Everything You Need to Know about Winter in Iceland

When my mom and I were leaving for our Thanksgiving trip to Iceland, several people asked us “Why?”, implying we were crazy for choosing to head there at such a cold time of year. For me, as much as I would have loved to see Iceland in the summer, I pictured it as a winter wonderland covered in snow and of course, ice, so why not go in the (almost) winter? Plus, October through March is the best time of year to see the Northern Lights.

We ended up having fairly rainy weather, considering the winter is supposed to be the driest time of year for Iceland. Another major issue I had was the lack of daylight. The sun didn’t fully rise until nearly 11:30 a.m., and by 3 p.m., it was already going down. And at the most, it was maybe 20 degrees up from the horizon, as you can see in the photo below taken around 1 p.m. Our “daylight” basically looked like the last two hours before sunset that I’m used to at home. It was cloudy every single day, which made the darkness feel even worse, so if my pictures look dark and gloomy, this is why.

That doesn’t mean we didn’t have a nice trip, though. Although the pictures couldn’t capture the beauty, in real life, I definitely was in awe, and that’s what matters. Let’s just say if I weren’t a blogger/Instagrammer, I really wouldn’t have cared about the pictures. Basically every day except the first, when we explored Reykjavik, we took day tours. Usually I would prefer to rent a car for a trip like this, but we didn’t want to have to worry about winter road conditions, which ended up being a great decision cause several of the roads were covered in sheets of ice.

The most important thing to know when planning a trip to Iceland is that it’s very expensive. The tours were reasonably priced, and we got a good deal on our hotel, Hotel Reykjavik Centrum, but otherwise, we shelled out a fortune on food. But I had to for the food Instagram, right?! Even the bus taking us from the airport to the city center cost about $60 round-trip per person. To put that into perspective, in some countries I’ve paid less than $5 for transportation to and from the airport, and in Germany, we pay about $10 round-trip.

As you probably already know, Iceland has become super trendy for tourists, so although this means that the sights are more crowded, it also means everything is so nicely built and planned out. We had the most organized tours we’ve ever had. There is an abundance of public restrooms (which barely exist in Europe). The rest stops and restaurants at the major tourist attractions serve more than just cold, packaged sandwiches. This is the kind of customer service, quality and efficiency that I’ve been missing on my other travels.

I’ll break this post into sections for each of the tours we did.

The Northern Lights

If you’re going to Iceland in winter, chances are the Northern Lights are at the top of your priority list. Also known as the Aurora Borealis, this natural phenomenon is a result of the collision of electrically-charged particles released from the sun and the gases in the Earth’s atmosphere. Because the poles of the Earth are magnetic, the lights can only be seen far north and far south (where they are called Aurora Australis). But here’s the thing, Iceland isn’t actually as far north as northern Norway, Sweden, Finland, Russia, Alaska, etc. So if you’re really into seeing this spectacular sight, Iceland isn’t necessarily a guarantee. However, we were lucky and indeed saw the lights! The other conditions that affect whether or not the lights can be seen are solar activity, clouds/air clarity, light pollution, and the phase of the moon (a full moon is too bright).

We booked a specific Northern Lights tour to take us out of Reykjavik at 9 p.m. to a national park where there is a lot less light—really the only man-made light was from the passing cars. As we were driving through the national park, we were shocked to see the Northen Lights activity start almost right away. The bus driver quickly found a parking area to pull over and let us out to enjoy the view for about 20 minutes. The temperature got as low as 17 degrees, so be sure to bundle up! As the lights faded, we got back on board and drove to the next stop. The sky was completely dark when we arrived, but like magic, the lights came out again for a solid 30 minutes. We saw arcs and swirls of green paint the sky, which was already beautiful with a million stars. I was fully satisfied after this stop to stay warm and head back to the city, but as we were driving out, the lights started up again! We stopped one more time. Then we were back to our hotel by 12:30 a.m. If we weren’t so lucky, we could’ve been out there waiting as late as 3 a.m. in the cold for lights that may not even appear.

The good thing about the tours is that if you don’t see the lights, you have the option to go back as many nights as you can until you do see them. I was so thankful we didn’t have to go through that again. This was the luckiest we got with weather for our trip, so I guess I really shouldn’t complain about the rest of it. The other thing to know is that you will most likely need a good camera set to long exposure with slow shutter speed and high ISO limit to photograph the lights. I’m not a camera whiz and my settings were based on trial and error so please Google the best settings to use. People with Android phones were able to adjust these settings too and take decent pictures, but my mom and I have iPhones, albeit old iPhones, and there is no option like that. A DSLR is best, but thankfully my GoPro was still able to capture the lights. And then you will also need a tripod! Taking pictures is quite a commitment but will be well worth it.

Golden Circle

Our first tour was of the Golden Circle and ended at the Blue Lagoon, which I will talk about in its own section because I know that’s a major interest to tourists. The tour included four major stops, which included Thingvellir National Park, Geysir Geothermal Area, Gulfoss Waterfall, and Kerid crater, with an additional quick stop to pet the adorably fluffy Icelandic horses! I loved this tour because each of the sights was so different that I really felt like I got a great overview of Icelandic landscapes and natural wonders.

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We had a quick stop to meat the famous, adorably fluffy Icelandic horses!

We arrived to Thingvellir National Park at sunrise, where the whole snowy landscape began to turn a faint shade of pink. The main attraction here is the ridge between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. They separate a distance of one centimeter per year. A nice path is built right down the middle for you to walk between the two.

The next stop was for the geysers. The main geyser in the geothermal field erupts every seven minutes or so. There are also tons of mini geysers all around spewing hot water and steam. It’s a very interesting landscape! In this area, there was a really nice rest stop for us to eat lunch.

Third, we went to the Gulfoss waterfall. This was the most spectacular waterfall I’ve ever seen because not only did it cover a large area, but we could also see the parts where the falls had frozen. The ice crystals, even from a distance, were magnificent.

Then, we went to Kerid, a volcanic crater lake. Because Iceland is on two different tectonic plates, there is a ton of volcanic activity. This crater is just one of the results. We also drove past lava fields and dormant volcanoes.

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The lake at the bottom was frozen solid!

The Blue Lagoon

As another major tourist attraction in Iceland, the Blue Lagoon is well worth its high price tag. We decided on the Golden Circle tour that included it, because otherwise, transportation to the Blue Lagoon cost at least $40 per person. On top of that, the entrance ticket to the Blue Lagoon costs nearly $100! The cheapest package includes use of towels, lockers, one free silica mud mask, and one free drink, including alcohol. I went for a glass of Prosecco. This is just the kind of experience I love—relaxing and warm after a long day of sightseeing. Though it was only about 32 degrees outside, the water of the lagoon was warm enough that I didn’t feel cold. The pool itself is huge with a swim-up bar and swim-up mask station. Here was my issue: we arrived at 5 p.m. (you book a time slot). By that time, it was completely dark, so we couldn’t enjoy the beauty of the complex, which I feel like is a big part of the experience. The water looks so blue in pictures, and we couldn’t enjoy that. It also inevitably meant that I wasn’t satisfied with my pictures. I know it’s #FirstWorldProblems, but again, I need good content for my blogs. If you’re going in the winter, definitely book between the hours of 11 and 2. You can book earlier if you plan to spend a lot of time there because you’re allowed to stay all day if you would like. In the summer, the sun only sets for about three hours, so daylight shouldn’t be an issue.

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Taking advantage of the complex’s lights to get a photo of me with my mud mask

Snaefellsnes Peninsula

Our next day tour took us to the Snaefellsnes Peninsula, which is known for its dramatic landscapes. Dramatic indeed! Although we had some patches of rain, we loved the scenery. It’s something pictures could never capture, but I tried. We got to stop at a beach where there are often seals, but sadly they must have been hiding. We stopped on a high hill overlooking the lava fields and a giant crater, but it was raining so we couldn’t see too much.

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The highlight of the day was when we walked along the cliffs near the village of Arnarstapi. The black rocks had the most insane jagged carvings and golden mosses shining in the light of the low-lying sun. 

We also stopped at a black pebble beach and at two giant rock formations sitting on the coast, which are said to be two petrified trolls…totally believable!

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The thing that I was most excited to see in Iceland overall was the Kirkjufell mountain because not only is it featured in Game of Thrones, but it is also the “most photographed spot” in the whole country, according to our tour guide. Well our tour guide liked to talk a little too much at each stop and was in no rush whatsoever, so we didn’t arrive to the mountain until 4:45 p.m., when the daylight was almost completely gone. I’m sorry, but please don’t sell this to us as the most-photographed spot when it’s too dark to take a photograph. I really wish this could have been the first stop of the day.

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This is the best I could do with editing my dark photo

Aside from that, the Snaefellsnes Peninsula was so amazing, and I would love to go back in the summer when I have more time to see everything.

South Coast

The last tour was of the south coast of the country. For me, this was the best and most-organized tour of all of them. It helped that the sights on this route were very close together. First, we got to see ice! In Iceland! The Myrdalsjökull glacier is sadly melting due to climate change into a lagoon in a valley, but the walk through the area was really incredible. We got as close as we could to the glacier, where we saw groups getting ready to climb it. I’ll add that to the list for next time!

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Next, we stopped at the Reynisfjara black sand beach near the town of Vik. By this time, it started raining, but that actually contributed to the eeriness of the dark color and rock formations on the shore. There were high cliffs with sea caves carved into them, as well as basalt columns out in the water.

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Our day ended with two different waterfalls. First, Skógafoss (below, left) was massive. Unfortunately, the entire area in front of the waterfall was basically an ice rink with rocks sticking out, so only the brave (and dedicated Instagrammers like me) could get close enough for a good picture. It was extremely terrifying trying not to fall. I also climbed steps to the top of the waterfall, and a path led to a second one for those who are not too out of breath from the hike! The second waterfall stop was at the Seljalansfoss (below, right). If you’re in the mood to get a little wet, you can walk behind the falls.

By the end of this tour, we had enough of the mini-bus life, so I’m fully satisfied with the amount of time we spent in Iceland and everything we got to see. With that being said, I have a feeling the landscape is completely different in the summer, and I can’t wait to go back and rent a car and see the rest of the sights that I missed!

Restaurants in Reykjavik

Loki Cafe – get the plukkfisk and rye bread ice cream

Messinn – one-pot style dishes served in a frying pan

Sæta Svínið Gastropub – upscale bar food and local favorites

Bergsson Mathús – coffee shop with good breakfast options

Forréttabarinn – Icelandic dishes with prix-fixe menus as well as a la carte items

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