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Iceland - When and where to visit
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.
(Photo: Akureyri lies at the base of Eyjafjörður, surrounded on either side by a sloping wall of snow-capped mountains © Vince Yeung, Shutterstock)
Fortunately, Iceland enjoys a temperate climate, which means it’s not that bad but also not that great. In winter, things hover around freezing (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.
When it comes to precipitation, Iceland is definitely in favour. Reykjavík is the most quoted statistic, but that’s misleading given that the area is one of the wettest in the country. An average 800mm (32 inches) falls on the capital, with 215 ‘rainy’ days per year (London receives an average 596mm over 196 rainy days). Despite its persistence, the dripping coastal rain contributes little to the water cycle. Most of Iceland’s precipitation arrives in the form of snow on top of the glaciers, feeding the country’s ice and rivers. Some parts of Vatnajökull receive more than 3,000mm (118 inches) of precipitation each year. Ironically, the driest place in Iceland is right next to the glacier, where all the water has been frozen and the mountain of ice creates a vast rain shadow.
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.
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 roundup, 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 February. The wind blows all year round.
Those hoping to catch a glimpse of the northern lights can find recommended tour operators here.
Take daylight into consideration when planning a trip in Iceland. Around the time of the winter and summer solstices, a few hundred kilometres north or south make a significant difference. The following hours of daylight are for Reykjavík:
Of course, if you are plotting an epic journey all around Iceland, it is best to travel in summer just because you will see so much more. In winter, a lot of rural roads are closed and most of the tourist industry shuts down (though ferries, planes, and buses still run). On the flip side, don’t try planning your trip for ‘when it’s warm and sunny’. Rarely is Iceland both of these things at once. In fact, Iceland never gets warm – only ‘pleasant’. Sunny days happen often enough, but no Icelander has ever won any money betting on it.
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.
Nothing beats the glory of Iceland in July, but besides the obvious, my favourite time to visit is early October. All the tourists are gone, the temperature is still not that cold (around 5ºC), you still get a full day of sunlight, hiking is still viable and some tourist amenities are still open. Luckily, even in the high season of July–August, there are only a few spots where the crowds are almost unbearable (namely the Golden Circle, Reykjavík, and the Blue Lagoon). In relative terms, the hustle is nothing compared with back home, but you probably didn’t come to Iceland to feel jostled. Step away from the obvious and all that disappears.
National parks and nature reserves
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.
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.
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.
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.
(Photo: Mud pots in the volatile geothermal area around Námaskarð, Mývatn © Nina B, Shutterstock)
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.
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 (age 405), and Lönsöræfi. Though it’s not easy, the hiking in Hornstrandir is in a league of its own.
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.
On a map of the world, Iceland looks so small. When you finally get there and stand at the edge of a lava field, or a glacier, or a fjord, the country feels endless. There are a lot of beautiful, empty spaces and infinite journeys to be had, so take your time. Iceland is not a good country for rushing. In a way, Iceland has become a victim of its own marketing – so many Europeans and Americans now view the country as a stopover to the other side of the Atlantic. Iceland is a great country in that you can be there for just 24 hours and have an amazing time, but that’s really just an appetiser.
The most common blasphemy occurs when misguided travellers attempt to ‘do’ Iceland by taking five or six days to drive around the ring road. Sure it can be done (you can drive it in two days if you want), but it’s an exercise in self-torture. Every day you’ll be trying to get to the next place, instead of stopping to see the glacier up close, or getting out for a better look at the puffins, or enjoying some fishing village or taking a walk on the sand. Everything gets sacrificed in the name of ‘getting there’ and it feels like watching your favourite movie in fast-forward. If your time is limited, just pick one or two regions and focus on those environs, otherwise you’ll spend all your precious time driving. To complete the ring road in seven–ten days, plan on at least three to four hours of driving per day. Also note that flying to one destination and renting a car from there makes sense, costs the same, and saves you a lot of time.
In that same vein is the manner in which most tour operators treat every destination as a day trip out of Reykjavík. That makes life easier for them, but you’ll end up wasting your time travelling back and forth to Reykjavík every day. A rule of thumb is that if it’s more than two hours outside the capital, it deserves an overnight stay.
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.
Generic: Reykjavík–Golden Circle (Thingvellir, Gullfoss, Geysir)–Blue Lagoon
Lava rocks: Keflavík–Reykjanes Peninsula
Hot springs: Hveragerdí–Laugarvatn–Reykjavík pools–Blue Lagoon
Nature fix: Snæfellsnes (2 nights)
City break: Akureyri (2 nights)
Nature fix: Jökulsárgljúfur (2 nights)
Arctic break: Grímsey (2 nights)
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)
Mountain climber: Mt Esja (Reykjavík)–Mt Hekla–Mt Hvannadalshnjúkur–Mt Herðubreið (via East Fjords)
(Photo: Arctic terns can be very aggressive when defending their nests in summer © Toivo Toivanen and Tina Toppila, Wikipedia)
The north: Fly to Akureyri–Mývatn–Jökulsárgljúfur–Húsavík
West Fjords: Fly to Ísafjörður–Hornstrandir (boat)–Látrabjarg–Flókalundur
East Fjords: Fly to Egilsstaðir–East Fjords (4 nights)–Höfn (1 night)–Reykjavík
Interior: Fly to Akureyri–drive the Kjölur route via Hveravellir and Gullfoss to Reykjavík
Ice: Fly to Höfn–Vatnajökull, Jökulsárlón, Skaftafell–drive to Skógar (Mýrdalsjökull)–Reykjavík
Classic ring road: Reykjavík–Borgarnes–Skagafjörður–Akureyri–Mývatn–Egilsstaðir–Höfn (Vatnajökull)–Skógar–Golden Circle–Reykjavík
Far from the madding crowd: Keflavík–Hveravellir (Kjölur route)–Siglufjörður–Öxarfjörður–Langanes–Eskifjörður–Lönsöræfi–Hvolsvöllur–Krýsuvík
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
4x4 tour – interior
Week 1: Reykjavík–Thórsmörk–Landmannalaugar
Week 2: Sprengisandur–Vatnajökull–Askja–Goðafoss
Week 3: Varmahlíð–Kjölur route–Reykjavík
The ultimate bird tour (three weeks’ minimum, best in July): Reykjanes–Viðey Island (Reykjavík)–Breiðafjörður–Látrabjarg–Hornstrandir–Grímsey–Mývatn–Langanes–Papey–Ingólfshöfði–Westmann Islands
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
Pick up a car at Keflavík but go the opposite way to everyone else (Route 44), stopping to see everything along the southwest coast of Reykjanes, going past the lighthouse and then on to Grindavík. Have a morning soak at the Blue Lagoon, then head to Reykjavík (Route 41), have a bite to eat and take about two hours to see the sights. Then drive to Mosfellsbær, climb Mt Esja, drive all the way around Hvalfjörður but take the tunnel back. Spend the evening in Reykjavík, but spend the night in a guesthouse outside the city (perhaps in Reykjanes), drop off your car at the airport and check in to your flight. From experience, I can say that it’s possible to drive the five hours’ round trip from Keflavík to climb Mt Hekla and go swimming and make your next flight, but I wouldn’t recommend it.