Yes, even in the dead of winter, there are tons of things to see and do in Iceland…
A lot of people looked at me like I was crazy for going to Iceland in winter. I was told it would be unpleasant, and even impossible! Well, I have experienced a winter’s sojourn in the land of ice and fire and survived to be completely smitten with this utterly wild and exquisite country.
There are lots of great reasons to go to Iceland in winter. To begin with, Icelanders like their beauty unspoiled, which means there will be very few barriers between you and the raw power of her mountain tops, lava caves, cliffs and shorelines. It’s an awe-inspiring, adrenaline pumping journey that is even more intensified in the winter months when the uber-dramatic Icelandic landscape is covered in a pristine white layer of snow. Miles and miles of untouched nature as far as the eye can see is not something the average person growing up in an industrialized nation gets to experience very often. Iceland in the wintertime is like going to another planet. It is a feast for the soul and the imagination that will leave you feeling breathless with gratitude for the experience. How many other vacations can you say that about?
Spotting a beautiful Icelandic horse in a moment of solitude.
In addition to this, tourism has become a a year-round industry in Iceland. This nation of roughly three hundred and twenty thousand welcomes over a million visitors each year. This means that even in the dead of winter we had plenty of company everywhere we went. Why not experience Iceland in the colder months when there’s fewer tourists?
However, as with every new place you travel, there’s some important things to keep in mind as you plan your itinerary.
Thing one: Safety is Paramount
Roads? Where we’re going we don’t need roads. Also, the roads in Iceland are treacherous in wintertime. Take care, travelers!
Unspoiled beauty has its price, and Iceland is not a theme park. One thing Iceland is great at is reminding you of all the horrifying ways that Mother Nature would like to kill you. The snow cover hides all sorts of hazards a city slicker is unused to. Don’t be cocky, travel with a guide who knows the torraine and can show it to you safely. And for pity’s sake, don’t drive. The roads outside the city limits are coated in an almost constant layer of ice and snow. I lost count of how many rental cars I saw spun out in ditches off of the roads there. Also, Icelanders drive like maniacs! Let somebody who is seasoned in the classic Icelandic driving technique of controlled sliding show you around the back roads there.
Thing two: Iceland is a Solo Travel Mecca!
From the streets of Reykjavík to the lava fields beyond, Iceland has so much to offer for the independent adventurer!
I know I said that Iceland was one of the few places on earth I wouldn’t want to travel on my own. I stand by my decision of going there with other people, as this trip has now become an amazing memory that I will forever share with lifelong friends. However, don’t let lack of a travel buddy stop you from exploring Iceland! I met and befriended solo travelers everywhere I went while I was there. Iceland is small, safe and chock full of cool hostels and great group tours that are really ideal for a solo taveller to hop on to.
Thing three: Icelandic people rule!
Where else but Iceland can you get shown around by a friendly Viking with dreads and mad driving skills!?
Icelanders are warm friendly people who want you to enjoy your time in their country. They almost universally have a great sense of humor and an open, laid back attitude about life. It is super easy to find English speakers there, even in remote villages I didn’t have a problem. Icelanders seem to genuinely enjoy speaking English. A tour guide told me this is due to the fact that Iceland was occupied by the Brits and Americans during World War Two, bringing with them to this once poor nation a love of British humor, bubble gum and rock n’ roll! Whatever it is, you’ll find people in Iceland eager to communicate with you.
So here they are, my top 5 winter Activities in Iceland! My group and I booked our tours with Viator Tours, a Tripadvisor company that contracts out with small local touring companies. Wherever possible, I’ve linked to the Viator tour we booked and also given a shoutout to the locals on the ground who showed us around.
1) Glacier Hiking
Crampons are a girl’s best friend!
Strap on your crampons, grab your ice axe, and head uphill to experience the glorious blue ice caves and crevices of a real life glacier! This was the first of two trips we took with Arctic Adventures. The outdoor guides were fun, friendly and professional, keeping us feeling safe and laughing throughout our rainy two hour hike on the glacier. I almost fell into a glacial lagoon, but that was my own damn fault for straying off the path, which we were warned not to do several times. When somebody tells you to say on the path on a glacier, stay on the damned path! Fortunately, my guide, the “Crazy Dane”, grabbed my attention and steered me away from any danger right away. On this South Iceland tour we also saw the black sands of the most dangerous beach in Iceland and a few beautiful waterfalls that I unfortunately could barely see through the wind driven rain. Happily, this was the worst weather we experienced whilst in Iceland.
If you look closely you can see that Sólheimajökull glacier’s surreal ice waves are lightly coated in lava dust, how cool is that?
The only unfortunate thing about this excoursion besides the wild weather was that it came attached to one of those huge bus tours, meaning I spent a lot of my day being herded on an off of of a bus with a lot of other soggy tourists. It was well worth it for the guided glacier tour though. Glaciers are definitely a don’t try this on your own activity!
2) Lava Caving and and Snorkling in the Silfra Fissure
You’re sending me where? This hole in the snow was the doorway to a fascinating lava cave…
Snorkeling the Silfra Fissure was without a doubt the coolest thing I’ve ever done in my life. Period. This was another Arctic Adventures tour, this time in a small group chock full of cool people, some of whom we befriended for the rest of the trip. The day began with a journey into one of the many caves you’ll find just beneath the lava fields that stretch as far as the eye can see in Iceland. We then travelled on to the national park to prepare to snorkel in the Silfra Fissure.
Crystal clear and just barely above freezing. Was I really about to dive in there?
What’s so special about Silfra? Well, it just happens to be the crack between the North American and Eurasian continents. It is filled with cold, clear glacial water which makes for an unbelievable snorkel experience. I was pumped to do this but really nervous about how I’d react to being submerged in nearly freezing water. Let me tell you first that all my fears were unfounded. Being in that dry suit was probably the warmest I’d been in my entire trip to Iceland, besides in the hot springs.
When you arrive at the fissure they hand you what they call a teddy bear suit, which is basically a one piece snowsuit reminiscent of Ralphie’s in a Christmas Story (just try and put your arms down!). Then begins the sumo-like struggle into the dry suits. Once the air is squeezed out of your dry suit you are fitted with an ultra thick pair of neoprene claw gloves and a neoprene hood. By this point, I really couldn’t feel anything and was raring to get into the water. We all toddled toward the fissure where we were outfitted with flippers and a mask and then it was splashdown time!
Bobbing up and down between the lovely moss covered lava walls of the fissure was cool enough. Then a companion of mine shouted, ” Have you looked down yet?!” I put my face in the water and was instantly transported to another world of crystal clear water and exquisite geometric rock formations. The dry suits make you so buoyant that it takes zero effort to stay afloat, giving me the illusion that I was soaring above a gorgeous cavernous landscape, just like a bird! There was a moment of panic when I realized how deep that water was, then I simply surrender to the feeling of flight. It was unbelievably freeing to trust the water (and the drysuit, really) to support me as I glided through the cerulean blue waters, feeling all at once just like Ariel and Major Tom! For a woman who dreamed both of being a bird and a mermaid as a child, it was all my flying dreams come true and then some.
photo courtesy zoover.uk
We paddled through the crack between the continents, into a huge underwater cavern called the cathedral and into a lovely sandy pool where we ended our journey. The girl who was afraid to go into the freezing waters nearly had to be dragged out by her group!
Silfra snorkeling was a life changing experience that has made me want to push my boundaries further into adventure travel. You have been warned!
Where else can you travel from North America to Europe, watch a geyser erupt, see the largest waterfall in Europe and witness the Lögberg (The seat of Iceland’s oldest Parliament) in one day? Breathtaking beauty and fascinating history combine here along with the tectonic plates. Don’t miss it! This was a part of out, “hot”, Golden Circle tour, which also included a visit to the Secret lagoon!
4) Blue Lagoon and Secret Lagoon Thermal Bathing
A trip to Iceland would be incomplete without a little Geothermal bathing. Of corse, the Blue Lagoon is the popular girl on the block, and deservedly so with her eerie milky blue waters and other worldly lava rock surroundings. She’s definitely a do-not-miss. But don’t forget to sample the charms of many of the smaller hot pots that Iceland has to offer up. The Secret Lagoon is a more rustic alternative, where you can bathe in the shadow of the geyser that heats up your swimming water!
5) Exploring the Snaefellsnes Peninsula
I fell utterly in love with the Snaefellsness Peninsula, which my travel buddies and I had the privilege of exploring via a private jeep tour. One of the best things about this place is that it’s a little bit off the main tourist path so you’ll be able to enjoy nature unfettered by throngs of other shutterbugs. What’s there to enjoy? Oh, just quaint fishing villages and dramatic Fjords, volcanic craters, waterfalls, crazy abandoned buildings, Icelandic Horses, majestic mountain chains and an enormous lava rock formation that looks just like a viking ship jutting into the Atlantic Ocean… no big deal.
Snaefellsness is Iceland at it’s very best, and it was an amazing way to round up an epic trip. Whether you are traveling solo or with a group, Iceland is a destination you should bump to the very top of your bucket list. I’m already dreaming of my next visit…
What about you? What’s the place you’d love to visit during an unconventional time of year?