Best time to visit Iceland
When is the best time to visit Iceland? The short answer is anytime you like! Iceland is a year-round destination, punctuated by two heavenly highlights: the midnight sun in summer and the northern lights in winter. But every season in Iceland has its special appeal – the best time to visit largely depends on what you want to see or do.
Despite its name and close proximity to the Arctic Circle, Iceland is not a frozen frontier perpetually locked in ice – a branch of the Gulf Stream brushes its southern and western coasts bringing mild Atlantic air across the country. This not only moderates the climate, but can also create changeable weather. You really can experience all four seasons in one day!
Read on for a season-by-season guide to Iceland’s climate and the best times to visit for activities ranging from whale watching to walking...
Iceland in summer
Borgarfjordur Eystri during summer, East Iceland
What’s the weather like in Iceland during summer?
July is the warmest month in Iceland. Daytime temperatures average 10-12°C, but highs of 20-25°C in the south and west are not uncommon. Although it’s generally a mild and calm season with the lowest rainfall of the year (around 50mm per month), the weather can still be fickle, especially in the highlands.
What to do in Iceland during summer
This is the season to experience the midnight sun. Iceland enjoys 24hr daylight from late May to mid-July, but to witness the best of the midnight sun you need to get as far north as possible (parts of North Iceland are just a few kilometres below the Arctic Circle) and time your visit to coincide with the summer solstice around 21st June. The merging of sunset and sunrise during mid-summer creates a magical few hours for photography in Iceland.
The long days of an Icelandic summer are perfect for hiking. In addition to well-known Highland treks like Laugavegur, there are particularly good walking trails in the fjords and mountains of East Iceland.
As well as hiking, other summer activities in Iceland include horse riding and whitewater rafting. Just because it’s summer, don’t forget that ‘winter’ activities are also available thanks to Iceland’s perpetual icecaps. Even at the height of summer it’s possible to go snowmobiling or glacier walking on Vatnajokull or Langjokull.
Summer is an ideal time for a self-drive holiday in Iceland. You can easily drive to many of the country’s most famous sights, such as Geysir and Gullfoss. Although tourist attractions in Iceland are rarely crowded, July and August are the busiest months – plan a fly-drive holiday in June or September and you’ll still enjoy long hours of daylight but with the added bonus of having many roads largely to yourself. Remember that Highland driving tracks in Iceland’s interior are often only open from late June to mid-September, and you’ll either need to hire a 4WD vehicle or join a guided superjeep safari.
May to September is peak season for whale watching in Iceland when up to 20 species of cetaceans (including humpback, minke and blue whales) can be spotted on boat trips from Reykjavík and Husavik.
Several festivals take place in Iceland during summer. There’s music under the midnight sun at the Secret Solstice Festival in Reykjavik (mid-late June), while Sjomannadagurinn (Seamans' Day) takes place on the first weekend of June and celebrates Iceland’s maritime heritage with festivities and feasting in fishing villages around the country. East Iceland has a vibrant arts scene with villages like Seydisfjordur and Borgarfjordur Eystri hosting cultural and music festivals during summer.
Iceland in Autumn
Myvatn in autumn, North Iceland
What’s the weather like in Iceland during autumn?
Although nights begin to draw in by late August, autumn is still a wonderful time to visit Iceland. The days can remain relatively mild well into September, with temperatures reaching 10°C. Tundra vegetation is burnished yellow, gold and orange during autumn – the stunning colours contrasting with Iceland’s black lavascapes or a dusting of early snow.
What to do in Iceland during autumn
Northern lights watching is more commonly associated with winter, but spectacular displays of the aurora borealis can be seen over Iceland from as early as August. As the nights lengthen and darken, however, the northern lights shine brighter. The period either side of the autumn equinox in late September is a particularly rewarding time to scan the skies.
When the busy summer period is over, mild and often dry weather lingers into early autumn, making September an excellent month for a walking or self-drive holiday in Iceland. The days are still long (particularly early on in the month) and many summer activities are still operating. Photographers get the best of both worlds – rich autumn colours during the day and the chance of the northern lights at night – while hikers get to feast on an autumn harvest of blueberries, crowberries and redcurrants.
Iceland in Winter
Skogafoss, South West Iceland
What’s the weather like in Iceland during winter?
November to March are the darkest months, with just 4-5 hours of daylight on the shortest day (21st December) – ideal for northern lights viewing. In the south and west, the warming influence of the Gulf Stream keeps temperatures around 0°C, but it can plummet to -20°C or more in North Iceland or the interior – especially when you factor in wind chill.
What to do in Iceland during winter
Far from being dark, cold and uninviting, winter in Iceland is a magical season. Long nights help maximise your chances of seeing the northern lights – especially if you stay at a lodge or hotel in the countryside away from city light pollution. Equally mesmerising, Iceland’s waterfalls become frosted with ice during winter, while snowfall forms a vivid contrast with its volcanic landscapes.
In search of winter shoals of herring, large pods of orca patrol the western shores of Iceland during February and March. Whale watching boat trips are available from the Snaefellsnes Peninsula, and you can sometimes see the killer whales driving their prey close inshore. At this time of year, birdwatchers will also be captivated by the sight of huge rafts of wildfowl – such as eider and harlequin ducks – speckling Iceland’s fjords and sheltered bays.
It’s not just the northern lights that brighten an Icelandic winter: Icelanders celebrate New Year’s Eve in Reykjavík with a dazzling fireworks display, while winter festivals in the capital include Dark Music Days (late January) and Winter Lights (February).
Hot-tubbing is popular in Iceland year-round, but there is something particularly indulgent about a winter dip in geothermal waters. As well as the Blue Lagoon, you’ll find hot-tub heaven at the Nature Baths in North Iceland and Hotel Ranga in the southwest (the latter is also renowned for its northern lights viewing).
Although the interior is closed during winter to all but a few hardy superjeep expeditions, the main road network in Iceland is kept largely open. Self-drive holidays and escorted tours provide a wonderful opportunity to explore Iceland in winter when there are few other visitors and the rugged landscape is raked by beautiful, low-angled sunlight.
Winter activities in Iceland include glacier walking, snowmobiling, cross-country skiing and dog sledding. Keen hikers may have to wait until summer to gain access to trails in the mountains and interior, but there are few things more invigorating than a winter walk along one of Iceland’s black-sand beaches.
Iceland in Spring
Puffin on the West Fjords
What’s the weather like in Iceland during spring?
The official harbinger of spring in Iceland, golden plovers arrive to nest during late March. With temperatures in the south averaging 0-10°C, any low-lying snow quickly thaws. It remains colder (and drier) further north.
What to do in Iceland during spring
It’s not too late to catch the northern lights – in fact, the spring equinox marks another peak in aurora activity.
As well as waders like the golden plover, spring brings numerous other bird species to the shores of Iceland. Bird watching highlights include the arrival of thousands of pink-footed geese from the UK, but it’s the puffin that most visitors want to see. Around two- to three-million pairs nest on sea cliffs and islands around Iceland between April and August. Key sites for close-up encounters include Heimaey in the Vestmannaeyjar archipelago, Látrabjarg in the far west of Iceland and Borgarfjordur eystri in the east. Spring flowers are another welcome arrival, with Arctic poppy, mountain avens and harebell speckling mountain slopes and gravel plains throughout Iceland.
As days lengthen and temperatures rise, spring is a great time for exploring Iceland before the much busier summer period. Although Highland tracks are still closed, you can set off on a self-drive odyssey using Iceland’s Ring Road to visit iconic sights on the Golden Circle or strike out to Jokulsarlon glacial lagoon in the south, the East Fjords or Lake Myvatn in the North.
Blogs you may be interested in:
- Top 10 Waterfalls in Iceland
- 10 places that prove Iceland is extraordinary all year round
- 9 amazing views of Iceland
Northern Lights at Hotel Glymur