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? 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, more often than not, are covered in a metre of snow.
Christmas festivities are also quickly coming to a close, giving way to a lull in tourism, effectively making it one of Iceland's quietest months.
Photo by Radka Valova
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 common, but those with a little determination are sure to have an excellent winter holiday.
Iceland is cold, snowy, and dark in January, but there's still a wealth of things to do.
Multiple tours are still running, some of which are best in the depths of winter, such as a visit to one of Iceland’s Ice Caves and, of course, the Northern Lights.
As long as you make the most of the light hours, you won't find yourself short of exciting experiences.
Those coming to Iceland any time 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 hours of sunlight. The sunrise and sunset times can be seen below.
The aurora borealis can frequently be seen 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 a really good show should get out of the capital and into nature, such as the relatively nearby area of Thingvellir National Park.
Northern Lights tours can be conducted in buses, for affordability, or by super jeep, to help get you further into the countryside and reach places other vehicles can't.
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.
To do this, you will need to ensure the aurora forecast is above a ‘3’, and check cloud cover to find the places with the clearest skies.
Renting a car in Iceland in January does come with risks and should only be undertaken by confident drivers experienced on icy, country roads.
It goes without saying that only four-wheel-drive vehicles should be used 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 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 Cave’s change every year due to the continuous movement of glaciers. This means that no two visits are the same, and sometimes you might be lucky enough to see more than one on a tour. So make sure to come back!
There are also two-day packages 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.
Photo by Radka Valova
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.
The vast majority of these tours go upon Langjökull glacier, leaving either from Gullfoss Waterfall or Reykjavík.
Snowmobiling tours can be combined 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.
Snowmobiling, like almost all activities in Iceland, 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.
Photo 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. 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.
At this time of year, the ravine will be lined with snow and beautiful ice sculptures 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 metres.
Although snorkelling 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, 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).
Festivals occur 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 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 off all over the city.
From vantage points such as Hallgrímskirkja, the sky is completely filled with colour, and the festive atmosphere is infectious. You’ll struggle to find a more exciting New Years 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 in the countryside and any leftover fireworks are ignited in celebration.
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.
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 largely 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.
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.
The most popular destinations, however, 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 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 stop on a trip around the Golden Circle.
There, steaming fumaroles and streams break up the snowy earth, and the soil wears unusual and vivid colours. 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 mesmerising 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, 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, Sólheimajökull glacier and Sólheimasandur before reaching the village of Vík.
Photo by Radka Valova
Around the charming town of Vík, there 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 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, which is renowned for the hexagonal basalt columns that surround 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 mesmerising; some can reach the size of multi-story buildings.
When they reach the ocean, they wash up on the black-sand shore, which has been 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.
This diverse region is renowned for its wide array of sites, such as the lava fortress Dimmuborgir, the Námafjall geothermal area, Víti crater, and the craters of Skútustaðagígar.
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 a wealth of 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.
The second best-known attraction of these is Snæfellsjökull glacier and volcano, made famous by Jules Verne in the novel ‘Journey to the Centre of the Earth’.
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.
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.
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).
Photo by Radka Valova
Iceland’s weather in January can notoriously be fickle. January is a reasonably wet month too. 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.
Keep an eye on the weather forecast because storms are common in winter. Storms can bring with them incredibly strong winds so pay attention to weather warnings as they are there for your safety.
You should, therefore, pack wind- and waterproof clothes, plenty of thermals and good hiking shoes.
If you are leaving Reykjavík, you will need to be aware of 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.
It is not recommended to 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 car with studded tires.
Most car rental companies have vehicles with studded tyres, but the best idea is to make a request a couple of days before your arrival.
It's also wise to read up on the driving etiquette of Iceland which is quite particularly due to the huge variation in terrain.
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 is not covered by insurance.
There are a wealth of things to do 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.
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 difficult to traverse.
The shortest amount of time you travel around the whole country is seven-days. Although if you take a longer package, such as a twelve-day package, you will get to 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.
The same activities can be done 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.
You can, for example, spend five days seeing the sites around Mývatn, or else spend four days exploring the South with a visit to an ice cave.
To conclude, in spite of the chilly weather, travellers will find a wealth of exciting winter activities and landscapes on their journey to Iceland in January. 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 to have the experience of a lifetime.