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Iceland - When and where to visit
Iceland enjoys a temperate climate © canadastock, Shutterstock
Iceland does not have the hellish climate that it’s actually supposed to have. The country’s name and Arctic latitude implies Siberia, Alaska and Greenland, but the reality is far warmer thanks to the wonder of thermohaline circulation. In simpler terms, the warm waters of the Caribbean Sea move across the Atlantic (ie: the Gulf Stream), then north across Britain and all the way up around Iceland (known as the Irminger Current). The movement of this north Atlantic current explains why water temperatures in south Iceland are the same as those in southern England. The old adage that Iceland is green and Greenland is icy is very true: the Irminger Current ends just 50 miles west of Iceland and the temperature plunges about 10°C. Icelanders admit fatalistically that without the warm-water current, their country would be uninhabitable.
Fortunately, Iceland enjoys a temperate climate, which means it’s not that bad but also not that great. In winter, things hover around freezing (the average January temperature is –1°C), and in summer, life gets a good deal warmer (the average July temperature is 15°C). Spring and autumn are quite moderate – the temperature stays within such a limited range that even Icelanders get a little bored with it. There is more variation in the hinterland – the coldest place in Iceland is up in the highlands, on the northwest side of Vatnajökull glacier. The coastline tends to be far warmer.
You can visit Iceland at any time of year and have a wonderful time, but what kind of experience you have depends a lot on when you go. A trip to Iceland in July versus a trip to Iceland in December feels like two different countries. Summertime allows you the freedom to go almost anywhere in the country, to hike outdoors, to stay up all night, and to experience Iceland’s tourist industry in its prime. Best of all is summer, when all the animals (especially birds) are out in full force, as well as all the flowers. The landscapes glow bright green and Iceland feels like an undiscovered Eden.
Come winter, everything in Iceland turns white, diverting your eyes to the bright wooden houses and the subtle changes in the sky. The weather may or may not be treacherous, but where you go and what you can do is more limited. You can, however, ride horses in the snow, ski and snowmobile, see the Northern Lights at their best, soak in hot springs whilst thumbing your nose at the cold, and experience Iceland at its iciest.
Winter is the best time to see the northern lights © Ragnar Th. Sigurdsson, Visit Reykjavik
For travellers, the main difficulty is the way in which Iceland has developed into a seasonal destination. Hotels, restaurants, museums, airlines and tour operators try to cram all their profits into a six-week summertime blitz. That’s why the summer is always booked solid and why everything costs twice as much. Don’t buy into that mindset and you’ll feel liberated. Rather, plan your trip based on what it is you want to do. If you want to hike glaciers, go early (April/May) or late (October) when the ice is firm and less prone to crevasses. If you want to see puffins en masse, then go in July; if you want to see their puffin chicks, then go in August. If you want to ride in the sheep round-up, go in mid-September. If you want to witness the Northern Lights, go in November; if you want to test the theory that limited daylight affects mood, then try late December, and if you want to conserve your cash, go in November or February. The wind blows all year round.
National parks and nature reserves
Thingvellir is Iceland's most historic national park © Smallredgirl, Dreamstime
Iceland has four official national parks: Thingvellir is the most historic and nothing at all like the frozen volcano of Snæfellsjökull, the dramatic gorges of Jökulsárgljúfur and the great glaciers of Skaftafell. Of Iceland’s many nature reserves, Mývatn offers pure serenity and Askja the volcanic wilderness, Ingólfshöfði is steeped in historical meaning and a gorgeous bit of seashore, Hornstrandir is Iceland at its most extreme, and the lakes and rivers of Vatnsfjörður are stunning.
Each of Iceland’s islands is a unique gem © Visit South Iceland
Every one of Iceland’s offshore islands is a unique gem. To strand yourself on some poetic isle, consider the volcanic Westmann Islands, the windswept cliffs of Grímsey, or the history of tiny Flatey. For romantic day trips, visit the homestead on Vigur, the grassy hills of Papey, easy-access Hrísey or hard-to-get-to Drangey.
Hvalfjörður is one of Iceland’s most underrated fjords © Visit West Iceland
Picking fjords is like picking perfume – it’s very personal. A few favourites include the now-forgotten Hvalfjörður, the secluded channel of Arnarfjörður, and Iceland’s longest fjord, Eyjafjörður.
Iceland is home to many geothermal spots © Wojtek Chmielewski, Shutterstock
Besides the well-known Geysir, visit the scorched-earth landscape of Námaskarð, the hot pools and natural steam jets of Hveravellir, ‘smoky’ Reykjanes, and the largest springs in Iceland at Deildartunguhver.
Reykjavík is the vibrant, must-see capital © Visit Iceland
Obviously Reykjavík is the must-see capital and the most vibrant urban space in Iceland. The other ‘big city’ of Akureyri is artistic and quirky, and isolated Ísafjörður is an architectural treasure chest. For obscure Icelandic fishing villages with that something special, visit Grundarfjörður, Siglufjörður, Eskifjörður, Djúpivogur, or Suðureyri.
Iceland’s landscapes offer prime trekking © Felix Nendzig, Shutterstock
The most touted trails for their volcanic/glacial terrain include Landmannalaugar and Thórsmörk, and both deserve the fame. All the national parks offer prime trekking, especially Skaftafell and Snæfellsjökull. Tröllaskagi in the north is fantastic climbing country. For wanderings with less mountain and more mystique, walk the under-appreciated lava fields of Reykjanes, or the landscapes around Mývatn. To really step off the beaten track, venture into Í Fjörðum, Borgarfjörður eystri, and Lönsöræfi. Though it’s not easy, the hiking in Hornstrandir is in a league of its own.
Spotting a puffin is a definite highlight of any trip to Iceland © Visit Iceland
For seals, visit Hvammstangi, for whales, visit Húsavík or Ólafsvík, for reindeer, visit Snæfell, and for Arctic fox, try Hornstrandir or Skaftafell. The birds are everywhere, but for mind-blowing birdwatching, you must visit the cliffs at Látrabjarg.
Iceland is a great place for either independent or pre-planned itineraries, but it’s not wise to have a really tight schedule or be fixated on a single plan. Unexpected fog can erase the view that you hoped to see on Day 3 and a sudden storm might force you indoors. As long as you’re flexible, everything will be fine. The suggested itineraries are simply guidelines that might help you think about what you want to see and do.
Town and country: Westmann Islands (2 nights)–Thjórsárdalur (2 nights)–Reykjavík (2 nights)
The west: Reykjavík–Borg–Reykholt/Húsafell–Stykkishólmur–Grundarfjörður–Snæfellsnes
Classic trekking: Laugavegurinn (Landmannalaugar–Thórsmörk) (5 nights + 1 night recovery in Reykjavík)
Classic ring road: Reykjavík–Borgarnes–Skagafjörður–Akureyri–Mývatn–Egilsstaðir–Höfn (Vatnajökull)–Skógar–Golden Circle–Reykjavík
National parks of Iceland (by bus or car, camping or guesthouses): Reykjavík (1 night), Snæfellsjökull (2 nights), Akureyri (travel) (1 night), Mývatn (2 nights), Jökulsárgljúfur (2 nights), East Fjords (travel) (1 night), Skaftafell (2 nights), Thingvellir (1 night), Reykjavík (1 night)
From the ferry (a fair amount of driving in parts): Möðrudalur (1 night) via Seyðisfjörður and Egilsstaðir, Mývatn (2 nights) (via Dettifoss), Akureyri (1 night), Varmahlíð (1 night), Stykkishólmur (1 night), Snæfellsjökull (1 night), Reykjavík (2 nights), south coast (Vík, Skógar, or Kirkjubæjarklaustur) (1 night), Skaftafell (1 night), Djúpivogur (1 night), Seyðisfjörður (1 night)
Go west: Reykjavík (1 night), Borg (1 night), Snæfellsjökull (2 nights), Stykkishólmur (take Breiðafjörður ferry) (1 night), Flatey (1 night), Flókalundur (1 night), Látrabjarg (1 night), Thingeyri (1 night), Ísafjörður (2 nights), Hólmavík (1 night), Brú (1 night), return via Reykjavík
Week 1: Reykjavík–Golden Circle–south–Skaftafell–East Fjords
Week 2: Mývatn/Jökulsárgljúfur–Akureyri–Grímsey–Hólar/Sauðárkrókur
Week 3: Hvamsstangi–west Iceland–Reykjavík
One month grand tour:
Week 1: Reykjavík–Borgarnes–Snæfellsnes Peninsula–Breiðafjörður–West Fjords
Week 2: Látrabjarg–Ísafjörður–Hólmavík–Skagafjörður–Siglufjörður–Akureyri
Week 3: Húsavík–Mývatn–Jökulsárgljúfur–Melrakkaslétta–Vopnafjörður
Week 4: East Fjords–Vatnajökull–Westmann Islands–Golden Circle–Reykjavík