Iceland in January: Things to See & Do

January 7th, 2022

Written by:

Max Naylor

On a trip to Iceland in January, you can ring in the New Year Icelandic-style under the fireworks! And at this time of the year, the country is blanketed in a white winter coat. Picture frosted waterfalls, snow-covered mountaintops, and frozen rivers.

Whilst this may not seem the most obvious time to visit, there’s actually a whole bunch of top things to do in Iceland in January.

Apart from the New Year’s festivities, there’s the Þorrablót festival at the end of the month (or in early February). This moveable feast is based on Viking traditions – keep reading to learn all about it.

January is a great time to experience Iceland without the crowds. Nature is open all year round, so you can still get your fill of gushing geysers and glistening glaciers. You also have a great chance of seeing the Northern Lights.

Get inspired for your Iceland winter trip with these top tips!

Is it worth going to Iceland in January?

For sure! Iceland offers a whole host of unique experiences in January.

If you fancy doing something different for New Year’s, Reykjavík is the place to be. The whole city celebrates with firework displays and neighborhood bonfires, and the atmosphere is electric. And of course, there’s the nightlife that Iceland’s capital is famous for.

Next, there’s the Northern Lights. Although the days have already started getting longer by January, there’s still plenty of darkness. This makes for ideal conditions to hunt down the Aurora Borealis. Learn more about how to chase them down with our Northern Lights guide.

In the winter months, chances are there will be snow on the ground. As well as giving you the perfect backdrop for your vacation pics, the snow brightens everything up. This helps make up for the relative lack of sunlight.

Here are some of our favorite reasons to visit Iceland in January:

  • Fantastic conditions for Northern Lights tours
  • More daylight than December, so you can go further and see more
  • Frozen wintry landscapes covered in snow and ice
  • Cultural events to enjoy at the start and end of the month

Best things to see and do in Iceland in January

Traveling to Iceland in January is a great idea if you want to experience the country at the peak of its winter beauty. You’re pretty much guaranteed snow-covered mountains and icicle-lined waterfalls.

Icelandic horses against the snow

Things you can do in January:

  • Warm up in a geothermal spa as the snow falls around you
  • Visit the Jökulárslón glacial lagoon when it’s frozen solid
  • Go on a whale watching boat tour from Reykjavík
  • Hunt down the Aurora Borealis by night
  • See the Strokkur geyser erupt out of a field of ice
  • Spy an Icelandic horse in a snow-white field
  • Walk through clouds of steam at the Deildartunguhver hot springs
  • Go glacier hiking at Vatnajökull, Europe’s largest ice cap
  • Join an ice cave tour beneath a glacier

Get more inspiration with our Iceland winter must-sees and must-dos guide.

Events in Iceland in January

Although the sun doesn’t show its face for long in January, Icelanders have no trouble brightening up the month themselves with two big celebrations. And of course, you get to take part!

New Year’s

The New Year’s fireworks above the Harpa concert hall in Reykjavík

It’s fair to say that New Year’s is a Big Deal in Iceland. There are massive firework displays, bonfires throughout towns and cities, and a great festive atmosphere. Don’t miss the main display down by the Harpa concert hall in Reykjavík’s old harbor.

Icelanders kick off their New Year’s celebrations with dinner at around 6 p.m. There’s no set meal, but many people enjoy some kind of roast meat such as leg of lamb or goose. It’s worth securing a booking at a local restaurant if you want to join in on this tradition.

After dinner (and plenty of desserts), do as the locals do and visit a local bonfire. Later on, Icelanders watch New Year’s addresses from the prime minister and president, before getting into the party mood!

With a belly full of good food, now’s the time to head out to a local bar before watching the fireworks at midnight. Whether you party on is up to you, but you can be sure that the locals will!

Þorrablót

Traditional Icelandic foods, including harðfiskur (dried fish) and hákarl (rotten shark)

Like many other nations, Icelanders have their own midwinter festival held around the end of January (and sometimes in February). The feast, known as Þorrablót (or Thorrablót), marks the first of the four months on the Norse pagan calendar: Þorri.

Although based on ancient Viking tradition, Þorrablót first began to be celebrated in the 19th century and has become increasingly popular in recent decades. Similar to Scotland’s Burns Night, Þorrablót centers on sharing traditional food and reciting poems.

It’s that traditional food, known as Þorramatur, that is the highlight (or lowlight, depending on your view 😂) of the festival. Icelandic delicacies enjoyed during Þorrablót include:

  • Kæstur hákarl – fermented shark with a pungent smell (pictured above, the yellow cubes on the right)
  • Hrútspungar – ram’s testicles pressed and preserved in aspic
  • Svið – singed and boiled sheep’s head, complete with eyeball
  • Lifrarpylsa – a lamb-based liver sausage
  • Blóðmör – a type of black pudding
  • Hangikjöt – smoked slices of lamb
  • Harðfiskur – wind-dried cod or haddock, served buttered (pictured above, the white fluffy fish in the middle)

Although you might well be put off by the sound of these ‘treats’, some of them are quite popular and enjoyed by visitors and Icelanders alike. It’s definitely worth trying hangikjöt and harðfiskur, even if you give everything else a miss.

Look out for Þorramatur buffets at restaurants around Reykjavík. That way, you can sample what you like and be as adventurous as you want to be!

Best places to visit in Iceland in January

1. Akureyri

 Looking at a wintry Akureyri from across the fjord at night

Location: North Iceland, 4–5 hours’ drive from Reykjavík.

Why visit? Akureyri is the capital of Iceland’s north and the country’s second city. Explore its charming old town, dine at its delicious restaurants, and soak up Icelandic culture in the galleries and museums. Oh, and if beer’s your thing, don’t forget to try Einstök, the local brew!

Just outside Akureyri is one of Iceland’s main ski resorts, Hlíðarfjall. January offers a good chance of snowfall and is bang in the middle of the Icelandic ski season. So if you feel most at home on the slopes, why not head up to Akureyri?

Don’t miss: The Hof Culture House, Akureyri’s answer to Reykjavík’s famous Harpa Concert Hall. Also, make sure to visit the local pool for a relaxing dip in the hot tubs!

2. Vatnajökull National Park

Location: Southeast Iceland.

Why visit? Okay, we admit that Vatnajökull National Park ends up on pretty much all of our month-by-month guides to Iceland. But that’s just because it’s so unmissable. First up, you have Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon, which is spectacular at this time of year (especially in the long twilight).

An interesting view of the Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon

Then there’s the Vatnajökull glacier itself. The largest in Europe, it offers all kinds of adventure-packed experiences. Go for snowmobiling tours or hikes on the surface, or explore one of the many ice caves that form underneath during the winter. January is the perfect time to see these.

Don’t miss: Breiðamerkursandur, also known as Diamond Beach. Jewels of blue-tinged, crystal-clear ice wash ashore and look magical against the dark black sand.

3. Seljalandsfoss and Skógafoss waterfalls

The Seljalandsfoss waterfall surrounded by icicles and snow

Location: South coast, 1 hour or so from the town of Selfoss.

Why visit? These are two of Iceland’s most famous waterfalls and they are both striking in their winter costumes.

Seljalandsfoss is often crowned with icicles, and the mist from the falls freezes into a glistening sheet of ice behind it. Depending on how heavy the snowfall has been, you may still be able to walk behind it following the path.

The mighty Skógafoss waterfall looks great in the snow

Skógafoss is Seljalandsfoss’s more powerful big brother. Often completely hemmed in by blue-white ice in wintertime, you won’t want to miss its wintry majesty.

Don’t miss: Gljúfrabúi, a virtually hidden waterfall a 10-minute drive up the road from Seljalandsfoss.

4. Golden Circle, including Þingvellir National Park

Iceland’s Strokkur geyser erupting

Location: 1 hour’s drive east of Reykjavík.

Why visit? The Golden Circle route is a popular classic and remains accessible all year round. It includes the Geysir area, with Strokkur, a live geyser that spurts hot water into the air every few minutes. Another star attraction is the epic multi-tiered Gullfoss waterfall.

Finally, there’s Þingvellir (Thingvellir) National Park. This was the site of Iceland’s Viking-era parliament, so it’s a great place to get an idea of what life must have been like in Iceland centuries ago. At this time of year, its rocky gorges are caked in ice and snow and the small streams that criss-cross the area freeze solid.

Don’t miss: At Þingvellir, the Drekkingarhylur pool where witches were drowned, and the Silfra gorge with its crystal-clear waters.

5. Blue Lagoon and other spas

Location: ½ hour from Reykjavík (Blue Lagoon); around the country (other spas).

Why visit? Although the January weather can be bitterly cold, Iceland makes up for it with its endless supply of hot water from geothermal sources. Bathe in the warm and nourishing waters of the Blue Lagoon to relax and recharge after a day’s sightseeing.

Relaxing in the Blue Lagoon with snow-capped mountains in the distance

There have never been more spa options in Iceland than right now. Instead of the Blue Lagoon, you could visit the new Sky Lagoon in the capital area, with its fantastic views across the sea. Or there’s the Fontana spa in Laugarvatn, just off the Golden Circle route.

And if you’re heading north to Akureyri, you’re only an hour or so away from the Mývatn Nature Baths, which overlook a picturesque valley.

Wherever you plan to travel in Iceland, you’re not far from a fantastic lagoon or local swimming pool!

Don’t miss: A drink from one of the in-lagoon bars available at many of Iceland’s most popular spas.

What’s the weather like in Iceland in January?

January is often Iceland’s coldest month, although you might be surprised by how mild temperatures actually are. The average high in the south is 3°C (38°F) and the average low is -2°C (29°F). Knock a degree or two off for the north of Iceland.

The wind chill factor can make it feel much colder than the thermometer suggests though. With that in mind, make sure you pack a warm winter coat, extra layers, and gloves, scarf and wooly hat.

And don’t bother with umbrellas or baseball caps, you probably won’t be able to hold onto them long in the wind!

Is there snow in Iceland in January?

There’s also a good chance of snow in January, especially outside of Reykjavík. Across the whole month, average snowfall is around 20 cm (8 in).

Is it safe to drive in Iceland in January?

Icelandic roads are cleared frequently in wintertime

As January is one of the highest snowfall months in Iceland, driving can be a bit trickier (no thanks to the famous winter wind either). That said, trunk roads are cleared regularly and in cities most major roads will be snow-free.

As conditions can change rapidly, it pays to be flexible with your plans. It’s a good idea to stick to shorter day trips, such as the Golden Circle or south coast, rather than attempting to do the whole Ring Road.

So whilst driving in January in Iceland is doable, we wouldn’t recommend it if you’re not a confident winter driver. You could still enjoy a city break in Reykjavík with day trips by bus if you’d prefer to skip the driving.

How many hours of daylight are there in Iceland in January?

By the time January comes around, the days are already getting noticeably longer. You can expect around 4½–7 hours of daylight, depending on when exactly in the month you plan to travel.

At the start of January, the sun rises at around 11:20 a.m. and sets by around 3:45 p.m. By the end of the month, the sun appears as early as 10:10 a.m. and goes down at approximately 5:10 p.m.

So as you can see, you gain a few extra hours of daylight over the space of just a few weeks. This is worth bearing in mind when choosing your travel dates.

Can you see the Northern Lights in Iceland in January?

Hikers under the magical turquoise Northern Lights in Iceland.

Absolutely! January provides ideal conditions for chasing down the lights. The 3 things you need are plenty of darkness, clear skies, and high solar activity. If these things coincide, then you’ll witness a spectacular light show.

The good news is that January provides darkness in spades. And as the Icelandic weather never stays the same for long, there’s a good chance you’ll have at least one clear night during your stay.

You should know though that the Northern Lights are a natural phenomenon, so even if the weather’s in your favor, you’re not guaranteed a sighting. Part of the attraction is their mystery and rarity, which makes chasing them down all the more exciting!

Get tips on how to spot the aurora with our guide to the Northern Lights in Iceland.

What to wear and what to pack for a trip to Iceland in January

Since January falls right in the middle of the Icelandic winter, it’s important to make sure you bring everything you need to keep warm and comfortable. As we mentioned earlier, the wind chill can make it feel much colder than it might seem.

The wind tends to be chilly and dry, but that’s nothing that you can’t protect yourself from with the right clothing! Here’s a list of essentials to take in January:

  • Warm jacket with waterproof layer
  • Woolen sweaters or fleeces
  • Gloves, scarf, and wooly hat
  • Solid hiking boots and thermal socks
  • Warm underwear, such as long johns
  • Swimming gear and towel for spas, hot springs, and pools
  • Lip salve and moisturizer

Read our packing guide to get all the deets on what to bring on your Iceland trip.

Planning your trip to Iceland in January

Now you’re in the know, how do you go about making your dream January trip to Iceland a reality? First, decide if you want to attend any festivals such as New Year’s and Þorrablót. This will help you narrow down your dates.

Secondly, think about what kind of activities you want to do, such as ice caving, and which parts of the country you want to see. The further you venture from Reykjavík, the more sunlight you’ll want to have.

At Iceland Tours, we’ve got a wide range of winter vacation packages. If you’re happy to drive in wintry conditions, choose a self-drive tour. Or go for a multi-day tour from Reykjavík if you prefer to travel by bus.

Once you’ve found the package that suits you, simply book it online. A great thing to know is that you can secure your booking with us with just a 5% deposit. And with our Book with Confidence promise, you can get a refund or rebook your tour should Covid-19 get in the way of your plans.

So why not get over to Iceland in January and experience the Land of Fire and Ice at its wintriest?

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Written by:

Max Naylor