It was May when I came across Icelandair’s sale on flights to Iceland. Much to my delight the holiday period wasn’t blacked out. As my cursor hovered over the “Purchase” button, I thought, “Why not?” Indeed, why not? It’s winter in the U.S. and it’s winter in Iceland so why not embrace it and do something different. In fact, the week we were away, temperatures dipped well below zero here in Massachusetts. Iceland was balmy by comparison with temps in the mid-twenties (F) despite the fact that days are at their shortest in December.
Here’s a list of five top reasons why you should visit Iceland during the winter months.
According to the Icelandic Tourist Board, 1.8 million people visited Iceland in 2016. That number was expected to top 2 million by the end of 2017. Winter sees lower numbers of tourists and that means smaller crowds at some of the country’s top sites.
Peak viewing season for the phenomenon known as the Northern Lights is November to March, coinciding with the darkest time of the year in Iceland. You’re never guaranteed to see them dancing across the night sky. Weather conditions and solar activity are key ingredients to witnessing the Aurora. Get away from the city on a clear night, preferably further north, to increase your chances. Warm clothes and patience required. If fate isn’t in your favor, visit the Aurora Reykjavik museum to watch a captivating time-lapse display and learn exactly what creates this mesmerizing display of cosmic light.
Iceland’s Geothermal Pools
Iceland’s geography is such that it lies along the mid-Atlantic ridge where the American and Eurasion tectonic plates are slowly pulling apart about 2cm per year. This rift, dotted with volcanoes, cuts diagonally through the country. The volcanic geothermal activity results in steaming mud pots, spewing geysirs and lots of warm, geothermal water. The most famous spot for experiencing this wonder is the Blue Lagoon. The man-made lagoon draws millions of visitors each year to bathe in the mineral rich water. On site there is a spa, gift shop, restaurant and bar. You can rent towels and bathrobes. While it may be the quintessential Icelandic experience, make reservations WAY in advance and have plenty of cash because a visit doesn’t come cheap. A less-crowded alternative is the Fontana Wellness Geothermal Spa in Laugarvatn.
If you’re staying in Reykjavik, check out the location of the nearest public pool. They are all heated, most have hot tubs, are family-friendly and are a great way to rub shoulders with the locals. They also are a fraction of the cost.
While you can take advantage of some outdoor activities year-round like horseback riding, whale watching and sightseeing, winter affords a few options not available during the summer months.
*Snowmobiling ~ Take an exhilarating ride across one of Europe’s largest glaciers.
*Ice Caving ~ Ice caves form naturally from melt water in the spring. The location of the caves changes from year to year.
*SuperJeep Tours ~ Go off road in these made-for-extreme vehicles that can access locations in winter conditions that a bus or van cannot.
*Glacier Hiking ~ While you can hike glaciers in summer, those with a more adventurous streak will enjoy braving the elements in the winter months
Iceland’s topography is otherworldly. There are times you almost feel like you’re on another planet. Lava fields extend for miles as a black strip of highway cuts through barren wilderness. Flat plains rise up into high volcanic peaks, all covered in a blanket of snow. Waterfalls flow from icy precipice to semi-frozen pools below. Snow-capped peaks surround a frigid lake as you slip into a steaming pool of geo-thermal water to soak your cares away. The scenery in Iceland in winter is simply stunning.
New Year’s Eve Icelandic Style
This one’s a bonus! If your visit coincides with the holiday season, be prepared to witness pyrotechnic revelry beyond compare. On New Year’s Eve, the shops close early and after dinner, Icelanders make their way to one of the local bonfires. This isn’t just a handful of people holding hands around a campfire ring. This is hundreds of local folks and tourists drinking, laughing and lighting up sparklers around a MASSIVE inferno of a bonfire. By 10:30pm, the locals have gone home to watch a yearly parody on tv. At 11:30pm, be in your chosen spot to watch fireworks. It doesn’t really matter where you are, you WILL see fireworks as they are set off, relentlessly, from every neighborhood in Reykjavik until well past that New Year’s kiss.
If you go:
I hope this list has encouraged you to try Iceland in winter!
There are a multitude of companies offering day trips from Reykjavik. We did a Golden Circle Tour with Reykjavik Excursions and a South Shore excursion with Iceland Horizon. Note that Iceland Horizon is a small-group tour company that utilizes minibuses vs. large motorcoaches.
There are numerous hotels and guesthouses in Reykjavik. We stayed at an Airbnb at the bottom of the hill from Hallgrimskirkja in the Old City and it was ideal. All the tour buses stop outside the church (Bus Stop 8) and there are a multitude of shops, cafes and restaurants all within about 10 minutes walk. We were able to see fireworks going off all around us on New Year’s Eve from the plaza in front of the church. If you are going to Reykjavik for the holiday period, be sure to plan your accommodations well in advance. We were told the entire city was booked up on New Year’s Eve!