Our ultimate winter itinerary for Iceland is designed to fulfil the expectations of anyone seeking the very best Iceland has to offer. This 5-day adventure is a journey into a world of diversity, combining the comforts of a city break and the thrills of an excursion on the open road.
Daylight and Weather
Although Iceland is generally considered to be a summer destination, traveling there in wintertime has numerous atmospherical, scenic, and practical benefits.
Not only does the island transform into a magnificent winter wonderland when cloaked in its costume of frost and snow, but there is also less traffic on the highways, the crowds at popular attractions are much smaller, and of course, the northern lights in Iceland only appear in the black skies of the winter months.
In contrast to the summer days of perpetual daylight when the sun in Iceland hardly sets, the days of mid-winter contain but 4-5 hours of daylight.
Use the morning darkness to travel to your destinations and enjoy the tranquil stillness of the dark afternoons and evenings by relaxing in the best swimming pools in Reykjavík or by visiting some of the city's bars and restaurants.
Remember also that the weather is exceptionally unpredictable during the short and cold winter days. Conditions can shift from mild to extreme in the span of a few minutes and knowing how to pack for travel in Iceland, therefore, is essential to ensuring the overall quality of your journey.
Pack plenty of warm layers, waterproof hiking boots, and your winter coat, and lo and behold you are ready to go!
Day 1 - Welcome to Reykjavík
Upon your arrival at Keflavik International Airport, you collect your rental car and drive towards Reykjavik, bearing in mind the many possible dangers of driving in winter conditions where icy roads, swift winds, and poor visibility demand impeccable alertness.
This seaside drive takes you through the black lava fields of the Reykjanes peninsula, one of Iceland's most volcanically active areas, where lunar landscapes are perpetually hammered by the all-encompassing roaring surf of the North Atlantic.
Reykjavík city centerin the winter time.
After a one hour drive, you will arrive in Reykjavík. By booking your accommodation centrally you have made sure that an abundance of sights, cafés, restaurants, and activities are at your doorstep, and after checking into your lodging, the rest of the day will be well spent exploring the city by foot.
- See also the Top 10 hotels in Reykjavik
On the outskirts of Reykjavík you have a better view of the northern lights.
If the skies are clear and the northern lights forecast favorable, you have the option of experiencing the aurora borealis in the evening with a short drive to the outskirts of Reykjavík where you will be free from the glare of the city lights.
You can also spend the evening in one of the city's warm pools, before enjoying the nightlife in Reykjavík.
Don't stay up too late. Tomorrow's a big day!
- See also Top 10 things to do in Reykjavik
Day 2 - The Golden Circle
The Öxarárfoss waterfall in Þingvellir national park.
On your second day in Iceland, you explore The Golden Circle, Iceland's single most popular tourist route.
This 300 km drive takes you to the three most sought attractions in Iceland, starting with the Þingvellir (Parliamentary Fields) national park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site where you can walk through the rift valley between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates.
Þingvellir is Iceland's national shrine, not only because of the area's geological significance but also because of its historical importance. The Icelandic parliament, Alþingi, was established there in 930 AD and held its sessions there until 1799, when it was discontinued before being restored in Reykjavík in 1844.
The second stop of the Golden Circle is the magnificent valley of Haukadalur, a geothermal area of raw energy that is home to the geysers Strokkur and Geysir, as well as numerous otherworldly fumaroles, mud pots and hot springs.
Geysir's eruptions propel boiling water more than 70 metres into the air, but in recent years this ancient giant has remained mostly dormant, leaving the stage to his mighty neighbour, Strokkur, who bursts from the frosty ground every 10 minutes, spouting incredible amounts of hot water 20 meters into the cold winter air in a steaming demonstration of the earth's awesome thermal potency.
The thunderous Gullfoss waterfall in a winter costume.
Gullfoss (Golden Waterfall), is the last stop of your tour. This unbound expression of nature's unspeakable power is Iceland's most iconic natural attraction, plummeting in two tires into the great 70-meter deep Hvítá canyon where its billowing spray bestows an abyssal armor of ice on the towering cliff walls.
A footpath leads to a platform from where you can view this tremendous force of nature in all its glory, bathed in the orange hue of winter twilight.
When driving back to Reykjavik, you have the choice of visiting the scenic town of Hveragerði—known for its many greenhouses and botanical gardens, and its geothermal potency—or enjoying a delicious lobster dinner in the excellent and highly renowned seafood restaurant Fjöruborðið in the charming seaside village of Stokkseyri in the Þjórsárhraun lava field.
Day 3 - The South Coast
The third day of your journey takes you 120 km southeast of Reykjavík, where the whispering Seljalandsfoss, one of Iceland's highest waterfalls, drops with an eery but magnetic hiss over 60 meters from the cliffs above into the vast valley below.
Flowing from Seljalandsá—a glacial river that originates in the volcano glacier Eyjafjallajökull— Seljalandsfoss ranks amongst Iceland's most popular attractions.
What makes this tranquil waterfall unique, is that the shape of the cliff over which it falls allows you to walk behind the cascade, wherein a misty cavern you can watch the winter sun start its short journey across the freezing horizon.
Built in 1923, the pool is attached to the wet roots of an ancient mountain where it absorbs the natural warm water that perpetually flows from the glistening hillside.
Seljavallalaug is south Iceland's most iconic human construction, in which you can bathe in the lukewarm water, surrounded by an otherwise untouched ethereal valley of towering cliffs and rugged mountain ridges.
A short distance away is Skógafoss, one of Iceland's largest and most powerful waterfalls. With an astounding width of 25 meters, Skógafoss' 60-meter drop produces such enormous amounts of spray that a single or double rainbow is regularly seen on bright winter days.
After a close encounter with this magnificent phenomenon, you should visit the Skogar Museum, a cultural heritage foundation that features more than 15,000 regional folk craft artifacts exhibited in 6 historic buildings.
You would do well to crown the day with a guided Sólheimajökull Glacier Walk onto the glacier tongue that extends from the Mýrdalsjökull glacier and onto to the black sand expanses of the southern lowlands.
Although this excursion does not require special skills or prior experience, it allows you to explore a breathtaking ice cap that contains countless ice sculptures, water cauldrons, black rock ridges, and yawning blue crevasses.
After spending over three hours on the glacier, you head towards the neighbouring Vík í Mýrdal, Iceland's southernmost village where you enjoy a late dinner before checking in to the accommodation you have booked for a single night.
Day 4 - A Glacier Lagoon and an Ice Cave Adventure
The majestic Jöulsárlón.
You wake up early today. Ahead of you is a two-hour drive that takes you into an entrancing realm where you must cherish each moment of precious daylight.
After driving 190 kilometers east of Vík, you stand in the mighty presence of countless majestic icebergs that drift like heavy clouds on the azure blue Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon.
This is a place of ancient peace and great power, where birds come to rest, and countless seals swim undisturbed about the mountains of ice that have broken from off the Breiðamerkurjökull glacier in the north.
Jökulsárlón tours are one of Iceland's most popular travel activities, attracting great crowds during the summer months of the high season. In wintertime, however, you will be one of only a handful of people there, free to enjoy an uninterrupted moment of silence in nature's tender embrace.
At noon, it is time for you to embark on the supreme adventure of your five-day journey when a guided tour will take you from Jökulsárlón and into Vatnajökull, Europe's largest glacier.
During the summer months, subterranean meltwater rivers run through the glacier ice cap, forging an enormous underground network of glistening ice channels.
And in winter, when this glacier is finally drained of the waters of summer, an ethereal labyrinth of abyssal caves, azure tunnels, and deep blue arteries becomes accessible to man.
These Ice caves are rare phenomena. An Ice Cave Tour is a journey into the vascular system of the living icecap, a once-in-a-lifetime adventure that is sure to leave lasting memories. Note that they are only open from November to March, with a few operators starting tours in mid-October.
After you have explored the interior of Europe's largest glacier, you will be transported back to Jökulsárlón, from where you head towards your last destination of the day, an icy black sand gem that is situated south of the lagoon.
The Diamond Beach of Breiðamerkursandur.
When the icebergs of Jökulsárlón become small enough, the Jökulsá á Breiðamerkursandi glacial river eventually carries them out to sea, where they are polished to perfection in the surf before being washed onto the black sands of Breiðamerkursandur by the waves of high tide.
At dusk, horizontal streaks of pink sunlight will illuminate the ice, transforming the black sands into the glowing field known as the Diamond beach.
You spend your last moments of daylight immersed in the utterly surreal panoramic vistas, breathing in the fresh admixture of glacier and sea air, before driving through the black night back to Reykjavík.
Remember to be on the lookout, the northern lights might always appear in the winter sky above you.
Day 5 - Farewell from the Reykjanes Peninsula
On your last morning in Iceland, you pack your bags, check out and drive onto the Reykjanes Peninsula where the highly volcanic Mid-Atlantic ridge stretches from under Iceland's interior and out into the open seas.
This neck of frostbitten volcanic expanses is the open wound that marks the cleft where the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates are perpetually drifting apart.
This is today's domain, where you can pick and choose between numerous sites, equally stunning to behold.
From east to west, the whole of the peninsula is covered with black and red lava fields, explosive craters and fierce volcanos, and on its southern tip, at Sandvik, there is even a lonely footbridge over which you can walk between the two separating continents.
The relatively small area is beset with geothermal marvels such as Gunnuhver, lake Kleifarvatn and the Seltún geothermal area of Krýsuvík where bubbling mud pots, boiling pools, solfataras, fumaroles, and hot springs bestow a multicoloured hue upon the frosty soil.
- See also Reykjanes Peninsula Private Tour
After you have explored the peninsula, you should make your last stop at the Blue Lagoon, the single most popular destinations in Iceland.
Named in 2012 as one of National Geographic's “25 Wonders of the World", this geothermal spa is located in the middle of a lava field in Grindavík, a 25-minute drive away from Keflavík Airport.
The Blue Lagoon provides the perfect ending to a short but eventful winter stay in Iceland. You bathe in the warm and soothing water under the winter sky and bid farewell to this strange volcanic island of frost and snow.
May your journey home be pleasant and safe, and may we see you again on a sunny summer afternoon.
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