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When to Visit Iceland: Guide to the Best Times for Northern Lights, Whales, and Waterfalls

    Updated” 28th January 2024

    Each season in Iceland offers its own unique experience. Winter trips can be magical, offering opportunities for dogsledding and ice caving, though the cooler temperatures and potential for severe weather are factors to consider. Conversely, the warmer summer months lend themselves to road trips along the Ring Road, exploring Iceland’s dramatic waterfalls, black sand beaches, and rugged coastlines with greater ease.

    Northern Lights, Iceland
    Credit: Giuseppe Milo

    Best Times to Visit

    Northern Lights Season

    The dazzling Northern Lights, or Aurora Borealis, are best viewed from September to April. During these months, the nights are dark enough to witness the spectacular light show. Areas away from city lights offer the clearest view, making this period a prime time for visitors seeking this celestial display.

    Midnight Sun Period

    Experiencing nearly 24 hours of daylight, the Midnight Sun graces Iceland from June to August. This phenomenon allows travellers ample time for exploration and sightseeing, with activities such as hiking and wildlife tours being particularly popular during this bright season.

    Puffin Watching Season

    For bird enthusiasts, the puffin watching season peaks from May to August when these charismatic birds breed on the coastal cliffs. Visitors can observe thousands of puffins during this time, especially in the Westman Islands, which are considered one of the best spots for puffin watching in Iceland.

    Seasonal Considerations

    Winter in Iceland

    Winter wraps Iceland in a blanket of snow from November to February, offering a picturesque landscape. Daylight is limited to a mere 4-5 hours in December, but the darkness provides an excellent backdrop for the Northern Lights. Travellers can enjoy activities like glacier hiking and ice cave explorations, with temperatures averaging around 0°C.

    Summer in Iceland

    The summer months of June to August bathe Iceland in near 24-hour daylight, known as the Midnight Sun. The warmer temperatures, averaging 10°C to 15°C, encourage outdoor activities such as wildlife watching and trips to geothermal pools. It’s the best time for hikers to traverse the Highlands.

    Spring in Iceland

    Spring, from April to May, sees Iceland transition from a snow-clad country to a greener landscape. The ice recedes and daylight increases, with temperatures between 3°C and 8°C. This season is best for those wanting to witness the awakenings of Icelandic flora and fauna without the summer crowds.

    Autumn in Iceland

    Autumn visits during September and October signal a cool change with a palette of reds and yellows across Icelandic nature. It’s a sweet spot for those wanting to avoid peak times but still enjoy reasonable daylight hours and the chance to see the Northern Lights as the nights grow longer. Temperatures around 4°C to 10°C are common, and there’s increased rainfall which visitors should be prepared for.

    Weather Patterns

    Average Temperatures

    In Iceland, temperatures fluctuate significantly, especially when comparing the summer and winter months. The southern coast, thanks to the Gulf Stream, tends to be warmer. Here, average temperatures in July can reach around 10°C to 13°C, while January sees averages from -3°C to 2°C. Travelling towards the interior, temperatures can drop considerably, with the highlands often experiencing a colder climate year-round.

    Precipitation Levels

    The amount of rainfall Iceland receives varies by region. The southern parts of the country, including the capital Reykjavik, are known for being wetter, with an annual average precipitation ranging between 800 mm to 3000 mm. In contrast, the northern and eastern parts typically have lower precipitation levels with around 400 mm to 500 mm annually. Snow can be expected during the winter months, particularly from November to March, with precipitation peaking in October and February.

    Wind Conditions

    Iceland is also known for its strong winds; these can occur at any time of the year but are most intense during the autumn and winter. Wind speeds can average between 18 km/h to 38 km/h, and gusts can be considerably higher, leading to travel disruptions. Coastal areas and open terrains, like the highlands, are particularly prone to strong winds. Visitors should check the local forecasts regularly to stay informed about wind conditions during their stay.

    Crowds and Pricing

    Peak Tourist Season

    Peak Season: Traditionally, the peak tourist season in Iceland spans from June to August. This period promises endless daylight due to the midnight sun, making it an attractive time for sightseeing and activities. However, be prepared for higher prices and more densely populated attractions. Accommodation, especially in tourist-centric areas like Reykjavík, can experience a surge in rates and often require advance booking.

    Off-Peak Travel Times

    Off-Peak Season: The months of April, May, September, and October are often considered ideal for sightseeing with fewer crowds and reduced costs. During these shoulder months, travellers can enjoy a more tranquil experience while taking advantage of milder weather. For those seeking the natural spectacles of the Northern Lights, September offers significantly better visibility and still retains moderate accommodation pricing.

    Festivals and Events

    Cultural Festivities

    Icelandic festivals often celebrate the nation’s heritage, with events steeped in tradition and folklore. Visitors can experience Iceland’s rich cultural tapestry at events such as Þorrablót in midwinter, where they enjoy traditional foods and revel in ancient Norse culture. Another cultural highlight is the colourful Þjóðhátíð, held in the Westman Islands, where locals commemorate their national identity with bonfires, singing, and fireworks.

    Music and Arts Festivals

    For those with a penchant for music and arts, Iceland boasts several festivals that cater to a wide array of artistic tastes. Iceland Airwaves is an acclaimed multi-genre music festival held each November, gathering artists and music enthusiasts in Reykjavik for an unforgettable celebration of sound and creativity. Contemporary music followers will appreciate Dark Music Days in Reykjavik, a festival held in late January that focuses on innovative music performances set against the backdrop of Iceland’s darkest winter days.

    Driving Conditions

    Road Safety in Winter

    During the winter months, drivers in Iceland should be prepared for snowy and icy roads, which can be challenging even for experienced motorists. Winter tyres are a must, and using studded tyres from November to April can provide additional traction. Travellers should also check the Icelandic Road and Coastal Administration website for up-to-date information on road conditions, as they can change rapidly. The Safetravel website is another resource that offers an informative app to help drivers stay safe during their journey by providing weather and road updates.

    Vehicle Rentals and Tips

    Renting a vehicle in Iceland requires drivers to be at least 20 years old for a car and 23 for 4WD vehicles, with a valid international driving licence. For self-drive tours in the summer, a standard car may suffice, but during winter, a 4WD is advisable. Before setting off, drivers should familiarise themselves with local driving laws, such as driving on the right-hand side of the road, which can be reviewed on websites like Guide to Iceland that offer comprehensive insights into travelling by car in the country. Always remember to have adequate insurance coverage which can be arranged through the rental company.

    Natural Phenomena

    Geothermal Activity

    Iceland is renowned for its geothermal wonders, including spouting geysers and relaxing hot springs. The Geysir Geothermal Area is home to Strokkur, a geyser that erupts every few minutes, reaching heights of up to 20 metres. For those looking to unwind, the soothing waters of the Blue Lagoon, enriched with minerals like silica and sulphur, are perfect for a rejuvenating dip.

    Glacier Tours

    Exploring Iceland’s glaciers offers an unforgettable experience, whether it’s a hike on Vatnajökull, Europe’s largest glacier, or a boat tour among the floating icebergs of Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon. Glacier tours provide a chance to witness the awe-inspiring beauty of these ancient ice masses and grasp their importance in the world’s ecosystem.

    Wildlife Encounters

    Iceland’s wildlife is as varied as its landscapes. From April to September, visitors can embark on whale watching excursions in areas like Husavik, dubbed the whale watching capital of Iceland. Furthermore, the cliffs of Látrabjarg are home to millions of seabirds, including puffins, which can be seen from May through August.

    Practical Information

    Currency and Budgeting

    Iceland’s currency is the Icelandic króna (ISK). Visitors should plan their budget carefully, as Iceland can be quite expensive. Card payments are widely accepted, but travellers should inform their bank before departure to avoid any issues. It’s advisable to have some cash for places that might not accept cards, especially in remote areas. For current exchange rates and banking details, visitors should check before travelling.

    Language and Communication

    The official language of Iceland is Icelandic, but most Icelanders are fluent in English, especially within the tourism industry. However, learning a few basic Icelandic phrases could greatly endear travellers to local residents. For mobile communication, Iceland uses GSM networks, and tourists can buy a local SIM card for their phones, available at the Keflavík International Airport or in Reykjavík.

    Emergency Services

    In case of an emergency, travellers can dial 112, Iceland’s all-encompassing emergency number, which is operational 24/7. It’s also recommended to download the 112 Iceland app, which includes a GPS location feature, helping emergency services to locate callers quickly if necessary.

    Conclusion

    Deciding when to visit Iceland comes down to what you want to see and experience in this enchanting country. Whether it’s the dance of the Northern Lights in the winter sky, the magnificent breach of whales in the summer seas, or the sheer power of waterfalls amplified by the spring thaw, each season in Iceland offers its own unique spectacle. With this guide in hand, you can plan your trip around these natural wonders to ensure you get the most out of your Icelandic adventure. So pack your bags, choose your season, and embark on a journey that promises to be as magical as the land itself. Iceland awaits!

    Decided when you want to visit? Why not complete the whole ring-road using our handy guide!

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