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What to do in Iceland during…
...the winter half of the year (late October to late April).
In late October, early November, the darker and colder half of the year is about to begin here in Iceland. The temperatures will drop to somewhere around zero (or below) and the hours of daylight are limited. (In December and January up to somewhat around 4 hours a day). In most parts of the country, the snow is setting in and with all of this adding up you might be under the impression that things to do in Iceland during winter are quite limited. Of course, you don't have a selection of – especially outdoor – adventures as wide as in summer but you still can do and see incredibly much. Plus, winter offers unique and one of a kind experiences, the Northern Lights obviously being on top of that list. To us, winter still seems to be highly underrated when it comes to tourism in Iceland. A fact we don't quite understand since we personally prefer the Icelandic winter over summer. It's basically almost half a year filled with magic. That does not just include Aurora Borealis but also the masses of snow, the ever-setting sun (and therefore day-long golden hour), how crisp and clear the air is and how cozy the days spent inside suddenly make you feel. The atmosphere in Reykjavik is something we've never experienced before and to sum it all up, we overall love the colors of the country in winter a tad more than any other time of the years (or any other place in the world, for that matter). Plus, it's low season so traveling in Iceland will be a bit budget friendly(-er) while at the same time it is less crowded – win/win! (And there are no flies at Lake Mývatn, whoop whoop!)
Before we talk activities, lets quickly dive into the winter months and their unique perks for a little:
October, for example, is golden. The days are still quite long (similar to Europe), this month is especially sunny and with the sun being so low in the sky and the country presenting itself in the colors of fall, Iceland shines in a golden glow. It literally glitters. The waterfalls (and maybe even first frost) reflect the orange sun, it's an absolutely beautiful time to visit the country. November is a little darker, you might very well experience heavy snowfall and the roads are most likely closed or closing down. Storms can be brewing and Aurora tends to be a regular guest in the night sky. December is one of the darkest months (together with the beginning of January) but it also gives you the most magical sunrises and sunsets. And snow, loads of snow. Not necessarily in Reykjavik, but certainly all over the country. January is just as amazing with its pink skies over powdery scenes. In February, we are already back up to seven hours of daylight, in March it's 10 and in April we are talking13 hours – so slowly the days are taking over the nights, again. January and February also are high season for Northern Lights. With the nights being so long and dark it's the best time to go for a hunt. (Let us give you some tips on how to best do it in our extensive Northern Lights guide.) March can be beautiful and snowy but it tends to be on the stormier site of weather.
If you enjoy gloomy and moody - then March might just be your new best friend. We personally favor April and May the least out of the months since they mostly bring rain and fog mixed up with massive hail, snowfall, harsh winds and a country in transition. Little colors, lots of clouds. It's the times of the year we stay inside, the most. To us, the best months to visit Iceland in winter would, therefore, be golden October (if you are not so keen on snow, anyway), magical December and January with their short days and golden light and snowy February that grants you longer days for your winter adventures but still provides beautiful light and a good chance to see the Lights. So, with loads of snow, most of the roads being closed down, the highlands, east -and west fjords completely out of reach and the hours of daylight being limited in mind – what actually CAN you do and see during those beautiful winter months?
List of all outdoor adventures you can possibly go on in winter
If you come to Iceland during winter you probably have one specific wish: To see the Northern Lights dance. And let us tell you – if you haven't seen it, yet, it will BLOW YOUR MIND. (It still does, even if you've seen Aurora several times, though.) Chasing the lights comes with a bit of knowledge (or extreme luck) and to equip you with all we have learned over the years we wrote an article on how to best see the magical greens float through the night sky that will (hopefully) help you plan this adventure. // Side note: if you are seeking to do something REALLY special (like engagement special) - it's also possible to go on a so-called 'Northern Lights Cruise' both from Reykjavik and Akureyri for a chance to see the lights dance directly over the ocean. Rrrrromantic!
Bathing in natural hot springs is possible all year round. You just have to be slightly better equipped than in summer. Since there are no changing facilities at those little natural wonders you will have to change your clothes in the cold and snowy scapes of Iceland. Bring a huuuge towel, some hot tea and then hop straight back into the car after your plunge – at least, that's how we do it. We advise against places you have to hike to, first and would rather opt for the spots that are close to where you can park your car. Or go for the few ones that actually come with changing facilities. (Read our Hot Spring guide to Iceland to find our fav places and spaces.)
Then there is all the fun stuff that comes with loads of snow and ice. Like glacier hiking on Solheimajökull (please rather do so in winter since the perpetual ice is already stressed enough with the climate change and shouldn't be hiked on during summer and always, always bring proper hiking shoes), ice climbing, snowmobiling and (the way more environment friendly version) dog sledding – the latter is mostly available up in the north of Iceland and in the Myvatn area but you can also do so on Langjökull glacier which is like a 2-3 hours drive from Reykjavik.
What a lot of people aren't aware of, is that you can go diving and snorkeling during the darker time of year, as well. Silfra, the ravine located in Lake Thingvellir (and known as the fissure between the continents) contains some of the clearest water on the planet – visibility up to 120m – and can very well be experienced during winter since the water temperature doesn't change throughout the year (you've guessed it, it's always freezing). You have to book a tour to do so but with the golden sun reflecting on the water and all the snow covering the surrounding landscape it must be a truly amazing adventure.
Even though a lot of roads are impassable you can still do a lot of sight-seeing. We always recommend staying in Reykjavik and go on day trips when asked how to approach a winter stay in Iceland. From there, the Golden Circle certainly is more than manageable but you can also visit Reykjanes peninsula, Snaefellsness peninsula and even the southern coast (if snow and wind allow it). If you wanna go all the way up to Jökulsárlón (which you might since the roads are open all year) then you should definitely stay the night somewhere in the area – it's a really long drive and the conditions will most likely not be the best. (You can read everything on renting a car in our 'how to rent a car in Iceland' guide and also learn more about all the winter specifics in our huge 'Iceland travel guide'). It also is possible to go up north and stay there (go counter-clockwise and take the western route to drive up, since the east fjords tend to be impassable) to explore the capital of the north, Akureyri, and the extremely beautiful Myvatn area.
You might not be able to hike the highlands, but overall, hiking is very much possible. Go for easier hikes in the area of Heiðmörk, the surroundings of Mount Keilir (or, if you are used to more advanced hikes, even the mountaintop itself), to Elliðaárdalur right in the middle of Reykjavik for a nice walk, wander along the 'Poet's Path' with beautiful Helgufoss waterfall, or explore the cliffs near Keflavik, in direction of Sandgerði. If you are looking for more of a challenge you can always try to hike Mt. Esja (and of course all other mountains that you can reach by car). Beware though: you should definitely have decent gear, crampons, and some experience when it comes to hiking in snow, icy conditions and on slippery grounds! As you can see, there are still many beautiful places your feet can take you during winter in Iceland.
Lava Caving also is an especially fun activity during winter, although it might be a little more of a challenge than in the summer months, of course. It is still worth considering since the ice of winter gives them yet another layer of magic. The most convenient tour probably is at Raufarholshellir. The lava tunnel is located only 30min away from Reykjavik and therefore a perfect winter day adventure!
Lots of people aren't really aware of this – but you can also go skiing and snowboarding in Iceland. There are a few ski resorts (like Bláfjöll close to Reykjavik or Dalvik Ski Resort and Hlíðarfjall in the greater Akureyri area or Isafjordur Ski Resort in the west fjords) and Iceland is getting more and more known for amazing backcountry slopes and ski mountaineering. And even though it might not be the downhill craziness you would find in the alps or the cat-skiing dream of Canada but where can you be on your skis (snowboard) and gaze at Northern Lights at the same time? That's right you beautiful people – in Iceland!
→ Read all about skiing and snowboarding in Iceland in this interesting article.
Another unique experience would be visiting natural ice caves (season to do so is mid November to March and you can do it in winter, only). Unless you can live with a man-made version you should definitely opt for winter to stand in one of those glittering domes and be in awe with nature. There's only a few spots in Iceland where you can see those miracles – the most famous one would be Vatnajökull glacier in the south-east part of the country.
Last but not least, Horseback riding is also possible throughout the entire year and riding through those snowy landscapes under a golden pink sky is quite special (even more so if you are extremely lucky and the sky is lit by green Northern Lights at night). There are so many tour operators that offer horseback riding in winter by now, all over the country that you can choose exactly what suits you best and is tailored to your wishes.
There is more to Iceland than just its wild nature. In winter, a lot of festivals are taking place - the most famous of them being “Iceland Airwaves” in Reykjavik in November, a music festival for independent music. In February, you might want to check out the annual Winter Lights Festival (also in Reykjavik), in March the Reykjavik Folk Festival could be of interest. The rock music festival „Aldrei fór ég suður“ is taking place beginning of April, in the small town of Ísafjörður, in March there's the Food and Fun festival in Reykjavik, which brings together international chefs to cook with Icelandic ingredients – definitely a must-do for a real foodie! If you are more on the beer side of life: there's the Reykjavik Beer Festival in February, taking place at the KEX Hostel in Reykjavik. In late April, Icelanders celebrate the first day of Summer all over the country with parades, sports events, concerts and street booths.
Then there's, of course, Christmas and New Year's Eve. We find Christmas in Iceland extremely charming. There's snow, there's cute cafés, lots of streetlights and an ice-skating rink downtown of Reykjavik. The Christmas shops are loaded with kitschy decoration for you to buy and everywhere you will hear about the 13 Christmas trolls aka 'Yule Lads' and the mean Christmas cat who eats everyone that does not receive a new piece of clothing for Christmas. You can try lots of traditional dishes and while most of them are, well not really our cup up tea, you should give some traditional Laufabrauð a go – it's delicious!!! Plus, you can go hunt those Christmas trolls all over downtown Reykjavik since during the 13 nights before Christmas each night one of the 'Yule Lads' is projected onto some wall. We caught a few during our three winters in Iceland and it's always fun to suddenly see a troll dance on some random house while you are walking to dinner. 🙂 New Year's Eve is celebrated hardcore all over the country. Icelanders are crazy about fireworks and if you happen to celebrate the start of a brand new year in beautiful Reykjavik then you are in for a colorful (and noisy) treat.
Talking dinner – you really should treat yourself to at least one fine dining experience while in Reykjavik (Iceland). Of course, you can do so all year round but it feels more special if you walk through the illuminated streets and the layers of snow to then sit down in a cozy restaurant and enjoy a high-class meal while the snowflakes dance outside the window. A great wine tastes even more delicious in winter, we promise! If you wanna know which restaurants we recommend the most then head over to our ultimate 'food guide to Iceland'.
And since we are already talking about walking the streets of Reykjavik – of course, you can explore the city in winter, as well. Especially during dawn, when the sun is slowly setting and the snow is falling, covering the streets with a white blanket, it's super fun to go for a hot chocolate, visit Hallgrimskirkja and overlook the town from the bell tower, stand at the old harbor or the big sculpture of a Viking ship (Sólfar) at the ocean and soak in the fresh air. Have a warm cinnamon bun on a crisp winter morning at Brauð & Co., roam the tiny streets downtown, visit one of the countless museums or art galleries or walk around Tjörnin, the small lake directly downtown Reykjavik. You can also ice-skate on the said lake if it is completely frozen or you take advantage of the ice-skating rink just a few hundred meters away, where there is music, food, warm drinks and glittering lights at night.
Another thing we feel should definitely be on your bucket list is renting a cabin off- grid during winter. Of course, you will absolutely need a 4x4 to get there and search through entire Airbnb for the utmost perfect stay (let us lend you a helping hand – we've already created a list with our favorite stays around the country) but trust us, it's more than worth every penny. A tiny cabin with a hot tub somewhere in the snowy wilderness will make for an unforgettable experience. Going for walks in a winter wonderland, making some traditional German 'Glühwein' along with your dinner, sitting in the warm water outside the house, watching shooting stars and, if you are super lucky, Northern Lights dance – a day (and night) to remember, that is for sure!
What to do in Iceland during…
...the summer half of the year (early May to end of September).
Just as winter is magical with its long nights and special lights, summer is just as dreamy. Incredibly long nights, midnight sun, the land presenting itself in lush greens and covered in wildflowers. Summer officially starts with the 'First Day Of Summer' a holiday filled with celebrations that is always sometime late April. Of course, the weather doesn't know that and therefore still is on the winter side of things. But in early May the snow is usually gone and not returning, the temperatures slowly rise out of the attic and the days are getting very very long. The midnight sun is to summer what the Northern Lights are to winter and will make your stay absolutely unforgettable. The best time to travel the country (summer-wise) in our opinion is from late June to August, that's when the country experiences it's 'real' summer with temperatures up to 15°C (or even up to 20°C on really good days or when visiting the North/East), 20 hour long days and nature in all its glory. What makes the summer even more appealing of course is the fact that you can actually travel the entire country, including the highlands and other extremely remote places. You will still need a 4x4 to explore those but the roads are all passable and the ring-road is manageable with whatever car you are renting.
Before we talk activities, lets quickly dive into the summer months and their unique perks, as well:
May especially, but also June, can be very mixed and you never know what weather to expect. This year's been especially bad with rain every single day of May and only three days without rain in June. It's been stormy, foggy and wet and even though we love ourselves a good old gloomy day and moody atmosphere, not being able to really go outside and explore without limits had been a drag. The days during those months are never-ending so you at least have the opportunity to make use of the nights (that's when it's usually calming down a little, weather-wise). Summer Solstice is normally June 21st and it really does not get dark. It's like a hint of dawn around midnight but then the sun starts to rise again and you lose all feeling of time. End of June and beginning of July the country is covered in Lupines and looks like an ocean of purple. That's what makes July so very special – the wildflowers, the green, the often clear skies, and sunny weather. The days are long, the temperatures comparably mild and it's the best time of year to go on outdoor adventures, camp and spend as much time as possible outside.
August is also more on the sunnier side of weather and the days start to get a little shorter, again. There are a few hours of darkness, so if you love a good night's sleep – August might just be your month. In September, we are back down to a normal length of day around 14 hours and the temperatures drop back to 10°C. It's still beautiful outside and the country not yet transitioning into a white winter. The frost starts in October, usually. Other than in the winter months there is no question what you can do in Iceland – you can do it all!
List of all outdoor adventures you can possibly go on in summer
While winter clearly rather is a time for hot spring bathing – summer is for (heated) swimming pools, as well. There are so many unique and beautiful locations all over this country where you can bathe overlooking the arctic ocean, inside a greenhouse, next to mountains, nearby a volcano, abandoned farm, sunken ship – you name it. Iceland is for swimming, as ironic as that might sound. No matter if natural or man-made, nearly every little village comes with a swimming pool. Or a hot spring. Or both. Pack your swimsuit when traveling to Iceland or you will miss out on an epic experience!
CAMP! CAMP! CAMP! Seriously, even if you usually might not be that fond of tents – get out of your comfort zone and go camping in Iceland. (If you are a camping lover we don't even have to suggest it, right?) Waking up to the beating heart of Skogafoss is most certainly a morning to remember. We wrote an entire article about camping in Iceland so if this is of interest to you then now is the time to jump over to our extensive guide on (wild) camping in Iceland.
Visit the Westman Islands. Honestly, take the ferry to Heimaey and get an idea of true wildlife and off-the-grid living. The waters around the islands are crowded with whales, puffins (in August and September you might even come across their little ones – yes friends, BABY puffins), some sharks and fish, fish, fish. The seabird life is ridiculously rich and the landscape rugged and wild. Rent a bike on a sunny day and soak in the salty ocean air – it's definitely worth the trip.
Speaking of whales – summer is the time for whale watching. Iceland didn't get the title 'whale watching center of Europe' for nothing. Over 20 different species roam the water surrounding the island, including Orcas and blue whales. If you want to go on a whale watching tour then this is what you can expect:
- starting from Reykjavik – minke whales and dolphins
- Olafsvík (or Grundafjördur) on Snaefellsnes – Orcas (especially in spring) and humpback whales (summer)
- Hólmavík in the Westfjords – Humpback whales
- Dalvík (North Iceland) – Humpback whales, as well
- starting from Akureyri – Humpback whales, especially sheltered so suitable if you get seasick, easily
- Husavík – Humpback whales but (if you are lucky) blue whales and fin whales, as well (especially in June)
There are a lot of places where you can spot and photograph puffins during summer – the Westman islands being one of them. You could also take a boat to Lundey which conveniently translates to 'puffin island' and is close to Reykjavik. If you visit the Westfjords make sure to stop by the impressive cliffs of Látrabjarg and if you travel the southern coast then Dyrhólaey is your place to be. In the east, you can take a ferry to Papey (which is worth a visit, anyway). There are more islands around Iceland that are inhabited by the cute bird so more than enough opportunities for you to hop on a boat and meet them.
Another animal you can spot in Iceland? The beautiful Arctic Fox. Those little fellas are to-die-for cute and can be found in the Westfjords, especially Hornstrandir. If you don't wanna wait around patiently to maybe spot one you can travel to the arctic fox center in Súðavík where you can meet and greet two of the furry little fellas.
Speaking of Hornstrandir: visiting the remote islands around the country is another thing you can only do during the summer months. Hornstrandir is uninhabited during winter and only accessible in May, June, and July. The nature reserve doesn't have roads or shops so if you intend to visit/hike the area makes sure to bring supplies and a tent. There is one hostel in the old doctor's house where you can find accommodation – you have to bring your own sleeping bag, though. They do have barbecues and food there and it is supposed to be an amazing stay. A similar, yet not a secluded, is Flatey. The island is very relaxed and has a nice hotel with great food, which is open from June to August. There are no cars allowed on the island so you will have to leave yours at the dock if you plan to pay Flatey a visit.
Make the most of the midnight sun! One of the great perks of the merely never-ending days is the fact that you can roam and explore no matter the time of day. And you should! Visiting the waterfalls, glaciers and more at midnight does not only make for an extremely unique atmosphere and experience, it also means that you will have a lot of those spots all to yourself. Even though everyone could do it, hardly anyone ever does. We get it – we also love a good nights sleep. But standing there in the Icelandic wilderness, all alone, under a sunlit night sky is well worth getting up early (or not even going to bed, in the first place).
While in winter most roads are closed and the highlands off-limits, summer is the time for all the incredible hikes. You can access the famous trails of Laugavegur and Fimmvörðuháls (and every other remote path) and are in for breathtaking views and scenery. We love hiking in Iceland. When we arrived three years ago we thought there wouldn't be much to explore and do in that area – oh how wrong we were. Iceland offers more trails than we could possibly ever walk. It's not just the highlands, it's the woods in the east, the fjords in the west, the coastline down south and snowy mountain tops up north. We've spent so many weekends in the lava fields of Reykjanes by now and are still not even close to having discovered all that is to see in this area, alone. We are currently working on several articles on beautiful, hidden hikes that are soon to be released – so stay tuned!
What a lot of people do not know: you can also go rock climbing in Iceland (outdoors and indoors). There are several climbs for all kinds of levels, from beginner to advanced. Sports climbing, traditional, bouldering or mountaineering – Iceland has it all.
Next to hiking and climbing, there of course is (mountain)biking. You might not have heard of Iceland as THE biking destination but you would be surprised how many people cycle around the island, how many Icelanders are taking their bikes out for weekly spins, how many great races there are and how many mountain bike trails. There are so many amazing routes to take that you will have a hard time to chose your adventure. Traveling Iceland by bike is easy and safe as long as you have the right equipment. Mix it up with some camping and you will find yourself on an unforgettable outdoor adventure. If you are looking for something more advanced, volcanic heli-biking might just be what you are looking for.
If you are a brave soul and there's no adventure too crazy for you then you might want to try swimming in the arctic waters. Yes, we've seen Icelanders plunge into the ocean and actually enjoying it. Kids playing in the lakes and having a blast. It's icy but highly refreshing. There even is a white sand beach super close to the Reykjavik airport with a hot pot area and a part of the swimming site fed with warm water. On a sunny day, this little beach called Nauthólsvík is crowded with locals. (We still thought the water was icy when we dipped our toes in. :D)
A lot of activities you can do in winter you can do in summer, as well. On top of that list would be snorkeling and diving, horseback riding and lava caving. There are so many tours and experiences offered that you will have a hard time to chose your favorite. Diving in Silfra is btw still as cold as in winter – like we mentioned before, the water temperature hardly changes throughout the year. Horseback riding through the lush greens and blossoming wildflowers is equally awesome as it is when the country is covered in snow. On one of the cute little Icelandic horses, you will see the country from a whole different angle (and pace), literally. If you want to see a lava cave then there are lots of possibilities for you during the bright half of the year. Just type 'lava cave Iceland' into your search engine and you will get tons of hits.
In August, you can roam the wild fields of Iceland and … gather blueberries! Arctic thyme, fresh rhubarb, crowberries and more can be found all over the country. Pick as much as you want and enjoy with some fresh skyr when back at the campsite (or cabin, or apartment). We always prepare tons of jam in August which we have with traditional 'Rúgbrauð' – a dark, sweet bread – during the winter months.
End of June, beginning of July, is the time of the arctic lupine. The purple flowers spread out all over the country and cover it with a blanket of color. It's a breathtaking sight and loads of fun to go for hikes during that time. It also makes for the most perfect photos! 🙂 Or the most perfect picnic scenery. Yes, friends, you read that correctly. No better place to a good old-school picnic then tucked away somewhere in the lava fields or at some rugged cliffs by the ocean. Bring a nice snack (maybe some fresh blueberries) and a blanket and make sure to double check the weather forecast in the morning!). And as always: leave no trash behind and don't sit on the delicate moss.
In summer, there are also some ocean activities that are hard to find during winter. Number one would be arctic surfing. You can, of course, do it in wintertime, as well. When the waves are massive due to the storms and the Northern Lights dancing through the night (let's just think of Chris Burkard's 'Under an Arctic Sky' here) but it is for the very advanced cold water surfer, only. There are more tours and courses offered during the summer season, mainly by the operators 'Adventure Vikings' and 'Arctic Surfers' – both also offer Stand Up Paddling in the most breathtaking locations (even during midnight sun).
There also are several operators for (sea) kayaking in Iceland. You can book a tour of the ocean, rivers, lakes and even the glacier lagoon. Most are only offering tours during summer so this adventure is limited to the bright half of the year.
Last but not least would be playing a round of Disc Golf. Like us, when we got introduced to it, you might not yet have heard of this mix between golf and Frisbee. Equipped with a Frisbee you walk a course that, instead of holes, has baskets you try to hit with your Frisbee. It became super popular amongst Icelanders and you can find courses almost everywhere where there's a bigger town on the island – even in the remote east. (Of course, you can also opt for regular golf, which is available all over the country and in the craziest locations, imaginable.)
All those things we wrote down for winter you can easily do in summer, as well (minus Christmas and New Years, obviously). But renting a cabin off the grid is just as much fun when you can barbecue outside, go for long (midnight) walks or sit in the hot pot after a day filled with adventure. You can explore Reykjavik, enjoy a fine dine experience or visit museums and galleries. The summer half is filled with amazing festivals, so no shortness on that kind of fun, either. What festivals are there that you should definitely know about?
The Westman Islands Music Festival “Þjóðhátíð” - first weekend of August – is four days filled with singing, dancing, drinking, camping, bonfires, fireworks and tons of local artists (big names included). It's the fav festival of the Icelanders and you will meet mainly locals there. Another huge music festival is the Secret Solstice in June that takes place at (you guessed it) summer solstice and brings together an international crowd and artists. For both those festivals, tickets must be bought in advance!! Other important celebrations, for example, are the Icelandic Independence Day on 17th of June, the Reykjavik Gay Pride, Reykjavik Cultural Night, Reykjavik International Film Festival, the International Viking Festival or the Suzuki Midnight Run.
So what else is there to do when the sun never sets and the temperatures are finally rising? ICE CREAM! Icelanders love ice cream and you will find amazing stores everywhere. You can try cool new varieties like licorice or try some fresh from the farm (at Erpsstaðir in the north-west, for example). You will see that most Icelanders spend their summer outside – the cafés, bar, and restaurants are filled with laughter, the beach is crowded, the hills are roamed, the mountains climbed. Of course, you might still experience some storm or rain so it's always good to have plan B at hand. (Like exploring the big cities and cute little towns, sitting down for a cool beer or a warm traditional meal.) If you should be unlucky and catch a really shitty day then you can always find a hot pot to relax in (or go gift shopping, if worse comes the worse).
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