Iceland in the winter
November 12, 2013 7:23 AM   Subscribe

Three friends and I semi-impulse bought tickets to go to Iceland in a month (December 4-8) -- what should we try to do in the short time we're there? Winter-specific suggestions most welcome!

We will arrive in Iceland in the morning of December 5 and depart evening of December 8. We already booked an amazing looking AirBnB in Reykjavik for the full time so are set on that.

I've read this question, and this NYT piece on frugal travel in Iceland in winter, but was hoping for more current and can't-miss suggestions.

I like unique/interesting foods, walking a lot, bicycling (can we bike anywhere??), drinking hot wine on the street at Christmas markets, fun events, and more experiential travel things. I am not so into clubbing. I also definitely want to see the Northern Lights, but am trying not to get my hopes up too much on that just in case it doesn't happen.

Right now we are also considering renting a car and driving the Golden Circle for one day -- good or terrible idea?
posted by aaanastasia to Travel & Transportation around Iceland (6 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I went for 5 nights in February.

Reykjavik: Fish Market for dinner and Slippbarinn for drinks (foodie thread). You don't need to hire bikes really: it's a small place and you can get a sense of it quickly. A highlight is going to the top of Hallgrímskirkja church. Lots of companies run Northern Lights tours and do hotel pick ups but I suspect it is more fun to head out of the city and spend the night somewhere else so all you have to do is get out of bed to see the lights. There is a forecast tool here, by the way, for nearer the time. Also, don't forget to go via the Blue Lagoon on your way back to the airport: touristy but fun.

It's not a horrible idea to rent a car and do the Golden Circle in a day. Very doable. Personally I found the hot springs (Geysir, Strokkur) a bit meh but loved Þingvellir for its history and the geography. Gullfoss is mightily impressive like all big waterfalls. All three sites can get very busy with coachloads of tourists who bus in, snap photos and bus out. It is, for lots of people, the only thing they do outside Reykjavik. Step away from the Golden Circle and there are other sites to see that do not attract anything like so many people and are also lovely, where you actually get some time to enjoy the countryside. E.g. Skogafoss and Eyjafjallajökull and Mýrdalsjökull glaciers.

It wasn't cheap, but when staying down near Hella we booked a day out with a guide and his monster 4x4 - we spent the day hiking into ravines and up to glaciers and over hills and down into valleys. Highlight of the trip. Lots of tour companies run similar type things.
posted by MuffinMan at 7:44 AM on November 12, 2013 [2 favorites]

We went in September. For the Golden circle tour I would highly recommend the Golden Waters tour through a company called Arctic Adventures. They will take you snorkeling in Lake Silfra at Thingvellir, which is formed by the rift of the European and North American continental plates. The water is incredibly clear and you can see up to 300 m (well if your eyes are that good). I believe other companies do this as well. We had ~ 8 people for the Golden Circle portion and ~ a dozen when we snorkeled, so it doesn't feel too crowded either.
Our other favorite activities were taking a glacier hike and hiking in Thorsmork, which is an Icelandic forest. We did these as day trips through Icelandic adventures, for the glacier hike it was a group of ~15 and for Thorsmork a group of 8.
posted by florencetnoa at 8:06 AM on November 12, 2013

I've been to Iceland in March and early December, but I'm afraid my recs aren't any more up-to-date than the NYT's. But I loved it both times!

A lot of things are weather-dependent, obviously. I have heard that Þingvellir is indeed awesome, but on the day I went it was socked-in cloudy and I couldn't see a damned thing. Likewise the Northern Lights - ideally you need a non-full moon (which I think you're going to be good on), a clear night, and solar activity. So, you know, just keep your fingers crossed. I don't really recommend a bus tour exclusively to see the Northern Lights because people WILL take flash photos of the lights, which will make it hard for you to ever trust in humanity again. (I did see the Northern Lights on a minivan tour and it was great but I was with only seven other people, all of whom knew how to turn the flash off.)

If you can find a natural hot spring (probably need a tour guide or local connection to do this safely) and don't mind getting dirty, GO FOR IT. Maybe bring an old bathing suit (or go without), since you will be picking chunks of peat out of it for years. Maybe don't go without. I guess it depends where you're comfortable getting peat chunks.

I did not see any Christmas markets in Reykjavik on my December trip, but there may have been some outside of the main drag? It was very festive and Christmassy though in the downtown Reykjavik area. I went to the mall too! It was cute. I think they do a big advent celebration but mostly for the first Sunday of advent, which will be the Sunday before you visit.

Also, honestly, I slept like crazy on that trip. The sun came up at about the same actual time as on the US east coast where I live, so it was basically a jetlag free trip, just like the sun went down incredibly early.
posted by mskyle at 8:11 AM on November 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

I went during a really foggy February and had a blast! I can't recommend any restuarants (we ate basically take-out and grocery store goods to save money) but I absolutely recommend doing a day trip with one of the tour companies (I recommend Ishestar): we did one of the packages that took you riding Icelandic horses (the absolutely highlight of the trip), to Gulfoss, the Geysers, and Thingvellir...

For some of the fun of the hot springs but without Blue Lagoon prices, hit up an outdoor public pool--we went to one in Reykjavik one night and were the only adults on the slides and was a a great time.
posted by TwoStride at 11:32 AM on November 12, 2013

My friend recently went and wrote up her impressions here. She did a lot of one day excursions out into the countryside that seemed very cool.
posted by spamandkimchi at 11:47 AM on November 12, 2013

Best answer: My friend went to Iceland around the same time last year to see the Northern Lights and came back raving about the Christmas lads.
posted by jenfullmoon at 7:39 PM on November 12, 2013

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