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18 totally cool things to do in Iceland in winter

18 totally cool things to do in Iceland in winter

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Iceland is magical whatever time of year you visit. But to get the full Iceland experience, I really think you need to visit Iceland in the winter. I mean, the country has “ice” in the name after all! Whilst visiting Iceland in winter does make some things harder and less accessible, there are still plenty of things to do in Iceland in winter. In fact, many of the activities in Iceland in winter aren’t available in the warmer months since they require snow and ice. If you’re wondering about the best time to visit Iceland, let me convince you to plan a trip to Iceland in winter with the following suggestions for a winter Iceland itinerary.

See my two day Iceland itinerary full of Iceland winter activities!

things to do in iceland in winter pin 3 things to do in iceland in winter pin 3

18 of the best things to do in Iceland in the winter

Wondering what to do in Iceland in winter? Add these winter activities in Iceland to your list!

Go hunting for the Northern Lights

iceland in winter

The winter months are the best time to see the Northern Lights in Iceland. In fact, it’s kinda the only time since in summer Iceland gets 24-hour sunlight. But, as I’m sure you know getting to see the Northern Lights is no easy task.

They’re a rarity which is what makes them special. We didn’t get to see the Northern Lights during our 2 nights in Iceland, but maybe next time? If you’re dead set on seeing the Northern Lights in Iceland in winter, then give yourself at least a week and plan on staying up late.

Also known as the aurora borealis, the Northern Lights are best viewed on a clear, moonless night. Most of the time you’ll see the auroras in a green colour, but they can also be purple, red or yellow.

This aurora forecast site for Iceland will help you see what the northern lights forecast in Iceland is during your stay. It’s useful, but you can still see the lights even when the forecast is low.

Make sure you pack plenty of warm layers as it’ll be cold!

If you’re not planning on hiring a car you could also book a Northern Lights tour in Iceland. However, if you’ve rented your own car, and have winter driving experience, you may as well just head out on your own. You’ve just as good a chance of finding the aurora (if you’ve checked the forecast), as the guides do. If you want to take an Iceland Northern Lights tour, here are some popular options:

Visit Iceland at Christmas

Iceland goes all out for Christmas. You can expect tonnes of Christmas lights, festivities and just a great festive atmosphere. Iceland also has a lot of its own Christmas traditions which include: the Yule Lads, Christmas Eve, New Year‘s, the 13th day of Christmas and a few more!

Cosy up with a Reykjavik cafe crawl

iceland in winter

One of the best things to do in Reykjavik in winter is to go cafe hopping! Reykjavik is a small city but there are lots of cosy cafes that are only better in the winter. Stofan is perfect for baked goods and board games, Reykjavik Roasters is known to roast some of the best coffee in the country and Braud &. Co does fantastic pastries! This Reykjavik food, beer and chocolate tour is a great way to make sure you hit up the best spots.

Icy waterfalls

girl inside Gljufrabui waterfall iceland

Iceland is renowned for its waterfalls and they look amazing in winter when they turn icy. There’s something magical about seeing a waterfall frozen in time but it does mean the area around the waterfalls is icy too. I wouldn’t recommend climbing any steps near the waterfalls in Iceland in winter. They’re super slippery (and usually closed off anyway!).

To get the proper Icelandic winter waterfall experience, you really need to feel the spray as it drifts away from the chute. My favourite waterfall for this was Gljufrabui which is pictured above.

Explore Iceland’s ice caves

iceland in winter

This is an Iceland activity that you can only do during winter! From mid-November to early March you can take a tour to explore some of the incredible ice caves in Iceland (weather permitting). Going inside an ice cave is incredible, especially when the sun’s rays bounce off the ice. Three of the main ice caves in Iceland are Sólheimajökull, Mýrdalsjökull and Vatnajökull. T

he first two are around 2 hours away from Reykjavik and Vatnajökull is about 3 hours away in Skaftafell National Park. The first ice cave makes a great day trip from Reykjavik with a tour guide, and the other two are best done as day trips from Vik.

Here are a couple of ice cave tours in Iceland to look into as you’re traveling Iceland in winter:

Warm up in a geothermal pool in Iceland 

iceland in winter

Iceland is full of swimming pools both “official” ones like the Blue Lagoon and others. Being in a warm pool surrounded by snow is a magical experience. It’s worthy of being considered one of the best things to do in Iceland in winter. Just don’t leave your towel too far away from where you get out, brr!

Whilst you can find and get into many of the hot springs in Iceland, you can also take a tour where you’ll be taken to one or more. If you’re not renting a car in Iceland that’s a great option! Plus, if you’re planning on visiting the Blue Lagoon in Iceland, you should really book in advance, even in winter. The tickets sell out fast. It’s also worth bearing in mind that there are some great alternatives to the Blue Lagoon (that are actually better). Some of the best hot springs in Iceland include:

  • The Secret Lagoon: This hot pool is easy to get to from Reykjavik but is less well known. Get transport to and from Reykjavik & ticket in advance, or just a Secret Lagoon ticket in advance.
  • Seljavallalaug Zwembad: This natural hot spring in amongst one of Iceland’s valleys is gorgeous. You need to hike out to get to it but it’s a short 15-20 minute hike. Just remember to take some microspikes with you to help with traction walking on the snow.
  • Mývatn Nature Baths: This is perhaps one of the best alternatives to the Blue Lagoon. It has fewer tourists and is just as pretty. The only slight problem is that it’s in the north of Iceland so it’s not great if you’re just making a short stopover. However, if you’re planning on visiting northern Iceland anyway, definitely visit Myvatn!
  • Seljavallalaug Swimming Pool: Walk across the snow to this natural bath tucked away in between mountains.
  • Blue Lagoon Iceland in winter: You can also visit the Blue Lagoon in winter. It’s convenient but it’s the most expensive and popular one. I highly recommend getting a ticket in advance!

If you plan to go hiking in Iceland in winter, you’ll need some form of extra traction for your shoes. I use Yaktracks since they’re relatively cheap, light and easy to pack.

Go whale spotting in Iceland

iceland in winter

Iceland is famous for its whale watching and you can even see whales off the coast of Iceland in winter. There are humpback whales swimming in the Icelandic waters as well as an Orca pod that spends its winters just off the Snaefellsnes peninsula. Whilst summer in Iceland is still the best time for seeing whales if your heart is set on seeing them you still have a good chance in winter.

Try taking a whale watching tour from Reykjavik out into the bay.

Visit the Snæfellsnes Peninsula

iceland in winter 1

Iceland’s most photographed mountain in the country (that must be a lot of photos!) is Kirkjufell which is on the Snaefellsnes Peninsula in Iceland. Even though you’ve probably seen 100 photos of it, it can be hard to recognise when you’re there in person as it only looks pointy when you approach it from a certain angle.

Driving from Reykjavík to Kirkjufell takes about 2 and a half hours on road 1 and north through the undersea tunnel until you reach Borgarnes. When you reach the outskirts of town take road number 54 at the roundabout. Stay on this road until you reach Grundarfjörður, there is no way of missing the mountains now!

There are several guided tour options for you to choose from that’ll take you here too with transport from Reykjavik.

Driving the Golden Circle, Iceland in winter

kerid crater in winter iceland

Iceland’s most famous driving route, The Golden Circle, can still get busy even in winter. However, it’s also where you’ll find some of the most popular Iceland attractions and it’s pretty close to Reykjavik so it’s easy to drive the Golden Circle as a day trip.

The main places to stop on the Golden Circle are the following:

  • Strokkur: A geyser is a spot where the earth shoots super hot water into the air and the Strokkur geyser is one of the most regular ones in Iceland. Strokkur blasts water to heights of about 15-20 metres every 5-10 minutes which is great since you won’t want to be waiting around in the cold too long!
  • Gulfoss: Translated as Golden Falls, this waterfall is likely the first you’ll come across.
  • Þingvellir National Park: This Iceland national park is beautiful when covered in snow and was home to Iceland’s first parliament.
  • Silfa Fissure: Geography lover? At Silfa fissure you can stand between tectonic plates! It’s also a great spot for diving or snorkelling tours in Iceland.
  • Kerid Crater: In the winter you likely won’t see the colour of the water at the bottom of this crater, but it’s impressive nonetheless.
  • Secret Lagoon: A less well-known alternative to the Blue Lagoon, a soak in the Secret Lagoon is a great way to end your Golden Circle road trip.

If you’re not renting a car here are a couple of great tours of the Golden Circle.

Diamond Beach at Jökulsárlón

iceland in winter

One of the best places to visit in Iceland in winter is Diamond Beach; it’s a truly magical place. A glacial lagoon, the “Diamond” in the name refers to the icebergs floating around in the water. They’re pretty small for icebergs and really do shine like diamonds. If you’ve booked on to an ice cave tour you’ll likely start here. However, you can also explore this area yourself. The black sand on the shore with the icy waters really make this landscape quite striking.

If you’re without transport in Iceland, check out the following tours that go along the south coast to Jokulsarlon and Diamond Beach.

Go snorkelling or diving in Iceland

snorkelling silfra fissure iceland

Winter in Iceland may not seem like the best time to go snorkelling or diving but with the right equipment (drysuits) it’s still super fun. One of the best places to go scuba diving in Iceland is the Silfa Fissure where you can dive between two continents (North America & Europe)! As you’re swimming about in the water you can see where the two tectonic plates separate which is incredible to see.

Snorkelling and diving tours in Iceland:

Skiing in Iceland

iceland in winter

Another great option for what to do in Iceland in the winter is skiing! Iceland isn’t likely to be the first place you think of when you think of European ski destinations. But, it’s actually a great place to ski and not at all crowded! Sure, the ski resorts in Iceland are smaller, and more like ski slopes than resorts, but there’s plenty of opportunity for downhill skiing, boarding, cross-country and backcountry skiing too. You can also go skiing from mountain top to the ocean and enjoy heli-skiing or cat-skiing.

The ski season in Iceland typically runs from December to April, and February and March are the best times to visit Iceland for skiing. You can also go night skiing at most resorts in Iceland too!

There are two ski areas near Reykjavik which are Blafjoll and Skalafell ski resorts. The former is the largest and most popular ski resort in Iceland due to its proximity to the capital. In the Westfjords there’s Dalirnir and in the east you can ski at Stafdalur and Oddsskard.

The best place to stay in Iceland for an Icelandic ski trip would be the northeast. That’s because you’re close to several ski resorts including Hlidarfjall which is said to be one of the best. There’s terrain here for all ski abilities, cross country trails and rentals available too.

The local Ski Pass gets you 5 day’s worth of skiing at 5 ski resorts in the north. It’s a great way to  save money if you’re planning to do several days anyway.

Visit Iceland plane wreck

iceland in winter

At Solheimasandur Beach you can find a plane wreck which has become an iconic tourist attraction and one of the most unique things to do in Iceland. The plan can be reached year-round and involves a 25-40 minute walk from the car park so if you plan to visit in winter make sure you have suitable footwear.

The plane crashed on November 24 in 1973 and was a U.S Navy Douglas Super DC-3 aeroplane. It was forced to land on Sólheimasandur’s black sand beach due to ice and has been on the beach since. Luckily no one died during this landing so it’s not as morbid as it sounds!

Warm up with a drink of Brennivin

The famous Icelandic drink, Brennivin, is one of the best ways to beat the cold winds of Iceland. Brennivin translates to “burning wine” and taking a shot will definitely warm you up from the inside! The drink is clear and unsweetened and flavoured with caraway seeds which gives it a very unusual flavour. It’s a bit like liquorice.

If you plan on drinking some I’d recommend getting a bottle as you pass through duty-free upon landing to save some money. Alcohol (and everything) in Iceland is expensive, so this will save you a little bit!

Discover Northern Iceland

iceland in winter

Northern Iceland is perhaps the least visited part of the county and that’s one reason why it’s worth exploring. The capital of the north, Akureyri, is a great little town to explore and Myvatn is home to the Myvatn baths which are a better (and cheaper) version of the Blue Lagoon.

Other places to see in Iceland’s north are: the Namafjall Hverir geothermal area, which is huge; Dimmuborgir which are lava rock formations supposedly formed by a gang of trolls; the waterfalls of Dettifoss and Godafoss; and the craters at Skutustadagigar.

Tour the Reykjanes Peninsula

geothermal park krusyvik

We drove through some of the Reykjanes Peninsula after landing at Iceland late in the evening. It was a clear night and so we were hoping to catch a glimpse of the Northern Lights as we travelled away from the city lights.

Unfortunately, we didn’t see the aurora but we did see some out of this world landscapes. Seriously, it was like driving across the surface of the moon (or what I think that’d look like anyway…). Most people don’t visit this part of Iceland (except for the Blue Lagoon) heading straight onto the Ring Road or the Golden Circle but it’s well worth it.

On the Reykjanes Peninsula, make sure you stop at the Krysuvik and Seltun which are areas of geothermal activity. There’s a boardwalk here which lets you walk by the bubbling earth. In winter, the colours of the water will be hard to see, but you’ll see the steam for sure! Reykjanesviti is Iceland’s oldest lighthouse and is pretty close to the geothermal areas on the Reykjanes Peninsula. Other than that, just enjoy the landscape!

Tip: You will need to have rented a 4×4. The roads here can be super snowy and we saw several cars which had been ditched at the side of the road by their owners.

Drive the South Coast of Iceland

iceland in winter

A road trip along Iceland’s south coast is what we’d plan to do but we didn’t get quite as far as I’d planned. However, what we did see was still brilliant and included some of the best Iceland attractions in winter. On an Iceland winter road trip of the south coast, you should definitely stop at Seljalandfoss and Skogafoss, and also the black sand beaches near Vik.

I’ve got my full itinerary for an Iceland’s south coast road trip here. We did a self drive in Iceland in winter, and this post has some tips.

Hiking on a glacier in Iceland

photos of iceland in winter

This isn’t something to attempt on your own unless you have glacier travel knowledge, the equipment and plenty of experience. However, if you book a glacier hiking tour then you can experience what it’s like to walk on a glacier with a guide. It’s a pretty cool experience!

Most of the tours will take you to Europe’s largest glacier: Vatnajokull. The glacier hike that you’ll do on the tours isn’t physically or technically demanding but it is amazing. Just make sure you’ve got proper hiking boots with you and you’ll be provided with crampons to give you grip on the ice. If you’re staying in Reykjavik for your trip to Iceland, there’s also a glacier hike on Solheimajokull you can do. This one includes transport to and from Reykjavik too.

If you’re looking to add a little more adventure to your glacier hike in Iceland, book a tour with ice climbing!

Here are some great options for glacier hiking tours if you’re planning to travel Iceland in winter:

How to get to Iceland

The only way to get to Iceland (unless you own a ship!) is by flying there. There are several airports in Iceland including both international and domestic only. Both the Keflavik and Reykjavik airports serve international flights. Iceland’s Keflavik airport is the one you’re most likely to land at as it’s the largest. There are many flights year round so it won’t matter if you’re traveling to Iceland in winter or summer.

Getting between Keflavik and Reykjavik is easy. There are many options for airport transfer in Iceland (this airport bus in Iceland is the cheapest). Some hotels will also do airport pickups and drop-offs. This itinerary for Iceland is best done by renting a car. This means you can drive from Keflavik airport to wherever you’re staying.

I always use Skyscanner to book my flights as they make it super easy to find the best deal. I also recommend signing up to Iceland Air’s mailing list to be alerted when they’re doing sales. That’s how we managed to get our flights back to the UK, via Iceland, with a 2 day stopover for less than a flight would normally cost between Vancouver and London.

For more hacks on how to find cheap flights check this post out!

Getting around Iceland in winter

While Iceland does have public transport, especially within the city of Reykjavik and between Reykjavik and Keflavik, you’ll likely find it much easier to rent a car and go at your own pace.

Public Transport in Iceland

If renting a car in Iceland is not an option, you can use the public transport available. Bear in mind that this is more useful if you’re visiting Iceland in the winter rather than Iceland in summer. Due to weather conditions and tourist numbers, many of the bus routes don’t run in winter or run at a much-reduced service. You can see a map of all the Iceland bus routes here.

Where there are bus services available in winter, you may be able to use them instead of booking a day trip in Iceland. The buses tend to spend a few hours at their final destination before turning back around, or they may stop for 30 minutes or so to allow you to look at the sights on route.

There are several bigger bus stations in Reykjavik and outside of the city petrol stations or camping grounds tend to be the bus stop. However, make sure to double-check; you don’t want to be stuck outside in the icy winter wind for too long! You’ll learn quickly that the weather isn’t the best when you visit Iceland in winter.

Driving in Iceland in winter

driving iceland in winter

“blowing snow” was an accurate weather forecast!

We rented a car for our two days in Iceland and we were very glad we did. This meant we could go at our own pace and didn’t need to wait outside for a bus in the VERY strong wind that was battling Iceland during our visit. However, I would recommend you only drive in Iceland in winter if you’re experienced with icy and snowy driving conditions.

I booked through RentalCars.com and got a great deal on a 4×4 Dacia Duster. Pretty much all rental companies will offer 4×4 rental in Iceland and I highly recommend paying that bit extra to get one. Renting a car in Iceland in winter really requires 4×4 capabilities and while you may be okay in a standard car, this gives you that extra confidence. The Dacia Duster seemed to be a popular choice (it’s the cheapest!). Sure, it wasn’t the fanciest of 4x4s by any means but it did the trick. We definitely put it to the test on our first evening when we had to tackle some snowdrifts! There are lots of airport car rental options in Iceland and if their stall isn’t directly in the airport they’ll usually send someone to pick you up.

Whatever time you visit Iceland, the following two websites will be useful for travelling in Iceland in winter, especially in winter.

  • Road.is: Gives you the up-to-date conditions of all the roads in Iceland.
  • Vendur.is: – for the Iceland weather forecast, essential for travelling Iceland in winter!

Where to stay in Iceland

For the itinerary outlined above, it makes sense to stay just on the outskirts of Reykjavik on the first night so it’s easier to hit the Iceland ring road the next morning. The following night we had a room booked just past Vik but since the road was closed we stayed at this guesthouse by Skógafoss. It ended up being a great last-minute decision since the road didn’t open until midday the following day and our room came with a view of the waterfall!

Hotels near Reykjavik

These hotels and guesthouses in Iceland are near the ring road which is what you’ll be travelling on for this Iceland travel itinerary. This makes it easy to get out in the morning and start discovering Iceland without sitting in lots of traffic.

  • Route 1 Guesthouse: This is where we stayed and it had everything you need for one night. Our room was large with blackout windows, a private bathroom and self check in so it didn’t matter that we arrived at 2 am. There’s also free parking and free breakfast in the morning which consisted of cereals, toast, fruit and ham/cheese. It was also super close to several supermarkets which were great for getting lunch and road trip snacks.
  • First Hotel Reykjavík Kópavogur:  With free parking and self check in, this budget-friendly hotel in Iceland has great private rooms with ensuite facilities. There’s an onsite gym, a bar and free breakfast are offered too.
  • Hotel Vellir: This hotel has some great views and is just 350 metres from the biggest thermal pool in Iceland: Ásvallalaug Thermal Pool. Breakfast is included in the price and this cheap hotel near Reykjavik has everything you’d need such as toiletries, tea & coffee facilities in the room and private bathroom.

Hotels in Vik and nearby

For accommodations in  Vik, Iceland, you can’t go wrong with these.

  • Guesthouse Skogafoss: This is where we ended up staying at it was great. The guesthouse is self check-in and has 5 rooms with a shared dining/kitchen area and 2 bathrooms. We had a room with a view of the waterfall and you’re within walking distance of the waterfall and a couple of places to eat too.
  • Hotel Katla by Keahotels: This hotel just 5km east of Vík has stunning views of the Mýrdalsjökull Glacier. Guests also get free access to the outdoor geothermal hot tubs! Breakfast is included and Vik’s black sand beaches are just a 5-minute drive away.
  • Volcano Hotel: This hotel has lovely bright rooms just 10 minutes from Vik. All rooms have a seating area, TV with Netflix in case the weather keeps you indoors and some have sea views. It’s also a great place to see the Northern Lights!