Reykjavik in Winter

While Western Europe enjoyed a very early spring, travel companion A. and I spent a winter week in the capital of Iceland capital, Reykjavik. It was definitely not spring there yet, but unfortunately just not wintry enough either. There was ice on lakes, snow on the mountains, and here and there there were large heaps of snow in the street, but no fresh snow fell. Well, that means we’ll have to go back there once more.


There is something strange about Reykjavik. The city, including suburbs, has only 240,000 inhabitants, just as much as a town like Swansea. Which, by the way, is two-thirds of all Icelanders.

But when one sees all those buildings and roads one gets the impression that this is a city of millions. And the map of this Icelandic capital covers a rather large area.


Despite that metropolitan appearance, Reykjavik has at the same time something cozy and village-like, with its colorful houses made of wood and corrugated iron, even in the middle of the center.

Colorful houses and two churches in the center of Reykjavik, Iceland, reflecting in the ice on lake Tjörnin
Downtown Reykjavik, reflecting in icy lake Tjörnin in winter

Blue hours and auroras

Is it such a good idea to go to Iceland in winter? Yes, it actually is. At the end of February, with the spring equinox approaching, there is daylight again for almost as long as in the Netherlands. And the snowy mountains certainly add some appeal to the landscape around the city.

Winter is also the best time to see the northern lights, although you have to leave Reykjavik for that. There’s simply to much artificial light in the city to fully enjoy those auroras.

And another advantage: if you, like me, like to take photos during twilight, you have to go in winter. A photo like this, of concert hall Harpa, really can’t be made at the end of June, because then there will be no twilight at all in Iceland.

Harpa concert and congress hall in Reykjavik, Iceland, reflecting in a pool during the blue hour after sunset
Harpa concert hall in the blue hour

Go with the lava flow

Driving from the airport at Keflavik to the city there are vast lava fields all around. At first glance, they seem like an extremely dull and colorless landscape with very little going on. But nothing is more beside the truth. Hiking through them, such laveflows turn out to be a celebration of colors and shapes, with countless types of grass, moss, sedum and other plants.

Seveal colors of sedum, dry grass, a rock and in the background a few small fir trees on a lavafield in Iceland
Sedum on a lavafield


You don’t even have to leave the city for those lava fields. In some neighborhoods they’re all over the place. From Galgahraun lavafield at Hafnarfjordur, for example, you have a fabulous view of the city, the various bays and estuaries and the surrounding snowy mountains.

View from Galgahraun lava field near Hafnarfjordur, Iceland towards Reykjavik, Kopavogur, the mountains and the ocean
The view from Galgahraun

Brand awareness

There are countries of which people say you have to go there before they are discovered by mass tourism. Iceland has long since passed that point. According to the Icelanders, tourism really started to rise after the eruption of the Eijafjallajokull volcano in 2010, which temporarily shut down air traffic. Good for brand awareness, such an eruption. And of course Bjork, Sigur Ros and the national men’s football team are good ambassadors as well.

The growing popularity is particularly noticeable on a popular route such as the Golden Circle: Thingvellir national park and continental fault zone, the geyser named Geysir and the double waterfall Gulfoss. Nowadays you have to share those highlights with bus loads of selfiesmakers.

Strokkur geyser in Iceland, not far from the historic Geysir geyser, during an eruption, watched by hundreds of tourists
Strokkur geyser erupting


But Iceland is quite a big island and the focus of the crowds is limited to a few places. Outside of those there are still many undiscovered gems. Such as the town of Borgarnes, 45 kilometers north of Reykjavik, spectacularly situated on a peninsula between fjords and mountains. Accessible by a beautiful bus ride with the unsurpassed Straeto, the local public transit company.

Chunks of ice on the beach at Borgarnes, Iceland, with the fjord, the mountains and the ocean in the background
The beach at Borgarnes


Reykjavik, and Iceland in general, have in fact only two minor drawbacks. First: the weather. Companion A. and I are quite rainproof; we are not afraid of a few photogenic showers or a nice ambient drizzle. But continuous rain at wind force ten and temperatures just above freezing doesn’t really make us happy.

Raindrops create stripe patterns on the glass during a rainy day in Iceland with the harbour of Hafnarfjordur in the background
A rainy day in Hafnarfjordur


Fortunately the weather can change very quickly. And then you’re treated to dramatic cloud formations, rainbows and other pretty special effects.

A rainbow behind Hallgrimskirkja, the iconic church in downtown Reykjavik, Iceland
A rainbow behind Hallgrimskirkja


The second disadvantage: Iceland is not cheap. After a dip during the crisis years around 2010, the Icelandic crown is back at full strength. Although it must be said that maybe it seems worse than it actually is; a crown is around three-quarters of a eurocent, so all prices are counted in hundreds or thousands.

Fortunately, many of the cozy Reykjavik cafés have a happy hour during winter, so a beer, well-deserved after hardships, doesn’t have to put too much pressure on the budget. And as an affordable lunch I can recommend the pylsur (or rather two of them…), Iceland’s national snack, a hot dog with raw and fried onions, mustard, ketchup and mayonnaise.

Iceland's national snack, the pylsur, a hotdog with mustard, ketchup, mayonaise as well as raw and fried onions
Enjoy your meal

Reykjavik by train

I refuse to feel guilty for the few hours we had to fly to get to Iceland. Nevertheless, I intend to go by train and boat next time. That will be a lot more expensive and time consuming than the plane. But as a bonus we’ll visit the Faroe islands twice. And that’s a place not many people have seen with their own eyes.

Update: after two trips in summer and two in winter, travel companion A. and I tried to find out if spring was a good time to go to Iceland

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