What is the weather like in Iceland? Are you looking for an indoor activity to avoid the cold or rain? Your tour has been cancelled due to poor road conditions—what can you do instead? What do you do in the case of a stormy forecast? Read on to find out the best things to do in case of bad weather in Reykjavík and beyond.
There are very few things Icelanders like to talk about more about than the weather; mercifully warmed by the Gulf Stream, Iceland straddles the North Atlantic and Arctic oceans with some winds hitting the shore that have travelled great expanses of uninterrupted sea. The Icelandic Low is a system of consistent low pressure between Iceland and Greenland causing high winds and turbulent storms. Basically, there is plenty to talk about.
In Iceland, the saying goes: if you don’t like the weather, just wait five minutes. This is no exaggeration, no matter what time of the year, you could experience the whole spectrum of the barometer in one day or even a couple of hours.
Blowing in strong off of the oceans, the wind in Iceland is of an exceptional and sometimes unforgiving nature. The effect of the wind is so much felt here that Icelanders personify “him” and call him Kári which is also a popular boys name. In Norse Mythology Kári was the son of a giant and was a father himself to Frosti (frost) or Jökull (glacier) depending on which text you read.
Bad weather is ultimately subjective and will most likely be determined by where you’re coming from and what you're used to. You might think an overcast sky signals lousy weather, in which case, this article isn’t directed to you. Most things in Iceland can be seen and done in cloudy, rainy, or snowy conditions.
Definitively bad weather comes in the form of violent storms sweeping in from the coast. It’s the stormy weather that will leave you mulling over what to do as these extreme weather conditions will most likely change your plans. Common in the winter time, storms are always accompanied by aggressive winds and sometimes substantial snow drifts. Icelanders know well to listen for and heed storm forecasts responsibly; we may be used to them, but we do not underestimate their power.
Particularly bad storms will lead to travel warnings and road closures—you must heed these warnings! It can be frustrating when you cannot follow through with your plans, but the weather cannot be helped. Not to worry, here are some local tips on what you can do in horrible weather in Iceland.
The list of activities that follow will be very Reykjavík-centric. If you are caught in a storm in the countryside, the best idea is most often to bunker down for the duration of the storm. No matter the weather in Iceland, one of the best things about it is that indoors it is always warm. Geothermal heating is cheap and promises you can stay cosy no matter what is going on outside.
Curl up with your hands around a cup of something warm. Play cards if you have company or watch a movie if you have the luxury. The best thing about being warm inside during a storm listening to the wind howl and rage outside as you bask in the warmth of heated and well-insulated accommodation.
Why not meet ye olde god of wind, Kári. So long as it is safe and conditions are not so severe you might get hit by a rogue trampoline or wheelie-bin, feel the stark force of mother-nature. Wrap up warm and go stand outside, or if it’s not too bad, go for a little walk.
Beware of paths close to water since during storms waves can crash and spill over their levees. From a safe distance, it can be fascinating to watch the sea churn itself over and contort with the wind, rain or snow as they dance together. Embrace this raw force, especially safe and warm in the knowledge you have a geothermal-heated place to go back to shake off any lingering shivers.
Photo by Orkuveita Reykjavíkur
Get out into the storm whilst enjoying the relaxing leisure of a pool!
Most towns in the country will have a swimming pool or even a natural hot spring close by. You may be lucky enough to have a hot tub included in your accommodation.
Icelanders love to be in the water and in Reykjavík, there are a plethora of pools to choose from, each with their own unique character and things to offer. The pools in Iceland are very special: they are mostly outside and are heated by natural geothermal energy harnessed from under the earth. The swimming pools are lightly chlorinated and so to maintain cleanliness, all visitors are asked to shower without their swimsuit before entering.
There is nothing better in bad weather than feeling warm in the pool. You will find a lot of locals there catching up or simply lying back to unwind. Do a few laps through the wind made waves or simply sit in the hot tubs. Maybe face the wind and dare feel the spray from the precipitation and surrounding aggravated water upon your face or retire to a steam bath or sauna if your nose gets cold.
Sitting in a hot pool of water in a storm is one way of experiencing the contrasts so characteristic of Iceland in total comfort.
Grab your favourite beverage and watch the storm from a cafe or bar with the gentle hum of human activity around you. If you’re in the countryside, ask a local about the local restaurant or café and whether it will be open for an opportunity to meet the community. In very small towns, there is often a rest-stop or cafe as part of the local gas-station—ask around and get settled in.
If you are in a larger town such as Reykjavík or Akureyri, you will have a larger range of places to choose from—have a walk around and see what takes your fancy. If you are in Reykjavík, you can see a guide to the best cafes here or why not explore the bars with this guide to happy hour.
If you find yourself in Reykjavík on the weekend, bad weather or not, a visit to Kolaportið is essential. A great indoor flea market, Kolaportið offers everything from second-hand clothing to intriguing antique postcards.
Did you have hopes of acquiring an Icelandic ‘lopapeysa’, the iconic patterned woollen jumper but some souvenir shop price tags are a bit too steep? At Kolaportið you will be able to hunt through a great choice of new and used jumpers but for a much more reasonable price. You may even get to meet the person who crafted the lopapaysa, a tradition that has kept Icelanders warm for generations.
Don’t miss out on the food market to try samples of Icelandic delicacies and buy souvenirs at better prices than you’ll encounter at the airport. If you’re self-catering and fancy a taste of the sea, an excellent local tip is you can buy a kilo of shelled king prawns for only 1000 ISK. They are frozen but sit them in water for a couple of hours and they’ll be ready to eat, and they are delicious.
There is also a very reasonably priced café with quaint and often weird or gaudy maritime decorations as well as plenty of tables. If you fancy something sweet to go with your coffee, why not order kleinur which is a kind of Icelandic doughnut traditionally deep-fried in tallow (vegetarians beware!).
If you would prefer something more filling, why not try one of Iceland's most traditional dishes, kjötsupa, which translates to 'meat soup'. A hearty broth made from fatty cuts of lamb and root vegetables, this dish is guaranteed to warm you from the inside. Whatever you order, enjoy the view out of the many tall windows to appreciate your shelter from the terrible weather lashing at the glass outside.
There is a strong tradition in Iceland for not only respecting and conserving the raw natural beauty of the landscape but also for revering and remembering its rich cultural history. Museums are plentiful and even though you may be in a remote part of the country, you can still find ways to expand your knowledge and enrich your understanding of Iceland.
For example, you may have been hoping to go whale-watching from the charming town of Húsavík when your boat trip is cancelled due to poor weather conditions. You can still hope to learn about these intelligent and compelling mammals at the Húsavík Whale Museum.
The Westfjords, home to some of the most remote locations in Iceland, still boast an impressive amount of museums. For example, if you find yourself in the tiny town of Hólmavík, you can always visit the fascinating Museum of Icelandic Sorcery & Witchcraft. In Súðavík there is the Arctic Fox Centre and café, and in Bíldudalur there is The Icelandic Sea Monster Museum. It is like this all over the country so be sure wherever you are to see what is open locally.
If you find yourself in Reykjavík, here is a comprehensive list of the museums of Reykjavík.
The music scene in Iceland is huge and varied, you shouldn’t leave Iceland without experiencing it. No matter what you’re into, there is always a choice, so, find out what’s going on that evening of bad weather and roll right up.
Most concerts happen in coffee shops and bars and they rarely require an entrance fee. If you are in Reykjavík, you can always check out what is happening at Harpa concert hall which is an attraction in and by itself.
This feat of architecture is something all those who have some free time in the capital should check out. Harpa is Reykjavík's Concert and Conference Hall and it is home to the Icelandic Symphony Orchestra and office of the Icelandic Opera. You may recognise it from Black Mirror episode Crocodile which was shot in Iceland.
Harpa has won many awards and from both the outside and the inside it is clear to see why. It is a perfect place to visit in the event of bad weather: wander around and marvel at the different sized colour glass windows, built in panel structures to resemble basalt columns.
There is a café as well as a swanky restaurant should you find yourself getting peckish. It’s free to look around so take your time; just don’t take a nap or bring your own food in as this is now banned.
Why not check to see if there are any tickets available for shows. There are regular shows catered to English-speaking visitors as well as visiting artists and local colour so don't miss out!
The music scene isn’t all that is happening in bars and venues. Most evenings in Reykjavík you will be able to find some entertainment. Check out Gaukurinn, Húrra, Kíkí and Loft if you are interested in drag as the drag scene in Reykjavík is currently exploding.
There are regular comedy nights hosted by Goldengang Comedy at super-friendly dive metal bar Gaukurinn during the week as well as shows at the Secret Cellar bar most evenings. One-off shows are a frequent occurrence so check what’s going on and you won’t be disappointed.
There are often pub quizzes in English dotted around the city with regular fixtures at Lebowski Bar and Loft Hostel.
You didn’t book a trip to Iceland to go sit in a dark room but going to the movies is a favourite activity for the locals. Compared to other activities in Iceland, it is pretty cheap for a ticket and for refreshments too! If you’re in a smaller town, they sometimes have movie-nights at little pop-up ‘cinemas’.
In Reykjavík and Akureyri, you can go catch a movie at a choice of cinemas and you’re guaranteed to have a genuinely local experience. With the exception of children’s movies, nearly all films are shown in the language they are produced in, accompanied with Icelandic subtitles.
Enjoy the novel experience of having an intermission halfway through the movie and feel like you’re revisiting the golden age of cinema as you top-up on refreshments.
If you are in Reykjavík, there is an excellent art-house cinema called Bíó Paradís founded and run by Filmmakers with the aim to support and enhance film culture in Iceland. Most of the films featuring languages other than English have English subtitles. You will also get the chance to see Icelandic documentaries and shorts. There’s even a bar!
Did you find this article helpful? Have you experienced bad weather in Iceland? What did you get up to and what would you recommend? Leave your comments and any questions you may have below.