Iceland has become an increasingly popular vacation destination, and more people are beginning to visit there in the winter. I had the pleasure of visiting this incredible country right around the Christmas holidays. I wanted to visit in December for a number of reasons. For one, I wanted to enjoy some cold weather and snowy landscapes — Florida hasn’t exactly quenched my thirst for cold weather. Also, I had read how the country really knows how to celebrate the holidays, so I wanted to experience some Icelandic Christmas traditions.
So, what exactly is it like to visit Iceland in winter? It’s magical. It’s unreal. It’s perfect. Go. Go, now.
Reykjavík is a beautiful city full of amazing food, coffee, festive adult beverages (Christmas beers!), adorable shops, countless pieces of art, and endless sidewalks to explore. Not to mention, the city has views straight out to Mount Esja. In December, Reykjavík is also full of Christmas spirit. Holiday lights are all over the city, and hot chocolate can be found at nearly every eatery. I can’t explain to you how much fun it is to grab a hot chocolate from a café and walk around the Christmas lights at night and really appreciate the town. If you have time to hang around Reykjavík at all, I highly recommend it.
While we spent our nights in Reykjavík, we spent most of the daylight hours we had driving around the beautiful countryside. Coming from Florida, we were curious to see how we would manage driving through the winter conditions in Iceland. We had absolutely no issue. We rented a small 2WD car from Hertz at Keflavík International, and the car served us VERY well. We had no problem getting around the city or some of the more challenging roads like Route 221. I highly recommend renting a car and setting out for your own adventures instead of signing up for a bus tour. With that being said, winter in Iceland can mean dangerous road conditions. It’s important to do some research and ensure the roads are safe to drive on before you take off for the day. To check road conditions, visit the website safetravel.is for the latest on travel conditions throughout the country. If there are warnings against driving, listen to them. If the weather allows for safe travels, buckle up and get ready to see some incredible sights. *Updated* during every trip we’ve now taken to Iceland, we have rented a 2WD car from Hertz at Keflavík and had a great experience.
Hours of Daylight
As you are probably aware, daylight is somewhat limited in Iceland during December. While we were there, we started to see light peeking through around 10:00 a.m. When I say peeking, I mean that it wasn’t pitch dark any longer – it was far from what 10:00 a.m. looks like in the states. So, the mornings are indeed a bit different than what you might be accustomed to. However, the evenings are a bit more similar to what we see here in the United States. It starts to get dark early, but it doesn’t get totally dark for some time. In Iceland during winter, sunset is an event. Our second day there, sunset was said to be around 3:30 p.m., but sunset lasted easily until around 5:00 p.m. At 5:15 p.m., we still had enough light to walk around geysirs and take a couple of photos. Basically, expect sunrise to be later than you might be accustomed to and expect sunset to provide a good deal of light through the evening – don’t think that the set time for sunset means darkness immediately follows.
As far as the weather goes, Iceland is incredibly unpredictable. I know, I know, you’ve heard this before. I’m sure every article you have read has mentioned how ever-changing the weather is in all of Iceland.
I’ll try to give you a better idea of what the weather can be like by sharing my experience with you.
Despite arriving a few days after the most intense storm Iceland had seen in decades, the weather was pretty much perfect while I was there. My first day in Iceland was clear and sunny and everything I could’ve asked for. It was cold. but completely comfortable in Reykjavík. It was around 21 °F when it was dark out, and to be totally honest, I was 100 percent comfortable. Outside of the city, it felt a good deal colder though. We drove to Thingvellir National Park on our first day, and it was c-o-l-d. It was around 18 °F and was also fairly windy. I made the mistake of not putting on my gloves for the first couple of minutes of our visit and that was a big mistake. I had never felt such an excruciating pain in my hands ever before – I quickly learned how essential gloves are. The rest of our time in Iceland consisted of comfortable weather that was a mix of sunny and rainy cold weather. I believe it was in the 30s (Fahrenheit) for the rest of our trip, but even in the rain we were very comfortable.
Of course, we were comfortable because we were dressed appropriately. If you are venturing to the countryside, it’s smart to have layers with you. I actually wore jeans during all of our excursions (even when it was raining). However, I always had my dry pants with me in case I needed them. I also heavily relied on a water-repellent winter jacket that I wore every day. It kept me warm and dry throughout our entire trip. You’ll also want some waterproof winter boots. These days, there are plenty of options available, so you should have no problem finding a high-quality, waterproof pair of winter boots for your adventures. Gloves, a head warmer, and face protection are also exceptionally important. Whether you want to wear a scarf or a buff, you’ll certainly want to have something to block the wind and cold from your face. *Updated* Now that we’ve been to Iceland multiple times, I can say with even more confidence that the weather is truly unpredictable. Our first winter trip was colder but brighter. Our last winter trip there was not as cold but was a lot gloomier. It’s best to be prepared for all kinds of weather, so pack clothes that are good for layering and make sure you have a solid, waterproof winter jacket. And, again, pack some warm boots that can handle rain, snow, and ice. I really love these North Face ones. I have multiple pairs and have worn them in Iceland in nearly every season. (No, this isn’t a sponsored post, I just really love these shoes!)
Now that we’ve established that Reykjavík is a great place to hang out, renting a car and driving in safe weather is the best way to get around, and dressing appropriately for the cold and possibly wet weather is a wise decision, let’s talk about some of the must-see sights.
If you are using Reykjavík as your home base, you have many options when choosing nearby sights to explore. You can pretty much drive in any direction and find unbelievably gorgeous places to enjoy. My advice is to pick a place you really, really want to see and figure out what else is possible to see on that route. You don’t want to realize later that you drove right by the waterfall you were dying to see because you didn’t realize you’d pass it while on the way to another sight. During your travels you’ll want to leave plenty of time to stop and look around in different areas, as you will surely pass through beautiful, tiny towns and all types of natural landscapes. In winter, you do somewhat have to be a little bit more organized when it comes to dealing with weather-related issues and limited daylight. Make the effort to do a little research before your trip to figure out what is where – you’ll be happy you did.
Our first day we took our time driving around and enjoying views of breathtaking mountains, Icelandic horses, and snowy landscapes. We ended up stopping at a couple of lookouts and hiking around Thingvellir National Park. The park is around an hour away from Reykjavík and is very easy to get to. There is a decent size parking lot, bathroom facilities (must pay around $2.00 to use), and a gift shop/educational center at the park. It’s a great place to walk around and see the largest natural lake in Iceland. At Thingvellir, you can also walk between tectonic plates and even scuba dive. *Updated* You now must pay to park at the main entrance of Thingvellir National Park — about $3.80 USD, credit cards accepted.
Another day, we drove out towards Thingvellir again, visiting Gullfoss waterfall and the geysirs. It took us between an hour and an hour and a half to get to Gullfoss from Thingvellir. We did drive through some snowy conditions and what appeared to be the end of a tiny storm, so the drive DID take a good bit of time. However, the drive itself was incredible. We saw some of the most beautiful landscapes I’ve ever seen. Of course, Gullfoss and the geysirs didn’t disappoint either.
We also made sure to dedicate a day to driving to Vík. We really wanted to see Sólheimajökull glacier, so we set aside some time to make the hike to the “incredible shrinking glacier”. After stopping in some cute towns for hot cocoa, coffee, and bathroom breaks, and enjoying a couple of waterfalls, we made it to the parking lot of Sólheimajökull glacier. We walked the icy, steep-ish trail that made me wish I had crampons with me and stood in awe of the glacier and beautiful blue ice. I highly recommend going to check out this place and its blue ice in winter! From there, we raced the fading sunlight to Vík to catch a glimpse of the dramatic rock formations from Black Sand Beach. We barely made it in time to see the light disappear behind the cliffs, but we made it.
We managed to see all of these famous sights while enjoying the exciting drives through otherworldly landscapes during the month of December.
The Northern Lights
The famous Auroras are one of the biggest draws to Iceland. We got to see them during our second winter trip there, and the experience was AMAZING. I wrote a detailed blog post about it, if you want to check it out: Chasing the Northern Lights in Iceland.
Don’t forget to bookmark the Icelandic Met Office’s Aurora Forcaster to check on conditions for the Northern Lights!
New Year’s Eve in Reykjavík
One year, we had the pleasure of spending New Year’s Eve in Iceland’s capital city, and we had a blast! We started off by having a special meal at The Fish Company, and then we headed to Hallgrímskirkja to see the incredible fireworks display. I wrote in detail about the experience: Reykjavík on New Year’s Eve.
Facilities That Are Open, Including Gas Stations
We haven’t had any trouble finding open establishments when we need them. While some of the towns we passed through were very small, we were able to find a bathroom and refreshments. If you rent a car, be aware that gas stations are somewhat limited in certain places, however. For example, you’ll drive through several towns with gas stations on the way to Vík but you won’t see as many between Thingvellir and Gullfoss.
It would be wise to start every daily road trip with a full tank and stop at gas stations when you see them if your car is below half a tank. If you are at a gas station that has a cashier, you can simply use whichever credit card you want – no problem. However, you need a chip and pin card at unattended gas stations throughout Iceland. Currently, most credit cards in the United States are not true chip and pin cards, so you might want to apply for a travel credit card that offers this feature before you go to Iceland. I also read that some people by gas cards when they arrive in Iceland if they don’t have a chip and pin card to use. I’m not sure how that works though.
If you want to go to Iceland in December, I suggest you go and that you go soon. Iceland is growing in popularity, and soon the country will be just as packed with tourists in winter as it is in summer. This means that sights will be more crowded, tours will be overbooked, and rental cars and accommodations will be more expensive. This of course DOESN’T mean that it’ll be any less beautiful or that you won’t have a great time. It just might be more beneficial to head over for your first Icelandic experience sooner than later. *Updated* My first trip to Iceland was back in 2015. Since then, I’ve been there in 2017, 2018, 2019, and counting. Iceland is now a busy tourist destination year-round. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t go there — I (obviously) want you to visit this amazing country. Just be prepared for the airport, accommodations, tours, and eateries to be busy. Because of this, it’s more important than ever to be a Good Tourist in Iceland.
If you have any questions about visiting Iceland, please don’t hesitate to reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’m ALWAYS happy to talk about Iceland.