Waterfalls, lava fields, geysers, glaciers. Iceland is known for its pristine natural beauty. Hundreds of thousands of Americans flock to this northern-most capital city annually, considerable amounts between the months of June and August. During the Icelandic summer, the temperature is mild and the sun never actually sets. However, the true Iceland lies in the winter months.
Each year, Iceland breaks foreign visitation records. 2017 Iceland saw over 2 million tourists travel through their Keflavik airport. This is in comparison to a mere 200,000 just 7 years earlier. Of that 2.2 million, Americans make up 26% of all foreign visitors to Iceland. This can be, and has been, overwhelming to a country with just 300,000 residents. The summertime in Reykjavik is even more expensive with limited lodging options and crowds of tourists. That is why the best season is vetur – Icelandic winter.
The winter near the arctic circle is dark and magical. Around the winter solstice, Reykjavik experiences 4 hours of sunlight. The sun never rises far above the horizon, spending your day in perpetual afternoon. All day “golden hour” – a photographers dream. Thanks to the warmer water from the gulf stream, Iceland maintains a mild, temperate climate even in the winter. With temperatures in the 30º-35ºF range, people from the midwest and northeast section of the US would find Iceland a pleasant escape. However, this doesn’t mean you should pack lightly. Reykjavik is windy. And the wind is cold. Although, if you pack thinking you know cold–and it turns out you don’t–every third store is an outdoor gear shop. They’ll get you covered in style.
Three Must-Sees in Iceland Vetur:
1) Blue Lagoon
Upon arrival at the lagoon, you will store your luggage in the luggage check by the parking lot and continue up a paved walk way through lava rocks into the Blue Lagoon building. You’ll get dressed, shower, and walk down a ramp that gradually lowers you into the warm water, slowly adjusting you to both the water temperature and the contrasting weather outside. In January, an 8am arrival means bathing in the dead of night with only a few lights shining onto the lagoon from the main building. Visibility is limited. All you can see is the darkness of the sky, and the darker silhouette of the surrounding lava rocks. Pro tip: bring earmuffs. The wind whips across the water, turning your face and ears–the only body parts sticking out of the water–cold as ice. This is alleviated as the morning goes on, either because the temperature rises or due to frostbite – I’m still undecided. Around 10am the magic starts with the rising sun. At this time you can experience the beautiful color and ambiance of the cerulean silky water. Rub a silica mud mask or an algae mask on your face and feel your skin rejuvenate.
2) The capital city of Reykjavik
Reykjavik proper has a population of under 125,000 people. You can walk the entire city in one day. Stroll down the main shopping street, Laugavegur, where you can purchase your missing warm weather gear, Thor statues, or even a cocktail from the Chuck Norris Grill. Walking west down the street, you’ll catch a glimpse of the Sun Voyager – or Sólfar – between the buildings. It’s just a short detour to the water to get a closer look and snap some pictures. Hopefully, you’ll arrive before the tour buses do. Back to the main drag, you’ll see your first major intersection. This is Sóleyjargata. If you take a left, you’ll walk near City Hall and the pond, Tjörnin. From here, you should see Iceland’s largest church, Hallgrímskirka, perched on the hill rising over the colorful buildings. If the weather is nice, you pay $10 to take the elevator to the top and look out from the clock tower. Up there, you can get a true sense of Reykjavik’s surrounding beauty. Northwest of the church is the harbor and many of Reykjavik’s museums. Walking around the city is a treat. The streets are clean, the buildings are brightly colored, and the street art is fantastic. It becomes obvious that Reykjavik is one of the greenest, safest cities in the world.
Reykjavik is cute, but Iceland’s money-maker is its breathtaking scenery. A typical trip to Iceland includes at least one full-day tour to the countryside. I would highly recommend the newer company called Into the Glacier. You will take a ride in a beast of a truck for about an hour and a half, climbing about 200m in elevation. You’ll start at the base near an Icelandic “forrest” (just some smaller bushes) ride over some alien-like terrain where there is almost zero vegetation year round. Once you get to the glacier, everything becomes a vastness of white. During the summer months, you will ride snowmobiles on the glacier, and then tour the inside. When the weather is unfavorable in the winter, snowmobiling is out of the question. Upon arriving at the entrance to the ice cave, you will see two ravens who follow the vehicle all the way up in betting that you’ll provide them with a little snack (they were right). You’ll then walk down the metal tube into the cave. In the winter, the cave is surprisingly warm – holding a steady temperature of 0ºC year round. Your guide will help you strap on your crampons and fill you with interesting facts about glaciers and the impending doom that is climate change. After the glacier fun, you’ll usually stop by another natural sight – if time allows. We saw the waterfall, Hraunfossar, which is fed by water from the melting Langjökull glacier seeping through the porous lava rock. The glacier melt is pristine and turquoise. An absolutely wondrous sight.
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Iceland is beautiful, Iceland is interesting, Iceland is unique. If you have the opportunity, visit Iceland. Go there any time that is convenient for you, any time that works best for your schedule. But – if you have a choice – visit Iceland during it’s sleepy season. Icelandic summer is made up of hikes and mild weather, but Iceland in the winter is pure magic.