The Best Winter Tours and Activities in Iceland

Sightseeing is just one of the popular activities during winter in Iceland

There are many fantastic activities during winter in Iceland, be it glacier hiking, ice caving, or snowmobiling. So, put on your woolly hat, drape your shoulders in a scarf, and let’s explore the many exciting options that an Icelandic winter has in store. 

The winter season in Iceland lasts between November and March. During that time, this otherwise green and pleasant land becomes blanketed with ice and snow, and the nights become so long as to cast each day in perpetual twilight.

A woman skiing in Reykjavík
Photo: Golli. Winter in Iceland presents all kinds of fun activity options.

It should be understood from the outset that there are many activities in Iceland that can be done in both the winter and summer. Great examples are visiting a lava cave, snorkelling or scuba diving in Silfra Fissure, sightseeing on the Golden Circle route, and many more.

Nevertheless, some activities are far better suited to the winter, and these should be prioritised during your visit. Most activities can be taken part in as single tours, but it is often the case that many will be included as part of a full itinerary, such as this Golden Circle Super Jeep tour with Snowmobiling

What glacier tours are available during the winter in Iceland?  

A man inside an Icelandic ice cave
Photo: Skaftafell Blue Ice Cave & Glacier Hike

They don’t call Iceland “the land of ice and fire” for no reason. While it may be true that the country’s fearsome volcanoes have dominated global headlines in recent years, its glaciers remain as impressive and domineering as ever. 

There are 269 glaciers in Iceland, the largest among them being Vatnajökull, which covers around one-tenth of the entire country. With that in mind, it should come as little surprise that this mighty ice cap in southeastern Iceland is a popular choice for glacier tours.

Other tours take place at Langjökull – located in the western Highlands – as well as Mýrdalsjökull, and its outlet glacier Sólheimajökull, which are just north of the quaint coastal village, Vík í Mýrdal. There are also opportunities to explore Snæfellsjökull glacier, on the western promontory of Iceland.

Go hiking up a glacier 

Hiking a glacier is one of many great activities during winter in Iceland
Photo: Skaftafell 5-Hours Adventure Glacier Hike

Equipped with spiky crampons, walking poles, and the gumption to experience new heights, hiking Iceland’s glaciers remains a beloved activity amongst winter travellers. 

Like true mountain men, hikers will revel in the crevasses, moulins, and natural ice sculptures that characterise the pristine glacial landscape. Besides, such dizzying heights allow for breathtaking views of the ocean and surrounding countryside.  

Experience the thrill of snowmobiling 

A man rides a snowmobile across a glacier in Iceland
Photo: Unforgettable Golden Circle & snowmobiling – A Private Tour

Die-hard adrenaline junkies may want to take their exploration of Iceland’s glaciers to the next level. Well, in such a case, there is no better option than taking to the ice on a snowmobile.

With the wind in their hair and the throttle at their thumbs, snowmobiling tours allow guests to cover far more ground (or ice, strictly speaking,) in a way that is both intensely memorable and incredibly fun.

Groups are led by certified guides who will be sure to provide their guests not only with clear leadership and instructions but also with the necessary equipment, including a protective helmet and outerwear.  

Snowmobilers in Iceland pose in front of the Northern Lights
Photo: Private South Coast with Snowmobiling on Eyjafjallajökull volcano

Both beginner and experienced riders alike are quite capable of taking part in a snowmobile tour. Anyone 18 years old or beyond, with a regular driving licence, is free to operate their own machine. Those without a licence can perch a ride as a passenger. 

The best places to take a snowmobiling tour during the winter in Iceland are at the glaciers Langjökull, Mýrdalsjökull, Vatnajökull, and the Tröllaskagi Peninsula. 

Discover crystal blue ice caves  

Tourists in the Sapphire Ice Cave.
Photo: Golli. Tourists in the Sapphire Ice Cave

Beneath Iceland’s mighty ice caps, glittering caverns of sapphire entice visitors to behold their glory each winter season. Ice-caving tours are far easier than they sound, with many having accessible walkways that let you revel in the natural splendour of these frozen environments.

The vast majority of ice caves are naturally formed, with the most popular located beneath Katla and Vatnajökull. There is one notable exception however – the man-made ice tunnels built beneath Iceland’s largest ice cap, Langjökull, best enjoyed as part of the Into The Glacier experience. 


In certain locations around the country, it is even possible for guests to try their hand at ice climbing. While not for the faint of the heart, scaling a wall of frozen water is an experience without comparison. 

Experienced, certified guides will equip new climbers with ice axes and a harness, before relaying all the necessary steps to hone their skills on the ice. Two of the best places to try ice climbing in Iceland are Sólheimajökull glacier and Skaftafell Nature Reserve

Experience the Northern Lights in Iceland 

People observing the Northern Lights in Iceland
Photo: Golli. There is no greater show than seeing the Northern Lights in Iceland’s winter

One of the greatest reasons for visiting Iceland in the winter is the chance to witness an astonishing dance – the Northern Lights! Otherwise known as the Aurora Borealis, Iceland’s skies will, from time to time, erupt in a flurry of colours. Green ribbons. Pink waves. Yellow crests, and dashes of red. 

Ancient Icelanders once treated these solar patterns with wary suspicion. They considered them omens of events to come. Today, they are widely appreciated as synonymous with just how magical winter in Iceland can be. 


As with any natural phenomena, there can be no guarantee of seeing the Northern Lights. But our ability to predict when and where they might appear is better than it ever has been before. There are many dedicated tour operators who will escort you to the best stops, as well as offer handy tips on how best to photograph them. 

If you’re planning to seek out this phenomenon for yourself, be sure to keep an eye on the Aurora Forecasts. That way, you will know when solar activity is at its strongest. Also, plan to seek them out on nights devoid of cloud cover, in locations with little light pollution. 

What wildlife tours are available during the winter in Iceland? 

It might seem too cold for them, but many animals live in Iceland during the winter. With that said, many of the migratory birds that make Iceland their summer home leave during the winter, but that does not mean there are no opportunities to find wildlife. So what are some of the more popular wildlife tours available during this season? 

Whale-watching in the winter in Iceland 

Whales of Iceland
Photo: Golli. Whale Watching in Reykjavík

Whale-watching tours are available in both the winter and summer in Iceland, but the colder season does present some unique opportunities. For one thing, playing witness to the snowy Icelandic landscape from the deck of a seafaring vessel feels strangely fitting for a country so intertwined with the ocean.

There are many whales and dolphins that can be seen in Icelandic coastal waters. Some of the most common species include Minke whales, Humpbacks, and Harbour porpoises. In some areas, it may also be possible to spot Sperm whales, Orcas, and even our planet’s largest living mammal, the mighty Blue whale.


There are also a variety of departure points for your whale-watching adventure. Reykjavik, of course, provides the chance to see these majestic animals in the waters of Faxaflói Bay. Other popular places include northern towns like Akureyri and Húsavík. To the west, on the Snæfellsnes Peninsula, Ólafsvík and Grundarfjörður also provide fantastic sea tours. 

Before embarking on your whale-watching trip, make sure to wear warm layers, a woolly hat, and gloves. To help you stay warm, operators will provide you with outer thermal wear. But winter accessories are still crucial to avoid the sharpness that comes with brisk sea winds. 

Ride Icelandic Horses in winter 

Icelandic horses are a unique breed, bred in isolation in Iceland since settlement times.
Photo: Golli. Riding Icelandic horses is a brilliant winter activity in Iceland.

It is possible to ride Iceland’s majestic, yet stumpy horses in summer and winter, but the latter offers such a fantastic perspective of the landscape, it would seem careless not to give it a special mention. 

Taking to the saddle, your guide will lead you down hidden trails, passing through twisted lava fields and farmland meadows nestled beneath a glittering coat of snow. As your appreciation of Iceland’s rural terrain grows, so too will your love of this special horse breed. 

Horse riding tours are open to both beginner and experienced riders, and your guide will set the pace not only to your ability level, but also your confidence riding. 

With that said, working in close proximity to animals can be nerve-wracking for some people. But if it’s any consolation, Icelandic horses are considered a highly intelligent and patient breed, so have no fear saddling up upon these miniature mounts.   

Soak in Iceland’s Spas and Hot Springs in winter 

A woman and her child relaxing at the Blue Lagoon
Photo: Reykjavík – Blue Lagoon round-trip transfer. Relaxing at the Blue Lagoon in Iceland.

There are countless ways of staying active during the winter in Iceland, but on vacation, a more appealing option can be to simply slow down, relax, and unwind. 

In such circumstances, the nation’s luxury geothermal spas and steamy hot springs provide the perfect antidote. Note that hot springs describe pools that are found naturally within the landscape; the former are specific attractions that will often require pre-booking. 

Feel the heat in Luxury Spas across Iceland 

There are many fantastic mineral-rich spas to choose from. As Iceland’s most famous luxury retreat,
the Blue Lagoon is an obvious choice. With its milky blue waters and silica-rich mud masks, it is little wonder that this geothermal bath has become one of Iceland’s best-known attractions. 

Surrounded by the dark volcanic fields of the Reykjavik Peninsula, many guests choose to stop by the Blue Lagoon either at the beginning or the end of their vacation. This is for the simple fact that Keflavík Airport is only a short distance away. 


But there are many other great spas to choose from. One of the newest to the scene is the Sky Lagoon, only a five-minute drive from downtown Reykjavik and boasting a stunning infinity pool. 

This horizon edge on the water allows for great views of the ocean. More than that – the President of Iceland’s iconic residence. Guests can also take part in their healing wellness ritual. It includes a warm sauna inside a reconstructed turfhouse, a mist shower, a refreshing cold plunge. 

There are many other spas located elsewhere across the country. In Reykholt, for instance, Krauma Baths offer serenity and comfort through warm waters fed by Europe’s most powerful hot spring, Deildartunguhver. 

Not far away, in the village of Flúðir, the Secret Lagoon adds a sense of authenticity to your experience. It is built beside the steaming hot pockets of the Hverahólmi geothermal area. The Secret Lagoon is well known as the oldest outdoor geothermal pool in Iceland. 

In the north, Myvatn Nature Baths has delighted guests since first opening in 2004 with its placid blue waters and lakeside views. 

Embrace nature with Iceland’s hot springs 

Enjoying Reykjadalur hot river in Iceland's winter
Photo: Reykjadalur Steam Valley Hike & Geothermal Baths Private Tour

For anyone hoping to avoid the inevitable artificiality that comes with Iceland’s luxury spas, the nation’s naturally-formed hot springs might be a better bet. 

But first, a word of warning – temperatures can vary greatly between hot springs, so make sure not to hurt yourself by jumping in without checking their heat levels first. 

Hrunalaug is one of the more isolated, yet widely beloved hot springs. This small, but local-favourite is closeby to Flúðir village. You will need to venture off the beaten track to find it. Whilst not built-up by any means, Hrunalaug does have a small and rustic changing hut on-site. It provides some level of shelter when changing in and out of your swimsuit. 

Another popular hot spring – or should we say, river – can be discovered amidst the sloping hillsides of Reykjadalur Valley. Nearby to Hveragerði town, the hot river can be visited after a beautiful 3 km [1.8 mi] hike. Please be vigilant that some parts of the river are much hotter than others. So do be sure to, at least, dip a toe in before jumping in with abandon. 

In Summary 

Posing at an ice berg during winter in Iceland
Photo: Golli. A traveller posing at Diamon Beach in South Iceland.

For those who can handle the cold weather, Iceland’s winter season promises a variety of experiences like nowhere else can. 

Be you an adventure-seeker or a travelling homebody, you’re promised memories sure to stick with you for years to come. 

A City Guide to Reykjavík, Iceland

Miðborg Reykjavíkur - tekið úr byggingakrana

The capital of Iceland, Reykjavík, is a colourful and booming city, filled with culture and vibrant street art and home to just about 140.000 people. Over the past decade, the city has become a popular tourist destination as it hosts a lot of exciting sights and offers a great variety of restaurants and bars. 

To help you get the best out of your trip to Reykjavík, check out our guide below so you can best navigate what to do, see, eat or where to stay in the city.


What to See in Reykjavík


Iceland’s Tallest Church Hallgrímskirkja

The country’s largest church is located in Reykjavík’s centre and towers over the city. The church’s architecture is inspired by basalt columns found in Iceland’s natural landscape as the architect, Guðjón Samúelsson, was fascinated by the shapes that form from cool lava. The church is now one of Iceland’s landmark symbols and adds a touch of the country’s unique geological features to the city. Admission is free; however, tickets are available in the church shop once you enter to go up the church’s tower. 

Admission: ISK 1,400. Children 7-16: ISK 100, free for children under 7.

Hallgrímskirkja Church in Reykjavík, Iceland
Photo: Hallgrímskirkja Church in Reykjavík, Iceland


Reykjavík’ Concert Hall Harpa

Harpa is a cultural and social centre right by the Reykjavík harbour, known for its grand events and concerts. Harpa was opened in 2011 and has since received numerous awards for its architecture and as a concert and conference centre. 

See the upcoming events at Harpa here.


Perlan: A panoramic view over Reykjavík 

Perlan is a well-known landmark featuring a panoramic observation deck. However, its main attractions are a nature museum, glacier experience and interactive exhibits. The unique structure of the building sits on top of six water tanks and houses a cafe and a revolving restaurant on its top floor. 

Admission: ISK 5,390. Children 6-17: ISK 3,390, free for children under 6. Family Ticket: ISK 14,990.


Reykjavík’s main street Laugavegur

Laugavegur is the main street of Reykjavík, offering a large variety of shops, bars, restaurants, bookstores, art galleries and more. Strolling around the surrounding streets, you can also discover a great variety of all the above, which can make a pleasant day.


Reykjavík Rainbow Street: Skólavörðustígur

In 2015, in honour of Reykjavík Pride, the street was painted in vibrant colours and has since then become a popular attraction. The Rainbow Street is located in a street called Skólavörðustígur, directly connected to Laugavegur.

People in the rain on Skólavörðustígur street, Reykjavík.
Photo: Golli. Rainbow Street, Skólavörðustígur, Reykjavík.


See the Reykjavík pond – Tjörnin

The Reykjavík pond, Tjörnin, is a central point of Reykjavík where you can discover birdlife with species such as swans, ducks and more. Many cultural hotspots are located all around, such as the Iðnó culture house or Tjarnarbíó theatre.


See the Street Art of Reykjavík 

Making the city a more colourful and vibrant one, street artists have added their touch to the sides of buildings throughout Reykjavík. Walk through the city streets and notice the beauty and colours all around.  


What to Do in Reykjavík


Visit the Reykjavík City Museum

The Reykjavík City Museum takes visitors on a journey through the city’s history and diversity in an interesting and dynamic way. The museum consists of five different exhibitions in and around the city centre. The exhibitions are at Aðalstræti, Viðey Island, the Reykjavík Maritime Museum, Reykjavík Museum of Photography and Árbær Open Air Museum. Each one has a different story to tell about the city’s history and culture.


Explore Whales during Reykjavík Whale Watching

Embark on a voyage and explore the world of whales in Iceland with excellent guidance and insight from expert crew and specially trained naturalists. Marine biologists will bring you expert guidance and teach you all about the incredible wildlife of Iceland. 

Read more about available whale-watching tours and purchase tickets here. 


Fly Over Iceland

Centrally located near the fishing harbour is Fly Over Iceland, a simulated flight ride that allows you to enjoy Iceland’s most breathtaking scenery and natural wonders in only 20 minutes. During the experience, you will hang suspended with feet dangling before a 20-metre curved screen while the film takes you on a journey over Iceland. 

Admission: ISK 5,690. Children under 12: ISK 3,690.

Read more about Fly Over Iceland and purchase tickets here.


Visit the Icelandic Phallological Museum

The Icelandic Phallological Museum is, in fact, the world’s only penis museum and is dedicated to collecting, studying and presenting to guests real phalluses and all things related. The museum hosts phalluses from different species, with donations from all over the globe, even including one from a human! 

Admission: ISK 3,000.


Sky Lagoon 

Soak in a luxurious thermal bath and breathe in Sky Lagoon’s fresh Atlantic Ocean air. Located oceanside, only about ten minutes from Reykjavík’s city centre, the lagoon offers a unique spa experience, including a seven-step bathing ritual. The lagoon offers the option of buying a ticket, including shuttle transfer, for an additional fee.

Admission: ISK 6,790.

Read more about available tours to the Sky Lagoon and purchase tickets here.

Sky Lagoon Iceland
Photo: Signe – Sky Lagoon


Take a Ferry to Viðey Island

Located just off the coast of Reykjavík is the historical island Viðey. The island is only about 1.7 km² [0.65 mi²] but is a popular destination due to its combination of art, history and nature. One of Reykjavík’s City Museum exhibitions is located on Viðey, as well as the Imagine Peace Tower, an outdoor work of art by Yoko Ono in memory of John Lennon. The ferry sails from the Old Harbour over the summer months but from the Skarfabakki pier over the winter months. 

You can see the full ferry schedule here

Ferry admission: ISK 2,100. Children 7-17: ISK 1,050, free for children under 7.

A view of Viðey Island with Esja mountain in background
Photo: Golli – Viðey Island


Visit Reykjavík’s Flea Market Kolaportið 

Kolaportið is Iceland’s largest flea market and is located indoors in the city’s centre. The flea market is open every Saturday and Sunday and offers various second-hand clothing, jewellery, food and more. 


Explore the Nightlife in Reykjavík 

The nightlife scene in Reykjavík is quite vibrant, attracting travellers from around the world. Many of the city’s bars and clubs are located in Laugavegur and its surrounding streets, making bar hopping and nightlife exploring relatively easy. Some of Reykjavík’s popular bars include Tipsý Cocktail Bar, Jungle, English Bar, and Kiki.


Relax in the Geothermal Pools 

Experience authentic Icelandic bathing culture in one of the many geothermal pools in Reykjavík. Sundhöll Reykjavíkur is the oldest public pool in Iceland and is, furthermore, the only public pool located in downtown Reykjavík. The pool consists of hot tubs, a large swimming pool, a cold tub and a sauna, making it a relaxing experience in the busy city centre.

Sundhöll swimming pool Reykjavík
Photo: Golli – Sundhöll Reykjavíkur/Swimming Pool of Reykjavík


Where to stay in Reykjavík

When staying in Reykjavík, the city centre, Miðborg Reykjavíkur, offers the most extensive variety of hotels, hostels and Airbnb’s. When staying in the city centre, most of the main attractions of Reykjavík are easily accessible by foot, in addition to the city’s restaurants, bars and cultural centres being located all around, making it a convenient option to stay. Below are a few popular hotels located in Miðborg Reykjavíkur.


Canopy by Hilton

The concept behind the Canopy Hotel is about living like a local through design, food and beverage, art and knowledge. The hotel is located at Smiðjustígur, by the main street of Laugavegur.


Center Hotels Laugavegur

A modern, urban, and cosy hotel located very centrally at Reykjavík’s main street, Laugavegur.  Highly recommended for travellers who want to be right in the middle of things!


Reykjavík Marina

The Reykjavík Marina Hotel is situated next to a historical dry-dock called Slippur in a renovated four-story building that has become a landmark in Iceland.


What are the Best Places to Eat in Reykjavík

Reykjavík offers a wide variety of cafes and restaurants where anyone can find something to their liking, whether it be fish, vegetarian food, Italian food, or the ever-rising New Nordic style cuisine.


The food halls of Reykjavík 

The popularity of food halls has been increasing vastly in recent years, with Hlemmur Food Hall becoming the first one to open in Reykjavík in 2017. Amongst other food halls in Reykjavík’s city centre are Grandi Food Hall, Pósthús Food Hall and Hafnartorg Gallery. Each of them offers a good variety of different cuisines and a sizeable sharing-style table setting. 

Read more about the food halls of Reykjavík here.



A fine dining experience offering unique dishes and cooking methods inspired by the Icelandic landscape. The restaurant was awarded Iceland’s first Michelin star in 2017 and has since continued to bring eccentric and delicious dishes to its guests.


The Fish Market: Fiskmarkaðurinn 

Founded in 2007, The Fish Market serves New Style Seafood Cuisine and is located in the heart of Reykjavík. The restaurant’s unique atmosphere and tasty seafood dishes have made it one of the most popular dining destinations in Reykjavík.



Rok Restaurant, located on Frakkarstígur, offers a wide selection of small dishes in a fine-casual style. The restaurant offers a fun food experience in a relaxed environment.


Ítalía restaurant

Ítalía Restaurant, or Restaurant Italy, is one of the longest-standing restaurants in Reykjavík, founded in 1991. As the name implies, the restaurant offers classic Italian dishes for a fair price.


Bæjarins Bestu Hot Dogs 

Bæjarins Bestu, or the town’s best, are Iceland’s famous hot dogs and is one of the oldest operating companies in Iceland. As the name states, the hot dogs are claimed to be the town’s best and have had many well-known visitors, such as Bill Clinton and Kim Kardashian. 

Bæjarins Bestu hot dog stand in Reykjavík.
Photo: Bæjarins Bestu hot dog stand in Reykjavík.


How do I get around in Reykjavík?

Getting around in Reykjavík is a topic many wonder about. When staying in central Reykjavík, you might realise how small and compact the city centre is, making it easy to get around on foot. However, other options are available, for instance, during the cold winter months or when going longer distances, where you can choose from buses, taxis or Hopp scooters. 

Read more about how to get around in Reykjavík here.


How much time do I need in Reykjavík?

As seen further up in the article, Reykjavík offers multiple exciting sights and experiences. Depending on the total length of your stay and the traveller’s preferences, about three days would be enough to explore the city’s main sights without rushing. However, many travellers prefer to stay in Reykjavík, keeping that as their base and taking day tours from there, which is a viable option. 

Iceland’s Diamond Circle: A Guide

Húsavík in Northern Iceland

What is the Diamond Circle in Iceland?

The Diamond Circle showcases some of northern Iceland’s magnificent waterfalls, geothermal, and volcanic sites. It consists of Goðafoss waterfall, Mývatn lake, Dettifoss waterfall, Ásbyrgi canyon, and Húsavík fishing town. The Diamond Circle itself can be completed in a day, as the driving distance with Akureyri as a starting point is about 224 km [139 mi]. The total time will vary based on the time spent at each site. Guided excursions and tours are available, but you can also choose to explore The Diamond Circle independently, at your own pace. The roads connecting the Diamond Circle are paved.

We will start in Akureyri, the third-largest city in Iceland, with a population of 20,000. The 390 km drive to Akureyri from the capital area is quite simple, as you drive on the same road the whole way- Route 1 or the “Ring Road” as it’s often called.

Goðafoss Waterfall

From Akureyri, you will continue on Route 1 for about 34 km [21 mi] before turning right towards Goðafoss.

On the sightseeing platform, you can take in the panoramic view of this 12 m [39 ft] high, 30 m [98 ft] wide waterfall that runs from the glacial river Skjálfandafljót. Goðafoss waterfall is a historic site in Iceland. In the year 1,000, Þorgeir Þorkellsson, the lawmaker of Iceland, had concluded that Iceland should become a Christian country. Believing in the Norse gods was still allowed, but that religion had to be practised in one’s home. He is said to have gone to Goðafoss waterfall (translated as “Waterfall of the Gods”) and thrown his heathen idols into the water.

Goðafoss Waterfall, Iceland
Photo: Golli. Goðafoss Waterfall in Iceland.

The geothermal area of Mývatn Lake

Return to Route 1, turning right to keep driving towards Mývatn lake. 30 km [22 mi], turn left to stay on Route 1, following the Húsavík/Egilsstaðir/Fuglasafn sign. Shortly, you will see the lake and can pick a stop of your choosing along the route- there will be several.

Mývatn lake was formed about 2,300 years ago due to a volcanic eruption. With an area of approximately 73 km2 [28 mi2], it’s the fourth-largest lake in Iceland. Mývatn lake is known for its rich birdlife and its surrounding geothermal area, including hot springs and mud pots.

You may want to experience the Mývatn Nature Baths for a relaxing stop. To get to the baths, stay on Route 1. Following the sign for Egilsstaðir, turn left to continue on Route 1. Follow the signs for Jarðböðin við Mývatn (Mývatn Nature Baths) and enjoy the beauty of this geothermal lagoon. This area also has a cafe where you can stop by for a snack.

Dettifoss Waterfall

From the baths, turn right to continue on Route 1 for 23 km [14 mi]. Then, turn left towards Dettifoss on Route 862 and follow the signs for Dettifoss. You will arrive at a parking lot. From the lot, there will be about an 850 m [0.52 mi] walk to the viewpoint. Dettifoss waterfall is the most powerful waterfall in Europe, with a flow rate of 193 m3 [6,815 ft3]. Dettifoss is located in Vatnajökull National Park, and its water runs from the glacial river “Jökulsá á fjöllum” directly from Europe’s largest glacier, Vatnajökull. The waterfall is 44-45 m [144-147 ft] high and 100 m [328 ft] wide.

Ásbyrgi Canyon in North Iceland

Return to Dettifossvegur (Route 862) and turn right. When you approach the intersection of Route 862 and Route 85, turn right. Shortly, there will be a sign for Ásbyrgi canyon.

Ásbyrgi is a glacial canyon in the shape of a horseshoe. Like Dettifoss waterfall, it’s a part of Vatnajökull National Park. Ásbyrgi was formed due to a glacial flood from Jökulsár á fjöllum river during a volcanic eruption in Grímsvötn volcano. Ásbyrgi is about 3.5 km [2.2 mi] long and 1.1 km [0.7 mi] wide. In the middle stands a large 25 m [82 ft] high rock formation called Eyjan (The Island), emphasising the canyon’s horseshoe shape. Its surrounding cliffs are about 100 m [328ft] high. You can choose from several hiking trails with stunning panoramic views along the way.

Húsavík: Whale Watching Capital of Iceland

To get to Húsavík from Ásbyrgi, drive back towards Route 85 and make a left. The drive is 62 km [38 mi] long.
Húsavík is a small fishing town in Skjálfandi bay, with a population of about 2,300. It is home to The Exploration Museum, The Whale Museum and Húsavík Museum. The Húsavík Museum is a cultural centre displaying the historic exhibitions “Daily Life and Nature-100 years in Þingeyjarsýslur” as well as the “Maritime Museum”. This picturesque town is a prime whale-watching destination, offering tours to see some of the 23 species of whales. Húsavík has several restaurants and cafes with a beautiful view of the harbour.

Akureyrarkirkja Church, Akureyri Iceland
Photo: Akureyrarkirkja Church, Iceland.

Back to Akureyri

To return to Akureyri, drive south on Route 85 for 45 km [28 mi] until you hit Route 1. Make a right and continue for 30 km [19 mi] following the signs for Akureyri.

From the trembling power of Dettifoss waterfall to the tranquillity of Mývatn lake, the Diamond Circle is a great route to experience the distinct beauty of northern Iceland. It unveils the region‘s geological wonders of volcanic and geothermal areas, waterfalls, and cultural sites, making the trip an exciting adventure for any explorer.


Whales of Iceland: Which whales can you find around Iceland?

Whales of Iceland

Iceland is a fantastic place to observe whales. Due to its prime location in the North Atlantic Ocean, many whales migrate to Icelandic waters to feed during the warmer summer months. More than 20 whale species call the Icelandic waters their home. Venturing out on one of the many whale-watching tours is usually one of the easiest ways to spot the cetaceans, but some lucky devils might also catch a glimpse of a whale from Iceland’s shores! 

If you’re interested in finding the best whale-watching tours in Iceland, make sure also to check out our whale-watching guide and find the best spots to observe these large ocean mammals!

Here’s a guide to all the whale species around Iceland and their favourite spots.

Whales of Iceland

Whale species in Iceland

Whales are warm-blooded mammals which nurse their offspring and need to come up to the surface to breathe air. Interestingly enough, all whales have hair in some way or another. Most whales have their hair follicles, whereas land mammals have their whiskers today. Humpback whales, for instance, have bumps on their head, each containing a follicle with a single hair! The existence of hair might be a remnant of their land-mammal ancestors. Whales and cows (and other hoofed animals) actually share a common ancestor about 50 million years ago!

Whales belong to the cetacea category, also including dolphins and porpoises. Whale species can generally be distinguished into toothed and baleen whales. While baleen whales, like blue whales and humpback whales, have – well – baleens to filter their food, toothed whales like orcas (also commonly known as “killer whales”), beluga whales and pilot whales use their teeth to hunt and eat larger prey items.

Due to their proximity to the Arctic, Icelandic waters are rich in nutrients, such as krill, small fish, and other small crustaceans. That is why many whales spend their summers in colder waters off the shores of Iceland, Canada and Greenland. They stay in these waters for 4 to 6 months, eating and bulking up in blubber as a food reserve for the winter months when they migrate back to tropical areas for breeding and calving season, where food is scarce.

Whales of Iceland
Whale-Watching in Faxaflói, Reykjavík (credit: Golli)

Baleen whales around Iceland

Baleen whales are among the biggest species on our planet and are generally larger than toothed whales. In contrast to toothed whales, they have two blowholes on the top of their head, whereas toothed whales only have one. With their baleen plates, they mostly feed on plankton, especially krill, which are tiny crustaceans that can be found in all the world’s oceans. Baleen whales also have wide ranges and usually migrate thousands of kilometres to reach their destination. Generally, baleen whales tend to be slower than their toothed peers, with a few exceptions: one of them is the fin whale, also called the Greyhound of the sea.

Blue whale
Blue Whale
Swimming blue whale (credit: NOAA)

Famously known as the biggest animal that has ever lived, the blue whale also visits Iceland during summer. Female animals can reach a length of up to 32 metres (104 ft), while their male counterparts reach about 27 metres (88 ft). In Iceland, we have the northern blue whale, mostly found in the north of Iceland. Húsavík is the whale-watching capital of Iceland, and even though it is quite rare, there have been sightings of blue whales nearly every year! 

In a single mouthful of water, a blue whale can engulf over 100 tonnes of water and eat up between 10 and 22 tonnes of krill per day (22,000-48,000 pounds). As blue whales produce very tall blows (about 10m/32ft), they are easily spotted. Usually, they can dive for more than 30 minutes, making it quite possible to observe one on a whale-watching tour! “Icelandic” blue whales usually migrate here from places like the Azores and the northwest coast of Africa, though not all migration routes are known.

During the peak of commercial whaling, thousands of animals were killed, leading to repercussions in blue whale populations today. The species is on the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) Red Endangered Species list. In Iceland, blue whales have been protected from whaling since 1960.

Fin whale
hvalur whaling in iceland
Dead fin whale at the whaling station on Hvalfjörður (credit: Golli)

Fin whales are the second largest animal on earth after blue whales. In contrast to their blue whale peers, they are also called the greyhounds of the sea, as they can reach a very fast speed (for their size) of a maximum of 47 km/h (15mi/h) in small outbursts. Females can reach a length of about 18-20 metres (65ft). Fin whales tend to favour offshore waters between Iceland and Greenland as their summer feeding grounds and are usually quite far out – further than whale-watching observation grounds. As blue whales and fin whales share their feeding areas within Icelandic water, there are cases where the two species have produced offspring together, so-called hybrids.

The worldwide population of fin whales is considered vulnerable, with about 40,000 individuals in the entire North Atlantic. Unfortunately, Iceland is still one of the only countries to commercially whale – and the only nation left that hunts fin whales. After a short hiatus, whaling in Iceland resumed in the last few years, killing hundreds of fin whales and small numbers of hybrid whales for meat export to Japan. If you’re interested in reading more about whale hunting in Iceland, you can check out our recent feature article here and listen to our Deep North podcast episode here.

Humpback whale
Whales of Iceland
Humpback whale munching on some food in Faxaflói, Reykjavík (credit: Golli)

Humpback whales are one of the kinds that are most commonly observed from the shores or on whale-watching tours in Iceland. Female humpbacks reach an average length of about 15 metres (50ft), while males are up to 14 metres in size. Due to their agility, they often breach, making it easy to spot them! In the summer of 2019, humpbacks were seen on 28 out of 31 days from whale watching tours in Reykjavík!

Usually, humpback whales like to stay in solitude but occasionally stay in small groups and pairs. Interestingly enough, they have various hunting techniques, like bubble-net feeding, where they swim beneath a school of fish and release air bubbles, which trap the fish in the bubble net, making it easy and clever for them to catch their prey!

Minke whale
Minke whale Iceland
Minke whale swimming about (credit: Wikimedia Commons/Waielbi)

While the previous baleen whales have all been massive in size, the minke whale is the smallest species of baleen whales found around Iceland. The North Atlantic minke whale is dark grey with a white belly and distinctive white bands on their pectoral fins. 

They usually surface quite often before venturing on a deeper dive that lasts approximately 20 minutes. They are, therefore, quite commonly spotted from whale watching boatsMinke whales are the most common whales in the coastal Icelandic waters, with approximately 13,000 individuals. Iceland stopped hunting the species in 2019.

Sei whale
A mother Sei Whale and it's calf.
A sei whale mother and her calf (credit: Christin Khan, NOAA)

Sei whales are the third-largest baleen whales. Just like fin whales, they are very fast and prefer offshore waters. They are, therefore, not very likely to be spotted either from land or on a whale-watching tour. According to observations, there are about 10,000 individuals in the North Atlantic, with the most animals between Iceland and Greenland. During the height of modern whaling in the 20th century, the population of sei whales also decreased drastically after stocks of prior “popular” hunted whales were nearly depleted. Since the late 70s, the population size has slowly been recovering.

Grey whale
A grey whale breaching in Alaska (credit: Merrill Gosho, NOAA)

These large species can reach a maximum length of about 15 metres (50ft) and cannot be found in the North Atlantic, and therefore Iceland, anymore. You might wonder why they are then mentioned on the list of whales around Iceland. Well, a long time ago, grey whales were abundant around Europe. However, due to extensive whaling dating back as early as AD 500, the species was driven to extinction in that region. In Iceland, grey whales have been wiped out since the early 1700s. Nowadays, grey whales can only be found in the Pacific Ocean.

Toothed whales around Iceland

Toothed whales generally feed on fish and squid. They utilise their teeth for capturing and tearing their prey into smaller pieces, but they don’t chew them as we humans would. Most toothed whales use echolocation to communicate and hunt.

Orca / Killer whale
Orca, Whales of Iceland
An orca in the wild (credit: Felix Rottmann)

This apex predator can kill great white sharks without trouble and is also part of Iceland’s flourishing ocean wildlife! Orcas are highly intelligent, and they usually hunt in groups. They have quite a diverse diet, eating everything from fish, and sharks, to seals and other whales. The best place to see orcas in Iceland is on the Snæfellsnes peninsula with Láki tours from Ólafsvík. If herring is in the fjord, orcas can also often be spotted in the winter months – but the best time for observing them is from March until June. Check out orca whale-watching tours here

Pilot whale
Pilot whales
Pilot whale pod (credit: Bill Thompson/USFWS)

Long-finned pilot whales can be found in the North Atlantic and the Southern Hemisphere. The animals are very sociable, forming large groups of 20 to 150 individuals, but the pods can reach up to thousands of individuals. They form very strong bonds within their matrilineal group, with other adult animals often “babysitting” calves, even when they’re not closely related. 

Pilot whales frequently beach themselves, and often, the whole pod follows one leading animal, leading to hundreds dying. In 2019, around 50 pilot whales beached on the Snæfellsness peninsula, which was Iceland’s second-largest mass stranding of the past 40 years. It is not too usual to see pilot whales on whale-watching tours, but with some luck, you could definitely catch sight of a pod offshore the Snæfellsness peninsula!

Beluga whale
Beluga whales Little White & Little Grey take their first swim in their Beluga Whale Sanctuary home in Iceland
Little White & Little Grey in Klettsvík bay on Heimaey (credit: Sea Life Trust)

The “Canaries of the Sea” – as the species is often called due to their high vocality and use of various songs, clicks and whistles. Belugas have a distinct melon-shaped head with the melon – as it’s called – consisting of oil, which helps echolocation. Their vertebrae in the neck are not fused, so they can turn their heads without moving their white bodies, making their movement seem quite human-like. 

Belugas are not commonly seen in Iceland, but two rescued beluga whales are in the Sea Life sanctuary on Heimaey in the Westman Islands. Little White and Little Grey were rescued from an aquarium in Shanghai, and it is planned for them to move into a bay on the island for more freedom.

Narwhal Iceland
A narwhal and its great tusk near the Karl Alexander and Jackson Islands (northern part of the Franz Josef Land archipelago), June 2019 (credit: Wikimedia Commons, press service of Gazprom Neft PJSC)

Narwhals (Yes, they are spelled like that), also commonly referred to as the unicorns of the sea due to their unique ivory tusk, are excellent deep divers, reaching depths up to 800 metres (2,600ft). They travel in pods of about 20-30 animals. Their tusk grows out of their mouths into a spiral and possesses millions of nerve endings, helping them sense their surroundings. The tusk can reach a size of up to 3 metres (10ft). Interestingly enough, the tusk is the animals’ only tooth – so they swallow their prey whole! 

Generally, narwhal sightings in Iceland are pretty rare, with their natural habitat being in the Arctic waters of Canada, Greenland, Norway and Russia. Rarely they can be spotted in the far north of Iceland. 

Sperm whale
Sperm whale Iceland
A sperm whale mother with her calf (credit: Gabriel Barathieu, Wikimedia Commons)

Sperm whales are the largest toothed whales, reaching lengths between 11-16 metres (36-50ft). The species regularly dives to depths of 500-1000 metres (1640-3280ft) and can remain underwater for up to 40 minutes. They are quite known for their strong echolocation clicks, which they use to search for prey and communicate with their peers. Their top prey are medium-large squid and fish, with some sperm whales even carrying battle scars with giant squid! Interestingly enough, sperm whales around Iceland tend to hunt bony fish rather than squid. 

They are not often observed around the shores of Iceland, as they spend very little time at the surface, but they can be found off Iceland’s west coast and occasionally in the north of Iceland in late spring and summer.

The Whales of Iceland Museum

If you want to see all the mentioned whales above and even more in life-size, we highly recommend checking out the Whales of Iceland museum in Reykjavík. You can learn more about these fantastic animals inhabiting Icelandic waters in their exhibition. It’s also a great choice, in case the weather should be bad and your whale-watching tour has been cancelled! The museum is located in Grandi, right by the ocean, next to the big supermarket chain Krónan. 

Check out their website here.

You can book a whale-watching tour here.

Almost One Thousand Orcas Identified in Icelandic Waters

A new photo catalog has identified 987 individual orcas (also known colloquially as killer whales), primarily in the area around the Snæfellsnes peninsula in West Iceland. The catalog is the culmination of a ten-year project undertaken by whale watching tour guide and Orca Guardians founder Marie-Thérèse Mrusczok, in cooperation with the West Iceland Nature Research Center.

“An overall aim of our year-round identification work both from land and sea is to record as many individual killer whales as possible moving through the area, with as few knowledge gaps as possible, extending fieldwork over the longest achievable period of time,” reads the report introduction. “This will help identify potential critical habitat / important feeding grounds of the Icelandic orca population and provide crucial knowledge for conservation measures. Furthermore, collecting data (and an average of 40,000 photographs) in the same area throughout the year gives unique insights into migration patterns, social structure, and feeding habits of repeatedly documented individuals. The catalogue is thus used as a tool to aid in conservation work, for the long-term monitoring of the population, and as a reference document for ongoing and future research.”

The orcas represented in the catalog were photographed during whale watching tours made around Snæfellsnes from 2011 – 2021. Marie-Thérèse then analyzed the 330,000 resulting photos, using the shape, size, and scarring on the animals’ dorsal fins as points of reference, “as well as shape, pigmentation, and scarring patterns of the saddle patch (brighter skin area below and behind the dorsal fin).” Every orca has a unique set of these identifying characteristics.

Whenever possible, the catalog includes both a left- and right-side dorsal photograph of each orca, along with their tag number. Some of the orcas even have names: Butterfly, Blackout, D’Artagnan, Thor, Minotaurus, Kaktus, Mrs. Torrance, Redrum, Raggabagga, Díva, Detour, Dave, Scruffles, Ívar, Lionheart, Grettir, Vagabond, Ebenezer, Mister Wriggle, Hangover, Nixie, Elena, Ashfall.

Most of the photographs were taken around Snæfellsnes and, as such, the vast majority of identifications, or 961 whales, were made in that area. Marie-Thérèse then augmented the Snæfellsnes data with photos taken in Steingrímsfjörður, Ísafjörður and Látrabjarg in the Westfjords; Skjálfandi Bay in the North; Borgarfjörður eystri in the East, and areas further east of Iceland; Hvalfjörður, the waters south of Grindavík, and Faxaflói Bay in the Southwest near Reykjavík; and the waters south of Vík in the South of Iceland. This additional data made it possible to identify an additional 26 whales, bringing the full catalog total to 987.

The current photographic catalog is far more extensive than the one that came before it in 2017, which only identified 322 whales. This is not a result of a jump in orca population, the report clarifies, but rather improved documentation and observation. The identification project is ongoing, and so the catalog will continue to be updated in the future.

The full report is available (in English) via pdf on the Orca Guardians website, here.


Humpback Whales Sighted Close to Shore in North Iceland

A pair of humpback whales was sighted close to shore in North Iceland, Vísir reports.

The whales were captured in a drone video taken by Dalvík resident Jóhann Már Kristinsson, who was on his way to work when a friend, who happens to own a whale watching company, called and urged him to join an outgoing tour as whales had been spotted in the area.

“Straight to the point. A humpback whale really putting his all into catching its lunch,” wrote Jóhann on Twitter. “Right offshore btw I was on dry land when I took this,” he continued. “WILD! Then swam off with its cousin. Satisfied and happy.”

Jóhann wasn’t able to make it onto the whale watching boat, but found a vantage point near Múlagöng, the tunnel that connects Dalvík and Ölafsfjörður, from which he was able to take his drone video.

Whale of a Watching Season in North Iceland

This summer has been particularly good for whale watching in North Iceland, Vísir reports. According to one representative, Freyr Antonsson of Arctic Adventures in the North Iceland village of Dalvík, his company made 180 whale watching trips in July and saw a whale on all but four of them.

“We’ve had to sail a bit further out than where their food supply is, but there’s nothing unusual about that,” he remarked. “Yesterday, I went on three trips. In the morning, I saw one humpback, in the middle of the day, I saw five, and then one in the later part of the day. All in the same spot.”

There have been reports that few whales have been sighted of late in Eyjafjörður, the fjord on which the town of Akureyri is located. According to Freyr and others in the whale watching industry, however, that problem hasn’t extended beyond the fjord.

Whale Watching Companies Condemn Whaling Report

Whale watching Iceland

It is unclear whether the University of Iceland’s Institute of Economic Studies consulted whale watching operators while researching a controversial report on whaling’s economic impact, RÚV reports. “It’s actually stated in the report that whale watching companies were contacted but we still haven’t found the party in question,” stated Aðalsteinn Svan Hjelm, marketing manager at the country’s oldest whale watching company in Hauganes, North Iceland. The report, commissioned by the Ministry of Industry and Innovation and intended to study the economic impact of whaling in Iceland, has received widespread criticism.

Aðalsteinn says the whale watching industry called for a comprehensive report on the impact of whaling last year, but the report that was conducted does not appear to answer that demand. “We don’t see that in this report as a point of departure, rather maybe that it’s justifying hunting whales irrespective of the rest of us,” he remarked.

Aðalsteinn says that despite having spoken to many of the largest companies in the business, none report having been called or interviewed in connection with the report. “And still the report implies right in the introduction that all parties were consulted,” Aðalsteinn observed. “And then of course neither the Icelandic Travel Industry Association nor Ice Whale (the Icelandic whale watching association) were contacted.”

Rannveig Grétarsdóttir, CEO of whale watching company Elding and chair of Ice Whale, leveled similar critiques last week during a TV interview. “It’s very strange,” she said. “I have 40% of the whale watching in the country and am the chair of Ice Whale, and no one talked to me.”

Report on Economic Impact of Whaling Incites Criticism

A recent report on the economic impact of whaling has incited criticism and accusations of bias, RÚV reports. A primary point of contention is that the report characterises nature conservation groups as terrorist organisations and suggests that Icelandic legislators should perhaps consider levying anti-terrorist legislation against them, as is done in other countries.

The report was co-authored by economist Oddgeir Ágúst Ottesen at the Institute of Economic Studies. Minister for the Environment Guðmundur Ingi Guðbrandsson expressed some disbelief about the terrorist characterisation and said that it made him wonder about the authors’ personal motivations. Moreover, he says that he has some doubts about the correlations that the report draws.

Rannveig Grétarsdóttir, the CEO of whale watching company Elding and the chair of the Whale Watching Association of Iceland, leveled similar critiques earlier in the week during a current events TV program where she and Oddgeir debated the report and its claims. Rannveig didn’t mince words, calling the report one-sided propaganda.

“There is a lot of propaganda in the report,” said Rannveig, continuing by saying that its findings read like foregone conclusions. It discussed the impact of whale watching on whaling, but not the reverse, she said, and neglected to get the opinion of anyone in the whale watching industry.

“It’s very strange,” she said. “I have 40% of the whale watching in the country and am the chair of the Whale Watching Association, and no one talked to me.” Oddgeir contested this, saying that he had spoken to staff at whale watching companies.

Doesn’t have to be one or the other

Oddgeir also dismissed the claim that whaling’s low profit margin and the overall negative press earned by the industry should be taken into account when considering whether or not to allow whaling to continue.

“It doesn’t really matter for society what the [company’s] earnings are. It doesn’t hurt society as a whole that the [whaling] company pays good wages and turns a small profit,” he said, versus a scenario in which the company made substantial profits but paid low wages. Oddgeir continued by saying that tourism in Iceland had continued to flourish in spite of the fact that whaling has continued, and that whaling has has also not had an impact on the sale of Icelandic fish abroad.

Oddgeir rejected the accusation that he’d written the report with a particular agenda and had already made his mind up about the conclusions he’d draw before he even finished it. He said that it wasn’t a matter of choosing one thing over the other: “Whale watching can absolutely continue, even if there is whaling.”

False correlations

The report asserts that should whaling continue, there would be a 40% increase in Icelandic export revenue, as a result of there being more fish in the country’s coastal waters. This assertion goes far beyond what other organisations, such as the Marine and Freshwater Research Institute, have been willing to state in regards to the whaling industry’s sustainability. For instance, Gísli Víkingsson, a marine biologist at the Marine Institute, said that he believes that whaling is sustainable, but said that he thinks it’s wrong for people to kill whales in order to increase the fish stock. The claim about increased export potential also rings false to Minister for the Environment Guðmundur Ingi Guðbrandsson.

“…I think we need to take a very close look at this part about the ecology of the ocean, where the conclusion drawn is that by hunting more whales, we increase the number of fish in the sea,” Guðmundur remarked. “[T]hey come to the conclusion that there’s a direct relationship between the two. Although there’s a connection, [the report] doesn’t take into account the costs that would result from starting to increase whaling, for example, as regards Iceland’s reputation.”

Icelandic Economists Say Whaling Overall Profitable

A newly-published report on whaling concludes the industry is economically beneficial to Iceland overall. The report also found no indications that whaling decreases the amount of tourism in the country. RÚV reported first.

The report focused on whaling’s overall economic impact on Iceland. It was commissioned by the Ministry of Industries and Innovation and carried out by the University of Iceland’s Institute of Economic Studies. Iceland’s whaling industry accounts for about 3% of all whales hunted worldwide, according to the report. The report suggests that Iceland has practiced whaling responsibly since it began the activity in 1935, in part by protecting all whale species whose populations are considered at risk.

Despite conservationist campaigns in the late 20th century, tourists in Iceland increased by 34% between 1986 and 1990, more than in the UK during the same period. According to the report, there is also no evidence that Iceland’s whaling activity has reduced interest in whale watching in the country.

Hunting more whales would increase fish stocks

According to Oddgeir Ágúst Ottesen, an economist at the Institute of Economic Studies, whaling created ISK 1.7 billion ($14.1m/12.4m) in revenue in 2017. “We evaluated this and looked at all the positive and negative aspects and when everything is put together it’s economically advantageous to hunt whales,” Oddgeir stated.

According to the report, hunting more whales would increase fish stocks in Icelandic waters. “Whales eat seven to eight times what we fish. And that eating has a great impact. Whale populations are increasing very much and whales’ impact could increase,” Oddgeir explained. “The conclusion was that yes fish stocks benefit from the fact that whale populations are reduced.”

Import and export

The report explains that fewer minke whales were hunted in 2017 and 2018 due to unfavourable weather conditions. In the first 10 months of 2018, Iceland imported 4.2 tonnes of minke whale meat from Norway at a total cost of ISK 5.3 million ($43,900/€38,000), despite the fact Icelanders caught far below the quota of over 200 whales. The report considers the local minke whale population large enough to supply both local demand and export.

Fin whale products (mostly frozen meat) from Iceland have largely been exported to Japan in recent years. Each whale hunted between 2009-2017 created an average revenue of ISK 16.4 million ($136,000/€119,000), and total revenue between those years amounted to around ISK 11.3 billion ($93.6m/€82.1m), for 699 fin whales.

Suggest regulating whale watching

In 2017, the total revenue of whale watching companies in the country amounted to ISK 3.2 billion ($26.5m/€23.2m). The report considers whale watching an appropriate use of natural resources, but suggests that increased regulation of the industry is necessary. If too many whale watching companies operate within a small area, it can affect whale behaviour and feeding habits. Both nature conservation groups and the Marine and Freshwater Research Institute of Iceland have previously suggested the need for regulation of the industry.