When I told everyone my plans to go to Iceland in the winter, the resounding response was “Why??” While a place that has the word ice in its name might sound like a terrible place to go in the winter, I absolutely loved it. I had been in the summer and experienced the “warm months” (aka 50 degrees F) and the sun being out almost all of the time, so figured it was time to experience the other extreme of the country. I couldn’t wait to see what to do in Iceland in the winter.
It’s actually not that cold – when I was there in January, it was 30°F while it was 25°F back in Seattle. Just make sure you dress warm and you’ll be fine! The hardest part was getting used to the few hours of light each day. It’s somewhat light out from around 11 AM to 3 PM in January, but the sun doesn’t fully rise. Waking up at 10 AM when it was pitch dark outside was a strange feeling. I do love snow and being bundled up in comfy clothes, so adjusted pretty quickly. I’m not sure I could live there and expect to get up for work at 7 AM every day, though!
Darkness and cold aside, Iceland is an amazing country to explore. From geothermal spas to volcanoes, you won’t be bored!
I’m usually against “tourist” activities, but you must do this if you visit in the winter. I couldn’t think of anything better when it’s cold out and snow’s on the ground than soaking in a giant geothermal spa. The water is a toasty average of 99–102°F, but doesn’t feel overly warm with the contrast of the cold wind in the winter. There’s a swim-up bar where you can buy smoothies or alcoholic beverages. You can also put on silica masks while you lounge, which are supposed to be good for your skin. There’s a snack bar inside as well as a full restaurant, so you could spend a good portion of the day here.
I’m a huge volcano nerd, so Iceland is a natural playground for me. Did you know there are 30 active volcanoes in the country? The Volcano House is in downtown Reykjavik and is a very informative “museum” for how small it is. You can touch actual volcanic ash from different eruptions and read all about the history that’s been documented. I recommend staying for the 50-minute video in their small theater that shows some small but devastating eruptions I’d never heard of before.
Try Icelandic Food and Drink
If you’re looking to try different food, Iceland is your place. Lamb soup is their speciality, and you can also get puffin or minke whale. I highly recommend the seafood – considering you’re on an island, you know it’ll be fresh. Icelandic Fish and Chips was my absolute favorite place to try in downtown Reykjavik. They have not one, but three fresh fish of the day to choose from. Add a side of rosemary garlic potatoes and you’re set!
For drinks, Brennivín is the country’s “signature” distilled beverage. It’s basically unsweetened schnapps that’s mainly used for special occasions. For beer, I really enjoyed Gull and Viking, which are both brewed in Iceland.
The best time to see the Northern Lights is from September to April. Going in the middle of the winter gives you a really good shot at seeing them as long as there are no clouds in the sky. You typically have to drive away from Reykjavik to see them due to light pollution, but they have been known to pop up downtown. Many tour companies will pick you up right from your hotel to take you out to see them. I’d do this at the beginning of your trip, as it’s impossible to predict if you’ll see them the first time you try.
While Hallgrímskirkja was only created in 1937, I found its architecture stunning. The design was inspired by the shapes lava creates when it cools into basalt rock. Head to the top for the best view of the city, although you’ll have to wait a bit since there’s only one elevator. The inside features a gargantuan pipe organ that I’d love to hear in person sometime. Right outside is the famous statue of Leif Erikson, so there are quite a few photo-ops in this one area.
Would you visit Iceland in the winter?
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