The secret is out about Iceland. People are flocking to Iceland as if they are giving out free nutella and it’s easy to see why when you view pictures of countless waterfalls surrounded in rainbows, adorable ponies, dreamy blue geothermal pools, and striking other-wordly scenery everywhere you turn. I read many blogs that convinced me I should be visiting Iceland in winter. The northern lights are another carrot Iceland dangles before us, tempting us to travel close to the arctic circle in winter. So I went to Iceland over New Years. It was incredible and I certainly don’t regret it. However, there are things I wish I had known. Don’t worry people. You know I don’t mince words and will share all the pros and cons.
Expletives were falling out of my mouth constantly when exposed to some of Iceland’s crazy winter weather. Well of course it’s cold, you say; It’s winter…duh! Yes, I expected cold. I was ready for cold. What I was NOT ready for was the wind and the rain. I imagined clear blue skies with light powder falling. I had my thermals, my layers, my fleece lined waterproof boots and wool socks. What I needed was waterproof EVERYTHING. The winter rain is relentless. The wind can blow wet snow off the ground and get you surprisingly wet. I suggest one set of waterproof everything for these type of conditions. Ski gear is great for visiting Iceland in winter.
One needs waterproof boots to run through knee deep snow to play with the adorable horses!
Again, this isn’t a shock. Most people told me it was all dark all the time in winter, but I knew this wasn’t quite true. There is only four hours of direct sunlight. The sun generally rises around 1030 and sets around 330 but takes an hour or more to fully set and even then, you have another hour before it’s totally dark. It’s weird. Somedays the sun doesn’t show itself the sky is gray and darker than usual.
This was around 1030 am on a grey sky day.
The light that DOES come out is simply fabulous. It is like a perpetual sunrise and sunset. Before sunrise the sky has this mysterious silvery glow and you can just start to see landscapes waking up.
This pic was taken just before sunrise around 0945 am from the hotel.
After sunset the sky is this really cool deep blue color for awhile like the picture below. This was 5:00 pm.
I wasn’t able to dive Silfra or go exploring in the Golden Circle, or walk behind the Seljalandfoss waterfall because the weather was not cooperating. Road closures are common and you simply can’t get around as fast. Outdoor activities are definitely feasible with the right gear but it’s hard to be outside continuously for many hours.
I can’t imagine properly seeing Iceland without having your own car. You would spend a small fortune on tours and drivers otherwise. If you go in winter, you have to shell out some cash for a winter ready car. I rented a four-wheel drive car with winter tires and got all the insurances, including gravel and sand. I used Sixt, a company I use often and find reliable and pleasant to deal with. The total cost for one week was over $600. The car was pretty sweet with steering wheel warmers and seat warmers (totally necessary!) and I felt safe in it. If you have never driven in winter conditions, you may want to think twice. It was sketchy and icy at times but in general they take good care of the roads.
This is sort of a sore spot with me since one of the main reasons I braved the winter was for this. There was lots of precipitation the week I was there and cloudiness means No Lights For You! (saying that in Soup Nazi voice). There was one clear night…New Years Eve. Had I known this would be the only night I could see them, I would have been less of an alcoholic that evening. The next two nights, they cancelled northern lights tours and then I flew home. On a perfect clear day. Oh the sadness! Instead I saw a different kind of light show on New Years Eve.
This can be a “pro” of visiting Iceland in winter. You know those pictures you see on instagram of a gorgeous waterfall surrounded by lush greenery and of course the obligatory rainbow? Instead you have eerie blue sky with icy waterfall surrounded by crystalline snow.
Everything is a winter wonderland. The mossy volcanic rock ground cover that is everywhere looks quite fetching with a dusting of powder.
The ice doesn’t look as blue in the summer. Score 1 for winter!
This is the Solheimajokull Glacier. You can hike on it.
Watch out Game of Thrones. Volcanic activity formed Iceland. There are many volcanoes here and those volcanoes are covered with glaciers. Geothermic activity is everywhere , hence the famous natural hot spring and pools that are so popular as well as steamy geyser fields.
The Great Geyser, is a geyser in SW Iceland and is the first geyser ever described in print. Geysir comes form the Icelandic word geysa, “to gush”. You can see where all geysers got their name. This area around Geysir, is just a hotbed of geothermal activity (do you see what I did there?). It’s wild to see ice and snow with steam coming from the ground. One of them, Strokkur, erupts every 6 to 8 minutes.
Some things, although awesome, are sometimes more trouble then they are worth in bad weather.
Let’s talk about this famous plane wreck in Iceland. We had driven by the parking for this walk on a horrible rainy day. We thought about it and ultimately said “hell no”. That was a good call! We drove back that way two days later on a gorgeous clear and sunny day and decided to do it. I couldn’t find information about the length of this walk and assumed it was 20 minutes or so. It took us 45 minutes and we are fast walkers.
Just when I thought we were going to enter into another dimension, we saw the damn plane. The lighting couldn’t have been more beautiful.
This is a US Navy Jet that crashed here in 1971. Luckily nobody died!
On the walk back, a sudden wind storm kicked in and blew sand, snow, gravel, hail and small children (it felt like it) at us. The wind is so vicious, it feels like somebody is pushing you and our faces hurt from stuff smacking into them. I ended up walking backwards to survive it. The walk back to the car was over an hour of pure misery. If I had a do over, I WOULD NOT have done that walk. My advice is do it only if there is PERFECT weather and you have plenty of spare time. This is a 2 hour ordeal to see a plane wreck for 10 minutes. We were soaking wet, frozen and demoralized after this and didn’t even want to sightsee anymore. It took time away from other things we wanted to do and zapped our energy. Truth people.
The Blue Lagoon is another place that disappointed me. Not because it isn’t beautiful or awesome, I just had bad luck with the weather. The sun didn’t come out and it was hailing. I almost don’t want to show you my crappy photos but just you can see how dark it was…the picture didn’t have enough light and is blurry. It was still relaxing after our flight. FYI this is very close to airport and best combined with your arrival or departure. The area around is really beautiful too. You must have reservations!!!
Don’t miss Jokulsarlon, the glacier lagoon. It is far from Reykjavik. We spent two nights in Vik to see this. So. Worth. It. It is especially magical in winter.
Can we talk about how cool the glacier ice beach across the street from the glacier lagoon is?
The famous black sand beach of Vik is something I really wanted to see at sunset. Turns out, it isn’t really in Vik. After driving around confused I figured out where it was. Let me save you the trouble. It’s called Reynisfjara Beach and if you’re driving the Ring Road from Reykjavik the turn off is before Vik.
The soup game is strong in Iceland. What’s better than savory soup in the winter? Not much my friends. Not much. Order soup always; Fish soup, lobster soup, vegetable soup, lamb soup. I didn’t have one remotely bad soup in Iceland. Also, buy liquor at duty-free. A round of drinks at a bar in Reykjavik can be $60. I bought several bottles of wine, a bottle of Bailey’s and whiskey (for hot chocolate of course) and that boozy hot chocolate was the best thing ever after a long day of being cold and wet. You will thank me for this tip!
This is fish soup and traditional Plukkfiskur…a mixture of haddock and cod with a béarnaise type sauce. Both were to die for! This was at a tiny restaurant in Reykjavik aptly named Fish.
The week after Christmas was festive and lovely, but more crowded than I expected and more expensive. I am not sure if what I experienced was typical winter conditions or simply holiday conditions. To give you an idea, a simple hotel in the Vik region was over $200 per night. A small hotel room in Reykjavik was over $300. These were not fancy places whatsoever. A bowl of fish soup with tea in Reykjavik was $25.
This picture was taken from the top of the Hallgrimmskirkja, the famous church. You must buy tickets in the gift shop before using the elevator which are $6. There was a line to go to the top and I waited 25 minutes and about 20 minutes at the top with a 5 minute wait to take the elevator back down. It is definitely worth it but just allow yourself time.
I loved Iceland, but winter is a challenging time and it’s not for everyone. I was relatively well-prepared, but I could have done better. Hopefully this helps any of you looking to travel in winter. I highly suggest giving yourself extra time…things take longer in the winter and you may want to have extra days to do things if weather doesn’t cooperate some of the days. When I go back, it will be in a different season to see a different perspective!
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