Winter in Iceland is the ultimate adventure, the kind of place where in a single day you can see a geyser shoot out of the frozen tundra, visit cascading waterfalls, snorkel between two continents and cap off the day with a relaxing soak in natural thermal waters while gazing up at the northern lights.
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The Land of the Midnight Sun doesn’t quite live up to its name during the snowy season when there are only about five hours of daylight, but the payoff means incredible sunrises and sunsets that last for hours and give the sky a soft light all day long that makes for ethereal scenery.
Despite the short days, there are still an incredible amount of things to do in Iceland during winter–especially around Christmas when the streets are all lit up with holiday lights and there’s a festive feeling all around. Activities like exploring lava tunnels and ice caves, snowmobiling on glaciers and sipping cocktails in an ice bar means there’s always something to do, no matter what the weather is like outside.
From volcano hikes to tracking down trolls, here are 10 of the best things to do in Iceland in winter.
Snorkel between two continents
Snorkelling…in the middle of winter?! Yes, you can do just that at the Silfra Fissure in Þingvellir National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that’s a one hour drive from Reykjavik. Silfra’s main claim to fame is that it’s smack dab in the middle of two continents, in a valley where the tectonic plates of North America and Europe drift further apart every year.
This unforgettable adventure starts by suiting up in a thermal undersuit, neoprene hoods and gloves, a dry suit and snorkel gear before heading down to the freezing cold water. Thanks to all that equipment, guests actually stay quite warm other than their face and hands, and spend about 45 minutes swimming through the tranquil, glacier-fed water that’s said to be some of the clearest in the world.
The visibility is incredible which also makes this one of the world’s top dive sites, and while you won’t see any living creatures swimming around in the frigid water the scenery is spectacular. Four different companies operate tours each day with a maximum of six guests per guide, including Troll Expeditions which includes it as part of a day trip around the famous Golden Circle route.
Relax in a geothermal lagoon
An incredible, rejuvenating winter experience is taking a dip in one of the Iceland lagoons, which are especially enchanting this time of year when the cold air causes steam to rise all around.
A number of natural hot springs and spas are found within a one hour drive of Reykjavik, including the Secret Lagoon and famous Blue Lagoon. However, you don’t need to go that far to enjoy some rest and relaxation; the Sky Lagoon is one of Iceland’s newest and most popular attractions, and located just outside the city limits.
The oceanside geothermal lagoon is designed like a historic turf house, and has a dramatic perch overlooking the North Atlantic Ocean. Complete with a waterfall, massive steam room, cold plunge pool and infinity pool that seamlessly blends into the horizon, it has sweeping views in every direction and guests can watch both sunrise and sunset as they soak.
Aside from the serene surroundings, a highlight is the Seven Step Ritual which is a nod to Icelandic bathing culture that combines warm and cold waters, steam, dry heat and an invigorating Sky Body Scrub to make your skin feel baby soft.
Sky Lagoon also has a swim up bar, beautifully-designed changing rooms (some private), and a cafe serving Icelandic specialities like reindeer pâté, wild goose fillet and pickled herring from the Djúpivogur fishing village.
The drive from the city centre takes less than 10 minutes, making a visit to the Sky Lagoon one of the best things to do in Reykjavik in winter. Click here to book
Celebrate Christmas in Reykjavik
A perk of visiting Iceland in December is getting to see what a Reykjavik Christmas is like, when the city comes alive with sparkling holiday lights and quirky traditions.
Festive Christmas trees and sculptures are found throughout the downtown area, including the five-metre tall Yule Cat which has more than six-thousand lights and the Oslo Christmas tree which is sent as a gift from Norway each year.
Wander along Skólavörðustígur which leads up to the famous Hallgrímskirkja church to see the pretty Christmas bells strung across the street, and go shopping for gifts on Laugavegur which is one of the most lively streets in Reykjavik.
Over in Ingólfstorg Square you’ll find Yule Town, where cute little Christmas huts are set up serving hot chocolate and traditional treats. There’s also a beautiful skating rink lit by twinkling lights overhead that’s free to use where helmets and skates can also be rented, and if it’s cold enough the water also freezes over on Tjörnin, the Reykjavík City Pond.
Finally, keep an eye out for the mischievous Icelandic Yule Lads (Jólasveinar) which start appearing 13 days before Christmas. You might see them on walls at the airport, or as animations on the side of a building while walking downtown.
Fun fact: acclaimed Icelandic illustrator Brian Pilkington created the modern day look of the Yule Lads, and also created a special one for the FlyOver Iceland attraction.
Fly over Iceland
One of the best ways to see Iceland is from above, by enjoying a birds-eye view of natural wonders like rushing rivers, dazzling ice fields and jagged mountain peaks. While springing for a helicopter tour is an unforgettable experience, an easier way to see the splendor is by heading to FlyOver Iceland for a multi-sensory experience.
Located in Reykjavik’s Grandi district along the waterfront, the immersive flight ride showcases the ‘unseen’ Iceland: think painted mountains in Landmannalaugar, mountaineering in Hörgársveit and the dramatic, 120-metre-high arch in Dyrhólaey.
The stage is set by entering an ‘Icelandic longhouse’ (reproduced by scenography and an integrated video content screen) to learn a bit about what life used to be like in Iceland, before heading into a separate room for a stunning video showcase of projections like the northern lights and erupting volcanoes on suspended kinetic screens.
Then, guests strap into a mesh seat on a state-of-the-art moving platform surrounded by a 20-metre spherical screen, and the nine-minute film starts. You feel like you’re flying right over galloping horses, kayakers and even right through a fireworks show, and special touches like the feeling of cold air and the smell of sulphur and lupines make it feel completely realistic.
FlyOver Iceland is the result of a year and a half of filming on a specially-equipped helicopter with a stunt pilot at the helm, a production so breathtaking that it’s common to tear up from the beauty of it all.
The full experience lasts about 30 minutes, and is the perfect activity to include on a quick Iceland stopover or when the weather isn’t cooperating since it’s entirely indoors. Click here to book
Explore a volcano
Iceland is one of only a few places in the world where you can walk right onto a volcano, and peer down at the smoldering crater. In March 2021 an eruption occurred in Geldingadalur, spewing red hot lava out of the Fagradalsfjall Volcano which is in the Reykjanes Peninsula a short drive from Reykjavik.
Now that the lava has disappeared, a handful of hiking trails have been developed that can be explored on their own or with a tour guide like Troll Expeditions. It takes three-to-four hours round trip, and you’ll get to see the charred landscape, touch volcanic rock and walk out onto certain areas where warm steam flows by.
Other options include horseback riding over red rock lava fields which means a meet-and-greet with the adorable Icelandic horses (just don’t call them ponies!), or walking through an underground lava tube called Raufarhólshellir that was carved out during an eruption more than 5,000 years ago.
Hike through an ice cave
Prepare to be dazzled with this winter adventure, where you can explore Iceland’s underworld.
The Land of Fire and Ice lives up to its name with a labyrinth of ice caves found around the country, with otherworldly blue hues. Most are found under the Vatnajökull or Kötlujökull glaciers, and formed by water that runs underneath during the summer months which means they’re constantly changing.
To see them, book a guided excursion where you hop in a super jeep to get as close to the entrance as possible, slip on some crampons then head down to see the stunning formations.
Enjoy a snowy road trip
The stunningly-scenic Golden Circle, Ring Road and South Coast routes are what road trip dreams are made of, and the incredible natural attractions like waterfalls, glaciers and geysers you’ll find along these highways are the main reason many people have Iceland on their bucket list.
While they’re best explored during summer months when the days are longer (trips typically take at least 10 hours), it’s still possible to do an Iceland road trip during the winter as long as you’re comfortable driving in snowy, icy conditions. For most travellers, it makes more sense to book a guided tour from Reykjavik that includes the guide and transportation so you don’t have to worry about the road and can simply enjoy the scenery.
A Golden Circle tour is your best bet for those tight on time since it can be done in as little as six hours. Make stops at Thingvellir National Park, the Gullfoss waterfall, the Silfra Fissure where two continents meet and the Geysir geothermal area.
Some companies also offer add-ons like seeing the Kerid Crater or snowmobiling on the Langjökull glacier, and if you book with Troll Expeditions you can also do the incredible Silfra snorkeling trip on the same day.
A southern Iceland tour takes a few hours longer, and this is where you’ll find iconic sights like the Snæfellsjökull glacier, fishing villages, the black sand beaches in Vik or Djúpalónssandur and the 60-metre high Seljalandsfoss Waterfall.
Drink at an ice bar
One of the quirkiest things to do in Reykjavik in winter is heading into the Magic Ice bar for a subzero experience.
Located downtown just steps from Rainbow street, this all-ages venue is like a winter wonderland complete with crystal clear ice sculptures. After slipping on one of the provided parkas, guests are led inside and can slide up to the ice bar to enjoy a cool cocktail (poured into an ice cup, natch).
In fact, just about everything here is made of ice, including the benches, tables, and intricate carvings on the walls depicting Viking folklore. Click here to book
Walk on a glacier
One of the most exhilarating things to do in Iceland is heading up onto a snowy glacier, breathing in the fresh air and feeling the crunch of ice under your feet. About 11 per cent of Iceland is covered in glaciers, so there’s no shortage to choose from including Vatnajökull which is the largest icecap in Europe and found along the southern section of the Ring Road in Skaftafell National Park.
There are a few ways to see them, including snowmobiling up the Langjökull Glacier, or taking a monster-size, specially outfitted super jeep or 8WD truck to the top.
Glacier hiking is also very popular, and during the hours-long adventure you’ll gear up with crampons then head out with an experienced guide to navigate past deep crevasses and ice sculptures while learning about the fascinating geology.
See the Northern Lights
Winter in Iceland is one of the best times of year to see the famous northern lights, since it’s dark for so many hours of the day. Depending on where you are you might be able to see them right out the window; however, most people staying in the capital head out on a Reykjavik northern lights tour since the bright city lights affect visibility.
There are a few options for northern lights tours in Iceland whether you’re in Reykjavik, up north in a town like Akureyri or even want to see them from Reynisfjara which is the famous black-sand beach near Vik.
Most excursions mean hopping in a van around 8 p.m., then driving towards where the aurora borealis is predicted to be the strongest and keeping your eyes peeled to the sky while sipping hot cocoa. There are also a few yachts that depart from the harbour in Reykjavik every night, where guests can relax inside while sipping drinks from the bar while hoping the lights make an appearance overhead.
Where to stay in Reykjavik
Midgardur by Center Hotels: The Center Hotels group has multiple properties in some of the best locations around Reykjavik, that are within easy walking distance of the top sites including some with amenities like on-site dining and sauna facilities.
The Midgardur is a top pick thanks to its great city views (be sure to reserve a corner room on one of the higher floors for a panoramic vantage point), and a bus stop right out front which is extremely convenient if you plan to head out on organized excursions.
The spa is a highlight, and has a large sauna, plunge pool and outdoor hot tub that are the perfect place to warm up and relax after a fun day out in the snow. Click here to book
Icelandair Hotel Reykjavik Marina: This hotel has a great location in the Grandi neighbourhood overlooking the harbour, and it’s a quick walk to attractions like FlyOver Iceland, Harpa and Rainbow street.
The cozy decor gives it a fun, boutique feel with nice touches like a fireplace and cozy seating in the lobby, and rooms have lots of storage, huge bathrooms and premium L’Occitane amenities. Click here to book
Iceland winter weather
While Iceland weather in winter can get absolutely freezing, it usually hovers around 0°c (32°F) which doesn’t seem that bad on paper. However, it’s a wet cold and even if it’s not raining or snowing you’ll likely find yourself drenched after a day of sightseeing in places like Reykjavik which are right on the sea.
Be sure to pack plenty of layers and thermals, sturdy winter boots (especially important if you plan to do any hiking), hats and mitts. A few items I brought along that worked out well are these Hot Hands hand and toe warmers, as well as these socks which kept my feet toasty warm all day long.
I wish I’d packed these waterproof gloves, which are perfect for photographers since you can flip back the top so you’re able to use a camera or smartphone without having to whip off your entire mitt each time (which is why my hands turned into popsicles). Another option are these slim gloves, which work with touch screens. Learn from my mistake, and bring some along for your Iceland winter holiday!
Globe Guide experienced Iceland in collaboration with Pursuit, with additional experiences provided by Centre Hotels and Troll Expeditions. As always, hosts have no editorial influence on articles.
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