The land of fire and ice.
The land of contrasts.
The land of natural wonders.
Iceland has always been my dream destination, although I have never planned to visit it during the winter. But when I was searching for the cheapest flight from Europe to east Canada for December, Icelandair came with an irresistible winter deal. One way ticket Munich - Reykjavík - Montreal for 400 USD. With a stopover in Iceland for up to seven nights at no additional airfare. Take it or leave it!
... well... I was thinking like six seconds and I booked my ticket with the stopover... for seven nights...
Before my trip some friends of mine looked at me like I was a bit crazy to travel to Iceland in winter, but now I know that it was the best decision I could have ever made. Let me tell you why.
HERE ARE MY 10 REASONS WHY YOU SHOULD GO TO ICELAND IN THE WINTER
+ LOWER YOU WILL FIND SOME TIPS & MY 7-DAY ITINERARY
01| Winter in Iceland is NOT THAT COLD
You probably know where exactly Iceland is, but I really do love maps! (...and you'll be seeing them often)
Surprise surprise! Despite of its name and the latitude close to the Arctic Circle, winter in Iceland is relatively mild. Thanks to the warm Gulf Stream temperatures stay around 0°C and are comparable to the ones in The New York City, London or Amsterdam, although in NYC the winter can be even much harsher. You should be just fine.
02| Low-budget friendly(ier)
Let's be honest - I am good in low budget traveling, but planning my week travelling in Iceland was a challenge. Big challenge! Even in winter the prices are still high. Fortunately in some cases they drop in half in comparison to the summer season.
Cheaper in winter can be especially:
- renting the car (I paid 270 USD per week with this company, being the cheapest one I found after long research, I saw that in in the high season it would be 550 USD for the very same car)
- booking the accommodation (also up to 50 % discount + if you bring your own sleeping bag, there are lots of places offering an extra discount)
03| Less crowded
Iceland in winter was such a paradise for me! I just hate to travel to crowded places (probably you won't read here many blog posts about big cities, Niagara Falls or full moon parties). I don't like to share the waterfall with hundreds of other people. It's not that I am selfish (ok, maybe just a bit), it's just that I need to recharge my batteries. In the nature. Alone.
In winter there is still reasonable number of tourists in Reykjavík and at the attractions around. Also you meet some tourists at the natural wonders close to road number 1 (it is the main road also called Ring Road going around Iceland). But if you continue a bit far from the city or go off the Ring Road, you definitely feel like landing on another planet. Alone and surrounded by the unspoiled nature.
The advantage of traveling to Iceland in winter is also that hostels are very empty. If you book a dorm bed in the room for 12 people, very probably it will become your own private apartment. That is what happened to me in Vík and Höfn.
04| Perfect light for your pictures
The time of the daylight in Iceland in winter is really short (around 4-5 hours) so you should plan your trip wisely. Great thing is the fact that during the daylight the sun is not rising very high above the horizon, it hovers low for a long time creating beautiful soft golden lightning. Whether you are professional or amateur photographer, your pictures will look truly stunning!
Want to know what camera gear I use on my travels?
05| Magical landscape
Iceland is the country with one of the world's most extraordinary landscapes and the winter conditions can be stunningly beautiful. From the ice fields as far as the eye can see, through glaciers appearing more blue with the fresh snow on top, to partially frozen waterfalls, blue ice caves and ice bergs. Fewer tourists make the Icelandic landscape look even more pristine.
No wonder that some scenes of the latest Interstellar movie were filmed here. Or Game of Thrones (everything what happens north of wall). Or James Bond. Or Lara Croft. Batman begins, Tree of Life, Prometheus... do we really have time for this?
06| Northern Lights
It's on the bucket list of many travelers. Seeing the magical beauty of northern lights (also Aurora Borealis). Indeed it used to be on mine... Until my winter trip to Iceland. I was lucky close to Höfn, small fishing town in the southeast.
So when it's the best time to see them? Guess what! Winter it is!
How to hunt for them?
- You can check some Aurora forecast websites. Vedur worked for me pretty well.
- Get away from the city - darkness is your friend. Try to avoid full moon nights.
- Wrap up warm as you might stay outside for a long time. Lights can unexpectedly appear and just as suddenly vanish any time during the night. Some good Icelandic vodka can be also very good friend then:)
- Look to the stars. If you see that the night sky is clear and starry, your chances of seeing Aurora are pretty good
According to NASA scientists, years 2013 - 2016 should be the best ones for observing Northern Lights - Aurora Borealis, so what are you waiting for? Just buy that ticket! Magic is waiting for you!
07| Blue ice caves - walk into the glaciers
I remember exactly my feelings when I saw some random picture of the ice cave in Iceland. I just couldn't believe such a place really exists. I've never seen anything like that, anything looking so much like it would be from the outer space. It just seemed to be so unreal to be true... a few months later I was standing there. Inside of the glacier. And wow... it's more than real!
I am not a big fan of organized trips, but in this case it is necessary to get a guided tour. First of all it's really hard to find some ice cave on your own , especially if you don't have a 4WD car. But what's more important is the fact that ice caves are very unstable and can collapse at any time. Especially in the summer season when the ice is melting, but hands down, it can happen anytime during winter as well. For safety reason all tour operators run this tour only from November till March. The tour costs about 170 USD and agreed, it's a bit pricey, but where else will you have this opportunity? There are ice caves all around the world, but the ones in Iceland are considered to be the most beautiful.
Please note that this is the most popular Iceland tour in winter and I recommend you to book it at least one month in advance. I am not a big planner and wanted to book ice cave tour two weeks before my trip just to find out that it is almost booked out. I had to book it for a different day than I originally wanted to and therefore had to change my whole itinerary. Book your ice cave tour here.
Here you can read more about what to expect from the ice cave tour.
08| Cute Icelandic horses are even cuter
Be ready to scratch lots of Icelandic horses! I mean lots of them! They are naturally very friendly and want to cuddle all the time. Always when you are walking nearby, they are approaching you, trying to suck your sleeves and asking for some scratching.
In the cold season they develop a thick winter fur which protects them from the cold, snow and rain... and yes makes them cuter than ever :)
09| Hot springs, hot pools, hot pots
What can be better than to take a dip in the hot water after all day hiking in the snow? Iceland is full of spots with geothermal water. You can enjoy them all year round, but I guess they give you the biggest pleasure during winter months.
Probably the most famous place is Blue Lagoon close to the Keflavik airport. If you need to kill your time before your departure, don't hesitate and enjoy relaxing in warm geothermal seawater. In the fresh air, surrounded by a surreal lava field. The truth is that the Blue Lagoon is really blue only in the winter. In the summer it's rather greenish.
You can also look for some geothermal spots in the mountains and valleys. I longed for some more intimate place, so I hiked the trail to the hot springs in Reykjadalur (Smoke Valley) just north of the town of Hveragerði. On the way I had to struggle with really strong wind and heavy rain. Making two steps forward, sliding in the mud one and half backward. But finally, after 4 km, when I soaked my body in the hot water.... that was... yeowch!... hot! Almost too hot to bear but so so great! Incredibly amazing with all the mountains and freezing air around. There are many places along the stream, so just go and choose some with the perfect temperature for your frozen body!
Check out my favourite website hotpoticeland.com with a detailed map of popular but also pretty hidden hot springs, hot pots and hot pools around Iceland. It is like a hot spring bible with all the informations you need to know (f.e. temperature, GPS, how to find it).
A friendly P.S.: Don't forget to bring with you some fresh beer or wine! (And buy alcohol in the duty free at the airport just after your arrival, it's gonna be much much cheaper!)
10| Experience ethereal icelandic music
I fell for the icelandic music long long time ago. Sigur Rós, Emiliana Torrini, Amiina, Of Monsters And Men, Ólafur Arnalds, Sóley, Múm, GusGus, Seabear... you name it. Every November there's held the famous festival Iceland Airwaves, where you can hear some of these musicians (among many others).
Now, sit down, sip a cup of your favourite tea or coffee, relax and plan your winter Icelandic adventure while watching this music video which is showing some stunning Icelandic locations.
Excited to go to Iceland in winter?
Here is a few more tips to make the most out of your trip!
Fly to Iceland for as cheapest as possible!
I lucked out with a really cheap flight via Icelandair, but not always you can get such a good deal. In that case - do you already know Kiwi.com? This is my very favourite tool to look for the cheapest flights, no matter where I go! It is just incredible with how much creativity this search engine looks for your flight to find you the lowest price possible. I still don't understand why more people doesn't use it. Check it out now!
Cheap accommodation in Reykjavík
You will probably want to stay at least one night in Reykjavík to explore this cute capitol of Iceland. Whoaa! It can be a tough one! I mean a tough one to find a cheap accommodation. On my travels I very often rely on Couchsurfing, but after writing about 20 really nice requests to hosts in Reykjavík I barely got a response and when I did, the host said he's not available.
After a few weeks I gave up and since then I focused on searching a place to stay via my favourite website Booking.com and also AirBnb. But it showed up that I lost so much time with focusing on Couchsurfing, that most of good AirBnB options were booked out and so were hostels and hotels. But finally I found a great place for me and my friend in a 4-bed dorm at B47 Hostel (was $32 pp a night). It was basically in city centre and only 200 metres from the famous Hallgrímskirkja church, clean and very friendly. If you travel on a low budget, I recommend it a lot.
My advice: Don't waste your time with Couchsurfing in Iceland. For sure you can try and you might will be lucky as well, but personally I don't know anyone (but know many who tried) who would luck out with that.
*UPDATE: On my next visit in May 2016 I stayed in Centerhotel Plaza, which is a stylish hotel right in the heart of Reykjavík. Sincerely recommend this place to those of you seeking comfort, beautiful views and delicious breakfast in the city centre for a very reasonable price. It's a great value for money!
Create a wise itinerary
Do you have just about a week as well? Don't rush it and don't try to see everything. Actually you might will have to rush it as you only have about 4-5 hours of daylight during winter (but bigger chance to se northern lights, right?). Since then, your plan must be very efficient.
This was my 7-days itinerary which I ended up being super happy with:
- Day 1: After afternoon arrival to Keflavík airport and shuttle bus to Reykjavík. I checked in to my hotel and went to explore the capitol of Iceland freshly covered with winter blanket.
- Day 2: Picked up our rental car and headed towards Golden Circle to see famous Gulfoss and geysir, later that day I went to soak in Reykjadalur hot springs (about 40min - 1hour one way).
- Day 3: Keep going towards the east, stopping by Seljalandsfoss and Skógafoss waterfalls which are just next to the road. A short stop at Svínafellsjökull glacier and later infamouse Sólheimasandure plane wreck. Visiting Dýrholaey and Reynisfjara just before the darkness. Accomodation in Vík.
- Day 4: It was a snow storm day, so we barely got out of the car. We had to drive really slowly and carefully and were happy to make it to Skaftafell where we spent a night.
- Day 5: Going up to Höfn, a small fishing town. Enjoyed amazing Jökulsarlon Glacier Lagoon on the way. That night we barely slept as we saw our first northern lights!!! Whooooa!
- Day 6: Decided to explore Hoffellsjökull and enjoyed amazing hot pots in Hoffell right after. Overlooking the mountains and even spotted a few curious reindeers! Sleeping in Höfn.
- Day 7: Heading down to Jökulsarlon Lagoon to meet our guide into the blue ice cave. Going back to Reykjavík, returning car, grabbing last hot dog and flying to Canada, hoping that one day I'll be back (UPDATE: I really went! 17 months later for six weeks - not rushed at all :) )
Do you want to just enjoy your winter Iceland getaway without any hassle?
Then get whole packages with different itineraries. They might seem to be pricey, but hands down, Iceland is pricey. Some of you will really appreciate the value of those trips where you'll be completely taken care of during exploring the winter magic.
Want to ask me anything regarding winter travelling in Iceland? Feel free to leave me a comment below!
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