While we explore new places as part of our world trip like we did the past year in Asia, our recent stay in Europe brings back a long-time dream destination of mine: Iceland.
So even if traveling to the Nordic country is not on our travel plan just yet (Central Asia, here we come), I could not resist writing about Iceland in a way to start planning our future Icelandic trip. And because we love the feel of winter and were lucky to experience the Arctic winter in Canada before, I decided to put together our bucket list of top Iceland winter activities.
Based on our research, this is the list of what to see in Iceland, why, and where. If you have been to the Icelandic country and participated in any of these activities in Iceland, we would love to hear from you and learn from your experiences!
Things to do in Iceland in Winter
While winter might not be what comes to mind when traveling to Iceland, November to February brings fantastic outdoor opportunities only possible in snow conditions. Stormy, icy, windy – winter can see it all.
Of course, what to do in Iceland in Winter also depends on how adventurous we might feel. But with proper layering up and careful planning, this time of the year seems perfect for exploring with fewer people.
Iceland Winter Activities: Things to See
While already gorgeous under the summer’s lust vegetation, Iceland waterfalls are simply stunning under the white coat of winter. Among the top places to visit in Iceland, Gullfoss Waterfalls is on the famous Golden Circle Route and is spectacular in winter when the waterfall freezes over. Other stunning waterfalls include Skógafoss, Seljalandsfoss, Bruarfoss, Háifoss (near the Hekla volcano), Svartifoss, and Dettifoss (reputed as one of the most powerful waterfalls) in Vatnajökull National Park, all in the South of Iceland; Goðafoss in Northeast Iceland; and Kirkjufellsfoss in West Iceland.
Iceland is often called the land of Ice and Fire, and for good reasons, given the number of volcanoes and glaciers across the country. If we are short on time and have to pick a few things to see in Iceland, we’ll still make sure to include glaciers in our itineraries.
Vatnajökull National Park in the South of Iceland is a glacier paradise. The massive glaciers Skaftafellsjökull and Svínafellsjökull in the Skaftafell wilderness area, Breiðamerkurjökull Glacier, and the central Vatnajökull Glacier, which is the largest glacier in Europe, are incredible sights.
While we are in Vatnajökull National Park, we will check Jökulsárlón lagoon with its glacial blue waters and icebergs, the nearby Svartifoss and Dettifoss waterfalls, and the Öræfajökull Volcano.
Also located in the South of Iceland, the Sólheimajökull glacier lies between the Katla and Eijafjallajökkull volcanoes and is part of the more massive Mýrdalsjökull glacier.
The incredible formations that are the ice caves form every winter when the glacier temperatures drop below freezing. A couple of these famous Iceland top sights include Jökulsárlón Glacier, Skaftafell, Breiðamerkurjökull, Mýrdalsjökull, and Langjokull. Due to their ever-changing positions and structures, exploring these ice caves is best done with local and knowledgeable guides.
Iceland Hot Springs
One must-do in Iceland is soaking in warm water. And if there is one thing Iceland doesn’t lack, it’s hot springs! The Blue Lagoon is one of Iceland top attractions, but with popularity comes the crowd. For alternate hot springs, let’s hop to Reykjadalur Hot Stream, Laugardalslaug Pools, Seljavallalaug, and Landmannalaugar Hot Stream.
Another option is the Mývatn Nature Baths, a naturally heated man-made lagoon east of the Mývatn volcanic lake in northern Iceland. Last but not least, the Secret Lagoon next to the village of Flúðir in southern Iceland is no longer a secret but worth a stop. Its location in the Golden Circle area makes it easily accessible from Reykjavík.
In any case, remember that hot springs etiquette requires people to be silent during their bath experience. After your hot spring soak, consider checking out some of the traditional Iceland food. What about some Hrutspungar with Brennivin?
One of the best things to do in Iceland is hunting for the Northern Lights. Indeed, the country is famous for its magical and colorful aurora borealis. While there is never any guarantee of seeing them, one cannot think about planning a winter trip to Iceland and not including the Northern Lights. We got lucky to see them in the Canadian Arctic, and we would like to repeat the experience in Iceland. Thingvallavatn National park, among a couple of others, is considered one of the best places to watch the Aurora Borealis in Iceland.
Taking photos of the Northern Lights might take some time. First, you have to wait for them to appear! Then, you need to ensure your settings are set correctly to photograph the Aurora Borealis at their best. So come prepared with the proper gear – not only what you wear to stay warm against the freezing temperatures, but also for your photo equipment.
Iceland Winter Activities: Things to Do
Driving the Golden Circle
A popular route, the Golden Circle, goes over 190 miles (300 kilometers) of stunning scenery through the South of Iceland and back to Reykjavík. The top attractions include Þingvellir National Park (Thingvellir), which combines both incredible rock formations as well as being where the first Icelandic Parliament – Alþing (Althing) was formed in the year 930 AD. No wonder Thingvellir is a UNESCO World Heritage Site! Other Iceland must-see attractions are Gullfoss Waterfall and Geysir Hot Springs. Depending on the road we take, we can also add the Secret Lagoon and Selfoss to the itinerary. Driving the Golden Circle in winter is also a great way to see the Northern Lights! As new 4×4 owners, we would love to plan a 4×4 road trip to Iceland in winter!
Route 1 is a major road, also known as the Ring Road. This loop route will take us through different Iceland regions, allowing us to explore the four corners of the country. Taking about a week, the Ring Road is better reserved for summer road-tripping.
Glacier Hiking & Climbing
Sólheimajökull and Svínafellsjökull glaciers are best known for glacier climbing and hiking, and we can add Falljökull glacier to the list for glacier hiking opportunities as well. Given the challenges, using proper climbing gear and going with an experienced guide is essential. But that won’t scare us (maybe!); different fitness and difficulty levels are available on these Iceland winter tours.
For those with some winter experience and the right gear, camping in Iceland in the cold months can be a rewarding experience. However, this is the Arctic, and conditions can change dramatically fast. Temperatures drop well under freezing; strong winds can shake the most robust tents. Preparations and knowledge are required to winter camp safely. As challenging as it all sounds, it is incredible to wake up alone in remote areas with just nature. Note to self: not all camping sites are open in winter or might have limited amenities.
Another option is to rent a winter camper, where we would sleep in a fully equipped vehicle.
We drove our first snowmobile on the Mackenzie River Ice road north of Inuvik, in Arctic Canada, and saw why traveling and exploring long stretches in the countryside was better done on a motorized vehicle. Besides, riding a snowmobile is awesome fun! In South Iceland, snowmobiling is possible on the Eyjafjallajökull glacier, Mýrdalsjökull glacier, and Vatnajökull glacier, Europe’s largest, as well as Langjökull, Iceland’s second-largest. In North of Iceland, the area around Lake Mývatn seems to be an excellent playground for snowmobiling.
Scuba-Diving in Silfra
Diving in Iceland in winter! And, no, we are not crazy to add this to our Iceland bucket list. The clear waters of the Silfra fissure are known to be one of the best dive sites in the world. Nestled between two continents in Þingvellir National Park, the water temperatures stay about 2°C (35°F) through the year, with no difference come summer or winter. Bundled in a dry suit, snorkeling, or diving the Sulfa fissure is a once-in-a-lifetime experience with 400-feet (120-meter) visibility.
Over 20 whale species can be seen around Iceland, though in winter, we will mostly see orca killer whales, humpback whales, and sperm whales. Seals and dolphins can usually be spotted all year round, so we will probably see them during your whale-watching cruises.
Iceland Skiing and Snowboarding
As surprising as it might be (we were as we researched this bucket list), Iceland has several ski resorts. The snowpack and conditions might not be what one can find in the Alps, but skiing and snowboarding are indeed available around Reykjavík at two ski resorts: Bláfjöll, and Skálafell. In Akureyri, the local resort is called Hlíðarfjall. Ísafjörður even offers two different valleys: Tungudalur, and Seljalandsdalur. Further East is Oddsskarð ski resort. And for even more ski resorts: Húsavík, Stafdalur, Ólafsfjörður, Sauðárkrókur, Dalvík, and Siglufjörður.
Alternatives to downhill resort skiing include backcountry and cross-country skiing. Creating our tracks in untouched scenery: priceless!
Winter Hiking & Snowshoeing
We got into snowshoeing years back as an extension of our hiking season into the winter months in the Sierra Nevada, California. And what a great way to explore a trail at our own pace! While snowshoeing requires a slower pace than hiking, day hiking around Ísafjörður, Hornstrandir Nature Reserve in the West Fjords, or Landmannalaugar Nature Reserve, would be such an excellent opportunity! Another “hot” hike would be the Krafla Fires by Mývatn in North Iceland. Let’s be mindful that the trail indicators might disappear under the snow, watch for the lava and potential hazards on the trails!
Longer multi-day treks are also available, among which the most popular is the 2-day Fimmvörðuháls Trek, the 3-day Landmannalaugar trek, and the 5-day trek along the Strútur trail through Iceland’s Highlands. The 4 to 6-day Laugavegur Trail is considered by many to be one of the greatest hikes thanks to the trail crossing mountains, pools, ice fields, black-ash desert, and leading to the Eyjafjallajökull volcano. However, with the challenging winter conditions, these longer treks should be reserved for the summer months.
Riding Icelandic Horses
The most popular options are day tours in the countryside or highland tours. Given the remoteness and the winter conditions, these horse rides might be better for advanced riders. As a horse aficionado, I am also eyeing the round-up riding opportunities in the summertime when the livestock moves in the mountains.
We led our team of Husky dogs in Canada and loved our adventures with the dogs. Part of it was that the dogs were in top-notch conditions and were treated very well by their owners. Given the opportunity and assurance about the dogs’ welfare, this is an experience we would redo in a heartbeat. The North, especially the Lake Mývatn area, seems to be great for dog sledding adventures in Iceland.
Yes, kayaking! With so many fjords and lagoons, kayaking is a fantastic way to explore unique landscapes. Most of the deep and narrow fjords of the Westfjords of Iceland provide a safe and protected environment. Other options include Jökulsárlón Lagoon in Vatnajökull National Park, Heinaberg Lagoon to kayak along tall mountains and massive glaciers.
Plenty of cool festivals and events to enjoy in Iceland in the winter! Here are some of the main events we would love to attend!
- November: Iceland Airwaves Music Festival
- December: St. Þorlákur’s Day – the patron saint of Iceland, Yule Lads Bath
- January: Þrettándinn – the 13th Day of Christmas, Þorrablót midwinter celebration, and Dark Music Days Festival
- February: Winter Lights Festival
- March: Reykjavik Food and Fun Festival, Iceland Winter Games
- April: Reykjavik Blues Festival
Iceland Attractions Map
Maps vary on the activities and sites, and one challenge is finding one with names in English. Indeed, most online maps reflect Iceland’s names. Referring to Google Maps is not advised as we keep reading that the data is inaccurate. So as we would be going on a self-drive itinerary through Iceland, taking a solid GPS device might be relevant depending on whether we plan on leaving the main roads.
The Road and Coastal Administration (IRCA) gives an up-to-date status in English on roads with webcams for viewing the real-time conditions.
Best time to visit Iceland
Winter will be the best time to visit Iceland when looking for snow-related activities. However, winter in Iceland comes with some cold and dark challenges. In Reykjavik, temperatures vary between 33°F to 41°F (1°C to 5°C), but these values will drop down to much colder once you leave the city. Moreover, daylight will be short. Indeed, at the end of December, Reykjavik will have only four hours of daylight!
Driving conditions can be difficult, especially in the countryside of the West and East Fjords. Windchill can cut through even warm and adequate gear and clothing. But the lesser crowd makes for a highly appealing advantage. That, and, of course, the appeal of the snow in all its forms!
However, as we also love trekking, kayaking, and going on multi-day horse rides, summer would be another favorite time of the year. Defining when the best time of year to visit Iceland is entirely up to the activities.
Winter Travel Tips & Resources
With Arctic winter conditions, the appropriate gear is essential. Our packing gear is mostly composed of 3-season items. These items make for a good layering basis, though thicker winter layers would be highly recommended for full Arctic temperatures.
- Layers, layers, and layers – the basis of any outdoor activity. Stay away from cotton as it keeps moisture, which makes one feel cold.
- Take extra pairs of head cover or balaclava and winter gloves, in case they become wet. Same for socks – again, no cotton, but merino wool or synthetic instead
- If clothes become wet, change into dry ones to prevent getting cold and hypothermia. Otherwise, keep moving to produce body heat.
- Goggles or sunglasses are a must to protect the eyes from the cold wind and the sun. Goggles tend to hold and protect the face better.
- A snow mask or scarf to cover the mouth and nose against the freezing wind
- At night, place the shoes in the sleeping bag to prevent them from freezing, the same goes for all the clothes.
- Tour operators and outfitters usually provide Arctic-rated outer shells. Depending on the activities, we don’t only rely on our snow or skiing equipment. These clothes might not be insulated enough for the Arctic temperatures.
- A headlamp since the nights come early in winter
- Hand and toe warmers: These little packs are perfect for keeping our fingers warm!
- Sunscreen to protect our exposed skin
- Small duffel or bag to put on the sled or snowmobile
While the country is known to be expensive, Iceland is a bucket list destination with once-in-a-lifetime opportunities. While our trip to Arctic Canada was by no means cheap, we loved every second of it. Even that meant we traveled less that year and focused our budget on one place. So Iceland, you will see us at some point, and we can’t wait to put together an affordable itinerary to explore the country.
Have you been to Iceland? Anything we missed and you think we should visit?
If you are looking for more winter adventures and trip ideas, check out our posts on Dogsledding in the Arctic | Winter Activities in California Lake Tahoe | Snowmobiling on Ice Road in Canada
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August 9, 2019 at 6:02 am
Wow! Thanks for your tips! This is really helpful 😉
August 9, 2019 at 11:05 pm
Thank you, glad you found our post helpful.
March 24, 2019 at 1:57 am
Iceland a awesome place to explore, there are so many things to do,
Thanka for sharing
April 16, 2019 at 11:30 pm
Thank you for reading, and glad you enjoyed our post. Iceland is unique in so many aspects, the land of contrasts!
January 16, 2019 at 7:09 pm
Riding Icelandic Horses is my favourite one.
This info is very helpful who want to visit such these amazing places in winter.
I learned many things from this article.
January 17, 2019 at 3:43 am
Glad you enjoyed our post. Riding horse is also one of my favorite things to do! Can’t wait to ride these Icelandic horses when we visit the country!
December 26, 2018 at 10:09 pm
From all the above activities, I love dog sledding Patricia, especially in such conditions. Anyway it’s a great stuff and thank you so much for sharing here with us.
January 2, 2019 at 6:26 am
Thank you, glad you liked our post! Dog sledding is indeed one of our top experiences in the Arctic, can imagine how cool it would be in Iceland – all provided the animals are treated well, of course 🙂
December 14, 2018 at 6:25 am
I’m dying to visit Iceland, and this itinerary looks great! Will save this for an upcoming trip 😀 Thanks for sharing!
January 17, 2019 at 3:49 am
You and I both! Iceland is such a special country!
September 11, 2018 at 12:45 am
Iceland is the most beautiful place I have ever seen. Every outdoor activity would be great in Iceland. Thanks for your ideas. Keep working.
October 12, 2018 at 2:01 am
Lucky you! And yes, we can wait to explore the outdoors and see the beauty of Iceland
July 6, 2018 at 12:47 pm
Iceland has so many amazing attractions! Dog sledding and the waterfalls would top my list. I’ve never seen the ice caves before, that looks interesting, though very, very cold. 😉
July 15, 2018 at 2:35 am
Wearing layers is always keep to keep warm in the outdoors. I think Iceland is the perfect place to do that, especially in these ice caves!
July 2, 2018 at 4:31 pm
Icelandic horses are the ABSOLUTE best! They’re so sweet and so FURRY in the winter 🙂 We had so much fun visiting Iceland in the winter, even though everyone at home thought we were nuts going somewhere named ICEland in an already cold season hah This is the perfect bucket list and makes me miss Iceland even more!
July 4, 2018 at 6:05 am
Lol, we got the same comments when we went to Arctic Canada in winter dog sledding and camping by a frozen lake. But we totally loved it! Same here for ICEland – truly the land of ice!
July 1, 2018 at 1:15 pm
Stunning photos. We were very close to visiting Iceland this past winter but ended up going to the Azores instead. This would have been a great resource.
July 5, 2018 at 11:40 pm
There is always next winter 🙂
June 13, 2018 at 6:16 am
Iceland sounds like an exceptional travel destination and these activities are more than enough to get this place on my bucket list. How many days would you recommend spending there?
July 15, 2018 at 2:47 am
The bare minimum would be 3 days, for a rushed overview around the Golden Circle. Otherwise, at least 7-day to be able to drive around a bit. And 10-day to explore and stay a couple of days in some locations, taking in the scenery.
June 10, 2018 at 11:53 am
Hi, thanks for sharing this great info. We just got back from Europe and had a lay over in Iceland. Didn’t get out of the airport but it looked beautiful coming in 🙂 I hope to get to stay and explore the area on a future trip. The hot springs sound so amazing. Maybe we will even get to see the Northern Lights. That would be an added bonus. Thanks again for sharing. Happy travels.
June 16, 2018 at 3:57 pm
Indeed, hot springs and Northern Lights would be amazing additions to any trip! And you were almost there! I think Iceland is calling you, time to answer the call 🙂
June 7, 2018 at 11:18 pm
Yes I would love to do any of these actitivies! Maybe not the scuba diving, even if it is below zero degrees! I would love to explore ice caves and see frozen waterfalls. My boyfriend loves waterfalls so I would love to take him to see a frozen one!
June 8, 2018 at 12:47 am
Lol on scuba-diving – I am a bit of a warm water girl myself, so I can understand the “chill” effect. The dry suit is what motivates me though 🙂 But re. waterfalls, you have plenty to choose from and could even plan one waterfall a day for your boyfriend! 🙂
June 7, 2018 at 10:38 pm
Iceland is on my wish list since it is place of natural wonders. I would love to see those Auroras (Northern Lights) as I have never seen them. Thanks for sharing!
June 10, 2018 at 3:01 pm
Northern Lights are such a treat indeed, another Iceland wonder – in addition to so many. A place of many must!
June 7, 2018 at 9:43 pm
My number one bucket list item is visiting Iceland to see the Northern Lights. However, those ice caves and hot springs are also calling my name. Would love to visit soon to experience all this loveliness for myself.
June 18, 2018 at 8:18 am
Northern Lights are so special! And in winter, you are sure to be able to experience that in a unique way.
June 7, 2018 at 9:15 am
I’m hopefully going to Iceland next spring!! I hadn’t made up my mind about the Blue Lagoon because I’ve heard it’s really expensive and touristy, so I love that you listed sims other possible options. I’ll be looking into those!
July 15, 2018 at 2:43 am
Yes, the Blue Lagoon is one of these places we also wonder whether we should go or not. One way we would love to see the place because it is obviously stunning. On the other end, we are concern about its popularity. We would definitely look at the other alternatives as well. Have fun next Spring!
June 7, 2018 at 2:53 am
No matter which part of the world you are from, Iceland will amaze everyone with its spectacular views. You can picture yourself in the out of the world sceneries of Iceland at every step. The best pictures you posted here. Love it.
June 8, 2018 at 12:44 am
Iceland is a world apart for sure, and the unique landscape is a huge part of it. One of the many reasons to go 🙂
June 6, 2018 at 2:15 pm
I thoroughly enjoyed reading this list of Iceland activities. I am going in late September with most of the trip in October. While this isn’t winter, I’m still going to be doing most of the things on this list (including snowmobiling). I’m most excited about Silfra, riding Iceland horses and (hopefully) getting to see the Northern Lights. It’s shoulder season so I’m praying I get to see them. I would like to see the icy waterfalls, but that will have to be for another trip. I think I’m going to love Iceland so much that there will need to be another trip in winter!
July 2, 2018 at 1:23 am
We love going places in the shoulder seasons. Granted, there is a risk of not seeing the best of what the country can offer, but it’s usually away from the crowd, much more enjoyable. We only saw a small Northern Lights in Arctic Canada but loved every second of it, so whatever you can see will be a treat for sure. Have fun in your Fall trip, looks very exciting!
June 6, 2018 at 2:08 am
I would definitely do dog sledding Patricia. Good you checked that the dogs were in awesome condition. Whenever I do any animal-related stuff during travels I need to know the animals are loved before I am on board.
June 14, 2018 at 1:15 am
Animal welfare is really important for us too, and is always part of our research before settling with a tour operator. Reading testimonies, seeing photos, and detailed description of the activities to get an idea about how things are run, help. And of course, seeing the animals first hand 🙂
June 5, 2018 at 2:07 pm
Iceland is so high on our bucket list! The only thing that is keeping us away is that it is now so crowded and a bit too touristy! 🙁 I’d be interested in visiting the ice caves tho. Where do you think it’s best to book a guided tour?
July 5, 2018 at 11:38 pm
I think that going in winter will be less touristy, which makes Iceland very appealing at this time of year. For guided tours, local companies are usually a good start since they know the area and the challenges of the local conditions. And it helps the local economy as well 🙂
June 5, 2018 at 11:25 am
Visiting Iceland is a part of my bucket list. I would love to try glacier hiking and climbing. Will definitely try it once I have ample preparation. Also, it would be a real treat to see the northern lights.
June 10, 2018 at 2:56 pm
Glacier hiking is such a fun activity! We got lucky to see few Northern Lights in Canada, but nothing like what one can see in Iceland!
June 4, 2018 at 5:08 am
120 metre visibility?!?!?!?! Oh my word, I have to go there but I haven’t been in a dry suit so may have to practice. I really want to see the northern lights so I must go to Iceland one day. The glacial lake looks insane too, the only glacier I have ever seen was covered in shingle and looked very anticlimatic!
June 8, 2018 at 12:38 am
Yes, we would need to try out diving in a dry suit, but for a chance to dive in Iceland, would do it in a heartbeat! Which glacier was it, that was covered in shingle? Why was it covered?
June 3, 2018 at 11:37 pm
Iceland is incredible!! You should definitely try and get there and it was definitely one of my favourite trips to date! Driving in the winter can be incredible dangerous- for your wallet. Theres no comprehensive car insurance in Iceland, and encountering wind damage, water damage or snow damage to the car isn’t covered. I wen’t on the first weekend of November and was found it to be a great time of year- less tourists, able to see the diversity of the climate (without everything covered in snow) and incredible Northern Lights exposure (this may have been good luck also!). Enjoy your Central Asia trip, can’t wait to read all about it and take some tips down for myself.
June 4, 2018 at 1:18 am
Thanks for the feedback on car insurance, always a very important point while renting a car. Northern Lights are indeed a bit of luck, glad you saw them!