EXPLORE WILD ICELAND IN JANUARY
You might not think of Iceland as a prime destination in January, but don’t let the island’s northerly reputation fool you. Sure, you might not have the long idle days of midsummer or the abundant wildlife of spring, but winter in Iceland still has a lot to offer. As Scandinavian countries go, the temperature is quite mild, with averages of just around 0°C in Reykjavik. Occasional snowfalls transform the city into a quiet, sleepy village with plenty of concerts and cozy nights. The landscape beyond also turns into a winter wonderland of crystal fields, frozen waterfalls, blue ice caves, and pristine icebergs. It’s the perfect place to enjoy a cup of cocoa while admiring dreamy and charming snow-capped scenery.
WHAT’S THE WEATHER LIKE?
Naturally, pay attention to the weather — it’s still January, with blustery winds and the odd hailstorm. Check the Icelandic Met Office forecasts daily. Dress warmly — make sure you bring ample layers, wool underwear, a windbreaker, hats, and gloves, especially if you’re venturing out into the countryside. You can also pick up some great weather clothes at the 66° North store. You can find more tips on how to pack in this in the Ultimate Winter Guide to Iceland. Western Iceland is considerably more windy than in town or near the eastern mountains. Typically, Reykjavik enjoys more favorable conditions as it’s right on the coast.
Because the country is so close to the Arctic Circle, in winter days are short and nights are long. That said, the hours of daylight changes rapidly over the course of the month. On January 1, the sun rises around 11:20 am and sets around 3:45 pm; on January 31, the sunrise is at 10:11 am and the sunset at 5:15 pm. That’s a rapid increase from 4.5 hours in the beginning of the month to 7 hours at the end. And even though days are brief, they are quite beautiful. The sun seems to hover just above the horizon most of the time. The light, a soft blue-gold sheen, makes for a perfect lighting for photographers.
LOW SEASON DOESN’T MEAN NO SEASON
January is the heart of winter and considered Iceland’s low season, despite the surge of tourism in recent years. Tourists, which usually swarm the streets in the summertime, number a lot less. Sites like the Golden Circle and Blue Lagoon, which normally suffer from overcrowding from May to August, can be almost bare with only a handful of tourists.The lack of crowds and low airfare make winter a perfect season to travel to Iceland. Hotels and car rentals also price out lower, which is great for budget travelers. You may travel around the countryside and have the only room booked for the whole bed and breakfast. Even so, its always a good idea to book your hotels before your arrival, as space is also a consideration in a destination as popular as Iceland.
RENTING A WINTER READY CAR
Driving in winter is always challenging, and especially in Iceland with its fierce winds and deep snows. However, if you want to get out of Reykjavik beyond the Golden Circle, it’s necessary to rent a car. Ride in a 4WD with a driver experienced with icy conditions. If you’d rather not deal with the weather, we recommend hiring a guide or a tour service for day trips. There are hundreds of guided trips you can go straight from Reykjavik. Some are 2-3 days and take you way out to the eastern edge of the island.
WHAT IS THERE TO DO IN JANUARY?
There is a wealth of activities in Iceland specifically geared for wintertime. This is the perfect time to head out into the dark countryside for a chance to glimpse the elusive northern lights. If you’re dying to see the northern lights and photograph their beauty, check out this Complete Guide to the Northern Lights. Go skiing at the ski resort in the Bláfjöll mountains. Explore the deep blue of ice caves at the Vatnajökull ice cap. Hit the slopes with dog sledding and snowmobiling. You can enjoy most of these activities with a knowledgeable guide to drive you around and fit you into the appropriate gear. Be aware that wildlife, like puffins and whales, are almost nonexistent so if you’re an animal lover, best to wait until summer.
If your goal is to stay in frost-tipped Reykjavik, fear not—there are also lots to do in town. The city is picturesque, with colorful houses covered in snow. You can go ice skating, or catch a band in one of the many bars on Laugavegur Street. Hanging out at a local pub is a great way to meet locals, Icelanders and expats alike, most of whom speak English. And remember those short days I mentioned?Short days means long nights, which in Reykjavik means a thriving and crazy nightlife. Icelanders love to party; they head out around 11 pm and don’t come back well until morning.
Although it’s a bit rarer, you can also see the Northern Lights from downtown Reykjavik on occasion. Check out our top 30 favorite captures of the northern lights. Watch aurora forecast websites such as Vedur.is. Don’t forget to bring a swimsuit, as there are several swimming pools with hot tubs in town! There’s nothing quite like a quiet evening spent relaxing in a hot seawater pool, while the soft snow falls around you. Iceland’s social culture is greatly built upon their geothermal swimming pools. There is quite a rich history behind swimming in Iceland, have a read of this Guide to Swimming Pool Culture in Iceland to learn more!
JANUARY HOLIDAYS AND FESTIVALS
A quiet winter wouldn’t be complete without loud and exciting festivals to break up the calm every so often. Þrettándinn, the last of the Christmas season celebrated on January 6, is a time of bonfires and fireworks. TheDark Music Days showcases contemporary music, in the coming 2017 year on January 26-28. It will mostly be held at the cultural center Harpa in downtown Reykjavik, with one organ concert taking place at the cathedral Hallgrímskirkja in the city center. To get to know real Icelanders, invite yourself to a traditional Þorrablót, around January 20th, a festival when locals drink and eat local delights like ram’s testicles, rotten shark, smoked lamb, and blood pudding. Delicious, right!?
Will you be joining us in Iceland in January? What are your biggest questions left unanswered? We love travelers up for off-season trips that aren’t phased by the weather – does that sound like you?!
Free Roamer & Travel Writer Extraordinaire