Last year I had the pleasure of traveling to Iceland in winter. I can honestly say Iceland is one of the most beautiful and other-worldly countries that I have ever visited. My personal point of view is that it is best to visit Iceland during the winter, when you have the opportunity to experience the Northern Lights. They are just as amazing and majestic as you’ve heard! In this post I will walk you through a four-day itinerary for a winter visit to Iceland. This is a relatively short time in this island full of so many things to do/see, but will allow you to hit a few highlights. Also, at the end of this post, you’ll find some overall tips for traveling to Iceland in winter.
Day 1 | Exploring Reykjavik and Viewing the Northern Lights
One of the best ways to get yourself acclimated to a new city (especially one in a new country) is to take a walking tour. I really like to check out free walking tour options, as the tour guides have the incentive to provide a great experience as the price for these tours is tip-based. I took the Free Walking Tour Reykjavik (History and Culture Walk) on my first day there. The tour guide was a lot of fun and provided us with interesting information on the past and the present of Iceland. This tour will take you to many of the major landmarks in the city as well. Reykjavik has a very walkable downtown area and we had no problems getting around after the tour. If you do take this tour on your visit, don’t forget to bring cash and tip generously if you enjoy it!
After an afternoon of catching up on sleep / trying to overcome jet lag, we went on a Northern Lights tour. Most tours will offer another excursion for free if the lights don’t make an appearance the evening of your tour. We didn’t see a major Northern Lights “storm” while there, but were still able to see them before the clouds rolled in and capture some cool shots. To be totally honest, we did not have a great experience with our tour guide, but here is a link to a highly-rated Northern Lights tour.
Day 2 | The Golden Circle
The Golden Circle was one of my favorite parts of our quick trip to Iceland, despite the high number of tourists you can expect to see on this excursion. For those of you who are new to this term, the Golden Circle refers to a tourist route where one will visit the Þingvellir National Park (The Mid-Atlantic Ridge runs through here!), the Gullfoss waterfall, and the geothermal area in Haukadalur, containing the geysers Geysir and Strokkur. We took the “Golden Circle Afternoon” tour booked through Get Your Guide which was just delightful.
In addition to the stops mentioned above, we also stopped at volcanic crater at Kerið Lake. In my opinion, the best part of the Golden Circle is the Gullfoss waterfall, which is completely breathtaking. Quick Tip: There is a large tourist center with a cafeteria-style restaurant and souvenir shop at the Geysir stop. This means you don’t need to bring your own food along with you, unless that’s your preference.
Day 3 | ATV Tour and the Blue Lagoon
For those of you who are a bit more adventurous, I recommend checking out an ATV tour. We took the “Mountain Safari” tour by the Safari company that provided us with amazing shots of Reykjavik while we ventured up the Hafrafell Mountain Summit. All ATV gear was provided and the ATVs even had heated handlebars!
After your ATV tour, take some time to relax in one of Iceland’s famous heated pools – The Blue Lagoon. This site is very commercialized, so if you’re not interested in spending time with a lot of tourists, you can check out one of Iceland’s many other heated pools, such as Laugardalslaug or Vesturbæjarlaug. If you do plan to visit the Blue Lagoon, I highly recommend booking your tickets at least a month in advance so that you have more time slots available (earlier times book up fast!) My friends and I booked the Comfort package on our visit, which we found to be just right for us, but if you are interested in less or more amenities, you may find the full list of packages at the Blue Lagoon website.
Day 4 | The Settlement Exhibition and Shopping
On your final day in Iceland, I recommend taking it a bit easy and hanging around Reykjavik before heading back home. One place that my friends and I really enjoyed visiting in downtown is the Settlement Exhibition. Here you can visit one of the first Icelandic settlements and learn more about the history of the island. This is a small, but interactive museum that you can visit if you’re limited on time. In downtown Reykjavik there are several souvenir shops, but keep in mind that the items are in Icelandic prices, which means they may be a bit high :). If you’re looking for something reasonably priced and unique, check out one of the different types of salt you can find in these shops. These will certainly take your cooking up a notch!
Final Tips for Traveling to Iceland in Winter
That concludes the four-day Iceland itinerary, but before you go, here are a few additional tips for traveling to Iceland in winter:
Towards the end of December / beginning of January there are points in time when the sun does not rise at all. Keep this in mind as you select the month you travel to Iceland. I traveled there in March, and the days were already back to a normal length (sunrise ~7 and sunset ~8), and was still able to see the Northern Lights
Iceland was not as cold as I thought it was going to be, with temperatures in the mid-30s (F) during the day and the mid-20s (F) during the evening in March. These temperatures are pretty consistent for the majority of winter in Iceland. For those of you living in the mid-west or north-east of the US, these temperatures are actually not too bad :). What will get you is the wind chill, which can be brutal, so pack appropriately. Check out this post for some tips!
We flew Wow Air direct from Baltimore to Iceland, for only about $400 USD. There are a lot of cheap flight options on carriers such as Wow Air or Iceland Air, so be sure to monitor flights using sites such as kayak.com or www.momondo.com for the best deal.
We stayed at this very cute AirBnB while there, which only cost us about $120 USD/night. It was in a great location – just a short 7-minute walk to downtown. I recommend staying at or very near to downtown while in Iceland if you are visiting for a short time to avoid spending too much time traveling.
*If you are a first time Airbnb user, use my link to get $40 off your first stay!*
We ate like royalty the whole time we were in Iceland – it seems that almost every restaurant is Michelin-star quality. The downside to this is that the food is also pretty expensive. It cost us about $70 USD for dinner, on average. If you are on a budget, check out the Bonus grocery store, which has great prices. Here you can pick up the essentials and make your own food, saving quite a bit of money in the process. For those of you interested in checking out a few restaurants, here are a few options that we enjoyed:
- Forétta Barrin – The “Smokey Bay” 4-course set menu is delicious!
- Tapas Barrin – Spanish Restaurant with an Icelandic flair
- Coocoo’s Nest – This place offers very hearty dishes in a place that has that hipster vibe
- Geysir Bistro – Restaurant that has really great seafood options
I hope you enjoyed this brief Iceland travel guide! Have you been to Iceland? If so, put your tips in the comments section below!