We were looking for something different to do after the holidays this year. First, we thought we might head to London and spend a week seeing shows in the West End. But then DH got the idea to go to Iceland and see the Northern Lights.
After reading, we found January is a terrific time to experience the best Icelandic winter without the crowds. January is one of the country’s slowest months for tourism, probably because it’s also one of Iceland’s coldest and darkest months.
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In the winter months, there are just a few hours of sunlight each day. Also, the roads are icy, and everything is covered in thick snow. But we’ve heard this may be the best time of year to see the Northern Lights.
We live in the SF Bay Area in Northern California. It barely rains here, and we usually have to drive up to the Sierras to see any snow (and we don’t do that). But this is our year for adventure travel, with the Galapagos and Machu Pichu on the calendar for mid-April. So we booked our flights and headed out.
Should You Explore Iceland On Your Own Or Take A Bus Tour?
Driving In Iceland In January – Should You Rent A Car
It’s easy to rent a car in Iceland, which could be a good choice for those who want to explore Iceland independently. You can even pick up your rental car right at the airport and start your journey right when you land.
Self-drive tour packages are available for the independent traveler who doesn’t want the hassle of making all the necessary arrangements. An example of a self-drive package is the Nordic Visitor: Self-Drive Iceland Full Circle Classic – Winter.
With this type of package, bookings, like your rental car and lodging, are handled, leaving you free to drive and spend your daytime as you like. This is the type of tour package we did last year in Portugal.
If you plan a self-drive trip, here are some things you need to know.
- Winter driving can be challenging in Reykjavik, let alone on the one highway that circles the country (island). Four-wheel drive vehicles are highly recommended for driving in January. Cars don’t come with chains, but you can request studded tires. Most rental companies will provide these, but you must order them in advance.
- Route 1 – The road that circles Iceland (aka the Ring Road) is usually a simple two-lane highway. This road is also built up from the marshlands that make up a good part of Iceland, in many places by several meters. You may not realize there is a significant drop-off with snow on the ground. We saw several cars (even a tour operator bus) off the road, waiting for a tow truck.
- Check the weather and road conditions each day before heading out on your journey. You may want to check both in the morning and afternoon. Bad weather might force you to change your plans. Roads are often closed because of floods, avalanches, fallen trees, and traffic accidents. Iceland SafeTravel website is a must-have resource.
- During our trip, the road(s) were closed frequently. Sometimes for a few hours, sometimes longer. If a route is closed, you shouldn’t attempt to drive it anyway—it’s closed for an excellent reason! Driving on closed roads may put you in danger or result in needing to be rescued. Having to be towed is not just hazardous for you but also for the rescuers. Any insurance you have won’t cover the substantial towing fees; you could also receive a hefty fine.
Renting a car and driving around Iceland may work if you have plenty of experience with icy and snowy conditions. But our vacation wasn’t the time to try and learn new skills. So driving was out of the question for us.
For Us, A Guided Group Tour Of Iceland In January Was The Choice
Many Northern Lights tours leave from Reykjavik every day. Most of these are short trips to Reykholt to the city’s northwest. You just need to get far enough away from light pollution for optimal viewing.
But we wanted to see more of Iceland and did not want to be stressed by our lack of winter driving and navigational skills. So we chose the guided Northern Lights Circle Tour through Nordic Visitor.
This tour is limited to a small group with a maximum of 16 passengers. We don’t usually do group tours, so this was a bit of an unknown for us.
We lucked out and were in quite a small group, with just eight travelers and our guide.
Day 1 – Flying To Iceland In January
There are far fewer flights from the US to Iceland in January than in the summer. You can see on Booking.com that you will likely be on Icelandair or the new “low-cost” carrier Play. Most flights arrive in the early morning. This means you will likely be tired on arrival.
Interesting note: we found out from our guide that the planes come in once each day and then turn around 12 hours later and head back. In our case, we went from SF to Boston to Reykjavik. There are also days when the Keflavik airport is closed due to weather conditions, which happened twice during the ten days we were there.
Nordic Visitor arranged for us to be picked up at the airport in a private transfer and taken to our hotel, Center Hotels Laugavegur. This was an excellent perk for two tired travelers. Our driver also had the welcome to Iceland package from Nordic Visitor that included our itinerary and all the vouchers for our travels.
Knowing we would be flying overnight and arriving early in the morning, we booked an extra day at our hotel in Reykjavik. We had to pay for the night when we were actually flying, but our room was waiting for us when we arrived at the hotel just before 7:00 in the morning.
This was an extra cost, but it was great to shower and sleep for a few hours to prepare for our adventure.
A Quick Walk In Reykjavik And Meet Up With Our Tour Group
Once rested, we walked along the main street in Reykjavik from one end of town to the other. The goal here was just a bit of exercise and to stop in at the Hard Rock to pick up our shot glass and pins.
We had an early evening meet & greet at the hotel with the other group members and our driver/guide, David Kelley. As everyone got their drinks, we introduced ourselves. It turned out that we had a fairly international group. A couple from Lisbon, a gentleman from England, a lady from Singapore, another couple from Iowa in the USA, and Greg & I from California.
David outlined how the week was going to play out. Generally, we would follow the itinerary we signed up for. Still, with the uncertainty of the weather, there may be changes along the way. After a few good suggestions for dinner spots, David encouraged us to rest and be ready to pull out at 9:00 the following day.
Day 2 – Starting The Road Trip With The Golden Circle
Year-round, the most popular day trips from Reykjavík involve exploring the “Golden Circle.” This typically 8 – 9 hour tour includes many of Iceland’s most famous landmarks. Our day took us from Thingvellir (Þingvellir) National Park to Gullfoss waterfall, to the Geysir geothermal area, and to Fridheimar for tomatoes and Icelandic Horses before ending our day at the Magma Hotel.
Thingvellir National Park
Often the first stop out of Reykjavik is Thingvellir National Park, a UNESCO world heritage site. This park is where one of the world’s longest-running parliaments formed in 930 AD. The park is full of incredible geological formations and landscapes.
The Silfra Fissure is located here, a rift between the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates. Experienced divers can dive here and touch two continents simultaneously! We are big fans of The Amazing Race and had seen Silfra on the show this past season when contestants had to dive for clues here.
We did not dive on our visit, we could barely walk down the fissure as the wind and snow were incredibly strong and the ground covered in ice.
On To Gullfoss Waterfall & Geysirs
To say Gullfoss waterfall is to repeat yourself. Foss means waterfall in Icelandic. As we move forward, we will see many fosses. Gullfoss means “gold waterfall” because as the sunlight hits the falls, they appear to shimmer in gold in summer.
David lets us know that the early Icelanders were not too imaginative in naming spots in the country. Things are named for what they are. For example, Reykjavik means “smokey (reykja) bay (vik).” When they first sailed into this bay, geothermally heated waters were flowing into it, causing it to look like smoke was rising from the waters.
Today there isn’t sunlight. Instead, there is wind so strong that I can barely walk down to the falls as it pushes me backward. At the overlook, David asks if we want a picture in front of the falls, and we agree. You’ll notice that I am holding on to the railing in the photo because the wind was trying to blow me away.
We head up to the shop area for a quick bite to eat. I have already figured out that I need a different type of hat. The one I brought has a brim that the wind keeps catching and blowing off my head. After a bowl of meat soup (an Iceland specialty of lamb and veggies), DH and I pick out a couple of 66⁰ beany caps. Now I know why they are so popular.
Warmed up and refreshed, we head to the Haukadalur Valley to see the Geysir Geothermal Area. Wafts of steam and bubbling water break through the snowy ground, and Strokkur Geysir sends its mighty jet of hot water into the air.
Eruptions of the Geysir are regular, occurring around every five to ten minutes. But you need to know where to stand. We noted several groups standing around an area of hot bubbling water, waiting eagerly for a Geysir to blow. They were in the wrong location. This is why listening to local experts is good, even if you are just there for the day.
Hothouse Tomatoes, Bees, And Icelandic Horses
A can’t-miss site in the Golden Circle is Fridheimar. This family-owned business incorporates some of the largest hot houses in Iceland. It is responsible for 40% of all tomatoes eaten in the country. The farming operations are unbelievable. Along with a tour of the hothouse, we had a bowl of tomato soup and warm fresh rolls.
In addition to growing fantastic tomatoes, the folks at Fridheimar have a thriving apiary; you need bees to pollinate all the tomato plants.
After learning all about tomatoes, we walk over to the stables to meet the famous Icelandic horses. The Icelandic horse is perhaps the oldest pure breed horse in the world, with a 1,000-year history. No other horse breed is allowed to come into the country. The folks at Fridheimar have been breeding these horses here since 1995.
We mingle with a few of the horses and a couple of their riders (trainers?) and watch a demonstration of these horses’ unique gates. In addition, to walk, trot, canter, and gallop, Icelandic horses can tölt! This unusual gait allows a rider a smooth ride and the horse to cover long distances without getting tired.
Our rider demonstrated the smoothness of this gait by carrying a full stein of beer around the track while her horse was in tölt and not an ounce spilled.
Now it’s off to our lodging for the night, Hotel Selfoss on the banks of the Olfusa river. Daylight is short in January in Iceland, from 10:30 am to 5:00 pm. For this reason, I don’t have pictures of the hotels we stayed in, as we generally arrived after dark and left before the sun was out. However, you can check out each on Booking.com, as I’ve included their links.
All the folks in our group have now downloaded Northern Lights apps on our phones. Fortunately, we have a good view of the river from our room. David says we would have the best view of the Aurora over the river if it decides to show up. Unfortunately, we don’t have a clear sky, so there are no lights tonight.
You will see a pattern shortly. We are exhausted at the end of our day and go to sleep shortly after dinner. And to ensure we get everything in the next day, we are up by 7:00 and on the road by 9:00. This is not a restful vacation.
Day 3 – Lava, Waterfalls, And Black Beaches
David provided everyone with “ice cleats” last night in anticipation of icy trails today. I put crampons in parentheses because these aren’t the equipment you use for climbing mountains. These are simpler, less aggressive rubber shoe coverings with metal studs. We will need them later today.
Learning About Icelands Volcanoes, And Lava Flows
The morning starts with a visit to The Lava Centre, a series of exhibition halls that walk you through the geological evolution of Iceland. Here you learn about many volcanoes and how their eruptions over the millennia have formed the country.
Water Falls and Hobbit Houses
After leaving the Lava Centre, we head back out to experience the pounding rush of waterfalls. Arriving first at Saljalandfoss, we don our ice grippers and head up the trail to the falls. Have I mentioned the wind before? Well, this morning, the wind is blowing inland with so much force that it blows the water back up the falls!
On calmer days, visitors can walk up the trail and go behind Saljalandfoss. Today we are relegated to viewing these incredible falls only from the front.
A bit further down the road are Skogarfoss and the Skogar Folk Museum. If you’ve been overwhelmed by the amount of water you’ve seen so far, you will be amazed by the small boat you see here at the museum.
Inside the Skogar Folk Museum is the eight-oared Petursey fishing boat. This small wooden boat was built in 1855 and used by the village to harvest cod in the North Atlantic until 1946.
Christofer, our docent at the museum, also tells us about the “Yu-la-Lats.” One of the pins I bought at the Hard Rock has a Yu-la-lat on it. I wasn’t sure what this was all about when I bought my pin, but I could tell it was unique to Iceland. The Yu-la-lats (the word I kept hearing) are actually Yule Lads. This is excellent folklore; you can read more about it on the Smithsonian Magazine site.
BTW, my Yule Lad Hard Rock Pin turns out to be Stekkjastaur (Sheep Cote Clod). Apparently, Stekkjastaur’s job was to harass the ewes (sheep), hoping to get some milk.
After touring the indoor museum, we have a quick lunch at the restaurant. I enjoyed Iceland’s interpretation of a taco. DH happily slurped up more meat soup.
Now it’s time to brave the blizzard we’ve all been dreading outside and visit the open-air part of the museum, in particular the Turf Houses.
The Steep Cliffs of Dyrholaey And The Black Sand Beach
On the south coast of Iceland are the Dyrholaey Peninsula and Reynisfjara Beach, the famous Black Sand Beach. This beach is renowned for its black sand, which is simply hundreds of years of the ocean beating against the Lava that flowed out to the sea, breaking it down into what is now sand.
Reynisfjara Beach is also where you will find the fantastic black Basalt columns standing in the surf. The columns were originally part of the cliffs that line the shore on the east end of the beach but have now been separated from the land by the pounding of the sea.
This beach is an incredible reminder of the oceans’ power and interaction with the earth’s land formations. But with powerful beauty also comes danger.
Sneaker waves make this beach one of Iceland’s most dangerous places, and several people have died here. There is a large warning sign as you enter the beach area. Our guide, David, also cautioned us never to have our back to the ocean and maintain at least 10 meters of distance between the sea and where we were walking.
The waves come up fast. One minute, you are on dry sand; the next, you could be standing in a few feet of water. This beach is a place where you want to keep your wits about you.
On the way to Kirkjubaejarklaustur, we stop at one of the local gas stations. In Iceland, gas stations serve many purposes. Fueling up your vehicle is one, but they also act as quick-serve restaurants with immaculate bathrooms.
From here, we have a good view of the three trolls that were turned to stone when trying to rescue a ship in a storm at sea. We then travel up a steep road in the village of Vik just before sunset to view the local church.
We are running out of daylight now, so we set off to our dinner and lodging for the night, the Magma Hotel in Kirkjubaejarklaustur.
The hotel consists of several small cabins along a fjord. If it were light out, the views would be stunning. We are asked to drop our bags and head in quickly for dinner as the kitchen will close soon. Dinner is in the main reception/dining building, a short walk from our rooms. Everyone settles in to enjoy a lovely meal of arctic char, freshly baked bread, potatoes, and salad.
I don’t know how many people are here this evening, but only one couple is dining at the restaurant besides us. There are no other restaurants nearby, so if you are staying at the Magma, you are likely dining here too. It’s starting to feel like we’ve left the regular tourists behind.
With an unobstructed view over the fjord, we might glimpse the Aurora Borealis tonight if there were clear skies. But again, clouds take over the sky.
Day 4 – Glacier Lagoon & Diamond Beach
Skaftafell, part of the Vatnajökull National Park, and Jökulsarlon Glacier Lagoon are on tour today. Today’s weather conditions are the worst: ice, rain, hail, and snow. We drive around Skatafell but don’t get off our trusty Mercedes bus. It’s cold and wet outside.
On the way to the glacier lagoon, we stop in Hof to see Hofskirkja, a church built like the turf houses we saw yesterday. This church is one of only six remaining turf churches in Iceland
When we reach Jökulsarlon Glacier Lagoon, we park here to explore. This lagoon is known for the large pieces of glacial ice that break off the Breiðamerkurjökull glacier and float out toward the sea.
The lagoon is covered in mini-icebergs, sea birds, and seals on good days. Today they all seem to be staying inside, avoiding the inclement weather. Probably we should have done the same as the rain is coming down in buckets. But humans aren’t really the most intelligent animals in nature.
To get a good picture of one of the only icebergs floating close to us, we scamper down the embankment (covered in about 4′ of snow) to the beach. By this time, I am soaked through. My jacket, snow pants, and hat keep my torso and head dry, but the rain has soaked through my jacket sleeves.
Note: It’s a good idea to have more than one jacket. I did bring a second along.
After the lagoon, we head to the adjacent Diamond Beach. This is another of the black sand beaches along the southeastern shore of Iceland. Usually, this beach is covered in large chunks of ice. Hence the name Diamond Beach. Today’s rain has either melted all the ice or the ice has been swept to sea. Unfortunately, there are no “diamonds” left for our viewing.
We covered a lot of ground today, around 310 kilometers. But with road conditions not improving, we head for our lodging for the evening, Hotel Framtid, in the village of Djupivogur.
Hotel Framtid is a “self-contained” hotel with rooms above the bar/restaurant. All the places we are staying have been chosen for their location as regards the chances of seeing the Northern Lights. Unfortunately, again there are no Northern Lights in the sky for us tonight.
There seem to be only two types of proteins here in Iceland, fish (like the Arctic char we had yesterday) and lamb, which is on the menu tonight. I have to say, hungry as I am, the portion of lamb roast is far more than I can manage!
Breakfast at most hotels in Iceland is included in your room cost. The buffet setup follows a general theme: porridge (oats), fresh breads and cheeses, scrambled eggs, bacon, coffee, and tea.
Day 5 – Iceland’s Mystical Fjords
Auroras Iceland – Faskrudsfjodur
Leaving Djupivogur, we head north along the east coast of Iceland. The coastline is dotted with one fjord after another. We see our first herd of reindeer just before we get to Faskrudsfjodur. This village, founded in 1880, was the central hub for the French fisherman. They had a trading post and a chapel and even built a French hospital.
The first stop is the Auroras Iceland exhibition with our guide for the morning, Fjola. Fjola and her fellow village photographers have assembled a photo exhibit of their many Aurora photographs in an old house in the center of town.
After viewing the exhibit, Fjola takes us down the pier along the fjord and tells us a bit of the town’s history. We then walk through town, stopping at an old house that is both a museum of the village and a craft center with various handmade scarfs, hats, sweaters, and other items for sale. Here the town’s ladies treat us to “Icelandic” donuts, chocolates, and coffee. It’s great to warm up with the sweets!
We make an unplanned but necessary stop in Eglisstadir. Our guide cracked a tooth the night before and needs to see a dentist for a fix. This is a tiny town, but just across from the gas station is a cute café & bistro, Salt. The group enjoys lunch while David sees the dentist.
Tooth repaired, we head on to the Lake Myvatn area and our hotel for the evening
Myvatn Nature Baths & The Laxa Hotel
Two group members have reservations at the Myvatn Nature Baths for another soak in some hot springs. David shares that if anyone else wishes to jump into the waters, he will call ahead and set it up. Two more take up the offer. These baths are unique in their location in the landscape created by the lava flows.
The rest of us head over to the Laxa Hotel. We clean up and go to the lounge to wait for the group to reassemble for dinner. While having a drink, the barkeep tells us this is the first week the hotel has been opened in two months.
Again, we are the only table in the restaurant for dinner, but tonight we order from a menu; it is not a set meal.
After dinner, we head to bed, everyone checking their Aurora apps to see if we might finally see the lights. Around midnight, our phones start pinging… The group is alerting us that the northern lights are out.
We jump out of bed and fling open our curtains, and there is our first view of the Northern Lights. Hurriedly we get into our snow clothes and head outside. After four days on the road, we finally see this elusive show.
As we head back into the hotel, we realize there are people here who are not part of our group. We chat with them for a bit before heading back to bed. We were lucky; these folks had been waiting two weeks for the lights!
The next morning at breakfast, we are all still giddy about finally seeing the Northern Lights. When David greets us and asks how we slept, everyone simultaneously starts talking about the lights. When he asks if we have any pictures, we all jump up, cameras and phones in hand, to show him what we captured.
Day 6 – North Iceland In January – Exploring Lake Mývatn
Highlights Around Lake Mývatn
Today we are scheduled to explore the environs around Lake Mývatn. But after allowing us a glimpse of the Northern Lights last night, the weather is back with a fury. Our groups and the handful of other guests are stuck waiting for the storms to at least lighten up and the roads to open until early afternoon.
Just after noon, we get the ok to hit the road and start by circling the lake. The moon-like landscape is dotted with pseudo-craters.
Next, we stop at Reykjahlidarkirkja, a church at the end of a lava flow. What’s unique about this church is that it survived the Krafla eruption of 1727. On August 27, 1729, lava flowed through the village, destroying all the buildings and farms. The lava parted just meters from the church, leaving the church intact. The current church was rebuilt on the original foundation in 1962.
As we continue on our drive, we pass the Hverfjall crater. This crater is a tephra cone or ring volcano that stands 396 meters (1,300 ft) high and is nearly 1 kilometer in diameter.
After viewing some of the lava flow, now covered in snow, we stopped for lunch at a small hotel/restaurant in Skutustadahreppur. On the deck outside the restaurant, there is a sauna and hot tub for the hotel guests.
After lunch, we view our waterfall of the day, the ever-famous Goðafoss, the waterfall of the gods. David tells us the Icelandic myth that gave the falls their name.
Around 1000 CE, the Althingi (Icelands parliament) debated which religion should be Iceland’s national religion. Eventually, Christianity was declared the official religion of Iceland. Thorgeir Ljosvetningagodi, a lawspeaker in Althingi, returned home with the news and converted to Christianity himself.
The myth says that when Thorgeir converted, he collected all the Norse gods and through them into the falls as though to cast them out forever.
Akureyri – A Small Town With A Major Ski Resort
We arrive in Akureyri just before dark (around 5:00). This is later than planned since we had such a late departure. Right now, the road is closed between here and our final destination for the day. David suggests we walk around town while he checks with the road people and the tour company. If the road does not open, the tour company will find us lodging in Akureyri for the night.
Akureyri is the second-largest town in Iceland. However, it is still pretty small, with a full-time population of around 18,000. However, its best known for the Hildarfjall Ski Resort. The ski resort is open 180 days a year. The ski resort is why the main street in town is so full of life.
— Photo by MennoSchaefer
Walking down the main street, we find many shops, restaurants, and bars open and doing a bustling business. If I were a skier, this would be a fun ski area. The town also boasts a cruise port and airport. After purchasing souvenirs, we stopped at a coffee shop and ordered a hot chocolate to warm up.
Returning to the bus, we are happy to hear the road is clear. We head to our lodging at the Hofsstadir Country Hotel, finally arriving around 8:00 pm. We are the only guests here today, but the Owner/Chef awaits us with a lovely warm dinner.
It’s good we got here tonight; tomorrow is our return to Reykjavik, and the distance is nearly 250 miles.
Day 7 – West Iceland And Back To Reykjavik
We start the drive back to Reykjavik. The landscape here is almost like looking at the moon. Everything is covered in snow. Every 5 miles or so, there is a farm, and close to the farm is often a small herd of Icelandic Horses grouped close together for warmth. We learned at Fridheimar that Icelandic horses can be outside most of the winter.
We stop once more for lunch before our final push to Reykjavic. This road-stop restaurant is famous for its soup, especially mushroom. DH and I share an order of fish and chips with a cup of soup.
Near Reykholt, we stop at the twin waterfalls of Hranfossar and Barnafoss. It’s snowing quite hard now, and somehow six of us don’t realize that David has headed down to the Barnafoss. Thinking we’ve seen everything, we head back to the bus. David freaks out, thinking we may have gotten lost in the snow.
Day 8 – Our Last Day In Reykjavik
Visiting The Blue Lagoon – Geothermal Pools (H3)
Located between Reykjavik and Keflavik (the main airport) is the Blue Lagoon, one of Iceland’s most famous geothermal pools. We could visit the pools on the first day of our trip or the last. We chose the last day to wind down after this exciting trip.
Luck is on our side, and the weather, while still cold, is quite sunny today. Since the temperature of the water in the Blue Lagoon ranges between 100 and 130, we are pretty comfortable.
Our reservation was for the “Premium Blue Lagoon,” a package with entrance to the lagoon, a towel, and a robe. In addition, while in the lagoon, you receive a Silica mud mask, your choice of two other masks, and a drink of your choice at the swim-up bar.
We swim around trying out the masks, drinking Prosecco, and relaxing for about an hour. You could make an entire day out of your visit. There is a spa where you can get a massage or facial and a few restaurants for dining on-site.
You must bring your swimsuit for the lagoon, but everything else is available. The changing areas have lockers for your belongings, showers with shampoo, conditioner, and shower gel, and a vanity area with a blow dryer for your hair.
A Final Walk Around Reykjavik
Once back from the Blue Lagoon, we grab lunch and do our second walking tour of Reykjavik. First up is the famous church, Hallgrímskirkja.
This church is easily recognized by its distinctively curved spire and side wings. Standing 74.5 meters (244 ft) tall, it is the largest church in Iceland and one of the tallest structures in the country. You can climb the church tower between 10 am and 4:30 pm for only ISK 1200 (about $8.50 US).
Standing in front of the church is a giant statue of Leif Erikson with an inscription on its pedestal, letting all know about the importance of this great man
From here, we head to the Harpa Music Center. The architecture of this building is outstanding, and indeed it won the Mies van der Rohe -European Union Prize for Contemporary Architecture Award in 2013.
After a brief stint warming up in the lobby, we find our way through some side streets to Iceland’s most famous hot dog stand, Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur (The City’s Best Hotdog). The tiny red hot dog stand sits in a small square on the corner of Tryggvagata and Pósthússtræti and reached global fame when former US President Bill Clinton visited Iceland in 2004.
There is always a long queue of people waiting, but the wait is short. It’s best to order your dog with everything on it. DH asked how many hot dogs they served up in a day and was told 2000 – 3000! The best part may be the crispy onions that add a fun crunch to each bite. There are a few tables around the shack if you want to sit to enjoy your hot dog.
Other Things to do In And Around Reykjavik
One of the members of our group took a helicopter tour to see the country from the air. He highly recommended this, as the views were stunning.
Another couple went to Flyover Iceland. A sort of indoor amusement park ride that might be similar to the helicopter ride, but you are inside a building. Think Disney’s Avatar ride if you’ve ever done this. Again they recommended the ride.
They were also going to the Icelandic Phallological Museum but were told it would take 6 – 8 hours to go through all the exhibits, and they didn’t have the time. It sounds like fun, though!
Lastly, there are food tours in downtown Reykjavik. After a week of eating breakfast, lunch, and dinner at places around the country, we felt this might be overkill. If you are visiting Reykjavik and want to see the country’s favorite foods, this would be a fun way to do so.
Essential Things To Know If You Plan To Visit Iceland In January
The Weather in Iceland in January
Iceland in January is covered in snow, and the weather is sometimes unwelcoming. Days are short, with the average hours of daylight being just about seven. Most days, there will be some sort of precipitation. As I wrote above, having rain, hail, sleet, and snow on the same day was not unusual.
The Temperature in Iceland in January
How cold is Iceland in winter … it’s pretty chilly. The average temperature ranges from -3⁰ Celsius to 4⁰ Celsius. For those of us who live in the Fahrenheit world, this is around 26⁰ – 38⁰. Yes, you will be in sub-zero temperatures a lot of the time.
What to Wear in Iceland in January
Warm layers are essential when visiting Iceland in January. Pack for cold weather but keep in mind that conditions will vary quite a bit between different locations around Iceland in winter.
Don’t forget to pack extra warm clothing for outdoor activities. Getting wet as you hike to the waterfalls or hunting for the Aurora Borealis is common. Crampons or snow cleats are necessary for walking over icy paths and streets.
Packing for a city stay is easier. You can always stop in cafes, shops, and restaurants to escape the cold or wet weather.
Here Are Some of the Essentials We packed for January In Iceland
- Waterproof winter jacket
- Warm sweaters (though you can always purchase one locally too)
- Leggings for women to wear under the snow pants
- Hat (note: the beanie type)
- Warm socks
- Waterproof hiking footwear
- Bathing suit
7 Things To Know Before You Go To Iceland In January
- January may not be a great time to go to Iceland, even if you want to see the Northern Lights. The northern lights are visible in Iceland from November – March. Outside of Reykjavik and the Golden Circle Route in January, many of the best places may be closed due to weather or lack of tourists.
- The weather and daylight hours improve dramatically as you exit January and enter February. For example, in January, daylight hours are 10:30 to 4:30. In February, daylight hours are already longer by about 2.5 hours, from 9:30 to 6:00. You can see a lot in 2.5 more hours.
- If you drive around Iceland, stay on the main roads. Road conditions in Iceland in January are dangerous.
- Be prepared for strong winds, icy roads, and cold days.
- Patience is necessary. There will be delays. There will be crowds at the major sites, and you may have to wait for the Aurora Borealis to show itself.
- Seeing the magical northern lights is a gift from nature. January may not be the perfect time to visit Iceland, but your trip will be unforgettable!
- Good tour guides are essential! Check the reviews, and google the guide. The knowledge David Kelley shared with us about the country was incredibly valuable.
Overall, whenever you choose to visit Iceland, expect to be amazed by the country and the people.