Things to Do in Iceland in January

When it is no secret that short days of winter and harsh weather can play with your temper and your motivation to do anything out of your house, there are actually plenty of activities one can do in Iceland. So here is a non-comprehensive list about how to enjoy your time in January and the opportunity to discover that even the darkest days are actually full of lights and entertainment.

When I am writing those lines, it is already October. This means that winter has begun. Therefore, my winter mood also started. While carrying this yearly burden of winter depression, I have been asked “What can be done in Iceland in January?” Well, last time I was in Iceland in January, I flew to Cambodia. Flying to a tropical country is definitely THE thing to do in Iceland in January. Yes, this is the “winter moody me” speaking, do not worry; this guy will be gone in a few lines.

In January, Iceland is at its coldest, winds are blowing hard, sidewalks are so icy and slippery that they are literally death traps, snowstorms are mandatory and remote areas are completely isolated. No one knows what people are doing there, we just have to believe whatever they say when the roads reopens in summer. Now, close your eyes and cover them with your hands for a few seconds, just to immerse yourself in complete darkness, this is what a typical winter day looks like.


Photo: Unsplash/Nicolas J Leclercq.

Start with this mental image of darkness, now add to it all the Christmas lights shining and lightning the streets (Christmas lightings usually stay on until February/March). Also add some pure and fresh white snow reflecting those lights, moonlight and stars. You can also imagine, the days with a nice weather, a bright but cold sun for a few hours, also enhancing those snowy landscapes. Early in
January, you will see fireworks every single day. And of course, longer nights means more opportunities to see the magnificent northern lights. So if anyone ever tells you that Iceland is dark in winter, you can answer that it is quite the opposite. Actually, it is all about lights.

And that is why winters are simply magical over here. Wow, I’m such in a good winter mood now! One can go to the tropics any time of the year, and anyway, warmth is overrated. So come and try the Icelandic winter.

Beyond the myth, let’s get technical. How really are winters in Iceland?

Alright, I have been joking about winter conditions, because I thought it was funny and because it would have been unfair to lure you into the Nordic paradise without some basic warnings. Here is the bare technical truth about January so you know what to expect:

(Because this is most likely the place you will be, at least at first, I will talk about Reykjavík’s conditions. Consider those being possibly extremely different in the rest of the country)

● Temperatures are usually between -3°C and 3°C (26°F – 37°F)
● The first of January, sun rises at 11:20 am and sets at 3:43 pm
● The 31 st of January, sun rises at 10:11 am and sets at 5:12 pm. Yes, it’s almost 3 hours more in a month. Click here to learn read more about that phenomenon.
● There are 13 rainy days (on average) in January. Knowing that even one drop of rain is
enough to technically call a day a “rainy day”, this is actually not bad.

Now let’s get started: What can be done in Iceland in January?

Geothermal pools 

Even the small towns in Iceland have a swimming pool. This is an entire part of Icelandic culture.
What is making those pools so special is that they are naturally warmed up thanks to Icelandic geothermic. There are basically two main features in those pools. First, like anywhere else, you have a big one for people willing to swim. Usually, by its side, you will find the hotpots. They are smaller pools with water between 36°C and 44°C (97°F and 111°F) depending on the pot you decide to take a dip in. Those are obviously not for swimming but just to chill and relax.

Those pools are outdoors, so in the winter time, it can be tough to cross the whole area in your swimsuit before dipping into the hot water. But it is definitely an experience, even a better one under the snow, in my opinion. Unlike what one may think, It is not hard to get out, your body will remain warm long enough for you to peacefully get back to the locker room, even under those freezing temperatures.

As mentioned, pools are part of the Icelandic culture, and pool etiquette is very important to Icelanders. Mostly related to hygiene, due to the fact that pools are almost chlorine free, there are a few rules that one must abide to. Here is a funny video about it:

 

Roaming Reykjavík’s coffee shops 

In the winter time, you might wish to drink something hot to warm yourself up. As any other Nordic country, Iceland is into coffee. Really into coffee. And Icelanders drink a lot of it. There is nothing weird about getting into a coffee shop at 9pm or 10pm to get a few cups of brewed coffee. I have now been working in a café in Reykjavík for almost 2 years, it still surprises me.

Therefore, Reykjavík is really packed with nice coffee shops. Each one of them has its very own perks. It can be the variety of coffees, the coziness, the decoration… or many of these together. Here are four areas to explore to find around 90% of Reykjavík’s coffee places:

•    Skólavörðustigur: The street going from the main church Hallgrimskirkja to the main street, Laugavegur
•    Laugavegur: This is the main street of Reykjavík. You can’t miss it.
•    Hverfisgata: This one is parallel to Laugavegur in direction to the sea shore. This street was still empty of places of interest and shops a few years ago. It is the new place to be in town.
•    Grandi: Grandi is not a street; it represents the whole old harbor area. Like Hverfisgata, it is becoming trendier and trendier. It is a like a town in the city, make sure to pay it a visit. There is much more to do there than taking a coffee.

If you are looking for a cup of coffee in the countryside, your most convenient option will always be the gas station. Although, a lot of small towns have at least one very charming place to get a hot drink.

Pub Crawl and party night in Reykjavík

Because we all know how efficient and necessary those disclaimers are:

IF YOU ARE UNDER 20 YEARS OLD (LEGAL DRINKING AGE IN ICELAND), DO NOT READ WHAT COMES
NEXT:

Now that the young generation who grew up with internet and never disobeyed such a warning is safe, let’s talk between adults.

Reykjavík is definitely a party city. There is a tremendous number of pubs and bars and discos. Whatever your musical taste is, you will find a place for you. Whatever your kind of favorite ambiance is for a bar, you will find a place for you. Irish pub? Check. Whisky bar? Check. Loud music? Check. Beer tasting from Icelandic microbreweries? Check. Dark disco with neon lights? Check. And more. You name it.

If it is Friday or Saturday, all bars are closing late, until 5am, depending on the place. Any other day of the week, everything closes at 1am. Although, it is still worth it to go out, there is a lot of events going on during weekdays in different bars. So here is my recommendation: While you are discovering Reykjavík’s streets during the day, put a like on the Facebook pages of the bars that look good to you. This is the best way to be aware of what will happen there during your stay.

Mentioned above for coffee shops, Hverfisgata, Laugavegur and Grandi are areas where you will find a lot of night bars. Skólavörðurstigur is more a day place though. So, I would add to the list: Austurstræti, Bankastræti and Tryggvagata.

Another tip: Most of the bars have long happy hours, which is always nice in an expensive city. You can check the app named: “Appy Hour” for that. Also, before 11pm, it is most likely that the only people you will see in bars are foreigners or tourists. Icelanders usually start going out later at night.

Indoor and cultural activities to do in Reykjavík

I am not sure about how many museums there are in Iceland. I think there are dozens just in Reykjavík. Here is just a basic list of the one I liked or heard good things about.

National museum of Iceland.
Whales of Iceland
Sagas museum
Northern Lights museum
Art museum
Culture House
● Yes, it is no legend, there is a penis museum.

If you are lucky and have a sunny day with clear skies, you should definitely head to the top of Hallgrimskirkja, to enjoy a 360° view on Reykjavík, Mount Esja, and Faxafloí bay. Here are all the information.

Hiking to the hot river of Reykjadalur

I have never done this hike in winter time; I plan to do it next year though. I heard that it was gorgeous but very challenging. Reykjadalur literally means “Smoking valley” it is a huge geothermal area where one can find great amount of hiking trails, for all levels. It is located right by the town of Hveragerði (40km, 25 miles away from Reykjavík) and it is especially famous for the one hour hike that brings you to a hot geothermal river. Yes, I am talking about a hot river, and this is pretty awesome.

The hike is short: 3km(less than 2 miles), but it is very steep, what makes it challenging in winter as the slopes are icy and slippery. So if you go there, make sure you have crampons and also that you have warm enough clothes. If even with the crampons, you do not feel confident and comfortable on the slopes, just backup. Before going, check the conditions of the trail on safetravel.is.

Why doing it in winter? Well, dipping in hot water when the air is freezing is just an amazing experience. Also, when some northern lights hunts might consist in standing outside waiting for the show to happen, one should as well do it comfortably seated and warm.

Last but not least: gazing at the northern lights

If you come in winter, it means you are ready to cope with Icelandic weather. You probably accepted your fate mostly because you wanted to look at the sky and spot with your own eyes the most gorgeous lights nature has ever created. You can book a lot of Northern lights tour on Travelade, and if you are looking for more information, I
recommend you check this article on our website.

Aurora gazing in Heidmork, Reykjavik, IcelandNorthern lights in Kleifarvatn, Reykjanes, Iceland

Happening in Iceland in January

New year’s eve:

Fireworks for New year’s eve is part of Icelandic folklore. They are sold by the SAR (Search And Rescue team) and represent one of their main income as this is a volunteer organization.
People start blowing fireworks a few days before new year’s eve and carry on with it until the 6 th of January.

Dark music days:

Every year in January, Harpa, (the music and conference hall by the harbor) hosts a festival dedicated to contemporary music, where both local and international artists are performing together. Harpa just concerns the main venues, but a lot of smaller ones can be found across the city, like in Húrra or Iðnó. You will find more information about it on the official webpage of the festival.

Reykjavík International games:

In January, a sportive competition takes place in the laugardalur park in Reykjavík. It involves around 20 different sports, and even though most of the competitors are Icelandic, there are also international athletes. Archery, weightlifting, dancing, karate etc. most of the individual sports are represented. Do not hesitate to go there and have a look!

Additional information:

What to bring and wear in January?

I will just assume that warm, winter clothes do not need to be mentioned. Ok, I just did it. One precision though, think about having them rainproof, and most important: windproof. Never forget to protect your extremities; this is where the cold hits you first. So: warm socks and shoes, beanie and warm gloves are your best allies.

If you are not comfortable about walking on icy streets, you can buy in Reykjavík some small crampons. Very convenient to strap on your shoes, they are not suitable for hiking, but good enough for the icy sidewalks of Reykjavík. If you plan to go for a hike, even a small one, you must get more technical and bigger crampons.

Do not bring an umbrella, wind will just break it. Broken umbrellas popping out of trash bins is a very common cityscape in Reykjavík.

If ever you care about not looking like a typical tourist, bring more than just your most flashy outdoor clothes. Bring a few casual outfits to wander around Reykjavík. Yes, you might get wet, or cold, or both, so hurry to jump into a bar or a coffee shop.

Why are the days so short during icelandic winter?

Quick science: Iceland is located just under the Arctic Circle. Let’s say you are at the North Pole. For 6 months, you will experience 100% daylight. After a quick transition, it will be 0% of daylight for the next 6 months. This is the exact same phenomenon that happens in Iceland, simply less intense.
The 21 st of June, the longest day of the year, sun almost does not set. It basically just goes a bit under the horizon and rises again. From that day to the 21 st of December, the shortest day of the year, you loose between 6 and 7 minutes of daylight each day. It is the exact opposite from the 21st of December to the 21 st of June.

There are a lot of coffee shops and bars so why don’t you name them? Or just the best ones?

Well … this one is easy. It is because there are a lot that I do not name them. Maybe one day I will write specifically about those. Until then, you are on your own. So, roam the streets, discover and explore by yourself. This is also what traveling is about.

Can I rent a car and drive in Iceland in January?

You can. Technically, it is possible. You just have to keep in mind that the weather can get really harsh in the countryside and you might not be skilled to drive in those conditions. If you think you are, then you must absolutely be prepared to be able to rethink and cancel any of your plans at the last minute. It means flexibility and self-control regarding the disappointment of having to cancel part of your trip.

It is always true in Iceland, but in winter, lack of caution or recklessness on the road is simply life threatening. Never drive out of town in winter without having checked those two websites prior:

Safetravel.is
Road.is

And give real credits to the warnings you will read.

Are tours on in winter?

Yes they are. Some are even going in winter only, here is a selection of winter tours and blog articles.
But for the exact same reasons mentioned above, tours can be canceled at the last minute. If it happens to you, no need to worry, your operator (if serious and professional) will reschedule or refund you. Also, as frustrating as it can be, do not forget that this only happens for safety reasons.