10 tips for traveling to Iceland in the winter

We modestly assert that this list is based on our own experiences while staying in Reykjavik for 7 days during the winter. 

For a detailed journal and itinerary of our trip, click here for part 1 (our first 3 days), and here for part 2 (our last 4 days).

Our trip dates: December 23, 2015 – December 30, 2015

1. Rent a car with four-wheel drive

We will preface this by saying we are from Minnesota, and very confident in our driving abilities through snow and ice. But if visiting Iceland during the winter, we still recommend splurging on a car with four-wheel drive.

We had read online that it wasn’t necessary, but those bloggers must not have traveled a month after one of Iceland’s biggest snowstorms. The biggest thing to realize is that the weather is very unpredictable, and you are very limited with daylight.

During our stay, it rained and snowed quite a bit, and the road conditions were bad at times. I remember thinking to myself I was very happy we decided on the four-wheel drive while we were driving back from a day trip in the middle of Iceland at 5pm while it was snowing, in pure darkness. I’m not saying it’s impossible without it, but if you can swing it, better safe than sorry.

2. Check the forecast

If you are taking day trips in your own car, base them on the weather. By checking the forecast, you’ll save yourselves the time and money spent traveling to beautiful spots just to get caught in the rain and snow. We suggest spending days with poor weather in the city where you can hop shops and eat and drink all day!

3. Know when the sun will rise and set

The sun barely makes an appearance during the mid-winter months, especially if you visit during December, where there are only about 4 hours of daylight. In general, the rising and setting of the sun are long lasting.

On our visit in late December, we saw the sky starting to light around 9:30am, and the evening light was fully gone by 5:00pm. Technically, the sun didn’t fully rise until about 11:15am and it set at about 3:30pm. As such, plan to drive during those rising and setting hours so when you arrive at your destinations, you have daylight to see the sights. Be deliberate about planning ahead and keeping time when taking day trips, as you might feel like you are racing against the sun.

You can see the exact times of the sunrise and sunset in Iceland here.

4. Wear warm clothes

This is of course a no-brainer, but one of the most important items of clothing to bring that you might forget is a neck warmer or a scarf. The wind can be brutal, so being able to cover up your neck and face at times is necessary.

Bring waterproof boots (it can get very wet around the waterfalls!), snow/wind pants, and of course, your mittens and hats.

If you are lucky, there will be times (even during the winter) where jeans and a nice wool sweater will suffice. Depending on where you are from, it actually doesn’t get that cold in Iceland as it’s located in the path of the warm Gulf Stream. We are from Minnesota and it can be significantly colder than Iceland during the winter months.

5. Look for the Northern Lights!

Unfortunately, we’ve been to Iceland three times now without seeing the Northern Lights, but from what I’ve heard, they actually do exist, and you are more likely to see them during the dark winter months. If you are staying in Reykjavik, one of the best places to see the Northern Lights is from the Grótta Island Lighthouse just west of the city.

There is also a Northern Lights forecast that you can find here. There is a 0-9 scale that represents the chance of spotting them. The highest we ever saw was a 3. Good luck.

6. Find a hot spring

The perfect contrast to visiting Iceland in the winter is to take a dip in a hot spring (or swimming pool/hot tub – there are plenty around the city and nearby towns).

If you are taking a day trip to south Iceland, you must take the time to find Seljavallalaug Pool. It’s a man made, but naturally heated pool located near the base of Eyjafjallajökull volcano in between Seljalandsfoss waterfall and Skogafoss waterfall. (The main image at the top of this page is Seljavallalaug Pool.)

7. Buy groceries

If traveling during Christmas, buy groceries to tide you over. Though not everything is closed, many shops and cafes are closed at some point during Christmas Eve and Christmas. Christmas eve is a big night for Icelanders.

We found that many grocery stores were closing in the afternoon so we purchased food for the evening. Because we took a day trip on Christmas day, we cannot say for sure what was open and closed in the city. However, on our drive through the country, many stores and gas stations were closed, except for the pumps. Buy food for the road if you’re taking a day trip!

8. Pick up the Reykjavik Grapevine

Pick up this newspaper in Reykjavik if and when you see one (numerous cafes, museums, or shops). It’s a local newspaper guide to life, travel and entertainment in Iceland. It’s printed in English and provides anything from political journalism to tips on where to see art and live music, eat food, and drink. It’s good to know what’s going on in Reykjavik when you have limited daylight!

9. Find a happy hour

Food and drinks are seriously expensive (around $10 USD for the cheapest pint, $10-15 for the cheapest wine), and you might find yourself looking for a bar or restaurant earlier than normal since it gets dark so early. But while food is generally not on the happy hour menu, booze is, and we are now talking about a $6 pint or glass of wine.

The Grapevine provides a long list of places to grab happy hour. Alternatively, download the “Reykjavik Appy Hour” app (Yes, I spelled that correctly). It’s an app to find happy hours in the city. But be careful: ask your bartender which beer or wine is on happy hour, as it’s usually just a few options.

10. Find a cafe

Cozy up in one of the many cafes in Reykjavik. Our favorite, Stofan Cafe, is a full service coffee shop that also sells beer and wine (and they have a happy hour). Most, if not all cafes, will have access to wireless internet.

A general statement for any time of the year: Do not buy bottled water. Not only will you look like a fool to the locals, you’ll be missing out on drinking some of the purest water in the world. Bring a reusable bottle or two—fill them up at your hotel, AirBNB, cafe, wherever. The cold water does not taste or smell like sulfur, don’t worry.

If there are any questions or comments, feel free to leave a message below, or contact us here.

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