What is it like to visit Iceland in January? Is it as dark and cold as is rumoured? Where can you go, and what is there to do? Continue reading for all there is to know about Iceland in January.

January is one of Iceland’s darkest and coldest months. The sun is only out for several hours a day, the roads are icy, and the landscapes, more often than not, are covered in at least a metre of snow. With the Christmas festivities over, there is a lull in tourism, thus it is also one of the country’s quieter months.

An aerial over Iceland's wintery landscapesPhoto by Radka Valova

What this means for travellers, however, is beautiful wintery landscapes, hours a day to hunt for the northern lights, and fewer crowds at the places they want to see. Iceland in January may not be the easiest place to traverse, and inclement weather is common, but those with a little determination are sure to have an excellent, immersive winter holiday.

What to do in Iceland in January

The interior of an ice cave.

Iceland is cold, snowy and dark in January, but there are still a wealth of things to do. Multiple tours are still running, some of which are their best in the depths of winter. So long as you make the most of the light hours, you will not find yourself short of exciting experiences.

Northern Lights in Iceland in January

The dancing auroras

Those coming to Iceland any time between September and April have a decent chance of seeing the Northern Lights. Those coming in January have more opportunities than most to catch them, as there are only a few hours of sunlight a day throughout the month. The sunrise and sunset times can be seen below.

 

  Sunrise Time Sunset Time Hours of Light
January 1st 11.19 15.44 4 hrs 24 mins
January 31st 10.10 17.10 7 hrs 2 mins

 

The aurora borealis can be seen from the city of Reykjavík, but the less light pollution surrounding you, the better your experience will be. For this reason, those seeking a really good show should get out of the capital and into the nature.

The auroras over Grótta Lighthouse.

Northern Lights tours can be conducted in buses, for affordability, or by super jeep, to help you get further into the nature and reach places other vehicles can’t. From both Reykjavík and Akureyri, it is possible to take a Northern Lights Cruise and enjoy the auroras from the surface of the ocean.

It is also an option to rent a car and drive yourself out into the nature to find lights. To do this, you will need to ensure the aurora forecast is above a ‘3’, and see the cloud cover to find the places with the clearest skies. However, as is discussed below, renting a car in Iceland in January comes with risks and should only be done by those experienced driving on icy, country roads; it goes without saying that only four-wheel-drives should be rented.



Ice Caves in Iceland in January

Light piecing an ice cave.

The ice caves under Vatnajökull glacier are fast-becoming one of Iceland’s greatest lures. Their incredible, vivid colouration, rareness around the world, and location right beside features such as Skaftafell Nature Reserve and Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon mean thousands seek the opportunity to explore their depths.



The vivid blue of an ice cave.

January is right in the middle of the ice-cave season, which starts in November and ends in March. The sub-zero temperatures ensure their structural integrity, meaning they are accessible unless they have flooded.

Most tours to the ice caves leave from Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon; there are also two- and three-day packages that leave from Reykjavík, which will not only allow you to enjoy the ice caves, but also the surrounding areas and the South Coast.



Glacier Tours in Iceland in January

The dramatic surface of a glacial tonguePhoto by Radka Valova

Most glaciers are open to be hiked 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 down the South Coast, and tours run every day from Reykjavík. Those in the south-east of the country could take a tour from the Skaftafell Nature Reserve onto Svinafellsjökull, or a tour onto Vatnajökull glacier.



Snowmobilers on Langjökull glacierPhoto from The Golden Circle, Monster Truck & Snowmobiling

Snowmobiling is also a year-round activity, which qualified drivers can enjoy and everyone over six can join as a passenger. The vast majority of these tours go upon Langjökull glacier, leaving either from Gullfoss Waterfall or Reykjavík.

Snowmobiling tours can be done in a combination with many other excursions. One popular choice to visit the ice tunnels in Langjökull glacier, using your snowmobile to get there and back.



Snorkelling and Diving in Iceland in January

Silfra has unbelievable colour and visibilityPhoto from Snorkelling Silfra & Horseback Riding Tour

Snorkelling 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 snorkelling and diving tours are conducted, is a natural spring in a fissure that never freezes over, and is 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 is right between the tectonic plates and surrounded by incredible nature; at this time of year, the ravine will be lined with snow and beautiful ice formations. As it is also a spring, the water has been filtered underground for decades, meaning the visibility exceeds 100 metres.

A snorkeller, well protected by their wetsuitPhoto from Into the Blue | Silfra Snorkelling Tour from Reykjavík

Although snorkelling and diving in Silfra in January is a reasonably safe activity, you must meet the following conditions to partake.

  Drysuit Snorkel Wetsuit Snorkel Drysuit Dive
Min Age 16 16 18
Max Age 60 60 60
Min Height 145 cm 150 cm 150 cm
Min Weight 45 kg 50 kg 45 kg
Experience
needed
 Must be a swimmer   Must be a swimmer   At least 10 logged 
drysuit dives OR 
 Be a certified dry- 
suit diver 

 

A snorkeller as photographed from belowPhoto from Silfra Snorkelling Tour

These tours cannot be taken by pregnant women. 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.

It is possible to take a snorkelling or diving tour from Reykjavík. Snorkelling tours can be combined with other activities, such as caving and the Golden Circle.



Horse-riding in Iceland in January

Icelandic horses do not mind the January chill

Horse-riding is possible throughout the year, and very popular amongst locals and visitors alike. Not only will this experience allow you to see some beautiful wintery landscapes, and feel like an Icelander of old as you ride, it will introduce you to the charming breed of Icelandic horse.

This adorable creature has many unique traits. Firstly, it is popular for dressage and other equestrian sports, as they have five gaits, whereas most other breeds have just three or four. Secondly, it has been evolutionarily isolated in Iceland for over a millennium and developed a higher level of intelligence, curiosity and sociability than its counterparts around the world.

Horse rides can be taken from Reykjavík, and combined with excursions such as the Golden Circle, whale-watching, caving, and quad-biking.



Festivals in Iceland in January

Harpa on New Years Eve

Festivals occur during Iceland throughout the year, across the country. While the summer months are generally much busier, there are still exciting cultural events going on throughout January that draw many visitors.



New Year’s Eve

January in Iceland begins in the full swing of a party.

New Year’s Eve celebrations obviously 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 all off from around the city. From vantage points such as Hallgrímskirkja, the sky in all angles is filled with colour, and the festive atmosphere is infectious.

Additionally, Christmas is officially over on the 6th of January, or 'the thirteenth of Christmas', when the last of the 13 Icelandic santa clauses has left town. On that day bonfires are lit in various locations around Reykjavík and in the countryside.



Dark Music Days

In late January, the Dark Music Days festival occurs. Hosted in Harpa by the Icelandic Composers’ Society, 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.

The Reykjavík International Games

A figure skater during the games.Photo from the Reykjavík International Games Facebook Page

From January 25th to February 4th, the Reykjavík International Games occurs. 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. The events are largely held in the park Laugardalur in Reykjavík.

What to See in Iceland in January

3 days of winter wonders on this Jökulsárlón, Golden Circle, South Coast & Ice Caving with Northern Lights tour

As January is in mid-winter, many parts of Iceland are not accessible; the roads into the Highlands, for example, are entirely blocked with snow, many parts of the Westfjords cannot be reached, and the East Fjords can also be very difficult to navigate.

In spite of this, the most popular destinations, such as those on the Golden Circle, South Coast, in Iceland’s North and on the Snæfellsnes Peninsula, are still easy to reach, and particularly beautiful under their blanket of winter snow.

Golden Circle in Iceland in January

Þingvellir in winter.

Of all the attractions in Iceland, none are as popular as those on the Golden Circle trail. Þingvellir 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 centre of history in Iceland. It was here that, in 930 AD, early settlers formed what would later become the longest-running, ongoing parliament in the world.

The Geysir Geothermal Area, in Haukadalur Valley, is the second location of the Golden Circle. The heat beneath the ground here provides some beautiful contrasts; steaming fumaroles and streams break up the snowy earth, and where you can see the soil, the colours are unusual and vivid. While here, you can see the geyser Strokkur erupt multiple times.

Gullfoss, surrounded by ice

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 mesmerising to look upon.



South Coast in January

Seljalandsfoss from abovePhoto by Radka Valova

Second to the Golden Circle in terms of popular tourist routes is the South Coast. Route 1 south from Reykjavík to Höfn is lined with incredible features well worth visiting.

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 site; the latter, meanwhile, 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, and Sólheimajökull, before reaching the village of Vík.

Upon the Dyrhólaey Cliffs in Iceland in January.Photo by Radka Valova

Around Vík is some beautiful coastal scenery. You can see the Dyrhólaey cliffs and rock arch, Reynisfjara beach, and the Reynisdrangar sea-stacks; the waves are known for being unpredictable and dangerous around here, so take good care. After enjoying this area, you will then cross the vast, black-sand plains of Sólheimasandur, until finally reaching the Skaftafell Nature Reserve.

Skaftafell is an incredibly beautiful place, of lava fields and forests, glacier tongues and lagoons, rivers and waterfalls. It is especially popular with hikers, as there are routes tailored to all sorts of abilities; one of the best will take you to Svartifoss waterfall, which is renowned for the hexagonal basalt columns that surround it.

The ice of Jökulsárlón

The final main site on the South Coast is Jökulsárlón, Iceland’s most famous glacier lagoon. Watching the icebergs cruise across the lake to the sea is mesmerising; some can reach the size of multi-story buildings. When they reach the ocean, they wash upon the black sand shore, which has been named ‘the Diamond Beach’ due to the way they glitter in the surf.



The North of Iceland in January

Goðafoss in the depths of winter

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 skiing slopes in Iceland.

By driving a short distance from Akureyri, you will be able to see incredible waterfalls, such as Goðafoss and Dettifoss. 



A bubbling mud pot in the Mývatn region.

The North’s most popular destination throughout the year, however, is Lake Mývatn. This diverse region is renowned for its wide array of sites, such as the lava fortress of Dimmuborgir, the Námafjall geothermal area, Víti crater, and the pseudocraters of Skútustaðagígar.

January is a great time to come to Lake Mývatn, especially for fans of the HBO series Game of Thrones. It is in this area where many scenes are filmed, such as those north of the Wall, including the Fist of the First Men and Mance Rayder’s Wildling Camp, and you will be able to see the sites as they were shot, beneath the winter snow.



The Snæfellsnes Peninsula in Iceland in January

The Northern Lights over Buðir.

The Snæfellsnes Peninsula has developed the nickname ‘Iceland in Miniature’, as, along its ninety-kilometre stretch, there are a wealth of diverse landscapes and features. Best known of these is Snæfellsjökull glacier and volcano, made famous by Jules Verne in the novel ‘Journey to the Centre of the Earth’.

Mount Kirkjufell on the Snæfellsnes Peninsula in January

This is not the only site 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.

The Snæfellsnes Peninsula can be seen on a day tour from Reykjavík, or over two days to fully immerse yourself in it.



What to Know About Iceland in January

These cars stand as a stark reminder to either drive safe, or don't drive.Photo by Radka Valova

Although there are a wealth of things to see and do in Iceland in January, there are also a wealth of things to know. The main focus of these issues is to do with the weather.

Weather in Iceland in January

The temperature in the capital, Reykjavík, throughout January averages between 1° and -1° Celsius (between 30° and 33° Fahrenheit), though it has been measured as low as -24.5°C (-12° Fahrenheit). 

Gullfoss in Iceland in JanuaryPhoto by Radka Valova

January is a reasonably wet month; there is an average of 88 millimetres 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.

You should, therefore, pack wind and waterproof clothes, and good-quality hiking shoes. If you are leaving Reykjavík, you will need to be aware of what the weather is like at your destination

Driving in Iceland in January

As mentioned earlier, it is not recommended to rent a car when in Iceland in January, unless it is a four-wheel-drive and you have a wealth of experience driving icy roads. If you do elect to, before every journey you should check the roads website to see what the conditions will be like. It is not just inclement weather to worry about; roads can be closed by avalanches and floods.

Suggested Itinerary for Iceland in January

The wall of an ice cave

There are a wealth of things to in Iceland in January, and you can tailor any itinerary to suit the needs, budgets, desires and time constraints of your group. Below, however, are general itineraries that can be applied to any who seek to immerse themselves in the country, and do as much as the month allows.

Most coming to Iceland in January will feel more comfortable taking guided tours over driving themselves; it means there is no stress associated with navigating the dark, icy roads in inclement weather. The way to eliminate all stress is to book a package, as all accommodation, transfers and tours will be booked for you before arrival.

Goðafoss Waterfall in winter

A package is a great way to be able to see as much of Iceland as possible; some even fully encircle the country, allowing you to see the East Fjords which are otherwise difficult to traverse. The shortest amount of time you can see it all in is seven-days, although if you take a longer package, such as this twelve-day package, you will get to see more sites such as those on the Snæfellsnes Peninsula.

Both these tours will allow you to have an opportunity to explore an ice cave and hike a glacier. The same activities can be done on this seven-day package, which takes you counter-clockwise around the country to Akureyri where you will catch a domestic flight back to Reykjavík.

The incredible Diamond Beach.

Taking packages means that you will be driven through the night, and staying in country hotels. This means you will have far more opportunities to see the northern lights than those just staying in the capital.

If you have less than a week, there are shorter packages that will allow you to immerse yourself in certain areas without overstretching yourself. You can, for example, spend five days seeing the sites of the North around Mývatn, or else spend four days exploring the South with a visit to an ice cave.

Reykjavík clad in snow in January

To conclude, in spite of the chill and inclement weather, travellers will find a wealth of exciting winter activities and landscapes on their journeys to Iceland in January. With few other tourists clogging the sites, and ample opportunities to see the Northern Lights, a holiday here should be an immersive, authentic Icelandic experience you will reminisce over for life.