Iceland in Winter: Explore the Land of Fire and Ice

December 8, 2016
Outside Reykjavik, Iceland

Winter wonderland – the gorgeous landscape outside Reykjavik. Photo: Jeff Dobbins

Iceland in winter. These words probably evoke images of an inhospitable, frozen tundra – hardly an ideal travel destination. But I explored Iceland in January and discovered winter can be a great time to visit the stunning nation. Winter weather is more temperate than most assume, and there are distinct advantages and delights to a winter holiday in Iceland.

Snæfellsnes peninsula, Iceland

The dramatic landscape of the Snæfellsnes peninsula includes vibrant volcanic terrain. Photo: Jeff Dobbins

Pros and cons of visiting Iceland in winter.

Winter Pro: Iceland is cheaper. Iceland is a pricey destination, but there are genuine bargains to be had off-season. While the costs of food, drink and activities are relatively fixed, flights and accommodations will be significantly cheaper. There will be plenty of availability in Reykjavik’s hotels and apartments (which are full and expensive in high season). I rented a wonderful apartment from Apartment K in downtown Reykjavik. For $54 a night I had a stylish one-bedroom apartment in a central location. The full kitchen allowed me to prepare inexpensive meals. 

Northern Lights, Iceland

The spectacular Northern Lights are a highlight of winter travel in Iceland. Photo: Visit Iceland

Reindeer Soup, Iceland

Perfect anecdote to chilly temps – a bowl of hearty reindeer soup. Photo: Jeff Dobbins

Winter Pro: See the Northern Lights! Iceland is a great place to see the dazzling Aurora Borealis (aka Northern Lights), and the best time to see them are months with full dark nights – i.e. winter. While many factors affect the elusive spectacle, winter offers the best conditions and highest probability for experiencing the Northern Lights.

Winter Pro: Iceland’s winter weather is not as harsh as you assume. According to WeatherSpark, Iceland’s average daily temperatures throughout January are 28F – 36F (-2C – 2.2C), comparable to temps in Northwest Europe and Northeast U.S. (In fact, when I visited, Iceland felt warmer than the cold snap in NYC.)

Related Winter Con: Iceland’s weather in winter is quite changeable. Storms can blow in quickly. There is a high probability of some precipitation on most days (moderate rain or snow) and clear skies are relatively rare.

Winter Con: Iceland’s northern latitude means there are limited daylight hours in winter. While the hours vary by month, the sun usually does not rise until mid-morning and begins to set mid-afternoon. On tours with full-day itineraries, guides/drivers often have to rush to reach all sites while there is sufficient light. On the bright (?) side, these conditions make for cozy evenings in Reykjavik’s wonderful coffeehouses and bars.

Lava cave, Iceland

Inside a subterranean lava cave. Photo: Jeff Dobbins

Winter Con: Not all destinations and sites are accessible. Severe weather can lead to roads being closed, sometimes quickly and unexpectedly. For those driving in Iceland, these closures must be heeded. A local guide explained that storms can produce low (or no) visibility and extreme winds have blown vehicles from the road. Tours to Iceland’s eastern destinations are not offered in winter (including, alas, the Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon). 

Glacier, Iceland

Icy thrill – trekking across a glacier on Iceland’s South Coast. Photo: Jeff Dobbins

Winter Pro: Fewer crowds. Iceland has become a very popular destination, and many of the nation’s star attractions are sometimes packed with busloads of tour groups (particularly the sites along the “Golden Circle” and the Blue Lagoon). In winter there are far fewer crowds with which to contend. Some of Iceland’s great experiences like hiking a glacier or descending into a lava cave require special equipment and a trained guide, and these tours sell out in high season. In winter you’ll have more choice and flexibility for tours and activities. (And who knows, you might even score a discount on the price!)

Among my extraordinary experiences in Iceland, I chased the Northern Lights and explored a subterranean lava cave with Arctic Adventures, toured the South Coast and walked a glacier with Sterna Travel, and explored the Snæfellsnes Peninsula with Goecco Tours (a truly magical experience). I highly recommend them all.

While some of the tours I joined were complimentary, all opinions are my own.

Reykjavik, Iceland

Just one of the stunning views in Reykjavik. Photo: Jeff Dobbins

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  • Reply Jill Browne December 9, 2016 at 7:29 pm

    Jeff, I share your enthusiasm for winter travel and northern regions. I complain about the cold (living in Calgary where at this moment it’s -20 degrees C and we’re all feeling sorry for ourselves). The truth is, without cold I would not feel alive. Not every day, mind you.
    The pictures and your experience in Iceland are nice guidance. It’s definitely high on my list.
    Thanks for this piece.

    • Reply Jeff Dobbins December 10, 2016 at 6:22 am

      As I mentioned, Iceland was actually warmer than my home (NYC) when I visited in January. I hope you get the chance to explore Iceland soon. I think you’ll love it as much as I did. Thanks.

  • Reply Rich December 19, 2016 at 8:25 pm

    Jeff that picture of the Northern Lights is incredible! I want to go there now…

    • Reply Jeff Dobbins December 20, 2016 at 6:15 am

      Thanks! The Northern Lights are elusive, but well worth the chase. Hope you make it to Iceland soon.

  • Reply Rich December 20, 2016 at 6:08 pm

    Sure gonna try!

  • Reply Agness of eTramping April 24, 2017 at 12:59 pm

    Iceland is so picturesque every season! I would love to spend my winter vacation in Ireland!

    • Reply Jeff Dobbins April 25, 2017 at 8:26 am

      As I mention in the post, they are tradeoffs. But I think you’ll be glad you visited Iceland in winter. When you do, let me know what you think. Thanks.

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