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Iceland’s popularity as a tourist destination is at an at all-time high, in part due to competitive fares from the ever-expanding flag carrier Icelandair and low-cost airline WOW Air. Though you might think the peak summer season is the best time to visit this Nordic country, TPG Contributor Greig Santos-Buch offers some compelling reasons to explore Iceland between November and March.
In February 2015, I joined a close group of my friends on an all-inclusive tour of much of Southern Iceland with a local guide, and soon discovered that native Icelanders are some of the nicest people you’ll ever meet — and the country is full of otherworldly sights. Though Iceland is rumored to be full of elves and trolls, its real magic is in its landscapes — especially during winter. If you have an adventurous spirit and are in decent physical shape, you can have amazing experiences that generally aren’t available during the summer months.
1. You Have the Best Chance of Seeing the Northern Lights
The highest activity grades for experiencing the aurora tend to be during the winter months, so Iceland during this season offers you the chance to check off a major experience from your travel bucket list — seeing the Northern Lights. Keep in mind that winter can bring heavy clouds to Iceland, and you’ll have the best chance of seeing this spectacle if you pick a clear night. Many local tour companies will take you out to remote areas for the best views, but you could also see them for free right from downtown Reykjavík, as long as you can avoid excess light pollution and the light-activity grade is high.
2. Experience Bizarre Weather Patterns
Because Iceland sits near the southern border of the Arctic Circle, winter here tends to begin in earnest in late October and can continue well into March — and sometimes, the weather is no joke. Precipitation, wind and frequent clouds can begin or cease at the drop of a hat, so you’ll have to remain flexible and well-prepared in order to have a the best possible trip. That said, remember that many destinations in the US get far colder during the winter than Iceland. For instance, during my February trip, my mom found an average temperature of nine (nine!) degrees below zero in Montana, while the Icelandic capital of Reykjavík was a balmy 38.
For our group, Iceland’s relatively warmer temperatures were a plus and inspired us to get out there and experience whatever Mother Nature could throw at us. One of our adventures was a hike up and onto Sólheimajökull Glacier. During the (only) three-and-a-half-hour journey, we encountered snowflakes the size of soccer balls, hammering sleet, surprisingly warm sun, gathering winds, thick clouds and intense rain that pelted us all but sideways. Iceland in winter may not always be dry, but it’s certainly never boring.
3. Some Spots Can Make You Feel as if You’re on (or Inside) Another Planet
Iceland is home to glaciers, lakes and caves made of ice year-round, but the inland Þingvellir National Park will introduce you to an unusual winter experience in a unique spot where the Earth is quite literally ripping itself apart. The Silfra Fissure lies in and around a rift valley where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates are slowly pulling away from each other. This location is still highly active with frequent (though mild) earthquakes, caused by the plates moving apart at the rate of about 0.8 inches per year.
Deep under glacier meltwater that’s been filtered through volcanic rock for 12,000 years, the Silfra Fissure offers scuba diving and snorkel enthusiasts an opportunity to explore some of the clearest, cleanest and most mineral-rich water in the world where the rocks seem to glow green. You’ll need a dry suit to enjoy this particular experience, but any discerning diver should certainly give it strong consideration. After exploring the inner workings of the Earth, you’ll emerge to find rugged and seemingly endless lava fields covered in snow and ice — which just might make you feel like you’ve traveled to and back from another planet.
4. Reykjavík is Especially Beautiful This Time of Year
I’ve visited several of the world’s great cities, but I wouldn’t describe them as homey or mellow — the way I felt about Reykjavík. More of a modest town than a traditional capital, strangers here greet you as friends and the simple brightly colored buildings just add to the sense of warmth and welcome. Having visited Reykjavík in the winter, I don’t even know if I’d want to stay there during the summer months – every morning as the sun would rise around 9am, our accommodations offered us a snowy view of Akrafjall mountain and the majestic Esja mountain range, both visible across the Faxaflói bay. Venture a few minutes down the road and climb to the top of Hallgrímskirkja Church for a wide-open perspective on the city in winter.
5. The Blue Lagoon is at its Best
You might think of the Blue Lagoon as a tourist trap because it’s in every guidebook/article/blog post you’ll read about Iceland, but I feel it’s well worth a visit — there’s simply no other attraction like it in the world. Now a man-made spa pool, the Blue Lagoon was just a lava field until a nearby geothermal power facility began displacing its excess heated and mineral-rich water here.
Try to pick a day when it’s snowing for a special experience. On our group’s last morning in Iceland, we arrived here at about 9am and were greeted with a sunrise snowfall. The fat and gentle flakes created a supernatural mist above the milky blue water, causing the sun to sparkle and softly glow. With plastic cups of wine in hand, we all agreed that this was a scene we’d never want to forget.
Quick Tips for Visiting Iceland During the Winter
I’d recommend hiring a tour company as opposed to driving yourself around Iceland, not only because it can be safer to travel with locals who are used to the country’s winter weather and terrain, but a local perspective allows for a more in-depth experience of the country. If you’re set on driving yourself around Iceland in the winter, be sure to rent a four-wheel-drive truck and, depending on the adventures you’re considering, you may even want to request chain-treads.
You’ll want to be prepared for extreme weather (unlike many members of my own travel crew were), so be sure to pack waterproof everything, especially comfortable snow pants, a thick yet breathable parka and worn-in snow/hiking boots. Crampons and beautifully made wool hats, socks and sweaters can be purchased at outdoor gear stores in Reykjavík, but to save a bundle before you travel, be sure to see Top 8 Sites for Discounted Gear.
Credit cards, such as the Chase Sapphire Preferred, Starwood Preferred Guest Credit Card from American Express and the Citi ThankYou Premier, don’t charge foreign transaction fees, making them ideal to use on vacation in Iceland. To see more cards without these fees, check out the post, Top Credit Cards With No Foreign Transaction Fees.
For more on traveling to Iceland, be sure to see these posts:
The WOW Air $99-Fare Guide to Iceland Even after the introduction of the Chase Sapphire Reserve, the Chase Sapphire Preferred is still a fantastic choice if you want to avoid the Reserve’s $450 annual fee, earn 2x on all travel & dining and earn a 50,000 point sign up bonus.
Destination Of The Week: Reykjavik
Review: A $300 WOW Air Flight to Iceland
Layover Lowdown: Iceland’s Keflavik International Airport
Even after the introduction of the Chase Sapphire Reserve, the Chase Sapphire Preferred is still a fantastic choice if you want to avoid the Reserve’s $450 annual fee, earn 2x on all travel & dining and earn a 50,000 point sign up bonus.