I have been a driver guide in Iceland for 8 years. Not all driver-guides like to drive in Iceland in winter, for a reason. I have experienced strong winds(35+m/s) that hit your car like a knockdown in a MBA fight. It wasn´t pretty, but I had to get my passengers and myself back to Reykjavík in one piece.
Driving in Iceland in winter can be scary, challenging and overwhelming. You might experience sudden snow-storms with heavy wind, but you still have to get to the airport to catch your flight? You will be driving in almost daylight, depends on if it is a foggy or a bright day. When dark, there are NO streetlights in the countryside and you can not be driving with your headlights on, to be polite and show courtesy to the ones coming in the opposite direction. You might even want to consider to let the professional driver guides do their job, sit back and relax and just enjoy Iceland with your family and friends. Feel the thrill of getting safe through that roller coaster that Icelandic ever-changing weather can be. Experienced driver guides in Iceland have been though every obstacle there is to find in this fierce nature.
When landing at Keflavik airport, you might think that you´ve flown to the moon. What is out the windows, all around the plane, isn´t of this world. No trees, no sign of life. Only snow and black volcanic rocks, sparkling under a sapphire sky.
The light has been described as unlike anything you might have ever seen. From October to March, the dark months when the sun only shines a few hours a day – yet, the light is cold, almost blue as if it was shining through a dusty lens.
And it can be windy. So windy. What I hear every time from travelers is “IT´S SO COLD!!”. YES. Layer up 😉 Use your hat(basic physics of heat-it vapors upwards, through your head-when using a hat-locks the heat inside), scarf and your wind-and rainproof jacket to shelter you from that wind. THE WIND is the kind of wind with icicles in it, biting through our layers and making us dream of a crackling fire and hot chocolate.
Iceland in Winter, No Car – Is it Possible?
Headed out of the airport, most passengers makes a beeline for the car hire desks. How about explore Iceland in winter making use of tours and public transport, using Reykjavik as your base. In winter, with limited daylight and only a long weekend or so off, you will have time to do the capital and its immediate surroundings, enjoying the peace of mind of not having a car.
A week later, you might go back with a backpack full of Icelandic sweaters (nothing else protects you from that wind!), and two memory cards full of pictures and hearts full of love for the nature of Iceland.
Your trip might be a bite-size taste of what Iceland has to offer, but yes, exploring Iceland in winter without a car is definitely doable – some buses run year round, and there’s a variety of tours on offer to go hunting for the Northern Lights or venture for a day-trip out of the capital.
Other benefits of heading to Iceland in winter? First of all, it’s cheaper than in the height of summer. Iceland is an expensive destination, like much of Northern countries, and high season is in summer when prices skyrocket. In winter you’ll also find far fewer tourists than in summer – who cares about the cold when you can have Icelandic nature to yourself?
Here’s a suggestion on what to do during a week in Iceland in winter with no car. Needless to say, you will want to be back for more!
The Icelandic capital might be dismissed by many travelers as being a boring place with nothing to see. Well, I beg to differ. It’s a small city, so walking around is quite easy – once you get used to the cold. Walking can be very handy when having a drink 😉 SO to be recommended is the nightlife in Reykjavík, if you don´t mind the prices for one night- plenty of bars sitting just next to each other with a big variety of music venue. Not to mention all the festivals you should come here to experience.
The star attraction in Reykjavik is Hallgrímskirkja, with its concertina-like façade. The inside is plain and sombre, but it’s worth climbing to the top for an awesome view over the colourful houses of downtown Reykjavik – looking more like an Arctic village- with houses built just here and there with the roofs in all kinds of colours- than a European capital.
Another place to be recommended is the Old Harbour – a couple of whale-watching boats picking up passengers, and then lunch at the lovely Icelandic Fish and Chips, one of the few eateries in Reykjavik that won’t break the bank.
Talking about food, Reykjavik is the ideal place to try some exotic local specialties. The restaurant Tapas Barinn offers a tasting menu of Icelandic specialties, including mink whale and puffin – but remember the puffin is endangered in Iceland.
PS. If you’re flying between Europe and the US, a layover in Reykjavik is a perfect idea to break your journey – and yes, you don’t need a car!
The Golden Circle
The Golden Circle is the number one day trip available from Reykjavik, a 300-km loop including three of the country’s main sights – Thingvellir National Park, the Haukadalur geysers and Gullfoss waterfall.
Thingvellir National Park is worth a visit for two reasons – it’s the place where the Eurasian and North American tectonic plate meet (you can also go diving there!) and it’s where the Icelandic parliament started gathering in 930, arguably the first parliament in the world!
At Haukadalur you’ll be able to see two geysers – Geysir, now inactive, and Strokkur, erupting a column of steam and water up to 20 meters high every 4-8 minutes.
Gullfoss is a favourite sight, a majestic, mostly-frozen waterfall, cascading from the rocks into a snow-covered valley.
The Golden Circle loop is a kind of intro to Icelandic nature, offering the chance to see ‘iconic’ sights (i.e. waterfalls, geysers, a geological oddity) without travelling too far from the capital. We at Fjallhalla Adventurers offer Golden Circle tours and other trips in Iceland, perfect if you’re travelling without a car!
The Northern Lights
First things first – you’re not guaranteed to see the Northern Lights if you travel to Iceland (or anywhere else in the north or the south, for that matter) in winter. Your chances will be higher if the sky is clear, the temperature cold, and if you’re travelling during a time of high sunspots, meaning lots of solar flare energy is being released into space – leading to increased chances of aurora borealis.
The sun follows 10-12 year cycles of solar activity, culminating with 2/3 year periods with higher chances of Northern light viewing. This, once again, doesn’t mean viewings are guaranteed.
On the other hand, during a week long visit in Iceland, you might be lucky and see a beautiful aurora despite all odds – it might even be a warm, slightly cloudy night. The Northern lights sometimes shine over Reykjavik, but it’s rare. Your best bet, if you don’t have a car, would be joining a Northern Lights tour taking you to a dark area away from the city lights.
Make sure you cover up and wear warm shoes – I still remember me when I was young, my feet FREEZING after I ran into the snow in my sneakers to chase the lights of the beautiful aurora just above me.
The Blue Lagoon and other Geothermal Pools
Iceland has lots of volcanic activity, meaning that thermal pools are abundant all over the country. A bath in an Icelandic geothermal pool is a not-to-be-missed experience – kind of like visiting a Japanese onsen or Finnish sauna.
The most visited pool in Iceland is definitely the Blue Lagoon, a photographer’s favourite with its milky-blue waters surrounded by the stark Icelandic nature. The Blue Lagoon is located halfway between Reykjavik and Keflavik airport, and it’s a popular stop to and from the airport – when visited on a weekday you might be lucky to find it fairly quiet, with only a few dozen people bathing in the outdoor pools.
Visit on a weekend, and you will probably be stuck in an endless queue, and share the pool with hundreds of beer-toting tourists. The alternative? Reykjavik houses several geothermal pools, although the surroundings may not be as spectacular as the Blue Lagoon. I recommend Laugardalslaug – located downtown-meaning a walk away- Sundhöllin and Vesturbaejarlaug are other options.
There are many geothermal pools all around Iceland, although you may need a car to access them. The Myvatn Nature Baths, Landmannalaugar and Secret Lagoon near Fludir on the Golden Circle is to be highly recommended.
Have you been to Iceland in winter without a car? Let us know about your experience!