I don’t think there is a bad time to go to Iceland, but if you want to do the southern region like we did, I’d definitely recommend going during winter. First and foremost, it’s off season. With Iceland gaining a lot of popularity among tourists recently, you will still see people at the famous spots like Skogafoss and Black Sand Beach, but over all it’s so much less crowded than if you went during summer.
Just be prepared. It’s cold! Never fear though, if you’re like us warm blooded Floridians, I will make a separate post for how to pack to survive the cold. Anyway, I can’t recommend visiting in winter enough, it was magical. To this day, Iceland is my favorite destination. And I can’t wait until we can make it back (particularly to catch the Aurora Borealis… we couldn’t track her down this time around, sadly). Here are a few of my recommendations for your own week long adventure.
But first... rent a car
So, if you read my post about Cleveland, you’ll know that was my first time seeing snow. Well let me tell you, Iceland in winter blew that out of the water. Frozen waterfalls, snow storms that covered our car, running from our hotel room over snowy wooden decks to soak in a warm jacuzzi with red wine… it didn’t get much better than that. Except, around every turn, it did. And there were a lot of turns. Which is why I say, if you want to truly experience Iceland, rent a car!
Of course, we would have enjoyed Iceland by staying in Reykjavik and doing day trips out to the sites, but the experience was that much more when you got to pull off the road (slowly! as it’s probably icy somewhere) and walk through seaweed specked marsh to a deserted beach that was windy as hell. And the beauty of not being on a time schedule (except, you kind of are in winter because there are only about 6 hours of daylight to play with) so you can explore what you want, when you want. Rent a car, you’ll thank me when you do.
An important note on renting a car in the winter:
Make sure you get one with four wheel drive. It will be a bit more expensive, but some of the places in Iceland are off road and require 4WD. It’s also the safer option in the winter season with icy roads. We got the Kia Sportage 4×4 and loved it.
One Week in Iceland
You will arrive at Keflavik airport. Depending on where you fly in from you will arrive very early, which is great, because you’ll get a whole day. Our flight arrived at 6:10. We planned to pick up our car at the airport, most places of which have 24 hour services, which is super convenient for the 6:10 arrivals. Most companies even offer a free shuttle to take you to the buildings. We got our car and were on the road by about 6:45. Quick and painless.
Next, we navigated in the dark (and our first time driving in the snow) over to the Blue Lagoon. It’s relatively close to the airport so a lot of tour companies make it the first stop when you arrive. For me, it was the best time that I could fit it into our itinerary. I suggest you make the reservation well in advance because you can’t just show up and it can max out. They offer three different packages, which you can compare and purchase here. We chose the premium package and loved every minute of it.
I timed our reservation so we would be in the Blue Lagoon as the sun was rising. And it didn’t disappoint. By the way, you can look up sunrise and sunset times here. This was a life saver when I was planning our trip to see how much day we actually had to explore (pro tip: drive to and from your base camp in the dark if possible, it will give you more time to see the sights).
So since we timed the reservation with sunrise, we had about three hours of darkness to kill. We rolled into the deserted parking lot, turned up the heat and did what any sane person would do… nap! It was brilliant. For more on the Blue Lagoon, you can read my review here.
After the Blue Lagoon we made the trek out to where we would be staying for the next two nights. The drive was exceptional. This was where we found the marshes that led to a deserted beach that I mentioned earlier. It was a two hour drive to the guesthouse, but with the stops we made we stretched it about an extra hour and a half and were arriving as the sun was starting to go down. It wasn’t dark enough to see that our dirt road took us past some adorable Icelandic horses I had read about though!
We stayed at Hotel Vos for the next two nights. It’s a family run hotel that I cannot recommend enough!
I’d like to say we set out early, but with sunrise not being until almost 10:00, we were able to sleep in, which was a nice change of pace from our normal travel style. We had a delicious breakfast with fresh baked bread, meats, cheeses, the famous (and incredible) Skyr yogurt and more. With full bellies we were ready to trek out to Thingvellir National Park.
After Thingvellir we drove about and hour from the park to the famous Iceland Geysir that erupts every 10 minutes or so. Seriously, every driving route we took felt like we were on another planet. Where we passed seaweed and marshes yesterday, today we passed a completely snow covered field that looked like something only the heavens could create.
From the Geysir area we ended the day with the little sunlight we had left at the Gullfoss waterfall before making the drive back to our hotel in the dark.
After another morning sleeping in, enjoying more of the delicious breakfast we had yesterday and checking out of our hotel, we set out for an action packed day. Eventually leading us to a night at the famous Black Sand Beach.
Our first stop was Seljalandsfoss, a huge waterfall that I’m sure you’ve seen when looking at photos of Iceland. I swear everything looks different covered in snow. To me, it’s that much more magical. We spent more time than we probably needed to at this location, because we just kept discovering more and more, including a cave with a ginormous waterfall! This was a stop that we planned on hitting on our way back to Reykjavik later in the week, but I’m so glad we went ahead and stopped when we saw it.
From Seljalandsfoss, we went to another well known waterfall, Skogafoss. Anthony and I split up here because he wanted to climb the 200 and something stairs to the top and I opted to not kill myself before lunch. I stayed at the base of the waterfall and watched as the sun kept making a rainbow appear and then disappear through the mist. I swear I could have watched it for hours. Anthony returned and said the stairs were too treacherous for the view, so I’m glad I skipped out on that.
We drove to Solheimajokull for a glacier hike I scheduled. What an experience that was! In efforts to not make this longer than it already is, I will write about our experience in another post. But long story short, do a glacier hike!
Finally, after our 90 minute hike, as the sun was starting to go down, we drove to our cabin right off Reynisfjara Black Sand Beach. It was such a unique and wonderful experience getting to listen to the waves crash all night… and the wind howl! They warned us about the wind when we picked up our car and this was the first location I took seriously about it being able to rip off our car doors.
This was another location where things closed early because of winter. We tried to go to the restaurant on the beach, but they were closing. They did have some pre-made (overpriced) sandwiches, so at risk of not starving from our strenuous hike, we grabbed some of those and had a little picnic in our cabin.
We woke up and checked out early enough to be able to watch the sun rise on the beach (not very early, as I’m sure you can guess by now). Since we were so close to the beach already we had it just about to ourselves for a while. Even as the sun rose it wasn’t overly crowded. Another perk of traveling in winter!
From the beach, we drove over to Dyrholaey Cliffs. The highest point of the cliffs was roped off because it was so icy. However, we could still go high enough to get a great view of the area and watch the waves crash over island rocks.
We then continued on our journey to Fjaðrárgljúfur, a two million year old river canyon. We passed through the gorgeous and otherworldly lava fields, Eldhraun, on our way there. Just another hint that Iceland is actually a different planet.
We visited Diamond Beach before crossing the street to Jökulsárlón, just in time to watch the sun set behind the glacier lagoon.
We ended our night at Guesthouse Skalafell, where we got to stay in our own wooden cabin detached from the main building. They offered us a dinner menu which had the most amazing cauliflower soup.
After a gorgeous sunrise we checked out of our guesthouse. We attempted to make our first stop at Fjallsárlón, but it was so windy and icy, we were not in the right shoes for the hike to the glacier.
After debate on if it was worth risking a broken leg, we drove on to Vatnajökull National Park in Skaftafell. We did make that hike to Svartifoss. Or, as close as we could get without imminent death (more on that later). Deciding, yet again, against it, we hiked back over to the Vatnajökull Glacier. The field was eerily beautiful. Dark greys of dirt and rocks, and then you come upon this bright, ocean blue glacier that seems to grow as you walk towards it.
We stopped for the night at Icelandair Hotel Klauster.
Here we made the trek back to Reykjavik. Our first stop for the day was Kerið, a 3,000 year old volcanic crater. While it’s possible, we didn’t walk down into the crater because it was pretty steep and, of course, icy. But it’s a beautiful sight even from the rim.
We traveled through a mountain range during a snow storm in order to cross back to Reykjavik. That was quite an experience! I was sure a gust of wind was going to move us over into oncoming traffic at any moment. Thankfully, we lived to tell the tale.
Once in Reykjavik, we checked into the Fosshotel Raudara, where we were able to park our car and drop our bags before setting out to see the city. We visited the famous Penis museum, did a little bar hopping including the Lebowski Bar, stopped in a couple of bookstores (where I was able to find a copy of Harry Potter in Icelandic for my set!) and had dinner at Icelandic Street Food, that had a special of all you can eat soups in bread bowls, before turning in for the night.
After breakfast in our hotel, we walked back into the city and went to the top of the Hallgrimskirkja cathedral. It holds to best view of Reykjavik. We then walked down to the water to see the Sun Voyager, a steel viking boat sculpture by Jón Gunnar.
Finally, we drove back to the airport to drop off our car and catch our flight.
Stay tuned as I go more in depth with the sights that we visited! But in the meantime, I hope my itinerary inspired you for your own Iceland adventure. Want some help planning and booking your trip? Schedule your complimentary call here.
Be sure to leave me a comment if you have any questions or if you used this itinerary. I’d love to hear your stories!
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