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.
Just to be clear, by summer I mean June through August, winter – October through April. May and September can be a bit of both. Actually, you can have summer AND winter in one day in any season.
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 and in winter
I visited Iceland twice – once in June 2006 and once in November 2015. 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.
So when I booked my trip to Iceland in November this year, 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…
If there is one conclusion to be made from this, is that the weather is 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.
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.
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 highland in Iceland is only possible in summer.
- 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.
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.
No matter which season you choose, you will love Iceland!
If you are dreaming of visiting Iceland, but are not sure where to start, I can really recommend Intrepid small group tours – click the banner below for their trips to Iceland. For my recent winter trip to Iceland I chose to go with a small organised group tour and I really enjoyed the experience and not having to drive on the icy roads. Sometimes it’s good to not have to worry about the practical side of the trip and just enjoy the scenery.
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