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Icelandair offered a Fire & Ice special including four days and three nights, so how could I resist jumping on the Iceland bandwagon? I’ll admit that it seems like Iceland has been having a banner year for tourism for several years now, and I generally prefer more off-the-beaten-path destinations. But Icelandair’s offer was irresistible to this affordable travel addict! Here’s why you should visit Iceland in winter!
Icelandair’s Fire and Ice Itinerary
Icelandair offered a direct overnight flight from Dulles Airport (IAD) to Reykjavik (Keflavik Airport – KEF). The flight’s departure at 7:40 pm, lasting approximately 6 hours, meant arriving at Reykjavik at 6:35 am. Our arrival was equivalent to 1:35 am US East Coast time.
Day 1: The tour included transportation to Reykjavik on the FlyBus, which takes approximately one hour. Estimate about one to one-and-a-half hours to go through immigration and customs before you check into the FlyBus desk at the airport. The bus transports you to the bus terminal downtown before being separated into various minivans taking you to your accommodations. Most hotels don’t allow you to check in until 2 pm, though some offer early check-in for an additional fee.
Expect to be picked up by your tour provider around 8:30 pm to head out to your Northern Lights Tour. The package includes this tour on your first night in case it needs to be rescheduled to a later night during your trip that is more conducive to seeing the Northern Lights. Expect to return to your hotel around 1 am.
Day 2 is long. You’ll tour the Golden Circle and Secret Lagoon today. Your day will start around 7:30 am. Once you join the main tour bus, you’ll begin your 9.5-hour tour of the most popular tourist area from Reykjavik. The tour is described below.
Day 3 is a free day for exploration, capped with a lava show. You can select from various showtimes, and we picked the evening to give us the most flexibility in what to do that day.
Day 4, sadly, it is time for you to go home. Most hotels have a checkout time around 11 am. Most flights back to the US leave in the late afternoon or early evening. With the time difference, you’ll arrive home just a few hours after you leave, even though the flight time is close to six hours!
Personalizing Icelandair’s Fire and Ice Itinerary
If you know me, you’ll understand that I’m about getting as much out of a destination as is physically and fiscally possible! Here is how I adapted Icelandair’s Fire and Ice itinerary for my trip:
Day 1: Following arrival and transferring to Reykjavik via FlyBus, we arrived at our hotel, Midgardur Center Hotel, around 9 am. For an additional 40 Euros, we were able to check in early. This allowed us to enjoy the hotel breakfast. We dropped off our bags and unpacked before taking a 2-hour free walking tour with CityWalk Reykjavik. I find free walking tours useful on my first day to get the lay of the land. We ate one of the famous hotdogs from the famous Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur. With our bellies filled, we switched our tickets for the Lava Show to early this afternoon to free up our Day 3.
After returning to our hotel, we relaxed in the spa with geothermal water before taking a short nap. Dinner was at Reykjavik Kitchen, across the street from our hotel. I recommend making reservations. Don’t miss the lamb soup! We headed out to our Northern Lights Tour, where we enjoyed about an hour-and-a-half of the magical Northern Lights. We returned around 1 am and slept like babies!
Day 2: Our Golden Circle & Secret Lagoon Tour kept us busy all day. We were gone from 7:30 am until 6:00 pm. The bus tour includes so much! We started the day at Þingvellir National Park. Next was the Geyser Geothermal Springs. Your next stop will be Gullfoss Waterfall. Our last stop was at the Secret Lagoon. We spent two hours relaxing in the country’s first public pool. It was magical!
Following our return to the hotel, we ate dinner at one of Reykjavik’s eight food halls. Food halls are an excellent option for groups looking for a variety of foods since you can still all sit together. We ate at Hlemmur Mathöll, where you can opt for tacos, pizza, fish and chips, or bistro fare.
We capped off our day with a visit to the Sky Lagoon, Reykjavik’s newest lagoon. If you visit at the end of the day, you may get lucky like us and see the Northern Lights again!
Day 3: We could sleep in before exploring on our own this morning. We followed the main tourist street, Laugavegur, window shopping and looking for Icelandic souvenirs. On your way to Hallgrímskirja church, we stopped at Reykjavik’s best bakery, Braud, where the croissants flake perfectly. At the church’s top, crowds waited for the sunrise (around 11:30 am!) to take a photo of the sun coming up over Reykjavik. We continued exploring downtown by going to the waterfront and taking pictures in front of the Sun Worshipper.
At noon, we left for our Silfra Fissure Snorkeling Tour. There is so much to know about this adventure that a separate post is necessary to cover it all!
Upon returning to our hotel, we warmed up in the geothermal spa at the hotel. We ventured out for dinner at Café Loki, across from Hallgrímskirja church. This is a great place to try some traditional Icelandic foods.
Day 4: Since our flight didn’t leave until almost 5 pm, our pre-paid bus to the airport left Reykjavik at noon. We used the morning to go back to places we missed, do a little shopping, and eat more Icelandic delicacies! If your flight is later, this would be an excellent time to include a stop at Iceland’s famous Blue Lagoon on your way to the airport.
Things to Do in Iceland in Winter
The itinerary provided by Icelandair (and complemented by me) offers the highlights of an Iceland vacation. You have a day, Day 3, when you can opt for an alternative tour or activity.
People visit Iceland in winter mainly to see the Northern Lights. The aurora borealis display is most visible between September through March. The closer you go to the middle of the period, the better the odds.
Northern lights tours last about 3.5 hours. There are no guarantees that you’ll see the northern lights, no matter how hard you try. So many factors, including light pollution and cloud coverage, can interfere with your northern lights hunt. Your chances of capturing this magical event increase by going on a tour since guides will better know where to go on any night.
Make a backup plan if the stars don’t align for you to see the northern lights. If you can’t see the real thing in person, you can also experience them at Perlan (where you can also experience something like an ice cave) or Aurora Reykjavik at the Old Harbor.
The Golden Circle tour is a sampler introduction to everything Iceland offers. All the buses stop for restrooms and food breaks every hour and a half. So while this tour will be long, it is perfectly paced between stops to make the day pass quickly.
Þingvellir National Park
A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Þingvellir National Park, is a natural wonder and has historical significance. You can see where the European and North American tectonic plates are pulling apart at the visitor’s center.
Geyser Geothermal Springs
This is where the English word geyser originated. You only have to wait a few minutes to see the Strokkur Geyser explode. Be careful, though, because the paths can be frozen and slippery.
You can’t miss a visit to the Golden Falls. If you’re visiting in winter, look at the falls from the observation decks near the top before deciding if you want to take the treacherous pathway down the stairs!
South Coast Iceland
Here is another all-day trip to consider. Stops include the Sólheimajökull Glacier, the quaint seafront village of Vik, the majestic black sand beach of Reynisfjara, and the Skógafoss and Seljalandsfoss waterfalls. Both the South Coast and Golden Circle offer the best tastes of Iceland.
Iceland is well-known for its famous lagoons. Due to the underground volcanic activity, Iceland enjoys geothermal waters that supply swimming pools all over the country. Some of these have become tourist destinations, while others are still off-the-grid, where you can enjoy them with few people around you.
Probably one of the country’s best-known destinations for visitors is the famous Blue Lagoon. This vast lagoon is created by geothermal seawater. The milky white water appears blue due to the silica content. The silica content also makes the water appear blue once the sun reflects. You need to make reservations in advance if you plan on enjoying the Blue Lagoon. Due to its location outside Reykjavik, it is best enjoyed either upon arrival or just before departure.
Iceland’s oldest public swimming pool was developed as a place for Icelanders to learn how to swim. But the warm waters were not ideal for swimming. Instead, the pool has been repurposed as the Secret Lagoon, where you can relax in the warm water. Rocks form this no-thrills pool on the outside, and the floor is covered in pebbles.
This newest facility is located just outside downtown Reykjavik, allowing fabulous views of Reykjavik during the day and the sky at night. The setting of the Sky Lagoon is glorious, with an infinity edge to maximize views.
It’s called Iceland for a reason! And winter is the perfect time to explore everything that Iceland offers that may not be available during other times of the year. So yes, you’re trading seeing some fabulous waterfalls for more icy adventures.
During winter, visitors can explore ice caves with a cave expert. Some ice caves are naturally created by water melting through the glacier, while others are artificial.
Because of the frequent volcanic eruptions, lava caves have formed. Some of these are set up for visitors to experience with a cave expert. Lava Caves can be combined with other adventures, like Snorkeling in a tour called Black & Blue.
Glacier Hike and Snow Mobile
Langjökull Glacier can be explored in multiple ways. Opt for a glacier hike, snowmobiling on the glacier, or even a mountain truck or super jeep adventure. Make sure you dress appropriately for this epic adventure.
Snorkeling the Silfra Fissure
Snorkeling in Iceland? In winter? Yes! The water filling the Silfra Fissure comes from a nearby melting glacier, meaning the water temperature is constant year-round. Snorkeling the Silfra Fissure is a unique opportunity to see the geological formations surrounding the tectonic plates in a crystal clear environment. You can read more about this adventure here.
What to do in Reykjavik in Winter
Reykjavik Walking Tour
The best way to explore Reykjavik is on foot with a walking tour. We went with CityWalk Reykjavik, a free walking tour offered twice daily. One thing to note is that they only schedule reservations five days in advance, so planners may feel anxious having to wait to book a spot! This was the perfect way for us to start our Iceland vacation.
The Hallgrim church is one of the most iconic sights in Reykjavik and is visible from so many spots in the city. For a few dollars more, ride the elevator to the top platform, where you’re surrounded by the bells that toll every 15 minutes. From the top, you’ll capture amazing photos of Reykjavik. Do check the website, though, because it is a functioning church that closes to visitors during services and other occasions such as funerals.
PRO TIP: Capture sunrise from the observation deck at the top of Hallgrimskirkja but don’t forget to come back for amazing nighttime shots!
City Hall and the Pond
Tours of Reykjavik will inevitably include a stop at the city hall, Ráðhús Reykjavíkur, an excellent spot to warm up! Located on the edge of Tjörnin pond, views from both City Hall and the surrounding areas create picturesque photos to make your friends envious.
The Old Harbor area of Reykjavik is a charming area worth exploring. You can easily spend an entire day checking out all this area’s museums, stores, restaurants, and other adventures. You’ll find the best lobster soup in town at Sea Baron. If you want to go whale watching or on a northern lights cruise, your tour will depart from this area. The Lava Show, Fly Over Iceland, and more are also located in this area.
Harpa Concert Hall
The Harpa Concert Hall, located along the waterfront of Reykjavik, opened in 2011 and has since become a cultural and social center of town. The architecture has resulted in multiple awards and is worth seeing, even if you don’t want to explore the exhibits inside.
This iconic steel sculpture, Sun Voyager, is just a few minutes walk from the Harpa Concert Hall along the waterfront. You have the most beautiful views of the mountains outside Reykjavik from this spot, and it makes for a perfect selfie spot.
Limited on time but still want to see a little bit of everything? Consider visiting Perlan, Wonders of Iceland! These repurposed former hot water tanks feature a glass dome and house unique exhibits. A viewing terrace provides 360-degree views of the surrounding area. You can find exhibitions dedicated to the aurora borealis, an indoor ice cave, and much more.
Fly Over Iceland
Located in the Old Harbor area, Fly Over Iceland is an immersive ride where views of the best Iceland has to offer surround you. Because of the movement of the seats and Imax-like scenery, this is best for those who don’t fear heights or suffer from motion sickness.
For an hour and a half, you’ll see master artisans manipulate lava. This was an excellent way to learn more about geology and how the 30 volcanoes have transformed Iceland’s landscape underneath it.
Where to Stay in Iceland in Winter
Luxury Option: The Retreat Hotel at Blue Lagoon. This 62-suite hotel has its lagoon with the same waters as the neighboring Blue Lagoon. The attraction of this hotel is the unlimited access to both the spa and private lagoon. Want to include a bit of luxury while still being budget conscious? Book a night at this resort either at the beginning or end of your vacation before moving to or from a more affordable alternative. Keep in mind that this hotel is quite far from Reykjavik.
Midrange Option: Center Midgardur Hotel. Our package deal included the hotel. We did upgrade our hotel stay to the Center Midgardur Hotel. The Center Midgardur Hotel is centrally located near many of the activities in Reykjavik and a short walk to most of the important tourist spots. We liked that the hotel included a spa (included in some hotel rates or could be easily upgraded directly from the hotel).
Final Thoughts on Why You Should Visit Iceland in Winter
If you spot this Icelandair deal in the future, make sure you jump on it! Keep in mind that Icelandair also offers stopovers in Iceland for up to a week without additional charges if you would like to continue to other European destinations.
Check out more information about Iceland here:
- What to Know Before Visiting Iceland in Winter
- What to Pack for Iceland in Winter
- Is Snorkeling the Silfra Fissure Worth It?
- Lagoon Etiquette: What You Need to Know
Annick, The Common Traveler