Iceland has been at the top of everyone’s must-see list for the past couple of years, and for good reason. The country is relatively easy to get to (only a 5 hour flight from the eastern US) and offers jaw-dropping scenery with plenty of opportunity for outdoor adventure. While Iceland is a prime destination year-round, I chose to visit in the wintertime with hopes of seeing the Aurora Borealis.
Icelandair offers non-stop flights from New York to Keflavik, the international airport serving Iceland’s capital, Reykjavik. I definitely recommend renting a car during your trip. Orange Car Rental is a great local option offering 4WD vehicles with snow-studded tires (perfect for winter). Their office is 5 minutes from the airport terminal, so a representative will pick you up at baggage claim upon arrival.
Where to Stay
Many people choose to stay in Reykjavik and book several day trips to the country with various tour operators. This is definitely an easy way to coordinate your visit, especially for a shorter trip. However the city of Reykjavik is relatively small and the list of “must-see” attractions, for the most part, falls outside the city limits. If you can swing it, I definitely recommend staying at one of the hotels in the countryside.
Hotel Grimsborgir is ideally located an hour east of Reykjavik along the Golden Circle route and is absolutely delightful. Since I took this trip with my father, we were able to book a small two-bedroom apartment which was perfect – we each had our own bedroom, as well as a shared bathroom, kitchenette, dining and sitting area. For larger families, the hotel offers 4-bedroom apartments as well. Hotel Grimsborgir also has an on-site restaurant, where they serve a daily breakfast buffet (included in the room rate) as well as a full buffet dinner. We chose to eat in the restaurant every night, not only for convenience, but also because the food was delicious. Last but not least, the entire staff was incredibly helpful and friendly.
At the end of our trip, we did spend one night in Reykjavik at the Radisson Blu Saga Hotel. However I wouldn’t recommend staying here. The property is dated (and I suspect we were in one of the older rooms) and located about 15 minutes’ walk from the city center. The Radisson Blu 1919 Hotel is situated centrally in the downtown area and probably a better option.
What to Do
- Ride Icelandic horses at Laxnes Horse Farm – Just outside of Reykjavik, Laxnes Horse Farm is a family-run operation with over 100 Icelandic horses, a unique breed with five different gaits. The farm offers daily riding tours at 10 am and 2 pm. Riding time is about 2 hours and suitable for all levels – from beginners to more advanced riders. Unfortunately for us, it was pouring rain during our visit so we were soaked and frozen. But I imagine this would be an excellent activity in more temperate weather.
- Drive the Golden Circle – While many companies offer day trips from Reykjavik to explore the Golden Circle, it’s easy enough to drive the route yourself and visit the stops along the way. Since we were staying in the countryside, we broke up the route a bit and visited different stops on different days. The main attractions along the circle include:
- Crater Kerid – A volcanic crater lake
- Faxi Waterfall
- Geysir Geothermal Area – Stokkur Geysir spouts every 5-7 minutes
- Gulfoss Waterfall – The most famous waterfall in Iceland
- Thingvellir National Park – Founding site of the Icelandic parliament in 930 AD as well as the meeting point for the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates.
- Hike in Thorsmork National Park – Thorsmork is a small national park in the south of Iceland, home to lakes, rivers, valleys, mountains and several volcanoes, including the Eyjafjallajokull volcano which erupted in 2010 and famously shut down airports all over Europe with its ash cloud. Given the terrain, you definitely need to book a tour in order to visit Thorsmork. We selected Midgard Adventure, which operates a full-day superjeep tour in the park. From the Midgard base, we were driven to the Thorsmork in a superjeep (with massive wheels allowing us to cross rivers and drive on rocky terrain), stopping along the way to visit the Seljalandsfoss waterfall. Inside the park, we explored the Eyjafjallajökull volcano flood scene, had a hot lunch at the Volcano Huts, and took several small hikes in the winter wonderland. We were lucky to have beautiful weather that day and even luckier to spot a black Arctic fox! On the return trip, our guide drove us down to the black sand beach on the southern coast, where we had stunning views of Heimaey Island at sunset.
- Snowmobile on a Glacier – Arctic Adventures offers half-day snowmobile excursions on the Langjokull Glacier with pick-up from Gulfoss. Total snowmobile time is only about an hour, but the guides and equipment are all top-notch. And zipping around a glacier on a snowmobile was an awesome and exhilarating experience.
- Hunt for the Aurora Borealis – Several operators offer nighttime expeditions in search of the Northern Lights. However, if you’re staying in the countryside, as we were, a tour is probably unnecessary. Light pollution is already at a minimum, so you may be lucky enough to spot the lights just outside your hotel room. On New Year’s Eve night we had clear skies and an INCREDIBLE show.
- Take a dip in the Blue Lagoon – The Blue Lagoon is definitely a tourist attraction, but it’s still worth doing. Conveniently located just 20 minutes from the Keflavik airport, most travelers visit immediately upon arrival or just before their flight home. It’s necessary to book tickets in advance as times do fill up. I recommend the premium ticket, which includes a robe, towel, sandals, a complimentary beverage at the swim-up bar, and two mud masks – silica and algae. After your swim, you can shower off in the locker rooms and enjoy a fine dining meal at Lava Restaurant on premises. There is also a cafe for a lighter fare option.
Visiting Iceland in the winter was amazing and seeing the aurora borealis in action was absolutely a dream come true. Given the close proximity of Iceland, and the ease of exploring the country in a few days, I definitely recommend planning a trip there soon! However, a few things to note before you go:
- When visiting in the winter, daylight is limited. When we were there in late December, the sunrise was at 11:15 am and sunset around 3:30 pm – however the sunrise and sunset were quite long, so it was really light from around 10am – 5 pm. Plenty of time for daily activities! But, when you’re alarm goes off at 8 am and its pitch black outside, its tough for your internal clock to get the message.
- Another note on weather… Iceland has limited tree coverage and as a result, can be extremely windy. Keep this in mind when looking at the temperature forecast. Thirty degrees feels much much colder in 20 mile an hour winds!
- Despite the cheap flights offered by Icelandair and WOW Air, Iceland in general is expensive. Hotels and food are definitely on the pricey side (and I live in NYC!), plus many activities (snowmobiling, Thorsmork, etc.) require that you book tours, which are also quite expensive, especially for a larger family.
Now I’ll be working on planning my trip back to Iceland in the summer to see the “Midnight Sun”!