Best time to visit Iceland

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Whilst Iceland has no trouble giving travellers a reason to visit all year round, the seasons vary hugely, due to how north the country sits. Iceland's geographical position not only affects the weather, but also the hours of daylight you can expect to have. These, alongside the best times, to see the Aurora Borealis, or Northern Lights, are crucial factors in deciding when to go to Iceland.

Seasons in Iceland

It just so happens that the weather in Iceland is notoriously unpredictable. In summer there’s a fair chance of bright and sunny days, and temperatures can reach 17°C, but good weather in Iceland is often interspersed with wet and misty spells when the temperature can plummet to a chilly 10°C. Winter weather in Iceland is a frosty and dark affair with temperatures fluctuating at 7–8°C either side of freezing point and daylight is limited to a few hours – in Reykjavík, sunrise isn’t until almost 11 am in December; the sun is already sinking slowly back towards the horizon after 1 pm. Although almost all of Iceland lies south of the Arctic Circle and therefore doesn’t experience a true Midnight Sun, nights are light from mid-May to early August across the country; in the north, the sun never fully sets during June. Between September and January, the Aurora Borealis or Northern Lights can often be seen throughout the country.

Best time to visit Iceland: events and festivals

Another thing to consider when planning your trip to Iceland is the national holidays that take place throughout the year.

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, Easter Monday, and New Year are all holidays in Iceland.

Visiting Iceland in December—February

December to February sees Iceland at its iciest and its coldest. You’ll need a 4WD for many of the mountain roads and you may find many of them closed during the iciest months.

During the winter months you can see killer whales just offshore from the Snæfellsnes Peninsula on the west coast, and from mid-December to March tours operate from Grundarfjördur to see the Orcas.

Þorrablót - Mid-January-Mid February: A midwinter celebration that originally honoured the weather god Þorri, and became something to look forward to during the bleakest time of the year. Locals throw parties centred around the consumption of traditional foods such as svið and hákarl, with some restaurants also laying on special menus.

Visiting Iceland in March-May

You will find that a lot of things are still closed or out of bounds at this time of year, but Iceland will start to be waking up. You might find a lot of snow melting (depending on where you are) and fewer tourists. Also, although it’s still rather cold, the days are bright.

However, the bus routes won’t be up-and-running at full capacity and a lot of guest houses will be closed, so if you go at this time of year, research your area well, take the right clothing, and plan how you will be travelling from place to place. Everything should be booked in advance so you aren’t left high and dry.

Visiting Iceland in June – August

This is the prime time to visit Iceland, so, unsurprisingly, it’s also the busiest time. You can make the most of the Midnight Sun, those long days when it never really gets dark, to see as much as you can of Iceland’s unique landscapes and enjoy activities in the great outdoors. Trekking opportunities are limitless. There’s isolated Hornstrandir, or Skaftafell National Park with its beautiful summer meadows, for example, and Landmannalauger, for hiking trails and bubbling hot springs. Closer to Reykjavík, you can make your way over desolate lava rubble on the Reykjanes Peninsula.

The peak season for whale spotting is June to August, although you can go any time of year. You’ll get calmer winds in summer, fewer storms and a higher chance of the whales breaking the surface of the water. Book a whale tour well in advance – off the west coast and the northeast off Husavik, for example, where you might see sperm whales, fin whales, orcas, humpback and minke whales.

Sjomannadagur (Seamen’s Day) - June 4: 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.

Jónsmessa - June 24: Although not an official holiday, this 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 - first weekend of August: Traditionally, on Labour Day weekend, 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.

Visiting Iceland in September – November

Although temperatures really drop in September and the days get shorter, fewer visitor numbers can be a worthwhile tradeoff. Also, the fall brings delicate colours to the landscape. By October you’ll have fewer daylight hours for sightseeing and snow can render some roads impassable.

While a lot of other activities start shutting down at this time of year, Northern Lights tourism is thriving. And if seeing the Northern Lights is a priority, September to October are optimum months. At this time of year, we advise planning ahead and working out transportation and accommodation before you go.

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Rough Guides Editors
10/21/2020
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