Iceland doesn’t get as cold in the winter as many people think. Lows are typically just below freezing (27 to 35 degrees Fahrenheit), while the high winds can cause it to feel much colder than in actuality. Northern Iceland and the higher altitudes see snow this month while other parts of the island are more likely to see rain, so it’s best to dress in layers and wear a good wind and waterproof jacket, hat, and have thermal layers on hand.
If you’re on a self-drive tour of the country, be sure to check road conditions before heading out as the weather can change quite suddenly. And always drive with caution. Roads may be slippery though they appear in good condition.
January sees little daylight due to its northern latitude, though how much daylight depends on where in Iceland you plan to visit. Some areas see only two hours, while other towns don’t see any daylight as the sun hides behind the mountains. Reykjavík, however, sees about 4-6 hours with closer to 7 hours by the end of the month.
Crowds & Costs
Travelers who visit Iceland after the Christmas festivities have come to an end (by January 6th) will be rewarded with peaceful environs and quiet hotels that stay warm and atmospheric with candles, fireplaces, and twinkling lights. Due to shorter daylight hours, January is one of the slowest travel times in Iceland, and flights, as well as hotels and car rentals, will be at their lowest prices.
Where to Go
With no crowds to contend with and only a few hours of daylight in your favor, January is the perfect month to explore traditionally touristic hotspots. An excellent place to start your trip is in Reykjavík. Though small it’s home to design-forward architecture, stellar boutiques, trendy restaurants, and plenty of Viking lore, with of course easy access to nearby otherworldly landscapes.
Akureyri, the capital of Northern Iceland, is another notable city worth visiting (and lively year-round) and is a jumping off point for some of the country’s best ski slopes. Explore Lake Mývatn which gives you a taste of volcanoes, geothermal hot springs, caves, and lava fields.
Meanwhile, Iceland’s famous Golden Circle and South Shore are crowd-free and offer plenty of equally breathtaking views, like the national park of Þingvellir, the Geysir Geothermal Area, and the Gullfoss waterfall on the Golden Circle route. Further south, you’ll cover farmland to active volcanoes to the Eyjafjallajokull glacier, Seljalandsfoss and Skogafoss waterfalls, and the black sand Reynisfjara beach just outside of picturesque Vík.
What to Do
Though the days are incredibly short, there is still plenty to do and see in January as long as you make the most of the light hours. Strap on your crampons and bring your camera and set out to hike Europe’s largest ice cap, Vatnajökull or work your way to Mýrdalsjökull, an ice cave under a volcano known for its translucent shades of blue. Ride atop a native Icelandic (and very fluffy) horse for a unique way to take in the wintry scapes.
Willing to commit to a truly unique experience? Wriggle into a drysuit and slip into the glacial waters of the Silfra fissure in Þingvellir National Park and snorkel or scuba dive between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. More traditional winter activities abound, from snowmobiling and dog sledding over snowfields and on top of glaciers, to downhill, cross-country skiing and snowshoeing. For Iceland’s best slopes head north to the resorts in and around Akureyri.
At night, set out on a Northern Lights tour. Drive away from the city lights and into the countryside to seek out the magical Aurora Borealis. The specific destination will depend on the weather forecast and cloud cover but could be Þingvellir National Park at Lake Þingvallavatn, the lava fields of the Reykjanes Peninsula, or the Borgarfjörður area.
This is also an excellent photo opportunity, so a camera with a tripod will come in handy if you have one. For more tips on viewing the northern lights, read this article.
Events in January
New Years Eve. As there are no limitations on how many fireworks you can purchase, and no rules on when and where you can fire them over New Year’s, expect a lively and massive party, climaxing around midnight and continuing into the early hours of the morning.
Þrettándinn. On January 6, the thirteenth day of Christmas, Icelanders build bonfires, set off fireworks, and sing traditional songs in public squares, while children sculpt mythical Icelandic creatures from snow and ice to celebrate the official end of the Christmas festivities.
Þorrablót. A millennia-old mid-winter festival sees communities come together, along with visitors, to celebrate the ‘feast of Þorri’(from the old Norse calendar). The Þorri starts around January 20th with Bóndadagur or Husbands’ Day and ends around February 20th with Konudagur (Women’s Day)—the Icelandic version of Valentine’s Day. Expect traditional foods like pickled rams’ testicles, Hakarl (putrefied shark), and boiled sheep’s head, typically shared around huge public bonfires while traditional Icelandic songs are sung.
Sóldagur (Sun Day). To celebrate this Westfjords tradition (where little to no sun is received), on the first day where the sun shines (for a couple of minutes) on Sólgata (Sun Street), everyone gathers on the street to soak up the brief rays, and then cook and eat “Sun Pancakes”, served with cream and rhubarb jam.
Dark Music Days. An annual festival of contemporary and new music that takes place at the end of January and the beginning of February (during the darkest period of the winter) at the Harpa in downtown Reykjavík.
Traveling to Iceland in January? Check out these great itineraries.
Chasing the Northern Lights in South Iceland - 4 Days. Check the spectacular Northern Lights off your bucket list with this quick-hit trip to southern Iceland. In addition to nighttime expeditions in search of the Aurora Borealis, you'll tour some of the country's most dramatic natural wonders and unforgettable landscapes. Visit impressive waterfalls, vast glaciers, volcanic beaches, and more on this exciting winter adventure.
Winter Self-Drive in the West, Golden Circle & South Coast: 5 Days. This chilly, scenic self-drive tour is perfect for nature lovers and adventure fiends alike. Visit the famous Golden Circle, explore vibrant Reykjavik, and get off the beaten path for tours of ice caves and craters, snorkel trips between tectonic plates, and walks behind ice-covered waterfalls.