When is the best time to explore Iceland? Winter or summer each have their charms…
But I’m going to come down firmly on the side of winter. Yeah, there are negatives. Short days mean you are doing and seeing substantially less in more time and the snowy and icy roads definitely mean it’s going to take you longer to get where you want to go but in the end you’ll be treated to some of the most beautiful light imaginable with spectacular sunrises that unfold over hours until they become unforgettable sunsets. For someone like me who lives in the preternatural sunlight and brightness of Southern California I was excited about the opportunity to experience northern latitudes in the wintertime. With that said you need to go in with realistic expectations.
If you’re thinking Iceland in winter is going to be unbearable let me assure you: It’s not. The coldest months (December, January and February) see temperatures that average in the 30’s (fahrenheit) and overnight lows that aren’t much colder. Afraid of snow? Good news there as well: Most months average snowfall less than four inches total. If you’re assuming Iceland is going to be a winter wonderland covered in a blanket of fresh white snow you might end up disappointed. Despite it’s northern latitudes Iceland’s winters are milder than those in the Northeastern United States with warmer temperatures and less snowfall. Thanks to the warm air from the Gulf Stream, Iceland stays relatively tolerable during the winter months, for the most part. With that said, winds can be brutal in some places so wind chill can contribute to an overall feeling of frigidness and they do get winter storms but if you’re used to winter in some form it shouldn’t be outside the realm of tolerances.
On this point it’s probably a wash. No clear winner for summer or winter. On one hand you’ll get some solid alone time and avoiding crowds will be a bit more manageable since they are smaller in winter but in the summer you get that 24 hour light where you can visit even the most busy locations alone in the late evening. The reality is Iceland is popular and with popularity comes crowds.
In the wintertime you’ll be battling those crowds in a shorter timeframe due to the short length of days. As a result of those shortened days you can expect huge crowds that sometimes feel bigger than summer at the Golden Circle sights including Thingvellir, Geysir and Gulfoss but other locations will feel much more empty. You might even have some heavily visited places like Skogafoss all to yourself like above. While that was awesome, I really felt I hit the ‘quiet time in Iceland’ jackpot when I pulled up to Reynisfjara Black Beach and it looked like this:
Iceland is not a budget-friendly travel destination. It’s pricy, Eventually you have to stop converting Kroners to your own currency in your head before making a purchase or you’ll never buy anything. And I’m not talking frivolous items like souvenirs. Gas, food and beverages are going to be pricy year round. Winter does provide some budget relief though, mainly in the form of reduced prices on accommodation. Prices can go down as much as 50% in some locations during the winter. We were astounded by the difference in the cost of accommodation the further we got from Reykjavik. Guesthouses and self-catered options that might have been as high as $300 a night in summer were below $200 in winter. And speaking of self-catered: Look for places with a kitchen. With the long nights its oftentimes easier and way cheaper to pick up groceries and cook rather than looking for an open restaurant. Staying in a full-service hotel in Iceland comes at a premium price. Guesthouses and self-catered apartments and suites are much more economical. Below is one of my favorites from a recent trip. The Black Beach Suites was roomy, had a great kitchen, huge bathroom and the most amazing hosts who were happy to do a load of laundry for their guests.
Roads and Driving
OK. This is a valid concern. It might come down to this for many of you to tip the balance in favor of a summer visit. If you’re like me (from Southern California) and don’t spend a ton of time driving in snow, ice and slush this can be an issue. No one wants their vacation sidelined by a traffic accident. And even if there isn’t an accident to deal with where’s the fun in driving on slippery roads in the dark? Sounds stressful, right? It can be, but luckily Iceland has an amazing website for monitoring road conditions. It can tell you about road closures and the general condition of the road as well as winter service (plowing) so you can plan ahead. It can also keep you posted on the real threat to your safety: winds! The wind can make driving an adventure with higher profile cars like campers and trucks (even SUV’s) blown off the road. In two winter trips I’ve seen this about a handful of times. Best bet is to rent a car or low profile SUV/crossover. I used a local company, Blue Car Rental for my last three trips and all of my cars were great with insurance included as well as studded tires in winter.
Short Days Mean Long Nights
Northern winter days are short. In wintertime the sun can rise as late as 11:00 am and set by 3:00 PM. That’s basically a 4 hour day. But that isn’t really the full picture. Civil and nautical twilight before and after sunrise and sunset (where some light is visible from the sun’s halo) can extend the day by four or more hours. So length of daylight is not as simple as sunrise sunset time. Despite that, the days are going to be short. Summer has just the opposite ‘problem’ with its 24 hour sun. All that light means you can do and see way more. But lets be real: What can be more beautiful than a star-filled sky over one of Iceland’s hundreds of beautiful landmarks like Budir Black Church? The winter nights in Iceland afford some of the most unforgettable photo opps that you might rethink your preference for bright sunny days should you have one. And let’s not forget the main draw of visiting Iceland in the wintertime: The Aurora Borealis.
Hands down the best reason for coming to Iceland is the chance to see the aurora. Notice I said chance. In multiple trips I’ve had the proverbial feast or famine when it comes to the aurora. Sometimes she shows other times she doesn’t. You’ll want to educate yourself about the finer points of aurora forecasting (not really complicated) that include Kp ratings and geomagnetic storm forecasts but the Icelandic Meteorological Institute makes it easy. And that whole think about needing clear skies? Don’t buy it! You can see the aurora even when there are clouds. Provided the Kp is above a 2 or so you can get a pretty nice show like this one over Jokusarlon Iceberg Lagoon. I caught that one with a pretty cloudy sky and a fairly low Kp of 2. Seeing the northern lights is pretty spectacular. To me just the chance that you might be lucky enough to see them is justification for winter over summer.
And if Luck is on Your Side…
You’ll see Iceland as that winter wonderland you dreamt of. Softly lit under a pink sky with a blanket of fresh snow.