If anyone tried to sell you on a vacation in the dead of winter to a place that's dark about 20 hours a day, and probably won't reach above freezing temperatures the whole time you're there, you'd probably think it was a joke.
The lack of sunlight and cold weather deter many travelers from heading to Iceland during the coldest months, but it's arguably the best time to visit, and here's why:
1. The Crystal Caves
Photo courtesy of istock/golfer2015
Iceland is indeed a land of ice (obviously), at least in the winter. And it can be argued that the coldest months are also when the country is at its most majestic. When Iceland freezes over, it becomes an expanse of ice caves, snow-covered glaciers and partially frozen waterfalls.
About 10 percent of the country is made up of glaciers, and during the winter, glacier water that flows through caves freezes, forming otherworldly, glowing-blue ice formations inside the caves – often known as the Crystal Caves.
Speaking of glaciers, the best way to see them – or at least the most exhilarating – is by riding a snowmobile directly across them. Sure, you can ride a snowmobile in many places, but zipping across Langjökull and Mýrdalsjökull glaciers and getting sweeping views of the surrounding snowscapes is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, especially when combined with a trip to see the Gullfoss (Golden Waterfalls) frozen over.
Not into driving a heavy machine through the snow? Skiing is another great option.
3. Frozen waterfalls
Photo courtesy of istock/DanielHarwardt
Gullfoss is breathtaking no matter what time you visit. During the warm months, water cascades over the massive waterfall, creating countless rainbows surrounded by verdant landscapes as far as you can see.
In winter, it's a sight that's just as beautiful, but even more rare. The undulating water freezes into layer upon layer of shimmering icicles, with water continuing to gush past the blanket of snow and ice into the river below. You can find other frozen waterfalls around the world, but few, if any, at this scale.
4. Hot springs
Photo courtesy of istock/compuinfoto
Glaciers make up a huge portion of this tiny country, but there's a reason it's known as the Land of Ice and Fire: more than 130 volcanoes have turned Iceland into a hotbed of geothermal activity. And while, yes, that means that there’s a tiny chance that Eyjafjallajokull erupts and grounds flights all over Europe (as it did in 2010), it also means that visitors get to enjoy geysers, eerie landscapes, and geothermal pools – most famously the Blue Lagoon (which is only really blue in winter).
There are few winter activities that beat lounging around in a massive, natural, cloudy blue hot pool surrounded by black volcanic rocks dusted in snow. While the Blue Lagoon is the most famous, it's also the most crowded, but more intrepid travelers can seek out isolated hot pools all over the country for a bit of solitude.
5. Northern Lights
Photo courtesy of istock/ SuppalakKlabdee
What deters most people from visiting Iceland during the winter – probably even moreso than the cold – is the darkness. In the heart of darkness, the sun is only out for four to five hours. But the darkness is also the chief reason to visit for many winter visitors, as it provides the best chance to see the Northern Lights, one of nature’s most magnificent and elusive phenomena.
The long nights bring green waves shooting across the sky as sun and earth particles collide. On a clear night, you can see the Aurora Borealis from just about anywhere (even downtown Reykjavik), but heading to a remote area with no light pollution is where you'll see the Northern Lights at their most brilliant.
6. Golden hours
Photo courtesy of istock/MLiberra
The hours just after sunrise and just before sunset are often referred to as the golden hour – that time when everything has a certain glow surrounding it, thanks to the fact that the sun is lower in the sky and not blowing everything out with direct light.
When you only have four or five hours of sunlight a day, all day is basically just after sunrise and just below sunset. That means #nofilterneeded for any of your Instagram photos, but everything will look like it’s got an Instagram filter even when you keep your camera in your pocket.
7. Extra-long nightlife
Everybody likes day-drinking every now and then, but it’s always a shame to waste hours in a bar when the sun is still out. Only five hours of daylight means something like 17 hours of bar time, and the bars in Reykjavik stay packed until they close around 4:30 am on weekends.
Going on a pub crawl – or rúntur, as locals call it – is the norm here, and no matter how cold it is outside, moving from bar to bar is no concern considering you’re never more than a few seconds away from another drinking den.
Photo courtesy of istock/tolstnev
Let’s face it. Despite all of the above reasons to visit Iceland in the winter, some people are hard to convince. The idea of 20 hours of sunlight is a lot more exciting for most people than 20 hours of darkness. But this fact can work in your favor.
That means that not only is it the ideal time to visit the glaciers, hot springs and Crystal Caves, but you’ll also be sharing the sites with way less people, which is great because the only thing that will ruin your Blue Lagoon photo more than a dozen 60-year-old European men in Speedos is 100 60-year-old European men in Speedos.
The lack of people also means supply > demand, so congratulations adventurous traveler! You’re getting a big fat discount on almost everything. Flights, hotels, and often tours are all discounted during the winter months. And if you don't see a discount at hotels or on tours, don't be afraid to ask – a lack of tourists in a country that heavily depends on tourism means that hospitality companies will often be willing to bargain.
In Iceland, dressing like a local means wearing the Icelandic equivalent of the ugly Christmas sweater your mom used to make for you. But they're much hipper, which means you're probably going to want to get one of the iconic sweaters (or lopapeysa). If you don't know what I'm talking about, you will learn immediately upon landing in Reykjavik, where it seems like the whole city is wearing one.
Made from Icelandic sheep, they're soft, insulating and water repellent, so you can probably wear one without a jacket. Sure, you can find one on Etsy, but then you won't have a story to tell.