Iceland in the Winter (Do’s and Don’ts) – Part 1

Most people don’t think to travel to Iceland in the winter, and I’m not sure why. My guess is that the idea of going to a place with the word “Ice” in the name during the dead of winter doesn’t exactly sound appealing. But if you like snow (or don’t mind it), have an adventurous spirit, and want to see interesting and unusual things only found in Iceland in the winter, you should definitely make the trip. This leads me to my first tip…

#1. DO travel to Iceland in the winter. Yes it’s cold (with temps in the low to mid 30’s), but so is 85% of the world during the winter months. The fact is that flights and trip packages to Iceland are substantially cheaper during the winter months, since all the tourists come pouring in during the summer and dwindle during the winter. Plus, you can see amazing things only found during the winter like the long sunsets that last for hours, the Aurora Borealis, and ice caves under glaciers.

When we looked at booking our trip, we booked a hotel and flight combo through Iceland Air. It was cheapest to fly out of Denver to Reykjavik (nonstop), rather than booking from our actual location of Oklahoma City. To get us to Denver, we found a cheap flight through Southwest for about $80 per person.

#2. DO fly with Iceland Air. It is probably the best airline I’ve ever flown with. Their seats are roomy and

Iceland Air's version of the Northern Lights
Iceland Air’s version of the Northern Lights

cushier than other planes I’ve flown in. Every passenger gets a pillow, blanket, and bottle of water. And the overhead lights glow and dance around like the northern lights. The flights were on time. And everything about the flight itself went smoothly.

Upon landing in Reykjavik at 7:00 am, it was very dark (the sun doesn’t come up in February  until around 10:00 am). I was incredibly jet lagged and just wanted a bed. Unfortunately, our hotel room wasn’t going to be available until that afternoon.

#3. DON’T expect your hotel room to be ready for you when you land. Call the hotel before you leave for Iceland and ask for an early check-in. Because you WILL be jet lagged and want to take a nap.

Due to the fact that we did not have a hotel room, and didn’t want to sleep in the car, we decided to go ahead and accomplish the first thing on our list of things to see. The Golden Circle.

#4. DON’T miss Þingvellir National Park. Even if you do nothing else in the Golden Circle, this place is

The tall rock faces in Þingvellir National Park
The tall rock faces in Þingvellir National Park

impressive enough to the trek out there for. And the stunning scenery around the area makes the drive from Reykjavik all worthwhile. Þingvellir is located on two tectonic boundaries, where the European and North Atlantic plates are being pulled in opposite directions. You can see where the earth is literally being torn apart.

We went on to see Geysir (the first geyser ever discovered) and Gullfoss (a giant waterfall) to complete the Golden Circle. Here’s my honest take on these two: Both are incredibly crowded, with hoards of tourists bumping into you. Gullfoss is amazing in that it is so large and is definitely worth seeing – although, it was snowing like crazy

Gullfoss (waterfall) in the Golden Circle
Gullfoss (waterfall) in the Golden Circle

when we went, making it hard to see and get good pictures. Geysir, while still very cool because it was the first discovered, is not all that exciting. I feel like if you’ve seen a geyser before, you’ve seen them all. (Again, this is my personal opinion.) There are so many bigger and better things to see in Iceland than Geysir, so if you are short on time it wouldn’t be the worst to just skip it.

On our second day in Iceland, we decided to go explore Reykjavik. We started with Hallgrimskirkja (a famous church in Iceland). It is known for its height and unique architecture – a must see if going to Iceland. It’s easy to get to, and once you go in, you can pay a small fee to go to the top and see Reykjavik harbor from up high.

#5. DO go to Hallgrimskirkja and pay to go to the top. The panoramic views of the city, with all it’s brightly colored buildings are breathtaking. If you are lucky, someone will be inside playing the massive 49 foot pipe organ, which consists of over 5,200 pipes. It’s a great

The view from Hallgrimskirkja
The view from Hallgrimskirkja

experience to hear its music filling the open sanctuary.

After we stopped by the church, we walked across the street for some traditional Icelandic food. All of the food in Iceland is very bold and hearty. When we sat down, my husband ordered some dried fish and hákarl (fermented shark). Hákarl is the national dish of Iceland. It is made from shark that is cured, then hung up to dry for about five months.

#6. DO try fermented shark. It’s not going to be your favorite, but it’s something you have to try if you are there. When you order it, they bring you five or six cubes of it, along with a shot of Brennivín (a strong Icelandic alcohol, reminiscent of vodka and black licorice). You dip the shark in the alcohol, eat the shark, then take a sip of liquor.

Hákarl (fermented shark)
Hákarl (fermented shark)

After lunch, we had a delicious dessert that consisted of Skyr (Icelandic yogurt) cheesecake and rye bread ice cream. Which leads me to by final tip for this post…

#7. DON’T skip dessert. Just don’t do it. Iceland has some of the best desserts I’ve ever had, and you are on vacation anyway. So eat the cake.

(Stay tuned for part two of my Iceland Do’s and Don’ts, when I discuss the more adventurous side of Iceland complete with ice caves, glaciers, more waterfalls, and the northern lights.)

-Holly

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