Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve been hearing the word ‘Iceland’ related to ‘family travel’ for a few years now. Families can have a great adventure in Iceland during the warm months (in fact, stay tuned for a guide to camping in Iceland with kids), but many people are still reluctant to try visiting Iceland in the winter with kids. It’s a great time to visit, and if you read on, I’m going to guide you through your worries and reservations so you can take advantage of visiting during this time of year.
Advantages to visiting Iceland in the winter with kids:
- Fewer crowds
- Better chance of seeing Northern Lights
- Museums and sights are open year round
- The hot spots/tubs/pools are a big hit in the colder weather!
Why take kids to Iceland?
- Iceland is very kid-friendly with lots of museums, exhibits and sights that kids would enjoy.
- If your kids enjoy swimming, they will love visiting the many, many hot spots Iceland has to offer.
- Icelandic tradition is steeped in elves and trolls, making it a fun fantasy land for kids with active imaginations.
- It’s a great introduction to international travel because everyone speaks English as well as Icelandic, they drive on the right hand side of the road, and the money is in Icelandic kroners but easy to figure out. Just international enough to make it exciting!
Our concerns about winter travel with kids in Iceland:
- Shortened daylight hours—We visited in early January when the sunrise was at 11:30 and sunset was 3:30. But it actually gets light around 10:30 and doesn’t get dark until 4:30. Keeping the kids on east coast time, they went to bed late and slept in late, so it worked out fine. (See ”daily schedule” below.)
- Weather—No matter what time of year you visit Iceland, you have to be conscious of changes in the weather and adapt your plans accordingly. The days were around 40 degrees with very little change at night. It snowed lightly some days, but nothing that made travel difficult. On a few occasions, the wind made being outside too cold. All in all, being used to cold winter weather, as long as the kids were dressed appropriately (and adults!), we were fine. (See “clothing” below.)
What to see and do along the Golden Circle:
We started out by staying in Laugarvatn, along the Golden Circle about two hours from the airport in Keflavik. We stayed at Efstidalur II, a working cattle ranch. This farm hotel is in an excellent location to explore all the sights of the Golden Circle. They serve breakfast and dinner (not included in $140 room rate for a double) and have a wonderful ice cream parlor downstairs.
From this hotel, we could easily access Geysir, home of the famous Geysir and Stokkur geysers. This is a short walk along a path. It is a bit touristy, but a must. There is a café, restaurant and gift shop. It’s also close to Gulfoss, home of Iceland’s most famous double waterfall, Golden Falls. This can be reached by walking along a path along the top of the ridge as well as down to the bottom of the falls. This location is not to be missed.
Pingvellir National Park is Iceland’s most important historical site where the Vikings established the first democratic parliament. It is also where the North American and Eurasian techtonic plates meet causing a huge fissure. There are many paths into the park from several parking areas. You can visit amazing waterfalls as well as walk along the giant fissure to a visitor center. Near Pingvellir is Fakasel Icelandic Horse Park. We did not go here, but it was recommended to us by locals. You can take a barn tour and see an evening show.
Hot springs to visit in the Golden Circle area:
- Gamia Laugin (Secret Lagoon) in Fludir. This was wonderful. Bus tours visit here, so you need to come either before 3:30 or after 5:30. You can email them and request a time that is not during their tour hours to guarantee you get in. This pool is in beautiful rustic outdoor setting but with modern shower facilities and towel rentals. Kids loved floating around on the noodles provided and diving down for smooth stones along the bottom. Water was almost too hot for the kids for very long.
- Fontano geothermal pool in Laugarvatn. This is a more modern facility with several man-made pools, hot tubs and shallow wading pools. It is also next to a lake you can go into (cold!) and then return to a hot pool. Kids loved this one too because they could play in the shallow water and not get so hot!
What we saw along the Ring Road south of Reykjavik:
Just beyond Selfoss, the Ring Road becomes very interesting with lots of green houses and Icelandic horses. After Hella there is flood zone that was covered in muddy lava fromt ohe 2010 eruption of Eyjafjallajokull.
- Seljalandsfoss waterfalls—this is a roadside pull out with paths (icy!) to several impressive waterfalls. There were restrooms but no food service. Lots of jagged cave entrances and rock outcroppings.
- Skogafoss waterfall—another road side stop with a path to the top of a huge waterfall. There is a restaurant here.
- Just beyond this in Skogar is the Skogar Folk Museum that we did not have time for, but sounded like it would be fun for kids.
- We did not make it as far as Vik, but would have liked to have seen its beach.
Reykjavik and the Blue Lagoon:
There’s so much to do in this part of Iceland in winter! Start with the Blue Lagoon: since this is the most famous of all the geothermal pools in Iceland, we had to visit! You need to make and pay for reservations in advance on line. You sign up for a day and time. We almost missed our time, but it would have been okay if we were a little late. This is pricey and very touristy, but it is also pretty amazing. It’s a huge lake, basically, with swim up bars. It gets quite deep and kids have to wear water wings, no matter what their swimming ability, to go out into the deeper water. Our kids did NOT like this rule at all and I wish I had been able to prepare them for it. There is a snack bar but other than a really fancy restaurant, no regular café-type food.
There is a lot to see and do with kids in Reykjavik in the winter. If you are staying in the city center or old town, it is easy to walk everywhere. When booking your accommodations, make sure you are not on a busy street. The bars and pubs stay open all hours and are noisy at night Book a walking tour. We booked a walking tour with “Your Friend in Reykjavik”. Read about them on line or on TripAdvisor. It was just the six of us and our tour guide adapted the tour so the kids would have fun as well. On their recommendation, we booked it on a Saturday so we could visit the Saturday Flea Market. It was a two-hour tour through Old Town, the harbor, the city center, flea market and the town lake, Tjornin, where we fed ducks. This family run company was also very helpful before we even got to Iceland, with lots of insider recommendations and suggestions. Here are a few Reykjavik highlights:
- Saga Museum—This is a wax museum where you where a set a headphones and are guided through the museum listening to Viking history. It is a bit graphic and our 6 year old wasn’t crazy about it, but it was fun for the rest of us. It has a kid play area where you can dress up. It is in the harbor area. The museum has a fancy restaurant, but there are several cafes long the harbor.
- Settlement Exhibition—This museum is built around the excavation of an ancient Viking long house. It is underground and has lots of very cool computer generated effects. There is also a really nice kids area with dress up, games, coloring sheets and a Viking set up. Highly recommended.
- Hallgrimskirkja church elevator—take the elevator up to the top of this iconic church to get some great views.
- Open Air Museum (Arbaer)—this was only open during the week for 2:00 tours, and our weather didn’t really cooperate but it would be a great place to take kids if it were nice outside.
- National Museum—we did not take the kids to this, but it has very well organized displays and there were lots of kids in the museum. It has a separate head set program for kids.
- The Laundromat Café—this is a great family restaurant with a downstairs play area for kids. We ate here four different times! It’s just minutes from Old Reykjavik along the main shopping street of Laugavegur.
- Laugardalslaug swim complex—We had to drive to this, but it was only about 10 minutes. This is a huge complex that has several full size pools and a lot of smaller hot tubs around it. The kids loved it because it had a twisty slide you could go down.
Up next, packing advice and practical tips for visiting Iceland in winter with kids! Click on the button below to continue.
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