A Week in Iceland in Winter (with kids!)


Back in December of 2015, we happened to see that Wow Air was having a mega flight sale. We'd never flown Wow before, and knew it was a pretty budget airline. Plus, we knew we'd be moving to California in just a few months. Still, the prices were so great, that we thought it might be worth it. For all 5 of us to fly round trip from DC-Reykjavik in January, including all taxes and fees, was under $1200.


For luggage, we considered trying to fit everything into just our personal carry ons, but since Wow charges for carry on suitcases (only a small personal item, like a backpack, is free), we decided to check one suitcase for all of us. We probably could've made it work, but we thought it would get frustrating schlepping 3 kids plus a very full backpack for each of us plus car seats and a stroller and a pack n play. Had it been summertime, we may have chosen differently, but winter travel involves a lot more stuff! So we figured it would be a lot easier to check one big suitcase, and I'm so glad we did.

That said, we did pack extraordinarily light. We layered a ton and reused those layers several times. The advantage of the cold is we didn't get stinky. ;) We brought several pairs of wool socks each, as well as thermals and down coats (+ snow pants for the kids). We used the same thermals/running leggings for sleeping and such. Still, with so many puffy, warm items, it still felt like a lot!


In terms of itinerary, we wanted a good mix of touristic highlights as well as some less well-known stops. We were interested in experience Iceland's winter beauty, but we didn't want anything too extreme (especially with 3 small kids in tow). For that reason, we avoided the northern/far eastern areas that are much more difficult to access during the winter - we didn't want to take any chances. Between the southern and southwestern areas, we had plenty to fill our week, and we can't wait to go back for different seasons.



DAY 1

  • Overnight flight
The day we flew out of BWI, there was a giant snowstorm starting to hit the DC area. We honestly did not know if we'd get out as virtually every other airline had cancelled all their flights for the rest of the day. But we contacted Wow before driving the hour up tp BWI, and they kept insisting they were still planning to take off on time. And miraculously...they did. The pilot even joked that we needn't worry as the crew was from Iceland and this was nothing. ;)


DAY 2

  • Pick up rental car
  • Selfoss
  • Southern Coast to Vik
  • Seljalandsfoss
  • Airbnb near Selfoss
The flight from DC isn't terribly long, under 6 hours, and we arrived around 5am. This was actually significantly harder than longer flights, as we all only slept for about 3-4 hours on the flight. It was still pitch black when we arrived, and we headed over to pick up our rental car (which we made sure had 4-wheel drive). From there, my terrific husband pounded a few sodas to stay fully alert while the rest of us passed out in the car. We also purchased some delicious Icelandic yogurts in the airport to eat for breakfast a little later.

                                                                 
We were moving a bit slowly getting our luggage/car/food, so by the time we got on the road, it was around 7am, and we arrived to Skogafoss just as it was beginning to get bright, around 10:30. It was even more spectacular than all the photos.


We walked up to the top to see the "foss" (falls) from above, then spent some time throwing rocks into the stream. It was, surprisingly, not quite as cold as we anticipated. We layered the kids up in all their snow gear in the car, but we needn't have bothered; we would've been fine in just coats.


After finishing up at Skogafoss, we drove along the coast to the town of Vik, which was gorgeous. It was peaceful and pretty and we really enjoyed the drive. The town of Vik is pretty small but has a beautiful church and some amazing rock formations. We ate a decidedly lackluster lunch at the one open restaurant, explored a bit, then drove back the way we came. We stopped at Seljalandsfoss, another gorgeous waterfall. This one actually allows you to walk behind it for a unique view. It was pretty icy when we were there so we peeked behind but didn't walk all the way through. We did see a couple of folks with crampons and other gear hiking through, which seems like it would be quite the experience.


                                                                 

From there, we headed over to our Airbnb near Selfoss. This stay was incredible! We had a gorgeous private apartment on an Icelandic horse farm. The apartment had 2 bedrooms, which was especially wonderful for our first night so we could all get some great sleep. It was super comfortable, with giant puffy down comforters that are so popular in Iceland. It was also extremely child-friendly, with toys and books and bunk beds. It was warm and cozy and just lovely. We'd stopped by a grocery store earlier in the day and picked up a few supplies, and our kind hosts even stocked the fridge with some food for us, so we made a simple dinner there, took glorious VERY hot showers, and crashed for the night.



DAY 3

  • Visit with Icelandic horses
  • Church
  • Drive to Snaefellsness to couchsurf with Icelandic family


The next morning, we visited with the gorgeous horses. One of our hosts showed us around the stalls, and even let the kids climb up on one. Icelandic horses are so beautiful with their flowing manes and our kids were in heaven. They also grow turnips on the farm, so our host cut off some raw pieces and let us try the surprisingly sweet insides. After that, we headed out to visit a congregation of our church. We always love visiting different congregations in our travels, and this was no exception. The people were warm and welcoming and it's always so fun chatting with some locals.

                                                                      

After that, we drove up to the Snaefellsnes peninsula. Back when my husband and I had been married for about a year, we took two months to travel and did a decent amount of couchsurfing. We also hosted a number of couchsurfers in the early years of our marriage. We always had wonderful experiences, but it, of course, gets significantly trickier with kids. We were really anxious, however, to get to know some true locals if possible, so we decided to check to see if any families might be willing to host us.
Turns out, a super lovely family offered to have our whole family, and even had two bedrooms for us to use. It was SUCH a lovely night, eating and chatting and learning about their country and culture. They made us a traditional Icelandic dinner, including skyrterta, a delicious dessert made with skyr. They owned their own farm and it was the special season of using some of their sheep. They very kindly offered Dan some of their delicacies - sheep head and testicle. I was...very grateful to be a vegetarian.

Our hosts happened to live right by Kirkjufell, a gorgeous pointy mountain with a waterfall running down it, so we admired it for a bit on our way to their home. Then we tucked in for the night amidst some roaring winds.


DAY 4

  • Snæfellsjökull (glacier and national park)
  • Londrangar basalt cliffs
  • Arnarstapi natural bridges
  • Whales at Grundarfjordur
When we'd been emailing before our trip, our hosts had suggested we spend this day driving along the Snaefellsnes peninsula to the glacier and the national park. It was a perfect suggestion, as the whole drive was amazing.


One fun thing about Iceland in the winter is that the sun never gets very high, and is only really up from about 10am-4pm each day. So most of the day feels like "golden hour" in terms of sunlight, so it's really dreamy and beautiful. We enjoyed this beautiful light throughout our drive around the peninsula.


We started by exploring a bit in Snæfellsjökull National Park. The main attraction here is the giant glacier. Mount Snæfellsjökull is gorgeous and has left in its wake volcanic rock, caves, black sand beaches, and cliffs. The scenery was truly breathtaking, with natural bridges, waterfalls, snow-capped mountains, and green hills. This is also the only Icelandic national park that extends all the way to the ocean, so that was special to see. We stopped by the Vatnshellir Cave, did a couple short hikes to lookouts, climbed on the glacier, and walked around black sand beaches.


From there, we drove to the Londrangar basalt cliffs. It was amazing seeing the dramatic black cliffs alongside white snow and ocean spray. Then we headed to Arnarstapi, which has some incredible natural bridges tucked against the cliffs of this small fishing town. We drove past a few waterfalls, up and over the mountain range in the middle, where there was a lot more snow than by the coast; we were a little concerned getting over in our sedan, but it had 4-wheel drive and it did fine, fortunately. Still, we tried to get back before dark because Icelandic weather can change really quickly, and we didn't want to be stuck on a mountain in the dark without service.


Right before we headed back, we stopped at a lookout on Grundarfjordur to try to look for whales. And, miraculously, we found some!!! We were over the moon excited. It was starting to get dark, but we were up on a cliff and spotted some swimming out to the ocean.

After picking up some dinner supplies at the grocery store, we headed back to our hosts' home, and made them a traditional Tex-Mex meal. ;)


As far as food in general, I'd definitely recommend stocking up when you can for this part of the trip (in fact, that's probably true for Iceland in general - we did several grocery store stops and always had some delicious Skyr on hand). Part of the charm of Snaefellsness is how remote and untouristy it is, so food options are very few and far between. There was a small restaurant in Arnarstapi, but we happened to be there around 3pm, and it was closed (and only had a cheese sandwich for vegetarian options, anyway). So I'd recommend stocking up on food from the grocery store, and possibly traveling with a small, soft-sided cooler if you can.



DAY 5

  • Reykjavik: downtown tour, National Museum of Iceland
  • Geysir
  • Airbnb in Blaskogarbyggd: hot tub & Aurora Borealis
We encountered some hiccups this day. The original plan was to drive to Thingvellir National Park, snorkel at Silfra in between the tectonic plates, and explore the founding site of the oldest continuously operated parliament in the world. However, instead of driving down toward Reykjavik, our (Icelandic) GPS took us on a northern route through the town of Borgarnes. All was well until we'd continued on for a while and came to a "road closure ahead" sign. We kept going for a bit, hoping our route would diverge and we would be fine. Alas. We got to a point where it was definitely closed, and for good reason - there was snow covering the roads that obviously hadn't been cleared at all and would only be passable in a big Jeep or some such.


We knew that by the time we backtracked and got over to Thingvellir, we would be very late for our Silfra snorkeling expedition. Fortunately, we managed to get service for long enough to call both the Icelandic road assistance number (who confirmed that we should definitely not drive that way) and the snorkel tour folks. Since we were switching off with the kids, we wouldn't both be able to go that day. But they were extremely nice and offered to bump us both to two days later instead so that we could both still experience Silfra. We were so grateful.


Since we would be going to Thingvellir in a couple of days, and since our updated route would be taking us close to Reykjavik, we decided to spend a few hours exploring the city. It felt so different being back in what felt like civilization! After being in such remote areas, Reykjavik felt bustling.


We started out by driving past some of the main sites downtown, like the Harpa concert hall, the Sun Voyager statue, and the Höfði house. From there, we headed to the very well-done National Museum of Iceland. The children's area was particularly well done, with costumes to dress up as Vikings, a reading nook, and old ships and cabins throughout.


                                                                      

After finishing up at the museum, we drove over to the geysers on the Golden Circle, a popular trifecta of tourist sites near Reykjavik. (Did you know the word "geyser" actually comes from Icelandic?) It was so cool seeing hot springs in the middle of the snow, and we loved watching a couple of them go off. The kids found these tiny little snowpeople that someone had left behind and they were totally enchanted. Ha!




After watching the geysers, it was getting pretty dark and we drove through snow and ice and no streetlights to attempt to find our airbnb. Fortunately, we eventually did, even though it was in the middle of absolutely nowhere. But it was a beautiful cabin and the very nice caretaker even helped us push our car out of some snow near the reception cabin. We got Toone, who was a little over a year old at the time, in bed - it was an amazing 2-bedroom cabin with a kitchen and living room. Then everyone else got in their swimsuits and headed out to the private hot tub on our deck. From there, we watched the sky alternate between snow and the Northern Lights. This was one of our big hopes in coming to Iceland, and it was pure magic to watch it there.




DAY 6

  • Gulfoss
  • Reykjavik: Hallgrimskirkja, main library, downtown
  • Dinner with couchsurfing family and tour of touring helicopters
This morning, we woke up and drove to Gulfoss, a truly spectacular waterfall. It was amazing. And huge. I imagine it's gorgeous in the summertime, but I thought it was just breathtaking with all the icicles and surrounded by snow.



After that, we drove back to Reykjavik (since they didn't have space for us at Silfra until the next day). This was, without question, the most harrowing drive of my life. I drove in white-knuckled fear for an hour and a half through a giant snowstorm. I kid you not, I could see no more than 5 feet in front of the car at any given time, and was in constant fear of running into an oncoming car or into one of the (fortunately reflective) poles on the side of the road. Somehow or other, we managed to get through and safely into Reykjavik. I can't tell you how grateful I was when we came to an actual streetsign! And a stoplight! With other cars and clear roads!


We parked (on a snowy hill...) and checked into our airbnb early, which was so nice. It was a darling little 2-bedroom apartment right in the heart of downtown Reykjavik, which meant that we could walk most everywhere. Our first stop was Hallgrimskirkja, the famous church. The view from the top was beautiful and clear, and it was fun to see the city (which had a fun, somewhat Scandinavian vibe) from above.

                                                                      

From there, we stopped into the main library, which has a fantastic children's section. The kids loved reading books and playing with some toys. Everything felt so orderly!


After walking around the city a bit more, we headed over to dinner with another couchsurfing family. While you can offer to host/stay, you can also just use CS as a way to meet up with locals in a given location. This wonderful family offered to have us over for dinner and we loved learning more about where they grew up (an island just off the southern coast of Iceland) and their lives in Reykjavik.


It also turned out that one of our new friends is a helicopter tour pilot! He offered to take us over to the small airport so that the kids could see the helicopters in person. We jumped at the opportunity! It was such a unique experience getting to see all the helicopters up close, and we loved hearing all about the many tours he's given and the various volcanoes he's seen erupt, glacier's on which he's landed, and people he'd taken around. Our only regret was that we didn't have enough time left in our trip to actually take one of the tours!


DAY 7

  • Thingvellir
  • Snorkeling at Silfra
  • Local thermal spa in Reykjavik
  • Dinner with second couchsurfing family
Today was the day! We were going to snorkel in Silfra! We were so concerned about missing it for the second time that we got up well before the crack of dawn and drove out to Thingvellir from our flat in Reykjavik. We got there in plenty of time to explore Thingvellir all together before I headed out to my snorkel session. The kids thought it was SO COOL to walk in between the tectonic plates. And, of course, swimming in between them was definitely a highlight of the trip. I wrote more about our experience snorkeling here.


After that incredible experience, we drove back to Reykjavik to a local thermal spa, which I wrote more about here. That was the PERFECT thing to do after freezing our tails off at Thingvellir. We could've stayed for hours longer, but we had another couchsurfing dinner appointment, this time with a young family. This time, they weren't from Iceland, and it was interesting getting their perspective on the country. Then we headed back to crash at our flat.





DAY 8

  • Grocery store for souvenirs
  • Viking World
We had just a little bit of time in the morning before heading to the airport, so we stopped at another grocery store and stocked up on a few Icelandic snacks and treats. The grocery store is one of our favorite places to purchases trip souvenirs, actually - we dislike accumulating knick knacks (and don't particularly care to give them out to family and friends, either), but love to bring back a few edible souvenirs. It's always fun to try local candies and treats, or other snacks. The grocery store usually has a good variety of things locals actually eat (instead of specialty items), and they're cheap!


Then we visited Viking World on the way to the airport, which was absolutely fascinating. We were all so impressed by this museum! The kids were thrilled to wear some Viking hats while drinking their hot chocolate. The highlight was the giant replica Viking ship that was actually used to sail to New York in 2000!


From there, we headed to the airport, dropped off our rental car, and flew back to ever-so-slightly warmer weather. It was an incredible trip!

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