Visiting Iceland in December and taking on the Ring Road has its challenges: four hours of daylight and increased chances of encountering deadly snow blizzards and forceful winds.
However, the plus side of visiting during low-season is respite from the crowds, cheaper prices in accommodation and car rental.
Here’s how we covered 1,400km in eight days:
Day 1: Keflavík to Reykjavík
Total distance: 49km
We flew easyJet via London and landed in Keflavík airport a few minutes after 10.30 on a foggy Sunday morning. We got the keys to our white VW Polo and headed off to our first destination: Reykjavík.
We drove straight into the oldest commercial streets in town, Laugavegur. Parking is free on Sundays.
The street is lined with typical Iceland shops selling typical Icelandic stuff (such as the iconic Icelandic Sweaters – Lopapeysa – made from Icelandic sheep’s wool and sold complete with a signed hand-written note from the maker), quaint cafés, street art and colourful houses.
Icelanders’ timber dwellings are equipped for their climate, coated in a curvy outer layer of corrugated steel. Houses are kept warm using geothermal energy, and all their resources are 100 per cent renewable.
Walking around in the faint glow of a typical Icelandic morning in 8 degrees (heatwave by Icelandic winter standards), we observed women in their empty shops knitting away at the counter, a handful of Asian tourists posing in front of their selfie-sticks and young Icelandic couples calmly push their babies in buggies.
But most notable of all was how quiet the most vibrant street in the capital was. It felt almost as though silence was a presence that filled the streets of Reykjavík, such that one is almost obliged to break into a whisper when speaking.
For lunch, we sat ourselves at the last vacant table of a family-owned café, Svarta Kaffið. There was no menu, but a choice of either vegetarian soup or reindeer home-made soup. We opted for the latter. It was the warmest welcome one could ever receive in a country, taking the shape of a cosy bread bowl of reindeer soup (1850 KR).
- Sleep: Red Door Hostel (basic amenities, round the corner from Laugavegur)
- Eat: Reindeer Soup from Svarta Kaffið (1850 KR) and try a hot dog (860 ISK) from Bæjarins beztu, Iceland’s—and now possibly the world’s—most famous hot dog stand.
- Shop: Bónus (Iceland’s answer to LIDL)
Day 2: Reykjavík to Vík—City Walk & Golden Circle
Total Distance: 218km
The next morning, we went on a City Walk with our Icelandic guide, Martin, and a sizeable group of tourists from all around the world.
Side note: The walking tour is free, but donations are encouraged.
Our comprehensive walkabout gave insight into the Icelandic culture and background stories of important sites. Our tour was concluded at around 2pm, with this sunset.
We then checked-out of our hostel, booked the last room in Vík and start our anti-clockwise journey round the Icelandic ring-road (or Route One), taking on the popular tourist route in the last hour of daylight.
Around the Golden Circle, we visited Þingvellir National Park (which lies in a rift valley marking the boundary between the Eurasian and North American tectonic plate), witnessed a gushing geyser hurl boiling water up to 70 metres in the air and felt the cold spray of the roaring Gullfoss waterfalls before darkness fell at 4pm.
Side note: If you’re travelling in winter, plan days well and research times the sunrises and sets before heading out to explore. Unfortunately, most of the sites along the Ring Road couldn’t be appreciated due to the lack of daylight.
- Sleep: Puffin Hostel (Vík)
- Do: Reykjavík City Walk – Professional local guides share curious facts about the city, its history and Icelandic culture. Requires booking via website.
- Do: Golden Circle Tour – This is pretty doable for independent travellers renting their own car. Main attractions are all located on one paved road and highly accessible from Reykjavík.
Day 3: Vík to Höfn—Hikes, Glacier Lakes & Langoustine Soup
We woke up in the creaky attic of The Puffin Hostel, a mere 10-minute walk from the Black Beach in Vík. It was already 10 in the morning, but the lack of light made it feel as though it were still 10 in the evening.
After having a quick breakfast, covered ourselves in thermals and stuffed the rest of our belongings into our backpacks, we embarked on a mini-hike to explore the southern village of only 300 inhabitants.
Our exploration was short-lived. From the ravenous waves of the deserted Black Beach, we ended up trudging up a very steep hill in an icy drizzle that was so cold, it felt like needle darts against our cheeks. And when we almost reached a layer of thin clouds, we headed back to the warmth and shelter of our car.
Our eastward drive towards Höfn (literally: harbour), was probably the most spectacular part of the entire ring road — lined with majestic snowcapped mountains and a luminous icy-blue lake huddled between them.
The light was very faint by the time we arrived at Jökulsárlón lake. At 4.30pm, clouds hung low, allowing the light to diffuse magically, creating a piercing blue contrast with the grey.
Giant icebergs floated silently and at a glacial pace in the glass-like lake, as if in deep sleep—I felt as though I had to tiptoe along the promenade to avoid waking them up.
Höfn is known as the Langoustine Capital of Iceland, and we had the privilege of sitting by the window overlooking the very boat that goes out in the morning to catch the ten-legged shellfish in our humarsupa.
The home-grown duck breast and lamb shanks that came later were so tender, you could cut them with a spoon.
Even spreading plain butter on bread was an event at the table. Smjör Butter is so fluffy, it tasted like clouds on freshly warm bread!
- Sleep: Höfn Hostel (Höfn)
- Eat: Pukkhus (Höfn)
- Shop: Nettó Supermarket (Höfn)
- Do: Walk along the Black Beach (Vík) & Meditate in front of Jökulsárlón Lake (Ring Road)
Day 4: Höfn to Akureyri — The Mammoth Journey
During our trip, we never had any hostels booked or fixed itinerary to follow. Stable internet connections and the flexibility of booking.com made it possible for us to plan according to circumstance.
There was nowhere to spend the night between the two major towns of Höfn and Akureyri, so we were obliged to embark on a mammoth journey that saw us cut across half the island.
Google Maps predicted it would take us 6 hours to reach north. So before hitting the road, we stopped at Nettó Supermarket to stock up on supplies—most importantly, the velvety protein-rich Icelandic yoghurt, Skyr—which we kept naturally refrigerated in a cardboard box at the back of our car.
Side note: Expensive food and drinks was a recurring theme in our Icelandic experience. An average sit-down meal for two (incl. an alcoholic beverage, such as beer or wine) could easily tally up to €100. And to overcome the challenge, we compensated by cooking our own meals or stopping for an Icelandic hot dog (€6.50) at gas stations. Water is free in Iceland, and among the purest you’ll ever drink. We kept an empty bottle handy and often stopped to refill from fresh-water streams along the Ring Road.
This was by far, the most perilous part of our journey. We took on gravel roads (bear in mind, our vehicle was a modest VW Polo, and not a 4×4), gushing rain bursts and misty mountain roads covered in a carpet of thin ice.
At a point it was so dark and foggy, it wouldn’t have made a difference if we drove with our eyes closed. We had no idea what lay ahead of us.
Side note: In our attempt to reach our first pit-stop in Egilsstaðir, our sat-nav advised us to drive up the shorter inner-route via Oxi, but common sense prevailed, and we stuck to the Ring Road, which wasn’t any less adventurous but safer nonetheless.
Night began to fall, outside temperatures started to drop, and the visibility became worse. I had to lower the volume of the radio which by then had become distracting, and could hear the car tyres crunching against the icy road paving, as it abruptly changed to gravel and slowly started to incline.
Our wipers were swishing to and fro, headlamps blaring. We were literally driving up a mountain, the fog becoming thicker and heavier as we ascended deeper into the clouds. At a point, the visibility was so dense we couldn’t see a metre ahead of us.
Fingers curled tightly round the wheel, our eyes both wide as we both tried to make out this surreal experience. All I could imagine was what would become of us if we missed a sharp turn and tumbled off the crumbling edges into nothing.
Icelandic roads are totally isolated, unlit and unbarred. Our fog lights couldn’t keep up. We rolled the windows down, leaned our heads out into the arctic air hearing echoes of our car’s engine as it roared into second gear, pushing us higher and higher in a constant zig-zag of blind-corners on the narrow road.
We eventually peaked at almost 500 metres before the gravel turned into tarmac again, securing the tyre’s grip. The path took us lower and lower and we started to see again.
- Highway Emergency: 112
- Road conditions: +354 563-1500
- Search and Rescue: +354 570-5900
We had been driving for hours, bend after bend, and still the amount of kilometres on our sat-nav seemed to remain unchanged. Mobile service was still limited and never a soul in sight.
I had heard stories of how you could drive for hours in Iceland and never encounter any cars or people – but you have to experience it to actually understand what it means.
Even though sitting the entire time, driving is mentally draining, let alone in those chaotic conditions. It was almost 8pm by the time we started to see a faint flicker of golden lights, like candles, on the black horizon. And it was such a wild relief.
- Sleep: Our Guesthouse (Akureyri)
Day 5: Akureyri—Visual diary
Distance covered: 0km
- Sleep: Our Guesthouse (Akureyri)
- Eat: Lamb Burger at Hamborgarafabrikkan
- Drink: For those who like to tipple, Iceland may not be your favourite destination. Beer prices average at €8 per pint. However, there is a way around it: Happy Hour. While in Akureyri, indulge in beer for half the price during Backpackers Hostel‘s famous Happy Hour. (Try: Brennivín—Iceland’s signature liqueur (€13) & Einstök—White Ale Beer (€8)).
Day 6: Akureyri to Fossatún—Northern Lights Sighting
After approximately an hour sliding across pot-holed roads, crawling over intimidating single-lane bridge and an unscheduled meeting with the Icelandic horses, we checked into Fossatún at 03.00pm sharp on Friday.
It was literally in the middle of nowhere, just on the top of a waterfall. The grounds are run by a lovely couple who are acclaimed children’s authors, famous for their folk stories about trolls, which are inspired by the hiking trails around the grounds themselves.
As we were given the key to our sizeable pod, and charged an extra €11 each for a pillow and a duvet, owner Steiner Berg said it was highly probable we would encounter the northern lights that night.
They usually come out on clear nights in winter (September to mid-April) and visible in places away from light pollution, peaking between 11.00pm to 2.00am.
At 10.00pm, with the clouds swept away and the northern star shining brightly for the first time since we landed in Iceland, we set out for a little hike away from the camping grounds to experience the enchanting Icelandic nightlife.
Would we hear the northern lights approaching? Would we actually feel them sweep through the skies? It was an inconceivable notion for us, so we stood there as though we were little children waiting for Christmas.
After almost an hour and a half standing there, looking up, toes completely frozen, we witnessed the first signs of the northern lights.
Completely isolated from everything, the raw skies opened up to a pathway of shimmering emerald particles, dancing gracefully through the darkness.
- Sleep: Fossatún Camping Pods (linen pack not included)
- Eat: The Settlement Centre Restaurant in one of the oldest houses of Borgarnes
- Drink: Grýla beer (made from glacial waters, sold only here)
Day 7: Fossatún to Reykjavík
The next morning, we headed west along the coast towards Reykjavík. For the first time we could see the sun setting over the horizon, staining the pale blue sky with pretty pink and orange tints, as though a celebration for completing our road trip.
- Stay: Reykjavík Bus Hostel
- Fuel: Approx. €100 for the entire journey (driving VW Polo)
Conclusion: Is it worth visiting Iceland in winter?
Visiting Iceland in winter isn’t for the faint-hearted. Fortunately, we were there during a ‘heat-wave’ so the temperatures and weather conditions were much better than expected.
However, it was a constant race to pack as much into our itinerary, given the limited amount of daylight we had. Plus, most of the country is hibernating: there’s no whale-watching, no puffins, no chances of camping outdoors and could be too cold or dark for long treks.
Having said that, winter in Iceland means freedom and the flexibility. You can book a room for the night a couple of hours before your visit, eat at restaurants without having to wait or making a reservation, and of course, the chance to encounter the northern lights in their full glory.
— Sixt Iceland (@sixticeland) September 2, 2017