Even though a trip to Iceland is magical year-round, visiting in the winter months is hugely popular due to the increased chances of seeing the Northern Lights and the magical winter wonderland known as the ‘Land of Ice and Fire’.
This guide is for those of you visiting Iceland in winter (or planning to). You’ll read about:
- The important things to remember when visiting Iceland in winter
- Iceland winter attractions and things to do you’ll just love
- An example winter in Iceland packing list
- An example itinerary for an Iceland winter road trip
- Where are the best places to stay in Iceland in winter
- The pros and cons of visiting in winter (and at other times of the year)
Sound good? Let’s get started…
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Important Things To Remember When Visiting Iceland in Winter
1. Northern lights are common to see, but still not guaranteed
Given the unforgettable draws of visiting Iceland in winter in order to better see the Northern Lights, this seems like a good place to start.
A winter trip to Iceland does indeed increase your chances of seeing the lights, but it’s also important to remember that seeing them is still not guaranteed.
You’ll improve your chances even further by:
- Getting out of the city (even if it’s only 30 minutes out into the countryside)
- Waiting patiently for them (even if it takes a few hours)
- Staying in hotels and other accommodation outside of Reykjavik and other major cities
- Keeping an eye on an Aurora Borealis Forecast (as well as cloud cover reports)
Forecast websites like this one rate the Northern Lights on a scale of 1-9 to show how active they are. But one thing to bear in mind with the forecast is that even if it’s showing them as being very inactive, you may still be able to see them, albeit only a little.
As an example, on our first night in Iceland last year, it was a very clear night – we could see thousands of stars whilst relaxing in our cabin’s hot tub outside. But the forecast had told us that the Northern Lights were a 1 on the scale (i.e. a very low activity rating). With this in mind, we weren’t too hopeful for seeing this intriguing phenomenon. However, we could still see them (although fairly faint) – could you imagine what a 4+ would look like?!
So… just because the forecast tells you there is a low chance of seeing the Northern Lights, you could still see and photograph them – be sure to think positively!
2. Iceland weather is unpredictable (especially in winter)
Average Iceland winter temperatures hover around 0°C (32°F), and sometimes duck into sub-zero temperatures (albeit just barely).
But the weather in Iceland is notoriously unpredictable, so it’s worth packing for multiple weather types including rain, ice, snow (and blizzards), sunshine and high winds.
When visiting during the winter, always make sure that you’ve got thermals, scarves, gloves, and a windproof jacket at all times. Although the temperatures rarely dip below freezing, high winds can often make it feel much colder — especially if you’re out and about in the countryside.
To help you out, I’ve included an example winter in Iceland packing list within this blog (just scroll down for it).
3. Some roads (likely F-roads) may be shut
Due to icy or snowy conditions, some roads may be closed in Iceland for your safety. But please don’t think that you can ignore these warnings (or even worse) try driving off-road.
Off-road driving is illegal in Iceland and Icelanders are very strict about this as they want to protect their landscapes. If you spot something amazing in the distance and it’s off-road or the road is closed, then consider parking somewhere safe and setting off on-foot. Hiking in Iceland is so worthwhile!
Furthermore, some of the most common roads to be shut within winter in Iceland are mountain roads known as F-roads. They’re usually gravel roads with no bridges over rivers, and can be very dangerous to drive on in the wrong conditions.
But this is okay as the majority of the major attractions in Iceland such as highlights along the Golden Circle route and the best waterfalls aren’t usually found on F-roads anyway, so a closed road is highly unlikely to ruin your trip!
4. Keep your car headlights on at all times
If you’re embarking on an Iceland winter road trip, you should know about Iceland driving laws. In Iceland, law dictates that you must have your headlights on at all times whilst driving. Yes, even on bright sunny days!
As mentioned, the weather is known to change very fast in Iceland, which is where this rule comes from. One minute it may be bright sunshine and blue skies and then another, a blizzard or rainstorm rolls in overhead. Icelanders err on the side of caution so headlights on!
5. Some attractions may be closed or changed due to the weather
Similarly to road closures, if attractions are considered dangerous in any way during winter conditions, then these may also be closed or changed in some way.
An example of this would be signs advising against walking behind Seljalandsfoss waterfall due to the ice and likeliness of slipping.
Warnings like this are placed there for your own safety, so you would be best adhering to what they’re telling you even if this means missing out.
There are plenty more excellent attractions to see in the winter months anyway…
Recommended Things To Do (And See) During Winter in Iceland
Hunting for Northern Lights
As mentioned, a winter trip to Iceland is one of the best times of the year to capture a view of the Northern Lights (aka Aurora Borealis), although it’s not guaranteed you will definitely see them. But oh, when you do… ah-maz-ing! You can either hunt for them out in the countryside yourself or embark on a day tour in order to see them.
Reykjavik Winter Lights Festival
Held in early February every year, the Winter Lights Festival in Reykjavik aims to celebrate both the current winter and the upcoming arrival of spring. Museums open their doors for longer, while swimming pools and hot springs await… and it’s free to attend!
Diamond Beach is one of Iceland’s must-see black sand beaches. During the winter months, you’ll spot large blocks of ice (the “diamonds”). These ice rocks are breaking from nearby 1,000 year-old Breiðamerkurjökull glacier and continue to float into the lagoon and beach area.
What could possibly be better than relaxing in hot springs with snow all around you? Some of the most popular hot springs in Iceland are the Blue Lagoon, Secret Lagoon, Mývatn Nature Baths, and the Fontana Geothermal Baths.
The Golden Circle
The Golden Circle is one of the most popular winter road trips in Iceland as it incorporates so many of the top attractions (all within one neat circle). Highlights of the Golden Circle include Gullfoss waterfall, Thingvellir National Park, Kerið Crater, and the Geysir Hot Spring Area.
Hiking in Iceland is one of the best things you can do if you’re into nature and winter conditions most definitely won’t stop you. There are still a huge number of winter hikes you can do, and the snow and ice only seek to make the views even more spectacular… although always remember to tread steady. Some of the best winter hikes in Iceland are through Thingvellir National Park, Hveragerdi and The Fimmvorduhals Pass (the latter only for serious winter hikers though).
Winter in Iceland Packing List
When visiting Iceland in winter, you should pack for multiple different weather types and for freezing weather.
To help, here’s an example winter in Iceland packing list:
- Windproof and waterproof jacket (ski jackets are often the best option)
- Waterproof walking trousers
- Thermal tops and leggings
- Wool or fleece jumpers
- Thermal socks
- Gloves, scarf and winter hat
- Decent hiking or snow boots
- Crampons for your boots
- Sunglasses (yes, even in winter, the sun can still shine brightly in Iceland)
- Swimsuit or bikini and towel (for trips to the local hot spring)
- Lip balm or chapstick
It’s also a really good idea to pack some food items to take with you as food can be quite expensive in Iceland. Check out my food packing list for some ideas!
Iceland Winter Road Trip 3 Day Itinerary
If you’re keen on exploring the best of what Iceland has to offer with a short winter road trip, then you’ll find an example 3 day itinerary below that you can use. (NB: This is also perfect as an Iceland in December itinerary as well.)
Day 1: Thingvellir National Park
When driving from Reykjavik, consider starting your road trip at Þingvellir (Thingvellir) National Park. This is a vast parkland and World Heritage Site that will reward you with sights of bright blue lakes, hidden waterfalls, a tiny church and perfect 360° degree views with snowy mountains as a backdrop.
There is parking throughout Thingvellir costing 500 ISK (Icelandic Krónur) for the entire day. One recommendation would be to head to the Thingvellir Visitor Centre and park there as it’s not far to walk before you find the viewpoint behind the centre.
Once finished with the viewpoint, follow the wooden walkways to take you on a walk through tectonic plates and then onto hidden waterfalls, bright blue lakes and a pretty church.
Just remember that the winter brings ice, sludge and mud. This is absolutely okay for the avid or average walker (myself included) but just something to bear in mind.
Day 2: Golden Circle Route
In just one day, it’s possible to drive to a number of Iceland’s most popular attractions, thanks to the neat circular route of the Golden Circle.
Start your day by visiting Gullfoss and the Geysir Hot Spring Area, which are located very close to each other. This will easily take up the entire morning. Opposite the hot springs is a complex that has gift shops and a cafe, which is perfect for a quick lunch stop and warming hot chocolate or tea.
Once you’re finished here, it’s then a good idea to spend your afternoon and/or evening at the Secret Lagoon hot spring, one of the oldest swimming pools in Iceland.
Unlike the Blue Lagoon, the Secret Lagoon doesn’t have any timed entry so once you’re inside, you’re welcome to stay for as long or as little as you like until 8pm closing (10pm in the summer).
As of August 2018, entry costs 2800 ISK per adult. If you need to hire towels or flip-flops, then this is an additional 500 ISK per adult – you are welcome to bring your own though (recommended).
Day 3: South Iceland
The final day in this winter road trip itinerary is based in Southern Iceland where black sand beaches and yet more spectacular waterfalls await.
Consider starting your day exploring Sólheimasandur Black Sand Beach, which is also home to a plane wreckage from the 1970s. This makes for some interesting photographs… especially in the snow.
Follow the coast from here along to Vik Black Sand Beach, which is also home to a unique attraction. There are basalt columns here, akin to what you would find at Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland.
Once you’ve had some lunch and explored the town of Vik, start making your way back towards Reykjavik. Along the way, stop off at some of Iceland’s most beautiful waterfalls including Skógafoss, Seljalandsfoss and Gljúfrabúi.
Best Places to Stay in Iceland in Winter
When visiting Iceland in winter, I’d highly recommend staying in either Reykjavik or within the Golden Circle.
Reykjavik will give you ease and convenience when it comes to grocery store shopping and organised day tours, while staying in the Golden Circle means you have a greater chance of seeing the Northern Lights as you’ll be away from light pollution, while highlights of the Golden Circle will be practically on your doorstep so you won’t have far to drive on each day.
Given that Iceland is a fairly small island (just 40,000 square miles and smaller even than the UK), you shouldn’t worry about being far from the airport when it comes to the day of your departure.
If staying in Reykjavik, you’ll be 50 minutes away from Keflavik International Airport, while the town of Skálholt, (the approximate centre of the Golden Circle), is just 1 hour and 40 minutes away by car.
With all of this in mind, here are a few of my recommendations of where to stay in Iceland in winter:
The Icelandair Hotels are always pretty good, with great locations throughout Iceland and modern bedrooms and lobbies. Simple, but stylish.
Nothing quite beats staying in a traditional wooden cabin in Iceland, complete with private hot tub and incredible views.
The Golden Circle Apartments are super modern and spacious, and are found in a great location just beckoning the Northern Lights to dance overhead and put on a show for you. Plus, the super beautiful Laugarvatn Fontana spa is nearby!
Pros and Cons of Visiting Iceland in Winter (and other times of the year)
In case you’re still in two minds whether a trip to Iceland in winter is right for you, I’ve listed some key pros and cons of visiting Iceland in winter and at others times of the year.
These are adapted from the information found in my guide on when is the best time to visit Iceland, which I hope you find useful for your planning.
Pros of Visiting Iceland in Winter
- You have a much greater chance of seeing the Northern Lights
- The ice and snow turns Iceland into a magical winter wonderland
- The icy temperatures are perfect for hot springs adventures to help warm you up
- There are less crowds in winter than in summer
Cons of Visiting Iceland in Winter
- You may find that some roads and attractions are closed due to icy conditions
- If you’re not wearing the right gear, the cold, windy and icy winter climate can make you very miserable
Pros of Visiting Iceland in Spring
- You still have the chance of seeing snow and frozen waterfalls in early spring, but with slightly warmer temperatures
- There are far more light hours than in the winter
- You’ll experience even fewer crowds
Cons of Visiting Iceland in Spring
- The weather can still be near freezing so pack the right clothing to make your trip a happier one
Pros of Visiting Iceland in Summer
- Visiting in summer is the perfect time to go puffin watching as they return to the coast during this season
- You’ll be in awe of the ‘Midnight Sun’ phenomenon
- The temperatures are much warmer than in other seasons (although still a little nippy for some)
Cons of Visiting Iceland in Summer
- You may have difficulty sleeping due to the long daylight hours (pack an eye mask!)
- There will be no ice caving or Northern Lights adventures for you
Pros of Visiting Iceland in Autumn
- There will be almost no crowds during Autumn
- The daylight hours will be much closer to “normal” hours
- You’ll experience the benefits of summer and winter conditions in one season
- It’s one of the cheapest times of year to visit Iceland
Cons of Visiting Iceland in Autumn
- The weather can be very wet during the Autumn season and is often considered to have the worst weather throughout the entire year
I hope this guide to visiting Iceland in winter has been packed full of useful advice and inspiration ahead of your trip. Will you be visiting Iceland in the winter? Need to know anything else beforehand? Let me know in the comments section below…
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