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.
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!
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.
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.
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!
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!
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.
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.
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.*
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.
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