Not many landscapes in this world are so polarized as Iceland. This is especially true as the seasons change and the entire environment evolves. A few winters ago, I conquered the icy wasteland of this seemingly hermetic country in January. While it wasn’t what you see online – sweeping northern lights, rolling green meadows and warm waterfalls, it was an adventure all the same. Visiting Iceland in the winter has its perks, I’m sure it does during the summer months.
In fact, I’m hoping to plan another trip in a few months as the weather warms – it’s rare I go to the same destination twice! But the wintertime was so beautiful, I’d love to experience the differences in the summer first hand. Here’s some of the pros and cons when planning a trip to Iceland in the summer or the winter.
Guess how many other people I saw while driving through Iceland in January? NONE. Well, pretty much – I think we passed a car every hour or so. I don’t know if you can get that isolated feeling in the summer, where you feel alone and alive all at once. The Iceland hotels were also sparse with guests and we often had pool and hot tub areas to ourselves! I’m not sure if rates were particularly more reasonable though (Iceland is VERY expensive). But loads of people like to travel to Iceland to meet others and be in the center of the action. Summer might be better for that style of travel.
Although it’s good to visit hot springs in Iceland that are not the Blue Lagoon any time of year, you will have a better chance of having more space to spread out. Do give the top places to stay a soak a head’s up first – several were closed for revocations during the winter months. But reserving spa treatments, tours and other excursions are definitely possible during any time of year. Do note the weather, of course – I really wanted to horseback ride but it was way too cold in January to do so!
Reserving rental cars is also a little interesting during the winter. First, make sure you’re confident driving a 4×4 and in potentially icy conditions. I’d recommend a little bit of extra insurance because of the unusual environment. As said, I didn’t see many other drivers, so it’s good to have a lifeline if something goes wrong or you have a vehicle breakdown. With that said, I’d also make sure you have some sort of Wifi or data plan while out driving. We used a mobile hotspot called TEP wireless that worked well almost everywhere.
Protip: Although we saw no police, I did get nabbed for a speeding ticket via camera somewhere they sent to me via e-mail, only a few miles over the limit. Abide the laws and take it slow when driving year-round.
The cold never bothered me anyway! I grew up in a snowy climate, so visiting Iceland in January didn’t seem like a big deal. Yes, it was freezing temperatures, but it wasn’t anything I hadn’t seen in other cold weather places. However, winters in Iceland are very windy, which made it hard to stay at outdoor points of interest for long stretches of time.
Do keep in mind it doesn’t get super-hot in the summer either. If you want to drive the full golden circle, temperatures aren’t going to get much higher than 65F/18C. You can camp but it’s won’t be a beach vacation, even in August.
By the way, you also can’t do the full drive or a tour in the winter on the Golden Circle. Many of the northern roads are closed due to snow and climate. If planning to do an Iceland trip in the winter, stick to Reykjavik and the southern coast, which is doable any time of year.
Seeing Northern Lights
On the winter trip, I didn’t have the pleasure of seeing the Northern Lights. I knew that was a possibly though for the season, so it did not detract from the trip at all. If you’re deadest on seeing the lights though, the best time to see Northern Lights is in the winter, when the nights are long and the reflection of the snow makes the colors more brilliant. In the summer the lights are invisible to the naked eye.
Have a look at my winter Iceland road trip clips via Travel Cast! Would you go to Iceland in the winter? Would you rather in the summer? Why?