The Ultimate 5 Day Iceland Winter Itinerary: Golden Circle and South Coast
December 18, 2021
Iceland is a magical country full of volcanoes, black sand beaches, hot springs, glaciers and many more incredible natural wonders. There are so many ways to explore Iceland at any time of year.
This itinerary is a self-guided winter adventure through parts of the Iceland Golden Circle and South Coast. Read on for the pros and cons of visiting Iceland in the winter, tips for visiting Iceland and a schedule for exploring the country for 5 days and 4 nights.
This blog is based on my experience visiting Iceland in December 2021.
- You have great odds to see the Northern lights in the winter! The darkest skies in Iceland are typically from November to January, although you may be able to see the lights from September to April. Even if you visit in the darkest months, seeing the lights is not guaranteed and depends on cloud cover. The longer you stay, the better chances you’ll have for a clear sky.
- The majority of tourists visit Iceland in the summer, so you’ll likely experience less crowds in the winter months. However, the shorter days mean that everyone will arrive at popular destinations around the same time of day.
- It probably isn’t as cold as you think during the winter in Iceland! The coldest month of the year is in January and the average low is 26.6F° (-3 C°) and the average high is 37.4F° (3 C°). Yes that’s cold, but personally I imagined that it would be much colder.
- There are fun winter activities you can take advantage of during the off season! You can participate in the Iceland New Year and holiday celebrations, go snowmobiling, visit ice caves or hike on glaciers. In addition, you can do many of the same activities that are available in the summer, such as soaking in hot springs and hiking.
- The biggest drawback to visiting Iceland in the winter is the lack of daylight. Daylight will depend on exactly where and when you visit, but you can expect only 4-5 hours of daylight in December and January. This makes it tough to see a lot with your limited daylight hours.
- The road conditions in the winter can be unpredictable. They do a good job of keeping the main roads open and clear, but a bad snow storm can cause icy roads and dangerous conditions, especially for a tourist.
- Iceland is a very safe country to visit due to its low crime rate, wonderful healthcare and accepting people. Typically, the only danger is natural hazards such as storms, volcanic eruptions and earthquakes.
- To purchase fuel in Iceland, you will need a chip-and-pin credit card or enter the store to pay the cashier. However, many petrol stations in the countryside are not staffed. We were able to use our debit cards for fuel but note that the machines will put a hold on your card. One way around this rule is purchasing a petrol chain gift card when you first arrive.
- Visa and Mastercard are accepted just about everywhere in Iceland. While I always like to have some of the local currency just in case, it is very unlikely that you will need cash here.
- Tipping is not expected in Iceland and the server’s wages are sufficient. However, if you feel someone has gone above and beyond and want to tip, it is appreciated.
- The rumors are true… Iceland is definitely an expensive destination to visit. Some ways to save money include eating at petrol stations, cooking your own food and prioritizing free activities. If you don’t want to rent a car, there are options for bundling tours that may save you some money.
Check out my guide to renting a car in Iceland for more details on driving around the country.
- Be prepared for all types of weather in the winter. Pack layers, a warm coat, gloves, a hat, boots and any type of winter gear you might need.
- Download an app like ‘My Aurora Forecast’ to keep track of your likelihood of seeing the Northern lights!
- Be sure to maximize the daylight hours on winter days. Eat meals and drive while it’s dark.
- In the winter, it is best to rent a 4x4 car. You should be prepared to be driving on snow and ice.
This itinerary is fast paced and let’s you see a lot of the country in a limited time. It includes driving about 600 miles (965 km) in your rental car and moving hotels every night. Consider this a “tasting menu” for your first time in Iceland and plan to return (perhaps in the summer) to explore the country more deeply.
2 hours from the Keflavík Airport
On day one, start with a visit to Langjökull to go snowmobiling and explore an ice cave! Langjökull is the second-largest glacier in Iceland and covers 361 square miles (935 square kilometers). Several tour operators offer snowmobiling adventures that begin from Gullfoss Falls.
Before your tour, be sure to take a look at the epic Gullfoss Falls. The waterfall is multi-level and definitely one of the must-see waterfalls in Iceland. Water cascades down a total of 105 feet (32 meters) and is extra special when surrounded by snow in the winter.
Gullfoss actually means “Golden Waterfall” because the water takes on a golden-brown color on a sunny day. To reach the falls, there is an overlook and a short trail to get closer. Be aware that the path may be icy in the winter.
When your tour begins, you’ll start with a long bus ride to the glacier. It is about an hour drive between Gullfoss Falls and Langjökull Glacier, and you’ll take an epic adventure bus to get there. The buses have giant wheels that are specially equipped to drive on snow and ice. They are also high off of the ground and provide some great views.
When you arrive, you’ll have some time to drive a snowmobile all around the snowfields. My tour had everyone drive in a single file line but also allowed some time for optional free driving or to just play in the snow!
Note: The snowmobiling tour will take up most of your daylight hours. It was dark by the time I saw Gullfoss Falls and Geysir, but I still enjoyed seeing them in the limited light.
10 Minutes from Gullfoss Falls
The Geysir Hot Spring area is a geothermal field most famous for a geyser that can shoot as high as 230 feet (70 meters) in the air. Geysir is mostly inactive now, but there are several other geothermal features in this 1.1 square mile area (3 km). There are bubbling mud pots, hot springs and active geysers. Strokkur shoots water anywhere from 65 feet (20 meters) to 130 feet (40 meters) high every five to ten minutes.
Park across the street and spend a few minutes walking around the geothermal features.
25 Minutes from Geysir
The Héraðsskólinn Guesthouse is located not far from Geysir and is the perfect unique place to stay for a night. This inn is a former schoolhouse and they’ve kept many hints of this history in the decor. There are desks, books, vintage sewing machines, photos of when the building was a school and so many other little details from its past. They do an incredible job of telling a story with their eclectic decor.
The guesthouse has a mix of shared dormitories, shared bathrooms and private rooms with their own restrooms. It’s a great affordable option on the Golden Circle.
The inn also serves a mix of food options daily. I had dinner and breakfast here and especially enjoyed their tomato soup.
The Héraðsskólinn Guesthouse is also a place where you can see the northern lights in the winter! Be sure to keep an eye on the current weather conditions to see if you’ll have a chance to spot them.
30 Minutes from the Héraðsskólinn Historic Guesthouse
Spend most of your daylight hours exploring Thingvellir National Park on day two! Thingvellir is a UNESCO World Heritage site, marks the location of the birth of the Icelandic government and is one of the only places in the world where you can walk between two tectonic plates. Parking at the park costs 750 ISK for a car with 5 or less seats.
Snorkeling between the tectonic plates of Europe and America is a bucket list experience to have in Iceland!
There are several snorkel tour operators at Thingvellir. I went with Arctic Adventures. No matter who you go with, I recommend booking the earliest tour available in the winter to maximize your daylight hours. My tour started at 10AM (when it was still dark!) but the sun was up by the time I got in the water.
The water temperature stays between 35-39°F year round, so most operators provide dry suits. I was provided an insulated mid-layer and then a dry suit to wear over top. I was also given gloves, a head covering and fins. In addition, the tour will provide details on how to dress underneath the suits (wear wool base layers!).
The dry suit covers your feet and creates a seal at your wrists and neck. This means that your hands and head will be getting wet. They suggest that you keep your hands still behind your back and only swim with your legs. The more you use your hands, the more painfully cold they will feel and it is best to keep them still so that the gloves can warm up a bit.
The snorkel experience starts by following a guide (most will take your photo when you swim through the iconic rock wall areas) and then you will have a little bit of time to explore further on your own at the end. At this point you can get out if you’re feeling too cold.
I brought my go pro along for the swim but the cold water made it really difficult to operate. Despite it being hard to take photos and videos, the water was some of the clearest I’ve ever seen and it was incredible to see the epic rock faces underneath the water.
Most tours will follow up the experience with hot chocolate to warm up. It is 100% worth the cold water and air to get to enjoy this unique experience in Iceland.
Warning: The dry suits are not guaranteed to keep all of the water out. While they work for the majority of people, it may depend on your body type. My partner is very tall and slender, so the suit wouldn’t seal tightly around his neck. Therefore, some water came into the dry suit during the swim. Luckily the water warmed up quickly and the insulating inner layer soaked it up. Just know that there is no guarantee that the dry suit will keep you from getting wet and pack a change of clothes.
Before or after your snorkeling adventure, be sure to take the short walk to see Öxarárfoss, a 44 foot tall waterfall that is beautiful year-round. It can be completely frozen in the winter, but it was flowing while I was there.
You can hike to the waterfall from multiple trails in the park, but it is located just about a quarter mile from the closest parking lot. The trail is partially a boardwalk and easy to navigate. It’s a great quick stop while you’re in Thingvellir National Park.
Up on the hill next to the Hakið Visitor Center, there is an observation deck that overlooks the national park. Here you can see down onto the water where you snorkeled. It’s incredible to see the clear water and the unique, rocky terrain surrounding it. If you have time for a longer hike, you can also connect to trails here that lead to the snorkeling area and to Öxarárfoss.
The Hakið Visitor Center has exhibits about Iceland geology, a gift shop and a cafe. It’s a great place to stop if you need a snack or a souvenir.
45 Minutes from Thingvellir National Park
The Skalholt Church is a great quick place to stop on the way to your next destination. The current Cathedral was built between 1956 and 1963, but there is an archaeological dig site next to it that uncovered many historic artifacts and relics.
There is a museum beneath the church where you can see relics from the dig for a small fee.
10 Minutes from Skalholt Church
Friðheimar is an incredible dining experience to have in Iceland and a must if you love tomatoes. The restaurant is located inside of a tomato greenhouse responsible for half of the tomatoes in all of Iceland.
You will find tomato soup, tomato desserts, pizza, ravioli and many more tomato varieties. One unique aspect of the experience is that you can cut your own fresh basil at your table and select your own bread to accompany your meal.
I really loved the Tortilla (pizza) with tomato, basil and mozzarella, the Mozzarella burrata with heirloom tomatoes and the cheesecake topped with green-tomato jam served inside of a little flower pot. The food tasted so fresh and was full of flavor.
Be sure to make a reservation in advance for this unique dining experience in Iceland.
1 hour from Friðheimar
Hotel Ranga is a luxurious hotel located far from city lights, making it an incredible location to see the Northern Lights. Amenities at the hotel include hot tubs and Northern Lights wake up call service, along with a nice restaurant and bar. It even included a free welcome drink!
I saw the Northern Lights at about 7:30PM the night I stayed here. You have the potential to see the lights while you’re outside in the hot tub, so it doesn’t get much better than that!
I also enjoyed the cocktails from the bar, the extensive breakfast buffet and the cozy rooms.
The hotel also has an observatory that they open for stargazing on clear nights.
One more detail I loved was that they hung a gift from a Yule lad on our door because it was one of the days leading up until Christmas. Each Yuletide lad has a different personality and gift. It is an Icelandic tradition for 13 different Yule Lads to visit on the days around Christmas.
Overall, Hotel Ranga is a wonderful place to stay if you’re looking for something luxurious and a good location to see the Northern Lights.
Note: This day was a little rushed to see all of these places in the limited daylight hours, but it was possible for me. If you know you will want to take your time more, I recommend skipping Fjaðrárgljúfur Canyon.
2 Hours from Hotel Ranga
Get your driving out of the way while it’s still dark and make your way to Fjaðrárgljúfur Canyon for a short but beautiful hike. The main hike here is a total of 2 miles round trip and leads to some incredible viewpoints down into the Fjaðrárgljúfur Canyon. The canyon is about 100 meters deep and 2 km long and was formed by water eroding away the rocks.
The canyon has a waterfall and is beautiful no matter what angle you are looking from. The trail is well maintained and there are some boardwalk viewing areas that hang over the canyon walls a bit.
The trail can be icy in the winter, so you may want to bring microspikes to navigate the path. This is a beautiful stop for a quick walk and parking here is free.
1 Hour from Fjaðrárgljúfur Canyon
Reynisfjara is a famous place in Iceland known for its black sand beach, unique rock formations and basalt columns. The destination has free parking and a must stop on the Iceland South Coast. The beach is considered to be one of the best non-tropical beaches to visit around the world.
You should visit Reynisfjara at low tide if possible so you can better explore the caves and the columns. While you are exploring, never turn your back on the waves and stay at least 100 feet away from the water.
The waves here can be very violent and “sneaker waves” can come up without warning. The rip currents can drag people out into the ocean and fatal incidents have occured over the years.
I loved exploring the beach, taking photos on the basalt columns and going inside of the caves. As long as you keep a good distance and an eye on the waves, Reynisfjara is an incredible place and a must-stop on your Iceland road trip.
At the parking lot, there is a cafe and restrooms available.
30 Minutes from Reynisfjara
Skógafoss is a giant waterfall that drops almost 200 feet (60 meters) and is 82 feet (25 meters) wide. You can walk to the base of the waterfall or climb the steps to see it from above, and I recommend doing both!
As you approach the waterfall from the ground, be prepared to feel the mist and get wet. If you climb to the observation platform from above, there are about 500 steps. The steps are a bit uneven and you’ll find that some are a bit shaky. However, the view from the top is definitely worth it.
From the top, you have the option to continue further along the Fimmvorduhals Trailhead and see more waterfalls on the Skoga River (there are over 20 more!). However, if you are following this itinerary in limited daylight hours, you’ll likely want to skip this to make it to our final waterfall before nightfall.
Seljalandsfoss is another very popular (for good reason) waterfall along the Iceland ring road. You might have seen it lit up during the morning drive! The waterfall is 200 feet (60 meters) tall and you can walk all the way behind it underneath a cavern. Be prepared to get wet and watch your step as the path around the falls can be very slippery.
This waterfall is stunning and located just steps away from the parking lot. Also note that it costs 800 ISK to park here.
About a half mile down the trail from Seljalandsfoss, you can find a very unique and much more hidden waterfall, Gljúfrabúi. This waterfall is unique because it is hidden inside of a canyon and can really only be seen after hiking about 20 feet back into the cavern (your feet are likely to get wet).
Bring your waterproof gear for exploring both Seljalandsfoss and Gljúfrabúi, but these waterfalls are fascinating places and must-stops on the Iceland South Coast.
1 Hour from Seljalandsfoss
Head to Selfoss for dinner before checking into tonight’s unique accommodation. I ate at Kaffi Krús and enjoyed a veggie burger in the restaurant’s cozy atmosphere. Menu options include pizza, burgers, fish and chips and more.
15 Minutes from Selfoss
Sleeping in a hanging, clear bubble was such a unique experience to have in Iceland! The bubble is literally hanging from cables among some large trees so you climb a ladder to reach it. There is a bathroom facility just a short walk away.
I was truly surprised by how comfortable and warm the bubble was. The mattress was heated and there were several blankets and cozy pillows.
The bubble does swing a tiny bit as you get in and out, but I felt that it was secure overall. The bubble also lights up in multiple colors with LED lights.
While the bubble was cool, the best part of my stay was the incredible Northern Lights display we saw that night. Unfortunately, you cannot see the sky from inside the bubble because it is in the trees, but we watched them from the driveway of the accommodation.
We were able to watch the Northern Lights for at least an hour and saw them twist in the sky and turn various hues of red, yellow and green. It was an incredible experience to see the lights and then cozy up inside of a hanging bubble.
Due to the late check in and early check out times, I was never able to see the bubble in daylight. However, I still thought the unique experience was worth it.
12 Minutes from the Hanging Bubble
Guðni Bakari is a great local spot in Selfoss that serves pastries, coffee and sandwiches. One Icelandic pastry to try is a Kleinur. These buns are deep-fried and twisted together in a shape that resembles a bow. This fried sweet bread treat is not as sweet as a doughnut and perfect for dipping in hot chocolate or coffee.
15 Minutes from GK Bakari
The Kerið Crater is a unique volcanic crater along the Iceland Golden Circle. This destination is definitely worth a stop to take a walk around the geological feature.
The crater costs 400 ISK and it is less than a mile to walk all the way around it.
The crater is said to be over three thousand years old and is about 180 feet deep. Scientists believe that it was once a cone-shaped volcano that collapsed in on itself to create the shape it is today. The rocks surrounding the crater are red in color, which makes this spot particularly beautiful and unique to photograph.
When you visit, you can walk around the rim and also ascend some steps to get right next to the water. It’s a beautiful place for a quick walk.
1 Hour from Kerid Crater
The Fagradalsfjall Volcano is an incredible place for a hike. This volcano was actively erupting and was spewing red lava for many months in 2021. It is no longer erupting, but still a gorgeous place to explore.
I parked in parking lot 1 and hiked Path A. Parking here costs 1000 ISK and can be paid on your phone.
There are a few different trails to choose from, but path A leads to a few of the backside of the crater and is about 5 miles round trip. The trail has over 1,000 feet of elevation gain so you should be prepared with the hiking essentials.
The trail leads to incredible views of the crater area. I was there right after the eruption had finished, so much of the lava was smooth, black and steaming into the air. In addition to the crater views, you can see the ocean and the Blue Lagoon.
During my winter hike, the trail was extremely windy. Be prepared with a windbreaker and warm clothing for this adventure.
1 Hour from Fagradalsfjall Volcano
Finally, on your fourth day of the trip, arrive in the Iceland capital city of Reykjavik. The city is full of fantastic restaurants, great museums and is a great place to just walk around.
I recommend Hotel Alda for a great mid-priced hotel centrally located inside of the city. The hotel has a bar, a hot tub area and is walking distance to many destinations around the city.
Hotel Alda does not have guest parking but street parking was easy to find and free overnight.
A 12 Minute Walk from Hotel Alda
If you are interested in a high end meal for your last night in Iceland, Apotek Kitchen+Bar is an amazing option. This restaurant’s menu has a mix of Icelandic and European cuisine and offers a variety of small plates to share with your table. Apotek is also known for their cocktails and one of their most famous drinks includes dill.
I really enjoyed the hummus plate appetizer, the baked cauliflower for my main dish and the chocolate rose for dessert. The fantastic service, modern decor and flavorful menu made this an incredible and memorable meal in Iceland.
Be sure to make a reservation in advance for this restaurant.
Before or after dinner, walk around the city a bit to explore. I recommend seeing the famous Hallgrímskirkja, the tallest church in the country.
If you haven’t seen the Northern Lights yet, give it one last shot! I recommend driving back out to Thingvellir National Park to be able to see the sky uninterrupted with city lights.
There are several northern light tours offered that will take you to various places to try and see the lights. Honestly, I went on a tour where we didn't see the Northern Lights and quickly realized I could have done this on my own. If you have a rental car I recommend saving your money and using a Northern Lights app to explore on your own. Just make sure you are not too close to the city for your best chance of seeing them.
A 4 Minute Walk from Hotel Alda
Braud & Co is a bakery with several locations around Reykjavik. They open early and have an amazing selection of breads and pastries. I had their vanilla snudur, a soft rolled bread that is often filled with cinnamon and glazed with either chocolate, vanilla or caramel. The pastry was so soft and sweet and one of the best treats I’ve had in a while.
45 Minutes from Reykjavik
On your final day in Iceland, don’t leave without visiting the Blue Lagoon! This is a great destination for either the end or beginning of your trip because it’s very close to the airport.
To visit, you’ll want to reserve your timed ticket in advance. Prices vary but know that the Blue Lagoon is expensive and crowded, yet still worth it in my opinion.
The swimming area is known for bright, aqua blue water that is heated by the nearby geothermal power plant. The water gets its color from the high concentration of silica and the water is an average of 99-102°F (37-39°C) The pools are not even in temperature, so you may find cooler spots in certain areas.
Visiting the Blue Lagoon is an entire experience and you should allow as much time here as you can. You can try various face masks, drink cocktails while swimming, eat at the Lava Restaurant, receive a massage and even stay overnight onsite.
Be sure to read carefully about what you will receive with your ticket. The basic tickets come with one towel, a silica face mask and a complimentary drink. If you would like a robe and a few other amenities, you’ll need to book the premium package.
You will need to shower before and after entering the water and may want to avoid putting your hair in the water. Whether you plan to get your hair wet or not, it is best to apply the provided leave-in conditioner before entering the water to help protect your hair.
Before you leave, be sure to walk around the short trail outside of the spa building. There are some beautiful rocks and a view of the milky blue water without bathers. You can also clearly see the powerplant from here.
In the winter, the Blue Lagoon was a nice and warm place to soak. However, it was very chilly coming in and out of the pool. Use the indoor entrance to enter the water and/or consider purchasing the package that includes a robe to stay warm if you’ll be in and out of the water.
You’ll likely need to fill up on fuel on your way to the airport, so this is a great time to enjoy some Icelandic gas station food!
Iceland is known for having some incredibly fresh and delicious food available for a quick meal on the road. They are especially known for hot dogs, but I opted for the pizza as a vegetarian.
The food was delicious and my partner said his icelandic hot dog was the best hot dog he’s ever had. Order it with everything and it will come with multiple onions and multiple special condiments. Be prepared to eat standing up, it’s messy, but delicious.
Despite the lack of daylight, winter is an incredible time to explore Iceland. Hopefully you will be able to see the Northern Lights, soak in a hot spring and enjoy the incredible beauty that this country has to offer.
Thanks for Reading!
Let's stay in touch!
Join the Lost with Lydia email list to get monthly travel guides and tips!