We are currently in the middle of the COVID-19 crisis which means literally billions of people around the world are staying at home to “flatten the curve.” Many countries are either restricting travel or forbidding international travelers from entering at all. During a time like this, travel probably feels like a dream… a dream far into the future.
Thankfully, we are seeing a small return to normalcy because some countries are beginning to open up their borders – Iceland included!
If you’re like me, you may feel a little bit uneasy about planning travel in the very near future. However, if you’re itching to plan a winter trip, I whole-heartedly recommend you visit Iceland.
Iceland may not be a beach vacay, but Iceland is absolutely magical in the winter. I initially visited with the hopes of catching the Northern Lights and quickly learned that there is SO much to see, do, and experience during the winter months.
If you’re considering going, this guide will tell you everything you need to know before you go!
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Tour or Self Guided?
Iceland was the first country I visited as a solo traveler. At that point, I thought it was weird to travel alone so I was super nervous about going. Because of that, I opted to book my entire travel package via Icelandair. For a first-time solo traveler, it was perfect because it took the anxiety out of figuring out a trip itinerary.
The package was nearly all-inclusive. With one booking, I locked down my airfare, airport transfers, hotel, and multiple site tours (including a guided hunt of the Northern Lights!). It was nice because I immediately made friends on the transfer bus from the airport and we hung out throughout the entire trip. It also filled in the time effectively while still allowing me enough freedom to explore Reykjavík on my own.
It was nice not having to rent a car or figure out anything. Don’t get me wrong, I love trip planning, but I was overall very impressed with the Icelandair package. Easy, fun, comprehensive. Perfect.
If you don’t want to book a package like this, I would recommend you at least book guided tours for excursions outside of Reykjavík. It’s going to be dark & icy this time of year, making driving stressful. Let the experts do their thing and enjoy the ride.
Things to Know Before you Go
Iceland is Expensive
I had heard that Iceland was expensive but I had no idea how expensive until after I arrived. Iceland is honestly nearly Switzerland expensive, so it’s best to be prepared for that.
For example, one time I ordered a bowl of cauliflower cheese soup with a beer. No meat (which should, in theory, reduce the cost) and the dish came to about $25USD. Ouch.
Thankfully, I prepared for this and packed a bunch of snacks in my suitcase to try and skip meals to save some money.
Be careful if you do this! Avoid produce, meat products, and dairy because special import laws may apply. Some nice granola bars, bricks of ramen, nuts, and trail mix are always a great option. I was able to skip about one meal a day which saved me literally hundreds over the course of my week in Iceland.
Iceland uses the Króna, denominated ISK. The exchange is roughly 140 Króna per dollar (but be sure to check this before you go – currency exchange rates can and do change often!).
I used my credit card for literally everything in Iceland. It was the most credit card friendly destination I have ever visited, so don’t worry about getting currency before you arrive. You’re going to want a travel rewards credit card with no foreign transaction fees.
Before you go abroad, be sure to read up about some important money tips so you can make wise money choices!
Iceland is VERY Safe
I felt safer walking around Reyjkavik alone at night than basically anywhere else I’ve been, including my home town. Everyone is super friendly, too, and English is widely spoken.
I was super nervous about traveling solo and second-guessed my decision the entire flight. This cute little magazine was one of the first things I saw once I reached my hotel room and it was super reassuring.
Iceland is really safe, so if you’re considering visiting solo, I say absolutely go for it.
Sunlight in Winter
Because Iceland is so far north, December is the darkest time to visit Iceland. When I visited in early December, the sun would start rising around 11 am and it would be completely dark again come 4 or 5 pm. If you’re visiting Iceland in the winter, expect to only have a few hours of sunlight during your trip.
No need to pack sunglasses!
During my winter jaunt to Iceland, this is the brightest it ever got. “Daylight” felt like dawn or dusk, which definitely took some adjusting to.
One unique side effect of having so little sunlight was that my Circadian Rhythm was a little out of whack throughout my trip. It was hard to shake jet lag because I never really saw the sun and I realized I would want dinner as early as 2 pm – but that’s just because the sun was setting and I was used to eating dinner at sunset!
Be mindful of that ahead of time and prepare so it doesn’t surprise you.
Weather in Winter
Wintertime temperatures in Iceland can get COLD. I’m from Colorado and went to school in Wyoming so trust me, I know cold. It’s a different kind of cold than I had ever experienced because it’s so humid there. You absolutely need to be prepared.
When I visited they were experiencing a cold snap. The temperature hovered in the single digits and occasionally climbed to the teens. This, combined with no sunlight and a humid breeze, made for a very cold experience.
The winter temperatures usually hangs closer to 30-40 degrees but you may need to be prepared for a colder experience. In my opinion, for cold weather, it’s always better to overpack and be prepared than under pack and be stuck in your hotel room. Be ready for the brisk days so you can enjoy tour trip!
What to Pack for a Winter Trip to Iceland
I recommend packing as if you’re going on a ski trip. What that means is:
- a full ski jacket (with a windproof/waterproof outer layer and a warm inner layer)
- Snow pants (again, waterproof)
- Waterproof snowboots with awesome tread (to minimize slipping on the ice)
- A warm hat
- Toe & hand warmers
- A base layer, like Under Armour
- “Boot chains” to minimize the risk of slipping when you’re out walking around
There were other folks on my tour who wore jeans and moderate winter jackets. They could barely leave the tour bus because it was too miserable for them. I may have looked like a marshmallow in my ski gear but I was warm, comfortable, and most importantly enjoying my time in Iceland.
Like I said, it’s better to be over-prepared than under-prepared. In my opinion, there is nothing worse than feeling wet & cold.
Things to Do in the Winter in Iceland
Climb to the top of Hallgrimskirkja Church
The tallest church in Iceland, it proudly stands as the main landmark in Reyjkavik. It’s well worth a visit. A massive organ occupies much of the church and at the top you’ll get sweeping views of the city.
Check out the Perlan
Shaped a bit like a pearl, the Perlan provides panoramic views of Reyjkavik and has some pretty awesome exhibits. Check out the museum to learn about Iceland or the planetarium for a Northern Lights show!
Dine at Grillmarkaðurinn
This restaurant is home to a lot of firsts for me so it deserves a special shoutout. This was the first restaurant I ever splurged on a high-end meal for the experience. It’s also the restaurant that convinced me that fish, prepared right, is actually delicious!
I ordered the fish gourmet plate along with a delicious cocktail and the Grillmarket chocolate. Whenever one of my friends goes to Reyjkavik, I insist that they try this restaurant.
Oh, and bread in Iceland is often served with Icelandic lava salt. Delicious.
Walk around the Harpa Concert Hall (and maybe see a show!)
I think the Harpa is really architecturally interesting. It’s worth a stroll around even if you aren’t checking out a show, but check out the listings and see if one is available during your visit. I went to a Russell Brand comedy show and it was super fun intermixing with Icelanders and enjoying a night out. It’s right on the water so walk around and see if you can find any cool ships, too!
See the Sun Voyager
The Sun Voyager is an iconic statue that looks like the bones of a ship. It’s beautiful, especially with the Icelandic landscape in the background.
Check out the world’s largest penis museum
Not a typo! The Icelandic Phallological Museum (Obviously NSFW – look at the URL – phallus.is!) is filled to the gills with whale penises and scrotum lamps. And interesting condoms, penis bottle openers, and educational charts. I’ll spare you the photos – but it’s worth a visit.
Shop on Laugavegur
This is the main artery through Reyjkavik so it’ll be hard to miss. There’s fantastic shopping on this street (not to mention, it’s adorable!). When I visited, I purchased some Yule Lad Christmas decorations, a wool blanket, and Icelandic lava jewelry.
Take some tie and read about the Yule Lads. I love Icelandic folklore!
Eat specialty Icelandic cuisine
I think one of the best ways to experience a new destination is to enjoy their cuisine. No trip to Iceland is complete without trying at least some of these foods!
Pylsur – the famous Reykjavik hotdog
A blend of beef, pork, and lamb, it’s not your boring ballpark hotdog. Tourists AND locals enjoy the hotdog, so you know it’s good!
Thick, creamy yogurt. Icelanders love this stuff. It’s kind of like Greek yogurt.
Sometimes lovingly called rotted shark. It smells like fish you left in the fridge while taking a 2 or 3-week vacation, but it’s traditionally Icelandic and worth trying. It’s got the consistency of jerky. If you try it, have a chaser to help get it down.
Brennivin – “Black Death”
Remember that chaser you need after eating fermented shark? The main liquor of Iceland is the perfect chaser. Known as Black Death, Brennivin has a similar taste to black licorice.
Winter-Friendly Icelandic Day Trips & Excursions
Hunt the Northern Lights!
No trip to Iceland during the winter season is complete without going for a Northern Lights hunt. Get a guide – they will know the best places for viewing the Northern Lights.
One note, though! You won’t be able to see the lights if there is cloud cover. Remember how I said I visited during a cold snap? It snowed the entire time I was there which meant… you guessed it… clouds. Try to make your trip just a bit longer and bake in some flexibility so you can chase the Northern Lights on a clear night.
The Golden Circle
The Golden Circle tour will take you to a national park, a geyser, and a massive waterfall. It’s a great way to quickly see some of the natural majesty that Iceland offers. There are a ton of different packages depending on what interests you!
This was, without a doubt, the coldest tour I went on.
Like, I could feel my nose hairs freezing cold.
Standing near an active waterfall in frigid temperatures means you need to be prepared! (Seriously, buy that ski gear before you go).
Savor the Many Hot Springs & Thermal Baths
Iceland generates 25% of its electricity with geothermal energy. If you don’t know what geothermal energy is, it’s the heat that naturally exists underneath our feet in the rock. It’s hard to access in most places, but in Iceland, it’s plentiful. That means that there are wonderful geothermal spas all over the country that you can bathe in!
You may think that it sounds crazy to visit a hot spring in the winter, but it is absolutely wonderful.
There is nothing more special than basically hot tubbing in a natural spa while snow flurries dance around your hair. Go every chance you get – I loved this experience, especially after a day of hiking.
Absolutely visit the Blue Lagoon, ESPECIALLY in the Winter
Ok. The Blue Lagoon is known for being a tourist trap. But it’s secretly awesome.
It’s kind of like the Disneyland of thermal baths. It’s super high tech and the Blue Lagoon makes it easy to seamlessly move around the facility without awkwardly carrying around a wallet or any other personal goods.
Check it out before your departure flight. A lot of tours make it easy to pop in for a couple of hours on the way back to the airport!
I genuinely enjoyed my time at the Blue Lagoon and it is one of my fondest memories of my wintery trip to Iceland. I really can’t recommend it enough.
See (or Scuba Dive!) the Mid-Atlantic Ridge
Nerd alert! You know how, probably decades ago, you learned about tectonic plates? Well, in Iceland, you get the rare opportunity to actually TOUCH tectonic plates. Usually, they hang out far below the surface but Iceland is one of the few places in the WORLD where you can see the plate boundaries on dry land.
The Mid-Atlantic Ridge represents the boundary between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. If you’re like me, you’ll be content just touching them. Some people scuba dive between them! Sounds cold in December, but people do it!
Game of Thrones Tour
Parts of Game of Thrones were filmed in Iceland! If you loved that series, it may be fun to take a tour and see the film sites.
Hike a Glacier
There are glaciers all over in Iceland. I got the opportunity to strap on some crampons (spiky boot attachments for walking on ice) and climb a glacier, which is super cool. Even cooler than hiking a glacier was that it was a VOLCANO! That last erupted in 2010! Crazy.
Climbing Eyjafjallajökull was an awesome experience. How many times in your life can you say you hiked a volcanic glacier that erupted recently?!
Check out all the adventure options!
I only scratched the surface of all that Iceland has to offer during my 5 days there. Hikes, scuba adventures, ATVs, volcanos, waterfalls, history, sheep, and so much more is available to be discovered in Iceland – even in the winter! Check out GetYourGuide to see what tours exist and find what adventure speaks to you!
Iceland in the Winter is a Magical Experience
When most people think of a winter getaway, Iceland probably doesn’t bubble up to the top of the vacay list.
However, Iceland is such an interesting, adventurous, magical place – especially in the winter. There is so much to see and even more to do & experience.
Have you been to Iceland? Comment below and let me know what you thought!