Summer or Winter
Best time to visit Iceland?
Iceland is a land of contrasts. I left California in the summer during a killer over-100 degree F (38C+) heat wave on August 5th. I’d done my homework and noticed the summer highs in Iceland might be about 65 degrees (18C). That was wishful thinking. Must have been a temperature for the longest day of the year, but not for August!
I was physically shocked at the relative cold of 50 degrees (10C), overcast skies, and wind when I arrived. A classic Icelandic sweater was among the first items purchased, something I will treasure for years. You can’t beat these sweaters for hand-made beauty and warmth. I wore it every day! In fact, Iceland in August only once saw my bare arms, for about an hour!
Which brings me again to the changeability of the weather. Never venture out without your rain jacket in hand. Twice I embarked on splendid hikes into somewhat remote spots, you know…..the 8-mile backcountry not-well-maintained or well-described tracks. They both began with glorious sunshine sparkling on the bright (wet) green moss, only to change to pouring rain at the half-way point. Glad I had that rain jacket with me. Still got soaked in the end, but glad to have gone out exploring.
Summer hat? Mine was an Icelandic wool hat I bought in Iceland last winter, really pretty and warm. By my reckoning, it’s my daily wear in both summer and winter.
But then, I’m admittedly no spring chicken and I get cold easier than when younger. This trip I commonly wore (at least) three layers for summer wear (wool tank, long sleeve shirt, Icelandic sweater). I further added a down jacket and rain jacket when the wind and storms arrived. That’s summer attire in Iceland for me, and generally I was comfortable. I also slept in a tent each night, with little time spent in warm buildings.
To warm up, a visit to the local municipal pool would both provide an awesome shower experience that campgrounds often did not, as well as provide amazing, relaxing enjoyment in the geothermal-heated hot tubs, swimming pools and sometimes steam saunas. Top of the list for all seasons: regular pool experiences! Pools are an Icelandic mainstay.
Back to summer vs winter. Summer is fantastic, but don’t expect it to be really warm and sunny. If you come from a warm climate like I did, it may be a shock. (I even got a headcold the first day that lasted a number of days.)
Of course summer is very, very beautiful. I could access areas of Iceland that were too remote in the winter, such as the least visited area – the Westfjords. Summer also notably draws a lot more tourists.
Winter is remarkably and stunningly beautiful! Driving on the snowy and somewhat icy roads in a rental car was a tad scary. Snow on the hillsides created an other-worldly black and white beauty. Waterfalls were still flowing but had frozen water everywhere, making for some extremely slippery walking and people regularly falling down (i suggest you bring or buy shoe spikes). Winter brags natural beauty beyond compare.
Gulfoss Falls in the winter. The daylight hours are so short in late November that most of the time it is either an extended sunrise or sunset, making for amazing colors.
In winter (for me it was late November, which actually isn’t the full 100% dark time of year yet) I stayed in Airbnb’s that were delightful and reasonably priced due to fewer tourists. I regularly bundled up to go outside with about five clothing layers, including a rain jacket to stop the wind. I’ll bet wind is common no matter the season.
Winter or summer? Hard to say, it will depend on your interests. I think I just might visit in the dead of winter if I return to Iceland again. I had only a glimpse of the Northern Lights in late November, and it would fun to get the Full Monty experience during the full 24 hours of darkness. Geothermal swimming pools are an even bigger treat in winter, many of them located outside buildings in the freezing temperatures. You might even watch the Borealis while sitting in the outdoor pools!
The Icelandic people are extremely friendly and helpful making any season great for a visit. I’ve loved both times of the year. Be sure to come!