The Best Months to Visit Iceland: Fewer Crowds, the Northern Lights, and Prime Puffin Spotting

The best time to visit Iceland depends on your itinerary.

Green lights in the sky over a lake.

Whether you want to see the Northern Lights or go hiking, Iceland has plenty to do and see throughout the year.

Ragnar Th. Sigurdsson/age fotostock

Iceland sparkles and awes year-round, but what you can do while you are there varies dramatically from season to season. For most visitors, the best time of year to visit Iceland is undoubtedly summer, since the daylight stretches to 20-plus hours, and even the most remote regions become accessible.

But the shoulder seasons in May and September are a chance to avoid the heavy crowds, and winter to spring, spanning from October to April, shows a completely different face of the country.

Here’s the best time to visit Iceland, depending on what you have planned for your trip.

Hiking and the Highlands

Best Months: June–August

Part of the majesty of Iceland, of course, is getting out into its roiling lava fields, up on its crater rims, and alongside its thundering waterfalls. Summer is prime for hiking because the snow has melted and the trails have begun to harden (no mud-slush for you!) Also, this is the season when the interior highland F-roads open to four-wheel drive (4WD) traffic and tours—check out Midgard Adventure in the south and Fjalladýrð in the northeast. Some roads begin to open as early as the beginning of June, but others may not open until deep into July, and then they begin to close and become impassable by late August or early September. Similarly, Hornstrandir Nature Reserve in the Westfjords is at its most accessible from June to August.

Plus, in the summer you have upwards of 20 hours a day of sunlight to get out and get moving, and the weather, though always changeable, is at its warmest, averaging from 46 to 55 degrees Fahrenheit. This is also peak time for other activities like rafting, canyoneering, kayaking, and diving the Silfra Fissure at Þingvellir National Park.

Avoiding the Crowds

Best Months: October–April

Iceland in winter, when the weather is cooperating, can give you thrilling opportunities to visit extremely popular places like the Dyrhólaey Peninsula and the Dettifoss waterfall without the crowds. As an added benefit, the car rental and hotel prices drop in some regions. Downside? Outside of Reykyavík, many tourist-dependent hotels, restaurants, and shops close in true winter.

Also, winter exploring is not for the faint of heart if you plan to drive yourself, as roads are often snowy or icy, and snowstorms regularly pass through. Iceland is well equipped, though, with excellent weather forecasting and websites for road conditions, and rental cars have snow tires (a 4WD vehicle is the best bet at this time of year). The rewards are giant: Think about the possibility of standing alone on a volcanic beach in a snowscape of white-and-black drama.

If true winter seems too intense, choose September or May—a good compromise, as average temps range from 40 to 50 degrees Fahrenheit.

Road Trips

Best Months: May–September

One of the grand pleasures of a trip to Iceland is cruising its remote roads through open landscapes and along wave-swept shores, absorbing the majesty of the country. For example, you can make a wellness road trip in the Westfjords, connecting natural springs and town pools with the occasional luxe spa. Or go for a waterfall tour around the Ring Road. The experience is much better in good (or, at least, not bad) weather, so late spring to late summer is an ideal time to visit. However, during high-season summer, the Ring Road can get busy, especially in the south, where most tourists go, creating snaking lines of traffic. This is easily avoided, though, by simply venturing further afield—consider routes like the Diamond Circle route or the Arctic Coast Way.

Puffin on a coastal cliff in Iceland

Come to Iceland in the summer for a chance to have up-close encounters with adorable puffins.

Nicholas Kampouris/Unsplash

Wildlife Watching

Best Months: Puffins May–mid-August, birdwatching mid-May–July, whales April–September

A trip to Iceland offers the opportunity to see wildlife you don’t usually encounter in your backyard. Seasons vary by animal, of course, so if you’re looking for cavorting puffins, come starting in May, when they return from the open ocean, and get there before mid-August, when they leave again. The Vestmannaeyjar Islands are tops for their abundant colonies (they also have a beluga sanctuary), or go on a puffin tour at Ingólfshöfði in the back of a charming tractor wagon.

Birdwatching of other sorts is generally a summer activity in Iceland’s wetlands and lakes. like North Iceland’s Mývatn—birds are most active mid-May to mid-June as they arrive and build nests—and bird cliffs, like Látrabjarg in the Westfjords. Some areas close during nesting to protect the birds’ habitat. The elusive Arctic fox, the only mammal native to Iceland, is tough to spot. It’s most likely to be seen on the move near sunrise and sunset along coastlines and in summer when you can visit the Westfjords’ Hornstrandir Nature Reserve.

Whales and dolphins pass by year-round, and tours leave from Reykjavík, Húsavik (in the north), Grundarfjörður, and Ólafsvík (on the Snæfellsnes Peninsula), but April to late September or early October are the best months because the cetaceans arrive en masse to feed in local waters.

Animal activities, like excellent horseback riding or visiting the Icelandic goat farm at Háafell, though easiest in summer, happen year-round.

Cultural Life

Best months: Year-round

Part of Iceland’s immense charm is its welcoming, fascinating, vibrant people and their culture. And that’s available in all seasons. Sure, summer sees festivals like Pride, National Day, and Reykjavík Arts Festival, and cities and towns are wide open for business. But as darkness spreads across the land, Icelanders play on into the winter at music festivals Iceland Airwaves and Dark Music Days or the midwinter feast of Þorrablót, when Icelanders celebrate their culture, and you can sample fermented, smoked, and unusual (for you!) Icelandic fare. Reykjavík’s excellent museums, galleries, music clubs, and design shops boom year-round.

Northern Lights dance behind the Skógafoss Waterfall in Iceland with a smattering of visitors in the foreground of the falls

One of the best places to see the Northern Lights is by Skógafoss Waterfall.

Photo by Balazs Busznyak/Unsplash

Northern Lights

Best Months: September–April

Always a treasure hunt, the search for shimmering curtains of the Northern Lights is easiest with long winter nights—more darkness equals more chance to see them. But you need to find clear skies and high solar activity (Aurora Forecast is a helpful resource). Interestingly, the most activity occurs around the equinoxes (September/October and March/April), when solar particle ejections are at their highest, though you have a shot from November to February as well, simply because there are up to 20 hours of darkness per night.

Snow and Ice Sports

Best months: glacier hikes year-round, ice caves October/November–March

Naturally, snow sports like skiing are best in winter, when there’s more snow. Same goes for ice caving, when these glistening complexes become more stable at glacier edges. But you can hike on glaciers, ice climb, and go snowmobiling throughout the year. In all seasons, go with a local guide (check out Icelandic Mountain Guides and Tröll Expeditions)—the crevasse-laden glaciers are never stable enough for newbies.

Alexis has travelled all seven continents, from Sri Lanka to Ecuador and Zanzibar. She lived for a year in Antarctica and crossed the Pacific by sailboat, and paints, photographs, and publishes on Iceland, France, Italy, Greece, Spain and Antarctica for Lonely Planet, the BBC and National Geographic.
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