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While the majority of travelers visit Iceland in the summer, they’re really missing out. While the warmer months do bring longer days and the chance to enjoy pleasant strolls in comfortable conditions, a winter trip may be just as fabulous if not more so, for different reasons, including these.
Have you ever gone horseback riding in the snow? You might get the opportunity to do just that by visiting Iceland in the winter. Riding an Icelandic horse is an incredible experience anytime, with their unique fifth gait known as a tolt that’s fast and smooth – almost like lounging in an easy chair. They have a winter coat during this season that makes them look smaller, but their energy and endurance are the same. Galloping through fresh snow on these beautiful yet super strong and intelligent animals, is an especially wondrous experience. As you ride, you might even get to catch a glimpse of the aurora too. There are multiple tour operators that provide the opportunity, including Ishetar, which features a “Winter Wonders” tour that includes stops at some of Iceland’s popular sights like Gulfoss Falls and the geyser area.
The Northern Lights
Iceland is one of the best places on the planet for witnessing the spectacle known as the aurora borealis, or northern lights. And, winter is the best time of the year to see them. If you’re lucky, you’ll catch the mystical phenomena dancing in the sky on a cold, clear night. While there is a scientific explanation, as the result of the upper atmosphere being filled by highly charged electrons from the solar winds, it’s truly a magical experience. You can watch for them from the comfort of your hotel, particularly, if it’s far away from the city lights, one of Iceland’s many geothermal pools, or you can join one of a number of excursions that will take you out on a 4×4 in search of the very best sighting.
Extreme Iceland offers a number of different northern lights tours from two- or three-hour excursions to multi-day trips.
It’s Not as Cold as You Think
If you live in a place like Florida, Iceland will probably feel pretty chilly, but if you live somewhere like New York, London, or Paris, there’s a good chance that’s it’s even warmer than where you are right now. Iceland was named by a Norwegian, Floki Vilgeroarson, who had encountered quite a bit of ice when he originally landed in the north. Yet due to the warm Gulf Stream current, the average temperatures in December tend to hover right around freezing, at 32 degrees Fahrenheit, only rarely getting more than two or three degrees cooler than that. Of course, that’s not to say you won’t need to bundle up, but with the right clothing, you’ll stay toasty warm.
Fly and Stay For Less
Summer airfares are almost always a lot more expensive, but if you fly in the winter time, prices tend to be lower – sometimes just a third of the cost. Low cost airline Wow Air offers especially good deals from Boston and Washington D.C. – at last check, just $350 roundtrip. In 2016, they’ll be adding San Francisco and Los Angeles routes as well. Do keep in mind that they charge extra for things like baggage and an advanced seat assignment, but the overall cost is still typically quite a bit lower than other airlines.
Lodging also tends to be cheaper – in the summer, rates are at their peak, and your options may be limited as well due to higher demand.
In addition to lower costs, you won’t have to worry about battling the crowds. The country’s peak tourist season is from June through the end of August. During that time you might have to make your way through large groups of tourists to get to some of the most popular spots like Gulfoss Waterfall, massive falls that plunge for 105 feet in two steps. As low season is December through February, you’ll have the best chance for enjoying Iceland’s most dramatic landscapes all to yourself. In fact, the number of tourists visiting the country is said to drop in half during the winter months.
Also referred to as “Crystal Caves,” the ice caves found in Icelandic glaciers are one of the most mesmerizing wonders of nature. The water that runs through the many glacier caves freezes only in the winter, which means this is the only time you can see this awe-inspiring natural phenomena. You can even take a tour into the long, frozen chambers under their brilliant cathedral of dazzling translucent blue waves. The densely packed glacial ice glows blue due to the lack of air bubbles that normally spread colors of the spectrum as sunlight filters down from above. Extreme Tours, as well as a number of other tour operators in Iceland, offers guided tours of ice caves to glaciers like Vatnajokull, which covers nearly 8 percent of Iceland as Europe’s largest glacier.
The Hot Springs
If you aren’t interested in exploring caves, you’ll find another fabulous alternative, geothermal pools. In Iceland, you can swim any day of the year, even in winter. That’s because the warm pools, thanks to all of the country’s volcanoes, are around practically every corner. Heated by energy from the earth, they’re warm enough to comfortably swim in no matter what the temperature is outside. There are 16 pools in the capital city alone, with each generally offering a number of different pools with varying temperatures. Taking a dip into the steamy hot mineral waters surrounded by snow and ice is especially amazing.
While there are pools throughout the country, the Blue Lagoon is Iceland’s most famous. While touristy, few regret the experience of swimming in the warm, milky aquamarine waters surrounded by black lava rocks – and, heading to the bar in the middle to sip strawberry champagne, a beer, or even a green smoothie, if that’s your thing.
Arriving at Christmastime offers the chance to take part in all sorts of fun traditions in addition to seeing the towns all decked out in holiday lights. In fact, Icelanders tend to be especially festive when it comes to brightening things up at Christmas. Here, blocks of apartments are often lit up with synchronized lighting schemes, while neighbors compete against each other for the most beautifully decorated homes. The Icelandic Christmas tends to be a mixture of religious practice and traditional folklore, which starts on December 23 and ends on Epiphany, January 6. As this is also the darkest part of the year, it makes sense that Icelanders add extra emphasis on bringing light into the festivities, inside and out. Watch the lighting of the Christmas tree and experience the Yule Lads, who, according to legend, descend from the mountains in December to deliver goodies to good children and rotten potatoes to those who’ve misbehaved.
New Year’s Eve
Be sure to stick around for New Year’s Eve if you can, as it’s really one that’s not to be missed. In Reykjavik, the people put on their own celebration which generally begins with mass at Reykjavik Cathedral, just before sharing a meal with family and friends. Then they all head outside to attend neighborhood bonfires which are meant to symbolize the burning away of the previous year’s troubles. Roughly 500 tons of fireworks light up the sky from every corner of the city starting at around 11:35 pm, while flame-fueled gatherings include lots of drinking, folk songs and people dressed up as elves and trolls. Sometimes, the northern lights make an appearance to complement the magnificent pyrotechnics display. Afterward, many head to the clubs and bars for the remainder of the wild night that lasts well into the morning.
It’s not just on New Year’s Eve that you can enjoy plenty of exciting nightlife. Icelanders are known for their love of partying, and in the depths of winter, they’ve got about 18 hours of darkness for having fun after the sun goes down. While nightlife tends to be active throughout the year, it usually peaks in late December, with the schools and university out for the semester. Even at 5:30 in the morning as you walk down Laugavegur Street in Reykjavik you’ll see people in the streets as the more than 100 bars in the city start to close.
Long Sunrises and Sunsets
Not only does the nightlife go on longer, but the glorious sunsets and sunrises are extended too, that’s because the sun doesn’t rise very far about the horizon during this time of year. Not only does this provide great twilight lighting for your photos, the slow sunsets and sunrises make for incredibly gorgeous displays of colorful skies that highlight the dramatic landscapes.
Photographers have noted that because of winter’s long sunrises and sunsets, with the sun lingering around the horizon throughout the afternoon, the sky is almost constantly a gorgeous orange-red-blue, allowing landscape photos to be taken with the soft touch of orange-hued light.
While this one may sound really bizarre, you really can snorkel in Iceland – even in the winter months. Snorkeling, and diving, are popular activities at the Silfra rift in Lake Þingvallavatn, with waters offering some of the best underwater visibility on earth – up to roughly 400 feet. In fact, the glacier melt water is so clean and clear, you can drink it, thanks to years of filtering through the lava rocks. Outfitters will hook you up with a dry suit to keep you warm and dry in the cold water, as you swim between two tectonic plates. Afterward, you’ll get a mug of hot chocolate to warm up with.
Can you imagine gliding through the fresh powder while gazing up at the northern lights? Flying through the snowy landscape on skis while taking in the light show is something altogether different. While no one comes to Iceland just to go skiing, the activity can be experienced in its various forms, from downhill to cross-country, backcountry, mountaineering and Telemark skiing. There aren’t any massive slopes for downhill, but the scenery generally more than compensates for the lack of length and vertical drops. Many appreciate the lack of trees that helps limit the risk of injury too. And, due to the limited daylight hours, major slopes are lighted and offer extended evening hours.
While visiting Iceland’s museums is something that can be done all year round, in the winter, they offer an ideal place when you need a break from the chilly outdoors. The country is home to a wealth of great ones too, most notably in the capital city, including the Settlement Exhibition which allows visitors to step into the Viking age. It’s based on a 2001 excavation that discovered the oldest archaeological evidence of human settlement in the country, dating from the ninth century.
The National Museum of Iceland houses a vast collection of art and crafts, tools and furniture, religious artifacts and archeological remains, while the city’s legendary “Penis Museum,” officially known as the Icelandic Phallological Museum, offers the chance to visit one of the world’s most unique institutions. It contains the largest display of penises on earth, including 280 penises from over 90 animals. You really can’t go to Reykjavik without stopping by – and a wintry day provides the perfect excuse.
Winter whale watching
While winter whale watching sounds like something that wouldn’t be all that pleasant, the reality is, by dressing warm and donning the thermal suits that are provided, you can stay fairly comfortable while enjoying some of the best whale viewing on the planet. In fact, the winter is the very best time to see orcas which follow the herring in the waters that surround the Snaefellsness Peninsula near the town of Grundarfjordur. This is an amazing opportunity to see these majestic creatures up close, in their natural environment. You can also watch for the white-beaked dolphins living that live in the area year round as well as white-tailed eagles that soar overhead.
Laki Tours in Grundarfjordur is currently the only company in this area that offers these 2 to 3 hour winter boat trips.