Highlights from 7 Days in Iceland in Winter

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When I started telling people that I was going back to Iceland for a second time in the winter, someone asked what I had against the Land of Fire and Ice in summer. And, the truth is, I have nothing against Iceland in the summer – in fact, I have dreams of driving the Ring Road under the midnight sun, chasing puffins, and not having to wear multiple layers when going outside. Iceland in summer would be fantastic.

But Iceland is pretty awesome in the winter, too.

Iceland

Sure, the daylight doesn't last very long (especially during December and January), and the temperatures drop to around freezing. The weather often isn't the greatest, either – rain, snow, and sleet alternate with fitful bouts of sunlight, especially in November.

But there are things to do in Iceland in winter that you just can't do other times of the year. Like explore ice caves and snowmobile on glaciers and search for the Northern Lights.

And so I was tempted into a second winter trip to Iceland, and decided to drag Elliot along with me.

RELATED: A 10-Day Itinerary for Iceland in Winter (Without Renting a Car)

Amanda and Elliot at Skogafoss

As it turns out, I STILL have not seen the Northern Lights in Iceland, and my dreams of spelunking in brilliant blue ice caves didn't quite come to fruition, either. But you know what? My second winter trip to Iceland was still amazing enough that I'm already plotting a third in my head.

Here's what Elliot and I got up to in a week in Iceland.

7 days in Iceland in winter

Blue Lagoon

Yes, it's super touristy. And no, it's not even natural. But damn if the Blue Lagoon isn't awesome. This spa between Keflavik Airport and Reykjavik is one of the top attractions in Iceland, and Elliot and I went straight from the airport to the Blue Lagoon for a few hours of relaxing in the hot water after our overnight flight from Boston. This ended up being the most brilliant idea – we wouldn't have been able to check into our apartment in Reykjavik anyway, and this way we were able to relax and stretch our stiff limbs as we watched the sun rise over the lava fields.

Sunrise at the Blue Lagoon in Iceland
Blue Lagoon at sunrise in winter

Blue Lagoon in Iceland

Visiting the Blue Lagoon on the way to/from the airport is easy to do – you can get a bus ticket that includes a stop at the Lagoon, and they even have on-site luggage storage.

Blue Lagoon in Iceland

Read more about the Blue Lagoon here.

Snaefellsnes Peninsula

After kicking jetlag's butt, we were picked up on Day 2 in Iceland by Extreme Iceland for two days of exploring the Snaefellsnes Peninsula north of Reykjavik. The first day of this trip included stops at viewpoints along a fjord, one of the most powerful hot springs in the world (that can literally burn your face off), and Hraunfossar – a series of waterfalls that flow out from beneath a lava field.

Whale Fjord, Iceland

Hraunfossar in Iceland
Hraunfossar

We ended the day by watching a pretty spectacular sunset from the Gerðuberg basalt columns.

Sunset at Gerðuberg basalt columns in Iceland
Sunset at Gerðuberg basalt columns

The second day was spent on the peninsula and included a bit of light hiking. First, we climbed into “the Crack,” also known as Rauðfeldsgjá Gorge, as the sun rose and lit up the surrounding mountains and lava fields in an unreal shade of orange.

Rauðfeldsgjá Gorge
Rauðfeldsgjá Gorge

Iceland landscape

Next we headed to the small fishing village of Arnarstapi and walked the 2.5-kilometer coastal path to Hellnar. Filled with epic views of the coast and a few scrambles over lava rocks, this may have been the highlight of this trip to Iceland for me. (The great weather didn't hurt, either.)

Arnarstapi on the Snaefellsnes Peninsula in Iceland
Arnarstapi
Gatklettur arch in Iceland
Gatklettur arch

We then made a stop at Vatnshellir lava cave in Snæfellsjökull National Park for some cave exploring, followed by a stop at Djúpalónssandur, a black sand beach.

Djúpalónssandur Beach in Iceland
Djúpalónssandur Beach

The sightseeing was supposed to end with a stop at Kirkjufell, a very famous mountain on the north side of the Snaefellsnes Peninsula, but the weather caught up with us and the mountain was shrouded in sleet and clouds by the time we got there. After everything we'd seen and done on the peninsula, though, I was much less disappointed than I expected to be!

Snorkeling Silfra

The next day, I somehow convinced Elliot put on four layers and a dry suit and jump into 37-degree water with me. Crazy? Probably. Awesome? You bet.

Snorkeling Silfra in Iceland

You see, there's an incredibly unique formation in Iceland's Þingvellir National Park. Here, two of earth's tectonic plates (The North American and European plates) are slowly drifting apart. Part of this drift is happening beneath the surface of a lake, and you can actually go snorkeling or diving IN that rift, called Silfra.

Snorkeling Silfra in Iceland

This was something I didn't do on my first trip to Iceland, and I knew I HAD to do it this time. It was cold, yes, but it was also incredible to see that clear blue water and know that we were swimming between tectonic plates. SO COOL. We went with DIVE.IS, who I would highly recommend – their crew was so fun and friendly.

Read more about Snorkeling Silfra here.

South Shore adventure

One of the reasons we (okay, I) decided to go to Iceland in November was because I really wanted to see the ice caves that form beneath Vatnajökull, Iceland's largest glacier. In the winter months, you can often explore these gigantic caves filled with blue ice. So we booked a two-day trip with Goecco, a small tour company based in Reykjavik.

Seljalandsfoss waterfall in Iceland
Seljalandsfoss

The trip was fraught with mishaps, from a blown tire to a freak windstorm that caused us to have to change accommodations in order to not have to drive across the volcanic desert in 60mph winds, but I was super impressed with our guides and how they handled it all (more on this later).

Since we had more time on the South Shore than usual, we stopped to see ALL the waterfalls (including Seljalandsfoss, Gljufurarfoss, and Skogafoss), a plane crash site, and a black sand beach just before dusk.

Gljúfrabúi Waterfall in Iceland
Gljúfrabúi Waterfall
Behind Seljalandsfoss waterfall in Iceland
Behind Seljalandsfoss
Plane crash on Sólheimasandur beach in Iceland
Plane crash on Sólheimasandur beach
Reynisfjara beach in Iceland
Reynisfjara beach

The next day, we began at Jokulsarlon, the famous glacial lagoon with Vatnajökull in the background.

Jokulsarlon in Iceland
Jokulsarlon
Glacier ice beach in Iceland
Diamond Beach

The plan after that was to visit one of the ice caves beneath the glacier. The cave that is the most accessible (and possibly the most beautiful) was sadly still filled with water, and it took us a couple of tries to find another one that everyone in our group could access by walking across the top of the glacier.

Ice cave beneath Vatnajokull glacier

The glacier walk and climbing down into a small black ice cave was certainly cool, don't get me wrong, but I'll be forever dreaming of that big blue ice cave until I go back someday!

Vatnajokull ice cave
Vatnajokull ice cave

Exploring Reykjavik

Lastly, Elliot and I spent some time wandering around Reykjavik. The great thing about this city is that the downtown area is totally walkable. So walk we did.

We walked along the shore to the Sun Voyager sculpture as hints of sunrise still colored the sky. We walked to Hallgrímskirkja and went to its bell tower for a great view out over Reykjavik. We walked down to the Harpa opera house to see the sun glinting off its glass panes. We walked to the frozen lake to laugh at the swans trying to walk on the ice. And we just walked the streets, looking for street art and friendly kitties and good coffee and hot dogs.

Sun Voyager sculpture in Reykjavik
Sun Voyager sculpture
Hallgrimskirkja in Reykjavik, Iceland
Hallgrimskirkja
View from Hallgrimskirkja in Reykjavik, Iceland
View from Hallgrimskirkja
Inside the Harpa opera house in Reykjavik
Inside the Harpa opera house

Reykjavik is a great city to spend a weekend in – check out this post about it!

Reykjavik, Iceland

Once again, I was really sad to wave goodbye to Iceland. The Land of Fire and Ice has definitely become a country that I will keep returning to.

Ice caves and Northern Lights… I'll be back!

Want a more detailed itinerary? Check out this post: A 10-Day Itinerary for Iceland in Winter (Without Renting a Car)

PRACTICAL INFO

Thinking of planning your own winter trip to Iceland? Here are a few tips:

How to get there: Iceland is just a 4-hour flight from the East Coast of the US, or about 3 hours from the UK. There are multiple airlines that fly there, with Iceland Air and WOW being two of the most popular (and often the most affordable).

Where to stay: Reykjavik is the best base in the winter, since most tours start and end there. I recommend the Rey Apartments for both location and coziness (plus, having a small kitchen helps cut down on food costs!).



Booking.com

What to pack: Essentials include silk leggings and a thermal shirt, warm socks like Heat Holders, a waterproof outer layer (I like my Columbia ski pants), and some winter hiking boots. Check out my complete Iceland packing list for more suggestions!

Which part of this Iceland trip would you most like to read more about?

 

 

*Note: This post was brought to you by Guide to Iceland.

"It's a dangerous business, going out your door. You step onto the road, and, if you don't keep your feet, there's no telling where you might get swept off to." - JRR Tolkien

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85 Comments on “Highlights from 7 Days in Iceland in Winter

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  1. I seriously need to move to Iceland, because a week will not be long enough, I think a life time might be….

      Haha, I feel that way about New Zealand! But yeah, I know what you mean!

    Wow, those are some amazing locations to visit in Iceland. The Blue Lagoon and the Cascade look very nice and those alone would make a visit to Iceland worth it.

    But then you have the black beaches near the ice…. I’ve also read on another blog about icelandic horses, I would love to see those in person.

    So Iceland: definitely on my list (maybe not in the winter, but surely next year).

      Icelandic horses are also very cool! I rode one on my first trip to Iceland – they are great!

    Your photos are seriously stunning. I am examining them and I’m in awe, not kidding. The quality is A+, you are a def a talented photog 🙂

    I went to Iceland more years ago than I care to admit. Reyjavik has obviously changed a lot since then but the countryside remains stunning. To me the obvious advantage of travelling in winter is that you get fabulous light for your photographs.

      Reykjavik has changed even in just the last three years since my first trip there! But yes, the rest of Iceland is just as wild and rugged as ever. 🙂

    Iceland has the most fantastic landscape, and I’d especially love to see more of your photos of the ice chunks on black sand!

    PS – nice work going to the spa straight from the airport! I’ve read about other people stopping in before their flight home, but this way makes much more sense. 🙂

      Plenty more photos to come! 🙂

      And yes, I did the Blue Lagoon on the way home last time, but going straight from the airport on arrival is better in my opinion!

    Gorgeous photos! I cannot believe that you went snorkeling in a dry suit. Gack! I like to think that I would just toughen up and do it, but sometimes getting into water that is below 70 degrees makes me want to cry… I tried to convince Tom that we should jump over to Iceland for 10 days before we flew to Hawaii this year, but he was not having two 14 hour flights that close together! Iceland will happen one day, and it looks like it will be beautiful.

      It definitely will be beautiful, dry suit snorkeling or not! 😉

    Thanks for supporting my argument that we should go to Iceland in winter! My husband and I are planning a trip and we cannot agree on time of year. Although really I think we should just go twice, once in winter and once in summer. 😉

      I think twice sounds like a pretty good compromise. 😉

    I have just come back from 6 days in Iceland and I absolutely loved it. I agree regarding the charm of the place in this season which makes it an eerie and dreamy moonscape to explore.

      It really is a great destination for any season!

    ‘Lovely! Lovely! Lovely! I love the cold and ice so write about all of it! It’s pleasing to see more of the Northern Hemisphere but I sure hope to see the Northern Lights for myself one day. I’ve been to Denmark & Finland but I haven’t yet been that far North lol!

      I don’t necessarily love the cold, and yet I find myself taking more and more cold-weather trips! Iceland is definitely one of my favorites.

    Absolutely stunning pictures! I always thought Iceland would be a no-go in winter, but you’ve proven the opposite. Especially the sunny skies make me excited to plan a trip to Iceland next year 🙂

      Well, don’t count on the sunny skies! We did have a couple of nice days, but the weather can be really fickle in Iceland. We actually had more clouds than sun! BUT, it’s just such an amazing country that the lack of sun doesn’t really matter!

    Your photos are AMAZING! I would’ve never thought to visit Iceland in the winter before this post

      Thank you! And yay! Glad I’m changing some minds on Iceland in winter!

    Gorgeous pictures! And to watch the sun rise from the lava fields, what an incredible experience!

      We didn’t see any Northern Lights, but those couple sunrises and sunsets made up for it!

    Those blue colors are just incredible! And straight from the airport to a hot spring? Fantastic! I haven’t been to Iceland yet, but with any luck, I will someday!

      Yup, the bus from the airport to downtown Reykjavik offers an option for a stop at the Blue Lagoon – genius on their part, really!

    Thank you so much for this post! I am planning to go to Island in 2016 and put all the spots you mentioned on the itinerary. Diving in the Silfra sounds amazing. Cold, but amazing:-)

      Awesome! Stay tuned, because I’ll be writing a lot more about Iceland in the coming weeks!

        Will do, looking forward to reading those! Hope you’ll add loads of pictures;-)

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