Winter in Iceland brings a special kind of adventure, from chasing the shape-shifting Northern Lights to trekking through caves of glacial blue ice. Despite its chilly name, the Land of Fire and Ice isn’t inhospitable to winter wanderers. The ‘Golden Circle’ region of the south-west hovers just below freezing. While it's no-go in the central highlands, the Ring Road, which trails the coast, stays open all year. Bear in mind, though, that you’ll need studded tyres to drive the Ring Road, plus a willingness to quickly change your plans in harsh weather. Of course, you can avoid the dodgy driving conditions by sticking to the cities or booking onto a tour. However you decide to do it, here are our top five places to go in Iceland in winter.
The best place to start your visit to Iceland in winter? Reykjavík
With an average January daytime temperature of 0.5°C (similar to winter temps in New York) there's nothing stopping you from packing your parka and heading to the world’s most northernly capital.
In town, multicoloured rooftops are dwarfed by the monster spire of the concrete-clad Hallgrimskirkja church. One of several avant-garde buildings that make Reykjavík a treat for those with a thirst for design.
Old fishing factories at the Grandi Harbour are now hipster cafes, restaurants and breweries. Enrol in “beer school” at the Bryggjan Brewery to learn about their methods while you taste the craft beers.
The unforgettable silhouette of Hallgrimskirkja church © Wojtek Chmielewski/Shutterstock
When (if?) you need a break from the booze, go in search of orca, humpback, and minke whales on a boat trip from the Old Harbour, which run year-round.
A springboard for the Golden Circle, you can day-trip from Reykjavík to the site of the old (outdoor) parliament, or the incredible Geysir waterspout.
For a more active – and definitely chilly – excursion, snorkelling and scuba-diving are on offer even in mid-winter. Within day-reach is dive mecca, Silfra. Here, the water flowing between two tectonic plates hovers permanently around 2-4°C.
Are you thinking of visiting Iceland this winter? Our new tailor-made trips service will pair you with a local expert who can organise everything you need to enjoy your visit.
Next, get a feel for Icelandic scenery in Snaefellsnes
The Snaefellsnes peninsula is sometimes called “Iceland in miniature” thanks to its diverse landscape of glaciers, lava fields, and black and golden beaches.
Within the Golden Circle, it's just a two-hour drive up from Reykjavík and makes an easy day trip.
Clamp on your crampons and start with a guided climb of the Snæfellsjökull volcano’s glacier. Hard work but worth it: the 1446m summit rises above the clouds, to deliver views of snowy peaks stretching into the North Atlantic ocean.
When you're back at sea level, head west to crater-land, where stairs curving up the Saxhóll crater will deliver you to its rim. Walk over to the south to descend – this time, through a subterranean spiral staircase into the ancient Vatnshellir lava tube.
The rugged and beautiful Snaefellsnes peninsula © Alexey Stiop/Shutterstock
Then, explore the ice caves in Skaftafell
Each winter in Iceland, a temporary gift from the glaciers appears across the Vatnajokull National Park: blue ice caves. One of Iceland’s most impressive natural wonders, the caves form in the ice when it starts to melt over the summer, carving out spaces in the glacier that then stay frozen come winter.
You'll need a guide to lead you – new caves are formed each year and your guide will know where to go. Most will sort you out with spikes, ice axe, a helmet and harness (looking like a hardcore explorer is an added bonus).
Take half a day our from caving to visit an iceberg-filled lagoon, the seven-square-mile Jökulsárlón, one of the country's most photogenic spots. Boat tours stop in winter but you can wander around it any time, marvelling at the icebergs' geometric artistry.
Base yourself near Skaftafell, part of the Vatnajokull National Park and four hours east of Reykjavik. Find a hotel or homestay with big windows so you can gaze out at the glaciers over breakfast.
A spectacular blue ice cave in Skaftafell © Anna Om/Shutterstock
Set out to touch the Artic Circle in Akureyri
It might be brushing the Arctic Circle but Akureyri, the ‘Capital of the North’, is on the map as a year-round destination. Direct flights from the UK launched this year making it easier than ever to get to.
Weather here is actually similar to Reykjavik. What’s more, for such a tiny city it’s surprisingly lively, with great restaurants and even some nightlife.
Sample local beers at Ölstofa Akureyrar and then eat at Strikið, on the top floor of the Skipagata 14 building, overlooking the mountains and fjord.
Just outside Akureyri, in Eyjafjörður, you’ll find the very unique turf houses. Built in 1865, these grass-topped pointy wooden huts are some of the best preserved examples of how ancient Icelanders lived.
A one-hour drive away is Mývatn, where naturally hot water is pumped into stone pools – ideal for a relaxing dip. Then speed things up with a dog-sledding day at nearby at Heiði farm, where you'll be pulled by cuddly Siberian huskies.
Dog sledding across the snow near Mývatn © Kertu/Shutterstock
Hunt the Aurora in the East Fjords
There’s a sense of solitude on this 75-mile stretch of coastline. The East Fjords stretch from Berufjörður in the south, to the small fishing village of Borgarfjörður Eystri in the north.
As only 3.2% of Iceland’s population live around the remote fishing villages, farms and forests here, there’s little light pollution. That means the northern lights should be easier to spot.
Fly to Egilsstaðir and drive to the town of Seydisfjordur, where pastel coloured Norwegian-style houses are tucked in between mountains and the fjord.
This is your springboard for winter activities, such as safaris to spot wild reindeer (imported to Iceland in the 18th century and only found in the east). Strap on some snowshoes for a tour around the town: they'll have you searching for signs of other winter wildlife such as fox tracks, ptarmigans and snow buntings.
Most likely, you'll end your day drinking hot chocolate, sitting on reindeer skins beside a log fire. Iceland in winter doesn’t get better than that.
Seydisfjordur church in the East Fjords © pongpinun traisrisilp/Shutterstock
Top image: Ice cave in Skaftafell glacier © Anna Om/Shutterstock