Iceland attracts millions of visitors every year, for a variety of reasons. Some come to see the famous aurora borealis in Iceland’s dark months. Others come to experience the island’s incredible landscape of glaciers and volcanoes or catch a glimpse of its majestic animals. Your experience of these things will depend on when you journey here. Some times of the year are more suited to certain activities in the land of ice and fire. Let’s take a look at the best time to visit Iceland.
When is the Best Time to Visit Iceland?
Again, this depends on your goals for your Icelandic adventure. There isn’t necessarily a ‘best’ time overall, but there are better and worse times for specific sights and weathers. There’s an idea here that Iceland doesn’t really have Spring and Autumn, only an extended Winter and a Summer. So, we’ll look at the two parts of the year separately, as well as some more focused ideas.
The Best Time to Visit Iceland for the Northern Lights
You can expect to see the Northern Lights between September and April, with the peak being between October and March. It is dark for most of the day here in the winter months, but you’re still better off staying up. In my experience, the optimum time to catch the Lights is around midnight, but there is no guarantee on this. There are several companies that operate nightly tours out of the city in an effort to catch the Aurora.
They run from September to April, but will cancel a tour if the weather is bad. In this case, you’ll have the option to rebook for free for the next night’s tour. If you’re in Iceland for a week or two and are actively searching every night, you have a decent chance. If you’re driving yourself around looking for the Lights, head to the Grótta Lighthouse just outside the city. It’s free from any artificial light and looks out into the wide Atlantic. Whether the Lights are out or not, it’s also great for stargazing. And that leads us to Icelandic Winter.
There’s something magical about the cold, snow-covered landscape that this country is great at creating. When the temperature drops and rivers start to freeze, and frost blankets the moss-covered lava fields, a new world appears. It’s a completely different experience to see Iceland’s famous features, such as Gullfoss Waterfall, in the winter time. Additionally, you of course have the added bonus of winter sports becoming accessible. Icelanders love skiing and snowboarding, and so there are many ski fields scattered throughout the country. Two are, in fact, located close to the capital: Bláfjöll and Skálafell, which are both about 35 minutes from Reykjavík. My personal favorite is Hlíðarfjall, which is found near to the town of Akureyri in the north of Iceland.
There is, of course, a flip side to an Iceland winter. The weather is much more severe than in summer, with snowstorms and strong wind occurring fairly often. It’s important that you come prepared with warm, waterproof clothing and have it with you at all times. With the ice and snow comes more treacherous driving conditions, so check that your rental car has winter tired fitted. Be extra careful on Iceland’s roads and check www.road.is for any closures.
Fortunately, you’ll have a strong answer to the cold with the abundance of naturally heated pools scattered throughout the island. This includes both man-made pools and wild hot springs, which are harder to find but generally free to use. Also, there isn’t much sunlight during winter here, so it can be difficult to figure out your sleeping pattern. This is especially true before the winter solstice, so make the most of the daylight hours. On a side note, you’ll only see ravens in the city during the winter, which I consider an important factor. Ravens are incredibly intelligent and fascinating to watch. On the flip side, other intriguing birds only make their appearance in the summer.
The Best Time for Whales and Puffins
First of all, whales can be seen around the Icelandic coast at all times of the year. However, due to their migration patterns, the peak time is between June and August. This also applies to Iceland’s puffin population, who spend most of their lives at sea, returning to land to breed. The baby puffins (pufflings) leap from their cliff homes and drift into the ocean around the end of August. Their parents go too, and so the country is empty of puffins until the following summer. Puffins can mostly be found on the smaller islands surrounding Iceland, particularly Vestmannaeyjar below the south coast.
There are boating tours taking place on every coastline that can take you to see the whales. Some do leave from Reykjavík’s harbor, but Húsavík in the north is known as the whale watching capital of Iceland. Generally, these tours take place daily, and several times a day in the summer. From Reykjavík, there are also puffin tours that will take you to the cliffs where they nest. With some companies, you have the option to combine this puffin viewing with a whale watching tour. Whales, of course, do not follow a schedule, and just like the Aurora Borealis, it’s never guaranteed you’ll see them. But you’ll still get a great boat tour out of it, and there’s more to do in the Icelandic Summer.
There is something special about the midnight sun in the summer months. Since there is so much daylight between May and August, the locals use this to take late night hikes. Road trips are enjoyed much more frequently, and new areas open up when the snow melts. This is especially true for the highlands, Iceland’s center, which is completely uninhabited and only accessible from June to September. The roads that lead to the highlands, F-roads, are closed in the winter and open only when the weather permits. The highlands possess some of the best hiking trails in the country, including the famous Laugavegur Trail. Additionally, the weather is much milder in the summer, although you should still come prepared with warm, waterproof clothing. Iceland’s weather is famously unpredictable and although you’re unlikely to get snow in summer, expect rain and cold temperatures. The average temperature in the south of Iceland in July is 13°C, so just about shorts weather.
With the minimal amount of darkness, however, comes the added trouble of affected sleep. The sun doesn’t really set leading up to the solstice, and so your body clock can get a little confused. Bring along a good sleeping mask and try to keep a regular bedtime pattern.
So, when is the best time to visit Iceland? Any time, but coordinate your visit with what you’d most like to experience. If the snowy wonderland vibe appeals to you, with fresh icy air and the Aurora dancing above, come in winter. If you want days filled with endless stretches of sunlight, slightly warmer temperatures, and clear hiking trails, summer’s your time. Either way, ensure your rental car in Iceland is well-stocked with supplies and suitable clothing when you head out and explore. The land of ice and fire awaits you, and it's open all year round.
Samuel Hogarth, Cars Iceland.