Rug Up and Fly! Why Winter is Prime Time for an Iceland Vacation

Travel tips

Kirkjufell Mountain with the Northern Lights in winter, Iceland

See why an Iceland vacation in winter makes sense, as you immerse yourself in some of Mother Nature’s finest spectacles.

As we watch Iceland’s tiny guest houses book out months in advance, see cars lined up along the side of its roads until their drivers capture that perfect geyser photo, and notice the normally unflappable Icelanders getting just a little testy, we have to ask the question:

Is it time to give the Land of Ice and Fire a rest?

We don’t mean forever, of course. We don’t even mean year round. We just mean during the summer, when an unprecedented amount of visitors now descend upon Iceland, all wanting to see Europe’s “hot, new destination.” Update! Iceland may be hotter than ever, but it hasn’t been “new” since the country’s economic woes in 2009 prompted many travellers to move Iceland off their bucket lists and onto their travel calendars. That’s quite a few years for new airlines to launch (hello WOW), word of mouth to spread, and most importantly, for Iceland’s currency to recover. Anyone hoping to do an Iceland vacation on the cheap thanks to its “weak currency” might want to check the date on their research.

Not that there aren’t ways to save (at least a little), or to avoid crowds for that matter. Summer just isn’t really the time to do it. Enter the wonderland that is Iceland in winter, when it is quite cold and quite dark, but also a lot less crowded, and almost surreally beautiful. Here are just some of the reasons you should consider switching your Iceland vacation plans to winter.

Colorful sunset in cave behind Seljalandsfoss waterfall in winter, Iceland
Colourful winter sunset at Seljalandsfoss waterfall

It Could Be Warmer Than Your Home Town

To address the elephant in the room, yes, you’ll want to layer up. Iceland’s oceanic climate, however, protects it from the kind of harsh winter that covers much of North America and Eastern Europe. Reykjavik’s coldest month, February, averages a low of around -2°C/28°F, and winter sees only a mild increase in snow or rain. You will however want to be ready for rapid weather changes throughout the day. Winter storms can descend and lift quickly throughout Iceland, so plan both your clothing and driving (if on a self-drive) accordingly. Quieter roads are your opportunity to take things slow and easy, not speed up. Still, wild as the weather can get, Iceland enjoys relatively mild temperatures year round. Even summers in Iceland rarely top 15°C/58°F.

It’s Kind of Delightful in the Dark

By far the biggest difference you’ll need to consider when going on an Iceland vacation in winter is the lack of daylight hours. Reykjavik averages just 12 hours of sunshine, total, during December, though most of this is down to cloudy days. It then doubles month on month until spring returns. Each day during winter, you might have between 4-6 hours of daylight. This obviously will affect your sightseeing and make certain highlights more difficult to reach. However, it can also bring considerable benefits. Photographers will enjoy that most magical combination of dramatic lighting and thin crowds.

One enormous benefit to visiting Iceland in winter is seeing the Northern Lights! The lights can only be seen on fully dark nights with clear skies and minimal light pollution. That’s simply not possible in between 21-hour June days. The lights can be seen through most of the year, from September to mid-April, but you’ll still need to get out of Reykjavik to enjoy them.

Northern Lights over Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon, Iceland
Northern Lights over Jokulsarlon glacier lagoon

You Can Still Reach Most of Iceland

It’s wise to consider how accessible Iceland remains when wintry weather descends on its most remote regions. A self-drive trip is still doable if you’re a skilled winter driver, but an escorted or bus tour is the best way to reach the eastern or northern coasts at this time of year. While most of the “Ring Road” is well maintained, Icelanders are probably used to more ice on their roads than you are, so having someone experienced take care of the driving can take the stress out of what can otherwise be a challenging trip. It also takes care of all the pesky scheduling adjustments you’ll need to compensate for the shorter days. With an expert on Iceland in winter along for the ride, you can focus on simply enjoying its unique sights and sensations. If you really want to self-drive, perhaps focus your sightseeing around the Golden Circle route. Hopefully you won’t need help, but if things do go wrong, it’s never far away.

Along the Icelandic Ring Road, Iceland
Along the Icelandic Ring Road

Aaaallll Byyyyy Yooouuuurseeeelf (Almost)

If you’re coming to Iceland to bask in the awesomeness of nature, nothing kills the effect faster than being surrounded by chatty, selfie-snapping fellow tourists. That’s not to say you’ll get the major sights all to yourself on an Iceland vacation in winter, particularly close to Reykjavik, but head out a little further and you’ll have a lot less competition, more time to perfect your photos, and most importantly, time to just take it all in. You’ll have more room to move in the famous Blue Lagoon as well. Don’t for a moment underestimate the invigorating effects of a hot spring dip when air temperatures are just below freezing. On a more practical front, finding a reasonably priced hotel or guest house room is easier in winter, though supply away from Reykjavik can also shrink at this time of year, as many smaller, family-run options close for the season.

Blue Lagoon during winter in Iceland
Blue Lagoon

Icelanders Know How to Relax Indoors

Iceland is a nation obsessed with culture in all its forms. It produces more published writers per capita than any other country on earth and treats them with great respect. Its music scene also ranks among Europe’s most famous (and yes, it goes way beyond Bjork). Some people thank Iceland’s remoteness and small population for its love of the arts, and its loyalty to its artists. Whatever the reason, this love of all things creative ensures you won’t be stuck for things to do when you need a respite from the cold, at least not in Reykjavik. Check out local listings for musical performances, art galleries (there are over a dozen contemporary galleries alone that deserve your attention), or even just good bar nights, all of which thrive year round in the capital.

Beautiful view of Reykjavik during winter, Iceland
Beautiful view of Reykjavik during winter

It’s Kind of Jaw-dropping

If you’re coming to Iceland for natural beauty, winter won’t disappoint. On the contrary, it’ll open up a side of the north you’ve possibly never imagined. While the rolling green hills and churning waterfalls bring some dramatic contrasts to summer, wait until you see the stark contrast between the snow-covered landscape and the inky depth of the black sand beaches, charged with holding back the frigid Atlantic. The country’s rivers still roll over its spectacular waterfalls, like vivid ribbons of blue and green cutting through the blanket of white. Nowhere does the colour blue capture Iceland’s assets better than in the blue ice caves. Exploring with a tour, you’ll truly feel as if you’ve stepped into another world, surrounded by crystalline blue formations. There are also these funny green lights in the sky after dark, or so we’re told.

Inside an icecave in Vatnajokull Glacier, Iceland
Inside an icecave in Vatnajokull Glacier

There are many destinations around the world that claim to be “year-round.” For some, like Australia and South Africa, it’s because they remain fairly consistent season to season. For a country like Iceland, however, that variety is a big part of its appeal. So, whether you’re an Iceland first-timer, or have survived the summer crowds (should they technically be called hordes, in Iceland?) on a previous trip and now want to see a different side of the country, a winter flight to Reykjavik might just be your next hot ticket. Iceland vacation crossed off the bucket list.