Our 4 day self-driving trip to Iceland in Winter. Stunning waterfalls, amazing geysers, majestic black sand coastlines, pristine white landscapes, a magnificent natural geothermal spa and the dazzling Northern Lights! The most beautiful place on Earth we have seen so far!
Travel Dates (4 days, 5nights) – December
Type of Holiday
Self-drive – no tours or fixed itinerary.
Places Visited/Itinerary in brief:
- Þingvellir National Park
- Gullfoss Waterfall
- Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon (we were unable to visit due to road closures)
- Seljalandsfoss waterfall
- Skogafoss Waterfall
- Sólheimasandur airplane wreckage (we were unable to visit due to road closures)
- Blacksand beaches of Vík
- The Northern Lights
- Blue Lagoon geothermal Spa
Why we chose Iceland
It was our 2 year wedding anniversary and we wanted to do something extra special this year. A month before our trip we noticed an ad on the tube, featuring a picture of the northern lights and we knew exactly what our anniversary destination would be.
We did a lot of research over the next couple of days and found out that the best time to see the lights was during the winter months (between Oct – late Feb). We also really wanted to see snow and experience snowfall (living in Australia, we don’t see this often!)
We booked direct flights from Heathrow to Keflavík international airport through Iceland Air.
1st time flying this airline, our expectations were quite low, and to say the least we were pleasantly surprised!
The flight was very comfortable with good leg room and an excellent entertainment unit. Best part was that you can directly plug in your own headsets and there is also a usb charging port. Apart from a good selection of entertainment for a three hour flight, there were also an infomercial introduction to Iceland and tourist videos of different locations in the country which we would highly recommend watching.
Due to our late arrival (11:35pm), we decided not to have the hassle of getting to town and stayed close to the airport. The city had experienced heavy snowfall on the day of our arrival, and everything was blanketed by snow! It was a great change for us and a welcome surprise as we stepped outside the airport. Unable to see the northern lights that night, as it was very cloudy and too bright due to proximity to the airport lights.
We booked our stay at the Airport Hotel Aurora Star (formerly know as Airport Hotel Smari). It’s literally a 5 minutes walk from the airport.
Tip #1: If staying at the airport hotel, leave the airport via the departure entrance instead of the arrivals exit – it is a much quicker walk to the hotel. Will easily save you around a good 5-8min walk outside.
A basic budget hotel – the room was large, clean and had good heating. The hotel has 24hour reception and lift access. Don’t expect any fancy toiletries. They don’t seem to have any double/queen beds and all the beds are singles put together.
Tip #2: Request a room facing away from the airport as it may get a little noisy if you want to have a sleep in.
Keflavík – Þingvellir National Park – Geysir – Gullfoss Waterfall – Vík
After a good nights sleep we had a quick brekkie at the hotel and headed out to pick up our car rental.
We had booked a Subaru Forester 4×4 through Reykjavík Car Rentals. The office/pickup point is in the next block from the hotel and only a 2min walk.
We trekked to the rental place and picked up our car. Very smooth service without any hassles.
Tip #3: If driving in winter, please rent a 4×4 and preferable a good one. You can see from the video how bad the roads can get.
We drove back to the hotel, checked out and loaded the car for our drive to Þingvellir National Park.
Keflavík – Þingvellir National Park , Drive time – 1hr 20mins approx, 90kms
Tip #4: Leave early to maximise the available day light. In our trip, Sunrise was at 9:45am with Sunset at 3:45pm
The drive was just breathtaking and beautiful. Pictures and words are hard to describe the beauty this country has to offer. We thought New Zealand was the pinnacle of our travels so far, Iceland just trumped it!
There was heavy snowfall from time to time with strong winds and icy roads. Speed limit on most roads and highways is 90km/hr and signs are clearly marked (although it can be hard to see with the snow covering the signs).
Tip #5: Get a GPS. It not only directs you to your destination but is really useful for night time driving as you can get a sense of the road ahead, especially in a snowstorm.
We stopped to admire the beauty along the way in marked rest areas before we headed to the national park.
We stopped at the visitors centre which has a viewing area. The view is phenomenal, with a view of the frozen lake and backdrop of the mountains. We grabbed a cup of hot chocolate from the centre and spent around 15-20mins sipping away, admiring the majestic beauty.
Tip #6: You have to pay to use the toilet facilities at Þingvellir National Park. Per visit was about £1.
Þingvellir National Park – Geysir , Drive time 50mins approx, 60kms.
You drive through the National Park to get to the Geysir. The view again is breathtaking. Speed limit was around 50-60km/hr in some areas with winding roads.
Tip #7: Full concentration is required on the roads. The weather is very unpredictable and can change without warning. One moment it can be very clear and sunny and suddenly you will be in the middle of a snowstorm, which may last only for 5-10mins. The roads are very icy and slippery and even though they are regularly cleared by snow trucks, it can be challenging if you are not used to the conditions.
Please be careful and take your time. Do not rush! Especially in winter with so much snow on the sides of the road, it is impossible to tell where the road falls away into a ditch. Stop only on designated rest areas if accessible, please do not stop in the middle of the road.
20mins to Geysir, the weather deteriorated quite rapidly and we were in the middle of a snow storm. We kept driving slowly and by the time we reached Geysir, it had cleared up.
We arrived around 2pm and luckily the tour groups had all long gone and there were only a hand full of people at the site.
The whole area is quite surprising and you can see a lot of holes on the ground through which steam constantly keeps rising.
The main attraction is a natural geyser which shoots up boiling water up to 70m up in the air. It is again a sight to be experienced in person. This happens every 7-8mins.
There is also a strong stench of sulphur in the air. When the eruption happens, make sure you aren’t standing on the side facing the wind- you are sure to get drenched.
Tip #8: Proper shoes are a must here. Recommend trekking shoes as the area can be quite slippery.
Geysir to Gullfoss waterfalls – drive time 15mins, 10kms
The waterfalls was only a 15mins drive from Geysir and again the roads are well marked but at the time, was snowed in.
There is a main parking lot at the site and you have to walk for about 5mins to get to see the falls.
Tip #9: From the main parking lot, you can take a smaller road that goes downhill and park much closer to the falls.
The falls were majestic and look much larger than the Niagara Falls (from the Canadian side). The force at which the water flows is a sight to see and experience. In winter, as you can expect, the area was covered with snow and ice. It also looks as if the water is part frozen! Its truly magical.
There are three view points, one up top, one at the eye level to the falls and the other a small path that takes you closer to the falls. Again, beacause of the snow, this path was closed with a sign clearly posted ‘do not cross’. No risks taken on this trip, but that didn’t stop a few people.
We stopped back at Geyser for a quick snack. They have a huge cafeteria serving all kinds of hot and cold food. We suggest you get a bite to eat here before the long drive as there are no rest stops as such (for food) and by this time you will most probably hit darkness.
Geysir to Vík – 2hr 15mins – 175kms
It was about 4:30pm when we left Geysir and it was pitch dark. Unfortunately for us, we were also right in the middle of a blizzard (see video). This drive was crazy! The experience is something I wouldn’t want to do again. The car was being pushed from side to side in the loose snow and visibility was extremely poor. We persevered and kept on and after about 2hr 45mins we reached our hotel in Vík – Hotel Icelandair .
Tip #10: Just like driving in a fog, do not use your high beams during a blizzard or a snowstorm. They reflect straight back at you.
We highly recommend the hotel, Icelandair. Excellent staff and extremely friendly. The room was spacious and well equipped. The bathroom was fantastic and the heated tiles were just divine.
We had dinner at the hotels restaurant which was open until 10pm and the food was average to good. The main course lamb was the most outstanding dish.
Went to bed early after a tiring day, all set for the Glacier Lagoon!
We woke up early, excited and ready to see the famous glacier lagoon of Jökulsárlón . Stopped by the reception desk only to find a red sign noting “Hurricane force winds expected from noon in the south – south east. Dangerous driving conditions and avoid driving.”
That blew our plans out of the water. We spoke to the staff member at reception and he directed us to Iceland’s meteorological website.
Tip #11: The meteorological website is excellent and you should always have a look at it before making your travels. It has info on weather, winds, road conditions and even the northern lights visibility.
After reviewing all the info from the website and discussing the pros and cons of the 5 1/2 hr return trip to the lagoon, we decided not to the take the risk and instead visit the places we were planning on going to the following day. That was a great decision, as you will read below.
Vík to Seljalandsfoss waterfall 1 hour – 60 kms.
After filling up some fuel at Vík and grabbing a quick brekkie for the road at the servo, we headed out to the waterfalls at 8:45am. As you can see in the video, it was still dark as sunrise was only expected at 9:45am. This is the same road we drove on the previous night to get to Vík from Gullfoss.
The turn off and the approach road to the falls were not cleared and we just trusted our 4×4 and drove on the snow covered road (the snow was about 40cms thick).
We reached the waterfalls just as a large tourist bus was leaving. The tour operator asked us where we were heading. We told him the two waterfalls and then back to Vík. He told us to get off the roads by 12pm due to the weather warning issued that day.
The waterfalls were majestic. Not as large as the one in Gullfoss but still beautiful and you can get very close to them. There are steps and a path to walk behind the falls but due to the extreme cold, the path and the steps were frozen solid.
The next stop was the Skogafoss waterfall back towards Vík.
Seljalandsfoss waterfalls to Skogafoss Waterfalls 30mins – 35kms
We wanted to stop at the famous Sólheimasandur airplane wreckage , but just before the entrance of the road, a 4×4 had tried to go through the entrance and had gotten stuck in the snow. There was a rescue truck assisting and it seemed like the road was inaccessible.
When we reached the waterfalls parking, we were the only ones there. As we got out of the car the weather turned for the worse and we only stayed there for about 10-15mins.
The wind picked up, it started sleeting and we could see the clouds rushing towards us from over the hills.
We got in the car and drove towards our hotel. Little did we know, we were already in the middle of the hurricane winds as advised by the website earlier.
The driving condition was extremely bad. Visibility was down to one car ahead and the car was drifting to one side due to the strong winds.
Further down the road, we were lucky to get behind a few cars and a snow plough truck. Even though the snow ploughing didn’t make the road any better, we were happy that there was some sort of guidance for us.
Opposite our hotel was a servo with a dining area where we stopped for lunch. The lamb goulash was just perfect for the weather.
Followed by lunch we went back to our hotel and were stuck inside all day. It was about 2pm when we got back and we couldn’t get out until the next morning.
Every couple of hours or so we headed down to reception to be advised that the weather has gotten worse and the roads were now closed. We couldn’t even open the window of our room as the strong winds would just rush straight in. Visibility was next to nothing and we couldn’t even see the main road from our window.
At about 6pm we saw a rescue vehicle stop in front of hotel bringing in 4 people. At dinner (again at the hotel’s restaurant) we learned that a few cars had gotten stuck in the road and had to wait for a rescue team.
Tip #12: Please download the app 112. It’s an amazing app which pings your GPS coordinates to the rescue team even without a phone or an internet connection.
3 nights and 2 days and no northern lights so far.
We were determined to see the Jökulsárlón lagoon and left the hotel early, around 7am.
The person at front desk advised us that the roads were still closed but he saw a couple of road clearers earlier and they should open the roads soon. He said you could drive towards the lagoon but at your own risk.
Determined, we drove towards the lagoon for about 20mins and I kid you not, it was literally like driving on ice. The winds were very strong and we couldn’t drive above 60kms/hr without the car drifting.
Our plans were to get to the lagoon and drive all the way back to Reykjavík, a total journey of about 7-8hours.
20mins in we decided this wasn’t worth it and stopped next to a frozen lake and took a couple of photos before heading back to the black sand beaches of Vík.
Vík to Reykjavík
It is exactly like walking on any other beach but the sand is black! Plays with your mind I tell you.
The view was breathtaking with the sunrise and the 3 majestic rocks jutting out of the waters.
We drove up to the Vík cemetery which overlooks the whole town of Vík and the sea. The road is towards the church on top of Vík. This view blew our mind away. I’ll let the picture below do the talking.
Next stop was the natural caves and rocks formation. You can find this on route 215 out of Vík towards the capital.
10 – 15 mins drive from Vík, 12 kms – Take route 215.
You can get a close view of the rocks in the sea from this point and the half cut natural caves. There is also a very interesting rock formation on the beach. Seems almost like steps cut into the side of the cliff face.
The waves were pretty strong and seemed like high tide when we visited and we had to time our run to the cave. Every 7th/8th wave came all the way to the cave, so we did a little count and ran. The cave isn’t very deep but rather shallow.
After a few photos and admiring the view, we headed back on the road.
Next destination was Dyrhólaeyjarviti, a light house not far from the caves where you can see Dyrhólaey, a small peninsula with a carved out arc.
Tip #13: Iceland is extremely beautiful with scenery like we’ve never seen before. Photos are one thing, but please spend a lot of time just admiring the beauty of it. Photos and videos really don’t do justice to what you see with your eyes. Take heaps of photos by all means, but spend time admiring the beauty.
25-30 mins drive, 20kms – Take route 218
As we drove on the route we came across a car stuck in the snow. Yup, due to the storm the previous day, the road was covered in a lot of ice. We waited with them until the rescue team came along and we turned back. It was only a 5min wait for us, but they were stuck for at least 3 hours.
Next destination was the capital, Reykjavík.
Vík to Reykjavík – 2 1/2 hours, 180kms.
The drive was again just breathtaking. Until about Selfoss, you are just driving along with the low winter sun to the left and the white landscape is very hard to describe in words.
We heard again on the radio that there was a severe weather warning for the roads in the south of the island with possible road closures.
As we approached the town of Selfoss the weather turned for the worse. Strong winds and blowing snow across the road made visibility quite poor.
We had a quick stop over in Selfoss for lunch and got back on the road.
Between Selfoss and the capital a road runs through the mountains which was closed due to bad weather. The authorities had a detour set up and we had to drive around the mountain, which added probably another 45mins to our journey.
Our hotel accommodation was booked at the Hilton in Reykjavík. There is plenty of parking out front and the view of the sea and the mountains from the room made our stay even better.
We stayed here for one night (the night before our anniversary). Very well equipped large room with all the usual facilities. The bathroom seemed a little outdated but was clean.
We had made a reservation at the fine dining restaurant Torfan in the city centre. After a couple of hours rest we headed out for dinner. It was quite windy and snowing but the roads in the capital was very well cleared.
We had no problems finding the restaurant and parked a few streets down.
Tip #14: Invest in some waterproof hiking boots. The roads and footpaths in winter are very icy and we were really thankful of our purchases.
Dinner was fantastic! From the service to the dessert, everything was just perfect, with only one problem.. we hadn’t seen the northern lights yet. Every single night there was thick clouds and low visibility.
We headed back to our hotel room after a short stroll around the city centre and checked the Iceland Met website. Excellent website for weather, wind and aurora forecast.
The website showed a window of time from 3:30am until 4:30am when there was no cloud cover and aurora strength of 4.
Tip #15: Conditions required to see the northern lights properly: clear sky, it has to be dark and the aurora forecast has to be around 3 or above (the intensity ranges from 0 – 9 with 9 being extremely strong). Make sure you don’t look at any lights for about 10-15 seconds and let your eyes adjust to the darkness.
As determined as we were, we researched all the places to see the northern light around the city. We were going to drive down to the Þingvellir National Park but the road to the park was closed. We found several forums online that recommend driving to the presidential palace/ residence known as Bessastaðir.
Woke up on our anniversary at 2:45am and left the hotel to ‘hunt’ for the lights.
Hilton to Bessastaðir – 20mins – 13kms.
We got to the location and saw a sign that read ‘restricted entry, private road’. We turned around and were about to drive to another location when my wife pointed out through the sunroof and said “what’s the green line above in the sky”.
I immediately stopped the car and got out and looked up and boom!! The lights were dancing above us!
We were so excited that we forgot about how cold and windy it was and were just staring in awe! It really bought a tear to my eyes! It was the most magical moment in my life and especially to see it on our 2 year anniversary was just incredible.
We got back in and put on our jackets and gloves and just lied down on the snow for about 1/2 hour admiring the show nature was displaying for us.
After about half hour we decided to take some photos. It was so windy that our tripod kept shaking, but the memories were what made it so special.
After about another 15mins, we were unable to bare the cold and wind, and we decided to get back in the car and see the display through the sunroof.
At about 4:30am the light show slowly started disappearing and the clouds started rolling in.
It was perfect. Great start to year 3 of our marriage. We headed back to our hotel room and had a great nap, very content.
Woke up around 9am and headed for an excellent brekkie spread at the hotel. No live cooking station, but had all the usual continental and hot breakfast options.
We checked out from the hotel around 11am and drove to the centre of the capital. Parked our car in the grounds of Hallgrimskirkja , the modern cathedral in the centre of the town.
This is a cathedral unlike any other in Europe and has a very sleek and modern look. Almost like an Apple product. You can visit it for free and a small donation fee gets you to the top of the cathedral, which we would recommend (lift access). The best view of the whole city was here, the tallest structure in the capital. Reykjavík is a very quaint town with pretty low lying buildings and houses along a majestic coast line.
The weather was just beautiful – the clouds were gone and we had a bright and sunny day.
Even though the temp was about -5 degrees centigrade, there was no wind and it was perfect for a stroll around the capital.
We walked around the capital for about an hour and a half or so visiting many of its small shops and alley ways. After picking up a couple of souvenirs from the local gift show, it was time to head for final destination of this trip – The Blue Lagoon Geothermal Spa!
Reykjavík to Blue Lagoon – 50kms – 45mins
The Blue Lagoon natural spa is located about 45 mins from the capital towards the airport. The road this time around was very clear and it being a very sunny day, it was a pleasure driving.
About 5kms from the Blue Lagoon we could already see the steam rising from the hot pools, a great sight especially with the landscape covered in snow.
There is plenty of parking space available and its only a short walk (3mins) to the main centre.
We had pre-booked the tickets via their website and would highly recommend it.
The booking option we had chosen was the premium option that provides you with a towel, slippers, bathrobe and a free drink at the lagoon. You will need to bring your own swimwear.
Once inside the centre, you don’t require your jacket anymore. Its pretty warm and they have an excellent locker system in which you can easily store your jackets and bags.
They recommend a shower before you get into the water and after with conditioner due to all the minerals that make your hair dry.
There is no system to protect/differentiate your towels once next to the pool. You just put it on a hook at a spot and remember it and hope that no one else takes it away.
At the time, it was -11 degree centigrade outside and the display had the water at a hot 38 degrees.
The Lagoon itself is huge and not very deep. I am 173cms and if I stood in the water it would only reach my hips. The pool is very large and at the deepest point it got only about to my nose. Most of the time I we were squatting in the water as it was just too cold.
It is a natural pool so the floor is sand with the odd stones and pebbles.
There is an entrance into the water from the inside of the centre so that you don’t have to brave the cold. Once inside you can waddle your way through a door into the actual pool.
The view is magnificent, with snow covered peaks around you and being in a humongous hot spa.
There is a bar inside the pool. No cash / credit card is required when inside the premises. You get a wrist band and anything you purchase, you scan the band and it gets added to your tab and you pay at the end when you exit. You use the same wrist band to lock and unlock your locker.
The pool bar is also where you can pick up your free drink.
There is also a man made waterfall in the pool that you can stand under and the force of the water is enough to give you a good shoulder massage.
Speaking of massages, since it was our anniversary, we decided to indulge in their massages (which you would need to book in advance). At a quiet section of the pools there is a massage area. We weren’t sure what to expect so we arrived there 5 mins before our session and they ask you to wait inside the water.
Then at your appointment time, they take you into the water and put you on a floating bed and cover you with a wet warm blanket. The massage is something I haven’t experienced before and was actually very very good. They massage you from underneath, so they put their fingers between your back and the floating bed and perform the massage. Back, neck and face. They also apply natural minerals to your face, back and shoulders. Every 5-6mins they will lower the bed into the water until the blanket soaks in all the warm water to you keep warm.
It was around 5pm at the time of our massage and it was pitch dark with clear skies. Was just perfect!
After our time at the blue lagoon we decided to have dinner at the facility itself. Food was decent and had a good variety menu with meat and vegetarian options.
Tip #16: Pre book your Blue Lagoon tickets online, don’t try and get to the facility and then book. The lines can get long during the peak times.
Pack some snacks and little bites for you to take along into the facility. There is sitting area just above the cafe with recliners. The snacks at the facility are very expensive. Water is available for free next to the cafe with cups provided.
After a super day and a lot of relaxing and fun at the Blue Lagoon, it was time to head to our hotel before our early morning flight.
Blue Lagoon to Airport Hotel – 23kms – 25mins.
We booked our last night at the Airport Hotel Aurora Star (formerly know as Airport Hotel Smari) as we had to catch a early morning flight and it worked out perfectly as we had to return our car rental next door.
The drive back was easy as the sky was very clear with no wind. At the turnoff onto the main highway towards the airport (just at the roundabout), we decided to stop one final time to see if we could spot the lights. We got out of the car and looked north and let our eyes adjust to the darkness and boom, they were just dancing in front of us. Such a perfect end to our trip.
We saw the display for about 1/2 hour. It was great to end the trip on a high.
The next day we dropped off the car at the rental place and walked to the airport for our flight back to London.
We thought our trip to New Zealand was the most beautiful nature had to offer. We were so wrong. This trip just trumps anything we have seen in our lives to date. Since we only saw the south of the country we are definitely planning another visit in summer.
Words and pictures don’t do justice. If you need any more information please leave a comment below or contact us on email@example.com
Disclaimer: We did our own research through various internet forums and review sites before making the bookings. We were neither paid or endorsed by anyone to use their services. The entire trip – flights, car rental, accommodation and activities – was fully paid for by us.