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If you shudder at the mere thought of Iceland in winter, you’re not alone. Volatile weather conditions, long nights and less people - winter is the low season for a reason, right? Actually… wrong! While it’s true, winter is definitely low season for Iceland tourism, there are huge benefits to travelling to Iceland during the winter months of November to March. With a little bit of know-how, some planning and knowing what to expect, a winter trip to Iceland will transport you to ‘North of the wall’ quite literally.
One of the major benefits of travelling in Iceland during the winter months are the prices. Iceland can be hugely expensive at the best of times, but making a trip during the winter months can save you as much as 50% on accommodation and car rental. Also, less people means more choice for you!
What puts most people off is the thought of freezing temperatures, endless snowstorms and hours of darkness. The reality of winter in Iceland is quite different. Thanks to the warm Gulf Stream, Iceland stays pretty temperate even in the deepest winter months. Temperatures stay around 0 degrees celsius (or 32 degrees Fahrenheit). While snow may cover almost every inch of the island, in reality Iceland isn’t that much colder than most of Europe in winter.
However, Iceland does experience rapid weather changes that has lead to the Icelandic saying, “if you don’t like the weather, wait 15 minutes.” A snowstorm can roll in with 5 minutes notice, and then be gone as quick as it came. So, always check the weather forecast and be prepared to change your plans at the last minute. Or, at least be prepared to wait 15 minutes!
The main difference is the longer hours of darkness. On the winter solstice the sun rises at 11.20 am and sets at 3.30 pm in Reykjavik. Nights are longer, but the island isn’t covered in a blanket of complete darkness. Instead, sunrises and sunsets last for a few glorious hours and a beautiful dusk light makes for some stunning photography.
The idea of Iceland shutting down for the winter is just not true. Even the gnarliest of snowstorms can’t stop an Icelander from getting on with their day. The same is true for attractions in Iceland. You’ll still have plenty to do despite the colder temperatures. In fact, some of the most bucket-list worthy experiences are only available in winter! We list the best ones for you.
Watching the Northern Lights
The epitome of Iceland experiences, the Northern Lights are only viewable during the dark winter months. Generally, the Icelandic countryside are the best places to see the Northern Lights. However, during the winter, it’s even possible to see them from Reykjavik. The Pearl (Perlan) has a great observation deck and the Grotta Lighthouse just outside the centre is also another great spot to try and see them. Make sure you set out on a clear night, free from fog or clouds and check the Aurora forecast website.
Exploring Ice Caves
One of the wonders of Iceland in winter are the incredible ice caves. Only accessible between the months of November and March, winter is your only opportunity to delve into the underbelly of a glacier and explore the blue tinted world of the ice caves. The ice caves of Vatnajokull glacier is a great place to take part in an ice cave tour in Iceland. However keep in mind that ice caving is a very popular winter activity so book well in advance.
Heating Up in the Hot Springs
Iceland is famous for geothermal activity such as volcanoes, geysers and hot springs. You can enjoy these attractions year-round, but winter is probably the best time to take advantage of a natural hot springs in Iceland. The Blue Lagoon, close to Keflavik International Airport, is probably the most famous in Iceland. Winter also brings out the truest of blues in the water, as in summer is has a tendency to turn green!
Enjoying the Winter Festivals
The merriment of the Icelandic people isn’t dampened by the cooler temperatures. Instead, winter in Iceland is a great time to experience some Icelandic hospitality in the form of festivals!
For music lovers, look no further than the Iceland Airwaves festival. Happening at the beginning of November and lasting for 4 days, the festival is a great way to sample some ethereal Icelandic music.
The Food and Fun Festival
Happening in February or March each year, the Food and Fun festival is every foodie’s dream. Some of the world’s most renowned chefs collaborate with Reykjavik restaurants for one off menus and a taste extravaganza.If you can’t make Food and Fun, be sure to try some traditional winter Iceland food such as Skata, usually served around Christmas time. Just be prepared for the strong smell!
If you’re dreaming of a white Christmas, Iceland is the place to be. Jól is the celebration of the winter solstice, on the 21st December. Christmas is then celebrated on the 24th. Wander the streets of Reykjavik to take in the merriment. On the 23rd, the main street in Reykjavik, Laugavegur (no, not the famous hiking trail), hosts carollers, choirs and brass bands while people light candles and buy last minute presents.
Celebrating New Year’s Eve
Once Christmas has come and gone, the focus shifts to New Year’s Eve celebrations. There’s an old tradition of ‘burning away’ the old year to get ready for the new. Icelanders do this in style with mesmerising firework displays and bonfires that are spread all over Reykjavik and the smaller towns of Iceland. Once the burning is done, get cosy and watch the New Year’s Jest or Áramótaskaupið - an Icelandic TV program that satirises the past year and is considered an Icelandic institution. When the clock strikes midnight, get ready to party! Reykjavik comes alive with revellers ready to bring in the new year.
Despite common belief, there’s a strong case for winter in Iceland being the best time to visit! The crowds are gone, the prices are cheaper and the temperate climate creates a stunning landscape. When you picture Iceland in your head, chances are that what you’re imagining is a winter wonderland. So, ready to visit Iceland in winter? If visiting in winter is not what you are looking for then check out the best time to visit Iceland before planning your tour.
Travelling to Iceland? Chat with a local travel specialist in Iceland who can help organize your trip.
Unnur Silfá Eyfells Travel Expert in Iceland
Auður Elísabet Jóhannsdóttir Travel Expert in Iceland
Emma Magnússon Travel Expert in Iceland