Iceland has a concentrated tourist season, peaking from mid-June through August. Many Icelanders think the summer tourists don't know what they're missing. Iceland offers plenty to do in spring, fall, even winter, and prices are dramatically lower for airfares, car rentals, and accommodations. Icelanders are avid Christmas celebrators, and the Aurora Borealis is remarkably vivid in winter. Most off-season visitors use Reykjavík as a home base, and combine city culture and nightlife with activities such as horseback riding, snowmobiling, and visiting spas.
Northern Lights: aurora borealis -- A brightly hued fog creeps across the night sky, shape-shifts into a solid green and red swirl stretching out from horizon to horizon, then suddenly breaks into dozens of daggers of light, piercing downward until they seem within reach. This is just one example of the aurora borealis, or Northern Lights (norðurljós), that I witnessed in Snæfellsnes; it is nature at its most magical. If you haven’t seen this phenomenon before, Iceland is a great place to do so because the small population and big distances between towns make it easy to escape light pollution, even close to Reykjavík. If you need a lift to a more likely Northern Lights sighting than your hotel in the middle of town, the closest tourist information office will be able to provide details of tours. Northern Lights tours operate from mid-March to mid-April when they are best seen, but there are usually a few sightings up to early May, and occasionally even as early as late August; just keep an eye out. Aurora borealis occurs when Earth’s magnetic field is intercepted by energy particles from the sun, which ionize atoms in the upper atmosphere. This is why solar activity is a good predictor of the intensity and duration of these auroral displays.
Bring a tripod if you have an SLR camera (or at least one that lets you leave the shutter open for 30 seconds or more).
On the other hand, high season is high season for good reason. Most tours and adventure trips to Iceland's most renowned natural attractions end after September. Roads in the hinterlands are generally closed from October to mid-May, and some don't open until early July. Precipitation increases in September, peaking from October through February, and frequent storms and driving rain are enough to dissuade many would-be winter adventurers.
The tourist high season corresponds with vacation time for Icelanders, but things don't shut down the way they do in, say, France. Icelanders work longer hours than most Europeans, and vacationing students fill seasonal service jobs. Some cultural institutions (theater, symphony, opera) take the summer off, while most museums outside Reykjavík are only open in summer. Arts and cultural festivals are also clustered in summer, except in Reykjavík, where they gravitate to the "shoulder" seasons (Apr-May and Sept-Oct).
In timing your visit, consider also that the number of daylight hours can have unanticipated physical and emotional effects. In early summer there is never complete darkness and the sun stays low to the horizon, creating an ongoing play of color and shadow. Spring and fall daylight hours are roughly the same as in North America or Europe. Days in mid-winter have only 4 or 5 hours of sunlight. These fluctuations are even more extreme in the northern part of the country.
Weather—Iceland is located just south of the Arctic Circle, but thanks to the Gulf Stream, temperatures are cool in summer and remarkably mild in winter. (New York's winter lows are normally lower than Reykjavík's.) Icelandic weather is unusually volatile, however. The Gulf Stream brings mild Atlantic air in contact with colder Arctic air, resulting in frequently overcast skies, fog, driving wind and rain, and abrupt weather shifts. You could well encounter four seasons in 1 day.
Iceland's precipitation peaks in October to February, and is lowest in May and June. Southern and western parts of the island receive the most rainfall. For English-language forecasts or further information on regional weather, contact the Icelandic Meteorological Office (tel. 902-0600; www.vedur.is).
The Big Round-Up—Visitors in early September—especially experienced horseback riders—can discover beautiful and remote backcountry while participating in an age-old Icelandic farming ritual: the fall sheep round-up, or réttir. Hundreds of thousands of Icelandic sheep spend the summer grazing in highland pastures. Before winter sets in, local groups of farmers spend up to a week herding them home. Historically, this was a man's job, but women have increasingly joined in. Once the flocks are penned and sorted by their earmarks, the farming communities let their hair down for singing, dancing, and drinking into the night. Traditionally many isolated villagers met their spouses during these events.
Most participants are experienced riders, but some accompany in 4WD vehicles or on foot; others just watch and join the party. Visitors are welcome to take part in some local round-ups, though don't expect nonstop excitement: The process could involve holding your position alone for hours in a cold rain.
Round-ups for free-roaming horses are in late September or early October, primarily in the north. Figure out which parts of the backcountry you'd like to visit, then contact local tourist information offices, travel agencies, and farm accommodations (www.farmholidays.is) for advice. Regional websites posting réttir information include www.northwest.is and www.northiceland.is. A lengthy but incomplete list of locations and dates is posted in August on www.bondi.is, website of the Farmers Association of Iceland; press the button at top to translate the page into English.
Iceland in the Off Season
Tourists arrive en masse in June and disappear just as abruptly in early September, so Icelanders compare them to flocks of migrating birds. However, more and more visitors are coming in the off season, particularly for short vacations centered on Reykjavík. Nightlife and spas are major draws, and winter adventure travel—particularly backcountry skiing, glacier snowmobiling, and Jeep touring—is also catching on. With fewer tourists around, locals can be especially hospitable and welcoming. Prices are dramatically lower for airfares, accommodations, and car rentals, but don't expect price breaks from mid-December to mid-January.
Most museums outside Reykjavík shut down off season, while some Reykjavík cultural institutions—notably the Icelandic Opera, headquartered at the world's northernmost opera house—are only open off season. With fewer organized tours to choose from, visitors usually depend on rental cars to get around. Most major roads are plowed all year, including all of the Ring Road (Rte. 1). Winter driving conditions can be hazardous, however, and in the dead of winter, some villages can be completely cut off for days at a time. Most mountain roads and interior routes are impassable in the off season, except in specially adapted "Super Jeeps."
Icelandic winters are surprisingly moderate but have just 4 to 6 hours of daylight. Remember that late winter has more sunlight than early winter, with a corresponding increase in organized tours. From September through March, the night is dark enough to see the Aurora Borealis (aka "Northern Lights"), the startling electromagnetic phenomenon in which shafts and swirls of green (or sometimes orange or blue) light spread across the sky. Of course, depending on the weather, some off-season visitors may see only clouds.
The shoulder seasons—April to May and September to October—can be wonderful times to visit, though some destinations are inaccessible. A good general strategy is to shoot for the outlying weeks of the high season for each destination.
Off-Season Outdoor Activities—Of particular interest are aerial tours, dog sledding, fishing, glacier tours, hiking, horseback riding, jeep tours, pools and spas, and skiing and ski touring. Icelanders even like to golf on snow-covered courses, using bright orange balls.
Reykjavík & Nearby—Reykjavík remains equally vibrant year-round—after all, the weather has little bearing on its appeal. Cultural activities and nightlife show no signs of winter weariness, and Reykjavíkians still throng to their outdoor geothermal pools even if snow gathers in their hair. See the Calendar of Events for Reykjavík's many off-season festivals.
The capital is particularly lively and heartwarming during the Christmas season. Each weekend, starting in late November, the neighboring town of Hafnarfjörður hosts an elaborate Christmas Village with caroling choirs, trinket stalls, and costumed elves. On New Year's Eve, many visitors shuttle to Reykjavík just to take part in the Bacchanalian celebrations.
Outside of summer, day tours from the capital are less varied but hardly in short supply. The popular Golden Circle tour runs year-round, and two of its principal highlights—the Strokkur geyser and Gullfoss waterfall—are even more captivating in winter. Various companies also lead nightly Northern Lights tours in search of the Aurora Borealis. The Blue Lagoon spa in Reykjanes Peninsula is strange and magical in wintertime, with far fewer crowds.
Outside the Capitol Area—Compelling winter destinations outside Iceland's southwest corner are too numerous to list, but two regions deserve special mention: West Iceland and Lake Mývatn-Krafla Caldera in the north.
In the west, the wondrously varied scenery of Snæfellsnes Peninsula makes for a great road trip year-round, and Hótel Búðir, an idyllic getaway on the peninsula's south coast, is always open. Ísafjörður, the appealing Westfjords capital, is especially buzzing during its Easter Week music and ski festivals. Two marvelous country retreats in the Westfjords remain open all year: the Heydalur Country Hotel, along Ísafjarðardjúp Bay, and Hótel Djúpavík on the entrancing Strandir Coast.
Akureyri, Iceland's northern capital, is alive and kicking in the off season, with the country's best ski slope Hlíðarfjall close by. Many winter visitors fly to Akureyri, rent a car, and spend a couple of days surveying the myriad volcanic spectacles of Mývatn and Krafla. The geothermally heated lagoon of Mývatn Nature Baths remains open, and Sel-Hótel Mývatn arranges Jeep and snowmobile excursions, horseback riding, and go-cart joyrides on the lake. The cross-country skiing is fabulous from February onward, and, in April and May, the lake twitches with bird-watchers ushering in the tourist season.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.