Unless you’ve had your head in a snowbank, you probably know that Iceland has become a “hot” destination.
Northern Lights-seekers, outdoor adventurers, and those looking for a different dose of cool have been flocking to this small island nation, home to a population of less than 400,000 hardy souls (two-thirds of whom live in its colorful capital city, Reykjavik).
View of Reykjavik from the roof of the Perlan Museum.
Iceland is also home to 10,000 or so waterfalls and hundreds of fjords, glaciers and volcanoes. The countryside is more than a showcase of stunning sights — its turbulent geothermal features also provide pleasant outdoor soaking opportunities and nearly 100% of the nation’s energy.
The geyser at Geysir, just being pretty.
I was first lured to Iceland last January, when Oysterman and I were looking for an affordable winter vacation. Icelandair offers tremendous deals to a handful of European cities that include a “stopover” in Iceland of up to seven days with no additional charges. A $399 round trip to Paris? Sign us up.
It’s a no-frills deal — you’ll pay $50 extra for a checked bag (we did), and purchase your own food and beverages on the flight. But it was an opportunity for us to fly economically to France with the bonus of discovering Iceland’s captivating combination of extreme nature and cosmopolitan city life.
Basalt in nature – Oxararfoss Waterfall, Thingvellir National Park
Basalt in art – Harpa Hall, Reykjavik
On that first trip, we stayed only two nights, and packed as much as we could into our mini-itinerary. Of course, we wanted to try our luck seeing the Northern Lights — best visible from late September to late March — so we booked a bus tour for that and a Golden Circle day trip. The Golden Circle is an easy and rewarding tour from Reykjavik, a 140 mile loop that touches on historical and geological sites, including a soak in an outdoor hot spring, if you like (we liked!).
That tiny taste of Iceland hooked me like a haddock. I knew I wanted to return, and I knew I wanted to go in the winter. I was haunted by the glowing light of a sun that only showed its face for a few hours a day, arcing low across the sky, painting everything golden pink, and twinkling through geyser mists and icy droplets that dangled from branches like Christmas ornaments.
Oh, that light! Thingvellir National Park.
Thingvellir National Park
Last summer, when my bestie Hilary and I were looking for a place to travel together, I knew the combo of Iceland’s breathtaking landscapes and its thriving music scene would make it the perfect destination. November sees the advent of the Iceland Airwaves Music Festival, a four-day gathering of bands and musicians in venues across Reykjavik. We rented a car so we could take advantage of daytime sightseeing opportunities, and burned off our daily gorges of brown bread, hot soup and fish buffets by walking to all the show venues at night.
Yes, Iceland in winter can be frigid, but it gets colder in Chicago and New York, and they don’t have active volcanoes, or Vikings, or bread baked in a geothermal vent. Pack your layers and your appetite and follow a few of these suggestions, and you’ll have a trip worth remembering (and a yearning to return).
WHAT TO PACK
Winter in Iceland brings rain, snow and serious wind, and the weather can change dramatically from minute to minute. Be prepared with warm but lightweight base layers, wool sweaters, comfortable waterproof shoes or boots with non-skid soles, and of course, a hat, scarf and gloves. Umbrellas are next to useless in windy rain — go without one! Instead, wear a warm, hooded waterproof coat. It wouldn’t hurt to get a pair of ice cleats, as many sights and even city sidewalks can have a layer of thick, slick ice. And don’t forget a bathing suit and flip-flops for hot springs adventures — you don’t want to be trotting on icy ground in bare feet!
Laugarvatn Fontana, part of the Golden Circle.
GETTING THERE and GETTING AROUND
If you’re considering a trip to Europe and want to give Iceland a try, consider flying Icelandair with a no-charge stopover of up to one week. As I’m publishing this, Icelandair is offering deals from Seattle to Paris for $398, London for $403 and Frankfurt for $448 (while, strangely, it’s $500 to fly direct to Reykjavik). Through Icelandair, you can plan vacation packages, book tours or arrange your airport transfers or car rentals.
SELF-DRIVING vs. TOURING
There are advantages to both, but if you’re going to visit in the winter and decide to rent a car, you should be comfortable driving on icy roads and also at night, as daylight hours are short. There are numerous major and independent car rental companies at Keflavik airport. We were very happy with Lagoon Car Rental — affordable prices and great customer service. Be aware that gas is expensive — around $7/gallon, so factor that into your travel budget.
Road hazard #1 – unexpected snowstorm (on the way to Kirkjufell Mountain).
Road Hazard #2 – cows in the road (though it’s more likely to be sheep!)
The only Northern Lights we saw this time were on the plane….
If you decide you don’t want to bother with driving, both Reykjavik Excursions and Grayline offer affordable bus transport from Keflavik airport (around $25 one way), dropping you off either at your hotel or a bus stop close to your lodging (some streets are too narrow to allow for large tour buses — but there are numerous convenient stops throughout the city).
PRO TIP — the bus departures from Keflavik are tied to flight times and leave around 45 minutes after arrivals. Don’t linger too long in the duty-free or you’ll have to wait until the next flight arrival should you miss your bus!
BUSES AND GROUP TOURS
Both of the above-mentioned bus lines also offer numerous day trips and longer tours from Reyjkavik. A group tour is probably the best way to see the Northern Lights, even if you are renting a car, both for safety’s sake and so you can have a nip of brandy or Icelandic vodka to ward off internal frostbite you’ll risk in windy, remote locations (it goes without saying that you should absolutely never drink and drive in Iceland – or anywhere!). Northern Lights tours typically depart around 8:30pm and the best locations for viewing are at least an hour outside of Reykjavik, so let the driver do the hard work and snuggle with your honey (or snooze) on the ride home.
For the ultimate in flexibility, rent a car and set your own schedule. You might decide you want to stop at the Blue Lagoon on your way to or from the airport, and the thought of negotiating multiple bus transfers is harshing your chill. You might want to stay longer at some sights — or just enjoy them without a busload of other touroids.
Last November, we had a day to fill before checking into our VRBO apartment, so we followed the advice of Rick Steves (check out his new guide books on Iceland and Reykjavik) and took a southern loop on our way to Reykjavik. We were well-rewarded with a sunrise at the Blue Lagoon, Lobster Soup in Grindavik, stunning views of the southern coast of the Reykjanes Peninsula, and gorgeous arctic lakes and geothermal sites. It was one of my favorite days of our vacation.
Kleifervatn Lake, Reykjanes Peninsula
HOTEL VS. VRBO
Lodging (and shopping, and food) in Iceland is expensive, but if you’re staying for only a couple of nights, it might make sense to get a nice hotel with breakfast. A hotel concierge can also help you book tours and give you the general lay of the land.
On my first trip, we stayed at the Scandinavian-cool Skuggi Hotel, which is in a great location near the waterfront walk and convenient to bus stop #9. It also had floofy wool blankets on the bed, a splendid breakfast, and a great outdoor bar for cooling our drinks.
This trip, since we were staying longer and wanted more homey amenities, we chose an affordable rental apartment found through VRBO that was in the same neighborhood as the Skuggi. It was located at the end of the main shopping street Laugavegur, and a block from the new Hlemmur Food Hall and a bus stop, so it was convenient but quiet, being outside of the main city center.
While Reykjavik has much to offer, a visit here isn’t complete without a tour of its landmark church, Hallgrimskirkja.
Its striking modern design is modeled on the region’s basalt columns, and its bell tower offers a breathtaking view of the city. Once inside the church, be sure to turn around for a peek at the pipe organ. If you’re lucky, you might even catch a choir rehearsal.
The soaring simplicity of the interior is calming and inspiring, especially in the afternoon, when the setting sun brings the fire to Iceland’s ice. Be sure to catch the swooping sculpture of Leif Ericsson in front (not that you could miss him…).
WATERFRONT WALK and HARPA HALL
Wherever you’re staying in the city, it’s worth a walk along the waterfront for the views of the snow-frosted mountains across the harbor. It can be brisk, so wear your hat and a scarf. Stop for a snap of the Sun Voyager sculpture, then venture further to Harpa Hall, the city’s world-class concert hall. Its colorful beveled glass panels are another allusion to the basalt columns that make up so much of the country’s geography.
Joh Gunnar Arnason’s Sun Voyager sculpture.
Interior of Harpa Hall with Hallgrimskirkja in the distance.
Though your chances of seeing the Northern Lights are better in Iceland than in most places, it’s still a pretty low-percentage venture, so I don’t recommend setting your expectations too high (it’s one reason that all Northern Lights tours are subtitled “with stargazing”). That being said, we were lucky enough to catch a glimpse of fringey bands of green last January (though not the pix to prove it). Most, if not all, tour companies will allow you a free repeat tour if you strike out on your first venture.
THE GOLDEN CIRCLE
The Golden Circle is a loop tour made up of some of the best geothermal and historic sites in the vicinity of the capital city. I’ve done this by tour bus and by car, and each has its pros and cons. On a guided tour, you get a great explanation of just what it is you are seeing, and a lot of interesting facts about Iceland in the stretches of busing between sites. A self-driving tour is a great option for when you don’t want to be on a timetable, and you can choose to linger longer at the sites that captivate you (or soak a bit longer in the Fontana).
On the Golden Circle, the first and a not-to-be-missed site is Thingevellir National Park. Here, in the10th century, Viking Chieftans assembled in what’s considered the world’s first Parliament. The Park is also geologically significant, as its wide valley is actually the rift between the North American and European tectonic plates. While you can’t stand with one foot in each continent (the rift is miles wide), the valley provides stunning photo opportunities.
Thingvellir National Park, a highlight of the Golden Circle
A bit more of a commitment, though parts are still a possible day trip, is the Snaefellsnes Peninsula, a region of extraordinary geological significance and natural beauty. We made an attempt to travel to Kirkjufell, a distinctive pointy mountain on the Peninsula’s north, but a whiteout-level snowstorm stopped us before we got halfway there. That didn’t prevent us from enjoying a memorable drive with many photo-worthy sites, and inspired a future trip dedicated to this stunning region.
THINGS TO DO INDOORS
At some point, the weather’s going to get too nasty to drive, or you’ll just be too wiped to venture far from the city. There’s SO MUCH to do in Reykjavik — here’s a few suggestions for foul-weather recreation.
My favorite, for its subject matter, locale and layout, is the Perlan. Housed in a former water storage facility, the museum showcases the “Wonders of Iceland.” It houses a Planetarium with a stunning feature on the Aurora Borealis and exhibits include a virtual bird wall and a real ice cave.
Icelanders have a great appreciation and talent for music, and whether it’s folk, rock or classical, you’ll be able to find something to soothe your frozen soul in one of Reykjavik’s many music venues. Kex Hostel, Dillon Whisky Bar, and Slippbarin are a few of the Iceland Airwaves venues that feature great local music year-round. Harpa Hall features classical, opera and theatrical performances, including the Iceland Symphony Orchestra and other world-class performers. It’s a beautiful way to spend a snowy night.
INDOOR SWIMMING POOLS
If the weather’s too unpleasant for an outdoor soak, take advantage of one of Iceland’s many geothermally-heated public swimming pools. While most are outdoor pools, Sundholl (the most conveniently-located to the city center) and the Kopavogur swimming center, (a little further out of town) both feature indoor pools and hot tubs. Good-to-know-before-you-go: ALL public swimming, soaking and steaming facilities require you to take a shower, sans swimsuit, before using the facilities — and they enforce it. Just go with it and it’ll all be cool.
SHOPPING, EATING AND DRINKING
There are a ton of boutiques and shops throughout Reykjavik featuring Icelandic goods — soft woolen blankets, iconic Icelandic sweaters — along with local pottery, jewelry and other handicrafts (and Puffin magnets, if you must). Iceland can be an expensive place to shop — the U.S. dollar is currently not strong against the Icelandic Kroner, and the 24% VAT (sales tax) on most goods ups the prices on everything. But if you spend more than 4,000 ISK (around $33) at one time (it can be multiple items on the same receipt), you can ask for a tax form from the vendor and get a refund on the taxes at the airport.
Eating and drinking out (and in) is worth its own post, so I’ll cover tips and tricks in my next blog so you can make rational budget choices and still have a good time enjoying Iceland’s surprisingly stellar culinary scene.
I plan on many return visits to Iceland, though my next trip will probably be a summer one, to take advantage of long daylight hours for driving the ring road or camping in the Westfjords. But don’t be afraid of Iceland in winter. It will wrap its frosty arms around you and captivate you in a way that few other European destinations can.