Iceland is famous for majestic glaciers and snow-covered houses, for the Northern Lights and blue-lit ice caves. Visit in summer, though, and it can feel like a different country.
While there are still plenty of icy natural wonders, you can also party with the locals at summer festivals, hike across flower-strewn moorland and soak in hot springs under the midnight sun. Here are our picks of the best places to experience summer in Iceland.
To get off the tourist trail: the West Fjords
Summer is the perfect time to hike through the stunning Icelandic scenery, and if you can camp, so much the better (and cheaper). Dynjandi is a particularly good spot to pitch up – the waterfall may not be as famous as Gullfoss, but it still attracts plenty of visitors. Stay the night and you may well get the thunderous falls, glittering in the early-morning sun, all to yourself.
For a more remote West Fjords experience head to Hornstrandir, right on the edge of the Arctic Circle and barely accessible out of summer. This peninsula in Iceland’s far northwest is entirely wild, its inhospitable but beautiful terrain preserved as a nature reserve.
It’s the perfect place to escape the crowds of the southern coast – though even in the middle of summer the weather is unpredictable, so hikers should take precautions to stay safe.
For wildlife: Vestmannaeyjar, the Westman Islands
One of Iceland’s biggest draws is its wildlife and the Westman Islands are the prime place to go for puffin spotting. Every year between April and August, the archipelago becomes the biggest puffin colony in the world. The friendly town of Vestmannaeyjar is located on the only inhabited island, Heimaey, and is the best base for seeing these cute orange-beaked birds.
Visit in early August and you might be lucky enough to witness a truly heart-warming event: local families collect lost baby puffins, or “pufflings”, who’ve found their way into the town by mistake, and bring them to the shore to safely release them.
The summer festival, Þjóðhátíð, is also held in early August; its popularity among Icelanders is reflected in the fact it’s known, quite simply, as “The Festival”.
For a rugged adventure: the Interior
The Interior (also known as the hálendið, or highlands) is generally only accessible in summer, and the window can be as short as a few weeks.
If you’re not keen on carrying a tent, try staying in one of the huts (sæluhús) which dot the highlands; book ahead, as Icelanders and visitors make the most of the short season.
However you choose to do it – day-hike, camping, staying in huts – if you’re a keen walker you shouldn’t miss the chance to explore the Interior on foot. It’s the archetype of Icelandic nature, with a bleak and otherworldly beauty you can find nowhere else: smooth glacial valleys; colourful, iron-streaked earth and milky sulphur springs.
Be sure to also take advantage of these warm rivers and hot springs for a traditional dip. Hveravellir is a good option, but perhaps the most isolated spot for outdoor bathing is Viti, a small crater lake in the Askja caldera. However, the volcano is still active; while this definitely adds a bit of extra excitement to your swim, it also adds some real danger.
To take a hike: Siglufjörður
In Iceland’s northwest is the small fishing town of Siglufjörður (or Sigló). This is the most northerly town in the country, and the road here – usable only in summer – is the highest in Iceland.
The town’s laidback, low-key feel and dramatic setting are reasons enough to visit – not to mention the freshly smoked kippers and summer Folk Music Festival. But it’s also a perfect base for hiking in the surrounding area.
Eyjafjörður, the fjord to the east of the town, is the best place to go to spot wildlife. Hrísey, the island at the mouth of the fjord, is renowned for its birdlife – and it’s not only twitchers who’ll be charmed by the sight of its famous ptarmigans casually wandering around town.
Alternatively, head to the villages of Ólafsfjörður and Dalvík for a whale-watching trip – some operators even run midnight sun tours.
Try to time your visit to coincide with the local summer festival, the Great Fish Day: a popular event that draws the whole community together for delicious (free) food and warm Icelandic hospitality.
For a festival: Reykjavík
Around Iceland National Day (also called Independence Day; June 17) there are parties throughout the country, but the biggest and best are in the centre of Iceland’s charming capital city. Expect parades, poetry readings and dancing all night long. After all, the sun hardly sets.
For some background on Iceland’s history, head to Reykjavík’s Árbæjarsafn (Open Air Museum). The big draw on Independence Day is that anyone wearing national dress gets in for free. So if you happen to own your own upphlutur you can save on the entry fee.
For a different kind of festival, book tickets for Secret Solstice, set up in 2014 with the rationale that the sunny nights of the Icelandic summer are perfect for a weekend-long party. The line-up is consistently brilliant, and every year they hold special events away from the main Reykjavík venues. Who doesn’t want to dance inside a glacier?
For bathing in the buff: Reykjadalur
Falling shortly after National Day, midsummer can get a bit overlooked in Iceland. However, there’s one tradition well worth trying out if you’re brave enough: bathing naked in a river at night.
The most convenient place to head – not far from the capital – is Reykjadalur (“Steam Valley”). The river running through this valley is warmed by a geothermal spring, making it a popular spot for an alfresco dip.
If you’re unconvinced by stripping off in such a popular spot, find a more isolated river or hot spring. Luckily, Iceland has plenty. Krossneslaug, in the northwest, has a naturally filled beachside pool – the perfect spot to watch the sun just kiss the horizon at midnight before rising again. Seljavallalaug is another remote spot nested between mountains in the south.
With thanks to Thora Eiriksdottir for additional recommendations.