Iceland, a Nordic island country in the North Atlantic Ocean and Arctic Ocean, is the most sparsely populated country in Europe. It is the biggest part of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge that rises above sea level, and its central volcanic plateau is erupting almost constantly.
Iceland is warmed by the Gulf Stream and has a temperate climate, despite a high latitude just outside the Arctic Circle. Its high latitude and marine influence keep summers chilly, and most of its islands have a polar climate.
Iceland is lovely to visit all year round. A lot of people flock to Iceland in summer to enjoy 20-22 hours of daylight and a much stable temperature. While in winter travellers are visiting with a hope to see the elusive northern light and seeing the dramatic winter landscape.
Iceland is not a typical European destination due to its dramatic location close to the arctic circle and smacked as an island in the Atlantic and Arctic Ocean. Here’s some tips if this is your first time visitor to Iceland.
In Iceland, whatever the time of the year, you can, and should, expect all seasons in one trip. Perhaps even in one day! In summer, the weather in Iceland may be colder than you expect with average temperature ranging between 10 to 15 C. Summer is not as wet as spring, but it does rain occasionally. And if you come in spring or autumn there is always possibility of wind and rain, and maybe even snow.
The most stable months are June, July and August. Winter starts from December to March and December and January being the coldest month and the weather can be extreme and changeable. You can have blizzard, rain and snow storm in one week and then the week after you can have a great weather.
If you Visit Iceland in Winter..
And you should because Iceland is beautiful in winter and there are activities such as Ice cave tour which you can only do in winter. However chances are you’ll encounter some harsh weather. It could be snow storm, it could be sleet and it could be icy rain; it all depends on how far north you are. There can be occasions where the weather is so bad especially end December and January that the airport has to be closed and the roads to/from airport become inaccessible. We have seen cases from time to time during winter that flights get cancelled or travellers get stranded for hours at the airport.
The key to travel in winter is to understand how fickle the weather can be. Take travel insurance, don’t plan for a short stay – have a few days of wiggle room in case any major roads close and be flexible with your itinerary. Be acquainted with the local weather website: en.vedur.is. Take a look at the weather patterns from the year priors for a good idea of what to expect.
What to wear
As you pack whether it is for summer or winter you should know that the weather in Iceland can be a mystery and it can change as you move places and see the changes in the landscape.
For a summer trip (between May and September): bring both light and warmer layers. Light layers include t-shirts, thin long-sleeved shirts as well as shorts. For warmer layer bring some trousers or jeans, and layers such as a fleece or thick jumper. Always bring outer layer which is waterproof and windproof if you want to be fully prepared. You could also bring an insulated winter jacket if you’re worried about being too cold. By having layers you can easily remove or add layers according to the weather on that day.
For winter trip (December to March) it is important to make sure you stay warm and dry. Insulated jacket is recommended due to the cool northerly winds. And bring base thermal and more warm layers from wool to keep you even warmer and waterproof pants.
You will need good sturdy waterproof boots and wool socks all year round. Don’t forget bathing suits for a soak in Iceland famous thermal pools where you can find all around the country. For more detailed post see here.
There is polar night and midnight sun.
Polar night happen between December and January. This is the period where the sun doesn’t rise above the horizon for more than 24 hours. This is a phenomenon you find within the Polar Circle during the winter months. How long it lasts depends on how close to the North Pole you are. On the opposite you will get to experience midnight sun between May and June where the sun almost never sets. Most people are aware that you can’t see the Northern Lights in the summer, as the sun never sets up north, but sometimes people forget that the opposite applies to the winter – the sun will never rise. It won’t be pitch black all day. It kind of looks like just after sunset for most of the day – but you will have limited hours of light in the north in the winter, which you’ll want to keep in mind when planning your activities.
Check here for sunrise and sunset time.
December may not be the best time if you want to watch Northern Light
Aurora season starts at the end of August and finishes by mid-April. Also don’t expect to See Auroras All the Time. This just won’t happen, unless you are very lucky.
In Iceland it really depends on whether the sky is clear or not and you will actually have better chance to see Northern light in September and October. Beware that bad weather and low geomagnetic activity can reduce your chances even if you’re in the right place at the right time of year. Tips for chasing northern light here.
Iceland like other Nordic countries is a cashless society.
You can get by with your debit and credit card without having to withdraw any cash. Your debit/credit card has to come with chip and a pin number.
Budget for Food and Gas
Iceland and other Nordic countries are an expensive place to visit, and there’s no sugarcoating it. Chances are, it’s going to cost you much more to eat or fill up your car than it would at home. You can reduce the overall cost by booking a rental with a kitchen and hitting up supermarkets for meals. Steer clear of overpriced convenience store inside Gas Station and do your grocery shopping at Bonus, Kronan and Netto. When you are self driving, plan where you are going to stop for grocery shopping and fill up your gas.
There is no cheap Asian or junk food restaurant
It is better to go for proper restaurant to have lunch and cook yourself for dinner or buy simple food from the supermarket if you are staying in Hotel’s room instead of a place with kitchen. We do recommend to have lunch from time to time and try Icelandic food. Our restaurant recommendation in reykjavik are Saegreifinn and Reykjavik Street Food. You can also get Hot Dogs and Fish and Chips which are priced fairly.
Accommodations can get quickly booked up
Don’t wait too long to reserve accommodation during the northern light season and the peak summer season from mid-June to mid-August.
About Public Transportation
Iceland Public Transportation is mostly catered for local and not for tourist. The public buses in Iceland are called Strætó and you will recognize them by the yellow color. If you are staying in Reykjavík you can buy a 1-3 day city pass. Strætó also travels to the main places around the country and you can check out their schedule in their website. You can get anywhere within Reykjavik with bus. If you are going to venture outside Reykjavik (and you must), you cannot rely on bus because the intercity Bus will just take you from one city to another. They are not going to stop at the attractions such as waterfall. If you are not renting a car then you will need to take Tours. Depending on your budget there are big bus tours, coach/mini van tours and private tours. There are day trips leaving from Reykjavik and there are also multi day tours.
Don’t base yourself to only staying in Reykjavik and only plan for day trips everyday
Iceland is small in size when you look at it on a world map, so people tend to think they can see all of it in a couple of days. If you are going to drive, know that distances in Iceland can be deceiving, and combined with the all things to see and do, narrow roads and unpredictable weather conditions, it can take longer to get from one place to another so always set buffer time or sightseeing. You will need to set 10-12 days if you are going to drive around Iceland and don’t expect to be able to do the ring road drive in the deep winter.
If you are not comfortable driving in Iceland or coming during winter, here’s the list of Iceland local tour companies you can look at:
Typical day trip from Reykjavik are tours to Golden Circle, South Coast and Snaeffelness Peninsula. Some tours added activity such as visit to Blue Lagoon and Sky Lagoon, snorkeling at Silfra fissure and snowmobiling. If you want to do glacier walk tour or ice cave tour you will need to take multi day tours. There are various multi day tours to choose such as 2 days tour to South coast and Ice cave, 4 days Blue ice cave and northern light tour, Winter 6 days small group, Winter 8 days around Iceland and etc.
Self Driving in Iceland
If you are not a solo traveller, and you come outside winter season, the best way to see Iceland is by self driving. However if you are planning to come in winter, know that winter in Iceland is especially hard and unpredictable. The two things that surprises many people are how strong the wind can get and how quickly the weather changes. You can experience the sun and blue skies and hurricane-force snowstorms, all on the same day.
In December and January, the easiest way to visit Iceland is to take organized tours, where you will have a local driver doing the driving, and making the decision about whether to drive or not. February and March is doable for self driving but you need to always pay attention to weather warnings and check the areas where you will be traveling.
Don’t try saving money by renting cheap car with basic insurance. Go for 4X4 car if you’re going to drive in winter and always take the platinum insurance.
Read my detailed tips about self driving in Iceland here.
A snippet of winter driving in Iceland
Favourite Apps to use in Iceland
- The official Icelandic weather app: Veður
The Icelandic weather is notoriously fickle, it can changing as you drive from one place to another. Weather forecast is only reliable 2-3 days before, thus It is important to keep tabs on the weather as you move places.
- The official app for Icelandic emergency service: 112 Neyðarlínan. 112 Iceland app is designed to speed information transfer in case of emergency but is also useful for anyone who might have difficulty in calling for assistance or in describing the situation because of the situation they are in or have difficulty communicating verbally for some other reason.
- Safe Travel app. The SafeTravel app provides critical information about road safety in Iceland. You can subscribe to get notifications/alerts through text messages while traveling in Iceland you plan to hike into Icelandic wilderness, submit your travel plan into the apps, it will give Icelandic SAR access to your location. If something happens, they will have an easier time finding you
- Google Map. Most people probably have this app (or an equivalent) already on their phone. It is working very well in Iceland and the only navigation app you need.
- Wapp – The Walking App. The Walking App shows you many enjoyable walking and hiking trails with interesting pop-up facts, stories and photos from the area.
- Strætó app/ Klappið App – The Official Bus System App to get around in Reykjavik if you don’t rent a car
- EasyPark and Parka.is – For all your car parking needs.
- My Aurora Forecast & Alerts app – For chasing northern light. However I find that it is easier to see the aurora forecast in Iceland weather app here
- XE – not specific to Iceland but it helps me to convert ISK to my home currency
- Splitwise – if you are travelling with friends, splitwise is a good apps to split your expenses.
- Tripit – It organizes your travel plans no matter where you book. Simply forward your confirmation emails to firstname.lastname@example.org and in a matter of seconds, TripIt will create a comprehensive itinerary for every trip. You can also share the itinerary with your travel partner.