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.
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.
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.
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.
Iceland & Greenland?
If you’ve ever wanted to explore Greenland, your trip to Iceland could be an ideal opportunity. Iceland is Greenland’s closest access point by plane, and you can even visit on a day tour. Air Iceland (tel. 570-3030) flies year-round from Reykjavík to Greenland’s east coast, and once or twice a week in summer to south or east Greenland.
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.