Best time of year to visit Iceland… if you want to drive the entire ring road, the highlands or Westfjords.
With longer days, and of course warmer weather, the summer months (May to August) are ideal for touring Iceland, especially if you’re planning to visit the more off-the-beaten-track areas, such as the highlands, the Westfjords and the Diamond Circle. Many of the roads in these areas of Iceland are inaccessible during the winter months, especially the F roads (from the word “Fjall” meaning mountain) in the highlands, which close for the entire winter season making it impossible to drive some routes.
In the summer, the F Roads are open again, but a 4WD vehicle is necessary if you plan to drive on any of these roads. At best Iceland’s F roads are merely dirt or gravel roads with pot-holes that may damage your rental vehicle (you can invalidate your auto insurance if you travel on these roads in anything but a 4WD). However, in some areas you may have to drive over boulders or sand, and even cross rivers. Mountain roads may also be prone to landslides making them hard to distinguish from the surrounding landscape.
Driving the entire Route 1 (Iceland’s ring road), including the Golden Circle, Diamond Peninsula and Reykjanes Peninsula is possible, but late or early snow falls or heavy rain can make some roads off the main routes temporarily impassible, especially gravel roads which can become muddy in the rain. The Westfjords, Eastfjords and Northern Region are best visited in the summer months when there is less chance of road closures.
Even Route 1 in the Southern Region can experience floods during the spring as the glaciers melt. Late spring or early autumn show falls may also cause whiteouts so be prepared to change your plans.
The best thing about touring Iceland during the summer is the longer daylight hours. With 20+ hours of daylight, you can take your time. There is no need to rush driving between destinations or for quick visits at Iceland’s spectacular sites. Instead you can take your time and enjoy the scenery and/or explore each site for longer. If you have a long drive one day, you can head out early in the morning to get a head start in the daylight. Or if the weather is too wet or overcast to visit a particular site in the morning, it’ll still be light enough to visit another in the evening.
Best time of year to visit Iceland… to see the Northern Lights?
Although there is no guarantee, the best time of year to see the Northern Lights in Iceland is during the winter months. On a clear night, it’s possible to see the aurora borealis in Iceland anytime from September to April, when the nights are darker and longer. With mid-November to mid-January having almost 24 hours of darkness, your chances are even higher but you’ll have limited daylight hours for touring.
Long winter nights mean short days so fewer daylight hours available for sightseeing and driving. Although Iceland is renowned for its changeable weather throughout the year, it’s even more so during the winter months. Whiteouts, high winds and flooding, make touring the entire country difficult. Some roads are so treacherous during the winter, they close for the entire season while others, even the main tourist route, need to be closed at the drop of a hat due to whiteouts and high winds.
For this reason, if you’re visiting Iceland in the winter, it’s best to stay in or close to Reykjavik and to plan for activities and sightseeing in or close to city. Unless you’re used to driving in snow, exploring the Golden Circle and southern Iceland are best done with an expert tour guide as the weather can change on a dime and plans may have to change. Even the roads close to Reykjavik may close due to white out conditions and high winds, so be prepared to find things to do in the city instead if a booked tour has to be cancelled.
If you’re visiting Iceland specifically to see the Northern Lights, ideally, you should plan to stay for several days so you have more chance of seeing the show. However, you should be prepared to change your plans, as well as disappointment, if it snows or rains for an extended period.
It is highly recommended that you choose an expert Icelandic guide for aurora viewings as they know how and where to find the best spots to see them. If the weather changes (which it does frequently especially in the winter) during your visit, the guides will know if there are alternative places with clear skies to view them.
Best time to visit Iceland…to avoid crowds
Iceland seems to be popular with visitors no matter what time of year. Even in winter, some of the most popular spots can be busy with visitors. With the reduced amount of daylight hours for sightseeing and unpredictable weather, everyone visits the best sites during the few hours of daylight available, making them more crowded than expected.
Most tourists new to visiting Iceland, or those with only a few days available, tend to stay in the Reykjavik area or touring the Southern Region only, visiting hot spots on the Golden Circle and south coast, even during the summer months.
While you won’t always be able to avoid other travellers while exploring Iceland, here are 6 tips to help you avoid crowds as much as possible:
- Visit Iceland during the shoulder seasons (April-May or September-October), when the days are longer than the winter months but popular sites are not as busy as in the summer
- Set off as early as possible in the mornings to arrive at popular sites before the tour buses which bring 30-40 people to the same site all at once.
- Rent a 4WD and explore the roads less travelled. In the summer months, a 4WD vehicle will enable you to explore the off-the-beaten-track regions, such as the Westfjords, the northern and eastern regions or the highlands.
- Take your time instead of rushing from site to site so you can explore further and longer. Crowds come and go, so if you arrive with a crowd, walk a little further or choose a different path to explore.
- Avoid stopping for lunch at lunchtime when the lines at popular restaurants are long. Instead take snacks you can eat on route and stop at restaurants after the lunchtime rush.
- Avoid visiting cruise ports during cruise season, particularly during debarkation in the morning. Instead, visit smaller, more off-the-beaten-track coastal towns and fishing villages.