Top Ten Winter Activities in Iceland
Updated: Dec 20, 2019
Some people might shy away from a winter trip to Iceland. But this is actually quite a wonderful time to visit the land of fire and ice. You will get to see the island quite literally in its element. Glittering ice, starlight and snow create some incredible nighttime scenes. And when the colours of the Northern Lights are dancing across the sky the effect is otherworldly.
Icelandic winters are long. But the Icelandic people know how to enjoy these colder winter months. There are all sorts of winter activities to enjoy. From getting out and about in the elements to staying snug indoors. We do have a couple of recommendations for stormy days in our winter bucket list. But the immense beauty of Iceland’s landscapes is sure to call you out into the cold. Here are our top ten winter activities in Iceland. So wrap up warm and embrace the beauty and exhilaration of a real winter.
Hunting the Northern Lights
Seeing the Northern Lights in Iceland is the ultimate winter experience. These magical dancing lights are unpredictable though. So it is very much down to luck whether you will manage to hunt them down or not. There are lots of things that you can do to up your chances of seeing them though.
The Aurora Borealis is a natural phenomenon caused by tiny particles interacting with solar wind. They appear on dark but clear nights and are best observed far away from any light pollution. You can sometimes see them from Reykjavik but the colours are far more vivid with less light in the sky. This means that the best places to see them are deep in the countryside.
There are regular Northern Lights tours that you could easily join. But if you are hiring a camper then you can easily go in search of them independently. If you are camping in one of the National Park campsites then you will already be well placed.
Exploring ice caves and glaciers
The winter wonderland of Iceland is epitomised by its glaciers. The mesmerising beauty of ice in its many forms can be truly breath taking. Hiking across a glacier surface you will get a real sense of the power and magnitude of these slow flowing ice giants. There are ice hiking tours of varying levels to enjoy from easy guided walks to more challenging explorations. For those who like to push themselves an ice-climbing excursion will get the heart rate up. So suit up with crampons and ice axe and conquer that ice face.
One of the ultimate winter experiences has to be exploring the incredible ice caves in Iceland. Stepping into these sculpted tunnels and caves is like entering another world. The deep blues of the ice and the reflections and play of the light are mesmerising. All of these icy endeavours must be undertaken as guided tours. You’ll need a local expert to guide you safely through. Ice cave tours are available at the Langjökull and Vatnajökull glaciers.
Skiing and snowboarding in Iceland
Iceland is not well known for its ski slopes but there are actually several. They are on a much smaller scale to places like the Alps or the Rockies. The mountains in Iceland top out at about 1000m. But there is plenty of snow and so many beautiful views to enjoy as you carve.
Snow sports are actually pretty popular in the country. Especially so in the north where you will find the majority of the ski slopes. It is really easy to base yourself in the capital of the north Akureyri. From there you can head on a day trip to the nearby ski resorts. There are several within a 20-minute drive of each other. So if you hire a camper van or car then you can comfortably move between resorts in a day.
There is also a small ski resort within a short hop of Reykjavik. This one is floodlit at night so city workers will often cruise a few slopes after the office. It is sometimes possible to see the Northern Lights from here too. Visit our article all about skiing in Iceland for more information.
South Coast Road Trips
Hiring a campervan and heading off on a road trip is a great way to experience Iceland in winter. As long as you come prepared and keep a watchful eye on the weather reports it is entirely doable. Depending on how much time you have it is best to stick to shorter routes though. One of our all-time favourites is the Ring Road drive along Iceland’s South Coast.
This is a fantastically varied road trip but all within pretty easy reach of Reykjavik. Ideally, you would take three or four days to explore the sights. But you could do it a little faster if you are short on time. The route takes you past the incredible Seljalandsfoss Waterfall then on to the town of Vik. This is a great place to park up your camper for the night. From there you can explore the nearby black sand beaches. Also within a short drive from here you will find the Vatnajökull National Park and the Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon.
There are lots of manageable day hikes to enjoy around Iceland. As long as you have reasonably settled weather and a sturdy pair of walking boots that is. Of course the days are short in winter but there’s nothing to stop you getting a good four-hour hike in. You will just need to be organised and make sure that you start early and are back well before nightfall.
Winter hiking reveals the immense beauty of the snowy landscapes of Iceland. From far off mountains to fluttering snowflakes the walking pace lets you admire it all. Visit our article all about hiking in Iceland for specific walking routes and ideas.
Soaking in hot springs
One of the top winter activities in Iceland has to be soaking in its thermal hot springs. This is an activity that pairs very well with winter hiking and sightseeing. Soaking tired and chilly limbs in the healing thermal waters just feels amazing. Hot springs and thermal swimming pools are very much a part of life in Iceland. So you will find them pretty much everywhere. From the Blue Lagoon to a local swimming pool there will be somewhere to soak away the winter chill.
This is a fun one. Get behind the wheel of a snow mobile and zip off across the snowy landscape. Pick up the pace and visit the winter wonderland of Iceland in all its glory. There are guided day tours that take you to visit glaciers, frozen waterfalls and snowfields. One for the big kids and petrol heads out there.
Icelandic horse riding
This is another great way to get out into the landscape and enjoy the magic of winter. Icelandic Horses are a very particular breed and one of the favourite animals in Iceland. They are quite short and sturdy with a particularly friendly nature. Kids and adults alike will enjoy guided tours into the countryside on horseback.
Camping the Golden Circle
The Golden Circle is the classic sightseeing route in Iceland and it is an absolute must-see. The three main sights are the Pingvellir National Park, Gullfoss waterfall and the geothermal area in Haukadalur. In winter it makes for a great short camping and road trip. You could drive it in a day quite easily but it makes sense to take longer about it in winter. The campground at the Pingvellir National Park is open year round and is a great place to stay a night. You’ll be able to enjoy some hiking here and will also be well placed to see the Northern Lights.
Museums and galleries
Icelandic travel doesn’t all have to be about the great outdoors. There are a wealth of excellent museums and galleries to discover. If a storm is raging outdoors or just feel like some time indoors then why not get cultural?
Reykjavik has many of the biggest and best museums and galleries in Iceland. From fascinating historical exhibitions to contemporary art galleries and everything in between. If you are in the capital for a few days then you might consider investing in a Reykjavik City Card. This card includes entrance to many of the city’s best galleries and museums. It also covers bus travel, entrance to several hot spring pools and offers on restaurants and shows. There is all sorts of indoor fun to be had!