Iceland is full of interesting sights and incredible sceneries, and during winter it’s most likely all covered in snow. Here I share 10 incredible Iceland winter attractions.
Scepticism is probably the first reaction you will get from people if you decide to take a winter trip to Iceland. At least that was what I did. “Isn’t it too dark and too cold?” my friends and family asked. At first, I thought so too. But then I read about the incredible things you can do in Iceland in winter and saw photos of mesmerising winter wonderlands, and thereafter neither the cold nor the darkness could stop me (or my mum) from going.
Iceland in January is amazing. It might be cold and dark, but if you plan your trip according to the bright hours and pack your warmest clothes, you are going to have an awesome time. Most of the beautiful sights Iceland is so famous for are even prettier when covered in snow and illuminated by the characteristic soft winter light. In addition, fewer crowds mean you won’t have to share popular attractions with tonnes of other tourists.
My mum and I went to Iceland in late January and in this post, I share the highlights from our 10-day road trip around the country.
10 incredible things to do in Iceland in January
1/ Seeing the Northern Light
“I can’t believe we are actually seeing this,” I uttered when my mum and I for the first time encountered the Northern Light on our second day in the country.
Perhaps the biggest attraction in Iceland this time of year, seeing the Northern Light is a winter highlight. Watching the aquamarine colours dance on the night sky is an amazing experience and could easily be the sole reason to visit the land of ice and fire in the dark winter months.
Due to its location in the centre of the Aurora Belt, Iceland is one of the best countries to see the Northern Light. January to March are considered the best months, but the phenomenon can be encountered from early September to late April.
2/ Watching the sunset from a snowy Mount Kirkjufell
Easily accessible from Reykjavík on the northern side of the Snæfellsnes Peninsula, Mount Kirkjufell isn’t exactly a hidden gem in Iceland – but it’s definitely worth seeing.
The characteristic mountain with the sharpened peak and long curved sides takes its name from its resemblance to a church steeple. And together with its unique location next to the Kirkjufellsfoss waterfall and the ocean shore, there is a reason why Mount Kirkjufell is one of Iceland’s most incredible mountains and one of the most photographed landmarks in the country.
Especially during sunset, it’s an amazing sight. Watching the sun go down behind the mountain and seeing the sky painted in several sunset colours is worth driving a few hundred kilometres to experience.
3/ Driving the lonely roads of Northwest Iceland
If you are longing to get off the beaten track, the northwestern part of Iceland is where to go. Most people skip this area, but leaving the Ring Road to drive some of the smaller roads along the coast was one of our best adventures.
When we took the decision we didn’t know what to expect, but from the beginning, our jaws dropped of excitement. Rough mountains, winding streams and incredible ocean vistas were the views that met us on the lonely roads close to the Westfjords and along the Vatnsnes Peninsula, and we constantly stopped the car to snap a photo.
The highlight was the stretch near the Westfjords that gave us a little glimpse of the area’s rough beauty and made both of us eager to explore this part of Iceland one day.
4/ Being captivated by mighty Goðafoss
With more than ten thousand waterfalls of all shapes and sizes, Iceland is every waterfall chaser’s dream destination. Goðafoss is neither the most famous (Gullfoss), the most powerful (Dettifoss) nor the tallest waterfall in Iceland (Morsárfoss). But it’s arguably the most spectacular one.
Cascades of water from the Skjálfandafljót river flows over a semi-circular arc, making Goðafoss a divine sight. In winter the water fights the low temperatures, and the sheer power is the sole reason why the fall isn’t completely frozen. The ice and snow form a beautiful contrast to the ice-blue glacial water that thunders from 12 metres into the lower part.
5/ Exploring the geothermal wonderland around Lake Mývatn
Iceland is known as the land of ice and fire; a saying that must have started around Lake Mývatn in winter. A thick layer of snow covers the area, including hundreds of volcanic craters that rise from the earth. The white landscape is in contrast to the calm Lake Mývatn where steam slowly rises from the surface. The temperature is way below zero degrees in this far north region in late January, and the water that moves quietly in the lake is contrary to all laws of nature as it should have been frozen solid. It’s not.
The area around Lake Mývatn is a geothermal wonderland where you despite the freezing temperatures feel a little closer to the interior of the earth than most other places in the world. Spend some time exploring different parts of the lake, see some of the volcanoes up close and soak in the heat from the northside’s equivalent to the Blue Lagoon, Mývatn Nature Baths.
This area is indeed weird and wonderful at the same time, and I can only imagine how different it may look in summer.
6/ Experiencing incredible sceneries at Stokksnes
Disappointment was my first reaction when we drove to the Stokksnes Peninsula in the southeastern part of Iceland an early morning. Snow was falling to the ground, the clouds were heavy and we couldn’t see a metre ahead of us. The forecast predicted better weather, so we sat in the car and waited and hoped the storm would move away quickly. After 20 minutes we were about to lose hope, but then the clouds lifted and the amazing scenery I had seen so many photos of on Instagram appeared.
The black sand mixed with the white snow, the rugged Vestrahorn mountains and the dark ocean created a dramatic scenery that you could do nothing but just admire.
Indeed, the weather and the seasons have a great impact on the appearance of Stokksnes, and it’s easy to understand that this place is one of Iceland’s top photography spots.
7/ Driving on glaciers and exploring ice caves at Vatnajökull
Driving in a giant super jeep on Iceland’s largest glacier Vatnajökull is an interesting experience. It’s slow, bumpy and loud because of the pressure the guide puts on the vehicle in order to avoid getting stuck. But it’s also fun and fascinating and the only way to get to the ice caves that are naturally formed in the glacier during winter.
Experiencing the ice caves stands in sharp contrast to the drive. Inside it’s quiet and calm, and only the occasional sounds of the ice creaking will disrupt the silence and remind you that you are inside the heart of a moving glacier.
Next winter the caves will look completely different. Old ones will disappear and new ones will occur, some will grow bigger and others shrink in size, a few will change colour and most won’t. The caves are indeed a natural winter wonder.
8/ Encountering ice blocks at Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon and Diamond Beach
When driving the Ring Road towards Jökulsárlon we couldn’t take our eyes away from the large chunks of ice at the Glacier Lagoon. And the closer we got the more fascinated we were. Ice blocks in every size and shape calve from the tongue of the Breiðamerkurjökull Glacier and move calmly in a picturesque lagoon and act as obstacles for a playful seal colony. It’s surely a sight for sore eyes.
Some of the chunks have made it all the way to the mouth of the lagoon and lie as sparkling ice diamonds in beautiful contrast to the black sand of the famous Diamond Beach. The ice diamonds here are as unique as real diamonds and come in various forms and colours.
9/ Being mesmerised by the incredible views of Þingvellir
When I first time visited Iceland back in 2016, the journey began on the popular Golden Circle. I remember being captivated by the incredible natural wonders on the route, but Þingvellir wasn’t the highlight. Not until I returned in winter this year.
Culture and history are mixed with geology and beautiful sights at this one of only two UNESCO world heritage sites in Iceland. In summer it’s a lush area where green, black and blue colours dominate while winter replaces the green with white. It’s indeed a wonderland.
The highlight is the rift valley between walls, between continents that culminate at the frozen Öxarárfoss waterfall in one end and at the viewpoint to the ice-blue lake Þingvallavatn and the Alþing at the other. The latter is the well-preserved remnants of where the oldest parliament in the world was formed over a millennium ago.
Þingvallavatn is a stunning sight not only from the ground. It’s possible to snorkel and dive at Silfra; an underwater fissure between the North American and the Eurasian tectonic plates that reportedly has the clearest water in the world.
10/ Getting warm in nature baths and hot pots
Winter in Iceland can be cold. At one point we noticed -24 degrees on the thermometer in the car, but mostly we had around -5 to -10 degrees at the end of January. No matter how much clothes I wore I sometimes froze. However, Iceland is indeed the land of ice and fire, and there is a great way to deal with the freezing temperatures.
All around the country you find nature baths and hot pots, making it possible to relax and unwind in warm water while enjoying the surroundings around you. It’s a challenge to get in and go up, but the warmth you feel when you are in is totally worth the brief moment of pure cold.
Surely these places are the Icelanders’ secret to survive the cold and dark months during winter.
How to get to Iceland in January
Flights to Iceland
If you want to get to Iceland the fastest way possible, you should go by air.
Operating all year and with several routes from various places in Europe and USA, Icelandair isn’t surprisingly the most obvious airline to choose. However, EasyJet and Air Iceland also have routes from different European cities throughout the year.
Situated around 40 kilometres from Iceland’s capital Reykjavík, Keflavik Airport is the largest and busiest airport in the country.
From the airport, it’s quite easy to get to the city centre of Reykjavík. You can either take one of the frequently running airport buses, take a taxi or hire a car from one of the many car rentals located at or near the airport.
Ferries to Iceland
If you are more into slow travel, you can take a ferry to Iceland.
While it takes approximately 1,5 days to get to Iceland from Hirtshals, you can get there in approximately 19 hours from Tórshavn.
How to get around in Iceland in January
I would venture to say that there is only one way to get around in Iceland and that is by car – also in winter. Everywhere in Iceland you will experience the country’s otherworldly beauty, and by driving you can stop and soak in the surroundings wherever you go.
Driving in Iceland in winter may sound scarier than it is. However, I would only recommend it if you drive a 4×4 car and optimally have a bit of experience driving on snowy and icy roads.
It’s a good idea to check the road conditions on road.is before you leave on any adventure and of course drive according to the conditions.
You might experience that some roads are closed during winter. Icelanders are hardy people, and they don’t close roads unless it’s totally necessary. So for your own safety, never drive these.
I plan to write a comprehensive post about driving in Iceland in winter, so stay tuned!
The weather in Iceland in January
The weather in Iceland is very unpredictable. You might be lucky and enjoy cold, crispy and sunny days, and then you will probably understand why January is considered one of Iceland’s most beautiful months. However, you might also experience grey skies, gusting winds and occasional snow storms. Under these conditions, Iceland isn’t that appealing. Most days though you will probably experience a bit of both.
Iceland is located in the North Atlantic Ocean, and you might think that the temperatures are extremely cold during winter. While it certainly isn’t warm – especially not on the northern side – the temperatures in Iceland in January are much higher compared to other countries sitting on the same latitude.
Due to the North Atlantic Current, the average temperature in January in the capital of Reykjavík varies between 1 to -4 degrees and the average temperature in the second largest city of Akureyri located in North Iceland is -1 to -8 degrees. Note that these are average temperatures, it might be way colder in reality – we had -24 degrees in Mývatn at one point!
Daylight in Iceland in January
January is one of Iceland’s darkest months. The 1st of January the sun rises at 11.21 and sets at 15.41 in Reykjavík, which only gives four hours and 20 minutes of daylight. Surely, this isn’t much. But due to Iceland’s northern latitude, dawn and dusk last surprisingly long and the time between sunrise and sunset increases a lot day by day. By the end of the month, the country enjoys approximately seven hours of daylight!
Packing for Iceland in January
There is only one way to cope with the cold weather in January unless you want to stay inside; pack warm and practical clothes. I don’t think I would ever say this, but don’t pack light for a winter trip to Iceland. Instead, bring several layers, so you are prepared for every occasion and bring a good winter jacket and solid waterproof boots.
I plan to write a comprehensive post about what to pack for Iceland in winter, so stay tuned!
Hopefully I’ve made you a little excited to visit Iceland in winter! For more inspiration, head to my Iceland photo diary that shows the incredible beauty of Iceland in 46 photos. If you are already inspired but need a little practical advice, check out these 18 essential Iceland winter tips.
Or simply peruse my other Iceland articles.
Alternatively, if you are a fan of the Nordics, read my green city guide to Copenhagen.
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