Iceland is a place that is on many people’s bucket lists, and for good reason. The dramatic, volcanic landscape makes for an other worldly experience. It is no wonder that so many films and tv shows have been filmed here (Various Star Wars films, Game of Thrones, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, Vikings, Thor: The Dark World and Interstellar, to name a few – we really could be here all day). Iceland is also one of the most peaceful places in the in the world – they don’t even have an army! Iceland is a truly magical place to visit in any season, but to see the most incredible displays of nature at work, it is a must to see visit at winter time. I have put together a list of the very best things to do in Iceland in winter for you.
Winter is the the best time to visit Iceland if you want to see the elusive northern lights, glacier hike or visit a natural ice cave. In Iceland, the winter period ranges from October/November to March/April. And with average winter temperatures ranging from -5 to 5 °C, it’s really not as cold as you think! The wind can be quite chilling, though.
Following up on my December adventure in the breathtaking so called ‘land of fire and ice’, I have put together a list of the top things to do in Iceland in winter. Whilst many of these are must sees in any weather, I have tailored my guide to some activities that aren’t so summer friendly due to higher temperatures and midnight sun.
Gullfoss is part of the famous Golden Circle, one of the most popular things to do in Iceland. You can drive it yourself or take a tour of. It translates as “the golden waterfall”. Although it’s not possible to get as up close and personal with gullfoss as it is with some of the south coast waterfalls, it really is a unique sight and experience. I was concerned that I wouldn’t see the full beauty of the falls by going in the winter, as it would be partially frozen, but boy was I wrong! Look at these icy views!
2. Visit a Black Sand Beach
You will find black sand all over Iceland, even in Reykjavik, due to the number of volcanoes on the island. Black sand is created when lava enters the sea, causing a chemical reaction that breaks the lava down into sand. The most popular black sand beach to visit in Iceland is Reynisfjara, near the village Vík í Mýrdal. Reynisfjara is recognisable for its natural rock sculptures and basalt columns.
During warmer months the basalt stacks are home to many species of birds, including Puffins. Nearby Dyrhólaey is the best place for Puffin spotting, another popular thing to do in Iceland. According to Icelandic folklore, the columns were once trolls that pulled ships into the shore at night. One night they stayed out to long and the daylight turned them all to stone. I love learning about local legends like these.
Due the unpredictable Icelandic weather, it was very wet and cloudy when I visited, hence the greyish/ slightly water logged pictures, but if you love a moody landscape, this is for you! The tide can be very ferocious, so don’t stray to close to the water, as people have died being swept away into the stormy waters.
You might recognise it from: Game of Thrones Season 7 (Eastwatch) Noah & Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
3. Walk Behind the Veil of Seljalandsfoss Waterfall
Seljalandsfoss is a bit less dramatic than some of Iceland’s other waterfalls, but certainly not to be missed. This was one of the most memorable experiences from my trip. It is unique in that you can actually take a route around the back of it and stand directly behind the stream water as it thunders down before you, which is a really amazing experience.
The path there, expectedly, is rather wet and a bit slippy, so be careful with your footing, and don’t attempt if you have mobility issues. This one is also down to chance, as the path is closed (understandably) when it’s icy or covered in snow. I lucked out, as it was snowy both before and after I visited, but on the day we went the snow had melted as it had gotten a bit warmer for a few days.
You may recognise it from: Justin Bieber’s ‘I’ll Show You’ music video & film Bokeh
4. Make Some Furry Friends with Icelandic Horses
The Icelandic horse is a unique and sought after breed, known for their short and stout stature, general fluffiness and beautiful, often blonde, manes. The word that instantly springs to mind is pony, but be warned, the Icelandic stable workers do not appreciate this term ha! They are a “unique breed of horse”.
After being brought into the country by Vikings, the horses evolved into this new breed after years of living outdoors in the harsh and changeable weather. They have a gait that is unique to this breed that is smooth enough that you could apparently drink a beer whilst riding them and not spill it!
Whether you just stop off on the way to Gullfoss to feed the beauties or ride them across the snowy lava fields like I did, don’t miss this one off your list of things to do whilst you’re here!
5. Admire the fallen Icebergs at Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon
Situated in Vatnajökull National Park, the glacier lagoon was formed as a result of Breiðamerkurjökull glacier (part of the larger Vatnajökull) retreating. In the lagoon sit large chunks of ice that are constantly breaking off of the glacier as it gradually melts due to the earth’s rising temperatures.
By the time I got to the glacier lagoon, my camera was completely waterlogged (don’t worry I stopped using it and let it dry out). These were the two wettest days I experienced in Iceland and let’s just say my “waterproofs” turned out not to be so waterproof after all (read your labels people)! Anyway, my point is, my shots of the lagoon are quite hazy, but you get the idea. In the warmer months, you can take a boat ride around the lagoon. You can also spot seals around there if you’re lucky!
You might recognise it from: Die Another Day & Tomb Raider
6. Find your Sparkle at Diamond Beach
As the glacial water from lagoon flows into the Atlantic Ocean, it carries broken up pieces of the glacier chunks with it. These fragments wash up onto the shores of a nearby black sand beach which is aptly known as “diamond beach” because the pieces sparkle in the light like diamonds.
As the landscape is constantly changing and more and more ice is breaking off, you’ll see something different depending on when you visit. I was lucky enough to see a lovely display of “diamonds” at sunrise (our tour guide even lit some up for us by putting a torch underneath for great photos) and then later in the day too, when more pieces of glacier had washed up onto the shore.
You might recognise it from: Justin Beiber’s ‘I’ll show you’ music video
7. Learn about Icelandic Folklore
Winter is a great time to learn about Iceland’s unusual Christmas traditions and folklore. It may be after Christmas now but I just can’t get over the tales about the Yule Lads. Instead of one Santa Clause, in Iceland they have thirteen…yes, THIRTEEN. And they’re all trolls. The Yule Lads live in the mountains with their mother, Grýla, a monster who eats naughty children. Each Yule Lad has their own quirk: there’s a spoon licker, a cat grabber, a sausage stealer and a Skyr (Icelandic yoghurt) gobbler.
For the thirteen days leading up to Christmas, a different Yule lad visits Icelandic children each day and leaves a treat for them in their shoes, that they put out on the windowsill each night. The Yule Lads have become more Santa like over the years, but traditionally they are known for being mischief makers, and they each have their own quirk. There’s a sausage swiper, a skyr (Icelandic yoghurt) gobbler, a spoon licker and window peeper. If, like me, you like to learn alternative facts and quirky histories of a place, you’ll love the Yule Lads.
And then there is the Yule Cat, a monstrous feline that devours children who don’t receive any new clothes for Christmas!(?!) Makes you glad for all those Christmas socks, amirite? Christmas must be a very conflicting time for Icelandic children.
Another charming piece of Icelandic Folklore is the belief In Elves. Some Icelanders believe in them today, but even more simply can’t confirm or deny their existence. Roads have actually been built around these special rocks that are believed to be a holy place for elves. Our Arctic Adventures tour guide told us about a time that the government wanted to build a big road through a field with these sacred stones. They had to hire an “elf negotiator”, who disappeared off for a few hours to negotiate with the elves before returning with their permission to build the road! There is also an elf school in Reykjavik where you can learn all about the mystical creatures.
Here are e some articles about elfen shenanigans in Iceland:
8. Bathe in the Blue Lagoon or a Natural Hot Spring
It’s easy to see how the blue lagoon became such popular site in Iceland; who would say no to a clay mud mask in aqua blue, naturally heated water surrounded by a stark and enchanting volcanic landscape? And did I mention it has temperatures of 37-40 °C. It’s a great way to warm up in winter and makes a nice contrast to the cold air (and probably rain, it is Iceland) on your face. It’s just like having a nice relaxing hot bath…that is if you’re used to sharing your bath with a bunch of other random people.
The blue lagoon itself isn’t a natural hot spring, and is the result of an off-spill from a nearby geothermal plant. There are however are lots of natural springs in Iceland, including the secret lagoon. If you’re looking for a cheaper alternative to the blue lagoon, try a local public pool like Laugardalslaug in Reykjavik.
You may recognise it from: The Fifth Estate & Bokeh
9. Walk Between Two Continents at Thingvellir National Park
Thingvellir is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the home of the World’s oldest surviving parliament. The Althing was established by Viking settlers in 930 AD. On top of being an important historical location for Iceland, this national park is also situated between the Eurasian and Atlantic techtonic plates. You can even snorkel between the two continents in the Silfra fissure if you’re looking for a unique adventure!
You might recognise it from: Game of Thrones Season 4 – Brienne & the Hound’s battle and Arya’s journey with the hound
10. Visit a Natural ice cave
One of the best and most adventurous things to do in Iceland in winter is to go ice caving. This was probably my top experience in Iceland (though it is hard to choose) as being inside of a glacier really is unlike anything I’ve experienced before.
I did a tour of Vatnajökull National Park, which is home to Europe’s largest glacier, Vatnajökull, diamond beach and Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon. On your (very bumpy) super jeep ride through the stark and volcanic landscape of the park it’s easy to see why space scenes are filmed here. The park has been a filming location for Interstellar, Star Wars and Lost in Space. Due to it’s other-worldly features, you will feel like you have just landed on the moon.
How are the Caves Formed?
The ice caves are formed in summer, due to warmer temperatures and increased sunlight causing the top layer of the glacier to melt. This water then trickles down into the glacier through cracks in the ice. As these crevasses melt and erode (thus expanding) they form these cave like structures.
How to Visit & the Best Time to Go
If you want to see an ice cave in Iceland, you’ll need to book a tour (you can’t access them on your own for obvious safety reasons). This activity is also only possible to do in Iceland in winter because the caves flood in the summer time. I was surprised to see so much running water inside the caves in December, but then it’s no wonder they’re melting with rising temperatures.
You might recognise the National Park from: Batman Begins & Interstellar
11. Explore Reykjavik
Iceland’s capital has all the features of a city but with a cosy, small town vibe. The sights of Reykjavik are certainly worth their own spots on this list, but who doesn’t love a nice rounded number?! Enjoy these photos of my two days exploring Reykjavik, featuring Hallgrimskirkja, street art, Harpa Concert Hall and the Sun Voyager sculpture. Winter in Iceland is a great time to explore some of the city’s museums and indoor activities.
Want to walk on a rainbow road? Check out my post on Reykjavik’s street art scene for more Instagram-worthy murals.
12. Catch Every Sunrise and Sunset
In winter, the sun typically doesn’t rise until around 10am, and sets at around 3:30pm, depending on the date. Now don’t get me wrong, I like to make the most of my days when I travel. I usually pack in as much into a day as possible (often too much), but I am a lazy girl at heart. The lazy part of me was delighted to discover that I wouldn’t have to get up at 5am to catch a sunrise here (usually nothing can get me out of bed at that hour, except maybe catching a flight)! I could just roll out of bed as breakfast was ending and still catch the world’s daily show over distant snow capped mountains and grassy lava fields.
13. Watch Strokkur Errupt at Geysir Geothermal Area
The Geysir geothermal field is another stop on the Golden Circle and is sure to blow your mind. The whole park is full of geothermal activity, with hot streams of water and mini geysers like Litli. The main attraction, however, is of course Strokkur. This impressive natural wonder explodes around every 6-10 minutes and is every bit surprising and exciting every time!
The area is named after Iceland’s largest geyser, Geysir (where the word derived from). It is however currently inactive, letting Strokkur steal the limelight.
14. Stand in Awe at the Foot of Skógafoss
Skógafoss translates as ‘Forest Waterfall’. Looking around you might be hard pressed to spot what most people consider to be a forest. Few species of trees grow naturally in Iceland, and many don’t grow very high. As our tour guide said “What do you do if you get lost in a Forrest in Iceland?” “Stand Up!”
If you’ve seen photos of Iceland on Instagram, you’ve most likely seen shots of Skógafoss, as it is very easy on the eye. You can often catch a glimpse of a rainbow across this waterfall at the right time. During winter the falls may be icy and partially frozen, so don’t get too close!
You might recognise it from: Vikings, Thor: The Dark World & The Secret Life of Walter Mitty
15. Hunt for the Northern Lights
Before you get too excited, it’s worth noting that the Aurora Borealis are a wildly unpredictable natural phenomenon. You may be lucky enough to see them, but it’s always worth going for the destination itself and seeing the lights appearing as a plus. And with all of the natural wonders I’ve described (and that’s only a shortlist), you definitely won’t be disappointed either way!
Regardless of whether you luck out and catch the lights, going on a hunt for them is one of the best and most thrilling things to do in Iceland in winter. You can get some good stargazing in too!
The best time to see the lights is in winter, as the nights get fully dark and enable you to see them. The aurora still occurs in the summertime but isn’t visible due to the midnight sun. You can see the lights anytime between September and April, but your best chance would be between November and March.
For the best chance of seeing the northern lights you need as clear a sky as possible. You can check the forecast ahead of time at Iceland’s Met Office Website, which gives you an up to date view of cloud cover and a score from 1-9.
I struggled to get to grips with the photography settings for capturing the Aurora on camera, despite reading countless guides. For this reason I’ll be putting together a guide on seeing them for complete newbies (like me)! I’ll update this with a link once it’s up.
The Tours I Took
Contiki Iceland 4 Day Tour
- Golden Circle Tour (Thingvellir National Park, Gullfoss & Geysir National Park) – add on
- Horse riding //lava caving // snowmobiling -add on
- Blue Lagoon
- Northern Lights tour
- Budget hotel accommodation with breakfast
- First night buffet
Verdict: Had a great time on this tour, packed a lot into a few days and met some great people. The tours are for 18-30 year olds. Good option for younger solo travellers who don’t want to self-drive. Not a party tour – there are opportunities to socialise but it was fairly laid back (but I’m sure you can find the party if that’s what you’re into).
Arctic Adventures 2 Day South Coast Tour
- Jokulsarlon glacier lagoon
- Diamond Beach
- Ice caving
- One night accommodation with breakfast
- Small group and mini-van transport
Verdict: Really enjoyed seeing the south coast and had a really knowledgeable guide. The group was mixed in age and it was less sociable, but then it was a short tour and it was kind of a welcome break after being all go for a few days.
Northern Lights Tours
- Reykjavik Excursions – friendly, funny guides and complimentary hotel drop off
- Bus Travel Iceland/ Northern Lights Bus – large group, knowledgeable guides, drinks and snacks provided, included admission to Aurora Museum
If you’re a solo traveller, particularly one that gets anxious easily like I do, I would personally recommend looking for a smaller group Northern Lights tour. I had no problems when I was with my Contiki tour group (nights 2 &3), as I had gotten to know these people and there weren’t too many of us. As someone prone to panick attacks however, I found the large bus tours alone a bit overwhelming. That’s just my personal experience, so don’t take my word for it, I just want to put it out there in case it helps to save someone else a stressful night. What a time for anxiety to strike eh?! Thankfully after that happening the first night I had 2 more opportunities to see the lights, get some pictures and tick it off my bucket list.
Thanks for Reading!
I hope you liked this post on the best things to do in a Iceland in winter! If you want to try out any of the activities I suggested or have been to Iceland, leave a comment below. You might also like my posts about Reykjavik’s Street Art or travelling Iceland on a budget.