The word Iceland and winter put together can sound pretty scary and intimidating, especially if you are like me and don’t do well in the cold. This post should hopefully put your fears to rest.
Why is Iceland in winter the most beautiful place you will ever see?
Our experience was such that every corner of this country was breathtaking, and it was excruciatingly hard for us to not stop every 2 minutes to take pictures. There was something about the colours of winter which gave the whole scenery a surreal vibe. It felt like we were on a different planet. Life and nature were fighting to survive the cold and pierce through the snow. It was like seeing nature battling itself in an apocalyptic setting whilst us humans, for once, were mere quiet observers at the mercy of mother Earth. A beautifully humbling experience.
Yes, it was extremely cold and at times I had trouble speaking properly because my lips were frozen, but at the end of the day it didn’t matter one bit. The majestic sights in front of us were overwhelming and believe me, you endure the cold willingly.
One of our main goals before leaving for Iceland, undoubtedly, was to catch a glimpse of the northern lights, and boy did we try! Unfortunately cloud cover got the best of us and even though we tracked the best spots to witness the lights (which you can figure out easily using online maps) and waited patiently, they evaded us. But again, at the end of our trip we had no regret. The northern lights would have been a bonus, but Iceland gave us so much more.
From a logistics point of view, renting a car and roaming around is probably the best thing to do. We were able to take our own time and stop whenever we wanted to take pictures. The roads are very well maintained and despite being caught in a snow storm towards the end of our stay (which was actually pretty cool), we found it very safe, manageable and convenient.
What are the best things to do in Iceland?
- Do not miss out on visiting an ice cave near the Jökulsárlón glacier, you won’t get to do it in summer. You cannot access these caves on your own, you have to book a tour through an agency (there are a handful of them but we used Guide to Iceland). Our guide, who was a very likeable, giant bearded Icelandic man, picked us up at the Jökulsárlón glacier (a lake with a plethora of beautiful crystal-blue icebergs floating on it) and drove us through what looked like a barren alien planet. Once we reached the cave, we had roughly an hour to enjoy the surreal experience of basking in the cave’s blue glow as sunlight filtered through the layers of glacier ice overhead.
- We also highly recommend checking out the numerous wonderful waterfalls (or foss in Icelandic) which Iceland has to offer. The 3 at the top of our list are: Skógafoss, Seljalandsfoss and Gullfoss (in order of preference). Skógafoss and Seljalandsfoss are located off Iceland’s ring road (which goes around the island) and are about an hour and a half to 2 hours from Reykjavik. Each of them have their own unique characteristics. The one we enjoyed the most was Skogafoss which also has a set of stairs to climb to the top of the waterfall and from there, the view is spectacular. If you want to get close to the falls, I’d suggest wearing a waterproof jacket and be prepared to cover your cameras/phones.
Gullfoss is located on the Golden Circle, which is a smaller route near Reykjavik loaded with beautiful spots to check out. Unlike most of the other waterfalls, Gullfoss descends through a valley and hence it is a much wider and is viewed from above. There are designated paths, which aren’t ice proof (I’d suggest investing in a good pair of hiking shoes with good traction, you will need it everywhere in Iceland) and which led us to several viewpoints we could choose from. The falls were ferocious but magnificent. The speed and power at which the water came down created this loud noise echoing through the valley that was both threatening and peaceful. We stood there, thinking that we wouldn’t stand a chance against the force of this beautiful phenomena.
- If you are driving through the Golden Circle, you should definitely go to our next pick. The Geysir hot spring area is a geothermal field where geysers can explode up to 30 meters high and boiling mud pits let out a huge amount of vapor which gives the whole area a mysterious and fantastical look. A lot of people complain about the strong rotten egg smell created by the sulphur but we were already used to it because the tap water in Reykjavik has the same eggy smell. We weren’t too fussed about it and quickly got used to showering with stinky water (which by the way, is very good for your skin). Eggs aside, the place is quite impressive and we were fascinated by the colour combo of the red moist earth and coral blue water pits. We had to wait a bit to see the massive explosion of water but it was a spectacular sight, definitely worth it and everyone around us was clapping and cheering.
- The Reynisfjara black sand beach is close to Vik, a village on the southern coast of Iceland. This vast and beautiful beach is literally the only spot on the island where our mobile reception became feeble (the phone reception is on point in Iceland, we had full coverage even in the most remote locations). Reynisfjara is the most spectacular lava beach we’ve seen so far. The jet-black pebbles covering it are surprisingly big and not at all sand like, the basalt columns rise in perfect geometrical harmony to form a gigantic church organ and the towering cliffs on each side of the beach extend to the Atlantic welcoming the ocean in their abode. To top it all, we timed our arrival perfectly and were treated to a breathtaking sunset. We came back late at night to try our luck with a black sand beach and aurora borealis combination but the Icelandic gods were probably asleep and we went back to our hotel empty-handed.
- Going to a geothermal lagoon in Iceland will be your only chance to get your beachwear out in sub-zero temperatures. The island is filled with warm lagoons and most of them are quite small, but the biggest, the Blue Lagoon, is not too far south of the capital so given our tight schedule it seemed like the best option. The trouble is that it’s not cheap and most of the time quite crowded however if you need to splurge on something in Iceland, you won’t be disappointed with the popular lagoon. The spa lends you a swimsuit if you’ve forgotten it (which I did) and you get a complimentary drink at the lagoon bar as well as special mud masks you can try on while enjoying the warm water. The water is of a beautiful whitish blue, and surprise, surprise… it smells of rotten eggs! We were both in heaven in the warm water and felt our poor muscles, which were tense from days of cold weather, relaxing and healing. No wonder Scandinavian and Icelandic culture encourages the use of saunas on a regular basis, we found that our bodies really needed the moist heat to recover and revitalise ourselves.
- Finally, we recommend spending a day in Reykjavik, the capital of Iceland. We say a day, because it’s a fairly small city and you would honestly be out of things to do or see on the second day. The words that come to mind to describe it are cute and colourful. We saw many little houses painted in bright colours and the streets were filled with murals and urban art. There are very few tall buildings in Reykjavik so the beautiful Hallgrimskirja really stands out. This tall and modern church is located at the heart of the city (many call it a cathedral but we were told that it wasn’t the case). The streets are pretty but very touristic, although we spotted lots of cool hipsterish bars and restaurants. However, as vegetarians, we were pretty disappointed with the food. It was difficult to find something nice and decently priced (Iceland is quite expensive) which didn’t involve rye bread and sliced cheese. On several occasions we opted for cheap *cough cough* supermarket sandwiches to sustain us through our travels. If you enjoy fish (fermented mostly) and meat, you will love the food scene in the capital. Other attractions include the Harpa, Reykjavik’s modern concert Hall, beautiful views of the shore and nice museums. We were staying in a residential area, which we found to be much better as we saw how the locals lived.
Final thoughts on Iceland…
Iceland is a growing island, still fully alive with a mind and spirit of its own. For us, the purpose of travelling is to seek moments which give you a reality check and remind you that earth and nature are the boss and that we must learn how to tune in with their rhythm to truly appreciate the power of it all. When we do, we are rewarded with beauty and experiences beyond words. We want to eventually go back during summer to see Iceland in all its green glory, but we doubt that it would ever top our amazing winter escapade.
If you have any questions or queries about Iceland, don’t hesitate to leave a comment or contact us and we’ll try to help as much as we can.