“In Iceland, the weather is the biggest character you deal with every day. There’s nothing more relevant in your life than what kind of weather it is.”
Prior to visiting Iceland I was always torn between whether to visit in summer or winter. Having now visited in the two extremes (middle of summer and middle of winter) I’m going to outline the most important things to consider when deciding when to visit. Of course, there are many months aside the two seasonal extremes for you to consider also!
In the midst of summer, the sun doesn’t set until gone midnight, and rises again around 3:30am. In the peak of winter, the sunsets at 3:30pm, and rises at 11am. A huge difference. Midnight sun is great (and of course, allows many more hours for exploration) but there is no chance of seeing the Northern Lights in summer.
Of course, a lot worse in winter. We drove in some snowstorms that made us very, very nervous. We couldn’t see a thing, the wind was moving the car, the roads were slippery, we were going down a curving mountain road… you get the idea. The conditions literally came out of nowhere, and we had no choice but to continue through because it was the only route to our cottage. My partner has driven in Iceland, Finland and Sweden in winter before, and said this was by far the worst conditions he’s ever driven in.
Even if you don’t get the crazy snow storms we experienced, you can pretty much guarantee icy conditions in winter, and very likely snow. Any decent car hire company will ensure your car has winter tires, but if you are not used to these conditions it can be very daunting.
You’ll also find a lot of road closures in winter because some roads become completely impassable.
Iceland reached a maximum of 14 degrees Celsius when we visited in June, and the weather changes quickly from rain, clouds to sun. It’s windy, so it feels colder. You’re still going to need a coat and a few layers in summer!
In December, we had a maximum of 4 degrees Celsius, and lows of -8 (which felt a lot colder because of the wind.) Due to snowstorms it was fairly cloudy most of our visit in Iceland, however we did see a beautiful clear sky (complete with stunning sunrise & sunset) on our last day there. Sometimes the cloud is so intense you really cannot see much of the landscape.
Again, the weather conditions in winter are harsher, which can mean certain activities are a no-go. (Certain hikes, for example.)
For a lot of people, the views in Iceland in winter are more preferable than summer. Perhaps this is because of the mental image the name ‘Iceland’ conjures. The landscape carpeted in snow and ice is definitely beautiful.
However. Snow, and even frost, are not guaranteed everywhere. If you look at the below picture of Skogafoss, you will see one taken in winter, and one in summer. There is no ice or snow to be seen.
For me, the mountains looked stunning in winter; dusted in snow. However, other features such as lava fields, waterfalls and geysers look more beautiful in summer. It’s a matter of opinion, I suppose!
Northern Lights can be seen from September through to April. To see the northern lights you need a clear, dark sky and good aurora activity. For this reason, November-February are often considered great times for the Northern Lights (longer periods of darkness,) however several people have told me they have seen the best, most mindblowing Aurora Borealis during September. I would guess that weather conditions are more severe in the depths of winter, leading to more clouds (thus making the lights impossible to see.)
Anyway, if you’re there in summer seeing the midnight sun, you sadly will not be seeing the northern lights.
Summer is best for you, if:
- It’s your first time in Iceland
- You’re doing a self drive trip
- You want maximum exploration time
- You want to hike
- You’re not a confident winter driver
- You don’t like being really cold
- You’re trying to visit with just carry on luggage (You really do need the hold suitcase for winter … you need a lot of layers.)
- You want to see gorgeous green landscapes
Winter is best for you, if:
- Northern Lights are your biggest priority
- You’re doing guided tours and won’t be driving yourself
- You’re hoping to see some beautiful icy landscapes
- You like lay ins (hello 11am sunrise, what a perfect excuse to sleep in!)
- You are there for a longer trip. The shorter daylight hours will make it difficult to see much each day
- You have the flexibility in your itinerary to change plans if weather conditions dramatically change (e.g. we drove for 3 hours, and had to turn back due to very bad weather)