Iceland Winter Guide
There are a TON of Iceland guides online, but we haven’t seen many guides for the winter months. So my wife wrote most of this (she is a better writer) with a few add-ins by me.
1. Cramp-Ons are a must in the winter. People without them slip and slide all over the place, breaking cameras/phones/limbs. "Should I go over there?" Also, certain places, especially near the waterfalls and (Geysir) are impossible to get to without them.
2. If you have read any Iceland guide, you have heard you need to buy alcohol at the airport. It is extremely expensive anywhere else, and liquor stores have unusual hours. Also, bottled water is unnecessary, just bring a Hydroflask or S'well bottle, the tap water is very good.
3. If you have to ask yourself or your travel partner, "Think I can drive through that?" The answer is no.
4. Get gas when you can. You never know when the next opportunity will be.
5. Timing and patience. Try to get to the spots you want to see most early or late. Places crowd up quickly. If you do get somewhere and it's crowded, just wait it (mostly the busses) out for a bit, you will get some breaks in the crowd.
6. Chip cards with a PIN are a MUST!
7. Stay at Volcano Hotel.
8. Aside from the free/included breakfasts, try not to eat at hotels. This can be hard especially when the weather is horrendous, but hotel meals are 3 to 4 times as expensive as roadside stops or gas stations. The one exception was Hotel Skogafoss.
9. Showers- The showers in Iceland are minimal. Usually just a shower head with a drain in the bathroom. There was often no shampoo/soap/conditioner provided so bring travel sizes along.
10. Aurora Hunting- If you are hitting Iceland in the winter and NOT doing this, you are making a BIG mistake. Hotels will tell you they have wake-up calls and to be fair, they do, but the staff is not concerned with keeping an eye out for you. The Icelandic Met Office has a great aurora forecasting tool, and it will also tell you the cloud cover for your area. One night we went searching and found them right near our hotel and when we got back mentioned it to the night clerk who then called guests. But by that time the best part of the show was over. If you think you see an early stage aurora, take a long exposure shot, and you will be able to see it clearer. If you were right, camp out and wait for the show. Our first night was the best show, and the forecast was at a 1. If you are coming to see the Northern Lights, look every night regardless of the forecast. It will be worth it.
11. Tech Gear- Cameras, extra batteries, car chargers. Bring it all. You never know when you will need to pull over. You WILL shoot more than you think. This saved us almost every day. You drive a lot so being able to charge while driving is invaluable. We also got one of these for when we were settled, so we didn't have to carry around a ton of different chargers. Double and triple check your gear.
12. Swimming- Bring a towel and a swimsuit in your day pack. There will be hot springs along the journey with no attendants or rentals. Be prepared.
13. If you have a carrier unlocked phone or the money to buy one before you go, do so and buy a local sim card at the airport with a data plan. It was invaluable for us, whether it was googling what to do/where to eat or for easy GPS.
14. Hand warmers - for your phone, the cold weather will make your phone shut off early and often.
15. If you are traveling to different hotels every night, leave the bulk of your stuff in the car, it’s a lot quicker to get up and go the next day.
We landed at Keflavik Airport around 5:00 am. We grabbed our bags, purchased alcohol and a sim card for the phone and headed out the doors. The rental car service was a short walk from the airport, just a couple minutes(in snow). We rented a car and GPS which turned out to be useless(because we couldn’t spell anything right) so we used the iPhone. Our first stop was at one of the chain gas stations for breakfast (red bull and bacon wrapped hot dogs). If you like hot dogs, they are everywhere, and inexpensive compared to most other things.
After that, we headed to Thingvellir National Park. It was still pitch black out and about 25 minutes into the drive we thought we saw some faint auroras. We pulled over at the first place we could and hopped out of the car to take a few photos. Although what we saw were not auroras, but clouds reflecting the upcoming sunrise. We got back in the car, excited after our first real taste of Iceland. We started the car, drove forward about 10 feet and stopped moving. We were stuck. Just as we were about to pick up the phone and call the company that gave us the car about a half hour ago, a tour vehicle (Moonwalker Tours) pulled up and towed us out in a matter of seconds. He refused to take anything in exchange and said it happens all the time.
Following that hiccup, we continued to Thingvellir and thepulled inright around sunrise. We parked and walked around the park for a few miles, completely in awe of Iceland. Little did we know we hadn't seen anything yet. We walked along Almannagjá canyon which was formed between two tectonic plates. Divers often praise this canyon. The water is so clear you can see to the floor of the canyon.
Once the park started filling up, we headed to Geysir. It wasn't really let down, but perhaps it was not what we had hoped for. When you pull up, there is a huge welcome center with a ton of people. Initially, it reminded us of a ski lodge, but there was also a very touristy store. It was very commercialized, and a completely different experience from Thingvellir. It's the only place (aside from The Blue Lagoon but more on that later) where we felt that way. When we go back to Iceland, this is one of few places that we would probably not go to the second time(unless it was very early/late to avoid crowds).
Gullfoss was the next stop and also extremely crowded. It was very windy and cold, and it started to snow, so we didn’t stay long. However, it was pretty remarkable to see such a powerful waterfall almost completely frozen over, and we would like to see it again in the summer.
We made our trip back towards Fludir, our hotel for the first night. Once on the main road, we got out first of many encounters with Icelandic horses. They are all very calm and will approach you as you walk up to the fence to take photos.
After the horses, we made our way to the not so secret, Secret Lagoon also known as Gamla Laguin. After a long day, it was the perfect ending. You can rent towels and swimwear and also buy beer and wine. We showered and changed in the locker rooms. You are required to shower fully nude.
The walk from the changing room was freezing but worth it for the just below hot tub temp warm water. There was a faint hint of sulfur in the air, a smell we grew to love in Iceland. Just be cautious of rocks jutting out in the lagoon when wading through as you can injure a shin.
After the lagoon, we headed to the hotel. A little jet lagged and having traveled through the previous night- we napped for a couple of hours and then went to dinner in the hotel. A general rule i Iceland is, do not eat at the hotels, but it was a romantic setting and the first night of our honeymoon, so it was worth the splurge.
After dinner, we got in the car and drove around to take some star photos. After we got back to the room and started editing photos, we noticed faint auroras in our photos. Just to be safe, we opened the door in our room that led to the courtyard area to look at the sky and sure enough, right over the hotel- big, bright green auroras. Emily cried. We immediately got dressed and got back in the car spent a few hours driving the area, enjoying the lights and taking photos.
It was unreal. We knew we would be heartbroken if we missed them on our trip, but getting such a good show on the first night allowed us to relax the rest of the trip. (Although we were lucky enough to see them a few more times anyway!)
We had so much adrenaline we barely slept after we got back. After some vodka, we managed to sneak in a couple of hours.
We were up before the sunrise. We paid for breakfast when we booked our reservation, so we ate in the hotel after we woke up. It was standard European breakfast: toast, cheese, meats, hard boiled eggs, yogurt. Also a self-serve waffle maker, but be careful; we made a slight (read huge) mess trying to use it. Our hotel was conveniently across from a gas station, so we fueled up before heading out.
Next, we hit the road for Skalholt Church. The drive was beautiful The sun was rising on our way out, beautiful pinks and blues. The church was open to the public. There was an honor system for souvenirs and an upstairs tour. I think this works because it's Iceland and it's a church. You can't break the honor system in a church. Just as we were leaving the sun finished rising. We took some landscape photos before heading to the next stop: Seljalandsfoss.
To be totally honest we actually thought the Seljavallalaug hot spring was on the way, but while we were driving we looked to our left and said: "WHAT IS THAT BEAUTIFUL WATERFALL RIGHT OFF THE ROAD?" It turns out it was Sejalandsfoss! It was crowded, but like anywhere in Iceland, patience is key. Wait out the crowds for the brief periods of solitude. We managed to get some really great photos. Also, it should be noted, this was the first place we put on our Cramp-Ons, and I know we were glad we did. People were slipping and sliding all over the place.
If you keep walking past the waterfall, with the cliff on your right, eventually you will get to the "Secret Waterfall” or Gljúfurárfoss. (It turns out you can also drive here, about 1/8th of a mile past the entrance of Seljalandsfoss) This was one of our favorite places in Iceland. You can actually walk inside (bring a watershot, waterproof phone/camera, you get soaked!) and only a few people go inside, so it's almost like having a little piece of magic all to yourself for a moment. Just watch your step, and the water is obviously very, very cold.
After Sejalandfoss we went to Seljavallalaug hot pool (The pool was originally built to teach Icelanders how to swim in the early 20th century).
We read somewhere that it's a short walk from the lot, but it was a good 15-minute hike which, in the shade of the winter got quite cold. We didn't bring our swimsuits to warm up in the spring, andwe regretted it. There is a little locker room, with no attendants, just a place for you to change in and out of swimwear. There were a handful of people there (one group of 4 or 5) although it is probably much more crowded in peak months. While we were there, it felt quite secluded and much more secret than the "secret lagoon." This definitely had something to do with having to hike through the snow in February.
Next, we went to check-in at the Skogafoss hotel. Pulling up we saw the falls were packed, knowing we would have it to ourselves early in the morning, we didn't feel the need to fight the crowds just yet. We grabbed a quick snack and coffee in the hotel's cafe and headed to the Sólheimasandur Plane Crash.
The site itself is a couple of miles from where you park, total the walk was just under 5 miles, round trip. The walk itself is pretty trippy. The landscape is so vast that you really cannot tell if you're making any progress. People don't seem to become closer or farther away. In the winter, everything is stark white, and your view never seems to change. It's a surreal experience.
Honestly, tourists have ruined some of the majesty of this place; a lot of litter, people relieving themselves. But, like other places, just be patient wait for the down times and make the best of the in between moments.
The walk back was just as surreal, and we were starving. Luckily for us, the food at the hotel was delicious, and unlike most of the other hotels it was reasonably priced. We had a few different soups there over the course of our trip, and they were the perfect comfort meals.
Once we ate, we went to take night shots of Skogafoss. It was nice and quiet, mostly uninterrupted. We also attempted to hunt down some aurora but there were none to be had that night, so we took some star photos and then tried to get a full night of sleep.
We woke up after our first real night of sleep in three days, feeling refreshed. We immediately loaded up the car, ate a quick hotel breakfast, and went to look at Skogafoss before the crowds. We were able to get up really close and hike to the top with only a few people around. The hike to the top is lined with stairs, but after the snowfall and ice accumulation, the stairs were not all that helpful, in fact, it was easier on the legs to just climb the hill (don’t forget your camera memory card when you scale the hill).
As we were getting in the car to head to our next stops, the crowds were starting to pour in. If you have to ask "Think I can drive through that?" The answer is "no". Long story short, we almost got stuck in a small pond.
After our second hiccup, we hit the road and took a roughly 30-minute drive to Vik and Dyrholaey Beach. The beach was pretty remarkable. There were a good amount of people but plenty of varied vistas and areas to find moments of solitude. If the tide is low, walk down to the shoreline, there are some caves you can sneak into at low tide, and hardly anyone was down there.
Unfortunately, the road to the lighthouse was blocked off presumably because of road conditions, so we drove to Reynisfjara beach instead. We spent a little bit of time wandering and taking photos, this beach was far more crowded than Dyrholaey, and the waves came in very quickly soaking many unsuspecting tourists, but luckily we managed to head for our next hotel dry. This is also where the famous basalt columns are, however, we could not get to the lower part because it was high tide at the time.
After Reynisfjara, we took a short drive to check-in at what remains, one of our favorite hotels, the Volcano Hotel. The views from our room were our of this world. It was very small, super modern, and very private. There were only a few rooms to the entire hotel. STAY HERE and ask for a road/ocean facing the room.
Before dinner, we went to photograph the sunset at Dyrholaey beach. It was one of the best sunsets we had ever seen. There were lots of photographers out, but plenty of room for everyone.
After that, we headed back to the hotel to eat. The hotel serves a prix-fixe meal every evening, but we did not get back in time, so we went to eat at Skogafoss Hotel again(20 min drive). We got some cheap soup and bread which ended up being just what we needed after a long cold day. It was also convenient because we wanted a few more night shots of Skogafoss with less cloud cover. In looking at our photos, we saw some faint auroras, so we knew to be on the lookout that night.
We headed back to the hotel, to get some rest and wait for the lights to come out that night. Sure enough, they did, and for the third time that day we headed to Dyrholaey beach. There was no one there. We spent a few hours out there, drinking beers, listening to music, taking photos and just dancing under the auroras. It was perfect.
After waking up to our insane Volcano Hotel views, we grabbed the best hotel breakfast of the trip in the dining room. While checking out, we realized that Emily did not have her wallet. After several minutes of panic, we decided to drive to where we had been dancing in the road by the beach. Sure enough right after turning onto the road, we see it lying there, untouched. Crisis averted!
Most of our morning was spent heading east towards Skaftafell National Park. This was the most desolate we had seen the country yet. We drove miles at a time without seeing any signs of civilization; the roads were icy but manageable. We stopped plenty along the way to take photos of massive glaciers, mountains, and unusual landscapes.
We bundled up when we got to the park because we knew snow was in the immediate forecast. About 1/4 of the way into the hike up to Svartifoss, we were removing layers. It got hot, very quickly. When we arrived at the falls, it began to snow. Perhaps because of the weather, there were very few people at the falls. For the most part, we had it to ourselves for a while. The white snow with the black falls was a really calming, peaceful experience. Again, in the summer the crowds may be different.
Remembering the rule on fueling the car, we saw a sign for a gas station a few miles in the opposite direction of our hotel and decided to go for it. The station turned out to also be a diner. We got some delicious burgers before the snow really came barreling down and headed to the hotel.
Although we were concerned about the snow, there were a few stops a long the way far too tempting to pass up. Especially Nupsstadur. By this point, the weather was pretty horrid, but it was only a short walk to the town, and we had the whole place to ourselves.
We then head to our hotel for the next two nights (a first), Fosshotel Nupar. Unfortunately, the roads were too covered by this point to take the 30-minute drive to a restaurant. We had to eat the buffet dinner. Although delicious, ended up being 50$ a person. It was a chunk of change we had not anticipated on spending.
We made the best of it, and we bought an overpriced bottle of champagne and kept it chilled in the snow pile outside of our hotel room door. We spent the night staying warm, taking occasional trips out into the snow to see some faint auroras, editing photos, and journaling. It was a low key night but needed after the last few days.
We woke up early to get breakfast at the hotel and hit the road for Jokulsarlon. The drive was a little over an hour. We should have known from the drive out that it was going to be a rough day for driving, but it was well worth it in the end.
On the way out we saw several cars off of the road, some seemed just to be resting; and others clearly skidded off into snow banks. The moral of the story is, DRIVE SLOW. Seriously. There is so little traffic, if people want to pass you, let them. Leave early, take your time.
When we arrived, parking was a disaster, partially because of the heavy snow and partially because of the crowds. We were incredibly lucky and managed to get one of the last spots. Leave and arrive early to avoid this.
We were scheduled for an ice cave tour and met our guide in the cafe. He was a young, hilarious guy. He drove us out to the caves in a huge, lifted van(custom built in Reykjavik). The ride was... bumpy to say the least. But, it was all part of the experience. There were some Japanese tourists on our tour who were somehow sleeping even has their heads hit the roof of the van from bumps.
When we arrived, we were given helmets and taken into the cave. It turns out our guide was the one who actually digs out the entrances to those particular caves. Due to the seasonal and seismic changes in the glaciers, the caves and their entrances are constantly moving, and he's the man that digs them out, sometimes up to six meters a day. He finds them by following the rivers; he can read the rivers and determine where the caves are.
We were told before heading in that the farther back you go into the cave, the less oxygen there is. We decided to immediately beeline for the back of the cave and work our way forward to avoid crowds and oxygen disparities. Our strategy paid off; there were at least two "rooms" of the cave that we got to ourselves which made for great photo ops. We also didn't feel out of breath or light headed at any point. When we got out of the caves the snow started coming down, it was just a white out, and we could barely see the vans we arrived in.
By the time we arrived back at the lagoon, the snow was almost 12 inches high. The road to the other side of the lagoon (Diamond Beach) was closed and walking in would have taken too long. The light was fading, and the roads were getting worse. We even saw a whole tour bus tip over.
We decided to walk around on the side we were on instead. We saw lots of seals, and beautiful landscapes. And although one of the biggest bummers is that we didn't see Diamond Beach, we made it back to the hotel safely when we did leave. It was 2.5-3 hours on the way back as opposed to our 1.5-hour drive in. When we got back, we were exhausted and went to bed as soon as we got to our rooms.
On day six we started our venture back west, towards Reykjavik. Our next hotel was the Iceland Air hotel in Vik. Which when planning, we decided would be a good place to stop so we didn't have to do the full 3.5-hour drive back to Reykjavik in one shot. It turns out, there was not a whole lot to see in Vik that we had not seen on our way west. So, we decided to head back to Seljalandsfoss to take some more photos. The sun was setting so we got great light. Wild pictures of the falls with the moon in the background. We also got to go back into the Secret Waterfall which was one of our favorite parts of the trip.
On the way back to Vik, We stopped at a roadside restaurant called Gamla Fjosid. It was super cozy and almost exactly what you would picture from a countryside Icelandic dinner. We had a steak, vegetable special and some ice cream. All of the food was very good and just what we needed. After dinner, we headed back to Vik and got a good night's rest.
We woke up, packed up and decided to ride some Icelandic horses on the black sand beach before heading back to Reykjavik. Emily notoriously terrified of horses, so this was a big deal, even if they were smaller horses. It was an amazing experience, riding through the snow/hail on a black sand beach to the slow sunrise and crashing waves.
Going back to Reykjavik was bittersweet. We were excited to finally have clean clothes and some civilization, but pulling in we both felt a little anxiety. It was the first time we had been in traffic or even seen more than a few dozen people at a time.
We got lucky and found perfect parking for our Airbnb. Once we got into the Airbnb and the world was a little quieter we were both feeling more comfortable. We brought pretty much 4-5 sets of clothes each and had been alternating between two since we were living out of our suitcase. We showered and then hit the streets to check out the city.
Reykjavik was full of amazing street art. We went to three or four record shops, including the famous 12 Tonar which did not disappoint. There were 4 or so setups to listen to albums and discover some really rad Icelandic music. The owner made guests coffee and answered all their questions, even making solid Icelandic recommendations based off some of your favorite bands. If you want to support Icelandic music culture while finding something you genuinely love, this is the spot to go. We also checked out the harbor and Harpa and got a real feel for the city.
For dinner, we went to the much talked about Baejarins hot dog stand that, it was a great, cheap meal that we got to enjoy on the city streets. Definitely worth the pit stop.
We walked to a liquor store to stock up for the weekend, only to discover they close at six on SATURDAYS. Take note people, buy early. Booze in the bars isn’t cheap. However, after a long week on the road, we splurged. AKA drank our weight in local liquor at a bar called Boston. There was free wifi, and our bartender was also the owner, from the Faroe Islands(maye a future trip). We decided after a bit that we needed to call it a night since we had to wake up before dawn to make it to our whale watching trip.
We woke up around 5:30 am and hit the road for the Snæfellsnes Peninsula for our whale watching tour. There were other whale watching tours in Reykjavik, but this was supposedly our best shot at seeing Orca. The drive was beautiful, getting to see the sunrise over the ocean and various glacier lakes. Upon arrival, we were given full body suits to put on over our clothes. These were a godsend, even with them we couldn't feel our fingers or toes. We were told that there were no whales the day before so a little nervous we boarded the boat with reasonable expectations. Within 10 minutes we saw our first Orca. We ended up seeing around 10 Orca on the trip. Some would follow along with the boat or even toy with the boat. The excitement was palpable. All of the guests were excited and wanted to take photos. The captain did an excellent job of making sure every section of the boat got to interact with the whales. When it came to an end, we all got hot chocolate to warm up as we headed back towards the dock, which also gave us an amazing view of Kirkjufell.
We decided to make a small detour on the way back to Reykjavik and stop by the Budir black church. It was stunning with the contrast of the all white surroundings. The area surrounding the church is coastal, rolling hills, close to the ocean.
When we got back to Reykjavik, we got dressed up. Which for our trip meant clean clothes. Jeans and sweaters. And we went to a very nice, romantic dinner. It was the last day of our honeymoon, and it also happened to be Valentine's day, so we lived a little. We took our time and ate a few courses at Sjavargrillid, which was recommended to us by a friend. It did not disappoint. After dinner, we decided to take one last ditch effort at seeing the Aurora before we had to leave the next day, so we headed to the Grotta Lighthouse. We were able to catch some faint lights, which was a great end to our last night in Iceland. The city was pretty quiet, and it was a romantic last evening.
We woke up, made breakfast in the Airbnb and had planned all along on going to the Instagram famed Blue Lagoon on the way back to the airport. When we were looking up details that morning, we learned that you need a reservation. It gets booked WEEKS in advance at very steep prices. With little time to do much else, we decided to head out there anyway just to see if someone canceled or there was an opening.
When we arrived, we were immediately overwhelmed. It had a Disneyland crowd type feel to it; there was nothing tranquil or relaxing about it. We saw the line and the buses and buses of people and decided to forego the madness and just explore the grounds surrounding it. You can still see the cool blue water outside, and around it, it just isn’t warm. Again if you want to go, book very early, but if you don’t like giant crowds, I don’t recommend going.
On the way to the airport, it started to rain. The rain began to clear the snow on the ground, and for the first time in our nine days, we were able to see the green moss landscapes Iceland is famous for. It was the perfect ending to our trip, a sneak peak at what the magical island will look on our next visit, in the warmer months.