What's the best time to travel to Iceland - in summer or in winter

When to Go to Iceland – Summer vs Winter

In Europe, Iceland by JurgaTHIS POST CONTAINS AFFILIATE LINKS

Iceland is one of those places that you can visit all year round. It’s rough and beautiful at the same time, it’s unique, and it will definitely surprise you. First time travellers often play it safe and travel to Iceland in summer. However, recently more and more people discover this amazing country in winter. So what is the best time to go to Iceland?

The best time to travel to Iceland depends on what you expect from your trip. If you are worried about the weather, don’t be, because there is simply nothing you can do about it. Of course, statistically speaking, you will have warmer and drier weather in summer than in winter, but it doesn’t mean that it will actually be that way. It wasn’t when we travelled…

My personal experience in Iceland in summer, in autumn, and in winter

I visited Iceland several times – in June, in September, and in November.

The day we arrived in Akureyri on the 31st of May 2006, we found ourselves in the middle of a terrible snow storm. Our plane had difficulties landing, the roads were icy and some sections of the main road around the island were closed, the streets were covered with snow, and practically everything was closed. Our rental car agency upgraded us to an SUV as they didn’t think it was safe to drive with a regular car. Despite this, our car ended up in a ditch on the second day of the trip… Luckily nobody got hurt and there was no damage to the car. We were also lucky that a friendly Icelander happened to be passing by within just a few minutes on a completely deserted road, and that he had all the equipment to pull our car back on the road with his monster-size 4×4.

Just two days later all the snow was gone and we even had one sunny day with temperatures reaching 20°C (68°F) for just a short moment. By the end of our vacation we were wearing our winter jackets again.

Tourist standing in knee-high snow at a waterfall in Northern Iceland

Northern Iceland in June 2006

 

So when I booked my trip to Iceland in November 2015, I was prepared for everything. It was cold, much colder than expected, but it was dry! There was some ice on the roads near Reykjavik on the first day, but we haven’t seen snow or rain for the rest of the week. We were told that it was highly unusual to have 7 dry days in a row in November. Just as it was highly unusual to have knee-high snow in June…

Beautiful sunlit mountain landscape at Skaftafell in Iceland

Skaftafell National Park in November 2015

 

My most recent visit to Iceland was in September 2018, for an amazing Icelandic highlands trip. We had beautiful sunny days, but also some rain and wind. One moment we would be walking around in sweaters and an hour later we would need a winter jacket… But in general, it was sunny – the best weather you could hope for in Iceland. We were told by the locals that they didn’t have as much sun during the whole summer this year as we did in September…

Landmannalaugar in Iceland on a beautiful day in September

September weather is often as good as in summer in Iceland (or better, as it was this year)

 

If there is one conclusion to be made from my experience visiting Iceland, is that the weather is always unpredictable in Iceland. On top of that, it changes quickly so you should expect the worst and hope for the best, and be flexible in case you need to change your plans. In my earlier blog post I shared some packing tips for Iceland for the winter months and here you can find Iceland packing tips for the summer. Travel well prepared and you will love Iceland in any season and any weather.

Of course, traveling in summer or in winter will in principle give you completely different experiences. Some things you will be able to see and do all year long, some others are season-specific. Let me try and summarise the main benefits of each season to help you decide when is the best time for you to travel to Iceland.

Just to be clear, by summer I mean June through August, winter – October through April. May and September can be a bit of both. Remember that you can have summer AND winter in one day in any season in Iceland.

Activities you can do and places you can visit in Iceland all year

  • Reykjavik, Golden Circle (Thingvellir National Park, Gulfoss, Geysir), and Southern part of the island, all the way up to Jökulsárlón, can be visited all year.
  • Natural baths, Blue Lagoon, hot pools – they are all accessible all year round.
  • Glacier hiking, horse-back riding – these and some other activities you can do in all seasons.
Glacier hiking in Iceland can be done in summer and in winter

Glacier hiking in Iceland can be done in any season

 

Advantages of visiting Iceland in summer

  • The days are long, in fact they are endless, so you can do much more sightseeing.
  • It is warmer.
  • You can see some wildlife. Theoretically speaking, you can see whales in any season, but the chances are much higher in summer. Puffins and most other birds can only be seen in summer months.
  • Roads are better accessible and you may get to places which are completely out of reach in winter.
  • Fully exploring the highlands in Iceland is only possible in summer. Here you can read more about my bucket list Icelandic highlands trip with a private driver.
  • Many waterfalls are better accessible in summer. In winter you often have to admire them from a safe distance as it’s just too slippery to get closer.
  • Northern part of the island can be visited easier in summer months than in winter.
  • Camping is certainly more pleasant in summer.
  • Some hiking can be done all year, but you will have many more possibilities in summer.
  • Most museums outside Reykjavík are only open during high season.

Here you can find a few examples of activities, excursions, and day trips you can do in Iceland in summer.

Puffin on a cliff at a coast in Southern Iceland

Southern coast of Iceland is the best place to see puffins in summer

 

Advantages of going to Iceland in winter

  • Winter has the most beautiful light for photography. The days are shorter and your sightseeing time is limited, but the light is just amazing as the sun is so low on the horizon that it looks like sunset all day long.
  • Northern lights – the best time to see Aurora Borealis in Iceland is from September through beginning of April. In fact there are only three factors which determine if you get to see the auroras: it has to be dark, the sky has to be clear, and it helps if aurora activity is high. Make sure you check aurora forecast websites to help you ‘hunt’ Northern lights. Even if activity is low, you can usually see some auroras on a clear night, and a level 4 or 5 aurora display can be just dazzling. Take a look at our  Beginners’ Guide to Northern Lights Photography.
  • There are fewer tourists in winter so it is less busy at the attractions and the prices of accommodation and car rental are lower as well.
  • You may witness the most beautiful frozen nature creations in winter. Frozen waterfalls are just incredible!
  • Ice caves can only be visited in the coldest winter months. They are under the water the rest of the year. Here you can find more inspiration: 5 bucket list worthy winter experiences in Iceland.
  • Skiing, snowmobiling and ice fishing are extremely popular in the winter months.

Take a look at our one week winter trip itinerary for Iceland. Don’t feel like driving in Iceland in winter? Check this hand-picked selection of the best tours and winter day trips in Iceland departing from Reykjavik.

Multicolored aurora borealis display in Iceland

Northern Lights Display in November. Aurora activity level 5.

Hiker sitting in between many pieces of Ice on Jokulsarlon coast in Iceland

Ice on Jokulsarlon coast

 

If you are still not sure when is the best time for you to travel to Iceland, I might just have a perfect answer for you. I recommend visiting Iceland in September, especially if it’s your first trip. Why? You can read more about it here: 12 good reasons to travel to Iceland in September.

One thing I know for sure, no matter which season you choose, you will love Iceland!

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When is the best time to travel to Iceland

Best time to travel to Iceland - summer versus winter


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Comments

  1. Hi Jurga,

    Firstly, I would like to thank you for writing such an elaborate blog. It really helped in planning our trip. We are going there in January 2019. Is it absolutely necessary to get a 4×4 Car if we are planning a self drive 9 day road trip.

    1. Author

      Hello, in principle it’s not necessary to rent a 4WD for Iceland if you stay on the Ring Road. However, in winter, I would at least rent an SUV – a car that is higher from the ground and more stable on the roads. However, sometimes a big SUV costs more to rent than a 4WD, so it really depends on your personal preferences as well. You never know how the roads or the driving conditions will be, in any case don’t rent the smallest car in Iceland winter.
      Here you can find some real-life stories about driving in Iceland in winter – you’ll see that it’s impossible to predict.
      We use this search engine to check and compare car rental prices between different companies. Take a look.

  2. I have visited this beautiful and heart touching place in winter. Now I am planning to go there in summer. I am so excited. Thanks for the post, it gave me a better idea what to expect.

    1. Author

      If you liked Iceland in winter, you’ll love it in summer as well. Just prepare for the ever-changing weather ;).

  3. Thanks for your beautiful blog. We are traveling next month to Iceland. Do you know where I can call to set up a circle tour, either private or a group? Other wise thinking of renting a car. Is it fairly easy to navigate our way around?

    thanks,

    Sara

    1. Author

      Hi Sara, in summer you can easily visit Iceland on your own, so renting a car is probably the best option if you have a few days. For tours, please check here for some hand-picked suggestions: Best Tours in Iceland.
      Hope this helps. Enjoy your trip.

  4. Hi Jurga, we are going to Iceland in 2 weeks(6/25) for 8 days with my husband and 2 boys (12 &14 yrs). We Will stay in Reykjavik and we are renting a car. Do you think that we need to book some tours, if yes, itis better to book from here(US) or can we drive and explore by ourselfs? Any top places that we cannot miss? Do we have to get their currency or credit cards would be fine? By the way love your blog! Thank you.

    1. Author

      Hi Claudia, if you have a car definitely go and explore on your own. It’s just that Reykjavik really isn’t the best base if you have so much time in Iceland… Lots of driving up and down for no reason, so if in any way possible I’d say try to change your accommodations, it will be easier to see places that are further away. Ideally you’d spend a few days along the South Coast.
      As for what to see, check this post some of my favourite places in Iceland. Here you can find some sample itineraries. This winter itinerary can of course be done in summer in less time and every place along the South coast is really worth seeing. Main highlights in the South are: the Golden Circle, the waterfalls along the South Coast, Jokulsarlon glacier lagoon. Also, you could drive up to Snæfellsnes Peninsula as well.
      As for tours, some are really worth it, depending on your interests. For example, puffin or whale watching, horse riding, glacier hiking, silfra snorkelling… A visit to a geothermal pool is also a must in Iceland. You can find all these suggestions here: best summer tours in Iceland. If you like hiking, Landmannalaugar trail inland might really be worth doing. It’s not easy to get there unless you have a 4WD and off-road driving experience, therefore probably better go with a tour.
      Cash is not really necessary in Iceland, you can use credit cards pretty much everywhere (best take VISA or MasterCard; AMEX isn’t very widely accepted in Iceland or anywhere else in Europe for that matter). I heard someone say that some parking meters in Reykjavik didn’t take credit cards, but that’s really the only time I heard that someone would need cash in Iceland.
      Hope this helps. Have a great trip!

  5. I’m from Boston;check it out:Boston in the winter is colder than Reykjavik,and central Maine(where I once lived is much colder than Akureyri! Iceland is influenced by the Gulf Stream;the U.S. is not!
    And yes Iceland is an amazing place to visit-I loved it!

  6. Amazing pictures! Do you have any tips for photographing northern lights?

    1. Author

      It’s funny – you’re the third person who asked this question in less than a week, Simon. I guess it’ the season for watching and photographing auroras. I do have some tips, but it’s a bit too long to explain here. Working on a post in regards to Northern Lights photography, so please stay tuned.

  7. Hi! Iceland sounds amazing. I’ve been trying to book for a while and finally I have booked for next April. Do you think is good time to see the aurora? Thanks

    1. Author

      They say that September through mid-April is the best time for auroras in Iceland, so you might be just in time, Andrea! My suggestion would be to follow the aurora forecast (hourly) and go outside every night.

  8. YAY! I’m going in winter and you make it sound so magical. I can’t wait. Great tips 🙂

    1. Author

      Winter is great. I loved Iceland in winter – it is magical indeed. Just dress warm!

  9. Wow. I can see why this is such a popular post. Well written, informative, excellent photos. Loved everything about it. Iceland is firmly on my bucket list!

    Thanks for sharing! Gonna check out your other content 🙂

    1. Author

      Thank you so much for your feedback, Bryony! I aim to provide my readers with lots of practical information on every destination I write about, to help them make the most of their trips. So this is a really big compliment to me. Appreciate it!

  10. Those Aurora shots….wow! I visited Iceland in March. The days were starting to get longer but there was still lots of snow around, I loved it 🙂

    1. Author

      I bet you there was snow in March, Kiara. As I said, we had plenty of snow in June! 🙂

  11. Incredible photos! There seem to be great reasons to go in any season….for me thought it would have to be winter to see those Northern Lights! Something I absolutely must do in my lifetime 🙂

    1. Author

      Thanks, Leah! Northern Lights was the main reason behind my decision to go back to Iceland in winter. We were lucky to be able to see some amazing auroras, but I liked the rest of the trip just as much. We hardly ever go back to the same place twice – I’d gladly make an exception for Iceland again!

  12. That thick layer of snow for your first trip is crazy! I’m still dreaming about Iceland, had thought of doing a solo trip but driving + left-hand driving are really what put me off. The next is to consider joining tour groups like you mentioned. Thanks for recommending!

    1. Author

      You shouldn’t worry about driving in Iceland, Kristine! Outside Reykjavik there’s hardly any traffic at all. But indeed, organised group tours are the perfect way to see Iceland in summer. We had very icy road one day last November – couldn’t even walk on it without slipping, but our experienced local guide/driver had no problems at all. That day I was so happy I didn’t have to drive.

  13. I have only been to Iceland once in the winter, and even though we experienced several snowstorms while we were there, it is really not that bad with the right clothes. Also agree that photography is on point in the winter because of the lighting. If you don’t like the weather in Iceland, just wait 5 minutes and check again!

    1. Author

      Yes indeed, Diana. You cannot control the weather, but with the right clothing you can enjoy pretty much any trip.

  14. If I understand it well you had been to Iceland in summer and in winter. If you were to choose one of the two – when would you go? We would love to visit Iceland, but cannot decide when.

    1. Author

      It’s a difficult one, Sarah. I would try to focus on activities you really want to do and then see which season is the best for that. We loved both our trips to Iceland, but if I had to pick just one, it would be the one in November because it was more special. We saw things we hadn’t seen anywhere else before: Northern Lights, frozen waterfalls and other frozen water creations at the glacier lakes, icebergs on the beach in Jokulsarlon… Just make sure you’re dressed for the cold and the rain – you’ll need very warm waterproof clothing in Iceland in winter (check my Iceland winter packing essentials post). Hope this helps.

  15. We’re going to Iceland in October. Do you know if it’s a good time to see the whales?

    1. Author

      I think the best season to see the whales in Iceland is from April to September, but I wouldn’t get discouraged by that. They do whale watching tours all year round and have told us that there are whales around even in winter months. It’s a matter of luck I suppose. I’d definitely give it a try if it’s not too cold and too rainy when you are there.

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