykjavik’s public pools.  They have hot and cold pools and cost much less.

Iceland in winter

For something a little more adventurous and active, choose to snorkel down the Silfra fissure in Þingvellir National Park. (Yes, even in winter!) This rift between the North American and European tectonic plates boasts some of the clearest and purest water in the world.

I joined a tour with Arctic Adventures and they provided the dry suit and all the necessary gear.  While on the tour, my fingers and toes still got a bit cold from the outside temperatures, but I forget all about it while floating through the rift.  The views down below were incredible and it was a surreal experience to dive into freezing water while snow covered the surroundings.

You don’t need 4WD

Most of Iceland’s roads are well maintained and don’t require much more than good snow tires.  If renting a car, make sure to check if you’re equipped with them along with updates on the latest road conditions.

If you manage to avoid storms, drive carefully and maintain caution on roads which are yet to be recently plowed, even the least experienced snow driver shouldn’t have many problems.

Iceland in winter

It IS possible to see the Northern Lights from Reykjavik

While most tours and articles online will push you to leave Reykjavik to see the lights (and this is good idea) it is very possible to still see them from the city. If you happen to not see anything while on a tour, or don’t have one booked on a night with high activity, don’t fret.  On a clear night, you should just be able to look up in a dimly lit area and watch away.

For a nice view over the city which is nearby, head to the observation deck at The Pearl (Perlan).  Another spot which is even darker and more secluded is the Grotta Lighthouse about a 5-10 minute drive from the center.

For the best chances to see the aurora borealis, book a tour early on in your stay. Sometimes if you don’t see anything, they’ll let you try again another night.  If you still have no luck, or just don’t want to go on a tour at all, make sure to check the aurora forecast website nightly and search on your own. While the forecast won’t give you a completely accurate prediction (just as accurate as the weather forecast sometimes) it still helps.  The key for seeing the lights is going to look on a night which not only has a high forecast but is also very clear, free of fog or cloud cover.

Iceland in winter

Don’t expect wildlife

If wildlife is what you’re looking for, winter might not be your best bet. Even the puffins, a famously known animal in Iceland, aren’t around for viewing in the winter. These cute little birds fly out to sea during this season.

While it’s possible, whale watching isn’t at its highest during this season either. Besides, hanging out on a boat in winter doesn’t sound too pleasant anyway!

Don’t let the lack of animals deter you. There are so many other winter activities in Iceland, like snowmobiling, skiing, ice skating and Northern Lights hunting to keep you busy.

Iceland in winter

Iceland covered in snow is a winter wonderland

Reykjavik might just be the cutest, village-like capital you’ve ever visited. The center is festively decorated for the holidays, and the colorful two and three story houses are beautifully dusted with snow.

Siberia? Antartica? Nope, it’s Iceland.  Outside of Reykjavik, this sparsely populated island with spread out villages make for expansive winter views uncluttered by tall and modern buildings.  Icelandic horses cuddle together in the countryside to keep warm.  Snow covered chruches stand isolated in the most picturesque spots.

Maybe it is darker and colder than the rest of the year, but Iceland in winter does not disappoint.  And even if you happen forget all of the above, just remember one thing— bring a huge memory card.

Have you been to Iceland? Would you think about visiting a popular destination in the off-season?

Iceland in winter

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219 Comments on “Everything you need to know about visiting Iceland in Winter

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  1. Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful. Iceland is on my list, but I didn’t realize how expensive visiting would be o_o. I would love to visit in the summer though, to see the wildlife.

    1. There really isn’t much wildlife at all. If you’re lucky you’ll see a couple of reindeer or you can go to a puffin breeding ground, but other than that all you’ll see is sheep, ravens and small birds.

  2. What an interesting post about the hot spots in this cold winter time! Thanks for sharing the nice photos.

    There must be something about the Northern European countries that they drink so much more than other places. I think it must be the temperature and short days turning your mood to gloomy. Am I right? What do you think?

    1. I’ve traveled all over the world. Never felt folks in northern countries drank anymore than anywhere else. What people drink is different depending on where they are, but almost all countries have certain specialty cocktails to make things a bit more merry.

  3. Great post! I’m thinking of traveling to Iceland next winter. I enjoy hiking and climbing and I’ve heard that it’s like an amusement park for those like me. Can you please tell me if there will be enough light to do all these outdoor activities?

    1. There definitely will be Jeremy, unless you plan on hiking for more than about 6 hours per day, which I’m guess you won’t be!

    2. There won’t be enough light for more than a few hours, as Jessica said, but bring a flashlight and some extra batteries and you’ll be fine. I can point out a few insider’s choice places to hike if you want.

      1. Please do! I’m hoping to visit sometime soon, and some winter hiking would be right up my alley.

  4. Wow, you’ve convinced me that there is no bad time to go to Iceland! I’ve loved going in May and October when the rates are a little lower and there’s still a decent amount of daylight. But the lighting in winter sounds magical – 2 hour sunsets?! I’m surprised that you don’t need 4W drive or a SUV in the winter because when I went in October I was thankful for a big vehicle to get up and down some steep, crazy roads (off the ring road) but I guess if you stick to main roads, you would be fine in the winter. Great post and gorgeous photos!

      1. Love the post.
        I live in Canada, and dread winter months here, and December – March is the only times I can get away on a vacation. My question is, (based on whether you’ve been to Canada), is it colder than winters in Canada?

      2. I was there last December, and though it was one of the snowiest, coldest winters in recent memory, it wasn’t unbearable. One day it was around 15 F as we walked to the Harpa concert hall at twilight. And maybe 15 in of frozen snow on the ground. But no worse than New York or Vermont. By our last day it warmed up to the mid 30s – perfect for a pre-departure dip in the Blue Lagoon.

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