1 million tourists visited Iceland in 2014 – that is over 3 times as many as the local population, which only counts 320,000 Icelanders. Most of them come during the summer months (May to August) to enjoy the endless days and mostly snow-free conditions. On such a small island you can imagine how quickly this can feel crowded though. Prices increase as well during these months and tours get busier.

That’s why more and more people decide to travel Iceland in off-season instead, and come during the winter or early spring. After spending 5 months from January to May in Reykjavik 5 years ago, and a more recent 4 day jaunt in late January, I am certain that my next trip will be off-season again too. Here are some of my reasons why.

1) Money Saver

Like everywhere else in the world, travelling off-season is cheaper. The demand for hotels/hostels and tours isn’t as big as in summer, so it’s possible to score good deals here.

why to travel iceland in winter

2) No Crowds in Sight

While winter travel in Iceland is increasing in popularity, it is still a lot calmer than in summer time. On the streets and bars of Reykjavik we saw more locals than tourists, at Thingvellir we had the viewing platform to ourselves and we did a horse-back riding tour in a group of five. None of this would happen in June…

why to travel iceland in winter

3) Magical Landscapes

If you think snow makes everything look the same, you are very wrong. Iceland is a magical place, and even more so when it’s covered in white. It makes the rocky peaks stick out of the snow like from beneath the clouds. The sheer vastness of the landscape feels so intense. The clouds often linger deep down in the morning, covering the hills. One of my favourite things to do is watch the clouds slowly lift and revealing the face of Reykjavik’s house mountain Esja glowing orange and pink in the sun.

why to travel iceland in winter
why to travel iceland in winter

4) The Golden Hour

Everybody knows that the light for photography is best just after sunrise and just before sunset. Up north this ‘golden hour’ lasts forever in winter, as it’s always just after sunrise and before sunset. The days are short and the sun doesn’t always come out entirely, but even from behind the clouds or in the fog it makes for the most dreamy light for photographers. The best bit: you don’t have to rise early to see the sunrise!

why to travel iceland in winter

5) Cross the Eternal Ice

Of course you can experience the glaciers of Iceland year-round – that’s the thing about their ‘eternity’. Somehow I feel though, that glacier walks and ice cave tours belong to winter, when the air is cold and the ice blue (it’s only blue in winter). While a guided glacier walk is an easy day trip from Reykjavik, a visit to the ice caves in Vatnajökull takes up a couple of days – mainly because driving there in winter takes a lot longer than in summer.

why to travel iceland in winter

6) Adventurous Roadtrips

Although, I’m not the most experienced driver I was set to rent a car for a day and drive around the Golden Circle tour myself, rather than being shuffled around on a bus with 40 other tourists. The perks of driving in Iceland in winter is that you are very flexible as to where to stop (although many parking bays are snowed under) and because of the wind blowing snow across the road you feel as if you were driving on clouds. As long as it’s sunny, this is actually fun.

why to travel iceland in winter

That said, driving in Iceland in winter, is not for the faint-hearted. Weather conditions can change dramatically quick, and there can be a lot of snow or ice on the road (we saw several cars that got stuck, and had a couple of near-death experiences ourselves). Get a 4×4 car, drive slowly and don’t ever hit the brakes too sudden!

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7) Appreciate the Hot Springs

Iceland is also called the island of fire and ice, but if you don’t plan a trip to an erupting volcano (currently that would be Bárðabunga) the closest to ‘fire’ you get is the hot geothermal water. There’s nothing as nice as soaking in the warm water of a hot top, sitting in its steam and then cool down by rolling in the snow surrounding it! A trip to the Blue Lagoon is an easy way out, but I prefer the local swimming pools of Reykjavik or Hveragerði, or the private hot tops which many countryside accommodation provide.

why to travel iceland in winter

8) The hunt for Northern Lights is on

That’s a no brainer. Winter time is northern lights time, and while the activity might not be as strong as in other places further up north, the chances to see the lights glow in the clear sky are quite good! Unfortunately, there is no guarantee for those clear skies, so it’s best to book a northern lights tour at the beginning of your trip, then there’s a chance to reschedule for a later time in case of bad weather. To be even more flexible you should rent a car and drive out of town yourself, for example towards Thingvellir. This article gives you advice on how to find northern lights and how to capture them on camera.

why to travel iceland in winter

Of course it would be lovely to return to Iceland one day to hike in the highlands and see the country bloom, but for a first impression of the major touristy landmarks winter is the best time to travel. This way summer can be reserved for more off-the-beaten track destinations like Snæfellsnes Peninsula or the Westfjords. I will most certainly be coming back!

Have you travelled Iceland before? Or is it at your bucket list?

Photos by Kathi Kamleitner.