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?
Stay tuned for more adventures
from our travel around the world!
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