Though it may seem counter-intuitive to plan a winter vacation to a country that leads with “ice” in its very name, Reykjavik, Iceland is a destination worth considering, even during the months where its daylight hours can almost be counted on one hand.
Reykjavik (RAKE-yah-vick) is a small city of just over 100,000 residents, but promises the adventure and amenities, culture and charm of many other vibrant European capitals. Inexpensive, daily non-stop flights on Icelandair from New York, Boston, and Washington, D.C. involve fewer hours spent in the air than flights to the U.S. West Coast. Plus, Icelandair offers layover deals to allow you a few days in Reykjavik, plenty to give a good taste, even if your travel plans are taking you to the European mainland.
With equal opportunities for indoors and outdoors experiences, and whether you are a thrill- or comfort-seeker, here are seven reasons to calibrate your compass toward the north star that is Reykjavik for a few days this winter, where warmth reigns despite the cold.
The sun might not rise until 10:30 a.m., and starts to wane around 4:00 p.m., but there is art in the darkness, and the number one reason travelers seek Iceland in the winter despite the lack of daylight: the promise of the Northern Lights.
The famed Aurora Borealis reward those hearty enough to live in the northern-most habitable places, and the travelers willing to visit, and hit their stride in the darkest months of the year. The best way to observe them is to get away from city lights, and many operators organize evening bus tours into remote areas in hopes of getting a good show. The lights can be fickle, however, and don’t perform on demand, so other options include renting a car and making your own evening treks to the hinterlands, or, on especially vibrant nights, you may just see them out of the window from your hotel.
Reykjavik is a city with a sense of humor and playfulness. One could pass a charming day wandering the town and simply trying to pronounce the street names. But other curiosities will compete for your attention.
For starters, Icelanders have a year-round love of ice cream that keeps vendors open even on the coldest of days, where locals will happily enjoy a cone even while glove-clad and bundled up. Icelanders even have a word for an ice cream road trip: Ísbíltúr. (This is my preferred version of hygge. Nevermind the visit. I am now contemplating moving there.)
Or you might enjoy a selection from the White Russian menu at the charmingly out-of-place Lebowski Bar, before or after making a visit to the eyebrow-raising Icelandic Phallological Museum. (I said eyebrow.)
Blue Lagoon and Reykjavik Sightseeing Tour, $185 on Airbnb
This tour combines the best of the city with a three hour visit to the famed Blue Lagoon.
If you prefer your museum and arts experiences a little more on the traditional side, Reykjavik may be small in size and population, but is mighty in culture. A strong showing of exhibit spaces and organizations range from the historical, such as the Saga Museum, to the counter-cultural, as in the Icelandic Punk Museum (appropriately displayed in repurposed bathroom stalls), to the highbrow, with the exemplary National Gallery of Iceland.
Reykjavik History Walk, $48 on Airbnb
Try a walking tour led by a local to learn more about the city's history.
Reykjavik also boasts a symphony orchestra with weekly concerts, an opera, and numerous professional theaters. Not to mention one of the highest literacy rates in the world, in case a self-guided bookstore tour is your version of hygge.
Even the locals might tell you to avoid the hákarl, politely known as “fermented” shark, more directly translated as “putrefied” shark. That being said, if you fancy yourself the next coming of Bourdain and never to shy away from an eating challenge, the hákarl at Íslenski Barinn is largely considered to be the best.
As for the rest of us, Reykjavik is a culinary destination unto itself, with its seafood-forward cuisine shining in restaurants from the traditional to the contemporary, and amenable to any budget. Try a simple skewer of grilled seafood and a lobster bisque at Seabaron, go for broke with cocktails followed by a tasting menu at Grillmarkaourinn, or try a contemporary, small plates approach at the sparse yet cozy Forréttabarinn.
The Taste of Reykjavik, $49 on Airbnb
Let a local introduce you to some of the best food in town.
This is for those of you who always squealed every time the “a tiny horse” card came up in the original deck of Cards Against Humanity. Iceland has one breed of horse, with no other breeds even allowed on the island. It is indeed small, adorably shaggy, and yet not considered a pony. Ergo: a tiny horse.
If you are so inclined, you should allow time in your itinerary for at least a half-day ride through the lava fields outside of Reykjavik, to experience the breed’s particular, high-spirited gait known as the tölt.
Iceland is a geography fiend’s dream destination in the summer. Even though the entirety of the country isn’t accessible in the winter months, there is still much other-worldly terrain to consume in day trip form, from waterfalls to volcanoes to glaciers.
You can get a good glimpse of the volcano that wreaked havoc on European airspace in 2010, Eyjafjallajökull, and once you learn that the root of its name is just the words for island, mountain, and glacier strung together, you might even be able to pronounce it.
A favorite winter excursion includes strapping on a pair of crampons, gripping a pick ax, and taking a glacier hike on top of the black-and-blue striated Sólheimajökull.
Perhaps Reykjavik’s greatest gift at any time of year is that its famed Blue Lagoon is within striking distance of its airport, and numerous companies arrange for bus transport from Reykjavik to the Lagoon and then on to the airport on your way out of town, or even to and from the airport if all you have is a few hours’ layover.
If there’s a better way to get on an airplane than after a warm soak in a natural, volcanic spa, watching the steam rise from the cerulean waters, followed by the invigorating rush of cold air from the dash between the lagoon and the dressing rooms, I can’t yet conceive of it.
Header image courtesy of darekm101/Getty Images.