If you think a place like Iceland is off-limits in the winter months, I’m about to blow your mind. With a name that invokes visions of wild, uninhabited landscapes covered in thick sheets of impenetrable ice, you’re probably thinking “well, that’s not where I want to spend my vacation”. But, if you’ve ever experienced a winter in Chicago or New York, you’ve already pushed past the temperature threshold for winter lows in Iceland. Surprised? Well, if my lack of meteorology credentials sparks doubt, you don’t have to take my word for it. Ólafur Ingólfsson, Professor of Glacial and Quaternary Geology at the University of Iceland, explains it this way:
“Iceland, located at 63-67°N and 18-23°W, has considerably milder climate than its location just south of the Arctic Circle would imply. A branch of the Gulf Stream, the Irminger Current, flows along the southern and the western coast greatly moderating the climate”
To summarize, Iceland has the miracle of the warm waters flowing up from the Gulf Stream to thank for winters milder than even those in Canada. You can expect temperatures ranging from 28-38 degrees Fahrenheit during the winter months. It’s the perfect excuse to buy that Patagonia coat you’ve had your eye on. I told you I’d blow your mind! We did put money on it, right?
Now that I’ve alleviated any concerns you may have about planning your Icelandic adventure in winter, let’s talk about what there is to do. If you’re thinking that the Icelandic people hibernate and sip hot cocoa in front of cozy fireplaces on sheepskin rugs, well yes, they do that too. But snuggling up at home during the winter months happens in between the numerous winter festivals that take place on the island. You read that right: there are festivals all winter long! You’ll find the full list at the bottom of the page, or you can read up now for a brief explanation of the top festivals in Iceland.
You can read about one of the most popular November festivals, Iceland Airwaves, in our blog here. Later in the month, November 20-23, you’ll be persuaded to get funky at the Reykjaviík Dance Festival. The organization RDF sponsors this national and international series of events, spanning four days, to explore movement. There are live performances, talks, and interactive activities to keep you moving and inspired through the chilly evenings.
Feel like you have a knack for solving mysteries, or maybe you just like to read about them? If you’re a fan of crime fiction, Iceland Noir is the festival for you. An entire weekend for readers and writers of the genre, it’s a great way to discover new authors and fatten up that bookshelf in your living room. Iceland and Scandinavia are particularly well known for their prowess in this category, so it’s naturally the perfect place for a literary festival of this sort. Perhaps to balance out the heavy subject matter, there are events like the Drunk Writers Panel to take the edge off, which is exactly what it sounds like. You can also dance to the sounds of house band Fun Lovin Crime Writers. Their tagline is “murdering songs”, which sounds both uncertain and unmissable. Things that make you go “hmmmmm?”
Starting in late November and running every weekend until Christmas is the Christmas Village in Hafnarfjörður, about 20 minutes from Reykjaviík. Picture a tiny village of little houses lit by colored lights, tasty Icelandic delicacies, live music, cozy bonfires and plenty of hot cider and mulled wine to keep your hands toasty. If you’ve never been to a European style Christmas market, they are a thing to experience, and a creative way to shop for holiday gifts. The environment will shift you into the holiday mood, regardless of how much spirit you tend to exude normally (or not?) during this festive season.
If you want to celebrate the end of the year in Iceland, your visit will coincide with a few more festival gems. As we all know, moving is the best way to boost that body temperature, so sign up for the annual New Years Eve 10K run in Reykjavík. It’s not only a great way to pretend that you’ve been the picture of health and athleticism this year, but it’s also pretty hilarious with participants wearing comical and sometimes ridiculous costumes. Think tu-tu’s, vintage disco garb, Santas and superheroes. Then think about them all running en masse along dramatic Icelandic roads. This is the best way to off-set any of the less than healthy activities you might be coerced into later in the evening. You know… the kinds of things that might make your first day of the new year a bit unpleasant. Getting a run in early might help metabolize those copious cans of Viking later. Wink wink.
Now, you might be wondering where you should spend your New Year’s in Iceland. If you’re looking for some highly celebratory nightlife, look no further than Reykjavík. For 360 days a year, fireworks are banned in Iceland. But during the final week of December, the famous midnight sun is defeated by a light show that could rival any American Fourth of July celebration. People are known to spend about a month’s salary on fireworks for this occasion, so you can expect some celestial entertainment from about the 28th of December until the 4th of January. Word to the wise: if you’re planning to have a nice dinner out, book very early! It’s also good to know that most of the clubs don’t open until after the stroke of midnight, so plan accordingly and expect to be out until the early morning hours. General fireworks and street festivities begin around 11:30, so you can enjoy the great gig in the sky before making your way to a club to warm up.
While January can be a somewhat sleepy month in most parts of the world, lacking any true international holidays, with the exception of my own birthday, Icelanders keep the party alive. On January 6th, head over to the Reykjanes Peninsula for what feels like a strange melding together of Christmas and a bit of Halloween. The Thirteenth Night is a costumed festival celebrating the final night of some legendary and strangely beloved lads. If you don’t know about the 13 Lads of Yule, then it’s my pleasure to school you. The Icelandic Christmas tradition has not just one representative of Christmas, but 13 weirdly cute and fickle little trolls. They are all brothers with their own distinct personalities and particular preferences for snacks. Meet Pottasleikir the “pot scraper” who devours the leftover scraps from the bottom of any unclean pans left out, or his brother Hurðaskellir the “door slammer” who loves meat, cheese, and slamming doors for fun. But watch out for their scraggly and haggard mother, Grýla, who descends from the high mountains each year to collect the bad kids and boil them into soup! This highly creative storytelling is equally charming and entertaining for adults and children alike. And frankly, it makes the whole Santa story seem like kind of a snoozer. So I’m all for celebrating these peculiar little guys and their mischievous tendencies in a beautiful coastal setting amidst bonfires for an evening. There are worse ways to spend a frosty, January night!
Another clever way to the Icelandic have found to spend time in the lengthy absence of sunlight is through the week-long festival Dark Music Days. Locally referred to as Myrkir Músíkdagar, this year’s exploration of sound takes place from January 26th- February 4th in downtown Reykjaviík. The primary venue is the gloriously glass-walled concert hall Harpa. Quite a fitting name for the level of music featured, all expertly curated by Gunnar Karel Masson, of Copenhagen’s Sonic Festival fame. The festival hosts a mix of genres, including contemporary, classical, electronic and experimental. The big show in Harpa is performed each year by the Iceland Symphony Orchestra. Dark Music Days has been in existence since 1980 and is one of the longest-running festivals in Iceland. It’s small in terms of what you think of as a “music festival”, which lends a very intimate feeling to the event. It’s the perfect way to get to know the city better and meet people while taking in hypnotic melodies by highly esteemed composers from Iceland and abroad. A nice dose of culture to start the year off right!
Finally, it’s time to let the light back in. The Winter Lights Festival from February 6th-9th marks the gradual return to lighter days. There are events taking place throughout the capital city that are free to everyone. The big night is Museum Night on the 7th, where museums in Reykjavík stay open late, offering all varieties of music, culture, film, dance, and readings. The local thermal baths are available for late-night soaking under the stars, and a beautiful walking path takes you from one stunning light installation to the next.
Can you guess the added bonus of visiting during the month of February? It has something to do with lights…
This is the time when, if conditions are right and the sky is clear, you might be lucky enough to catch a glimpse of those famous warping streams of color we know as the Northern Lights. And under those stellar skies, there’s nothing better than enjoying a few locally brewed beers and bites at the annual Icelandic Beer Festival! This happens around the third week of February every year at the hip, always buzzing KEX hostel.
March is the month for music & film. Importantly, activities that mostly keep you indoors & cozy! KEX hostel also plays host to The Reykjaviík Folk Festival in March. If cuddling up to some local & international film is more your style, get ready for some non-stop popcorn consumption at the 6th rendition of Stockfish Film Festival. Another biggie is the Sónar Music Festival which features eclectic electronic music from all over the world. Tickets are limited to around 3,500 so you can expect a comfortable dance floor and an intimate festival experience. With so many things to do in the winter, and now knowing that it’s not actually the coldest place on earth during winter, what are you waiting for? Time to celebrate!
Winter Festivals Summary:
- Iceland Airwaves
- Reykjaviík Dance Festival
- Iceland Noir
- Christmas Village
- New Years Eve 10K
- The Thirteenth Night
- Dark Music Days
- Winter Lights Festival
- Icelandic Beer Festival
- Reykjavík Folk Festival
- Stockfish Film Festival
- Sónar Music Festival