Thanks to the midnight sun, the green landscape in summer, the blue ice caves, and the enigmatic phenomenon of the Northern Lights, Iceland is a year-round tourist destination. Most people tend to decide to return after their first trip so that they can experience the country in another season.
Your personal choice will depend on what you’re looking for. What do you see when you imagine yourself in Iceland? Frozen waterfalls with the Northern Lights dancing in the sky? Green, bird-filled meadows and endless sunsets at night? Backpacking in the wilderness or sitting in a Superjeep?
In this article, we’ll help you choose the time that’s most suitable for you. Read on to find out the pros and cons of the different seasons and get tips on when is the best time for specific activities and experiences.
The Travel Seasons in Iceland
Iceland has three travel seasons. The peak season is the summer and the low or shoulder seasons are autumn and spring with a second peak season in winter. Each season has its own characteristics and its specific seasonal activities. Each has its drawbacks as well.
Summer: Pros and Cons
Summer, from June to August, is the peak season in Iceland. This is when the weather is the friendliest with the highest temperatures, lowest wind, and least precipitation as well as the least number of storms. The summer is blessed with never-ending brightness and the nights are painted with breathtaking colors of the sunset/sunrise, making the nights suitable for traveling or even hiking. Summer is the only time when tent camping is available and the most suitable time for exploring Iceland in a campervan or motorhome.
Iceland’s most remote corners are accessible by car, although driving on some mountain roads requires large four-wheel-drive vehicles. The Ring Road and other paved roads are easy and safe for smaller cars and even bicycles to drive on. The country’s hiking paths become accessible while the Highland tundra awakens from its long winter dream and flourishes in vibrant colors.
Wildlife is abundant in summer, meaning that sheep, horses, puffins, reindeer, Arctic foxes, and whales will be easy to find. The selection of activities is at its widest in summer with glacier hikes, water sports, caving, hiking, and sightseeing tours offered, among many others. Music festivals and cultural events are also abundant in summer.
What’s less attractive in summer are the prices and the traffic. As it’s the peak season, summer attracts the most visitors. Hotels and guesthouses can be overbooked weeks ahead of time and the campsites near the most popular routes can also be packed with tents and campervans. The most famous attractions can get crowded during peak hours. The plane tickets are more expensive than at any other time of the year and the accommodation prices are usually higher, too. Thus, traveling in Iceland in the summer costs more and gives you less room for spontaneity – unless you want to go camping.
Another great drawback of the summer is the lack of Northern Lights. The nights are too bright so the lights aren’t detectable in the bright sky. Glacial ice caves are most likely inaccessible in summer. There might be one or two ice caves, however, that remain open to visitors during the summer.
Winter: Pros and Cons
Winter, from November to March, is the second peak season in Iceland. Many visitors come to Iceland in winter to see the Northern Lights, the sparkling winter landscape, frozen waterfalls, and blue ice caves as well as to try some winter activities such as glacier snowmobiling.
During these months, the nights are very long and provide plenty of opportunities to see the Aurora Borealis. In December, you have 19–21 hours a day to hunt the lights. The holiday season is also a very popular time to visit Iceland thanks to the charming festive atmosphere, the beautiful winter landscape, and the epic firework shows and bonfires in Reykjavík.
Iceland in winter is also cheaper than in summer. Apart from Christmas and New Year’s Eve, flights are less expensive than in summer and the price of accommodation might also be lower. Despite being a popular time period, there are still fewer visitors in winter than in summer.
The greatest drawback of the winter is the weather. This is the coldest, wettest, and windiest time of year with the highest number of storms as well. The road conditions can sometimes be difficult and many areas can’t be accessed by normal rental cars.
Because of the wintry conditions, camping, which is the cheapest way of traveling, is impossible while driving a campervan or a motorhome isn’t recommended either. In the peak of winter, the daylight periods are quite short, so travel time is limited. The daylight hours are much longer in March than in December, though.
Iceland’s wildlife retreats as most of the birds and some whales spend the winter in the south while the sheep shelter in closed barns. Horses and reindeer can still be spotted outdoors, even in winter.
Spring and Autumn: Pros and Cons
The low season happens in April, May, September, and October. These shoulder months attract fewer tourists than the other parts of the year, which makes them ideal for low-budget travelers and for those who prefer a quieter holiday.
Flights are at their cheapest while accommodation and car rental prices are also lower than in the peak seasons. May and September might be suitable for campers and hikers – even though the conditions can vary greatly.
The weather in these months is better than in winter, but it’s not as good as in summer. In fact, April still counts as winter and October is also closer to winter than summer. But September and May can both be summery, providing plenty of sunshine and mild temperatures.
In terms of the Northern Lights, September and October offer the best chances of success. The nights aren’t dark enough to see the aurora in May. To make up for that, May is the least windy and driest month of the low seasons with a very good chance of good weather. Learn more about Icelandic weather by month here.
The disadvantage of the low season is its unpredictable weather. It can be sunny and mild but rain, snow, and even storms aren’t uncommon. Some summer activities, including many hiking tours and puffin watching, aren’t available in autumn, but a great number of whales are still around.
The puffins return to the island around late April, so May is a great time to see them. In April, the road conditions are usually safe but can still be wintry with plenty of snow on the roads. To sum it up, those who choose to travel to Iceland in the low seasons will save money but will need to be flexible with their plans.
The Best Time to See Iceland in Good Weather
The best weather is obviously in summer. Those who don’t like cold, preferring good weather with lots of sunshine and less wind, should travel to Iceland between June and August. Of these three months, June is the coldest and driest. July and August are equally warm but August sees a bit more precipitation than July. This precipitation mostly arrives in the last two weeks of August. Learn more about the average weather in summer here.
The Best Months to See the Northern Lights
The Northern Lights are visible in Iceland from late August to early April. Of these eight months, the best time to see the lights is when the weather is at its best. September and October offer milder temperatures than any other months in the aurora season, but September is the best in terms of rain and clouds.
If you don’t mind cold temperatures, November and February are also great months since they have much longer nights than September, leaving more time for aurora hunting. While November and February are wetter than September, they’re still drier than December and January, which means that there’s a better chance of clear skies. In this article, you can read about how you can maximize your chances of seeing the lights when visiting Iceland.
The Best Time to See the Midnight Sun
The nights are bright from late April until the middle of August, but the peak of the midnight sun period happens from May to July. During these months, the sun doesn’t go below the horizon far enough for the sky to become dark. When the weather is good, beautiful sunset and sunrise colors paint the skies all night long, making it absolutely ideal for photographers and anyone who likes sunsets.
These sunset/sunrise colors can last for many long hours. In the northern part of the country, the sun truly doesn’t set at all while in the south and in the capital area, it does dip below the horizon just to pop up again shortly after, changing from sunset to sunrise. Read our article about the midnight sun and where to see it.
The Best Time for Puffin and Bird Watching
According to local ornithologists, the best time for bird watching in Iceland is in the second half of May and the first three weeks of June. The migrating birds return to Iceland around April, but the period when they’re really abundant is from May to mid-August.
The first bird to return to Iceland after the winter is the golden plover (the lóa in Icelandic). It arrives in late March, serving as the first forerunner of spring. That’s why the golden plover is by far the most celebrated bird in Iceland, even more so than the Atlantic puffin. There’s a cute song about the lóa’s arrival that every Icelander knows. Only after the lóa arrives do the rest of the migratory birds come, filling the air with their loud chatter for the rest of the summer.
The Atlantic puffins arrive in April and are plentiful throughout the summer. Most of the migratory birds start to leave the island around mid-August. A few species stay all year round such as the gyrfalcons, swans, ducks, oystercatchers, and blackbirds.
The Best Time for Whale Watching
Summer is the best time for whale watching in Iceland. Migratory whales return to the rich Icelandic waters beginning in April and stay until late autumn, around September or October. However, many whales choose to stay near the island for the whole winter, so of these, the only ones who leave are those who are going to breed.
It takes 5–7 years for a female whale to reach maturity. Once mature, these whales give birth once every 2–3 years, nursing their babies for over a year after they’re born. This means that the whales can save themselves thousands of miles of migration every year that they’re not breeding.
Some species, like orcas, don’t breed in one season in particular. Since their migration is mostly based on food, these whales can be found in colder climates all year. In winter, a lot of herring and capelin can be found in the waters around Iceland, which attracts these whales in the colder months.
The Best Time for Arctic Fox Watching
The Arctic foxes are abundant in Iceland all year, but the places where it’s easiest to see them are mainly accessible during the summer. The Hornstrandir Nature Reserve and Thórsmörk are the most common places for humans to see foxes.
In Hornstrandir, the foxes are protected and are famously friendly and curious about their two-legged visitors. This nature reserve is located in the remote northernmost tip of the Westfjords. It can only be accessed by boat from late June to August or September. Thórsmörk, on the other hand, is a valley between three glaciers in South Iceland. It can be accessed by large four-wheel drive cars in the summer and only via guided Superjeep tours in the winter.
The Best Time to See Ice Caves
The ultimate ice cave season in Iceland is from November until late March or early April, depending on the actual weather conditions. This is the period when the glacial ice caves are safe to visit. Local tour companies set off to search for new caves every year in late October and these caves are open for visitors beginning in early November.
In this long ice cave season, some months are better while some are less ideal for ice caving. December and January have the shortest daylight periods, meaning that there are fewer ice caving tour departures and the light conditions aren’t the greatest.
In February and March, however, the conditions become better as the days are longer and the sun climbs higher into the sky. The remaining winter months are also good for ice cave exploration, but if this is the main focus of your travels or if you’re a photographer, February and March are the months we’d recommend.
The Best Time for Glacier Activities
Glacier activities, such as glacier hikes, ice climbing, and glacier snowmobiling are available all year in Iceland. No month is better than the rest since the glaciers are just as beautiful and exciting in winter as in summer. You can consider the weather when making your decision, of course, but these activities are available both in summer and winter, if you dress well.
For snowmobiling, you’ll be provided an overall that protects you from cold, wind, and rain. You’ll have a helmet, a balaclava, and gloves to keep you warm and safe. For ice climbing and glacier hiking tours, you’ll need to dress according to the actual conditions. You’ll have to wear your own hiking clothing but will be equipped with all the safety gear that you need. If you don’t have the right clothing, you can rent some from the tour operator.
The Best Time for Hiking and Camping
The best time for hiking and camping in Iceland is summer. This is when the weather is the best with higher temperatures, less wind, and less precipitation, which means there will be better trail conditions. Most of Iceland’s famous hiking areas are only accessible in the summer, especially those located in the Highlands. You’ll find the paths in their best condition from late June until late August.
Some of the hiking areas that are closer to the coast may be accessible from May until September. During the winter, hiking is only recommended for highly experienced hikers and crampons are a must.
Camping is also the most comfortable in summer. The night temperatures don’t drop below 0°C (32°F), so tent campers can enjoy nature all summer long. Iceland has more than 200 campsites, which are open from mid-May until late-September, while wild camping is still illegal. In the winter, tent camping isn’t recommended since the weather can be especially hostile.
The best time to drive campervans and motorhomes is between May and October since this is when the road conditions are the safest. Because wild camping is illegal in Iceland, some campsites are open year-round for camping vehicles. Driving a campervan or a motorhome in winter conditions can be challenging due to the high winds and the snowy, icy roads.
The Best Time for Traveling Around the Ring Road
Traveling around Iceland is great at any time of the year. The daylight periods are limited during the winter, so it’s important to consider this when planning your travel itinerary.
If you’re planning to drive yourself, you should know that the best road conditions can be expected between May and October. Driving around Iceland in the winter might be challenging for those who are less experienced with wintry conditions.
Joining a guided tour, however, is absolutely recommended all year round. These highly experienced local guides know what they’re doing and can drive you safely around Iceland at any time of year.
If you’re planning a trip around the Ring Road and are looking for the best time to visit, try to decide what you want to see along the way. Blue ice caves, frozen waterfalls, and the Northern Lights? The green landscape, flower-filled meadows, and endless sunshine? Would you like to stop to hike and explore nature? Or would you rather explore the local culture and spend cozy afternoons in candlelit guesthouses while watching the snowfall? These fantasies will determine what season is right for you.
The Best Time to See Iceland’s Must-Visit Places: The Golden Circle and the South Coast
Iceland’s most famous natural attractions are accessible all year round, but most people like to visit them in summer. The best weather and the best road conditions can be expected in summer, but this is also the time when these routes are the most crowded. So, if you’d like to avoid the crowds, choose the shoulder seasons, either May or September.
If you have only a few days to spend in Iceland, the Golden Circle and the South Coast are the areas we’d highly recommend you explore. These tour routes are driveable all year, even though the natural sites look different in the different seasons. These sites are absolutely gorgeous in the winter, too, but the weather will require some extra preparation. You can find our winter clothing tips in this article.
The Best Time to Travel on a Budget and Avoid Crowds
Spring and autumn are the seasons when traveling to Iceland can be the most cost-effective and the tourist traffic is at its lowest. September, October, and November are low season in Iceland as are March, April, and May. In these months, the flights are cheapest. Accommodation and car rentals are also significantly cheaper than in summer.
Camping, the cheapest form of accommodation, is still relatively comfortable in September as well as in late May. The nights in September offer visitors the chance to see the Northern Lights while the long days in late May provide a great opportunity to travel long stretches every day so that you can visit the sites that are usually crowded in the late evening to avoid the crowds.
How Many Days Do You Need to See Iceland?
The longer you stay, the better. You can get a glimpse of Iceland’s beauty by visiting some of the famous natural attractions in just 2–4 days. However, we highly recommend that you stay for at least a week. During a week-long visit, you can explore the popular sites and try some typical Icelandic activities such as glacier hiking, snowmobiling, or bathing in a geothermal pool while traveling comfortably, without rushing.
If you can stay for 10 days or longer, you’ll have time to travel around the island and explore the lesser-known places, the remote countryside that most tourists don’t reach, and leave the crowds behind.
If you’d like to get to know Iceland like a local, stay for two weeks or more. Get off the beaten track while traveling in the north, the Eastfjords, and the Westfjords. Visit remote fjords and seaside hamlets, taste the local cuisine, get to know the culture, and get dirty while hiking in nature.
Events in Iceland
If you still can’t decide what date is best for you, here are the most exciting annual events. They just might help you to make up your mind and choose a date.
New Year’s Day (January 1st): The first day of the year is a national holiday. As most people party very late on New Year’s Eve, January 1 is often spent sleeping at home.
January 6th: The last day of the Christmas holidays is known as “þrettándinn” or the thirteenth night. It’s like a second New Year’s Eve that Icelanders celebrate with bonfires and fireworks. Fairies, trolls, elves, and the last Yule Lads are believed to return to the mountains after their holiday visit to the human world. Children sing songs to them to say goodbye.
Thorrablot: This mid-winter tradition is rooted in the old Viking calendar. It falls on the first Friday that happens from January 19–25. Locals have great feasts, eating traditional dishes like fermented shark, pickled ram’s testicles, and cooked sheep heads. Many restaurants in Reykjavik offer special Thorrablot dinners for foreign visitors.
The Winter Lights Festival: Every year around the first weekend of February, there’s a winter light festival dedicated to lifting spirits and brightening the winter darkness as we leave the darkest period of the year. Light art installations and performances, as well as cultural and music events, are organized throughout the capital, followed by Pool Night and Museum Night. During these evenings, the museums and pools around Reykjavik stay open late and offer free admission.
National Beer Day: On March 1, the anniversary of the 1989 legalization of beer (after seven and a half decades of prohibition), locals hold loud celebrations in pubs, clubs, and restaurants. Iceland has some famous breweries where high-quality beer is being produced, which are definitely worth a visit on Beer Day.
Reykjavik Folk Festival: This festival, held in early March, is a three-day celebration of Icelandic folk music. The lineup offers a diverse selection of artists of all ages and styles.
Food and Fun: Through collaboration with the best restaurants in Reykjavik, the Food and Fun Festival offers the public the opportunity to celebrate Icelandic ingredients as seen through the eyes of local and international culinary talent. World-famous chefs craft special menus using natural, fresh ingredients, which the public can enjoy at the participating restaurants. Lucky participants might even have the opportunity to meet the chefs while dining at their restaurants.
Easter: The five days of Easter (from Holy Thursday to Easter Monday) are national holidays. Schools and most offices are closed while locals spend the holiday with their family and friends.
Reykjavik Art Festival: Iceland’s premier cultural festival is held biannually, showcasing national and international theater, art, design, and dance. The festival runs over 16 days starting in mid-May, with the next event to be held in 2022. It offers programs to suit all ages and interests, which emphasize the past and current culture of Iceland. The famous international artists and performers that the festival has hosted over the years include names like Andy Warhol, David Bowie, Led Zeppelin, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Björk, Sigur Rós, Jaqueline du Pré, Ingmar Bergman, Luciano Pavarotti, and Pulp, among many others.
Sjómannadagur, the Seafarer’s Day, & the Festival of the Sea: Held on the first weekend in June, this event honors the fishermen and remembers those who were lost at sea. In many seaside villages across the country, locals celebrate with street festivals, strongman competitions, and swimming races along with cultural events and free seafood, of course.
Icelandic National Day: Iceland’s independence day is the No.1 official public holiday. This is the day that Icelanders celebrate the county’s full independence from Denmark, which was declared on June 17, 1944. This is one of the biggest events of the summer. Cheerful parades, street performances, and outdoor concerts fill the capital with noise while each town has its own festival.
Summer Solstice and the Secret Solstice Festival: On June 21, a music festival is held on the longest day of the year, under Iceland’s midnight sun. It showcases singers, rock bands, DJs, and other musicians from Iceland and beyond. Both well-known artists and new talents contribute to the show, which is hosted on multiple stages over three days.
International Viking Festival: The Viking Festival is an authentic Middle Age market in Hafnarfjörður’s Viking Village, where battles, dances, and performances take place and handmade goods are sold over five days in mid-June.
Innipúkinn Festival: Over the bank holiday weekend in late July, downtown Reykjavik is filled with the sound of some of the most popular bands in Iceland. This annual music festival brings the best of the country’s music scene to the city, with food trucks, a music market, and standup comedians completing the lineup.
LungA: This art and music festival is hosted in the small town of Seyðisfjörður in East Iceland. The workshops, concerts, performances, and art displays take place in the beautiful setting offered by this fjord-side village.
Þjóðhátíð Festival (Verslunarmannahelgi): Many Icelanders take advantage of this bank holiday weekend, the first weekend in August, to go camping. The Þjóðhátíð festival is an annual event that takes place in the Westman Islands. It may just be the most popular music event in Iceland, attracting visitors who come to stay at campgrounds while enjoying live local music and a bonfire that lasts through the night and into the morning.
Reykjavík Pride Parade: The second weekend of August is home to the largest gay pride event in Iceland, which is great fun for all involved. Tens of thousands of participants come to Reykjavik to revel in the great street parade, concerts, theater, and all-night parties, showing their solidarity with the gay community.
Reykjavik Marathon: On the third weekend in August, the country’s annual marathon begins. With a full marathon, a half marathon, a 42.2K team relay, a 10K, and fun runs for both adults and children, this event has something for everyone. It’s no wonder that more than 10,000 participants join from both Iceland and abroad. As a bonus, the runners are offered free admission to all of the city’s thermal baths and pools after the event.
Menningarnótt: Menningarnótt, meaning “Culture Night,” is a party that begins as the marathon ends. When all of the runners have finished their events, the streets are cleared to give rise to one of the biggest festivals in Iceland. This Culture Night sees all of the parks, squares, streets, and individual homes all around the city filled with a full array of cultural events. The night ends with a grand display of fireworks lighting up the night sky.
The Reykjavik International Literary Festival: One of the most prestigious literary events in all of northern Europe takes place in Iceland in early September. This annual festival celebrates authors from both Iceland and abroad, hosting such renowned names from the literary world as Kurt Vonnegut, David Sedaris, and Seamus Heaney.
Iceland Airwaves: This three-day music festival brings together some of the best local and international talent in the indie/alternative music scene. Held in mid-October, this event shows off some big names, like Björk and Of Monsters and Men, alongside local DJs and other international groups. Rolling Stone magazine has called this festival the “hippest long weekend on the annual music festival calendar.”
Illumination of the Imagine Peace Tower: On October 9, John Lennon’s birthday, the Imagine Peace Tower is ceremoniously lit up. The outdoor artwork is located on Videy Island, just off the coast of Reykjavík. The shimmering tower of lights shooting into the sky was designed by Yoko Ono, who dedicated it to John Lennon.
Christmas Holiday Events: Christmas holidays are especially cozy in Iceland. The days are very short with just 4–5 hours of daylight, but the streets in downtown Reykjavík, along with most of the windows in the residential houses, are lit up with festive lights and decorations. Various holiday events and Christmas concerts are held in the city. Instead of Santa, Iceland has 13 mischievous trolls known as the Yule Lads, who arrive in town one at a time each night from December 12 through Christmas Eve.
New Year’s Eve: New Year’s Eve in Reykjavik was once one of the world’s most impressive celebrations but this seems to be changing lately due to Iceland’s environmental awareness. This is the only time of year when the private use of fireworks is legal in Iceland, so each family arranges a personal, unique show that paints the sky in colors and lights.
Starting a bit before midnight, around 500 tons of fireworks are set off, coloring every corner of the sky with signs of celebration to welcome the new year. There are also bonfires in many neighborhoods and on the waterside that are a symbolic representation of the previous year’s worries and troubles being burnt away for the new year. Once midnight has passed, the nightclubs and pubs stay open late so that the public can celebrate the new year well into the following morning.