Iceland is already regarded as one of the most sought out travel destinations in the world, and with good reason. Also known as the Land of Fire and Ice, the small Nordic country packs a big punch in the arena of nature: roaring waterfalls, sparkling icy lagoons and stunning black-sand beaches are just a few features of Iceland’s otherworldly landscape.
While the midnight sun entices most travelers to pack their bags for a summer trip to Iceland, we’re here to advocate for an off-season, wintry trip instead. Some might be turned off by the prospect of having only a few hours of daylight, but those hours often treat visitors to a full golden hour display for the better part of an afternoon. Gloomier days usually come with a side of snow, which brings its own magic into the mix. When full darkness falls, the adventurous can chase the aurora borealis into Thingvellir National Park for a chance to see a dazzling night sky display.
Trips to Iceland in the colder months also invite travelers to step outside of their comfort zones, as most of the activities during this time of year actually push you out the door and into the wild, whether for a daring ice cave excursion or hiking atop a glacier.
The capital city of Reykjavík is also worth the trip even if you never left (though you certainly should). A surprisingly vibrant, albeit small, downtown is stuffed with cozy cafes, photo-worthy landmarks like the towering Hallgrímskirkja, lively bars and inspiring art galleries. Hotels span from budget-friendly hostels to the new Reykjavík Edition — the city’s first five-star hotel.
Where to Stay
Positioned right next to the striking Harpa concert hall, the Edition signals a luxe shift for Reykjavík, and welcomes a new kind of traveler seeking both world-class comforts and one-of-a-kind adventure.
Those who have stayed at any of famed hotelier Ian Schrager’s Edition properties know that the brand exudes a sleek style that incorporates elements of its surroundings. In this particular case, beds of moss curve around the driveway, the Northern Lights dance on one of the lobby walls, and a totem sculpture made of stacked, columnar basalt slate sourced from the south of Iceland greets visitors as they enter the property.
“In Iceland, you’re getting to see things you won’t see anywhere else,” says Schrager. “More so than any other place in the world, it’s a real opportunity to get in touch with earth and nature and we’re proud to further expand the Edition brand in an incredible place with an incredibly exciting hotel that gives you a true sense of place.”
Where to Dine
The dining scene in Iceland is notorious for setting you back a pretty penny — a small island means tons of imports. The culinary options in Reykjavík only continue to improve, though, and many of the best spots in town are worth your krónur. The international culinary community has also begun to pick up on the fact that Nordic cuisine is vastly underrated and uniquely delicious. A growing collection of cookbooks that includes North: The New Nordic Cuisine of Iceland and Slippurinn: Recipes and Stories from Iceland shows a growing recognition of Icelandic fare.
The country’s ingredients are on full display at the Edition’s signature restaurant, Tides, whose kitchen is now helmed by Gunnar Karl Gíslason — the chef behind Dill, Reykjavík’s much-celebrated New Nordic Michelin-starred restaurant. Expect local proteins like Arctic char and reindeer on the menu, accompanied by the flavors of currants, pine and Icelandic wasabi.
The Best Shoulder Season Destinations Around the WorldEscape the crowds and admire the scenery, from Park City to Paris
Wandering around town, you’ll run into iconic Icelandic hot dog stall Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur, where you can grab a dog with creamy remoulade sauce and crunchy onions tucked into the bun. Bakeries like Brauð & Co. peddle fresh and oozy cinnamon buns, and quality lattes can be found at Reykjavík Roasters and charming cat cafe Kattakaffihúsið. Perfect for warming your hands and bellies during a chilly Icelandic afternoon.
When it comes time for a cocktail, we’d head to the stylish Mat Bar for tapas and something to sip on, or duck into the Edition’s snug speakeasy, Tölt. Named after the unique fifth gait Icelandic horses are best known for, Tölt offers cocktails featuring Icelandic spirits and flavors, and cozy banquette seating lit by a fireplace.
What to Do
After you’ve gotten the lay of the land in downtown Reykjavík, it’s time to set out on an adventure. Everyone has heard of (and most likely seen photos of) the Golden Circle by now — the popular driving route that brings travelers past the gushing Gullfoss waterfall, the spouting Geysir, Thingvellir National Park and other natural wonders. While well-trodden, these attractions are still definitely worth a visit if this is your first time in the country.
Another iconic Icelandic landmark is the Blue Lagoon, whose silica-rich milky waters attract travelers year-round. Giving the popular man-made lagoon a run for its money, though, is the newly opened Sky Lagoon. A quick 15-minute drive from downtown, Sky Lagoon is a fully immersive spa experience that isn’t yet inundated with tourists.
Before you arrive, book yourself a Sky Pass, which provides you with access to the lagoon and its seven-step wellness ritual, as well as a private room to change and shower. After a quick initial rinse, you’ll step into what feels like a natural ravine full of steaming, warm water, leading to a wide open pool complete with a waterfall, views of the ocean and a swim-up bar hidden in a rocky cave. The “ritual” as they call it is found inside a grass-topped spa just off the main pool, where you dip into a shockingly cold pool and warm up in a sauna with ocean views.
Those also interested in an excursion off the beaten path should look into booking with a well-trusted company like Southcoast Adventure, whose winter offerings include snowmobiling across the highlands, venturing into an ice cave, glacier hiking and more. If you plan on booking a full-day or multi-day excursion, your best option for accommodations is Hotel Rangá — an idyllic countryside retreat located at the base of a volcano in South Iceland. There, guest rooms and themed suites offer comfort as well as the best accessibility to the Northern Lights during the winter months. After a full day of sending it in the snow-capped countryside, the hotel’s geothermal outdoor hot tubs offer a warm respite.
Traveler’s Note: As with any type of travel during this time, we suggest checking out the most up-to-date requirements and restrictions prior to booking.
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