Iceland in winter and summer is like visiting two different countries. You won't be seeing the same landscapes or doing the same activities, due to much shorter days and weather conditions.
Summer is the most popular season for visitors, but Icelandic winters are not without their charms, quite the opposite. This country is a popular destination for end of year celebrations for a totally exotic New Year's Eve.
While you can go any time in the winter, the months of March or October are often preferred because in January, for example, the days are so short you are limited to nocturnal activities. As the days get longer, you can enjoy both.
Kleifarvtan in February
December to February is a magical time to visit Iceland, and here are some good reasons to choose this period:
The landscapes are a dream, snow-covered and glinting with ice, the particular atmosphere of the polar light in winter is a unique experience in itself. For those who have been in summer, a winter trip will be like rediscovering the place altogether.
Reykjavík in winter: JAG_CZ @adobestock
As you an expect, visiting Iceland during the months of December, January and February has its drawbacks:
That's why one doesn't travel to Iceland in winter if they expect summer activities. One must be flexible in this season to adapt to weather conditions.
Inevitably, in winter in Iceland the weather conditions are rather uncertain and of course it's very cold, although contrary to what one might expect at this latitude, thanks to the Gulf Stream it doesn't get that much colder some regions in France or England in winter. Temperatures vary between -5° and 5° but wind-chill is very real, so dress accordingly.
As for the off-road trails in the highlands, not all of them are open due to weather conditions, which can be quite tough in winter (snow, etc.) so check with local information points.
It is important to prepare your stay to optimize your time and make the most of the many wonders of Iceland.
This is why in winter it is strongly recommended, even when staying around road number 1 or Reykjavík, to drive a 4x4 vehicle to facilitate travel in case of road that has become too snowy as these have much better handling than a city car.
Road number 1 (paved) on the south-east coast is accessible all year round, unlike almost all domestic roads.
In order to avoid unpleasant surprises when driving, avoid venturing off paved roads. A shortcut may be tempting, but small secondary roads, even if not officially closed, may be impassable and sometimes become dangerous.
Seljalandsfoss in February
Unsurprisingly, December, January and February are the coldest months of the Icelandic winter. While the Gulf Stream keeps things from becoming truly arctic, temperatures in winter are often negative. And if the weather indicates a temperature around 0°, you must take into account the wind-chill which is significant in winter. This means you'll often feel 7 or 8 degrees colder than temperatures shown.
The temperature is milder along the coasts or near the capital, but the center of the island and the north, which are difficult or even impossible to access in winter, are positively glacial.
More information and details on the length of the days and the temperatures on our weather page.
For example, here are the lengths of the days for December, January and February compared to the rest of the year. A day does not exceed 5 hours in December and January (it's even 4 hours at the beginning of January...). However, the days get longer as early as mid-February.
Many tourists prefer short stays of 3 to 8 days during this period, as not all roads are clear, which limits exploration opportunities for nature-lovers.
Some ideas for itineraries and sites of interest can be found here:
Here are a few things to do in winter:
Here is an example of a travel story
Visitors don't always rent vehicles, in fact most prefer half-day or full-day guided excursions.
So everything depends on your preference: total independence or a more or less organized tour activity.
It is entirely possible to do a complete self-drive in winter. Here are a few examples of self-driving tours in Iceland in the winter:
For tourists who want to avoid taking risks on the road, and enjoy a guided tour in small groups, look into these options:
Goðafoss in winter: event @AdobeStock
For short stays, tourists often prefer the south and the Reykjavík region, which are generally the most accessible areas in terms of road conditions.
Many organize their stay independently and travel in rented vehicles but then take a few day or half-day trips for the expeditions that would be safer with a guide.
If you are considering a more sporty and adventurous stay, living on the edge, we have you covered. Numerous excursions are available at this time of the year. Most are concentrated near the capital, in the Golden Circle, along the south coast or the Reykjanes Peninsula.
Of course, the highlight and must-see excursion in winter is the hunt for the aurora borealis. Although it is perfectly possible to see and hunt the Northern Lights independently, it can be tricky and organized excursions have the best chances.
Aurora Borealis over Buðir
Here are some examples of organized excursions to admire the Northern Lights:
Some organized day trips even offer a return trip to Jökulsarlon.
For hikers, you can still find many open trails in winter, especially on the glaciers.
The southern ice caves are also popular with tourists:
Just like snowmobile trips:
Off-road trails are also possible in Landmannalaugar, with large 4X4 excursions organized by some specialists to be able to reach Landmannalaugar in winter without difficulties:
Whale watching trips are also possible in winter.
These tours are enough to make for a full holiday schedule, but there is no shortage of other activities. For example bathing in a hot spring surrounded by pure wilderness such as Seljavallalaug or the hot water river of Reykadalur.
If you want a rejuvenating weekend, you can, for example, go to the Blue Lagoon and relax in 38°C water, then wander the capital on your way to a gourmet meal at Le Perlan, where you can enjoy the panoramic view of the city from its revolving dome. Or on a budget you can head to a restaurant in the city center offering local specialties.
The “Jonatan Livingston Mavur” in Tryggvagata, for example, offers typical Icelandic dishes of fish and seabirds, or the “Lækjarbrekka” Bankastræti 2, where you can enjoy original Icelandic recipes such as puffin, lamb or shark...
To digest, there's nothing better than a nightcap in one of the city's many bars, or full-out partying with Icelanders if you can keep up!
Iceland in December - Rémy Penet @unsplash
In December we enter the heart of the Icelandic winter. Snow blankets everything and the days are brutally short.
Visits in December are necessarily very different from those you can do in August. Hikes in the highlands give way to ice caves excursions, dog sledding trips, or even glacier hikes.
Also, December the perfect time to hunt for the Northern Lights which coincides with the long nights of the winter equinox.
From a tourist point of view, the month of December is very busy during the end-of-year holidays, so book well ahead of time because accommodation is quickly sold out, especially in the capital. This is reflected in the price and availability of rentals.
Icelandic road in January - Rémy Penet @unsplash
The month of January is very similar to December in terms of weather and the length of the days. This is still the cold heart of the Icelandic winter, everything is snowed under and the days are very short.
Hikes on the highland roads give way to ice cave excursions, dog sledding trips or even glacier hikes.
Like December, January is an ideal month for observing the Northern Lights.
From a tourist point of view, however, the month of January is not the most popular time to visit, aside the few days following January 1 for tourists who came to spend New Year's Eve in Iceland. Rental prices are lower than in December and it'll be easier to make reservations.
Church in Iceland in February - Ludovic Charlet @unsplash
February marks a turn in the Icelandic winter. While temperatures are comparable to January or December, the days are longer so you can be out in the wild more often. You can count on 8 hours of daylight in the middle of February.
Snow is still on every surface in February. Hikes in the highlands give way to ice cave excursions, dog sledding trips or even glacier hikes.
Like December and January, February is ideal for observing the Northern Lights.
From a tourist point of view, February is not very busy, though still more than January, especially by French tourists enjoying their February holidays to spend a week abroad. Rental prices are lower than in December and it won't be too crowded.