My alarm clock goes off at 9am sharp. A dozy peek out the window reveals nothing but darkness. This far up north it is still night at this time. Wrapped in big coats and scarfs we stomp through the fresh snow that had fallen all night. The air is crisp and clear. For breakfast we head to Prikið, a popular cafe on Reykjavik’s central road Laugavegur. As we stuff our faces with fluffy eggs and crispy bacon the sky slowly starts to brighten. Daylight is about to break. On our way back to our hostel we can see an orange glow in the distance and suddenly the thick cloud covering the hills north of the city begins to rise. It reveals a massive rocky face, Esja, which is now dipped in a golden glow. By the time we have sorted out our daypacks and come down to wait for our pickup, the sky is bright blue, the sun is about to rise above the roofs and everything shines. It is 11.30am – a winter day in Iceland has begun.

As I have said before, I think winter is the best time to travel Iceland, particularly for first timers. The days might be shorter and the temperature colder, but the crowds are considerably smaller and the winter sun dips the entire island in a truly magical light. Of course, extensive trekking tours and cross-highland road trips have to wait until summer, and some tour operators are closed for off-season, but there is plenty of other things to do in winter time. Year round, Iceland makes for an unforgettable experience!

Iceland in Winter - Things to do in Reykjavik - Winter Activities in Iceland - Kathi Kamleitner-118

I recently visited the island with a friend in late January and set out on a couple of adventures. We only had four days to spend and wanted to fill them with amazing experiences. In case you aren’t sure what to do here in winter, I collected a list of cool things to do when you visit Iceland off-season.

1) Walking on a Glacier

Glaciers are impressive landmarks often out of reach even for the reasonably fit, because they are tucked away in impenetrable mountain chains; but not in Iceland! Here the some of the glacier tongues reach down to about 100m above sea level and lie just off the main highway around the island, Ring Road. One of them is the Sólheimajökull glacier tongue in the South of Iceland.

We got to join a day tour with Icelandic Mountain Guides, which is a leading tour company when it comes to outdoor activities in Iceland. They offer all kinds of single and multiple day tours throughout the year, everything from hiking over mountain biking or skiing to even hiking-and-knitting tours. (You could knit a beautiful Lopapeysa jumper or dress, like the one I’m wearing below.)

Winter Things to do in Iceland 1 why to travel iceland in winter Winter Things to do in Iceland 3

Because we had never experienced a glacier close up before, we opted for a Glacier Walk on Sólheimajökull. Our tour guide Max picked us up from our hostel and in a group of 10 we set out south-bound. After a quick stop to awe at Skogarfoss we reached the parking lot just off the glacier tongue. A few years ago the glacier reached all the way to the parking lot, now it’s a 15 minute walk before you reach the ice – global warming in action. Armed with an ice axe and crampons on our borrowed hiking boots (ps: instant feeling of bad-ass) we set out to explore the eternal ice. Only in winter the glacier shines in a bright blue colour. Max explained why, but the beauty surrounding me drew my attention to other things – the sun fighting its way through the clouds in the south, the moon simultaneously showing its white face in the north, the light-blue peaks sticking out of the ice, the cracks in the ice underneath my feet, the black holes opening up tunnels no one knows how deep. A glacier is a magical place.

Winter Things to do in Iceland 5 why to travel iceland in winter Iceland in Winter - Things to do in Reykjavik - Winter Activities in Iceland - Kathi Kamleitner-89

On our way up Max even found us a little ice cave to sit in and quickly get out again – too nerve-wrecking. He explained everything about the different glacier formations, gave us an idea of the tiny section we encountered on that day and took us all the way to the edge of the big icecap feeding the glacier tongue we were on. Looking north from there all I could see was little peaks covered in black ash sticking out of what looked like clouds. As the sun set on our way back down all I wanted was turn around and spend some more time out in the wild. Hopefully one day I’ll return – hopefully the glacier will then still be there.

Winter Things to do in Iceland 6 Iceland in Winter - Things to do in Reykjavik - Winter Activities in Iceland - Kathi Kamleitner-96

2) Hunting for Northern Lights

As part of our day tour with Icelandic Mountain Guides we didn’t return to Reykjavik straight away, but first enjoyed a hearty traditional meat soup at a small country hotel. The plan was to wait for the sky to go completely dark and then hunt for northern lights. Unfortunately, the sky was overcast, and even though Max tried to find us a light show, we had to give up and head back home.

Winter Things to do in Iceland 4

We would have more luck though on the following day. When it got dark and we could see the stars above Reykjavik, we decided to pick up our rental car a few hours early (thanks to Budget that was no problem at all) and head out into the wild. All forecast websites we checked promised only very low activity, but we wanted to try anyways. On our way to Thingvellir, we came across several coaches and jeeps with wheels as big our small car – we were not the only ones on this mission. After 10 minutes of freezing our hands off waiting for the slightest sign of green light in the sky, we decided to give up. Endurance in harsh conditions was never my biggest asset… As I was slowly driving back towards Reykjavik, dreaming of the warming pint of Icelandic ale that was waiting for me at the hostel, my friend started shouting in a high-pitched voice: ‘I see them!’ An unrecommended turning manoeuvre later we were back on the way towards a parking lot we had just passed. I got my camera out and tried to capture what my eyes could not believe they were seeing. The lights were indeed very weak, only slightly green, but mostly white. If you have ever seen the northern lights though, you know it doesn’t matter how strong they are or which color they take on – it’s a miracle of nature happening right in front of you eyes!

northern lights iceland-1 why to travel iceland in winter

3) Horse-Back Riding

What are two horse-girls going to do when they visit Iceland together? Of course we would get aback the cutest fur-balls alive and tolt through the snow! We opted for the riding stable Eldhestar in Hveragerði, just a one-hour-drive from central Reykjavik. The stable owns around 300 horses (so many ponies!), and in summer they have even more rented from surrounding farms to accommodate the horse-crazy crowds from all over the world. Their shorter tours are suitable for anybody, even without previous experience, but as my friend and I had been riding since we were little, we decided to do a full-day tour on horseback. Can you imagine how your bum feels after 6 hours in a saddle? In case you can’t – it hurts. Being carried through the magical winter wonderland on horseback though, was definitely worth the pain.

Winter Things to do in Iceland 11

If you book a day tour with Eldhester your day will start insanely early with a pick-up at 8.30am. Of course it is still pitch-black out, but that changes as soon as you reach the stable. Then the sky will slowly brighten up and if you are as lucky as us the sun will come out low above the horizon. All you need to bring with you is warm clothes (I recommend two layers of leggins or tights – no jeans!, plus woollen socks, 4-3 layers on top, a hat and gloves – no mittens!) and good shoes to ride in. At the stable you will be equipped with a big cozy ski suit, a helmet, more woollen socks and wellies if you couldn’t be bothered bringing good boots with you. Layered up like that you will stay reasonably warm, even if your toes might freeze a little still. They did so only in the colder morning though, and were fine in the afternoon.

Winter Things to do in Iceland 10

Our morning tour took us across the wide fields stretching between the stables and the sea. From times we were wrapped in an icy mist, which froze my hair and eyelashes into place; then it retreated and opened up amazing views and a clear-blue sunny sky. It was absolutely amazing. We were only five people on the tour – the two of us, a couple from Switzerland and our Swedish guide – and our horses moved harmoniously in one group. Icelandic horses seem to have little sense for personal space and like cuddling with each other quite a lot – so prepare for getting close with everybody on the tour.

We returned to the stables for a hearty lunch – meat soup again – and a switch of horses. The tour we did was called Below the Mountains, and that was just what we got. In the afternoon we rode in the other direction towards the mountains towering over the village in the north. We reached the foot of the hills, went up and down in the deep snow and would have gotten a good glimpse of the village at some point – however, the magic mist was back.

We returned to the stables, not frozen by cold, but frozen by amazement – we didn’t want to get off the horses and leave them behind. We had to however, as you can’t export Icelandic horses just like that, and EasyJet wouldn’t have been very happy about it either. At least we have an excellent reason to come back and book a longer trekking tour across the island – my dream!

Winter Things to do in Iceland 7 Winter Things to do in Iceland 8 Winter Things to do in Iceland 9

Iceland has taken our hearts by storm, and I’m quite certain this island does that to everybody who ever sets foot on it. If you plan a trip in winter, don’t just do the typical coach tours taking you to the famous landmarks for photo stops; get active and explore some of Iceland in a more physical way – it’s worth the effort!

Iceland in Winter - Things to do in Reykjavik - Winter Activities in Iceland - Kathi Kamleitner-90

*All photos by Kathi Kamleitner

This is a post by Kathi Kamleitner.

Kathi Kamleitner was a regular contributor at Travelettes from 2013 to 2019. Originally from Vienna, Austria, she packed her backpack to travel the world and lived in Denmark, Iceland and Berlin, before settling in Glasgow, Scotland. Kathi is always preparing her next trip – documenting her every step with her camera, pen and phone.

In 2016, Kathi founded Scotland travel blog to share her love for her new home, hiking in the Scottish Highlands, island hopping and vegan food. Follow her adventures on Instagram @watchmesee!