How to Spend 4 Days in Iceland in Winter

August 14th, 2019

Written by:

Ragnheiður Harpa Haraldsdóttir

9 min read

To many, winter is when Iceland shows its true colors. It is the time of year that the country’s name first really starts to make sense, and when the island’s remote location gives it an actual advantage. 

This advantage I speak of has to do with the famed Northern Lights. Iceland is known as an ideal place to see them, and not only in the standard colors but also in the more unusual ones like purple, pink, and red.

Northern Lights Iceland

But the Northern Lights aren’t the only reason why Icelandic winters are loved. Winter is also the season of live music festivals and incredible art exhibitions.

I am talking about huge music festivals like Iceland Airwaves and Sonar Reykjavík, which are held annually and attract international talents and their fans. This is how many people like to spend a long weekend in Iceland in winter, possibly going for a Golden Circle tour or a soak in one of the many hot springs in between musical acts. 

strokkur in winter

However, for those who are looking for a quieter holiday, the Icelandic winter brings plenty of opportunities. Here we can mention the crystal blue ice caves, some glacier activities such as snowmobiling and hiking, the famous food walks and the incredible Snæfellsnes peninsula, a place which will be seen in a completely new light when seen during the wintertime. 

Meet some friendly Icealndic horses

For the animal lovers out there, you might want to know that Icelandic horses grow an extra layer of fur during wintertime, turning them into the cutest little furballs.

The Icelandic horse has been isolated on the island for over 1,000 years, so they have adapted well and developed these traits and others to live comfortably here in the Land of Fire and Ice. This isolation has also resulted in their unique gait, the tölt, which is one of the softest riding gaits known to horsemen.

Try a horseback riding tour in the Icelandic winter and if you get cold, simply warm your hands in the horse’s fluffy fur. They get a stroke, and you get warmer – it’s really a win-win thing!

Winter might not be the time to trek the highlands or to go puffin watching, but it is the time for those dancing multicolored neon lights and for the natural ice caves. Also, Iceland’s endless source of hot water and, therefore, opportunities to go hot pool bathing make for a dreamy contrast to the crisp frosty air. I could go on and on, but this blog is about 4-day visits so let’s try to stay within that time frame.

Here it is: the perfect 4 days in winter in Iceland!

Here’s your 4 days in Iceland in winter bucket list:

  • See the Northern Lights
  • Taste some local cuisine
  • See the waterfalls in their winter ice outfits
  • Go horseback riding
  • Visit a local swimming pool
  • Soak in a hot spring
  • Stroll around Reykjavík
  • Do the Golden Circle
  • See the reflecting lights at Harpa Concert Hall

Day 1: Blue Lagoon, Reykjavík, Northern Lights tour

Upon arrival at Keflavík airport, you have a few options for getting into town. You can take the transfer shuttle, you can pick up a rental car (best to pre-book for better prices), or you can catch a taxi. But, please be aware that taxis are by far the most expensive option. 

Blue Lagoon Iceland

In between the airport and Reykjavík, you’ll find the renowned Blue Lagoon. Its turquoise blue healing waters, snow-white silica clay, and black lava surroundings turn the scene into a real-life dream. The main difference is that this dream you can reach within 20 minutes from the airport.

Nothing fixes a jet-lagged situation like a dip in the Blue Lagoon, so we recommend it as a first stop. Just make sure to book in advance, the availability slots tend to fill up quickly. 

Pro tip 1: You can get a special bus that takes you to the Blue Lagoon before taking you to your hotel in Reykjavík. The buses are very flexible and go hourly from the Blue Lagoon, so you can take as much your time in the lagoon as you want. 

Pro tip 2: If you don’t have time to visit upon arrival, then book a visit for your day of departure. You’ll be relaxed and refreshed for your trip home, maybe even ready to sleep through the whole flight. 

Norhern Lights

Before you arrive, you should go ahead and make a booking for a Northern Lights tour. The lights can be a very tricky thing to catch, and the more nights you try the better your chances are of seeing them. Try the super jeep version or test your chances at sea. Icelanders have gotten very creative when it comes to ways of catching those dazzling beams. 

Reykjavik during winter

If your Northern Lights tour is canceled for the evening, you might want to check out the English-language How to Become Icelandic in 60 Minutes comedy presentation at Harpa Concert Hall. You’ll fill two needs with one deed: seeing the architectural wonder that is Harpa and getting a quick lesson in the ways of Icelanders.

I’ve seen the show and must admit, as an Icelander, it hits home hard. The show is a mixture of spontaneous laughing and ‘Oh my God, that’s so true’ and ‘I never realized that’ moments at their best! 

Day 2: South coast

Pro tip 3: Make sure to check the weather forecast before starting your trip. If there are signs of bad weather on the horizon, you might want to book tours accordingly. Lava tunnel tours are, for example, excellent to do on a bad weather day. Most of the time is spent inside this magical lava tube and, believe it or not, but the weather stays the same in the cave no matter what. Problem solved!

When you only have four days you should make the most of them. So on that note, let’s start with the South Coast! There we have the famous gorgeous waterfalls, the mysterious black sand beach and other fantastic sights. 

Whether you want to take a rental car and explore on your own or take a bus tour completely up to you, but just keep in mind that those Iceland roads can get tricky in winter. Between November and March, the weather does tend to play tricks, freezing roads quickly or blasting us with some full-throttle wind. Therefore if you aren’t used to driving in less favorable circumstances, you might want to think about joining a bus tour instead. 

driving in iceland in winter

The day starts in Reykjavík, where you have a great variety of energizing breakfast options. Some lovely Icelandic chains are Kaffitár and Te og Kaffi, basically the Icelandic Starbucks or Costa. Either place is excellent for a good cup of coffee and bagels or croissants. 

coffee reykjavik

Grái Kötturinn is another cute little place at Hverfisgata street that specializes in breakfast and conveniently opens up early. Other favorites include Reykjavík Roasters and Brauð & co. The latter is renowned for its sourdough buns!

From Reykjavík leads the Road 1 (the Ring Road), an infamous route that takes you all around the country. Following it east will take you along the charming south coast, and this is exactly the plan for day two! The road will take you up a mountain in the middle of a lava field, past the smoke pillars from the hot springs at Hellisheiði, and down into the beautiful southern plains. There you will be met by charming villages and towns, first Hveragerði, then Selfoss, Hella, and Hvolsvöllur. All of these towns are ideal for a lunch break or simply to stop and stretch your legs. The distance from Reykjavík to Hvolsvöllur is only about 1.5 hours. 

Pro tip 4: If the weather is acting out, there is a fantastic state of the art Lava Center at Hvolsvöllur with an incredible display of the volcanic system in Iceland, both its history and its wrath!

Seljalandsfoss waterfall

About 10 minutes from Hvolsvöllur, the first water dazzle starts to appear. Famous for being the waterfall you can walk behind, Seljalandsfoss attracts travelers from all over the world and is one of the most photographed places in Iceland. You’ll see why as soon as you arrive. This place is pure magic.

Many don’t know this, but about 100 steps from Seljalandsfoss in a small gorge you’ll find a second waterfall, Gljúfrabúi. Make sure to also catch a glimpse of Gljúfrabúi!  

Seljalandsfoss

To complete that waterfall trio of the day, we have the glorious Skógafoss located on the fertile farm of Skógar. Its power and charisma are truly awe-inspiring, and the path upon its right side makes it possible to view the falls from different angles. Make the most of it: this is one waterfall you won’t forget. 

Skogafoss Winter

Near Skógafoss is the almost eerie black sand beach of Reynisfjara. It’s a place where the volcanic sand meets the roaring waves of the Atlantic Ocean, and where a trilogy of incredible natural basalt rocks rises from the sea and creates almost fairy-tale like scenery. No wonder all the Hollywood directors are choosing Reynisfjara time and again to shoot scenes. There is just no faking a place like this. 

Reynisdrangar - South shore

Now it’s time to travel from volcanic sand beaches to glistening glaciers. Next up is the absolutely stunning Sólheimajökull glacier, conveniently located near Reynisfjara and easily accessible by a small walking path. You’ll need proper gear and a guide to hike to the top but you also can enjoyably admire it from the path. Take it all in: Sólheimajökull might not be there much longer. Sadly, it is known as the shrinking glacier, as climate change has altered its form rapidly in the last years.

Now head back to town again, this time seeing the south coast from a completely new angle. You will be surprised how different things look from east to west! 

Pro tip 5: Check the pick-up times for Northern Lights tours tonight. You might just be able to squeeze in another try on this day if you didn’t catch the Northern Lights last night. 

Day 3: Golden Circle

Disclaimer: if you have an evening flight out on the fourth day, or even if you have the whole day you might want to use the third day to see Snæfellsnes peninsula and the fourth to see the Golden Circle

Kirkjufell in winter

This day is all about history and water, some going up and the rest going down. You’ll understand this soon enough. Heading inland, the Golden Circle tour firstly takes you to Þingvellir (Thingvellir) National Park, so important in history that it is now a UNESCO heritage site. It’s where the Vikings founded a parliament, making it one of oldest continuing parliaments in the world. Þingvellir is also where the continental plates meet and yet are drifting apart visible to the naked eye. 

Þingvellir National Park

After Þingvellir, the circle takes you to Geysir, the infamous namesake to all other geysers in the world. Unfortunately, the great Geysir hasn’t erupted since a huge earthquake hit Iceland in the 2000’s, but thankfully his baby brother Strokkur stepped in and now spouts forcefully into the air every 4–10 minutes. The sight is indescribable! 

gullfoss in winter

Third on the Golden Circle agenda is the golden waterfall, or Gullfoss as it is called in Icelandic. This two-story dropping glacier river fall originates from a nearby glacier and runs through a grand canyon. There are three different viewing platforms to admire the falls. Take your time and visit them all. There is also a delicious menu at the nearby Gullfoss café. We recommend the Icelandic lamb soup!

The Golden Circle is a half-day activity, so if you have your own rental car you can make additional stops. Some recommended places include the Secret Lagoon, Efstidalur dairy farm, Friðheimar tomato farm or the Laugarvatn Fontana steam baths and spa. However, if you are want to take a guided Golden Circle tour, you have some very exciting options. They include snowmobiling on Langjökull glacier, a super jeep trip to the same glacier, visiting hot spring pools or the Golden Circle with an eco-friendly emphasis visiting green power plants and greenhouses! 

secret lagoon winter

Once in Reykjavík again you can take a third try for the Northern Lights, but if the tours are canceled simply pamper yourself with some delicious local cuisine and later take a stroll past Harpa Concert Hall. The light installations in the outer glass are mesmerizing. I can get stuck looking at it for ages. Kudos to Ólafur Elíasson the half-Icelandic, half-Danish artist! 

Day 4: Departure or another Iceland tour?

This day will depend on your flight time. If you have an early flight, enjoy your last moments with a good cup of something warm in Reykjavík’s quirky downtown. 

However, if your flight is leaving later or maybe even the next day, you might want to try to take in some more sights. Some amazing tours that don’t take much time would be horseback riding in the outskirts of the capital region or maybe a food walk in Reykjavík. Both are a fantastic way to say goodbye to the country, dipping your toes in the Icelandic culture one last time. 

For those looking to relax before heading out one last stop at the Blue Lagoon might also be just what you need. 

Bon voyage! 

Akureyri food walk

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Written by:

Ragnheiður Harpa Haraldsdóttir