Iceland houses gorgeous scenery, what with miles of black sand beaches, endless expanses of Atlantic Ocean waves, stretches of volcanic-warmed hot springs, wild horses roaming around the mountainous terrain, and the legendary puffins to start. While marveling at the scenery in this European country occupies a fair proportion of time, you might wonder how to fill your itinerary with visits to standout attractions.
Things To Do in Iceland in Winter
The best things to do in Iceland combine the mystical scenery with outstanding activities found nowhere else. Visiting the country during the winter months may evoke trepidation due to the low temperatures, but the number of offerings during these few months makes up for the biting weather.
1. Catch the Northern Lights
Chasing the Northern Lights is a bucket list staple, maybe even an obsession, for most travelers. But, traveling to a location where the light fixture dances is only half of the journey. Once you arrive in Alaska, Maine, Norway, or, in this case, the Land of Fire and Ice, you must monitor the forecast for the perfect glimpse of aurora borealis. The light fixture (a dazzling amalgamation of energized particles, meets the Earth’s crust in a whimsical light show comprised of ethereal cerulean, bursts of lavender, and strokes of seafoam green) illuminates quiet, cold, and dark environments.
Iceland’s chapter of Aurora Borealis invites visitors from September through April for a once-in-a-lifetime showcase. Numerous tours guide Northern Lights chasers around Europe, departing from Reykjavik between 8 PM and 9 PM for optimal viewing hours. Tours depart out of Reykjavik’s Old Harbour for nautical tours and designated bus pickups before whisking you away to a dark, unobstructed view of the Icelandic Sky. Spotting the lights is never guaranteed, yet tours usually refund or allow you to rebook if you do not witness the wondrous show.
2. Zipline in Vik
Zipliners and guides conjoin at a plaza hosting a soup restaurant, a live lava show, and the buses that transport you to the designated zipline destination. Guides gear you up with a safety helmet and a harness while instructing you on the rudimentary skills needed for the rope-slide journey. Once comfortable, the guides and group board the shuttle, journeying toward the mountain. To access the zipline tracks, you have to walk a few minutes into the mountains, which requires a moderate agility level until you arrive at the first zipline, Little Rush, a 394-foot zip from one cliff to the next.
The second zipline jets you 787 feet between immense mountains and over glorious streams, painting a postcard-esque experience as you catapult on the wire. Following the initial zip lines, the group traverses through the mountains to an overlook of the Grafargil (Grave) Canyon and a surprise zipline aptly entitled The Leap of Faith. Though this line is the shortest of all four, at 98 feet, the title applies to the quest. On the final zipline, Big Rush, riders race above a jaw-dropping waterfall for 459 feet, entrancing zippers on their final line.
3. Relax in the Blue Lagoon
Geothermal springs occur due to Mother Nature’s wonders, but the Blue Lagoon is not one of those natural bodies of water. The manufactured hot spring pulls from natural resources to simulate an authentic experience with elevated amenities to attract millions of tourists annually. The Blue Lagoon filters in hot water from the Reykjanes Peninsula (a group of volcanoes) near the lagoon, providing a massive heated pool for visitors to soak in.
According to the Blue Lagoon’s Website, the water forms 6,562 feet beneath the Earth’s surface, exiting the crust, enriched with silica, algae, and minerals. The mineral-infused water heals skin by replenishing and moisturizing the epidermis, evoking a smooth gloss, yet your hair may grow brittle after a dip in the Blue Lagoon. Silica reacts with hair by absorbing excess moisture and drying out your hair. Aside from the healing properties associated with the hot spring, the Blue Lagoon offers in-water massages to further advance healing and restoration to your body, face masks, and float therapy for those looking to dive deeper into relaxation.
4. Embark on a Glacier Tour
One of the best things to do in Iceland is witness a front-row seat to one of Earth’s most glorious creations with a glacier tour. Various tours begin the journey on foot, snowmobiles, or jeeps for safe (and sturdy) expeditions across these monolithic ice formations. Glacier Adventure, a tour company specializing in tours of Vatnajökull, Europe’s largest glacier, takes 12 participants equipped with crampons, harnesses, ice axes, and helmets to the ice mass for an unforgettable trek.
Assemblies of 12 people meet with their tour guides in the Southeast Iceland island, Hali. From there, the group gathers into a jeep, speeding toward Vatnajökull for an unparalleled hike over the glacier. Glacier Adventure Tours seeks to provide distinctive memories for travelers while educating them about the effects of climate change on glaciers.
5. Go Ice Caving
A couple of glacier tours combine a cruise over the glacier with an ice cave outing due to ice caves carving themselves inside glaciers. When glaciers begin melting, the warm water creates channels within the ice, leading to gorges and crevices for light to infiltrate. These openings freeze over in the winter, permitting people to waltz through safely. Arctic Adventures, a tour company devoted to winter activities such as ice cave tours, advertises a venture into the “Bluest Ice Cave in Iceland” within the Vatnajökull glacier. Groups of 14 traipse through the channels and tunnels, marveling at the light beaming in through minute holes etched in the ice and snug ice walls adorning the cavern.
6. Walk Down Reynisfjara Beach
What kind of beach are you used to? One with miles of white sand, seagulls bobbing in the water far on the horizon, and clear water lapping at the shore, asking any interested swimmer to plunge in the warm water? That is the opposite of Reynisfjara Beach’s setting. The black sand beach attributes its black granules to its volcanic environment. As a volcano erupts, the lava collides with the water in a cataclysmic reaction, creating minuscule pieces of basalt rock, lava, and other dark rocks.
Looming basalt towers pepper the beach, stretching deep into the Atlantic. According to Guide to Iceland, the basalt structures, or Reynisdrangar, have deep origins in folklore. Legend says that before the rock fixtures solidified into basalt, they were trolls trying to motion ships to shore. Another tale positions the trolls as nefarious, crime-obsessed creatures frozen for their wrongdoings. Today, the frozen trolls serve as landing spots for puffins.
Take caution when visiting Reynisfjara. Heavy winds translate to violent waves that claim lives each year. Prioritize safety by remaining a hundred or so feet away from the monstrous shore, and avoid turning your back toward the Atlantic. Never visit this beach alone.
7. Witness the Strokkur Geyser
Three main attractions appeal to tourists embarking on the Golden Circle Drive: Thingvellir National Park, Gullfoss Waterfall, and the Strokkur Geyser. Strokkur erupts between six and twelve times every hour, each explosion launching between 50 and 130 feet. Strokkur resides in Haukadalur Valley, a geothermal field containing a couple of geysers in southern Iceland; Strokkur is the most active geyser. Multiple miniature geysers and an inactive one, Geysir, dot the field. Variegated ground circles the geysers, extracting hues from sulfur, copper, and iron, and fragments of ground break away from the geysers’ focal point, emphasizing the power and beauty of the Earth.
8. Board a Whale-Watching Boat
Have you ever yearned to watch a whale fluke in its natural environment or catch a dolphin surfacing up close? Southwestern Icelandic whale-watching tours leave port from Reykjavik’s Old Harbour for chance sightings of smaller whales, dolphins, and porpoises all year. Northern Icelandic whale watching tours take off from a port in Dalvic, a northern Iceland village, for chance sightings of larger species: humpback whales, orcas, blue whales, and minke whales from April to October.
Whale-watching boat tours last between 2.5 and 3.5 hours as they navigate away from the port and farther into Faxaflói Bay, hoping to encounter marine mammals. Under covered conditions, these tours permit guests to remain inside to watch the marine life in a heated environment. Individuals daring to brace the icy breeze for a closer, in-depth gaze at the whales can step outside the heated compartment, but ensure you bring warm layers.
9. Ski or Snowboard
Exploring novel places and diving into the culture and history of the country excites most travelers, yet sometimes, you just want to lay back and enjoy the same activities you adore at home. For skiers and snowboarders, Iceland provides fabulous outlets for the winter sports. Over ten ski resorts populate the European country, captivating skiers and snowboarders of all backgrounds. Ski resorts here are nowhere near the enormous North American resorts with hundreds of trails, but many ski resorts in Iceland have backcountry options and plenty of natural snow, something not all American resorts can promise.
Popular ski resorts include Bláfjöll, Hlíðarfjall – Akureyri, and Skálafell. Fewer people ski in Iceland than, say, the Swiss Alps, allowing participants a less crowded venue to focus on craft and hone skills. Daring skiers who grow bored or tired of traditional ski resorts can check out heli-skiing, a thrilling helicopter excursion that transports you to the peak of an ungroomed mountain for pure, powdery perfection.
10. Watch the Gullfoss Waterfall
Two waterfalls branch out of the Gullfoss Waterfall. The first cascade maxes out at 36 feet, and the main attraction hits 69 feet, with both streams meeting at the rift below the falls for a 1.6-mile run. The gushing water’s speed dwindles during winter, fashioning icy spots over the cascades. The spectacular sight entertains countless visitors with wisps of rainbows reverberating off the cascades and snow piling on top of the waterfalls.
11. Snorkel in Thingvellir National Park
Plunge into piercing water in Thingvellir National Park to gaze into the Silfra Fissure, a middle space between two tectonic plates, the North American and the Eurasian Plates. Thrust between these two plates, you’ll swim through two continents at once, gracing you with endless bragging rights and a foray into the mysticism prevalent throughout all of Iceland (locals refer to the algae attached to the fissure as troll hair). The plates exist within Thingvellir National Park, thanks to a 1789 earthquake that devised the Silfra Fissure, which held space for Langjokull glacier’s runoff.