WHAT TO DO IN ICELAND – BEST WINTER ACTIVITIES
If you are planning your Iceland itinerary, you might be wondering about what to do in Iceland. This post will help you to find out about the best things to do in Iceland in winter, and you’ll also find some travel tips.
I visited Iceland in December/January and again in summer! I think it is a great destination to visit throughout the year. However, I probably liked it better in winter (I am not 100% sure yet).
While I was super active during my winter trip to Iceland – and did quite a lot in 12 days – I did not get to see everything. Winter days are just very, very short in Iceland. With just a few hours of daylight in the cold months, seeing a lot is not possible. So I have asked other travel bloggers to name their favorite thing to do in Iceland in the winter months. Most of the activities can also be done in the summer months in Iceland – but some you can only do during the winter months.
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TRAVEL TIPS FOR ICELAND IN THE WINTER
I have written a very detailed post on visiting Iceland in December – where I speak about the very mixed feelings I have about the visit during the time.
It is magical and amazing – but there was some ugly (but not literally), too. However, if you visit in the winter months, check out the following winter travel tips for Iceland.
WEATHER IN WINTER
The winter season is quite long – and lasts from November until March. Daylight in these months is…rare. So, short days mean less amount of time to do proper sightseeing in December (so keep that in mind when planning your itinerary).
- In December sun rises after 11 am, and the sun sets at around 3:30 pm…Yes, it is that bad.
Surprisingly though, the winter in Iceland is pretty mild and only a bit colder than in Western European countries. At least this can be said for the southern part of the country. It does get colder in the North of Iceland. Most visitors focus on the south and west of Iceland, so that really does not affect many.
- Temperatures in Iceland´s capital, Reykjavík, range from about -10 °C – almost 10 °C. The average temperature is just above freezing which is surely bearable if you dress appropriately.
However, when I visited Iceland in December/January, I was surprised to see how often it actually rains. Though I was told that the amount of rain is not typical, be prepared for a lot of rain – especially in Reykjavik.
WHAT TO PACK FOR ICELAND IN THE WINTER
Though Iceland in the winter is not as bad as many think, it is still important to dress warmly. Or better to dress in layers.
- A warm and waterproof jacket should be one of the first items you think to pack. Avoid choosing a bulky jacket that takes up a lot of space. This can make you feel uncomfortable when you have layers underneath. Instead, opt for a lightweight trench raincoat that will keep you warm, dry, and comfortable.
- A knitted beanie is a perfect solution for keeping the warmth in while you venture out. A hat will keep you toasty warm wherever you are.
- A pair of gloves can do wonders for your mobility, dexterity, and comfort. When selecting your options, it’s worth investing in a pair that can dry quickly and are touch-screen compatible.
- A warm scarf and/or turtleneck sweater are key items for keeping your neck covered. A turtleneck sweater is perfect as a garment to wear underneath your jacket, while the scarf can be removed easily.
- Leggings are an essential item to pack as you can dress them up or down. You can even wear them underneath your denim as an extra layer of warmth.
- When it comes to packing socks for your Iceland trip – the thicker, the better. The chances are that you’ll be spending a lot of time outdoors in the snow, and you’ll want your feet to be warm and cozy.
- My favorite winter clothes are thermals. A quality set of thermals is your key to enjoying the winter weather in Iceland. You have to wear them on a cold day to believe what a wonderful invention it is!
- If you can only pack one pair of shoes, make sure they are a trusty pair of waterproof snowshoes. You’ll want your shoes to be as versatile as possible. Snowshoes allow you to enjoy a variety of activities while keeping your feet warm and dry.
- I bought my crampons in Iceland. I thought I could make it without them, but I was wrong. If you want to walk and see places from different angles, you will need crampons. They were a lifesaver, and while I fell many times on my first day, I didn’t fall after I got them (and only got to see other people falling) because they help walking on ice.
- For a full guide on what to wear in Iceland, check out this post.
HOW TO GET AROUND IN ICELAND IN WINTER
Public transportation in Iceland is not amazing, in Reykjavik you can use it to get to some main attractions but you basically have two options: driving yourself or booking guided tours. My advice: opt for the second one in winter.
While road tripping in summer is surely an amazing way to discover the country, driving in winter is challenging.
I did a lot of research and decided against driving myself. If you are not an experienced winter driver (plus mountain driver), think twice! In Reykjavik and the southern coast of Iceland driving is quite “easy” and the roads are cleared! The northern coast of Iceland is, however, a bit more problematic with extremely heavy snowfalls and roads that do not get cleared.
Booking tours might be the best option. While I road-tripped Iceland in summer, I only booked tours for my winter trip.
WHERE TO STAY
Most activities listed here are in or near Reykjavik. You can visit most places here if you do day tours from Reykjavik. So, I recommend making Reykjavik your base and then heading to most destinations. However, you can also do a road trip and stay overnight in other areas.
- Check out the best places to stay in Iceland.
BEST THINGS TO DO IN ICELAND IN THE WINTER MONTHS
So, here are the best activities for the winter months in Iceland.
Chill at The Blue Lagoon
Visiting the Blue Lagoon is one of the best places to visit in Iceland during the winter. So, do not be surprised that it can be busy.
- I highly recommend booking your experience in advance.
The Blue Lagoon is the perfect place to visit at the end of your trip – relax in the steamy hot mineral water after a few cold days. There’s no better way to enjoy a break from the cold temperatures in winter while being warm.
There is a swim-up bar – so grab your drink and wander to the outer edges of the Lagoon. Give yourself plenty of time – I spent about 3 or 4 hours there, but if I had company, I probably would have stayed all day.
The Blue Lagoon is only about 30 minutes from the airport, so it makes sense to visit after you land or on your last day before heading to the airport. Some buses will take to from the airport to the lagoon. Check out the latest bus going to the airport because they do not run late.
Or rent a car and drive yourself. This part is quite easy to drive – even in the winter.
- Check out Prices for a Day Trip from Reykjavik to the Blue Lagoon
See Iceland’s Vik Beach
- Recommended by Talek from Travels with Talek
Iceland’s Vik Beach is otherworldly and mysterious in the winter – and one of the best tourist attractions in Iceland.
The village it is named for is the southernmost town in Iceland, about a 110 miles (180 km) drive southeast of the capital city Reykjavik.
Even though it has a small population, Vik is the biggest town in the area and an important stopping point mostly due to its amazing beach with its black sand.
The sand is black due to the volcanic eruptions that have deposited lava and ash over the centuries. In the winter, the black sand and the white ice make for an eerie combination. Are you on earth or a distant moon in a frigid and forbidding galaxy?
The otherworldly aspect of Vik Beach in winter is exacerbated by the ocean’s reputation for rushing up on the shore, grabbing unsuspecting visitors, and dragging them into the cold waters of the North Atlantic. The nearby basalt rock formations and caves complete the picture of a ghostly yet beautiful landscape.
- The easiest and most efficient way to get there is by car or tour bus from Reykjavik. While driving in some parts of Iceland can be difficult in winter, the southern part is quite accessible.
Go Horseback Riding in Iceland
- Recommended by Natascha and Cameron from The World Pursuit
Horseback riding in Iceland in winter is an incredible experience.
While you’re getting around Iceland, you will more than likely see hundreds and hundreds of horses everywhere you look. These Icelandic horses are a special breed that can only be found in Iceland. What’s so special about them?
Well, for one, they are much smaller than a regular horse, and many people confuse them for ponies – they are not.
They also have a very distinctive gait style called the Tolt. The Tolt is a natural and fluid gait that is decently fast, and one foot is always touching the ground.
You can find horse riding stables all over the county – so in the wild Icelandic countryside near Vamahlid. For two whole hours, you can gallivanter through meadows, rivers, and even near some glaciers, which is just magical.
Of course, you can do this activity in the summer. But in the winter you start to feel like you are really in ICE-Land and it is much less crowded!
- Check out prices for Horseback Riding in Iceland
Visit the Mývatn Nature Baths
- Recommended by Siddharth and Shruti from Siddharth and Shruti
One of Iceland’s best experiences in winter is getting into a geothermal pool at the end of the day. The Blue Lagoon might be the most famous pool, but not the only amazing one to check out: Mývatn Nature Baths.
After a cold day, nothing feels as amazing as it felt to dip into the toasty 36 – 40°C pools. There are two pools here. One is warmer than the other.
There is also a smaller hot tub nearby for that extra warm water that may make you want to stay there for hours. The Mývatn Nature Baths are located in a geothermal area east of the Grjotagja (Game of Thrones fans will probably know this cave thanks to Jon and Ygritte) and west of Namafjall.
Mývatn Nature Baths was a fantastic experience, and if you are super lucky, you might even catch the Northern Lights while you are there in the winter!
There are lockers for your valuables, and there is also a small restaurant if you feel peckish after your soak.
- Check out prices for a day trip to Mývatn And The Nature Baths
See the Northern Lights
- Recommended by Hélène from Flight to Somewhere
Iceland is a great place to go hunting for the Northern Lights between September and mid-April.
There are a few different ways you can do that – bus or boat tour, staying in a rural hotel with the option of a Northern Lights wake-up call, or renting a car and going out on your own.
One of the key prerequisites needed for a display of Northern Lights is clear dark skies, which means that the tours take place at night and are weather-dependent – they will get canceled if the cloud cover is too thick.
You will also have to get away from the populated areas due to the light pollution they produce.
Dress warm – standing outside in the snow at night got very cold very quickly! If you are planning to explore on your own, make sure to check the Aurora forecast from Iceland’s Met Office before you set out, which will show you the cloud cover and the activity level.
If you want to book one of the tours, make it at the beginning of your trip! You can rebook if you don’t see anything – most of the tours allow you to go again for free in that case.
TIP:: Do not plan anything for very early the next day as you are unlikely to get back to the hotel before midnight.
Experience ATV at the Black Lava Sand Beach
- Recommended by Laura from The Down Lo
Called the “Land of Fire and Ice” for its glaciers and geysers, one example of Iceland’s fiery landscape is the black lava sand beaches.
Reynisfjara Black Sand Beach is the most famous and one of the “Game of Thrones” filming locations. Located off Ring Road in South Iceland near the town of Vik, it’s about 110 miles from Reykjavik.
Not a beach to feel the sand between your toes. The ground is quite rocky, made of hardened basalt lava. In fact, the landscape looks more like the moon than paradise.
Giant angular columns called Gardar guard the cliffside like jagged walls, reminiscent of the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland, and there are two notable freestanding rock monoliths called Reynisdrangar that jut out from the sea.
Legend has it. They’re trolls that got caught in daylight and were turned to stone.
You can visit the area on your own, but one of the best ways to explore is on an ATV-Quad safari. It’s a heart-pumping, bumpy ride that’s quite wild at times but definitely an unforgettable, otherworldly adventure.
One of my extreme outdoor challenges as part of a weeklong tour to become a Certified Viking is truly a unique thing to do in Iceland.
Photograph the Kirkjufell Mountain
Then, it is time to visit one of the most famous sights in the country: Kirkjufell Mountain, which is a 463-meter-high mountain on the north coast of Iceland’s Snæfellsnes Peninsula. I have seen it in the winter and in the summer, and I think it was more fun and interesting in the winter months when there was snow.
Along the way, you’ll be able to take in stunning views of the surrounding fjords, cliffs, and lava fields. Making this a magical Icelandic day trip.
There is not much hiking to do in the winter months and it can be extremely icy and slippery. But you can walk around the waterfall and enjoy the scenery. Make sure to take some crampons and put them on your shoes with you so you can walk all the way to the waterfall.
- Free entrance, no parking fees.
- Check out tours for Snæfellsnes Peninsula tours here.
Enjoy the Hot Pools at Húsafell Hotel
Add Húsafell Hotel – with its hot pools – to your winter itinerary. The more famous pools might be able to accommodate more people, but I was lucky enough to enjoy an hour by myself – here in the west of Iceland.
The pools at Husafell Hotel are beautiful – visiting in winter, I was the only one there, though it is probably much busier in summer. Here, you can escape the winter chills by soaking in the wonderful, naturally heated waters. What a perfect place to end the day!
- There is an entrance fee, parking is free.
GUIDED DAY TRIPS FROM REYKJAVIK
- If you plan to do a guided tour, this one offers a stop at almost all the attractions mentioned above. It does not stop at Husafell Hotel – and the day tour I did is not offered anymore, so this day trip sounds like the best option.
Admire Hraunfossar Waterfalls
There are apparently around 10,000 waterfalls in Iceland. So, how can a waterfall stand out? Hraunfossar Waterfalls is a relatively small yet overly beautiful waterfall that can stand up to the gigantic competition. It looks absolutely pretty and is easily accessible at any time of the year.
The waterfalls are located in Borgarfjörður in the West of Iceland about 120km away from Reykjavík. It is not the main sight as it is neither located within the Ring Road nor the Golden Circle and – yet it is worth a visit.
Hraunfossar consists of numerous springs that emerge under the edge of the lava field Hallmundarhraun. Hallmundarhraun, however, consists of pillow lava and was probably created in 800 AD.
The water is from Langjökull Glacier, the second-largest glacier in Iceland. The water running between the lava layers created the Hraunfossar Waterfalls (hraun= lava and fossar= waterfalls), which are almost 1000 meters wide.
THIS (and the watercolor) make Hraunfoosar a special Icelandic waterfall. From there, the water flows into the Hvita River.
I visited in early January and experienced beautiful scenery – the watercolor looked amazing and so did the waterfalls themselves. I had booked a guided tour (definitely did not want to drive in winter in Iceland) and chose a tour that focused on the lesser-visited areas like these waterfalls.
Our bus was the only bus around – and it was cold. Really cold. But it was worth it. Most people in my group just looked at the Hraunfossar and quickly went back to the bus. I was probably the only one who made it to Barnafoss – a waterfall just a stone’s throw away from Hraunfossar.
During the winter months, you cannot do much around the area. It was worth it. I loved the winter wonderland at Hraunfossar in January more than I liked it in the summer actually.
See Iceland From Above – FlyOver Iceland
Iceland is best explored outdoors – not surprising given its extremely stunning scenery. However, spending some time indoors – especially on a rainy or very cold day, is not a bad idea, either. Here is one of my favorite winter activities in Reykjavik.
Flyover Iceland is so much more than a 4D movie. It’s a passion project that celebrates the unique beauty of Iceland and its history.
In the simulation, you’ll fly over Iceland’s mountainous landscape and rough coastline, feeling the wind in your hair, and the twists and turns. It was designed to feel like mankind’s greatest dream fulfilled; to feel like you’re flying. With over 200 hours of aerial videography, and years of work put into it, I’d say it was successful!
You’ll also learn about how Iceland was formed, its long history, and Icelandic culture. So not only is it a great deal of fun – but you’ll also go away with a much better understanding of your surroundings and the Icelandic people.
I was excited and fell in love before I had seen much of Iceland in real life. However, some other people I talked to criticized the short movie and the quite high price. The “flight” is just 10 minutes – the rest of the time you´ll watch short movies and get some information. Not really spectacular – but the flight was great! For me, it was worth the money.
Also, this is the perfect thing to do on a very cold day in Reykjavik in winter as it is indoors (once you book your tickets, email them and agree on a time slot).
See the Stars at the Perlan Planetarium
Reykjavik’s Perlan Planetarium is another fun experience you can experience indoors in Reykjavik. This world-class planetarium allows you to witness the Northern Lights and Iceland’s other wonders. All while snug and warm in the city.
The Perlan Planetarium show runs every hour and is in English. So you’ll have an opportunity to learn about the science behind the aurora borealis and much much more while you’re awed by the beauty.
You can also explore a man-made indoor ice cave and enjoy a 360° panorama of Reykjavík from the viewing deck.
I enjoyed the Perlan Planetarium a lot (though FlyOver Iceland was my highlight) – especially because I “got to see the Northern Lights”. I actually met a few people who said, this was their favorite indoor activity in Reykjavik.
See a Lava Tunnel – Viðgelmir Lava
The Cave Vidgelmir is the fourth-longest lava tube in Iceland and is very close to the Hot pools at Husafell Hotel and Hraunfossar Waterfalls. Viðgelmir is the largest lava tube in Iceland at 1585 meters (5200 feet) long. This lava cave is just 15 minutes away –
The cave is the chance to witness the inner working of a volcanic eruption – you can walk the path that flowed during an eruption more than 5,000 years ago. And the guided tour will allow you to learn about volcanic eruptions and their effect on the environment.
Though this part wasn’t my highlight it was interesting because it was completely different from the rest of the day.
Visit Gullfoss Waterfall
Gullfoss is a roaring waterfall and a sight to behold. It is one of the most popular tourist attractions and it is for a reason – accessible at any time of the year, I liked it better in the winter months.
The waterfall is located in the canyon of the Hvítá river in southwest Iceland and is part of the famous Golden Circle.
The water cascades down in two stages, one 11 meters (36 feet) high, and the other 21 meters (69 feet), into the 2,5 km (1.6 miles) long crevasse below. This crevasse was created by flood waves created by the end of the Ice Age.
You can’t visit Reykjavik and skip the Golden Circle in winter – especially since this waterfall is a must-see and so the Golden Circle Tours are some of the most popular tours offered.
CONCLUSION: BEST ICELAND WINTER ACTIVITIES
Iceland surely is a winter wonderland – and yet so different than other winter wonderlands like Switzerland.
Okay, guys, these are the top things to do in Iceland in winter. I hope you have found enough reasons to add Iceland to your bucket list and got a good idea of what to do in Iceland and the best places to visit.