What is it like to visit Iceland in January? Is it dark and cold? Where can you go, and what is there to do? Is it possible to see the northern lights? What kind of weather can you expect in January in Iceland? How has COVID-19 impacted tours and activities? Continue reading for all there is to know about visiting Iceland in the depths of winter.
January is one of Iceland’s darkest and coldest months. The sun is only out for a few hours a day, the roads are icy, and the landscapes are covered in a meter of snow more often than not.
This Christmas’s small-group festivities are also quickly coming to a close, traditionally giving way to a lull in tourism, effectively making it one of Iceland's quietest months.
For those who dare to visit in a less conventional season, January delivers beautiful frosted landscapes, more hours of darkness to hunt for the northern lights, and fewer crowds at the places people want to see.
Iceland in winter may not be the easiest place to negotiate, and harsh weather is typical. Plus, the COVID-19 pandemic has added more challenges to international travel. But those with a little determination are sure to have an excellent winter holiday.
You are no doubt curious about the current state of traveling to Iceland during the COVID-19 pandemic. The good news is that you can still visit Iceland and have an amazing time! All you need to do is be prepared and take a few precautions before you’re off on a grand adventure in one of the most extraordinary countries in the world.
It’s a good idea to regularly check our dedicated COVID-19 information page, which is updated daily and contains all the latest details about the virus in Iceland. Meanwhile, here are some common questions regarding the effect of COVID-19 on your travels.
How will COVID-19 impact my trip?
Iceland is doing everything it can to control the spread of COVID-19. Before arriving in Iceland, you must fill out an online pre-registration form and submit it up to 72 hours before you arrive in Iceland. Incoming travelers will also have to take two COVID-19 tests with a 5-day quarantine interval between them when they reach the border.
The exceptions to this are travelers confirmed by a PCR test to have previously contracted COVID-19 and have completed their quarantine with confirmed antibody counts. As of the 10th of December, 2020, border authorities will accept verified COVID-19 infection certificates from EU/EFTA countries.
How have January tours and activities been affected by COVID-19?
Many tours and events have had to adjust their schedules and services in response to the Ministry of Health recommendations. That said, January remains an excellent time for you to experience Iceland’s winter wonderland and maybe see the Northern Lights. You can easily select a date, check tour availability when planning your trip, and make reservations during your travel days. By following the local safety guidelines of social distancing, wearing a mask as needed, and sanitizing your hands regularly, you can ensure your trip is safe and enjoyable.
Tour operators will be doing their part to operate responsibly. They disinfect tour vehicles and additional equipment before and after your trip. Tour guides closely follow all safety protocols regarding hand sanitizer, mask-wearing, and social distancing. Because you can find many of Iceland’s attractions in nature, you’ll have plenty of opportunities (and space!) to see the extraordinary sights that make this island so unique.
Will COVID-19 impact where I can stay in Iceland?
You will always have options for accommodation in Iceland, even during COVID-19. Quarantine rules will isolate you in either a private residence or hotel during your first days in the country. Accommodations with shared bathrooms and kitchens, such as hostels or campsites, are not suitable for quarantine. You will be unable to travel beyond a walk outside during your quarantine period, but there are plenty of delivery options for groceries and supplies should you need anything.
After your quarantine, you will be free to travel the country and stay where you please. You can find detailed information on what qualifies as appropriate quarantine housing on the Icelandic Directorate of Health website, along with detailed quarantine instructions.
Iceland is cold, snowy, and dark in January, but there's still a wealth of things to do.
As long as you make the most of the daytime hours, you won't find yourself short of exciting experiences.
Those coming to Iceland between September and April have a decent chance of seeing the Northern Lights.
Those coming in January will have more opportunities than most to catch them, as there are only a few sunlight hours. You can see the sunrise and sunset times below.
You can frequently see the aurora borealis from the city of Reykjavík. However, the less surrounded by light pollution you are, the better your view will be.
For this reason, those seeking an excellent show should get out of the capital and into nature, such as the relatively nearby area of Thingvellir National Park.
From both Reykjavík and Akureyri, you can take a Northern Lights Cruise, which offers the unique opportunity to not only witness the auroras in the sky but to admire them reflected in the water beneath you.
Of course, you can also rent a car and drive yourself out into nature to find the lights.
Renting a car in Iceland in January does come with risks and should only be undertaken by confident drivers experienced on icy country roads.
You should only use four-wheel-drive vehicles at this time of year. You should also make sure to request studded tires from the car rental company in advance.
January is right in the middle of the ice-cave season - it starts between mid-October and November and ends in March.
The sub-zero temperatures ensure their structural integrity, meaning they are accessible unless they have flooded.
The ice caves underneath the Vatnajökull glacier are fast-becoming one of Iceland’s greatest adventures.
The best tour to the ice caves leaves from Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon.
The ice caves change every year due to the continuous movement of glaciers. This variation means that no two visits are the same, and sometimes you might be lucky enough to see more than one when on a tour. So make sure to come back!
Most glaciers are open to hiking throughout the year.
This activity is excellent no matter when you do it, but in January, in the depths of winter, the glaciers have an otherworldly beauty, as they are clad in fresh, electric blue ice that melts away each spring.
Sólheimajökull is the easiest glacier to reach and hike upon.
It is just a few hours along the South Coast, and a glacier tour runs every day from Reykjavík.
Those in the south-east of the country could take a tour from the Skaftafell Nature Reserve onto Svinafellsjökull. Another option is to take a tour on Vatnajökull glacier, where you’ll hike up the outlet glacier, Breiðamerkurjökull.
Snowmobiling is also a year-round activity, which qualified drivers can enjoy, and anyone over a certain age can join as a passenger.
You can combine snowmobiling tours with many other excursions and activities.
One popular choice is to visit the ice tunnels in Langjökull glacier, using your snowmobile to get there and back.
Like almost all activities in Iceland, snowmobiling will depend on the weather conditions of any given day. The tour company will always put your safety above any experience, so you’re in safe hands.
Snorkeling and diving in Iceland in January may seem like a terrifying prospect, but with modern drysuit equipment, it is, in fact, a rewarding and exciting opportunity.
Silfra, where most snorkeling and diving tours are conducted, is a natural spring in a fissure that never freezes over. It's regarded as one of the top ten dive sites in the world.
The reason for this is its location and visibility. Silfra is located in Þingvellir National Park, meaning it's right between the tectonic plates and surrounded by incredible natural formations.
The ravine will be lined with snow and beautiful ice sculptures at this time of year, making the surroundings even more dramatic - great, especially for photographers.
As it is also a spring, the water has been filtered underground for decades through porous lava rock, meaning the visibility exceeds 100 meters.
Although snorkeling and diving in Silfra in January is a reasonably safe activity, you must meet the following conditions to partake:
Photo from Silfra Snorkelling Tour
Please note these tours cannot be taken by pregnant women under any circumstances.
Those who have a history of respiratory, circulatory, and neurological problems will need a medical waiver, as will those over 45 who smoke a pipe and drink heavily.
Horseback riding is possible throughout the year and very popular among locals and visitors.
Not only will this experience allow you to see some beautiful winter landscapes, but it will also introduce you to the charming Icelandic horse.
This adorable breed has many unique traits. Firstly, it is popular for dressage and other equestrian sports because they have five gaits (most other breeds have just three or four).
Secondly, it is well-beloved across the world because of what Icelandic horse owners will tell you is its curiosity and intelligence relative to its mainland counterparts (though this may just be pride speaking).
New Year’s Eve celebrations start on December 31st, but the incredible firework display goes on throughout the early hours of January 1st.
With no order or coordination, thousands of Icelanders buy fireworks and let them off all over the city.
From vantage points such as Hallgrímskirkja, the sky is filled with color, and the festive atmosphere is infectious. You’ll struggle to find a more exciting New Year's Eve than in Reykjavik.
Additionally, Christmas is officially over on the 6th of January, or 'the thirteenth of Christmas,' when the last of the 13 Icelandic Yule Lads has left town. On that day, bonfires are lit in various locations around Reykjavík and the countryside, and any leftover fireworks are ignited in celebration.
The festival brings both national and international talent, focusing on up-and-coming artists and new Icelandic compositions. It seeks to reveal and broaden the definition of contemporary music.
Every year in January, the Reykjavík International Games take place.
Here, the best athletes in Iceland compete with some incredible talents from around the world, in all sorts of fields.
From fencing to dancing, powerlifting to skiing, martial arts to figure skating - it's an amazing mixture of talent on display.
The events are primarily held in the park Laugardalur in Reykjavík.
3 days of winter wonders on this Jökulsárlón, Golden Circle, South Coast & Ice Caving with Northern Lights tour
Because January is mid-winter, many parts of Iceland are not accessible.
However, the most popular destinations such as the Golden Circle, South Coast, and Snæfellsnes Peninsula are still easy to reach and particularly beautiful under a blanket of winter snow.
Of all the attractions in Iceland, none are as popular as those on the Golden Circle trail.
Thingvellir is usually first visited from Reykjavík. Located right between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates, it has some incredible geology and landscapes and is also a history center in Iceland.
It was here that, in 930 AD, early settlers formed what would later become the longest-running, ongoing parliament in the world.
There, steaming fumaroles and streams break up the snowy earth, and the soil wears unusual and vivid colors. It is here you can see the geyser Strokkur erupt every five to ten minutes.
Finally, you will get the chance to see Gullfoss Waterfall. One of Iceland’s most iconic sites, it pours in two tiers down into a dramatic gorge.
In January, the rocks surrounding it are caked in ice, making it even more mesmerizing to look upon - a true winter wonderland.
The first of these that you will come to are two waterfalls, Seljalandsfoss and Skógafoss. The former tumbles off a concave cliff, making a very unusual sight, whereas the latter is much wider and more powerful.
Continuing along the route, you will see a wealth of glaciers, such as Mýrdalsjökull, which covers Katla volcano, the notorious Eyjafjallajökull, Sólheimajökull glacier, and Sólheimasandur before reaching the village of Vík.
The waves are known for being unpredictable and dangerous around Vik, so take good care. After enjoying this area, you will then travel through the vast lava fields until finally reaching the Skaftafell Nature Reserve.
Skaftafell is an incredibly beautiful place, with lava fields and forests, glacier tongues and lagoons, rivers and waterfalls.
It is especially popular with hikers, as there are routes tailored to all abilities. One of the best routes will take you to Svartifoss waterfall, renowned for the hexagonal basalt columns surrounding it.
The final site on the South Coast is Jökulsárlón, Iceland’s most famous glacier lagoon.
Watching the icebergs cruise across the lake to the sea is mesmerizing; some can reach the size of multi-story buildings.
When they reach the ocean, they wash up on the black-sand shore, named ‘the Diamond Beach’ due to the way they glitter in the surf.
The North of Iceland is an incredible place that is accessible throughout the winter. It is possible to drive there or take a flight from Reykjavík’s domestic airport to the capital of the North, Akureyri, weather permitting.
Covered in a blanket of snow and still lit with festive lights, Akureyri is an incredibly charming town.
It has many boutiques, restaurants, and bars and is surprisingly lively throughout the year. Akureyri also arguably contains the best ski slopes in Iceland.
The North’s most popular destination throughout the year is Lake Mývatn.
January is a great time to come to Lake Mývatn, especially for fans of the HBO series Game of Thrones.
Many scenes have been filmed here, like those north of the Wall, including the Fist of the First Men and Mance Rayder’s Wildling Camp, and you'll be able to see the sites as they were shot, beneath the winter snow.
The Snæfellsnes Peninsula has developed the nickname ‘Iceland in Miniature’ since there are many diverse landscapes and features along its 90km coastline.
Nowadays, the best-known attraction in the Snæfellsnes Peninsula is Mount Kirkjufell. This arrowhead-shaped mountain is just a 5-minute drive from the village of Grundarfjordur and has recently surged in popularity due to being featured in Game of Thrones.
These are not the only sites you can see on the peninsula in January, however.
You can encircle it and see features such as the seal colony at Ytri Tunga, the coastal fishing villages of Arnarstapi, Hellnar and Stykkishólmur, Mount Kirkjufell, Djúpalónssandur beach, the Búðahraun lava fields, and the Lóndrangar basalt towers.
Although there are many things to see and do in Iceland in January, there is also plenty to know. The main focus of these issues is to do with the weather.
The temperature in the capital, Reykjavík, throughout January averages between 1° and -1° Celsius (between 30°F and 33° F), and rarely goes below -10°C (14°F).
The coldest day in Reykjavík (by far) was measured on the 21st of January in 1918, -24.5°C (-12° F).
Iceland’s weather in January can notoriously be fickle. January is a reasonably wet month too. There is an average of 88 millimeters of precipitation, which will come in all forms.
You are likely to experience rain, snow, hail, wind, and maybe some sun during your January stay in Iceland.
Keep an eye on the weather forecast because storms are common in winter. Storms can bring powerful winds with them, so pay attention to weather warnings as they are there for your safety.
Therefore, you should pack wind- and waterproof clothes, plenty of thermals, and good hiking shoes.
If you are leaving Reykjavík, you will need to know what the weather is like at your destination.
You cannot change the weather, so if it affects your plans, there are plenty of things to do if the weather in Iceland in January is bad.
We recommend you only rent a car when in Iceland in January unless it is a four-wheel-drive and you have a lot of experience driving on icy roads.
Although it is not possible to hire a car with chains, it is possible to request a vehicle with studded tires.
Most car rental companies have vehicles with studded tires, but the best idea is to make a request a couple of days before your arrival.
Before every journey, you should make sure to check road conditions. It is not just inclement weather to worry about; roads can be closed by avalanches and floods.
If a particular road is marked as closed, it is not possible to traverse this route. Do not hazard closed roads as you will most likely have to be rescued, putting yourself and those that come to assist you at risk.
You might also face a fine and high towing fees, which are not covered by insurance.
There are many things to do in Iceland in January, and you can tailor any itinerary to suit your group's needs, budgets, desires, and time constraints. Below, however, are general itineraries.
Most coming to Iceland in January will feel more comfortable taking guided tours than driving themselves. It means there is no stress associated with navigating the dark, icy roads in inclement weather.
One way to eliminate all stress is to book a package deal which includes all accommodation, transfers, and tours.
A package is a great way to see as much of Iceland as possible - some even circle the whole country, allowing you to see the East Fjords, which are otherwise challenging to traverse.
The shortest amount of time you travel around the whole country is seven-days. Although if you take a more extended package, such as a twelve-day package, you will see more sites like the Snæfellsnes Peninsula.
Both of these tours will allow you to have an opportunity to explore an ice cave and hike a glacier.
You will also have ample opportunity to spot the magical auroras in the endless night sky.
You can do the same activities on a seven-day package, which takes you counter-clockwise around the country to Akureyri, where you will catch a domestic flight back to Reykjavík.
If you have less than a week, there are shorter packages that will allow you to visit certain areas without overstretching yourself.
To conclude, travelers will find a wealth of exciting winter activities and landscapes on their journey to Iceland in January despite the chilly weather. Opportunities to see the Northern Lights and many other winter-only sites abound.
With few other tourists at the best sites, a January holiday here should be an immersive, authentic Icelandic experience you will remember for years to come.
Whether you’re coming to Iceland in January to dwell nearer to Reykjavik on planning a winter wonderland trip around the whole island, we’ve got you covered. If the weather isn’t playing ball, there are plenty of things to do in Reykjavik in January, and if the weather is playing ball, the landscapes and activities will help you have the experience of a lifetime.