And don’t get me wrong – I’d love to go to Iceland in the summertime, too! In fact, when we visited 3 years ago, we said that we’d love to come back when it’s warm to experience a different side of the country.
But the last few weeks, I’ve really been itching for a revisit, and, surprising no one more than myself, I’ve been anxious to go again in the winter!! Oh, California, how you’ve changed both my appreciation for and tolerance of cold weather (in different directions ;)).
So here’s what we loved about Iceland in the winter, and why you should consider going when it’s cold – even and especially with kids!!
1. IT’S NOT THAT COLD. First and foremost, winter in Iceland isn’t actually all that bad! You may be surprised to hear that some areas of Iceland actually don’t get that much snow. It gets a Gulf Stream so winters are actually relatively mild – comparable to, say, New York City. It’s cold, sure. But not feel-like-you’re-going-to-die cold. With proper clothing, we felt just fine – and I’m the epitome of a cold-weather-wimp. In fact, there were some days where a couple of us even felt too warm with our base layer clothing! (Not me. I always appreciated the base layers. ;))
There are some northern parts are inaccessible without a special vehicle due to snow/ice. But we just stuck to the southern coast and western peninsula, which was MORE than enough for our week-long trip.
2. SCENERY. I mean, it is ICEland after all, right? Just like I don’t necessarily go to Florida to go ice skating, I personally don’t feel a huge need to go to Iceland when it’s 75F and sunny. I’m sure it’s still spectacularly beautiful, but so many of Iceland’s landscapes really lend themselves to the moody, gloomy, misty winter.
Regardless of the actual weather (which is fairly capricious), there’s a general sort of dimness that really hastens the hygge feeling that I tend to crave in the winter (and don’t get much of here in the Bay Area). I really think so much of Iceland is at its best with those moody colors and vistas. Plus, the snow and ice really are so so beautiful and pristine there!
3. NORTHERN LIGHTS. This one’s pretty obvious, but Iceland is one of the best places to view the aurora borealis, and late September-early March is the best time for it. So yeah, it’ll be cold, but you’ll be richly rewarded. One of the most magical times of our trip was sitting in a hot tub in the middle of absolutely nowhere watching intermittent snow fall and aurora.
4. FEWER TOURISTS. Iceland is like any other place at off season – you’ll be dealing with way fewer tourists! This is especially great for a place like Iceland. I mean, you sort of expect crowds walking through the middle of Paris or London or New York. But Iceland, with its sweeping, sullen landscapes, is best enjoyed without the hordes. This also means that any activities will be less crowded/booked.
Our GPS took us the wrong way on our way to snorkel in the Silfra fissure (one of the most incredible experiences of my life), but we called and they were able to move us to the next day. I doubt that would’ve been possible in the summertime. We loved walking around the downtown area with pretty much only locals. Especially for a small country like Iceland, you tend to feel the crowds more, so it’s really nice to avoid them if you can.
5. CHEAPER COSTS. Less tourism also translates to cheaper costs. Iceland tends to be a fairly expensive country, so this is helpful, especially when traveling with a whole family. When we lived on the east coast of the US, there would be amazing flight deals to Iceland every winter (we flew our entire family of 5 at the time there and back, along with luggage, for under $1200!). Accommodations were super reasonable (we had a couple amazing cabins that were under $100 USD per night!), and our rental car was quite a bit cheaper than it would’ve been in summer months!
One note on rental cars – most, if not all, rentals will have appropriate winter tires. You do not, however, need to rent a 4×4 vehicle. You won’t be able to drive through the highlands (middle, very cold part of the country) without one, but I’d recommend staying away from those remote parts in the dead of winter, anyway. There’s plenty to see in more accessible areas, especially with kids in tow! While we liked having way fewer tourists, we did appreciate having a few other souls in sight in case of an emergency.
6. LIGHTING. Because there’s so little daylight in the winter, when it is light, it’s gorgeous and soft. This makes for really stunning landscapes and is great if you’re interested in photography.
That said, I was concerned we’d have 2 hours of daylight each day, haha. In actuality, while it wasn’t SUPER bright, it was definitely light out from about 10am-4pm.
This might seem like a giant pain, but it was actually lovely being inside in the evenings, or even sometimes driving through the dark. When traveling with kids, we tend to be in a little earlier than we would otherwise, anyway, so it worked just fine for us. And it also leads to…
7. GOOD SLEEPING. You know those kids who just cannot sleep when it’s bright outside? Iceland in the winter is perfect for that! Seriously, our kids slept SO well when we were there. It’s dark and snug and so so cozy with their amazing down duvets. And we had excellent heaters and really hot showers, along with a hot tub at a couple of our accommodations. It was all very lovely.
8. HOT POOLS. Speaking of hot tubs, there is nothing better than getting in a warm hot tub on a freezing day. This one was one of our kids’ favorite things about Iceland. The Blue Lagoon doesn’t allow children under 2, so we opted to visit some local pools instead – and loved it!! In fact, we thought it was maybe an even better experience since it was primarily locals, the pools were actually heated by geothermal energy, and they were cheap!! Here’s more about our experience there.
9. WINTER FUN. Honestly, our kids loved playing in the snow, seeing geysers shoot out of frozen ground, and seeing the Northern Lights. I don’t know about your kids, but mine tend to handle the cold better than me, even. It was amazing being on the deserted Snaefellsness peninsula and feeling we were actually in the Journey to the Center of the Earth. Even the wind and driving snow at times made it extra and our kids loved the adventure. And so did we!
Overall, we really, really loved Iceland, including and especially in wintertime. It felt totally doable with kids, and pretty magical to boot. So if you’re considering – I highly recommend it! Here’s our itinerary for our week there in winter with kids.
Stay tuned for a winter packing list for adults and kids!