5 Reasons to Visit Iceland in the Winter
It's the land of fire, ice, and ice cream.
Iceland has certainly become a hot spot for tourism, especially since Icelandair started offering stopovers to travelers on their way across the Atlantic. But don’t just consider visiting the island nation in for your summer vacation. Iceland’s short days, shifting weather, and snow-covered volcanic landscape creates a winter wonderland all its own.
The island’s black lava rocks covered in white snow provides a breathtakingly stark landscape. While daylight hours are few, exploring even just the Golden Circle route with a tour guide will have you taking moody, Ansel Adams-like photos with your iPhone.
You’ll also be able to experience chilling in a hot spring while snowflakes dance around your head and even, if you dare, take a dip in a glacial lake between soaks with locals and tourists alike at the geothermal Fontana Spa.
And when it comes to food, the winter and summer menus tell a different story of Icelandic cuisine. In the late autumn, you can expect more game and lamb to be on the menu at places like Matur og Drykkur, which focuses on elevating and experimenting with familiar Icelandic flavors. Paying homage to its location in an old cod salting factory, the flame-finished, glazed cod head is a bold, hearty choice for your entree that will definitely make you feel like you’re in Viking country.
November to March is considered peak Northern Lights season in Iceland, and, weather permitting, the sight is worth braving the cold. But the lights themselves are only part of the fun, as you may need to go on a hunt for the celestial display. In cloudy and windy weather, a knowledgeable driver will communicate with other tour guides to locate clear patches in the sky and find the perfect spot to pull the bus over (even in a brief blizzard) while you wait for the clearing to catch up to you.
But if you happen to visit Reykjavik in late December, you’ll also be treated to a different kind of light show. The city’s skies are ablaze with fireworks kicking off the New Year. Locals are able to buy their own pyrotechnics for a limited team each year, and as you might imagine, the whole community is lit in every sense of the word.
From coffee shops to cocktail bars, hygge spaces are in no short supply in the city and in rentable cabins an hour or two from civilization. If you’re more in the mood to stay in town, hotels like the Canopy by Hilton in Reykjavik’s city center are offering Scandinavian-style comfort in every nook and cranny.
Canopy opened last year, the first location of the Hilton’s new concept which also recently popped up in Washington D.C., and folds in local street art, mid-century furniture, and even an original, old craftsman’s townhouse into its design. You’ll find armchairs and comfy couches tucked around corners and under staircases, a library with a fireplace, and a vinyl collection and record players you can borrow to take up to your room. With a bar, restaurant, and nightly tastings on site, if the weather isn’t going your way, staying in your hotel will still feel like an Icelandic getaway.
Fire and Ice Cubes
Seek out frozen waterfalls, walk through ice caves, hike through the continental plate divide between Europe and North America, or hit the slopes for some skiing. Once you’re back in town, head to the center of Reykjavik’s cocktail culture, Slippbarinn, and order up an “I Wish I Were a Dog.”
The citrusy beverage features the local “Black Death” caraway liquor, Brennivin, and a flaming sprig of arctic thyme which is lit afire by the server’s finger dipped in alcohol. And you thought taking a shot was hardcore.
Need I say more? Icelanders are known for their love of ice cream all year long, with lines out the door even in the coldest months. For the freshest stuff, head to a local dairy like the ice cream house at Efstidalur farm and meet the cows who lovingly gave their milk so you could enjoy salted caramel, mango, or licorice ice cream while bundled up in your warmest winter coat.