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Iceland has become a popular destination for summer travel, but many are still weary of traveling to Iceland in the winter for fear of harsh weather conditions. This is an understandable concern, but there are also many benefits to traveling in the off-season. There are plenty of activities to do in Iceland in the winter, and some activities can only be done in the winter, such as seeing the Northern Lights. After traveling to Iceland twice in the winter (first in late-November 2015 and subsequently in early-March 2017), I have compiled a list of my top five bucket list things to do in Iceland in the winter.
1. Snorkel Silfra
My most unique and unforgettable memory from Iceland is snorkeling Silfra, a fissure in between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. Silfra is one of the clearest freshwater bodies in the world, with the bluest waters. It is located in Thingvellir National Park, the location of the first government in Iceland, the Allthing. There are several companies that offer snorkel and scuba tours of Silfra, but I would recommend booking with Scuba Iceland. My guide, Neil, did an excellent job explaining everything to the group, getting us geared up quickly and efficiently, and keeping us relaxed as we prepared to slide into ice cold water. The temperature of the water remains around 3 to 4 degrees Celsius year round, so it is just as easy (or hard) to jump into the water in the winter as it is in the summer.
2. Food Tour of Reykjavik
One of the best ways to explore Reykjavik and get a taste of the local cuisine is to take a food tour of Reykjavik with Wake Up Reykjavik. Our guide, Daniel, was knowledgeable not only about Icelandic food but also about the history of Iceland, and he readily shared his knowledge with us. I had the opportunity to try foods I’d never had or heard of before, such as rye bread ice cream and horsemeat. Over the course of four hours, we tried local dishes from six restaurants and saw Reykjavik’s most popular sites, such as Harpa and Hallgrimskjirka. The quantity of food I had on this tour covered both lunch and dinner for me that day, which is very helpful in such an expensive city.
3. Secret Lagoon
Anyone who’s looked into traveling to Iceland has heard of the Blue Lagoon. Its blue, steamy waters lures in people of all ages and backgrounds, and the amenities it provides, such as drink wristbands, keeps travelers there for hours at a time. However, at 5400 ISK (approximately $48.50 USD) per person, the Blue Lagoon is more expensive than many can afford. It is also crowded and has become over-commercialized, such that it feels more like a vacation resort than a naturally occurring hot spring.
If you are looking for a quieter, more authentic, and more affordable way to warm up and relax, head over to the Secret Lagoon. Located along the Golden Circle path, the Secret Lagoon was the first swimming pool to exist in Iceland. Historically, Icelanders traveled from all over the country to come to the Secret Lagoon to swim. Today, it is no longer used for swimming laps but is rather a place for travelers to relax in and enjoy. At 2800 ISK (approximately $25.15 USD) per person, it is much more affordable than the Blue Lagoon. While the Secret Lagoon does not come with certain luxuries like free towels, it offers free lockers and beers for purchase. If you are looking for the fanciest, most luxurious experience, head to the Blue Lagoon. But if you’re not concerned with the frills and are just looking to relax in a hot spring, add the Secret Lagoon to your itinerary.
4. Glacier hike
Similar to snorkeling Silfra, there are a number of companies in Iceland that offer glacier hiking tours. These tours range from easy to advanced and are appropriate for all ages. Many of the more advanced tours include the option to climb up an ice wall once you reach the glacier. Glacier hiking tours typically take the whole day, so plan ahead and make sure you give yourself enough time in Iceland to fit in this activity.
5. Northern lights
Perhaps the most popular reason tourists flock to Iceland in the winter is to see the northern lights. The best months to see the northern lights are from September to March, and you will need to go a bit outside Reykjavik to see the lights. While there is no guarantee you will see the northern lights on a given night, your chances are increased with clear skies and high aurora activity. From Reykjavik, there are boat and car tours that will take you far enough outside the city for you to see the lights. These tours tend to be expensive, but most will allow you to go back the next day for free if you are unable to see the lights that night. Alternatively, if you’ve rented a car already, you can drive outside of Reykjavik city centre on your own and try to track down the lights with the Aurora Forecast iPhone app.
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