Winter in Iceland is pure magic. The days are short and the weather is cold, but the sun shines a permanent orange and the landscape is something out of a winter fairy tale. While most travelers elect to visit Iceland in the summer months when the days are endless, the winter is not a frigid and dark wasteland. Iceland’s vast, mountainous, and open landscape is breathtaking when it is blanketed by snow. Ice caves can form, hotsprings and lagoons are more inviting, and the northern lights will dazzle those lucky enough to find them. Those that have visited in summer should seriously consider re-visiting during winter just to see how different Iceland can be.
Our Itinerary and costs
Our itinerary essentially covered all of Iceland’s southern ring road (as well as the Snaefellsness peninsula). We spent 7 days driving along the ring road and 3 nights in Reykjavik for scuba diving and new years eve celebration.
Book everything WELL in advance. Iceland gets packed around the holidays and the already limited amount of accommodations in the country get booked up quickly. I’m talking at least 5 months before arrival. We booked our accommodations in mid September and most of Reykjavik, as well as other options along the Ring Road were already sold out!
Iceland is expensive
This should surprise no one. Scandinavian countries are not cheap and Iceland is no exception. Gas stood out the most at ~200 ISK/L ($1.8/L, or $7/gallon). Food prices were consistent throughout the country, with Reykjavik being the most expensive.
- A main course of Icelandic Lamb would be 5,000 to 7,000 ISK, and an appetizer of soup would be 1,500 to 2,500 ISK.
- Beers are 800 to 1,200 ISK (in Reykjavik, go for Happy hour!)
- Wine is 1,200-2,000 ISK
- Cocktails in Reykjavik are 2,000 ISK and above
No need for cash in Iceland
Iceland is as close to a cashless society as I’ve seen. Between four people, and for ten days, we did NOT exchange money or use an ATM. Everywhere and everything takes credit cards. I actually asked someone at a gas station if I could see what Icelandic money looked like.
Total Cost for Iceland Trip
We were a group of four travelers and we spent about $3,000 per person all in for 10 days (with flights included).
Flight on Icelandair: $650
Cars and Gas: $250
Food and Alcohol: $700
Finding the aurora
Without a doubt, one of the main reasons people visit Iceland in the winter is for the Northern Lights. Iceland is located right in the Aurora belt and viewing the lights is possible when conditions are right. As we would learn, conditions are EVERYTHING. We spent every night attempting to track down the lights in our car. Essentially two things need to happen in order to see the northern lights: (Read More: How to find the Aurora and Take Amazing Photos!)
- Clear skies: the saying is if you can see the stars, it’s possible to see the lights
- Solar wind activity in your area: The solar winds provide the bright lights of the aurora and they need to be blowing in your current location
There are numerous apps to available to track where the northern light activity is, my favorite being Aurora. As well as tracking the lights, you’ll also need to religiously monitor the cloud cover where you are. The best resource is from Vedur weather network.
With these two resources, you’ll be able to decipher if you have ideal conditions. If everything is aligned, drive to the darkest area you can find (which shouldn’t be difficult in Iceland), wait, and hope for the best. If you’re lucky, you’ll witness one of nature’s most spectacular sights!
Sunrise and Sunset
Although true in the Arctic circle, Iceland does not see days of complete darkness. We went over Christmas and New Years during the winter solstice (Dec 23-Jan 2), and even during the shortest days of the year, the sun would rise at 11am and set at 4pm.
Although strange to most of us, the one benefit of such short days is the light. The whole day looks like a permanent sunrise (or sunset) as the sun never leaves the horizon. The whole day is beautiful. The light created during these hours creates a warm orange glow that covers your entire surrounding, making it perfect for taking photos. It snowed a fair amount while we were there and I could pull over to the side of the road and stare at the fully bleached landscapes for hours.
With that said, plan your day so you arrive at your point of interest when the sun is rising! The day goes QUICKLY so do not waste it driving on the ring road (although the views even from the highway are amazing)
Driving in Iceland during winter
While it’s easy to walk around Reykjavik, there are few options to see Iceland except for tours and with a car. With Iceland’s tourism industry growing exponentially, there are no shortage of tours that will take you to see the Golden circle, and other sights along the ring road. However, we were four people traveling in Iceland (this isn’t Africa after all) with no appetite for organized tours so we rented a car and do our own thing.
Renting a car in Iceland
There are numerous car rental companies in Iceland making renting a car very easy. We rented our car with Lagoon Car Rental which boasts slightly cheaper fares and allows you to return the car in Reykjavik city center. We received a Suburu Forrester for ~100 euros per day (during peak season no less). Most rentals in Iceland come equipped with snow tires. Automatic cars command a premium so if you can drive manual, you can expect to save at least 30% on a car rental!
The Ring Road
Iceland’s largest and most important road is famously known as the ring road as it completely circles the island. Also known as Route 1, this 1,300km road trip perfectly passes through all of Iceland’s major tourist attractions making it your main point of reference on any Iceland road trip. Any good trip in Iceland will start and end with the Ring Road.
Driving conditions in Winter
Winter weather in Iceland can be quite unforgiving. The weather is absolutely unpredictable and it can change from clear sunny skies to horizontal hail in a matter of minutes. The wind is a force to be reckoned with and is not to be taken lightly. During our time in Iceland, winds would regularly eclipse 100km/hr, which are hurricane force winds! The wind alone is enough to shake a moving car. Add in heavy snow, rain, or hail, and there were times we literally could not see anything in front of us but white.
This is why I’d highly recommend renting a 4×4 as opposed to something like a Toyota Yaris during the winter, as was evidenced by the numerous cars stuck in ditches that we saw.
I did see a fair amount of smaller cars but like I said, the weather is unpredictable so gamble at your own risk! It’s that one day where winds gust to 150 km/hr where you will wish you had a heavier car and just because someone had a certain experience does not mean it will apply to you!
What to pack
Iceland is cold in the winter, make no doubt about it. However, it is not the complete subzero temperatures one would think for an island so far north. Thanks to its position in the gulf stream, Iceland has a milder climate year round. The summers are characterized by expansive views of green, mountainous landscapes and while it does get cold in Winter, it gets colder in places like New York City and Chicago.
Nevertheless, the wind is the X factor. The extreme wind speeds in Iceland can result in extremely cold wind chills. It’s key to dress in layers and have warm gloves, socks, and something to cover the face.
The secret is you don’t need to pack so much. I packed more than usual as I’m more of the warm weather traveler variety, and after finding an outfit that kept me warm, I would wear it multiple times. You’re not engaging in rigorous exercise and you’re certainly not sweating. One thing I can recommend is to buy clamp-on spikes for your shoes.
Pack some snacks!
As you leave the city of Reykjavik, restaurants and stores are far and few. We packed a suitcase full of snacks for our lunchtime meals. The days are already so short, that it would have been detrimental to our itinerary if we had to spend hours finding (and eating) lunch.
For those that do not feel like packing snacks, don’t worry as the gas stations in Iceland are stocked with decent food for cheap and have quick turnarounds. We did make sure to eat a proper dinner every night. Thankfully, most meals in Icelandic restaurants come with ample bread baskets, which turned out to be some of the best bread I’ve ever eaten in my life.
Stock up at the Airport Duty Free
There is a duty free store next to baggage claim at the Keflavik Airport in Reykjavik, right before you exit the airport. We heard from numerous people to buy anything we needed here as it would significantly cheaper than in the country itself. As we were road tripping to some remote places for the next week or so, we made sure to buy all our alcohol here including at least a dozen bottles of wine. I highly recommend doing your shopping here.
Get out of Reykjavik and the Golden Circle area
While Reykjavik is a very cool city and there is plenty to see, Iceland’s magic lies in its lesser populated areas. Most people elect to do short stopovers in Reykjavik and tour nearby sights. While the attractions near the Golden Circle are certainly impressive, there is SO much more to see. In fact, after finishing the trip, the Golden Circle is probably the least impressive of all the sights we saw. If time allows, rent a car and get out of the main sprawl. It is more than worth it!
Day 1 – Golden Circle
We arrived early in the morning after a redeye flight from New York City. Our first stop was the duty free store where we loaded up on dozens of bottles of wine and liquor for our trip (Again, BUY EVERYTHING HERE AS IT IS MUCH CHEAPER). Someone from our car rental place was waiting for us, and promptly took us to their offices to sort out our car. Since we had quite an aggressive itinerary, we pounded coffee (which the car rental office conveniently had) and were on our way.
From the airport, it’s a 2 to 2.5 hour drive to the Golden Circle. At 8:30am in the morning, it was still pitch black so we figured by the time we arrived, the sun would just be rising. No trip to Iceland is complete without seeing the Golden circle, an imaginary circular route around some of Iceland’s most iconic sights, including the Thingvellir National Park, Geysir, and Gulfoss Falls. It’s only 1 hour from Reykjavik, making it a popular day trip option for those on short visits to Iceland.
Our first stop was the famous Stokkur Geysir, an active geysir that erupts every 15-30 minutes. We arrived here around 10:30am and the sun was just rising over the horizon. There weren’t many people here at first so we got to enjoy the area to ourselves. Tour buses quickly flowing in around 11am.
Next stop was Gulfoss falls, a 25 minute drive from the Geysir and boasts one of the largest waterfalls in Iceland. This was the first of many waterfalls that we would see, and how breath-taking it was!
We did Thingvellir (Þingvellir) National Park last even though it is the first attraction coming from Reykjavik. It involved more walking and we didn’t want to do it in the mid morning darkness. Some may find this place familiar as it is an often used film location for Game of Thrones! We got here around 13:00 and walked through the rock walls to the amazingly picturesque Öxarárfoss (20 minutes one way).
A night at the Ion Adventure Hotel
Our first night in Iceland was also our most luxurious. We opted for one of Iceland’s most unique hotels at the Ion. Located within the Golden Circle in the middle of seemingly nowhere exists a fancy eco-lodge with wrap around glass windows to help you admire the surrounding and the Northern Lights if you’re lucky. Everything about this hotel was amazing. The rooms were great, the food was world class, and best of all, there is a thermal pool with views of the icy surroundings!
With the copious amount of wine and champagne that we purchased at the Duty Free, we had a Christmas Eve toast while enjoying our warm geo-thermal hot tub.
The food was also divine. Iceland is famous for its lamb and for dinner, I had some of the best lamb of my life. Unfortunately, we also stayed here over Christmas Eve so the only thing available on the menu was the Christmas Pre-Fixe at a whopping 13,900 kr (~$120) per person not including drinks! The food was overall fantastic and we were famished so it made parting with $120 less painful.
Costs and Things
Accommodation at Ion Hotel: 34,000 ISK
Christmas Pre-fix at Ion Hotel: 13,900 ISK per person
Day 2 – Iceland’s South Coast (From Ion Hotel to Kirkjubæjarklaustur)
After an amazing night at the Ion Hotel, we were rested and ready for the long day of sightseeing and driving ahead of us. However, it had snowed significantly the night before and we were not allowed to leave the hotel as they needed to plow the roads. This is Iceland! We were finally able to leave around 9:30am. It was still pitch black out which eventually messes with your head as you feel like you should be asleep.
Seljalandsfoss and Black Sand Beach
Our first stop was Seljalandsfoss, another iconic and picturesque waterfall. The snow was coming down hard along with extreme winds so we stopped for a look, some pictures, and were on our way out.
By noon, we had reached the Black Sand Beach near Vik, yet another iconic landmark in Iceland, and was the film location for Star Wars Rogue One. The basalt fragments from the nearby volcano give the sand its black color. I’ve been to other black beaches before but nothing quite as large and dramatic as in Iceland with its huge basalt columns and rolling mountains in the background.
Since it was snowing so much, we couldn’t actually see the sand as it was covered in snow but when we came back here on our way back to Reykjavik, the snow had melted giving us clear views of this massive beach of fine black sand.
Driving in CRAZY conditions
When we were done, it was already 2pm which meant the sun would be setting soon so we needed to drive towards our hotel 1.5 hours away. The weather conditions had deteriorated even further by this point. Winds were howling around us and I could feel the impact of the gusts against our 4×4. Snow was blowing sideways and it got so bad at times, I had to pull over and turn on my parking lights as I couldn’t see anything in front of me.
A picture from an Instagram account that shows what can happen in a strong storm in Iceland
However, if you stay pulled over for too long, your tires can freeze to the road or your windows can shatter if the wind gusts strengthen. It’s a scary thought but it’s all part of the experience and thankfully none of those things happened to us.
After cautious driving for 30km or so, the snow had but completely subsided! The system was moving towards Reykjavik and we had nothing but blue skies and an amazing hue from the sunset. We were the only car around, and the scenery was so stunning we had to stop to soak it all in. Iceland is just one WOW moment after the other. Pictures don’t do it any justice.
Costs and Things
Accommodation at Icelandair Klaustur: 18,000 ISK
Christmas Pre Fixe Dinner: 10,900 kr per person
Day 3: Southeast Glaciers – Vatnajökull
After a day of crazy weather the night before, we left our hotel at 9am so we could arrive at the glaciers for the sunrise. Our agenda for day 3 was the various attractions within Vatnajokull, the largest glacier in Iceland (covering 25% of the country).
We continued east towards one of Iceland’s most famous sights. Jokulsarlon is a large glacial lagoon at the edge of Vatnajokull national park that is home to year round floating icebergs. Nearby is the diamond beach, a beach of black sand with icy chunks that diamonds glistening in the sun. It certainly lives up to the hype. There are huge chunks of ice floating in the water making for perfect photos. Visiting in the winter adds to the experience as the all white backdrop enhances the view.
This place does draw all the tourists however. At one point, there must have been a dozen tour buses and hundreds of people crowding around the entrance area taking photos. There is plenty of space though so to avoid the crowds at Jokulsarlon, simply walk further into the lagoon. Or to completely avoid the crowds and see something even more amazing, head to the nearby Fjallsjokull.
Right next to Jokulsarlon is another glacial lagoon filled with numerous icebergs. Flallsjokull however, does not have any of the crowds. It’s not on any tour group itineraries so those with their own cars are rewarded with this little sanctuary. This was definitely one of the highlights of the trip. We spent almost one hour here and only one other car came the entire time.
Hoffell Hot Pots
We had some time before sunset on our drive towards Hofn and our guesthouse for the night. We looked at tripadvisor for things to do in the area and the #1 attraction was the “Hoffell Hot Pot”. It’s a set of hot tubs set out in the open with stunning views of the surrounding mountains. It’s not free, but it is also unmanned with a bucket for entrance fees (500 kr per person). This was the only time in our 10 days in Iceland that we had need for cash.
Costs and Things
Accommodation at Nypugardar Guest House: 12,000 ISK
Dinner at Kaffi Hornid: 6,500 ISK per person
Day 4: Vatnajokull Ice Cave Tour
Our 4th day was set for Ice caving in the Vatnajokull glacier. I had really been looking forward to this tour. There are thousands of Ice caves in Vatnajokull form over the summer but the walls harden over the winter making it safe for travelers to visit. When it rains however, the ice caves can quickly become flooded. The tour guides will kayak through them as they look for new caves to visit among the thousands in Vatnajokull.
All in all, the tour was nice but we suffered from amazing picture letdown. The pictures I had seen of the ice cave hikes were not what happened in reality. I thought we would hike through a cave and really explore something. Instead, they took us to an ice cave that was maybe 50m long and filled with hundreds of other people taking selfies. It felt more of an exhibit, than some sort of adventure.
Costs and Things
Tour Cost: 18,900 ISK
Lunch at Haf: 1,890 ISK
Accommodation at Nypugardar Guest House: 12,000 ISK
Dinner at Nypugardar guesthouse: 4,400 ISK
Day 5: Höfn to Selfoss and Secret Lagoon
Having done enough glacier activities, today was our day to reverse course towards Reykjavik and ultimately the Snaefellsness peninsula. Our plan was to re-visit the black sand beach as the conditions were crazy our first go around, and to visit Skogafoss, another well known waterfall in Iceland. The weather did not cooperate for most of our drive to the Black sand beach. Rain turned into snow, which turned into hail, with winds blowing at near hurricane speeds.
Skogafoss waterfalls however was incredibly beautiful. Like the other waterfalls we’ve seen, it doesn’t disappoint. The backdrop of icicles and snow was unique as well.
Last on our agenda was the Secret Lagoon. It’s billed as a less packed version of the Blue Lagoon. Located near Selfoss, this place somewhat lived up to its name. Although not quite as “secret” as the name lead There’s certainly less people here and there’s a nice feeling of remoteness with this lagoon. Entry price is 25 euros per person.
Costs and Things
Accommodation at Borealis Hotel: 7,500 ISK
Dinner: Tryggvaskáli (AMAZING)- 8,300 ISK per person
Day 6: Selfoss to Snaefellsness Peninsula (Grundarfjörður)
We set out early again on day 6 and headed towards the Snaefellsness peninsula to the north west of Reykjavik. Given its proximity to Reykjavik (only 2 hours drive), it makes for a perfect day trip.
The weather was once again volatile as we started the day with snow and by the time we reached the Snaefellsness peninsula, there was torrential downpours with incredibly strong winds. We even got a warning on our Icelandic weather app about gusts reaching 35 meters per second (120 km/hr)!
The highlights here are the town of Hellnar, the Snaefellsness National Park, Kirkjufell, and the town of Stykkishólmur. There were far fewer tourists here as the Golden circle and Iceland’s south coast gets most of the attention. In particular, the most stunning part of this area was the mountain of Kirkjufell and Kirkjufelfoss. From the side, it looks exactly like Lions Head in Cape Town.
Having had enough $50+ dinners, we decided we would cook instead. Although not “cheap”, it is far cheaper to prepare your own food in Iceland. We stopped at the Bonus supermarket in the quaint fishing town of Stykkisholmer. We bought a kilo of fresh salmon for 2,100 ISK, a great deal in my opinion, along with various other items. As our apartment had a full kitchen, we grilled salmon to go along with our wine.
Our apartment in the town of Grundarfjörður was right next to and had views of Kirkjufell mountain. I could only imagine how beautiful it would be in the summer with beers and the endless night.
Costs and Things
Accommodation at H5 apartments in Grundarfjörður: 14,000 ISK
Groceries at Bonus grocery store: 2,000 ISK per person
Day 7: Grundarfjörður to Reykjanes Peninsula
Day 7 was our last day on the road. We left early in the morning to drop our friends off at the Reykjavik domestic airport as they were to embark on an ultra-aggressive day tour of Iceland’s northern capital of Akureyi.
As we had the car until the end of the day, we decided to check out the Reykjanes peninsula near Reykjavik. Numerous geysirs, mountains, black beaches and volcanic landscapes highlight this region. In other words, more amazing Iceland sights.
The infamous blue lagoon is also located in the Reykjanes peninsula, about 20 minutes from the airport. Perhaps Iceland’s most well known sight, I was pleasantly surprised with my experience at the Blue Lagoon. As touristy as it was, the pool itself is amazingly picturesque. The water is rich in sulfur and silica, giving it a milky baby blue tint. I really enjoyed my time at the Blue Lagoon and despite its popularity, would recommend everyone to keep it on their itinerary!
Costs and Things
Accommodation at Reykjkavik Airbnb: 7,000 ISK
Dinner at Icelandic Fish and chips: 3,000 ISK per person
Day 8-10: New Years in Reykjavik
Reykjavik was the last stop on our itinerary. Two thirds of Iceland’s 330,000 population lives in the capital. Having traveled and stayed largely in the middle of nowhere for the past week, it was nice to see a bit of urban society again. Reykjavik screams picturesque Scandinavian town. In recent years, the culinary scene has exploded with the rise of tourism and nowadays, there are numerous high end Michelin starred restaurants in Reykjavik’s downtown.
We also did a day trip to go scuba diving! Yes, as crazy as that sounds, scuba diving and snorkeling can be done in Iceland, even during the winter months. We went back to the Thingvellir National Park in the Golden circle to dive the Silfra fissure, famous for having the North American tectonic plates on one side, and the European tectonic plates on the other.
Was it cold? Absolutely yes. The surface temperature was -10 and the water temperature was 2 degrees. It was so cold that when the dive was completed, we could not go back for another because our equipment became completely frozen.
New Years Eve celebration in Reykjavik
We had heard good things about Reykjavik’s new years eve festivities. We were not disappointed. Starting around 7pm, huge bonfires are lit all throughout the city. Locals and tourists alike congregate around the fire. We went to one near our Airbnb in the Vesturbær neighborhood. As we approached the bonfire, the Northern lights appeared right above us!
After the bonfire, we had NYE dinner (booking ahead essential). Looking back on it, I would have rather looked at the northern lights for a few more hours.
Around 11:30pm, fireworks are lit all over the city. Most people congregate around the famous Hallgrímskirkja church to see the display and count down until midnight. I’ve seen many fireworks displays but I’ve never been so close to them. Endless fireworks were erupting all around us and we really felt like we were a part of it.
In fact, we were so close, pieces of fireworks flew into our cups of celebratory whiskey!
This continued on for almost 2 hours. Easily the most impressive fireworks display I’ve ever seen! Bars started opening up around 12:30am and the night continues late into the morning.
Costs and Things
Accommodation at Reykjkavik Airbnb night 2-3: 25,000 ISK per night
Diving Silfra Tour with Scuba.IS: 38,900 ISK per person
Blue Lagoon: 40 euros per person
Dinner at Tapas Barinn: 6,500 ISK per person
Beers and alcohol: Who knows??
Bus ticket from Reykjavik to Blue Lagoon to Airport: 3,800 ISK per person
Completing the Ring Road
With 10 days, it is feasible to complete the entire Ring Road. I spent 3 days in Reykjavik due to New Years celebration but otherwise, I think 1-2 days in Reykjavik is perfect.
From Höfn, I would continue north around the east coast of Iceland to Akureyi, the Northern capital. There are numerous sights along the way like Goðafoss, Grjótagjá, and Mývatn. From Akureyi, I would drive to Snaefellsness, before driving back to Reykjavik.
Initially, we opted not to drive north because we thought the weather would be treacherous. It turns out, the north was warmer than the south on some days so once again, it’s all weather dependent! Next time!