Two Week’s Winter Itinerary in Iceland
WEATHER: Winter in Iceland is a very unique experience. Although high season are summer months, there are some things you can only see during winter time. Such as aurora borealis, ice caves, soak in natural hot pools when there are negative temperatures outside and beautiful snow caps of the surrounding mountains. You get to also experience the true Icelandic harsh weather and it will make you so appreciative of living in today’s time and age.
NORTHERN LIGHTS AND MOON PHASES: A lot of people will say that 10 days is plenty to do a drive around Iceland. We felt like during winter time, accounting for some bad weather days, shady road conditions, we will take it slowly and indulge in our journey. XX out of 14 days ended up being bad weather days. We saw aurora only 2 times and it was not very prominent, a lot had to do with a glowing full moon in the skies. So if aurora sightings is your main goal, I would highly recommend checking out the lunar calendar to make sure you visit during the time when moon is non-existent.
TOTAL TRIP PRICING BREAKDOWN: Let me just say that Iceland thrives on tourism and is one of the most expensive European countries to travel to. Everything is pretty much imported so it explains the inflated prices of the goods. Accommodation pricing was reasonable. Car rental and gas prices made our eyes bleed. Also remember, if you’re going during off season months like February, car rental, accommodation and sightseeing tours prices are slightly cheaper. That being said, we paid $2,340 per person for this trip, and that is including bringing a full checked bag of food so that we can limit our eating out expenses. What mostly racked up our bill was car rental and gas, for 15 days we paid $1,600. Obviously, the more people you have traveling with you the cheaper that tag will be when it comes to splitting expenses. Another alternative is renting out a camper van which will save you on accommodation. However, in reality, having more than 2 people in a camper van won’t be comfortable, you won’t have access to shower facilities and you won’t have a kitchen to cook your meals. For us, it was worth it getting an SUV and separate accommodations, although we did sleep a few nights in our car, no biggie.
Some of the photos from our two week itinerary
Arriving to Iceland:
HOW TO SAVE ON AIRLINE AND FOOD ITEMS: We opted out for the cheapest flight option and took the local Icelandic airlines – WOW. They are pretty much a direct comparison to Spirit airlines in US. You pay for your carry on and checked bags. On a 5+ hour international flight you must pay for water. By any means there is nothing to complain about as more convenient airlines like Delta and British Airways will gladly accept you as their customer. Of course, it’s up to you whether you’ll be willing to pay that price difference 😉 So anyways, flying prepared we packed all our food like sandwiches, some fruit, filled up water from airport fountain and didn’t have to order anything on the plane. Win!
IMPORTANT CAR RENTAL TIPS: We arrived in Iceland at 5am Icelandic time. Picked up our car rental, declined full liability as our Chase Sapphire credit card provides reimbursable car rental insurance coverage overseas, ensured that we have metal studs on our tires for the rough wintery roads and inspected the car for any additional chips & dents before we left the parking lot of our car rental (How to Get Rental Cars With No Insurance).
Day 1 – Everything in Reykjavik pretty much opens around 9am. We tried taking a short nap in a random parking lot, after all we haven’t slept for almost 24hrs. Once the most abundant grocery store in town, Bonus, opened up we quickly picked up some additional groceries that we will be needing for the next few days: 1/2 dozen eggs, almond milk, block of cheese, bread, apples, oranges, scallions, bananas, carrots and a few bottles of mineral water (to be used later as refillable water bottles) in total came out to be $50.
As part of today’s itinerary, our goal was to cover the first half of the Golden Circle – Best Places to See on Golden Circle in Winter Blog. Golden Circle is a popular tourist route in southern Iceland, covering about 300 km looping from Reykjavík into the southern uplands of Iceland and back. It is the area that contains most tours and travel-related activities in Iceland.
Day 2 – Hike to Reykjadalur hot pools – Reykjadalur Hot Springs Winter Hike Blog. This little gem is located within the Golden Circle, and it was perfect to get some hiking and relaxation in on a chilly winter day. Plan to spend around 5 hours here and make sure to always check the weather before you head out.
After Reykjadalur hot pools, we left the Golden Circle and started making our way further up north traveling counter clockwise on the main ring road – Route 1. Our next stop was the Seljalandsfoss waterfall. It was very beautiful and an easy stop along the ring road. You can see the waterfall from the parking lot so there is not much hiking you have to do to get up close. By the time we got there it was around 6pm and the sun was setting. We immediately noticed that the wind began picking up, soon rocking our car back and forth like a rocking chair. Our initial plan was to end our day at the Seljavelir hot pools, only about a 25min drive further along Route 1 from the Seljalandsfoss. However, due to bwinds which measured at 60 miles per hour per the weather forecast with even stronger gusts, it was impossible to make that short drive without enduring some damage to the car. The ring road passes through flat desserty looking terrain which is covered in small (and sometimes big) volcanic rock, which with strong gale type winds could be easily picked up in the air and blown into your car. Since we were going to be sleeping in the car that night anyways, it didn’t matter to us where to crash in so we tucked our car behind a dumpster and went to bed.
Day 3 – In the morning the winds have calmed down and we were actually able to freely walk around and not get blown off our feet, literally. We have inspected the car which to our disappointment did have few tiny chipped off paint from all the small rock that was hitting our car all night long. Although we have tried finding the most wind protecting spot, that’s is behind a dumpster, it was impossible to survive the night without enduring at least some minor damage (Upon returning the car the damage was found to be to minor and we didn’t get charged any additional fees. Yeay :))
Skogafoss Waterfall – ah-mazing! We got there in the morning right around sun rise = no crowds! We climbed up the stairs leading up to the top of the falls where there is an observation deck. From the top, there are plenty of hiking opportunities. If visiting in winter time, make sure to wear winter gaiters, microspikes and hiking poles in order to pursue any of the hiking trails at the top. Trust me, you will not want to go all the way down to the parking lot just to get any of the missing gear and then go back up.
Sólheimajökull Glacier – this is a very accessible glacier where you can get really up close to the foot of the glacier. There are many glacier walking tours that you can book. We decided to leave our car at the parking lot and take a quick walk (about 30min one way) to the glacier. The view was very nice and we could see groups of people who were taking tours walking on the glacier.
Dyrhólaey Lighthouse – did a quick lunch stop here (by lunch I mean cooked up some Ramen noodles, by no means expect to see a cafe here). This was the first time where we saw the black volcanic sandy beach, and I must say I couldn’t take my eyes away from the foamy white waves crashing against the pitch black smooth sand. It was super windy so we spent 30min tops and pushed on towards our last stop for the day – Black Sand Beach.
Black Sand Beach – Here you get to walk directly on the beach, get close to the powerful waves and just take in the view. It’s super crowded near the hexagon rock formations, but if you walk further along the beach, you will get all alone time you need. You may think it’s annoying that we keep mentioning the crowds, but as Serge said it best “It’s hard to connect with nature in a place filled with tourist crowds”
On our way to Hvoll Guesthouse we’ve stopped by town of Vik to check out their grocery store and ohh emm ghee those prices! I was convinced that this was not where the locals shop as the prices were outrageous. Thankfully we still had enough groceries to get by until next town. Locals later reassured me that this was indeed the only grocery store in town. Crayzey!
Day 4 – the best day of our trip so far. This was a full day of sun on the forecast, perfect for our agenda to visit the Diamond Beach, Jokulsarlon Lagoon and do a guided ice cave tour which was the highlight of our trip – Blue Ice Cave Adventure Blog.
Diamond Beach – This place is famous for icebergs that float into the ocean from Jokulsarlon lagoon being washed up ashore. Some people are not impressed and refer to it as a bunch of ice blocks on the beach. But to us, despite all the crowds (yes, you’ve guessed it, this is one of the tourist hot spots) this was a mesmerizing view and we’ve spent a good hour walking along the beach, studying and photographing these beautiful ice sculptures. Best time of the day to visit is during sunrise/sunset and witness how sun rays are piercing through the ice blocks. If you’re here during winter time then you’re in luck as the sun never really goes too far up into the sky, so you get prolonged hours of sunrise/sunset.
Jokulsarlon Lagoon – we did a very quick stop here as our ice cave tour was scheduled to begin at 12:00pm. This is a worthy stop as you can see a nice panoramic view of the Vatnajökull glacier and floating icebergs.
Day 5 – on the agenda we wanted to do some short hikes around Svartifoss Waterfall and Skaftafekksjukull Scenic Outlook, but due to all day rain we have ended up driving to town of Höfn, doing some grocery shopping and catching WiFi at the local library. In addition, Höfn does have a visitor center with a few exhibitions about history of Iceland in case you need to kill some time.
Day 6 – rain continues on but per the weather forecast we know that it will stop around 1pm. We take our time in the morning and decide to check out Hoffel Hot Tubs. I believe during summer time you have to pay, but when we came in Feb no one was around to collect the fee and there was no money box to leave a donation. There are about 4 round hot tubs, we found the one with the hottest water to our liking and lingered around for about 2 hours enjoying the view and waiting for the rain to stop. Originally on the agenda we were planning to check out Joklasel and Hoffel glaciers, they both are easily accessible by car and you can get very close up to the glacier. By the time the weather has cleared up we only had time for one glacier, and since we were already nearby in Hoffel hot tubs, we decided to go with Hoffel Glacier.
Day 7 – all day rain and strong coastal wind on the forecast. Initially on the agenda we were planning to check out Sveinsstekksfoss Waterfall and another hot tub. But with the stormy forecast we decided to go ahead and head straight to our next town, Egilsstadir which was a 4 hour drive. The drive itself is pretty impressive and we really took our time enjoying the views.
Day 8-9 – the forecast predicted that rain will stop around noon. This day, our plan was to make an overnight trip to Laugerfell, about 8 miles one way from the trail head. We took our time in the morning and slowly packed up to begin our hike as the rain was stopping – Laugerfell Overnight Winter Hike Blog.
Day 10 – Hengifoss hike and Myvatn Nature Baths.
We hit up Hengifoss in the morning, it’s a relatively short 3mi round trip hike. Very beautiful and not as crowded as other popular falls.
For the second half of the day, we’ve visited Myvatn Geothermal area and mainly checked out the main spot with geothermal activity. When we did our research we knew there is a loop trail somewhere, but once we got there it was impossible to see it due to lack of trail markers and we just wondered around on our own. As you approach Myvatn, the terrain drastically changes and now all of the sudden you can see tall black mountains, half of them look like their tops got blown off. Our last stop for the day we’re Myvatn Nature Baths – Myvatn Nature Baths Blog.
Day 11 – Relaxing day visiting Kafla Lava Field, Hverfjall Volcano Crater, and Myvatn Nature Baths for the second time to get some day time photos.
Kafla Lava Field – we got here relatively early in the morning and did a quick 2.5 mile roundtrip hike. Which is the longest trail in Kafla Lava Field. There are many different routes you can take, which are shorter in distance. At the entry, there is a pretty good map outlining the hiking options and all trails are well marked. At the trail head there was a warning sign about icy trail conditions, so we wore our microspikes and were glad we did. There were many people who couldn’t even do any of the shorter trails because it was so icy.
Hverfjall Volcano Crater – The road to the parking lot was impassible, so we left our car on the side of the road and walked to the main parking lot where the trail to ascent the crater begins. From the parking lot, it is a short hike up to the top of the volcano crater, plan for anywhere between 10-20min to get to the top depending on your hiking pace. The circumference of the crater is about 2mi in length. There are 2 entry/exit points. One is from the main parking lot, and another one on the opposite side of the crator. The second entry/exit point is very steep and you have to walk around the volcano to get there. We took the second point to descend the crator as it would bring us closer to where we parked our car.
Day 12-13 – Serge has reserved a night stay at Lambi Hut – Lambi Hut Winter Hike Blog. It is a beautiful hike into the mountains. If you go during winter time, chances are that you will have the hut to yourself. But you would also need snowshoes and some previous experience navigating in winter terrain. When we have arrived, the last logged entry in the registry journal was by the service crew during Christmas time.
Day 14 – In the morning, it took us about 6 hours to hike out and we were back at our car around 1pm. Next on the schedule was to make our 5 hours drive from Akureyri to Grundarfjörður AirBnB. Let me tell you that this was the best AirBnB stay of our trip. In the Snæfellsnes peninsula, there are situated 2 beautiful cabins. Both of the cabins are typically booked for entire season, however Serge kept on refreshing the booking page and saw 2 nights open up for one of the cabins. He grabbed them without hesitation. This AirBnB is situated at the foot of the Kirkufell Mountaint, which is the most picturesque mountain in Iceland. We later learned from the owners that ownership of this land is grandfathered from generations to the current owner, which is the only reason why they could install two cabins.
Day 15 – On this day we relaxed at the cabin with a beautiful view. And also climbed the Kirkufell Mountain which took us about 3 hours roundtrip – Hiking Kirkufell Mountain in Winter Blog. Lastly, we relaxed in the outdoors hot tub and waited for northern lights (which never came, but oh well at least we had our wine LOL).
Day 16 – This was our last full day of travel in Iceland and we began our drive back toward Reykjavik. On our way we have stopped through all possible scenic viewpoints such as….mini volcano crater, beach, light house. We finished our day at Landbrotalaug hot springs and let me tell you…we saw the best sunset there.
Navigation tip for these hot pools: When we first arrived, we only saw a small pool that could fit only 2 people and someone was already in there, bummer! But they told us there was another larger pool to the left. We made our way over, and indeed there was a very shallow but large enough pool to comfortably fit 5+ people. Temperature of the water can be regulated by the lever which is located on the pipe from which the hot water is flowing.
Day 17: Departure Day – since we were departing on Sunday, we made sure to stop at the Kolaportid Flea Market where I picked up some last minute souvenirs. They sell a wide variety of things ranging from Icelandic wool sweaters to local seafood delicatessens. I forgot to mention that the day before, Serge had bought a special spray that takes off volcanic tar from a local appliance store. Since we have rented our car in white, we figured they would slam us with fees if we have returned it in a shade of gray. So Serge gave our rental a good scrub before we successfully returned it to the car rental. In addition, the paint had some tiny but visible volcanic rock damage but the guy at the checkout counter did not seem bothered by it.
Trip Planning Resources:
GUIDEBOOKS – When it came to deciding which guidebook to get for this trip, we quickly realized that we had all of the information we need, and more, is at our finger tips. Since we really wanted to have some unique experiences, there was no single guidebook that would cover our entire itinerary. So yes, we planned our entire trip using Google search and reading numerous blogs and articles. That being said, I will recommend the following 2 books to help you with learning history of Iceland.
The Little Book of Tourists in Iceland by Alda Sigmundsdottir – this is a great book that provides you info on economic background of the country, tourism, ecology, dos and don’ts of being a tourist in Iceland, what will tick off a local and many other interesting facts. Alda’s writing style is very funny and easy to read. If you want to be informed about current state of affairs in Iceland, I highly recommend this book.
Burial Rites by Hannah Kent – the course of events of this novel are happening in 1400s and based on a true story. Moreover, it tells you a story of how people survived living in Iceland and its harsh weather conditions in 1400s. It really puts things into perspective.
MAPS – since we were planning to make entire drive around the country, it really helped creating a customized map with pins of possible locations and activities of interest. From here, we were able to really narrow down our itenirary and be realistic in terms of what we can cover. In case things go unplanned, it is also helpful having this map as a reference where you can look up what’s to do in the area. Here is a link to our map.
FOOD – Dasha made a 15 day meal plan, so we only ate out in restaurants 2 times. Reach out to us if you want us to email you a full list of meals that we packed for our trip.
Trip Expenses Breakdown
Accommodations Total: $974
Food Total: $460
Ice Cave Tour Total: $340 per person (you can definitely save here by getting a cheaper tour)