Whilst some try to avoid Iceland in winter, others flock to the island to appreciate a real-life winter wonderland first-hand. Hiking over glaciers, exploring ice caves, and the Northern Lights dancing across the sky… winter in Iceland can be a magical time.
If you find this appealing, this article will provide you with all the essential information. Whether you're currently planning a winter trip to Iceland, it will assist you in preparing for an unforgettable journey.
Is Iceland Worth Visiting in Winter?
Everything in life has pros and cons, right? That’s why we created this handy overview to help you decide whether visiting Iceland during winter is the right fit for you:
Although popular, winter in Iceland cannot be compared with our busy summer season in Iceland. This means that you don’t need to be too concerned about peak season crowds causing traffic on the road or blocking views at attractions.
You also won’t find any of the extreme summer pricing during your winter trip to the island. This means you can make your budget stretch further.
Iceland in winter is a wonderland straight out of a Hallmark Christmas movie. Snow covers the ground like a blanket, gushing waterfalls have turned into icy fangs hanging over cliffs, and everything seems to sparkle like diamonds when the light catches the ice. It is simply breathtaking!
Winter is the best time to visit Iceland if you want to go Northern Lights hunting or ice cave exploring. This is because the winter creates the perfect conditions to spot the Aurora Borealis (the perfect combo of cold and dark). And the ice caves are open to the public again after being closed during the warmer months (ice melts, remember?)
A winter wonderland here comes at a cost and you will be subjected to some of the harshest and coldest weather Iceland has to offer.
Your road trip might not be what you envisioned; road conditions can be tricky to navigate during the winter season, and certain roads and routes (especially in the Westfjords and the Highlands) are closed during the colder months of the year.
If you’ve got the Midnight Sun on your Iceland bucket list, you’ll need to schedule your trip at the height of summer – wintertime here on the island has more darkness than daylight.
When is Winter in Iceland?
The Iceland winter months consist of December, January, February, and March, with January marking the height of the winter season.
What is Iceland like in Winter?
In general, winter in Iceland is described as cold and dark. But this is also why the island is well-prepared for this time of year. Inside temperatures are nice and cozy, and most attractions and activities here on the island are well lit, so the darkness doesn’t spoil the fun.
So, whilst daylight hours might be few, it doesn’t need to restrict your trip itinerary. In the more remote regions, the darkness actually counts in your favor when hunting the Northern Lights in Iceland in winter.
The Weather in Iceland in Winter
It can be quite daunting thinking of taking a winter trip to a place already called Iceland, but even though the Iceland weather in winter can be challenging, there are a lot of misconceptions out there. This is why we’ve created a detailed description of the winter weather, so you can know exactly what to expect from your Iceland winter trip:
How Cold is Iceland in Winter?
As you may suspect, Iceland winter temperatures never see double digits. You can expect temperatures ranging from -30 to 2 degrees Celsius. This depends on where you find yourself here on the island. The average generally sticks to the 0-degree mark.
The one thing that you need to know is that the north of Iceland is much colder than the rest of the country. So, if you’re visiting Reykjavik in the wintertime as well as Akureyri, you will be feeling the difference.
Is Iceland Completely Dark in Winter?
This is a common misperception as people confuse how places such as Antarctica and Alaska with Iceland. Nights that last for more than 24 hours are called Polar nights and only occur in places that are inside the polar circles – which does not include Iceland.
What Do Daylight Hours Look Like in Iceland in Winter?
As we already mentioned, daylight hours are very few during the winter season here on the island. The most daylight hours you’ll get will be about 5 hours of daylight a day, but at the height of winter, you’ll only get about 4 hours of daylight each day.
The Winter Solstice occurs on the 21st of December in Iceland, which is officially the shortest day of the year. The Solstice is celebrated with all sorts of festivals and events across the island.
When Does the Sun Rise and Set in Iceland in Winter?
Sunrise and sunset times may vary slightly, depending on where you stay on the island, but this is what you can expect when visiting Iceland in winter:
December – Sunrise at 11:16, sunset at 15:29
January – Sunrise at 10:54, sunset at 16:20
February – Sunrise at 09:23, sunset at 18:01
March – Sunrise at 07:46, sunset at 19:28
How Much Will it Snow in Iceland in Winter?
Iceland winter travel goes hand in hand with snow. Of all the winter months, December and January usually see the most snowfall and log an average of about 18 centimeters of snowfall each. Just keep in mind that there is a big difference between snowfall and a blizzard, so please keep an eye on the Iceland weather forecast, so you’re not caught unawares.
How Much Will it Rain in Iceland in Winter?
You can expect rain throughout the winter season, but the end of January and February is known for being the wetter winter periods – boasting an average of 50 mm of rain compared to the other winter months which average about 30 mm.
How Strong Will the Wind be in Iceland in Winter?
The Iceland winds are legendary. These bad boys can gather such strength that they have been known to rip car doors straight off their hinges. And, unfortunately, wind speeds peak during the winter season, so you’ll need to be prepared.
You can expect average speeds of about 25 kilometers an hour, but it has happened that wind speeds rev up to over 35 kilometers an hour. Once again, just play it safe and keep an eye on the Iceland weather forecast.
Things to Do in Iceland in Winter
Traveling in Iceland in winter doesn’t mean that you are confined to a chair in front of a fireplace. In fact, you will find plenty of things to do in Iceland during wintertime. Here are a few of the best things to do in Iceland in winter that you can add to your trip itinerary:
Relax in a Hot Spring
This may sound like an odd thing to do during the coldest time of the year, but locals swear by the experience. The contrast between the warm water and the cold outside makes for quite an exhilarating experience. Add on the healing properties of hot spring water and you’ve got a winning combo.
Whether you visit a geothermal pool (that makes use of natural hot spring water) such as the Blue Lagoon in Iceland in winter, or take on Hrunulaug in the cold – it’s definitely an experience you won’t forget any time soon.
Take on the Skiing Slopes
This is probably one of Iceland’s most loved winter activities. In fact, Iceland actually plays host to a few international skiing competitions, such as the AK Extreme Festival in Akureyri. But you don’t have to be a pro to take on the slopes here on the island – we cater to all skill levels. A few of our go-to skiing resorts are:
Explore the Ice Caves
As we’ve already mentioned, the majority of the ice caves in Iceland are closed during the warmer months of the year due to safety concerns. So, once they open in the winter, it’s definitely something not to be missed. These caves are created by rivers of lava or gushing waters that tunnel their way through the thick glacier ice, leaving us with these magical caverns with their bright blue, glassy walls.
One of the most interesting facts about ice caves is that you’ll never be able to visit the same ice cave within the space of a year. It may be the same cave in the same position, but because of the constant melting and freezing, the ice cave you saw a year ago would’ve already gone through massive changes by the time you visit the next year.
If exploring the ice caves in Iceland is something you’d like to do, we suggest you tick off these must-visit caves:
Crystal Ice Cave
Langjökull Ice Cave
Katla Ice Cave
Skaftafell Ice Caves
Vatnajökull Ice Caves
Visit One of Our Waterfalls
We have 10,000 of them, so you'll have your pick! The waterfalls in Iceland turn into incredibly interesting sights. Some of them completely freeze as if someone hit the pause button somewhere, whilst others are a weird and wonderful combination of water plunging to the ground below and frozen tentacles draped over the cliffs, never making it to their final destination.
The following are some of the best places to visit in Iceland in winter if you're planning on checking out the waterfalls here on the island:
Take a Walk on a Black Sand Beach
Here in Iceland, it's never too cold for a visit to the beach. And although these beaches are not swimming hot spots, there's plenty to admire, and some like Reynisfjara offer kilometers of outstretched black sand that makes for a beautiful leisurely stroll. But the black sand beach we recommend the most during a winter trip to the island is Diamond Beach.
This beach got its name from all the pieces of ice that wash up on shore and glistens like diamonds in the sunlight. Where the ice can be pretty quick to melt during the warmer months, the winter cold ensures a spectacular sight.
Become a Viking
Iceland is the best place for both young and old to come and play dress up. We have many opportunities here on the island where you can (quite literally) step into the shoes of the legendary Viking warriors. You can visit an authentic Viking Village in Iceland and join fellow Viking warriors for a real Viking banquet.
Or you can go sailing on an authentic Viking ship. You can also swing by Mink Studios in the capital city of Reykjavik to get dressed in traditional Viking garb and accessories and have your portrait taken by one of the renowned photographers who worked on the set of Game of Thrones!
Attend Local Festivals or Events
If there’s one thing Icelanders are especially good at, it’s celebrating. And during the winter season, you’ll find plenty of festivals and events to attend all over the island. And if you want to see the entire country lit up like a Christmas tree over some of its darkest days/ nights (the line gets a little blurry, remember?), then the Winter Lights Festival in Iceland is something you need to include on your trip itinerary.
Hike a Glacier
Hiking a glacier is one of Iceland’s favorite winter day tours. The reason why this activity is only available via guided tour is due to safety concerns. You don’t need to have any experience or any gear - whatever you need will be provided by the tour operator. Just keep in mind that most operators have set an age restriction for these tours since it’s not a great activity for smaller kids.
Visit Our Museums
Iceland boasts some of the most exciting museums you’ll ever come across, so you’ll need to keep at least a couple of days open to visit a few. We have the Saga Museum where wax figures and an audio tour guide help you walk through some of the most epic history and legends of the country.
Then there is the Museum of Icelandic Sorcery and Witchcraft, where you can learn about the magical and mystical history of the island. And, of course, The Icelandic Phallological Museum where you can view the penises of every mammal on the island, including the supposed phallus of an Icelandic elf, and, yes, the penis of a man that was specifically willed to the museum.
Admire the Architecture
Iceland is a very historic country and combining this with the fact that the Icelanders have been named as one of the most creative nations in the world, it’s not surprising that the country has some amazing architecture. Hallgrimskirkja, the Harpa Concert Hall, and Perlan are only some of the must-visit places if you appreciate architecture.
Let Your Credit Card Feel it in Reykjavik
Shopping is probably one of the most popular things to do in Reykjavik in winter. Every country has that one street that’s known for its shopping potential, and in Iceland, that is Laugavegur Street in the capital city.
Here you can shop till you drop purchasing home décor items, clothes, souvenirs, and outdoor and camping gear, and take a breather in between all that credit card swiping by stuffing your face with local Iceland cuisine and craft beers at one of the many restaurants and cafés.
Visit Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon
Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon is a very special place to visit. And if you take one of the boat tours, it promises to be an unforgettable experience. You’ll cruise in between gigantic bobbing icebergs and seals chilling on sheets of ice, and you’ll get so close to the glacier that you can reach out and touch it (don’t though).
Go Whale Watching
Whales can be found along the Icelandic coast all year around, especially if you visit Husavik (the whale capital of Iceland).
Whilst you might spot a whale from the shoreline or harbor, we highly recommend that you book yourself a spot on a whale watching tour in Iceland to truly get up close and personal with these magnificent giants of the ocean. Some of the whales you might get to see include Minke Whales, Orcas, and Humpback Whales.
Snorkel or Dive the Silfra Fissure
This is another activity that you wouldn’t think would be open to the public during the winter season, yet you’ll find many taking on this famous plunge. The Silfra Fissure is an incredibly special place, since it is the tear in the earth (aka fissure) where the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates push apart.
This tear is now filled with glacial water, offering visitors the opportunity to snorkel or dive the Silfra Fissure, where they can literally lie suspended between two continents. Just keep in mind that, although snorkeling the Silfra is available to anyone, diving is strictly limited to those with a diving license and sufficient experience underneath their diving belt.
Go Horseback Riding
The island boasts its own breed of horse called the Icelandic Horse, and these are pretty impressive creatures. They are pony-like in their stature and will sport an extra fluffy coat during your winter trip.
They are also known for their friendly nature and the fact that they can perform an extra gait called the tölt. Going horseback riding on one of these beauties will allow you to truly immerse yourself in the Iceland winter landscape, and will also allow you to go to places the roads can’t take you.
What to Pack and What to Wear in Iceland in Winter?
You might be wondering what to wear in Iceland in winter. And it can be tempting to try and chuck in as many items of clothing as possible for a winter trip to the island, but you will regret lugging around so much stuff (plus your bank account will hate you after having to pay extra for luggage surpassing flight restrictions).
That’s why we created this handy Iceland packing list that you can use as a guide when you’re packing for your Iceland trip this winter. Just remember to add the following winter trip essentials:
Long, winter coat
Waterproof down jacket
Moisturizer and lip balm (trust us on this)
How to Travel Around Iceland in Winter
You have numerous transport options when coming to visit the island:
We have buses running all across the island. But please take note that, whilst this is a great budget-saving option for traveling within the bigger cities and towns, bus rides become scarcer the more remote you go.
This is a good option for those who really want to kick back and relax with an experienced guide holding the reigns. You can choose between day outings that include very specific activities or attractions, or you can opt for a multi-day tour that can include a wide variety of things or a specific region of the island such as the South Coast of Iceland.
Although this is a nice experience, especially if you want to learn more about an area than just what your guidebook mentions, these tours can become very expensive, and you won’t have full control over your time or your trip itinerary.
Your Own Vehicle
This will always be the best way to explore the island, in our opinion. Not only are you in full control of your time and schedule, but it’s also easier for you to manage expenses. If you rent a car in Iceland, discovering local attractions or things to do is just a turn-of-the-ignition away.
Driving in Iceland in Winter
As we already mentioned, earlier, driving in Iceland in winter can be pretty challenging, especially if you are a nervous driver or are not used to driving in winter conditions that include snow and ice. We recommend having a chat with your rental agent and discussing your planned routes to ensure that you haven’t included some of the closed roads on your road trip.
And to make sure that you have the right winter accessories and gadgets such as snow tires in Iceland as well as sufficient insurance coverage. We also suggest that you keep an eye on the Iceland weather forecast and the Iceland road conditions, and check it again before heading out (you don’t want to drive into a blizzard or get stuck at a sudden road closure).
Iceland in Winter; a Winter Wonderland on Your Doorstep
Spending time in Iceland during the winter can be a magical experience, especially if you spend the festive season and New Year in Iceland with all its lights, festive traditions, and many celebrations.
And now that you know where to go in Iceland in winter, don’t let the winter road closures stop you from properly exploring the island. By simply being a little flexible and savvy, you can rent a car in Iceland and have the winter wonderland road trip of your dreams!