The Winter Itinerary: 8 days in Iceland
Winter is coming and Iceland will soon don a pristine white cloak. Find out how to spend your winter vacation in magical Iceland and what not to miss while you're here.
Akureyri: Head up North
Akureyri, the capital of Northern Iceland, is easily accessible by a direct flight. Make Akureyri your base to enjoy sights and activities in North Iceland.
A major attraction in North Iceland is Myvatn Nature Bath, by Lake Myvatn, about an hour’s drive from Akureyri. This geothermal hot spot, made the same way as the Blue Lagoon, is the perfect remedy for jet lag. Soak yourself in the waters and sip on some bubbly; raise your glass and let the vacation begin!
North Iceland is also home to historically significant Godafoss Waterfall (Waterfall of the Gods). Legend has it that the then law speaker of Iceland threw his heathen god’s idols into these falls, thus supporting Iceland’s conversion to Christianity and giving the waterfall its name. Not only will the site spike your interest in Icelandic history, but it will mesmerize you with its cascading charm.
As the day ends and night falls, keep your fingers crossed and hope that Mother Nature decides to wave her bright green ribbons in the sky. This night just might be the first night you see the northern lights.
Akureyri: Meet the gentle horses and friendly dogs
Make your way to the stables to meet some handsome Icelandic horses. Unlike all other horses that have three or four natural gaits, Icelandic horses have five gaits. They are gentle creatures and will come up to you for a nuzzle. Icelandic horses are great for inexperienced riders. If you have been contemplating horseback riding, this might be the right time. There are many horse rentals close to Akureyri and our tour was with Kátur Horse Rental. Their winter horse riding tour starts at Höskuldsstaðir Farm, a couple of hours from Akureyri and it would be best to allocate a major part of the day for this activity.
If you are a dog lover, then budget time for dog sledding with the huskies as well. The huskies are an excited and friendly lot, eager to run and take you along. Dog sledding is a unique way to explore the Icelandic terrain and is an activity enjoyed by adults and children alike. Husky tours organized by Inspiration Iceland lets you be the musher (steering the sled), thus, allowing you to bond with the dogs.
Bid goodbye to the North and head back to Reykjavik for further exploration. Regardless of the season, Iceland’s capital makes an excellent base to experience the nearby attractions. The city has fine dining restaurants and cafes to tantalize your taste buds, boutiques to satiate your shopaholic instincts, heated swimming pools to let you burn some calories and a state of the art concert hall letting you witness stellar performances.
Catch up on your sleep and let this day provide you some rest before you commence your adventurous journey to South Iceland. However, if you prefer joining an aurora hunt, this night too, hop onto a northern lights tour, that takes you beyond the city lights to a choice location.
South coast: Marvel at waterfalls and geological formations
The south shore of Iceland exhibits landscapes perfect for postcards—waterfalls, geological landforms, glacial lagoons and oceanic waves—sights that will etch into your memory forever.
Visiting the south shore of Iceland requires at least two days, preferably three. Set out early on day four toward one of the most famous waterfalls in Iceland—Seljalandsfoss, that you can walk on a path behind and peep through its curtain of water. About 30 km east of Seljalandsfoss, you’ll see the Skogafoss Waterfall, which is about 60 meters high. Climbing the 500 odd steps adjacent to Skogafoss is an effort well rewarded with long distant views of Icelandic plains, blanketed with untouched snow.
After hearing the waterfalls rumble, it’s time to hear the ocean roar. Make your way along the south coast, admiring its black volcanic sand, to the little town of Vik. Lunch at the Strondin Restaurant in Vik promises delicious food and tempting desserts. The Víkurprjón Wool Factory in Vík is one of the oldest and best known knitwear producers in Iceland and one of the best places to get a traditional woolen sweater.
Continue further to the Reynisfjara Beach, a black pebble beach featuring a cliff of regular basalt columns resembling a rocky step pyramid.
Your next destination along the way is one of Iceland’s most breathtaking sites—Jokulsarlon Glacial Lagoon. The lagoon has masses of ice that have broken off the mighty Vatnajokull Glacier. Standing by the glacial lagoon, watching the icebergs drift and the seal pups play around the floating masses of ice will surely delight you.
End your day in a warm and cozy homestay or a hotel in Hofn, a nearby town, making it your base to explore South Iceland over the next couple of days. With little light pollution around the coast, you might see the northern lights from your window as you drift off into sleep.
Vatnajokull Glacier: Get awed by the crystal ice caves
Vatnajokull, Europe’s largest glacier, began forming over 2,500 years ago. Ice caves form under the glacier during the summer and when the water freezes again in the fall, local guides take you to see them. Being surrounded by ice, so pure and so blue evokes many feelings – excitement, awe and transcendental peace. After you have seen the glacier from inside, it’s time to walk over the glacial ice. Walking on this immense ice cap is a humbling experience.
A word of caution: Exploring the ice caves and walking on the glacier requires a professional guide.
Lava tube at Leidarendi: Colors in the Earth’s belly
Iceland truly is the “Land of Fire and Ice.” Your tryst with the crystal ice caves is bound to make you fall in love with caving in the clear blue ice. However, reserve some excitement for “fire” and head on to explore the orange and red that lie in the Earth’s belly.
These colors can be seen in lava tubes—tunnels that were created when the surface lava solidified but magma continued to flow. The caves expose a myriad of colors displayed beneath the earth’s surface. Explore the 900-meter-long lava tube at Leidarendi located 25 minutes away from Reykjavik. Wear the rugged overalls and enter into a world that few have seen!
End the day with a fine dinner at The Fish Company or Grillmarkaðurinn, and a few shots of Brennivin at Kaffibarinn or some pints of beer at Micro Bar. Make friends with some locals. While the country is called Iceland, it is full of warm and welcoming people.
Discover the Golden Circle
No trip to Iceland is complete without going on one of the many Golden Circle tours on offer. This most popular day tour from Reykjavik usually starts with a trip to the UNESCO World Heritage site of Thingvellir National Park, where you can see the rift between the American and Eurasian tectonic plate. Thingvellir is also the location of Iceland’s first parliament in 930 AD.
The next stop on this tour is Gullfoss Waterfall. Even before getting close to treat your eyes to its majesty, your ears can hear water rumbling. From a distance, you can see the Hvítá River pouring into a rift, perpendicular to its flow, thus forming the Gullfoss Waterfall.
As you move further along the Golden Circle, you’ll come to Haukadalur, home of Great Geysir. Strokkur, Great Geysir’s little brother, will be waiting to surprise you with its performance. Strokkur shoots plumes of steaming water every 5-7 minutes and up to 35 meters high.
Explore Reykjavik and the Blue Lagoon
End your winter sojourn, spending the last day in Reykjavik, experiencing this vibrant city and its attractions. The city is home to the famous Hallgrimskirkja Church, inspired by the basalt lava flow columns of South Iceland. Iceland’s tallest church, it offers a bird’s eye view of the colorful rooftops and streets of Reykjavik.
Shop to your heart’s content on Laugavegur Street for some of Iceland’s most stylish, yet comfortable winter wear collection, manufactured by local companies. If you are a museum lover, the city presents historical and cultural exhibits.
On your way back to the airport, stop at the Blue Lagoon (you’ll need to book in advance) to enjoy a warm bath in the milky blue waters. If you have an early morning flight spend your day before exploring the otherworldly Reykjanes Peninsula for a quiet and affordable stay at the Base Hotel/Hostel in Ásbrú, the old NATO base. It’s 10-minute ride to the airport insures you a longer night’s sleep before your flight.
As your vacation comes to a close, hopefully, you will have seen the northern lights a few times. Henceforth, each time you look at a dark sky anywhere in the world, you will be fondly reminded of the dancing lights that you witnessed during this trip when Iceland cast its magical spell on you. You bid farewell because you have to, not because you want to!
Text and photos: Sonia Sahni