Howdy, and welcome to The Photo Frontier’s Guide To Winter In Iceland! We are happy to have you and hopefully this means you are headed north very soon.
Let me begin by saying, I’m typically a warm weather guy. Normally around the New Year, we head to the Caribbean to seek out some sun. The idea of heading to a land prefixed with Ice, wasn’t par for course. However, in that dark land of ice was our best chance to see the Northern Lights…and so our quest began.
Accessibility – If you think Iceland is out of reach, let me tell you it’s not! Iceland (at least in winter) is more accessible than you might think. Winter is their down season for most tourists. However, it’s the prime season for us adventurers and astral photographers so we can take advantage of cheap airfare and VRBO rates. Shop around and keep your eye on airfare. You will find some great deals!
Note – The following information was gathered during research conducted in 2014 and subsequent field notes gathered on location from Dec 27th 2014 through Jan 2nd 2015.
Below is a map featuring a few of the sites we visited. Feel free to use this map to compliment your own quest. Iceland is a filled with adventure, and you’ll never go wrong heading down and unknown road.
This is the one week itinerary we followed while making this guide. Feel free to adjust as you see fit. The weather in Iceland is very dynamic and can easily change from region to region, so keep and eye on the forecast and make your plans accordingly.
- Day 1 Southern Highway– Arrive at Keflavik International Airport and pick up your car. Most flights from the states arrive in the early morning. Drive along the new southern highway, through the small towns of Gendavik and Selfoss, to the cabin.
- Day 2 Eastern Golden Circle – Get and early start, well before sunrise, and take in the eastern 1/2 of the Golden Circle. I’d recommend a quick stop and Geyser and leave a lot of time for Gulfoss. On the way back, stop by the small church of Hrunakirkja. It’s illuminated at night.
- Day 3 Vik– Get an even earlier start this day. It’s quite a drive, but there is a lot to see in a short amount of daylight. Add Seljalandsfoss, Skógar, The Dyrhólaey Lighthouse and the black sands of Vik to your itinerary.
- Day 4 Western Golden Circle Thinkliver to Reykjavik
- Day 5 Lots of Fireworks – New Year’s
- Day 6 Explore Reykjavik Explore Reykjavik
- Day 7 Head For HomeHead home
Frontier Tip – If you could extend your stay, you might add some time to visit the villages North of Reykjavik or to the East of Vik where there are glaciers and ice caverns.
I wouldn’t recommend camping in the winter. I would rent a place through VRBO or AirBnB. We opted for a little cabin in the south central part of Iceland, just outside of Selfoss.
Lodging Note – If you are interested in staying in the same cabin we did, the one that is pictured here, you can find it on VRBO. It comes equipped with its own herd of magical Icelandic horses. The owner is a very cool Artist and the surrounding land if filled with creative energy. ( click here )
Reykjavik – If you are looking for a nice place in Reykjavik, you might want to check out my buddy’s place. I’ve never stayed there, but he’s a cool dude.
You can easily get to and from Reykjavik via Taxi (about $50) or the Fly Bus. However, if you are just picking up a car, most companies offer curbside pickup at the Keflavik International airport. We rented our car from SadCars.com, which if you don’t need all the amenities of a new car, SadCars.com is a great affordable option. You should totally check them out.
A couple things to note about renting a car in Iceland…
- Studded Snow Tires are a MUST! You will be driving on icy roads. Much like the ones pictured below.
- Spring for a GPS or bring your own. Just make sure you have downloaded the appropriate maps. Even if your ego will allow you to ask for directions, you aren’t going to find many people around.
Typology of Icelandic Driving Conditions
Iceland is not only a land of Viking sagas, but a land full of mythical ponies. Make sure to bring food for them. The wonders of Iceland are only revealed to those that are pure of heart and lovers of these magical creatures.
Pro Tip – Mythical viking ponies prefer bread over carrots and apples.
The idea of 4 hours of daylight was one of the most intriguing aspects of our quest. Go tell someone you are headed to Iceland in the winter, and count how many times people ask…”Won’t it be dark?”. Hell yes it will be dark! All the better to see the Northern Lights. Which by the way, check out our guide on Photographing The Northern Lights.
The Sun’s Schedule
- 9ish – You’ll start to see a hint of sunrise.
- Noon – The sun will break the horizon.
- 4ish – The sun will start to set and you’ll have a long soft twilight.
The following photos were made between 9:30am and 10:00am as we waited for the grocery store to open.
Frontier Tip – Rent a VRBO and prepare your own meals. Icelandic restaurants are really expensive.
Frontier Tip – If you’d like to enjoy an Icelandic beer, pick them up at the Duty Free shop on your way into the country. Alcohol is taxed like crazy, so get it cheap in the airport.
Make sure you visit Ari’s Photo Botique, Fótógrafí, located in the heart of Reykjavik. When you are there, pick up a signed copy of ‘Shot in Reykjavik’ as well as one of is personal prints. His gallery is open on New Year’s day, and makes for a great way to recover from the shenanigans of the previous night.
New Year’s In Reykjavik
When we were planning our trip, we read that the city of Reykjavik detonates 500 tons of fireworks on New Year’s Eve. What we didn’t know was that those fireworks, all 500 tons, are sold to the citizens to raise money of Iceland’s Mountain Rescue. Yup, 500 tons of fireworks, sold to citizens and not a single regulation to enforce anything. IT. IS. AWESOME!
At 11:15 in Reykjavik, after watching the annual comedy special, 10,000 Icelanders will gather at the famous Hallgrímskirkja Church and light off 500 tons of fireworks.
Frontier Tip – Wear safety glasses. Ash will be falling from the sky.
An Animated Typology of Icelandic Fireworks
Additional Frontier Tips and Resources
- Weather – It’s called Iceland and it will be cold. However, it’s not going to be as cold as you imagined. The climate is actually fairly mild. The country is small and surround by the sea, whose thermal mass keeps things in check. When we were there, the daytime temps were around 35 degrees and the nights weren’t much cooler. Just be prepared and you’ll be fine. Remember, there isn’t bad weather….just bad gear.
- Monitor traffic & road conditions here.
- Get an early start on your daily adventures. Yes, it will be hard to motivate when it’s 9am and pitch black, but you’ll need to get moving if you want to take advantage of the limited daylight.
- Dress in layers.
- Take a light set of crampons for your boots. Icelanders aren’t big on shoveling walks so the terrain is very slick. Like super slick. One day the wind blew me across a frozen pond.
- Icelander’s are very cool people, make sure to chat with anyone you meet.
- The weather in Iceland is always changing, so don’t get bummed out if it’s cloudy.
- Hot Pots – (aka natural hot springs) If you’re into warm natural baths, ask the locals where to find a close one. They are scattered all over the countryside, so there’s no need to spend the big bucks for the ‘Blue Lagoon’.
- The Long Layover – Icelandic Air flies to Europe as well. If you have the time, you can book a flight to Europe and stop over in Iceland for up to a week without an additional charge.
- Cold Weather Camera Care – Although the climate is fairly mild in Iceland, it’s still cold. So make sure you have extra batteries, they’ll burn a lot quicker in colder weather. Also, make sure you have a plan for managing you camera. Don’t bring it in and out of the warm cabin or car. That’s a recipe of fog and condensation. Leave it outside or in the trunk to keep it acclimated.
A Few Of Our Favorites