When you think about Iceland, it’s likely you imagine one of two scenes: the magical Northern lights, dancing in the night sky above a frozen waterfall, the ground covered in freshly fallen snow. Or sweeping swathes of green mountains, cut with rushing rivers; Icelandic horses stand by munching on grass, and a puffin or two soars overhead.
Iceland is a year-round travel destination, but travellers tend to lean towards visits in the wintery off-season, when crowds are fewer (but days are shorter), or the summer months, that bring hordes of travellers from all corners of the globe, eager to make the most of the 24-hour sun.
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Both seasons have their pros and cons. Here are our thoughts on the best time of year to travel to Iceland.
Summer in Iceland is somewhat of an oxymoron. When I was there in July, the temperature didn’t get any higher than 15 degrees Celsius. And while we had 24 hours of daylight, we rarely got any actual sunshine; most days, an endless grey cloud hung low, bringing occasional downpours. Strong winds blowing in from the Arctic are bone-chillingly cold, and I was thankful for packing my thermals. (That said, a friend travelled from Akureyri to Reykjavik a week after I left and experienced blue skies and temperatures in the 20s. Weather in Iceland is unpredictable, so be prepared for all conditions!)
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The midnight sun makes Iceland a much more accessible destination than during winter. You can visit sites at almost any hour (most of Iceland’s beautiful natural wonders are on public land, and don’t have closing times or visitor fees), which can be a great way to avoid the summer crowds.
Be prepared for crowds
Iceland is very popular, so be prepared for more traffic on the road, higher prices in restaurants, expensive accommodation (which is why recommend our small group tours!), and more people at those iconic waterfalls and hiking trails. If you’d rather give the hordes a miss, consider travelling off the tourist trail; sure, the Golden Circle and Blue Lagoon are beautiful, but so is the rest of the country. Head north-west of Reykjavik to the rugged Snaefellsnes Peninsula, then around to the tiny picturesque fishing village of Siglufjordur, and onto Akureyri for a taste of what Iceland is really like.
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It’s Green. Everywhere.
Iceland in summer is a photographer’s dream. You’ve got the magical light, of course; taking ‘sunset’ photos at midnight, as the sun kisses the horizon before rising again, makes for some pretty incredible shots! But you’ll also see the country shrouded in green; the hills come alive with lush grasses, yellow wildflowers, and bright bursts of purple lupine. Puffin season is between April and August, so a visit to Latrabjarg cliffs is a must for bird lovers.
Iceland in winter is cold, but this can be a beautiful time of year to travel for those willing to brave the chilly conditions. While temperatures in Reykjavik tend to hover around the 0 degree Celsius mark, it can get down to -15 degrees Celsius in the country’s northern regions. Not exactly inviting, but seeing the country under a blanket of snow, or those powerful waterfalls frozen mid-stream, is wonderful. It goes without saying that you should expect ice, sleet, rain and wind with that snow, so be sure to pack accordingly (particularly winter boots that have good grip!).
The Northern Lights
Auroras are formed when electrically charged solar particles collide with gases in the earth’s atmosphere, creating celestial displays of blue, pink, green and white light, mirroring each other and dancing across the night sky. The Northern Lights can be seen from countries across the polar north, but are often spotted above Iceland. Head out of Reykjavik (and away from any light pollution), rug up in a warm jacket, pack yourself a thermos of hot chocolate, and prepare for an out-of-this-world performance.
* Please note that the Northern Lights are a natural – and elusive – phenomenon, and there’s no guarantee of seeing them.
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Dark days ahead
In contrast to summer’s lingering twilight, the winter months only see between four to five hours of light each day. You’ll have less time up your sleeve for visiting waterfalls and glaciers, but more time for soaking in thermal pools and sampling the local ales in one of Iceland’s many (top-notch) breweries. Your tour leader can give you tips on which brews are best!
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Fewer crowds to contend with
The lack of sunlight and chilly conditions keep many travellers away, so there won’t be as many people shouldering you out of their selfies at popular sites.
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A NOTE ON RESPONSIBLE TRAVEL
Regardless of when you travel in Iceland, it’s important to follow the instructions of your tour leader and obey signs at landmarks and on hiking trails. Don’t climb over fences, into roped-off areas, or off paths for ‘the perfect photo’; these areas have been isolated to regenerate and/or protect plant life, or to keep you safe.
Iceland is a beautiful destination, and worthy of a visit at any time of the year. Join us now on a premium small group adventure with an expert local leader. Explore our range of tours now.
Feature photo by Damien Raggatt.