How to spend a mid-winter day in Iceland

With its growing collection of steaming thermal spas, cosy restaurants and ice-sculpted waterfalls, there’s no better time to take a break in Iceland than in mid-winter.

A view over the rooftops of Reykjavík in winter.

Photograph by Getty Images
By Nick Dalton
Published 8 Mar 2023, 15:16 GMT

In the dead of winter, steam rises over the cold, rippling waters of Skerjafjörður, augmenting rather than obscuring the fjord’s wild volcanic splendour. Along the coastline, an ancient lava-sculpted landscape punctures darkening skies: cone-shaped Keilir mountain, distant Fagradalsfjall — a volcano that, dormant for 6,000 years, spewed fire in summer 2021 — and Snæfellsjökull glacier, mentioned in Jules Verne’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth, itself a stratovolcano with an icy surface that sharply reflects the setting sun. 

This is Iceland, mid-winter, a time they call Noday. In January, daylight seems to have gone before it’s even arrived; February has more of a ‘day’ to it, but it’s still a late riser. Yet from my steaming seat in Iceland’s Sky Lagoon there seems no better time to enjoy the island's geothermal hotspots. Opened in 2021, this thermal water-fed spa is among a number of recent additions to Iceland’s hot spring scene

Overlooking Skerjafjörður, the springs are just a 15-minute drive from Reykjavík, much closer to the capital than Iceland’s famed Blue Lagoon. And soon, when a long-planned foot, cycle and bus bridge is built, it’ll be within strolling distance, over waters dive-bombed by cormorants and home to the occasional seal. And when it does get light, it’s steely bright as the sun glints off low-slung mountains, splashes of pink and red ‘shepherd’s delight’ sky always teasing that the Northern Lights might be on their way.

Sky Lagoon’s structure is a curious one, with turf walls echoing ancient Icelandic buildings, pools and windows set into the coastal rock. Inside, it’s similarly dark and mysterious with craggy steps down into expanding pools of warm water. Amid the rocks — fashioned from lava — the 230ft infinity pool appears to merge into the blue of the bay. An icy plunge pool, caverns offering oil and salt scrubs and myriad hot and cold showers, both indoors and out, add to the watery attractions, while Smakk bar, set within another cosy cavern, offers such delicacies as reindeer pâté, created by a father/son team. 

Back in, Reykjavík, the capital's harbour area offers up a colourful mix of warehouse bars and restaurants where you can watch the endless to-ing and fro-ing of fishing boats. A waymarked coastal path leads out from here, offering the opportunity for a bracing two-mile walk. The water gets wilder away from the wharf, beyond the rock-piled seawall, an ancient setting made sci-fi eerie by the sharp geometric outline of modernistic Seltjarnarnes Church, enthroned on its grassy knoll. At the farthest point, Grótta lighthouse sits on an islet, reachable in a couple of hours around low tide via a rocky causeway, its windswept headland a favourite spot for Northern Lights viewing.

As the day closes over the capital, still only late afternoon, head for Iceland’s tallest building, Hallgrímskirkja, a cathedral-like Lutheran church designed to resemble the island's mountainous scenery, its rocket-like spire spearing skies that turn briefly pink and red before night once again descends.

Otherworldly Black Sand Beach, a volcanic beauty spot an hour's drive east from Reykjavík.

Otherworldly Black Sand Beach, a volcanic beauty spot an hour's drive east from Reykjavík.

Photograph by Getty Images

Into the icy east

Further beyond the city, Iceland’s snowy, eerily flat landscape looks not unlike the grassy plains surrounding Colorado’s Rockies — horses in fields, brief appearances from the icy sun slanting across snow-dusted mountain plateaus. East of the city lies Eyjafjallajökull, the volcano that in 2010 brought the world’s airways to a halt with its ash cloud. Now the two-mile crater has sunk beneath the 40sq mile ice cap — although close by slumbers far more powerful Katla, known to blow in the wake of its sister. Nearby, Seljalandsfoss waterfall is encrusted with ice, its waters punching through into a pool that's surrounded by smaller falls: a thundering frozen panorama hundreds of feet long. Bringing a visitors in from the cold, Seljalandsfoss Shop sells smoked Icelandic lamb sandwiches alongside £100 sheep fleeces. 

As the sun drops and the skies pinken again, it’s the perfect time for Black Sand Beach, a volcanic beauty spot an hour's drive east, backed by cliffs lined with gothic columns of rock that recall the belltower of Hallgrimskirkja church. Known for its violently churning seas, every fifth wave or so swamps the black sands and, not infrequently, selfie-taking tourists. Set just back from the water, Vik is a village turned celebrity since starring in Netflix supernatural thriller series Katla, where volcanic ash-covered undead start emerging after a year-long underground eruption. Here, Strondin serves an exemplary Icelandic fish stew in its hut-like setting, perfect with a warming Brennivín, a potato-brewed aquavit flavoured with cumin. It's fine fuel for a final stop at Skógafoss — another of Iceland's numerous film locations, this one Marvel's movie Thor: The Dark World. Here, the Skóga river, 80ft wide, plummets 200ft from cliffs in a setting that, now three miles inland, millennia ago formed the island’s coast. With such a high volume of water, Skógafoss doesn't freeze in winter, and its tumble and thunder steaming through the surrounding snows is mesmerising. Just don’t stand and watch too long or the spray will turn your coat solid. 

How to do it

Play offers flights from Stansted and Liverpool to Reykjavík up to seven times a week from £39 one way, inclusive of taxes. Grandi Centerhotel offers double rooms from £123 a night B&B.

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