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Updated: 7th January 2022

Touching down in the land of fire and ice will send a shiver down the spine, no matter the season. Whether it’s the first glance at a snow-covered city in the depths of winter, admiring verdant greenery against striking black beaches in summer, or being dazzled by the northern lights on approach, Iceland certainly enthrals all the senses. Still, to answer the question of when the best time to visit Iceland is, you’ll need to know what kind of experience you’re seeking in the land of fire and ice.

Picking the right season to visit Iceland will not just shape the appearance of this jewel between the North Atlantic and Arctic Oceans but also shape the whole way you travel. There’s the obvious, such as camping, for example, being very much a summer activity, and then the things you could overlook, such as the seriously reduced daylight hours in the winter.

During my first winter visit to Iceland, I got to experience the unique Christmas traditions – book giving and Krampus – as well as the country lighting up with bonfires and fireworks for New Year. Magical and snow-covered as the land was, it made certain places impossible to reach and, alas, too much cloud and snow for the northern lights. So, paying attention to the seasons is essential, depending on how you want to build your Iceland itinerary. 

Still, no matter when you decide to visit Iceland, it will always be one of the world’s best islands to visit. Here are a few factors to help you decide.

Iceland Winter Photography
Unforgettable waterfalls in Iceland

The best time to visit Iceland for a road trip 

While, theoretically, you could hire a car in Iceland and enjoy a driving adventure any time of year, there are a few things to consider when planning the best time to visit for an Iceland road trip.

Firstly, off-road driving in Iceland is prohibited for the most part, and many of the F-roads (the highland roads) close completely in winter (from around October to May). So if you wish to explore the interior, then the summer months will suit you best.

It’s possible to drive the famous Golden Circle Iceland route year-round, so you can decide what kind of conditions and landscapes you want to witness on this route and then time your visit accordingly. 

The type of car or hire vehicle you should take will also depend on your itinerary, so get your plans in gear before hiring a vehicle. If you plan on doing some of the highland roads in summer when they are open, a 4WD is the best option, as smaller cars might struggle. Likewise, some roads, for the most part, aren’t really designed for larger camping vehicles — all things to consider.

If you are planning to visit in winter but are not a confident driver in snowy and icy conditions, then you might want to consider taking a tour instead. You could also bring your own car if you take the (long) ferry from Denmark, which also calls to the Faroe Islands on the way.

The best time to come to Iceland for camping

It’s fair to say that Iceland is not a cheap destination. The high quality of life and solid wages ensure that prices, even by Western European standards, are pretty high. Thus, one of the easiest ways to save costs on your trip is to reduce the accommodation budget. This, of course, comes with the unquestionable bonus of getting to the heart of nature that Iceland is most famous for.

For most people, the summer months of June, July and August are likely the only appealing time to camp in Iceland. A truly unique camping experience awaits, as the midnight sun doesn’t set for much of this period, so if you struggle to sleep without the curtains closed, a decent eye mask will be essential.

For those who want to camp in the shoulder seasons to see the northern lights, perhaps you’ll need to be more prepared with a very high-quality sleeping bag and tent. Winter is certainly not recommended for camping for the average traveller unless you are highly experienced and prepared for this kind of expedition. 

While wild camping, in theory, can be free, there are actually a lot of rules and considerations to make – specifically around where you are – for example, national parks and southern Iceland are a no-go. At the same time, in other areas, land ownership has to be taken into consideration, especially when coupled with the no off-roading rule. 

Luckily, there are plenty of affordable and free designated campsites you can choose from, which will ensure you respect the magnificent nature of the land without falling foul of any laws. Even still, expect to pay €10+ per person per night, reflecting the generally higher costs on the island. 

Iceland Winter Photography
Cabin goals in Iceland

The best time to take a tour around Iceland 

Well, this is a pretty easy answer because there isn’t really one particular best time to visit Iceland for expeditions, as you can take an unforgettable private tour any time of year.

Whether you opt for a multi-day summer expedition or short one or two-day trips from a base, there are plenty of operators on the island, thanks to the boom in tourism over recent years. Itineraries will suit all kinds of travellers, from those who simply want to visit waterfalls to hardcore adventure lovers looking to go deep into the wilderness of Iceland.

When the weather conditions start to change, from autumn until spring, those less confident with driving in snowy and icy conditions will find that taking a tour is a preferred option; just consider this in your costs when planning your trip to Iceland. We did a few different tours when we were there in winter, some day trips and other overnights with accommodation included, and they were ideal. The lodges, for example, had already been booked by the tour companies, meaning we didn’t have to struggle to find our own accommodation at some of the most famous sights.

Likewise, if you wish to explore the highland roads during winter when the roads are ‘impassable’ and closed, then some specialist tour operators will be able to help you make this happen.

Iceland Winter Photography
Photographing the dramatic beaches

The best time to enjoy a city break in Reykjavik 

Iceland’s capital, Reykjavik, is a small, compact, and charming underrated European city with plenty of great restaurants, bars, and attractions to enjoy. Thus, it’s a great city break all year round, and it has massively grown in popularity as its own destination since more airlines started offering short stopover deals whilst transiting between the Americas and Europe.

Some of the most popular things to do in Iceland are easily accessible from Reykjavik by tour or driving, such as the famous Blue Lagoon, Þingvellir National Park – where two continents’ tectonic plates meet (you can scuba or snorkel between them) – and countless waterfalls. 

Of course, in summer, you’ll find the weather much more agreeable, and the depths of winter might be a bit wet, grey and miserable for some. Still, I loved our Christmas and New Year visits, especially because the NYE celebrations here are truly special. All across the island islands, bonfires, flame-lit torches, and fireworks go off, all organised by the local residents, in what you can imagine would be a complete disaster of mismanagement, but in fact, show just how respectful and fun the people of this wonderful country are. Between that special celebration and all the R&R on offer for a post-Christmas retreat, Iceland is one of the best places to visit in Europe in January.

Iceland Winter Photography
Snorkelling between two tectonic plates

The best time to see the northern lights in Iceland 

For many, the main reason to visit Iceland is to catch a glimpse at those magical northern lights as they dance across the sky in a seemingly unbelievable way. I’ve been both in the peak time, and the worst window to see them and actually didn’t get lucky on either, so managing your expectations will lead to fewer disappointments.

Seeing the Aurora Borealis isn’t just about when you visit; it is also about the weather conditions. The main months for witnessing the northern lights are October through to March (remember, in the peak of summer, the sun never sets), and generally, between midnight and two in the morning are the best hours of the day. You will, however, need to keep an eye on the forecast (there are specific websites for the northern lights forecast) because you need a few things to align to witness them in all their glory: low cloud cover, a solar storm, and patience. Otherwise, they will remain a mere hidden gem in Europe.

Many of the day trips out of the city will only confirm a few hours before if it’s worth taking the trip, so plan to book this at the start of your holiday. Then, if you aren’t successful on the first try, you have more days to try and witness this breathtaking phenomenon. But even if you don’t see them, don’t fear – Iceland truly is one of the best islands to visit, regardless of if they make an appearance.

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