As a visitor in Iceland or an enthusiast about birds, you may wonder about the state of the puffin – how it’s faring against climate change, volatile weather conditions and human impact. This article covers some of the most important factors relating to puffin survival, including puffin hunting and changes in natural conditions. Let’s start by looking at perhaps the hottest topic: puffin hunting.

Why would you want to hunt such a cute and wonderful bird? Some of you might ask. Why not? Is what some of you might answer. It seems to be delicious and quite unique in its taste. Yes, puffins are being hunted in Iceland, and yes it is one of only two places in the world (next to the Faroer Islands), where the hunt is still legal.

puffin survival

USFWS, Atlantic puffins landing

Right now there is a lot of discussion about this practice and I will tell you what the fuss is all about. Remember that hunting puffins is basically as old as the the Icelanders themselves. They have pretty much done it since their Viking ancestors arrived on the island, because they probably knew it from other places in their territories. Hell, there is a whole festival in the Westman Islands (since 1874), where the biggest puffin colony resides, that is inseperable of the enjoyment of smoked puffins, which to this day is considered a delicacy.

And it does make sense. The Atlantic puffin (Fratercula arctica) is still the most common bird in Iceland with millions of pairs nesting on many of the steep cliffs. Take abundance and tradition and you have two very strong arguments to keep up this practice that is past on from generation to generation without much alteration or change. The technique has basically been the same all along. No guns are used. It is quite a simple technique: you attach a triangular net on an up to 4m long pole and voila- you have your háfur (Iceland) or fleyg (Faroer); the pole that is used to catch the puffins since centuries. Sounds simple, but actually requires a lot of skill to catch those puffins in their flight.

Want some proof? Even Gordon Ramsay tried it in a very controversial Youtube Video from 2008. After hours, he finally managed to catch a puffin. The first one of the season! Traditionally that one is released for good luck. With some more practice, he went on to catch two more and after the neck is broken and the chest meat is taken out, followed his Icelandic teacher in eating the raw heart of the puffin. Leaving the showman aspect of this particular hunt, we have to keep in mind that Iceland is a very scarse country, where survival has never been guaranteed. Under such harsh conditions, easily accessible animal protein was crucial for the survival of the settlers.

A skilled hunter could catch a few hundred puffins in a single day, providing enough food for himself and the community. In that fashion even in the 1970s approximately 150,000-200,000 puffins were killed in Iceland alone. Icelandic hunters have long kept track of their catches (since 140 years!). That enables scientists even today to look at the numbers of puffins and how puffin survival is affected by different factors.

Puffin survival

A puffin catcher in Suðurey, Faroe Islands (CC BY-SA 3.0)

That‘s also how we know one thing: Things have changed. The hunters were the first to recognise this, as it got harder to hunt plenty of puffins – simply because there are not so many around anymore. The hunting had to change with the dropping numbers. Over the time the hunting season has been shortened and shortened. While it was 46 days long just a couple of years ago, they cut it down to just a week in 2021. Now the hunting season in South-Iceland is only three days long. In fact, it‘s such a short season that many of the more passionate hunters that do it travel to the North, to Grímsey, where the hunting season is longer (~6 weeks). Still, hunting has decreased by 90% in comparison to the 1970s (still reaching about 15,000-20,000 birds each year). What is happening?

Puffin populations are struggling. Especially in the Westman Islands, where researcher Erpur Hansen speaks of a breeding failure since 2003. Almost no subadults are recruited into the breeding populations with the consequence of an alarming 70% decrease over the last 30 years. And it doesn‘t look much better for the rest of Europe. In total the population is calculated to be declining at a rate of 50-79% over three generations (65 years) according to new data from the IUCN. That has led the puffin to be listed as vulnerable, with some populations on the European level even as endangered (IUCN 2018). Because Iceland and Norway together hold about 80% of the total population in Europe, their status here is of the utmost importance for puffin survival overall.

puffin survival

A group of puffins protecting their burrows

But what are the factors for such a drastic decline? It surely isn‘t all to blame on a few hunters right? Indeed the problem is way more complex and has to do with all of us, not just some hunters. One of the most important factor is the warming of the climate due to human activity. The puffins’ main prey species in (the South) of Iceland is the sand eel. It thrives at a sea surface temperature of around 7,1°C, with rates of puffin survival and reproduction dropping the more temperatures vary. Just like the young herring and the capelin (other staple foods for the puffin), they are cold water fish. And they are being fed to the young puffins!

Because of the warming sea water, prey populations are dying. Or they are pushed further North, out of reach for the puffins in their breeding colonies. That is one reason why puffin survival around Grímsey is still comparably better than in the Westman Islands, where sand eels have vanished. In the absence of enough prey, the parent puffins must fly further and further away to find enough food to feed their young, very energy taxing and often not sufficient, which results in the starvation of the young.

puffin survival

A beak full of sandeel for the pufflings

As if that wasn’t already a big enough problem, overfishing is another important factor further decimating prey stocks for the puffins. Sand eel is not being eaten directly by humans, but it is further processed into fish meal and fertilizer. It’s the same for capelin. I don’t have to tell you much about herring.

So, what role does hunting play in the overall decline of the puffins? According to lead scientist Hansen, breeding puffins tend not to fly into the nets of the hunters, because they fly directly in and out of their burrows while it is the young adolescents that fly along the cliffs more aimlessly. They are the ones that are being caught by the hunters. He subsequently called for a hunting ban. Hunting seems to account for about 10% of the recent decline, because it has robbed the populations of an upcoming breeding generation while the reproduction performance of an aging population decreases more and more. Therefore, any hunting of puffins is considered ecologically unsustainable.

puffin survival

Bill Ward, Puffin meat at a restaurant in Reykjavík (CC BY 2.0)

Why this might be interesting for you? Let’s say you’d walk through Reykjavik and come across a restaurant that still serves puffin meat. Puffin „harvesting“ has for the longest time been a local activity, where the inhabitants hunt in their local, unforgiving environment for survival. But things have changed and curious tourists are creating a demand for puffin meat that wouldn‘t exist without them. I believe through the given information you are enabled to make a reasonable decision with puffin survival in mind. Although curiosity is strong in us, you just have to ask yourself, if you think that eating such a unique and wonderful bird that is in severe decline is a bright idea? If you are still not convinced, I’d love to show you the beauty of these birds on one of our Puffin Express or Puffin Express by RIB Speedboat tours here at Special Tours.

As always, thanks for reading and hopefully see you soon.

Blog by Daniel Blankenheim, Special Tours guide


PS: As of the 29.05.2023, there is news about hundreds of dead puffins (among other sea birds) being stranded dead in the Westman Islands. We don’t know exactly what is happening right now and are waiting for data to be released. There is reason to believe these deaths are the result of bird flu, which has wreaked havoc in several countries among different bird species in recent years. It certainly is alarming news for the puffin population in Iceland that is already struggling.


Humpback whales are one of the most iconic marine species, known for their beautiful songs and their graceful movements. Every year, humpback whales embark on a long migration from their feeding grounds in the North Atlantic to their breeding grounds in the Caribbean Sea. This journey covers thousands of miles and involves navigating through treacherous waters, avoiding predators, and dealing with changing weather conditions. In this blog post, we’ll take a closer look at humpback whale migration in the North Atlantic, including the waters around Iceland.

Whale migration in the North-Atlantic Ocean

Humpback Whale Migration in the North Atlantic

The North Atlantic is home to some of the largest populations of humpback whales in the world. These whales spend the summer months feeding in the cold waters of the North Atlantic, building up their fat reserves for the long journey ahead. As the temperatures start to drop and the days get shorter, the humpback whales begin to feel the pull of their breeding grounds in the Caribbean Sea. They start to make their way south, covering thousands of miles in the process.

The journey takes the humpback whales through some of the most challenging waters in the world, including the Gulf of Maine, the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, and the waters around Iceland. These areas are known for their strong currents, treacherous weather conditions, and diverse marine life.

Humpback Whales Around Iceland

Iceland is a popular destination for humpback whale watching, as the waters around the island are home to large populations of these majestic creatures. The humpback whales that travel through the waters around Iceland are part of a larger population that feeds in the cold waters of the North Atlantic during the summer months.

The humpback whales that pass by Iceland are known for their unique behavior, including breaching, tail slapping, and bubble net feeding. Bubble net feeding is a fascinating behavior that involves a group of whales working together to create a ring of bubbles around a school of fish. The whales then swim up through the bubble net, catching the fish in their mouths.

Whale migration in the North-Atlantic Ocean

A humpback breaches in front of a happy crowd on a RIB boat. Click photo for more!

The Importance of Protecting Humpback Whales

Humpback whales are one of the most studied and well-documented marine species in the world. Despite this, they are still under threat from a variety of human activities, including climate change, pollution, and commercial whaling.

Protecting humpback whales and their habitats is crucial for their survival and for the health of the oceans as a whole. Efforts are underway to protect humpback whales and their habitats, including the creation of marine protected areas and the enforcement of regulations on commercial whaling.


Humpback whale migration in the North Atlantic is a truly remarkable event that has captured the imagination of people around the world. The waters around Iceland are an important part of this migration, as they provide a critical feeding ground for humpback whales during the summer months. Protecting humpback whales and their habitats is crucial for their survival and for the health of the oceans as a whole.

More on whale migration here.

10 great family activities in Reykjavik

You may have heard rumours about the vibrant nightlife in Reykjavik, and perhaps you thought to yourself that this is only a place for party people. Well, you would be wrong. Iceland’s capital is a great place for a trip with your loved ones and little ones. We gathered a list of ten great family activities in Reykjavik. We’re certain that after trying out one or more of these, you won’t hear those dreaded words from your child: “I’m bored”.


#1 Puffin watching – Parrot divers? Sea clowns? Little friars?

Now that I have your interest, let me introduce Atlantic puffins to you. If you go on a puffin tour with us (between May and August) you will find the answer to why these animals have all these weird names in different languages. They might be smaller than what you expected – also they are not penguins! But what they lack in size, they make up with their amazing flying and diving abilities. That combined with their delightful character will not leave you or your child unmoved. We are fortunate enough to have the ability to see these amazing birds just outside of the Old Harbour!

Family activities in Reykjavik - Puffin watching

Two puffins debate the weather close to Reykjavik


#2 Horseback riding – “They are horses, not ponies!”

Very few things are as magical for a child as travelling on a fuzzy fur animal that is big as a giant in their eyes. Well, maybe not the Icelandic horses since they are rather small for horses (they are still not ponies). Speaking of the oddities of these horses, did you know that other breeds have 3 gaits while the Icelandic horses have 5? Horseback riding will certainly be a family activity that everyone can enjoy together. As you ride through breathtaking nature you get to experience a fraction of how the people in the olden times lived on this island. We recommend Íshestar, which is the industry leader in animal welfare and animal treatment. And don’t forget it’s possible to combine horseback riding with whale watching or northern lights hunting!

Family activities in Reykjavik - Horseback riding

Riding through Icelandic lava fields on a beautiful day


#3 Whale watching – Nurture the love for nature with an authentic wildlife encounter

One of my favourite moments as a whale watching guide was when a little girl dropped her jaw upon seeing a humpback whale just next to the boat and shouted: “This is the best day of my life!” Seeing the giants of the deep with your own eyes can indeed be a life-changing experience for the young and the old. So why not venture on a marine adventure with your family and have a good old fashioned “who spots the whale first” competition on one of our large family friendly boats? It’ll be one of the most memorable family activities in Reykjavik.

Family activities in Reykjavik - Whale watching

Whale watching is a memorable experience for a traveler of any age


#4 Whales of Iceland museum – A different perspective on these magnificent creatures

To consolidate the family’s knowledge about our marine mammal friends, go to the Whales of Iceland Museum. You’ll see life-sized whales and dolphin models and learn more about them with excellent audio guides and a guided tour as well. There is also a children’s playground on site where they can draw colouring books, take a whale quiz and crawl inside a wooden orca. The museum is also one of our favourite family activities in Reykjavik that are perfect for rainy days!


#5 “Ísbíltúr” – Going on the icecream drive

Ok, so if your native language is not of Germanic origin you might have trouble deciphering what “ísbíltúr” might be. We are talking about icecream here, icecream in a car, icecream in a car while driving around! Indeed, the icecream drive is one of the favourite pastime activities in the country, no matter what season it is. Grab a scoop of your favourite flavour or try “bragðarefur” – soft ice-cream with several toppings of your choice, all blended together. Get back in your car and drive around until your family finishes their tasty treats. Everyone has their own version of this custom, with a different selection of icecream shops and driving routes. You can try the shop called “Ísbúð Vesturbæjar”, or “Valdís” in the Grandi area. Your truly prefers to go to “Huppa” and then drive to the lighthouse of Grótta to watch sunset. Whatever your choice is, you can’t go wrong if the family is having a good time.


#6 Reykjavik Park and Zoo

Considering that the original name of the Reykjavik Park and Zoo is “the family park” it naturally made the list. Maybe you come from a big city and the kids don’t have a lot of opportunities to meet real domestic animals? Now here is your chance to do just that. Rekindle your own wonder through your child’s eyes as they get excited by seeing a cow, sheep, chicken, or even other more exotic animals, such as the mink, seal, Arctic fox and reindeer. Fun fact: the only native land mammal in Iceland is the fox).  The other section of the park is an amusement park for the little ones. They can ride in kiddie cars, trains, boats and carrousels. And do lots of jumping around!

Family activities in Reykjavik - Reykjavik Park and Zoo

A sleeping Arctic fox with its fluffy tail wrapped around itself


#7 Skating or skiing

Just next to the Reykjavik Park and Zoo is Reykjavik’s main skating rink, Skautahöllin Laugardal. It’s a fun place that’s always icy, even when the outside is not. Believe us, it happens! Our favourite moment is when they dim the lights, put on some disco lighting and turn up the music a bit. That’s a chance for the older ones and the parents to forget time and place and just have fun! No preparation is needed, except maybe putting on some warm clothes. You can rent the skates and helmets on the spot, and there’s supportive equipment for anyone without a sure footing on the ice. If you’re in Reykjavik in winter, there’s a great skiing resort within minutes from downtown Reykjavik. Ski resort Bláfjöll offers several slopes of different difficulties, as well as cross-country skiing tracks. You can also rent anything you might need there. Why not start the day with a walk and breakfast downtown, followed by skiing or snowboarding, and then ending the day melting away in hot jacuzzi?!


#8 Swimming pools – Swim like a dolphin, chill like a seal

With 121 swimming pools in a country of 370,000 inhabitants, we take our swimming pools seriously. Right, maybe not THAT seriously. But seriously enough that we want to access them anywhere in the country, any time of year! And with lots of hot water too! There will usually be several pools with different temperatures and different functions. So you can relax at 37°C while your kids play in the shallow pool for children. One swimming pool that could be of special interest is Laugardalslaug where you can find a massive waterslide! (It’s also just next to the Reykjavik Park and Zoo and the skating rink.) Don’t worry, it is perfectly normal for you as an adult to join them! After all, it is moments like these that remind us that we are all still kids inside. As far as family activities in Reykjavik go, it doesn’t get any better than this.

Family activities in Reykjavik - Swimming pools

Laugardalslaug swimming pool has a big waterslide and many different pools


#9 Perlan – Education meets fun

This domed palace-like structure overlooking the city houses a world of knowledge and immersion. Perlan is a great stop to learn about Icelandic geology, history, glaciology, flora and fauna, all through fun and interactive features. I would like to emphasize the artificial ice cave tour that might be a fun little thing to do with the little ones, especially if you start a snow-ball fight in there. Another thing that is worth checking out is the northern lights show in the planetarium that will leave you wanting more. If you weren’t into it before, you’ll probably want to see the lights with your own eyes afterwards!


#10 Feed the ducks at Tjörnin

With 388 bird species in Iceland, it is truly a birdwatchers paradise. Being a birder myself I can think of no better incentive for your child to start loving birds than to take them to the city pond known as Tjörnin (Bus stop #2 is right next to it). Depending on the season, you’ll see different species of birds. Also, in the wintertime this pond is often frozen, and sometimes frozen hard enough to walk or skate on! Some of the regular inhabitants that your little ones will be happy to see and feed are eider ducks, whooper swans, greyleg geese, Eurasian wigeons and common teals. Keep in mind that bread and crackers are not suitable for them. Cracked corn, oats, rice, birdseed, frozen peas, chopped lettuce, or sliced grapes are a much better alternative. If you happen to come in the summer, you can spot the Arctic terns that nest on a tiny inlet in the pond called Þorfinnstjörn.


Written by Lucas Heinrich.

You’re about to start your Northern Lights hunt. Here’s what you must know.

The decision has been taken! You’ve decided to travel to the most beautiful country in the world (no, we’re not biased at all!) to view the Northern Lights, one of the most spectacular natural phenomena there are. Congratulations! Now, let’s talk about what to expect and what your options are.

What’s the best time to view the Northern Lights?

First off, to see the lights, the conditions must be right. The skies have to be relatively clear of clouds – that’s the most important thing. The clouds can block your view of the sky and the lights, but with partial cloud coverage you can still sometimes see the lights.

Second, it must be dark out. That means that the summer months in Iceland are out of the question, as it’s bright all night long! So the best time is to visit between late August and late April.

Thirdly, you’ll want to get out of the city lights, thus driving (or sailing!) a little out of towns and cities.

After that, it’s a mix of patience and luck. The Northern Lights are totally natural phenomenon and, like trying to catch a glimpse of a deer in the forest, you don’t have much to say about your success. Except wait and keep a watchful eye.

Northern lights spotting - What to know before your tour

Breathtaking Northern Lights over Faxaflói bay in September 2022

Northern Lights tours – what are my options?

Iceland offers several options for you to help you see the aurora. There are many bus companies that will take you outside city limits, drive you around while trying to spot where the lights may be happening. There’s also the option of renting a car and going by yourself to look. And then there’s us – we take to the seas to hunt for this spectacular show. But why should you consider taking a boat to see them? Well, in a few words, it’s way more fun.

The fact of the matter is that the chance to see auroras from the sea is not higher than on land. In fact, the chances are usually very similar. So why is the boat a better option? Picture this. You’re on a crowded bus with dozens of other people, driving for a while just to leave the city, all the while you’re stuck in your seat and unable to go outside until the bus driver decides to stop. Once you do, you can finally get out and breathe in some fresh air and hopefully enjoy the light show… before having to be stuck in your seat for another 1-2 hours on the way back. And hopefully you dressed warm enough, as well.

Northern lights spotting - What to know before your tour

Spectators photograph the Northern Lights from a boat

Advantages of seeing the lights by boat

Being on a boat with us opens up so many possibilities. We depart from the Old Harbour in Reykjavík, just a 5-minute walk from the city centre (but if you’re staying farther away, we offer an optional pickup and drop-off service to major hotels and guesthouses).

During the whole duration of the trip you are able to stay outside, watching the skies, enjoying every minute of the trip and maximising your chances of seeing the Northern Lights. Or, if you’re feeling cold or want to take a break, you can go inside and enjoy our comfortable and warm cafeteria and bar, maybe have a snack or a drink. But also, all our passengers can borrow our wonderful thermal overalls for free, which can make it feel downright cosy sitting or standing outside.

On our way out of the harbour and back in, you get a chance to view the magnificent Reykjavík city lights and the Harpa concert hall from the sea, which is a great start and end to the tour.

And the best part – on every tour, an experienced and motivated guide will tell you all about the science and magic behind the Northern Lights! We aren’t the only company in Reykjavik offering Northern Lights by Boat, but we were the first company in Iceland to do so. That gives us a lot of experience, which we are happy to pass along to you.

Northern lights spotting - What to know before your tour

Dancing Northern Lights above the mountains

So you’re ready to go? Great! Here are some practicalities to prepare for the tour.

Iceland is an amazing place to go whale watching! Encountering these beautiful gentle giants is an incredibly rewarding experience, one that lets us truly appreciate the wonderful diversity of life that we share our planet with. Against the backdrop of the jagged Icelandic landscape sculpted by millions of years of volcanic activity and glacial movements, it might even be the adventure of a lifetime. Here at Special Tours, we’ve done all the hard work and found the perfect spots to search for whales, dolphins, and porpoises, all within less than an hour’s sailing from Reykjavík – but there are still some things to keep in mind when preparing for your Whale Watching adventure in Iceland. Read on for some tips from the professionals!


How to Dress for a Whale Watching Tour in Iceland


Now, the waters around our North Atlantic island nation are very high in nutrients, due in part to deep sea currents that rising up just off the coast. These nutrients support the rich ecosystem that allows whales to thrive – and so every year, countless thousands of whales migrate to our waters to feed on a rich variety of fish species. In particular, the bay of Faxaflói in southwest Iceland benefits by being very exposed to the nutrient-rich North Atlantic Current. Due to this, Special Tours is one of very few whale watching companies in the world that offer whale watching tours year-round – every single day of the year!


How to Dress for a Whale Watching Tour in Iceland

Photo by Federico Facchin (Winter Whale Watching from Reykjavík)



Being in the middle in the North Atlantic Ocean, weather in Iceland can vary quite a bit from day to day, let alone season to season. We always provide free warm overalls to all of our Whale Watching passengers, included in the ticket price. These help not only trap heat, but also keep you dry in wet weather, allowing you to stay outside for much longer. But depending on the time of year that you sail with us, you may need to pack different types of clothing to make sure you’ll be extra cozy with us:


How to Dress for a Whale Watching Tour in Iceland

Photo: What to wear and what not to wear on a whale watching tour


No matter what time of year you join us for a whale watching tour, you have a high probability of an encounter with one of the four main species that we see – humpback whales, minke whales, white-beaked dolphins, and harbor porpoises. So never ever forget to bring your camera! Whether yours is built into your smartphone, or a high-end DSLR with a telephoto lens, or somewhere in between, it is easy to get memorable photos on any of our tours. Read our blog, How to Photograph Whales for some more tips about wildlife photography.



How to Dress for a Whale Watching Tour in Iceland


With Whale Watching tours all year round, and up to 10 daily departures in summer season, there’s always time to add a wildlife adventure with Special Tours to your Icelandic holiday. For more information, or if you have further questions, then feel free to contact our ticket office at or call +354 560 8800


Blog by
Jonathan Rempel
Instagram: @jon.rempel
Head Guide, Special Tours

Winter whale watching in Reykjavik can be an interesting phenomenon. Since the beginning of last December, we’ve had an interesting change in the pattern of our winter whale watching tours and we thought we’d share that with you.

Usually we sail for approximately an hour away from the Reykjavik Old Harbour before we came to a good whale watching spot in the middle of Faxaflói. These days the tours offer a fun little game for the guide: trying to spot a whale before finishing the introduction speech! And they manage to do it more often than not, due to sightings close to the Old Harbour!

We have been seeing the same animal at a distance of a few minutes sailing from the harbour, from the 4th of December and we’re very happy about it! This humpback whale has been exhibiting exciting behaviour like lobtailing, barrel rolling on the surface, flipper slapping and, to the delight of all our passengers, coming ridiculously close to our vessel to investigate us. We are not sure what whales dream about, but we can assure you that we are currently living the whale dream.

Below are a few pictures of this friendly neighbour of ours from the last few winter whale watching tours. More images from January whale watching can be found here. You can click the below images to see more amazing photos and videos on our Instagram page.

Written by Lucas Heinrich.

winter whale watching in Reykjavik

Our friendly neighbour on a beautiful winter afternoon close to Reykjavik


winter whale watching in Reykjavik

Our friend flaps its tail!


winter whale watching in Reykjavik

The friendly whale comes close to the boat


winter whale watching in Reykjavik

The majestic humpback’s tail pops up from the water


winter whale watching in Reykjavik

A beautiful creature in beautiful surroundings

The summer months are the high season for tourism here in Iceland, and for good reason. The long daylight hours and snow-free roads are ideal for long road trips into the countryside to explore our country’s natural wonders. However, summer visitors miss out on many of the charms of Icelandic winters: the golden sun hanging low in the sky and illuminating the snowy landscape, the northern lights dancing in the sky, and the twinkling Christmas lights on nearly every eave and window in the city. Here, we’ve compiled some of the best winter activities in Reykjavik, for that crisp January or February day (or night) in the world’s northernmost capital city.

Visit an outdoor swimming pool

When the weather turns frigid, there’s no feeling quite like sinking into a geothermally heated hot tub and letting your troubles melt away. There are no less than 17 geothermal pools in the whole Reykjavik area, and each of them have their charms, whether it’s the views, the social life, or even the various slides. Didn’t expect to go swimming on a winter trip to Iceland? Not to worry, as every pool rents out bathing suits and towels, so what are you waiting for? Dive in!

Winter activities in Reykjavik

Lucky guests lounging in the swimming pool Laugardalslaug in Reykjavik

See the northern lights

The northern lights are a truly spectacular phenomenon, one that certainly has to be seen to be believed. It sounds almost too good to be true – swirling lights of green (and sometimes other colors too!) that light up the sky on nearly every clear night? Yes, and it’s something that has awed northerly populations for millennia and is among the top winter activities in Reykjavik you can do. They’ve inspired legend and folklore, and have baffled scientists for centuries until very recently. There are many ways to go and see them – leaving the city by car, by bus, or even by bike – but definitely the most memorable way to see them is by boat. Special Tours was the first company to offer northern lights cruises, so you get the benefit of years of experience (and get to go sailing in the winter, also very unique). Just remember that the northern lights are a part of nature, so cross your fingers and you might just get to see the sight of a lifetime.

Explore the City

Reykjavik has an excellent cultural and artistic scene, from museums (like Whales of Iceland) to art galleries and other cultural attractions as well. Taking a stroll down the high shopping street (Bankastræti/Austurstræti/Laugavegur) in the wintertime can be a magical winter activity, especially when all the buildings are lit up in Christmas lights – and boy, do Icelanders love their Christmas lights. Don’t forget to visit the top floor of Hallgrímskirkja, the largest church in the country, with its spectacular views over the whole city. Experiencing the sights, sounds, and smells of 1200-year-old Reykjavik is sure to be a highlight of your trip.

Winter activities in Reykjavik

Part of the main street, Bankastræti, in Reykjavik in winter

Go skiing or snowboarding

Just outside the city is the Bláfjöll ski resort, which features wonderful slopes for downtown skiing and snowboarding. You can rent all the equipment you need on-site, but just note that the opening season depends on the weather – it may be open in December but usually is always open starting in early January. Lessons are available for total beginners, and you can even request private lessons if that suits you at all. It might not be the Alps or Vail, but it’s definitely one of the best winter activities in Reykjavik and another way to experience Iceland like a local!

Winter activities in Reykjavik - skiing and snowboarding

Skiing and snowboarding within minutes of Reykjavik: Bláfjöll ski area

Go whale watching

Whales in winter? Who knew! Iceland is well-known for being an excellent feeding ground for whales, dolphins, and porpoises, and 23 species have been spotted here throughout recorded history. And while some of the largest whales are seasonal, migrating towards warmer waters over the wintertime, there are many that stay behind. Special Tours operates whale watching tours every day of the year, even Christmas Day and New Year’s Day, with the most likely species to spot being white-beaked dolphins, harbor porpoises, and humpback whales. In fact, as I write this, Special Tours has been spotting humpback whales every single day for a few weeks in a row – not too shabby!

Winter activities in Reykjavik - whale-watching

Whale watching is an excellent winter activity in Reykjavik

Go horseback riding

Another unique thing about Iceland is the Icelandic horse, sometimes incorrectly called the ‘Icelandic pony’, a long-lived and hardy breed of horse native to the country. You can’t get much closer to being part of the Icelandic nature as riding this special creature about the wintery countryside, covered in frost and snow! Getting there only takes a few minutes by car. A fun fact – the Icelandic horse has two types of gait that other horses don’t have, the ambling tölt, and the fast and smooth skeið (or “flying pace”). Our partners at Íshestar have offered tours to travelers for 40 years now, and we recommend them without hesitation.

Winter activities in Reykjavik - horseback riding

The Icelandic horse is gentle, yet hardy

Walk on frozen Tjörnin

Note that this one is a bit risky, especially if the weather hasn’t been cold enough! Usually, at least for some part of the winter, Tjörnin in downtown Reykjavík completely freezes over. Although referred to most commonly as “the pond” (and indeed, that is what its name translates as), it is technically a small lake. Ducks, geese, and swans are a common sight near the shore, as locals will regularly come by to give bits of stale bread to their feathered friends in the tiny area that doesn’t freeze over. But if the ice is thick enough, it’s possible to walk all the way across Tjörnin, including to a tiny island in the middle. Many people like to ice skate on the pond as well. Your best bet is to just look at the pond first – if you see many Icelanders frolicking on the ice, it’s probably a safe day to try taking a step out.

Winter activities in Reykjavik - walking on frozen water

Tjörnin is a beautiful landmark in Reykjavik, even more so when frozen! (Image borrowed from

Try traditional Icelandic food

What is Iceland without its food? Traditional Icelandic cuisine consists largely of fish, lamb, and other meat. There are many restaurants in Reykjavík that will whip up some local specialties, such as Café Loki, and many more that place unique twists on them, such as French or Japanese influence, like Public House Gastropub. You might also try some local specialty drinks, such as Malt & Appelsín, a huge favorite of Icelanders around Christmastime. But if you’re feeling especially daring, you might try the “old Icelandic food”, commonly referred to as Þorramatur, or the food of Þorri. Centuries ago, Icelanders would get very creative about how to preserve their food, and fermentation became the name of the game. Kæstur hákarl, or fermented shark, is a common thing to try, washed down with a shot of brennivín. The smell is worse than the taste, but for other foods they’re about even – such as kæst skata, fermented skate, a commonly eaten dish on December 23rd. One bite of that and you’ll instantly be transformed into a Viking.*

Winter activities in Reykjavik - try the food!

Þorramatur – an acquired taste

Summers are for exploring – but winters are for experiencing. Visiting Reykjavík at the coldest time of year is unforgettable, and there is just so much to do that will keep you busy and create memories that will last a lifetime. Don’t get me wrong, Iceland is best experienced in both summer and winter – so if you can’t move here permanently, then definitely plan to visit at least twice for the full Icelandic package. Góða ferð!

*Disclaimer: Neither I nor Special Tours are responsible for any sudden desires to raid villages after this point.


Jonathan Rempel
Instagram: @jon.rempel
Special Tours Head Guide

There are plenty of ways to get around for a little Reykjavik sightseeing these days. You can rent a car, take a taxi, use the Strætó public bus system, take an electric scooter, or of course just explore the city by foot. But another option, perhaps familiar to seasoned travellers in other countries, is the City Sightseeing Hop On Hop Off, operated by Reykjavík Excursions.

The tour runs daily all year round, and stops at 16 popular destinations around the city. Along the way you can listen to audio commentary in 8 languages thanks to their complimentary earphones. But there are so many stops – which ones do you choose? In order to make your choice a little easier, we’ve narrowed down our top 5 favorite stops on the Hop On Hop Off bus around Reykjavik.

The Old Harbour

Maybe we’re biased about this one, because this is where we call home! The Old Harbour as we know it today was largely built in the early 1900s, and for more than a century its primary purpose has mainly been to service fishing vessels. But in recent years the area has been completely transformed into a hip and bustling place. Cafés like Reykjavik Röst, restaurants, shopping, and plenty of whale watching and northern lights boat tour departures make it lively. Plus, you can’t beat the views over Kollafjörður and Mount Esja – the perfect backdrop to a city stroll when doing Reykjavik sightseeing!


Reykjavik Sightseeing - Old Harbour

The Old Harbour of Reykjavík on a beautiful day


Whales of Iceland & FlyOver Iceland

This stop drops you off right in the heart of Grandi, Reykjavik’s trendy harbour district. Whales of Iceland, Europe’s largest whale museum, is not to be missed for any nature lover. This unique museum features life-sized models of 23 different types of whales, an accompanying audio guide with an impressive selection of 16 languages, interactive exhibits, a fabulous documentary theatre, and more. And just around the corner is FlyOver Iceland, an amazing virtual experience ride that allows you to, well, fly over Iceland! Plus, new for winter 2022 is the Lava Show, just a few doors down. It allows you to experience real lava in a safe and controlled indoor environment, totally unique in the world.


Reykjavik Sightseeing - Whales of Iceland

Seeing life-size whale models is a surprising, immersive experience


Perlan is a beautiful building with a large glass dome built atop six water tanks. Each tank can hold up to 4 million liters of hot water for Reykjavik residents. But it also houses several exhibitions, one of which features an actual indoor ice cave. Don’t skip the coats they give out before you go in – you’ll need it, as they built the ice cave using over 350 tons of snow from Icelandic mountains! There’s also a new, state-of-the-art planetarium which shows beautiful footage of the northern lights in an exclusive show called Áróra. And don’t forget about the observation deck, which features some of the best views anywhere in city. Perfect for planning the rest of your Reykjavik sightseeing!


Reykjavik Sightseeing - Perlan Museum

Perlan is a great half-day stop – great for a rainy day – with several informative and immersive exhibitions


Speaking of views, we can’t have a list of the top 5 stops without Hallgrímskirkja. This Lutheran church is the largest church in Iceland, at nearly 75 meters tall. It took 41 years to build it, with construction completed in 1986. The church gets its name from the famous Icelandic poet Hallgrímur Pétursson. Its beautiful architecture is meant to evoke the basalt columns which can be found throughout Iceland. Like Perlan, there is also an observation deck here that’s not to be missed, as it provides incredible views over the downtown area. This area also serves as a great launching point for your Reykjavik sightseeing and exploration, with loads of restaurants, shopping, cafés, bars, and much more. Definitely make this one of your stops!


Reykjavik Sightseeing - Hallgrímskirkja

One of the most distinctive landmarks in the city, Hallgrímskirkja is an impressive building

National Museum of Iceland

If you only have time for one history museum while you’re in Iceland, make it this one. This museum’s amazing collection stretches across more than 1000 years of local history, and is highlighted by the permanent exhibition “Making of a Nation”. It also happens to be located right next door to the University of Iceland, the country’s oldest and largest institution of higher learning. A stroll through the campus (and attached wetlands) provides for a unique perspective on the world’s most northerly capital city.


Reykjavik Sightseeing - National Museum of Iceland

The National Museum of Iceland houses several exhibitions, the permanent one being the most comprehensive about settlement in Iceland


These are just some recommendations on where to stop – but all of the stops are worth visiting, if you find the time of course. No matter where you visit during your Reykjavik sightseeing, you’re sure to go back home with memorable experiences of our unique little city!

Written by Jonathan Rempel.

Are you wondering what to do in Reykjavík on a rainy or snowy day? Looking to explore a less touristy part of the city? You’ll find it worth your time to head out to Grandi, just next to the Old Harbour, an area of the city you might normally not think about twice. As a tourist in a new place, it would never cross my mind that a place with huge hangars and industrial vibes would turn out to hide such gems. Here are our best places to visit at the Reykjavik Old Harbour.

Once an area whose only purpose was to house the fish processing plants and shipyards, today Grandi at the Old Harbour is a haven for Iceland aficionados that want to learn more about the island’s natural wonders and have fun while doing so. Let’s not forget about the many foodie-approved places, so this truly is a place where everybody can find something interesting.


Best places to visit at the Reykjavik Old Harbour

People walking in Grandi disctrict, Old Harbour, Reykjavík. (Photo:


If you are like me and can never get enough of whales even if you see them live on the open seas, then the Whales of Iceland museum is for you. Marvel at the life-sized replicas of whales and dolphins encountered in Icelandic coastal waters. Prepare to feel dwarfed and humbled, while learning more about them with the help of an audio guide or a very knowledgeable live human guide.


Best places to visit at the Reykjavik Old Harbour

Life-size whale exhibits at Whales of Iceland museum


Missed the latest volcanic eruption of Meradalir? No need to worry, Lava Show has got you covered. Witness real live molten rock being poured in front of your very eyes while an educated guide tells you all you need to know about what happens during a real outburst of lava.

If you are visiting Iceland in winter, then it’s safe to assume that you’re a member of Team Northern Lights! Even when hanging around the Old Harbour, you can get close to the amazing lights! We all love to learn about the topic of our fascination and for that purpose Aurora Reykjavík has what you need. They’ll tell all you need to know about this incredible celestial phenomenon. Hot tip: VR experience and coffee included! Another hot tip: Great in combination with a northern lights tour by boat!

Not afraid of heights? Brilliant! The experience of flying above some of Iceland’s less know breathtaking landscapes will leave you breathless. FlyOver Iceland invites you aboard a simulator that gives you the feeling of being able to fly! Bring a hoodie with you, there can be a lot of mist in the clouds.


Best places to visit at the Reykjavik Old Harbour

Visitors having a thrill ride at FlyOver Iceland


I bet all the excitement will have made you hungry. Time to hit one (or more) of the places that offer delicious food! The first and obvious choice is the Grandi Mathöll (Grandi food court) where you can choose between Korean street food, sushi, pasta, Indian and of course Icelandic dishes. Those of you that are used to Mediterranean culinary standards and are skeptical about Nordic pizza will be pleasantly surprised after tasting Flatey Pizza‘s festival of doughy goodness.

Further along the same street, there’s Luna Flórens, where you can chill with a coffee and cake in a cozy atmosphere. Now for some dessert! At Valdís you will not only be happy because icecream(!), but you’ll also be one step closer to becoming a true Icelander that enjoys their frozen treat when and where it makes sense the most – during winter!

Who knew a day at a fish processing area could be so culturally and gastronomically uplifting! 😊

Written by Lucas Heinrich

Winter is here! And because of fewer daylight hours and the cold, we have reduced the number of our whale watching departures each day. With the boats being less busy, I find myself helping out in the reception a lot more. I‘m surprised about how many times I have heard the following question in the last couple of weeks: „We would like to see puffins. Can we join one of your tours to see them?“ I get it; puffins are extremely appealing and cute birds. People travel from all over the world to see them here in Iceland, where we have the biggest breeding population of Atlantic puffins (Fratercula arctica) on the globe. But the short answer to the question is: „No, unfortunately you cannot!“ It‘s not my devilish nature that I don‘t want our guests to see the puffins, but they are simply not around anymore. They migrate away after the summer. The more interesting question is: where do these millions of puffins go so suddenly at the end of the summer? What is their life in winter like? Well, let me tell you all about it. We are here to unravel the mystery of the puffin in winter.

The mystery of the puffin in winter

Atlantic puffin at sea in the beginning of winter.

What we often explain on our tours during the summer in a jokingly manner is that the puffins get tired of the colony life and need some time off. In fact, they are mostly solitary during the winter, whereas they are very gregarious and have an active social life during the breeding season in summer. Once they are gone, they spend the winter months out on the open sea, somewhere in the vastness of the North-Atlantic ocean, possibly without touching soil for up to eight months. That‘s definitely one of the many „Wow!“- moments on the tours.

It is interesting to note, though, that the exact winter migration of the puffins is poorly understood and little studied. While it is very easy to study puffins during the summer months in their colonies, studying individualistic behaviour during the winter is very difficult. Some new research, especially with the rise of tiny geolocators has shed light on what used to be completely uncertain. Brace yourself for a few more „Wow!“ moments!

Not all puffins migrate to the same places. They show great variability in where they travel during the winter and how they get there. Some birds migrate over 1,700 km away and others stay within 250 km of their colony to which they always return for the breeding season (the same one, like frogs) (5). The record seems to be one individual who was found to have covered 7,700 km (4,800 mi) of the ocean in eight months, traveling northwards to the northern Labrador Sea then southeastward to the Mid-Atlantic before returning to land (7). At the same time, and somewhat surprisingly individuals show remarkable consistency in their own migratory routes among years.

It seems like they trust their own „gut feeling“ more than the word of their neighbours. Beside the fact that routes are very different among individuals (which implies that there is no genetic fixation of migration routes), you also have to keep in mind that most pufflings (baby puffins) will fledge in the middle of the night, leaving the nest and their parents behind. That means that migration routes are also not taught by the parents. It seems more likely that each indiviual learns and explores their own winter route and that they will stick to it for better or worse. How they always find back their own routes and navigate in the often featureless open sea, we simply don‘t know (1). Crazy isn‘t it?

The mystery of the puffin in winter

A puffin in flight

But why is it important at all to understand where the puffins go in winter? It is crucial to know more about these puffins because the time out at sea accounts for two-thirds of the year or up to eight months (3). This period is crucial for the puffins to prepare for the breeding season. In a study focusing on puffins that breed in Scotland and Norway it was shown that their body mass increased by 20–30% between the chick-rearing period and the end of winter (2). So, if conditions are favourable, the fitness of the puffins is increased, which means that they rear their offspring more successfully. This is, in the long run, essential to save the declining population across the globe.

In general female (but not male) winter foraging efforts seem to be very important for reproductive success. Their pre-breeding condition, is critical for successfully having offspring. And although this seems to be of greatest importance, get ready for a Hollywood romance story: there is an interesting study (8) in which they found that pairs that followed more similar routes bred earlier and had a higher breeding success the following spring. Moreover pairs can benefit from following similar migration routes by synchronising their returns and reunion, which in turn increases reproduction success. Isn‘t that beautiful?

While some puffins remain social throughout the year, most puffins live a very solitary life out at sea with a population density as low as 1 bird per km2 (6) and even split up from their partners. They really seem to need their space! Of course that‘s the secret to a healthy relationship and these romantic and very monogamous puffins truly understand that. Independence yes, but always think about the team in the long run!

The mystery of the puffin in winter

Atlantic puffin distribution (taken from Fayet et al., 2017)

Different puffin populations have different migration behaviours. And they mostly overwinter in different areas, allthough there are certain areas where populations overlap. These areas are especially crucial for protection. If we find their crucial feeding sites and wintering locations, we can stop oil exploration, commercial fishing and even offshore wind parks in these areas by protecting them (5).

There are many factors influencing how far puffins will migrate away from their summer breeding colony. One of the more important ones seems to be the size of the colony: the bigger the colony, the more the puffins have to compete for a given food source (5). So if you have a big colony, like in Iceland with up to 10 million individuals during the summer (4), resources near the colony might be depleted more quickly which might lead birds to exploit more distant areas and spread more.

On the other hand, a recent study from Maine (closer to the southern end of the Atlantic puffin distribution) found no evidence of inter- or intra-colony differences in overwinter movement. Puffins mostly stuck close to each other and remained relatively close to the breeding site (9). It seems like food is abundant enough here to sustain the smaller Maine population.

What we now see is how complex the winter migration is and how difficult the question about where they go to really is. Some will stay in the cold but abundant waters of the North, while others might go for a winter „holiday“ in the Mediterrenean sea. Some stay closer to their partners, some don‘t. Many of the mechanisms influencing these decisions remain unclear. We need more research to really understand the mystery of the winter puffin.

For you, dear reader, it means that you will have to come back to Iceland. Enjoy the beautiful and magical Goddess Aurora dancing in the night sky above iceland in winter (and maybe even enjoy New Year’s Eve here!) and come back to see the adorable puffins when they breed here in summer. You could also buy a boat including crew that takes you out into the North-Atlantic ocean to try to see the puffins in winter. Good luck and as always thanks for reading 😊.

Written by Daniel Blankenheim.