Iceland in winter. These words probably evoke images of an inhospitable, frozen tundra – hardly an ideal travel destination. But I explored Iceland in January and discovered winter can be a great time to visit the stunning nation. Winter weather is more temperate than most assume, and there are distinct advantages and delights to a winter holiday in Iceland.
Pros and cons of visiting Iceland in winter.
Winter Pro: Iceland is cheaper. Iceland is a pricey destination, but there are genuine bargains to be had off-season. While the costs of food, drink and activities are relatively fixed, flights and accommodations will be significantly cheaper. There will be plenty of availability in Reykjavik’s hotels and apartments (which are full and expensive in high season). I rented a wonderful apartment from Apartment K in downtown Reykjavik. For $54 a night I had a stylish one-bedroom apartment in a central location. The full kitchen allowed me to prepare inexpensive meals.
Winter Pro: See the Northern Lights! Iceland is a great place to see the dazzling Aurora Borealis (aka Northern Lights), and the best time to see them are months with full dark nights – i.e. winter. While many factors affect the elusive spectacle, winter offers the best conditions and highest probability for experiencing the Northern Lights.
Winter Pro: Iceland’s winter weather is not as harsh as you assume. According to Weather Spark, Iceland’s average daily temperatures throughout January are 28F – 36F (-2C – 2.2C), comparable to temps in Northwest Europe and Northeast U.S. (In fact, when I visited, Iceland felt warmer than the cold snap in NYC.)
Related Winter Con: Iceland’s weather in winter is quite changeable. Storms can blow in quickly. There is a high probability of some precipitation on most days (moderate rain or snow) and clear skies are relatively rare.
Winter Con: Iceland’s northern latitude means there are limited daylight hours in winter. While the hours vary by month, the sun usually does not rise until mid-morning and begins to set mid-afternoon. On tours with full-day itineraries, guides/drivers often have to rush to reach all sites while there is sufficient light. On the bright (?) side, these conditions make for cozy evenings in Reykjavik’s wonderful coffeehouses and bars.
Winter Con: Not all destinations and sites are accessible. Severe weather can lead to roads being closed, sometimes quickly and unexpectedly. For those driving in Iceland, these closures must be heeded. A local guide explained that storms can produce low (or no) visibility and extreme winds have blown vehicles from the road. Tours to Iceland’s eastern destinations are not offered in winter (including, alas, the Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon).
Winter Pro: Fewer crowds. Iceland has become a very popular destination, and many of the nation’s star attractions are sometimes packed with busloads of tour groups (particularly the sites along the “Golden Circle” and the Blue Lagoon). In winter there are far fewer crowds with which to contend. Some of Iceland’s great experiences like hiking a glacier or descending into a lava cave require special equipment and a trained guide, and these tours sell out in high season. In winter you’ll have more choice and flexibility for tours and activities. (And who knows, you might even score a discount on the price!)
Among my extraordinary experiences in Iceland, I chased the Northern Lights and explored a subterranean lava cave with Arctic Adventures, toured the South Coast and walked a glacier with Sterna Travel, and explored the Snæfellsnes Peninsula with Goecco Tours (a truly magical experience). I highly recommend them all.
While some of the tours I joined were complimentary, all opinions are my own.