When is the winter season in Iceland? What are the best things to do in winter in Iceland? What winter activities can you join? Read this to find all the answers to your questions about things to do in Iceland in winter.
The Icelandic winters are mainly known for the Northern Lights, besides being a bit cold. Iceland is on top of a hot spot on the earth and the Gulf Stream warms the country up all the way from Mexico, resulting in a rather temperate climate. So, even though there is ice in the name of the country, it doesn't get as cold as you would expect this far north.
Winter season is generally considered to be from September until April, although September-October are autumn season and April-May are spring season. In autumn and spring you can expect that the roads are clear and there shouldn't be any snowfall, except on top of mountains. It may be breezy and rainy though. The temperature averages between 2 to 10°C.
In the dead of winter, November until February, you can usually expect a lot of snow and ice and stormy weather. There will also be clear and crisp days in between. This is when driving conditions are not at their best and driving in the countryside (especially in the East and the Westfjords) should only be attempted by those who are familiar with driving in difficult and icy conditions.
The temperature averages between -10 to 5°C. That's not considering the windchill, which can make you feel like it's colder than that. So layer up!
With that said, there are plenty of exciting winter activities on offer, besides sightseeing and the Northern Lights! If you want a package of all the best things to do, then check out this Iceland winter package, that includes a visit to an ice cave, hunting down the Northern Lights, a tour of the Golden Circle and entry to the Blue Lagoon. Or you can check out this 3-day winter tour of the South Coast, which also takes you to Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon and inside a blue ice cave.
One of the most impressive and unique natural attractions in Iceland are its natural ice caves. Every winter ice caves form in Vatnajökull glacier, Europe's largest glacier. And every summer they melt or fall apart.
This temporary existence of each cave makes each ice cave totally unique. The caves vary in size and shape, sometimes there are many of them, sometimes there are few. All of them are gorgeous though and reveal an incredible colour of blue!
As the caves can only be visited during wintertime, this is our number one recommendation of what to see during Iceland's wintertime! They are only accessible from either October or November, depending on your operator and the conditions, and March.
Vatnajökull is in the South-East part of Iceland, near the town Höfn. It's a 5-6 hour drive from Reykjavík (not including all the stops you'll want to make on the way to admire waterfalls and volcanoes!). So if you are driving from Reykjavík, then we recommend taking AT LEAST two days to go and see it. If you're pressed for time, then you can go on a day tour by flight to the ice caves.
The Northern Lights are stunningly beautiful but they are very unpredictable, as you'll need to have a clear sky to see them and they vary in strength. Many people come to Iceland to see these gorgeous lights - and it's not hard to imagine why! On a good day, you can see the lights dance across the sky in various colours, ranging from white to green to pink and purple!
We like to think of the Northern Lights as a bonus to an otherwise great trip, as seeing them can't be guaranteed. However, the longer you spend in the country, the likelier it is that you will see them! So if you really want to see the Northern Lights, you should at least spend a week in the country.
Winter isn't all about ice and snow! You can bathe in hot springs all year round - but they are especially delightful in the wintertime. The most famous geothermal spa in Iceland is the Blue Lagoon, that's also Iceland's most visited attraction along with the Golden Circle. A trip to the Blue Lagoon is often combined with other activities, such as a sightseeing tour or horseback riding. As it is very close to Keflavík international airport it's also often visited on the way to or from the airport. You can find Blue Lagoon tours here.
There are plenty of other hot springs to choose from, such as the Secret Lagoon near the town Flúðir. The Secret Lagoon is in a geothermal area but is actually Iceland's oldest swimming pool - a very warm pool to swim in! Now people mostly go there to float and relax. You can find an aurora floating tour in the Secret Lagoon here.
(Picture from Myvatn Sightseeing and Hot Springs Tour from Akureyri)
Then there are the Nature Baths in Mývatn, the North's answer to the Blue Lagoon. The Nature Baths are not as crowded and located in a beautiful natural setting. Nearby is the stunning Lake Mývatn, one of Iceland's gems. There is a multitude of gorgeous sights in the area, including impressive rock formations and craters. Here is a daytour from Reykjavík to Lake Myvatn with a flight and here's a 7 day winter self drive tour of the North.
Fontana geothermal baths are situated by Laugarvatn lake, on the way to the Golden Circle. They are a perfect addition to the Golden Circle. They are most noted for their steam baths, that are built directly above a steaming hot spring. There is a also a pool to lounge in and a view over the lake itself. Here you can book a Golden Circle and Fontana geothermal baths tour.
In addition to the hot springs, there are a number of swimming pools in Iceland, that all include at least one, if not many hot tubs and steam baths. There's a swimming pool in almost every town you will go through and many swimming pools in Reykjavík. This is a cheaper option to the natural baths and where you will meet a lot of locals, some of whom go there daily!
And here you can read about the 5 best hot springs in Iceland, that are situated in the Icelandic nature but offer no showers or changing room facilities.
(Picture from Glacier Expedition on Sólheimajökull)
Iceland has many glaciers, the biggest ones are Vatnajökull, Langjökull, Hofsjökull and Mýrdalsjökull. Hofsjökull is the hardest one to reach as it is in the interior of Iceland but the other ones are fairly easily accessible. Most ice hiking tours in wintertime are offered on Sólheimajökull, which is a part of Mýrdalsjökull glacier. You can go hiking on other glaciers too but mostly in the summertime.
Even on a sunny and clear day, you need to make sure that you are dressed warmly and that you take extra layers of clothing with you, you never know if the weather is going to change - and it can get pretty cold on top of a glacier! Also make sure that you are wearing good hiking boots that cover your ankles (boots can also be hired in some cases). You will be provided with crampons to attach to your boots, making it easier to get a grip on the snow and ice.
(Photo credit Xiaochen Tian)
Glaciers are thick ice on top of mountains that doesn't melt during summer. In the wintertime this ice may also be covered with snow. Glaciers are continually moving, crawling forwards and melting, creating incredible landscapes! You'll see ice and snow but also a lot of sand, ash or rocks that the ice digs out, that paint the ice like a canvas. The ice can also contain deep cracks and crevasses, that may be hidden with snow, so it's important that you go with a guide that knows the glacier and the area well and can take you on a safe route.
To see some impressive landscape, that isn't easily found in many other places around the world, you should definitely look into going on a glacier hiking tour! You can even try your hand at glacier climbing as well, with an ice axe!
Any nature and dog lover shouldn't miss out on exploring the icy landscapes of Iceland from the back of a dogsled. You can go on a 2 hour intimate tour of only 2-4 people on each sled, carried by adorable Siberian husky dogs that do not run out of energy.
Each sled is controlled by a Musher and pulled by 6-8 dogs. Your Musher will teach you how to work with the highly-trained dogs and the basics of dogsledding. Ideal for families with children, or any adventure seeker looking to do something different.
It's possible to go dogsledding both on Langjökull glacier, just a couple of hours drive away from Reykjavík, or by Lake Mývatn in northeast Iceland for those that are staying in Akureyri.
(Picture from Snowmobile Tour from Gullfoss Waterfall in a Small Group)
Snowmobiling is available all year round, on both Langjökull and Mýrdalsjökull glaciers. Most snowmobile tours include an hour on the snowmobile, where you will race over the snowy plains high up on the glacier and have spectacular views on clear days. This is a great trip to go on if you want a little bit of action and adrenaline but also for those that want to take it slower, as you're in control of your own snowmobile. A great way to explore the top of a glacier, see a winter wonderland and have some fun!
Many of the snowmobile tours at Langjökull can be combined with the Golden Circle, a perfect day trip combination for first timers in Iceland!
Not all snowmobile tours are in the south of the country, you can also go on a snowmobile tour from Akureyri in the North.
Perhaps not what you'd think of as a winter activity, but snorkelling and diving is possible to do all year round in Iceland. Iceland's most famous diving location is Silfra, a crystal clear ravine in Þingvellir Lake where you can dive, or snorkel, between continents with a visibility of up to 120 meters!
The water in Silfra stays about the same temperature all year round, so there's not much difference in diving there during the summer or the winter. The temperature is only about 2°C (35°F) all year round, so the dives, and the snorkelling are generally done in drysuits that will keep you warm despite the almost freezing water. It's possible to dive in a thick wetsuit as well, if you're brave enough for it!
Surprisingly, skiing and snowboarding are not massively popular in Iceland - or at least not in Reykjavík. The reason: Not enough snow!
Although Iceland gets a fair bit of snow each year, the country's temperate weather means that the snow tends to melt every few days and not enough stays put for a stable ski season. On top of that, the weather is sometimes just too bad to open the ski resorts, normally down to it being too windy.
However there are a number of ski resorts around the country. Reykjavík's ski resorts are called Bláfjöll and Skálafell, the one in Akureyri is called Hlíðarfjall, in Ísafjörður you have 2 valleys: Tungudalur and Seljalandsdalur and in the East part of the country there's Oddsskarð ski resort. Additionally there are ski resorts in Dalvík, Húsavík, Ólafsfjörður, Sauðárkrókur, Siglufjörður and Stafdalur.
All ski resorts are moderately priced, a day pass in Bláfjöll is 3250 ISK (plus an additional 1000 ISK for a 'hard card' that you can refill. If you return your hard card you'll get 500 ISK back.) You can also choose to get a 1, 2 or 3 hour pass. A return bus fare is 1700 ISK from Olís gas station in Mjódd (Reykjavík). You can also rent a car and drive there yourself, it's about a 30 minute drive from Reykjavík.
Although Reykjavík's ski resort is one of the biggest (along with Akureyri's), it is arguably not the best, solely due to the fact that there is much more snow in the rest of the country so it's not open for many days of the season.
Here is the Icelandic ski area website, where you can find updated information about the ski conditions during wintertime.
The Golden Circle, the south coast, Reykjanes peninsula, Snæfellsnes peninsula and Akureyri are all easily accessible during wintertime and can be done in a day tour from Reykjavík. If you are heading all the way to Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon, we recommend taking 2 days for the journey.
The East part of the country is more remote and gets heavy snow, so we wouldn't recommend driving there in wintertime. The Westfjords are the most remote area of Iceland and there are many mountain passes there that are often closed in the wintertime. Heavy snow and icy conditions result in unfavourable driving conditions.
The Icelandic highlands are closed for traffic in the wintertime.
The Golden Circle consists of Þingvellir National Park, Geysir geothermal area where Strokkur erupts every few minutes and the Golden Waterfall, Gullfoss.
Gullfoss is especially impressive during wintertime, as it is surrounded by icicles and the thundering water bursts through layers of thick ice! Strokkur never fails to spout scolding hot water up in the air, no matter what the temperature is above ground. And Þingvellir National Park and UNESCO heritage site is beautiful and rich in history.
Reykjanes peninsula is the peninsula where Keflavík international airport, the Blue Lagoon and Reykjavík are on. Therefore it's easy to drive around this peninsula and explore what else there is on offer, such as geothermal areas Krýsuvík and Gunnuhver, the bridge between continents, interesting towns, museums and caves!
You can find Reykjanes peninsula tours here, or choose to drive it yourself.
The south coast has the beautiful waterfalls Seljalandsfoss and Skógafoss, the stark, black sandy beach Reynisfjara, picturesque rocks Reynisdrangar, lava fields, volcanoes, glaciers, the glacier lagoon Jökulsárlón and the nearby Diamond Beach. You can drive the south coast yourself or find south coast tours here.
If you are spending New Year's Eve in Iceland, expect to see a lot of fireworks!
Icelanders like to gather with their families and friends for dinner on New Year's Eve, then go out to bonfires that are lit around the city, then most of them watch a comedy show on TV where Icelandic actors and comedians poke fun of events that happened in the year - before going out and lighting tonnes of fireworks! On every street corner in Reykjavík there will be fireworks and sparkling lights going every direction, before and after midnight.
It can be hard to find somewhere to have dinner this night and reservations need to be made far in advance.