Though Iceland’s calendar is essentially Christian, many official holidays and festivals have a secular theme, and at least one dates from pagan times. Some are already familiar: Christmas and Easter Monday are both holidays in Iceland and are celebrated as elsewhere in the Western world, as is New Year.
Harking back to the Viking era, however, Þorrablót is a midwinter celebration that originally honoured the weather god Þorri, and became something to look forward to during the bleakest time of the year. It is held throughout February, when people throw parties centred around the consumption of traditional foods such as svið and hákarl, with some restaurants also laying on special menus.
Sjomannadagur, or Seamen’s Day (June 4), unsurprisingly, is one of the biggest holidays of the year, with communities organizing mock sea-rescue demonstrations, swimming races and tug-of-war events. This is followed by another break for Independence Day (June 17), the day that the Icelandic state separated from Denmark in 1944.
Although not an official holiday, Jónsmessa, on June 24, is the day that elves and other magical creatures are said to be out in force, playing tricks on the unwary; some people celebrate with a big bonfire, and it’s also meant to be good for your health to run around naked.
Verslunnarmannahelgi, the Labour Day Weekend, takes place around the country on the first weekend in August. Traditionally, everybody heads into the countryside, sets up camp, and spends the rest of the holiday drinking and partying themselves into oblivion. On Heimaey in the Westman Islands, Þjódhátið is held on the same day and celebrated in the same way – there’s live music, too, and a huge bonfire – though it nominally commemorates Iceland’s achieving partial political autonomy in 1874.
One event to look out for, though it’s not a single festival, is the annual stock round-up, or rettir, which takes place in rural areas throughout September. This is when horses and sheep are herded by riders on horseback down from the higher summer pastures to be penned and sorted; some farms offering accommodation allow guests to watch or even participate.
Everything you need to know before you set off.
Travel offers; book through Rough Guides
Planning your trip to Iceland
Everything you need to plan where to go and what to do.
The latest articles, galleries, quizzes and videos.
The best places to visit in Iceland in summer
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 …16 Feb 2017 • Rebecca Hallett insert_drive_file Article
Hot tub happiness: the dos and don'ts of Icelandic spas
Going for a spa in Iceland can feel wonderfully alien. Against a backdrop of barren moonscapes and denuded hills, the waters are so preternaturally blue, so exa…24 Nov 2016 • Mike MacEacheran insert_drive_file Article
A day-by-day itinerary for the perfect weekend in Reykjavík
Reykjavík, a bustling port and the world’s most northerly capital, draws visitors from across the globe in record-breaking numbers – and its popularity sho…12 May 2016 • Rough Guides Editors insert_drive_file Article