Fire & Ice
Visiting Iceland around Christmas and New Year’s Eve was a fascinating experience – even if winter comes with its own challenges. It might not be the best time to visit Iceland – especially if you want near never-ending days and off-road adventures – but during these short, icy days, I found a heartwarming land. And plenty of fire come the turn of the year.
Day or Night
The most obvious difference during the Icelandic winter is daylight. Given its location just south of the Arctic Circle, summer brings some twenty hours of daylight. In winter, you can expect as little as five. For some, this is a major draw; for others, it is totally off-putting. Even though it remains one of the best islands to visit in the world. Unless you want to explore Iceland’s interior as off-roading and these internal dirt tracks close over winter.
A beautiful challenge
I’ll be honest: Iceland in winter is a challenge. Especially if you’d prefer not to drive. Around New Year’s Eve, many hotels and car rentals were nearly fully booked, but by booking some short tours, I was able to secure some fantastic cabin accommodations for northern light hunting (and failing) as the operator had pre-booked these rooms. Spending one week in Iceland, even with the shorter days, allows enough time to see the major highlights.
I dread to think how over budget I went whilst exploring Iceland, and in hindsight, I likely should have listened to a friend’s suggestion of booking a complete tour rather than piecing it all together myself. Companies such as Exodus Holidays offer a range of packages that might take the hassle out of creating a DIY itinerary. Still, the smiles from the locals made it all worthwhile.
Plan and prepare
Photographing Iceland during winter was challenging. Between limited daylight hours, the adverse weather conditions for the camera, and the constant blue hue that lingers, it was educational – especially as someone not used to travelling or photographing in these climates. Tripods, extra batteries, weather protection for equipment and swatting up on long exposure photography and capturing the northern lights are essential pre-trip considerations.
The incredible Diamond Beach was one of my absolute highlights. I could have spent hours here. It might not be much of a hidden gem these days, but it’s another level of beauty.
Fireworks for all
If you can visit Iceland in winter for the New Year’s Eve celebrations, you’ll truly experience the land of fire and ice. Although there are no official government parties organised, the locals (and visitors) of the Island come together to put on fireworks, which last for days on either side of NYE itself.
With bonfires and an explosion of fireworks marking the evening itself, the safe, welcoming and exciting atmosphere was a totally unique way to welcome in a new year, as well as an additional photo opportunity.
With Christmas decorations aplenty, bars and restaurants full of festive cheer, and everyone buzzing around for their holidays, the capital city felt super cosy.
Game of Thrones fans, waterfall chasers, geyser observers, and winter hikers will find joy in Thingvellir National Park no matter the time of year. The popular Golden Circle route, linking a handful of attractions not far from Reykjavík, can be toured or self-driven during winter. There are even handy live road webcams to check for any road issues ahead.
One fantastic bonus of visiting Iceland in winter is the ice caves are both present, and stable enough, to explore inside. An incredible experience.
The small village of Vik, from which you can easily access Reynisfjara Beach, is best known for its jet-black sands and the Reynisdrangar lava-formed basalt rock formations. The south coast road is no trouble in winter.
Black and white
Trekking over a frozen glacier in the morning and walking atop a black sand beach in the afternoon. Winter days in Iceland are anything buy boring.
This moment was as cold as it looked. But when the chance to swim between two tectonic plates appears, it’s hard to overlook – especially with the incredible visibility. While I do scuba dive, this visibility made snorkelling fantastic, too, while being less expensive.
Still, there are plenty of opportunities for slightly less extreme water experiences. Hot springs, including the famous Blue Lagoon, provide a therapeutic end to your day.