Perhaps the best time to visit Iceland is not when you must wear three layers of thermal underwear in order to keep warm, but I prefer to think it’s the absolute best time to see Iceland in its true form. Iceland in winter was not a typical choice for us.
I’m generally disinclined to vacation in cold weather. But when prices are low and crowds are even lower, who am I to pass it up. Thus, we overstuffed our backpacks with gloves, hats, scarves and aforementioned thermal underwear, and we set off on an Icelandic adventure.
You’re probably thinking that visiting Iceland in winter is pretty dreary and restrictive, and you are definitely right. You can’t go everywhere you probably want to go. The roads are icy and sometimes impassable. The waterfalls might even be iced over, but if you’re willing to explore a colder, icier version of Iceland, then you’ll love it. Not only are tours and hotels less full in winter, you’ll surely find a fantastic deal on airfare.
Don’t worry, we have some fantastic recommendations for cold weather gear for you. If you’re planning at trip to Iceland in winter, you should definitely take a look. You’re going to need it!
Booking Flights and Finding Deals
Prices for flights to Iceland in winter can be astoundingly low (a mere $480 for a direct flight from Seattle and the norm is almost twice that much), as can hotel rates, and there are all manner of pre-packaged trips to be had this time of year. Plus, as I mentioned, the crowds are much smaller than during warmer months. The combination of all of these things led to a very satisfying trip. It’s really a no-brainer to travel during the shoulder season.
I found that most flights are of the red-eye variety and land very early in the morning in Reykjavik, which leaves you with a couple of options. We chose to go straight to our hotel because we wanted to change into warmer clothes, drop off our suitcases, get some breakfast and spend the first day exploring the city. Another popular choice is to go directly to the Blue Lagoon for a few hours of soaking, since you often can’t check in to your room that early. We were just too tired upon arrive to really enjoy the Blue Lagoon, so we opted to hit it up on the way back to the airport. That worked out much better for us.
Check sites like Expedia and Skyscanner (Compare prices on flights with Skyscanner) for deals, which are generally very easy to find to Iceland in winter. I’d recommend starting to look around November and keep your eye on the deals until something you like comes up. We also found some great deals on Groupon and Living Social.
Where to Stay in Reykjavik
When visiting Iceland in winter, the best option for where to stay is Reykjavik. You can easily get there via bus transfer from the airport and you won’t need a car. You can hop on tours from the city with ease, and you can walk everywhere you need to go.
We stayed at Hotel Odinsve, which is located in a quiet, yet very convenient location within close proximity to everything the typical tourist would wanted. We found ourselves patting our own backs for making such a wise hotel decision. There was the somewhat overpowering sulfur odor from the bathroom to contend with, but since Iceland is primarily heated by geothermal, we assumed we’d deal with that no matter where we’d stayed. The room and bathroom were cozy, but comfortable and clean, which is of upmost importance. I’m somewhat picky about hotel rooms. Downstairs at the hotel is a nice French restaurant called Snaps that was doing some very brisk business while we were there. Call ahead for reservations (that goes for all the other restaurants in the city, as well).
Another great option in Reykjavik is the Icelandair Hotel Reykjavik Marina. It’s in a completely different location than Hotel Odinsve, close to the marina. If you want to be near the shops and restaurants at the lower part of town, this is the place to stay. The rooms are comfortable and the communal areas are nice.
What to Eat & Drink in Iceland
The food in Iceland holds many surprises and adventures for the typical American who has never tried such exotic delicacies as minke whale, puffin, reindeer or langoustine. We were in foodie heaven in Reykjavik. I don’t think I’ve encountered so many incredible eating options in such a small radius before. We were bummed that we didn’t have more time to partake. (Read more about food & drink experiences in Iceland).
Our first foodie stop was SÆGREIFINN (Seabarin) where we indulged in the local’s favorite lobster soup and a skewer of monk fish. Both were delicious and warmed us right up for the next foodventure – the famous Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur hotdog with “the works”. The “works” simply means ketchup, mustard, onions and a special roumalade with relish. It sounds pretty awesome. Even Bill Clinton stopped by for a dog once (and his picture is hanging proudly at the stand). Also the line at the stand was winding down the road at 11am. But, sadly, I didn’t really see what all the fuss was about. I mean, it was okay. The dog did have a nice snap to it. But the best hotdog in Europe?
For dinner, we had an early reservation at Grillmarkadurinn (Grill Market). I am still thinking about that dinner, and that’s a pretty remarkable statement. Hands down the best bread and butter service ever. You can see from the picture that our camera even thought the bread out-shined the trio of reindeer, langoustine and whale sliders we ordered as an appetizer.
They have a chef’s tasting menu, as most places in town do, which looked pretty amazing, but we had our sights set on specific menu items so we went a la carte. For our main courses, we chose the Tenderloin of Horse (which I realize some people may be upset by – but being that we were in a different country and had never had the occasion to try horse before, we had to embrace the moment; you only live once), and Grilled Lobster with champagne sauce.
I’d also suggest hitting up Icelandic Fish & Chips in the marina area for lunch. They have some of the crunchiest, tastiest fish options, along with a dozen or so dipping sauces for your chips.
If you’re into beer, make a stop at MicroBar, inside the Center Hotel, which supports local breweries and offers the largest selection of unique, imported beer choices in Reykjavik. We got a taster board of all the current tap offerings and enjoyed them all very much.
Next stop was Tapas Barinn for a late-afternoon snack. After looking at the menu, we wished we could order a dozen items. I would highly recommend this place. It’s tiny inside, and it gets packed immediately upon opening, but it’s definitely worth it to try small amounts of such unique and delicious Icelandic dishes.
My favorite dinner was at Fridrik V. I made the reservation about a month in advance, since I learned they were the top pick on TripAdvisor. It’s a small family-owned restaurant focusing on fresh and local Icelandic ingredients and they make sure you know exactly where those ingredients come from as you’re eating. They offer a three- or five-course surprise menu with non-alcoholic, beer or wine pairings.
We chose five courses with wine and were very pleased with the offerings. Also dining there that night was a local tomato farmer’s family, so the showcase that farmer’s product, they were serving a shot of tomato soup in a tiny soda bottle. The rest of the courses we enjoyed as well, particularly the cappaccino glass of Mushroom Bisque. Delicious.
What to do in Iceland in Winter
It is true that you can’t get around to all the awesome things that Iceland has to offer in the winter, but you can still do quite a bit. If you’ve based yourself in Reykjavik, tours and excursions are an easy way to see as much as possible without having to drive yourself around.
Check out Expedia’s list of tours and adventures near Reykjavik for ideas.
This natural phenomenon of electrically charged particles from the sun entering the earth’s atmosphere is said to be at its peak from September to March and is coming off an 11-year peak of activity in 2013. We were intent on seeing the lights, and braved the subzero temperatures for over 5 hours for the privilege.
We took a tour with Iceland Adventures. The tour isn’t much for comforts. They basically drop you off in the middle of nowhere with 200 other overly eager loonies and you stand with your face in the wind for hours at a time, staring up at what may or may not be a very faint glimpse of the elusive Aurora Borealis. If you’re serious about getting a good glimpse at the Northern Lights, I suggest taking a very good camera and time-lapsing it. What you can see with the naked eye is not as impressive as you may hope.
When we arrived back at our drop off spot, a few blocks away from our hotel, at 2am, we stepped off the bus into the darkness and were greeted with an honest-to-goodness flash of green across the sky that lasted for a good 30 seconds before disappearing into the clouds. So after paying $100 each to stand outside looking at nothing for 5 hours, we got our only true sighting of the lights for free.
Golden Circle Tour
With only three hours of sleep, the next day we set off on a Golden Circle tour around the southern part of the island with a company called BusTravel. While this is a really touristy thing to do, and would be better done at your own pace in a rental car, it was a good way to get a peak at some of Iceland’s natural wonders without having to drive in blizzard-like conditions.
The tour included stops at the Gullfoss waterfall, Geysir geothermal area and Thingvellir National Park, where the American and Eurasian tectonic plates are pulling apart at a rate of a few centimetres per year. We were so lucky to be out on a day with 50 mile per hour winds. At times we weren’t sure we’d be able to push our own body weight back to the bus.
I would suggest adding a trip to the Blue Lagoon to your trip to or from the airport. On our last day in Reykjavik, we stopped off at the Blue Lagoon on the way back to the airport. Since we weren’t flying out until 5pm, we had all day to enjoy the facility. As part of our pre-booked arrangements, BusTravel picked us up at 9am for our transfer. We arrived an hour later at the Blue Lagoon and were very glad, once again, that we are light packers. There was a giant line to check your larger suitcases at the main gate, which we avoided.
We arrived right at opening, so there were no many people when we got in. We went with the lowest-priced entry ticket, which was 35 Euros and didn’t include any extras, and we found that to be the best choice. Other options include a drink, a mud treatment, a robe and towel. You don’t really need the slippers and robe, as you’re just coming and going from the water to the locker room (unless you choose to have lunch in your robe), and the towels were all the same color, so yours would quickly get lost in the sea of other towels hanging on the racks. We brought our own towels from home and saved 30 Euros in the process.
I’d read a lot of discussion about the need to shower naked before going into the blue lagoon and how they didn’t offer privacy for that shower. I’m not one of those who’s terrified to shower naked with strangers, so it didn’t bother me, but I also found that there were plenty of private stalls to shower in and if you didn’t want to, you didn’t have to share your nakedness with others. It was more important to me that everyone was showering first anyway. They also provide conditioner for your hair that you can leave in while you’re in the Blue Lagoon to counter the effects of the sulphur. I put my hair up in a bun and did what I could to keep it out of the water and I didn’t have any need for the extra conditioning. If you stand under the waterfall or dunk your head a bunch, it might become necessary.
We wandered around the vast pool experiencing the different heat levels of the water, tried on the mud mask that they offer for free out of boxes around the water’s edge, slurped up a yogurt smoothie, and when we found ourselves becoming too pruny, we decided we’d had enough soaking and went for some lunch at Lava Restaurant, the more expensive of the food options that are available on location. It was worth the extra expense. The Blue Cafe serves plastic-wrapped sandwiches and other quick picks, but it felt more like a lunchroom cafeteria. Lava was not only much nicer, less frantic crowds, it was also quite delicious. We had our last dish of lamb and a delicious cod. Then we bid adieu to Iceland and made our way back to the airport.
Iceland can be a very rewarding place to visit in the winter, as long as you’re prepared for the cold. I wouldn’t hesitate to book a trip to Reykjavik in the winter months. It’s a fun city, no matter when you go!