The Best Time to Visit Iceland Is Right Now

Why choose between winter and summer when you could have both?

Some say there are only two seasons in Iceland: winter and mild winter. While neither are warm, for a place with “ice” in the name, the seasons are surprisingly not that bitterly cold either. The highest summer temperatures peak in the 50s, while winter tends to hover in the 30s—warmer than many northern states in the US—so it’s actually not a dramatic difference. You can thank the warm Gulf Stream for not-so-terrible winters and the proximity to the Arctic Circle for the refreshingly cool summers. You could get snow and ice from October until about April, sometimes even May, whereas the rest of the year remains fairly temperate, and an unexpected rainstorm can always roll in no matter the month.

Since winter’s northern lights and ice cave excursions last through April and summer’s glacial lagoon boat tours and puffin viewing expeditions start around May, right now is the time when you have your pick of seasons. You could either anticipate snowy Mordor, where landscapes of moss and stone are pocketed with pools of snow and steam, or you can choose a look of lichen gone overboard, covering every rock and mountain and transforming the landscape into a frenzy of green. You can stay up for summer’s midnight sun, or you can opt to chase the northern lights and witness the magic of winter daylight, which looks like a day-long sunset, washing everything in the golden haze of a perpetual magic hour.

Regardless of the time of year, if you’re even considering a trip to Iceland, you’re already establishing yourself as an adventurer, willing to brave uncertain, lava-filled terrains to witness transcendent beauty. When the clouds roll in over cliffs and waterfalls, you’ll see how somewhere so beautifully haunting can feel simultaneously homey, clad in your new wool Icelandic sweater and raincoat. No matter when you go, there are geothermal pools, waterfalls, geysers, and Ring Roads to be had. If you only have a couple days, definitely spend your time in the Golden Circle and Reykjavik. And for longer stays, venture further afield, to the east and north sides of the island. Here are some of the very best places to experience Iceland’s many wonders.

weather iceland

But first: Be prepared for Mother Nature’s moods

Throughout the entire year, the weather in Iceland can be unpredictable, so you’ll want to have a few layers with you. Always bring just-in-case clothes, but if a day looks particularly stormy, avoid cotton and jeans, and make sure to wear a moisture-wicking base layer (like athletic shirts and leggings) plus merino wool socks, so that even if you do encounter a storm that soaks through your swear-they’re-waterproof boots and raincoat, you’ll still stay warm.

In addition to layers, winter in Iceland gives you a great excuse to buy some crampons or microspikes. All the beautiful summer hikes are still available in winter, but the trails might be covered in a thick sheet of slippery ice that can be dangerous to attempt without traction devices on your shoes. With fairly inexpensive ice cleats, you’ll feel like you can walk anywhere—though it’s probably best to pair your newfound invincibility with a knowledgeable guide.

Really, during any season, it’s wise to have someone tell you where you should or shouldn’t step in Iceland, with all that lava and geothermal activity popping up just about everywhere. Companies like EF Ultimate Break pair you with a local expert (in addition to booking airline tickets for you, arranging hotels, and transporting you around the island), so you can feel secure throughout your trip. They also provide a handy packing guide for any season, in case you can’t quite remember which pieces of clothing will keep you alive and happy.

Reykjavik Iceland
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Make your Viking basecamp in Reykjavik

Iceland’s capital is more than just a hub for international flights and docking cruise ships. Not only do most visitors stay in Reykjavik, the city is also full of excellent restaurants, bars, museums, and beautiful streets to roam, lined by boldly painted houses, captivating murals, and even splashes of color on the pavement underfoot. And you can’t miss the surrounding ocean and mountains just across the bay.

During the day, The Settlement Exhibition will tell you all about Vikings in an underground excavation site dating to the 10th century. Whereas the Penis Museum (officially the Phallological Museum, but we all know its real name) showcases the curious anatomy of hundreds of animals, in all its many shapes and sizes.

For a night out, get fancy at restaurants like Apotek, Dill, Rok, or Kopar. Or take it easy with a wide selection at cool food halls like Hlemmur or Posthus, located in an old post office. Whatever you do, make sure to try an Icelandic hot dog with everything on it, which includes—in addition to ketchup and mustard—crispy fried onions and remoulade sauce. Do the Icelandic lean while eating, a stance that avoids making a mess out of all those piled-high toppings. The traditional favorite dessert of a place called Ice-land? Ice cream, naturally, no matter how cold it is outside.

Sample Icelandic gin and other innovative cocktails in a speakeasy-like setting at Kaldi Bar or Veður. And though you're more likely to find bars open late only on the weekends (woe to those who attempt a Thursday night out), don’t miss out on the city’s nightlife with Lebowski Bar, dedicated to the cult classic, Kiki Queer Bar with its karaoke and dancing, or the Laundromat Cafe, where you can actually do your laundry downstairs while having a beer upstairs.

Golden Circle
Noppawat Tom Charoensinphon/Moment/Getty Images

Traverse the Golden Circle

You’ve probably heard about this one before, and for good reason. Located within close driving distance of Reykjavik, The Golden Circle is a route that loops around a national park, a waterfall, and a geyser. The closest stop along the route is Þingvellir National Park, once a place for the gathering of chieftains, and it’s also the site of the continental divide. To put it simply, it’s sort of a giant crack in the Earth (along the tectonic plates) where Europe and North America drift away from each other. Standing in this park means you can see two continents at once. People also like to dive here, since the water is absurdly clear.

Next up is the Strokkur Geyser, a temperamental beast spurting boiling water nearly 100 feet into the air. The viewing areas are at a safe distance, and the geyser goes off every eight to 10 minutes, so you have plenty of opportunities to see it before your fingers go numb. Microspikes are a good call here in the winter, as you can also walk around the landscape exploring steaming vents and mud pots.

Last up is Gullfoss, a wide waterfall with a hefty girth that will make you marvel at the power of water. There's a viewing platform at the foot of the falls as well as up top, each with views of the numerous cascades stretching further down the river.

Iceland waterfalls
MR.Cole_Photographer/Moment/Getty Images

Go waterfall hunting

Speaking of cascades, Iceland is chock full of 'em. Come winter, they’re still gushing, though you might see them edged by giant icicle trimmings, as if some froze in midair. Keep in mind you cannot go behind the waterfalls in the winter, since huge chunks of ice often come flying down, ready to knock out ambitious Instagrammers. You’ll just have to settle for admiring the magical front of the falls (plus the top, bottom, and every other wondrous angle).

Seljalandsfoss might seem like a single waterfall split into a couple of streams (the main one certainly hogs all the attention), but if you look down the line of cliffs, this site is more like a trickling wall of waterfalls, with multiple streams dripping like a sheer curtain fanning out over a very tall bluff.

Just half an hour further down the Ring Road is Skógafoss, a waterfall known for its rainbows—and specifically for a double rainbow effect when the light hits just right, creating two colorful arches on top of each other. You have to get fairly close to the falls to see the phenomenon, so pull your hood up and prepare for a wave of mist. (Don’t worry—you’ll be too wowed to notice how damp you’re getting, and you can always dry off later.) But don’t stop there. To one side of the falls is a tall flight of stairs you can climb (crampons strongly encouraged in winter), allowing you to take in not only the thundering water below, but also the magnificent birds-eye view of the valley beyond stretching out toward the sea.

If you have the time, Goðafoss, an enormous, all-powerful type of cascade, beckons from the north of the island. It’s a five-hour drive from Reykjavik, but it’s said to be the waterfall of the gods, so you’ll surely be divinely rewarded for your efforts.

beach iceland
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Marvel at the moody beaches

Before you wonder about the point of going to a beach where it’s too cold to swim or bask in the sun, know that the real draw is the fantasy-realm-level views. While what some countries claim to be black sand beaches end up being just a strikingly dark gray, Iceland's inky coastlines put the others to shame.

This is especially true at Reynisfjara Beach, where the waves are powerful and full of awe, but the shoreline is what really steals the show. You’ll certainly want to touch the smooth obsidian grains of sand, but keep walking left from the parking lot to a spectacular cave made of hundreds of skinny basalt-rock columns, almost like overlapping pipes on an organ. You might have noticed the Hallgrímskirkja church back in Reykjavik looks similar, and that’s because its design was inspired by this very cave.

Though you won’t be doing any strokes or laps, be sure to pay attention to the day’s tide warning detailing where you can or can’t walk. This particular beach is known to have sneaky waves that literally creep up behind people while they pose for photos on land, sucking them off into a strong rip current and even claiming a few lives. Off in the distance, you’ll see needle-like rock spires jutting out of the ocean that were caused either by volcanoes or trolls turned into stone come daylight (you decide). And if you’ve started to wonder—yes, Iceland might just be trying to kill you, but like those who want to gaze upon sleeping giants or try to hear sirens’ calls, caution is the price one pays for mythical views.

For an even cooler experience, check out Diamond Beach, where the frigid shore is filled with chunks of ice broken off from a nearby glacier. As its name implies, these bits of bluish ‘bergs sparkle like enormous gems, rounded by constant waves into smooth crystal sculptures. In summer, you can take a boat tour around Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon and witness the icebergs floating past in the surrounding water.

ice cave Iceland
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Venture into an ice cave

Exploring natural ice caves is a winter specialty, since summer is just warm enough that the caves could collapse on anyone inside. The sparkly glacier-formed caverns are ripe for viewing from November until April. There are a couple of man-made ice caves that are open all year; and while they might not be as naturally wondrous, they’re certainly a novel experience.

You’ll find most of the area’s ice caves in Vatnajökull National Park near Diamond Beach, about a five-hour drive from Reykjavik, or you can book a 50-minute flight to Höfn. Here, you’ll find Crystal Cave, with its strikingly clear bluish ice, as well as Skaftafell Ice Cave, carved out by a summer river that flows through the glacier.

For a different kind of ice cave—namely, one that’s black—Katla is about a three-hour drive from Reykjavik. It’s located inside the Kötlujökull glacier, which lurks underground near an active volcano. This volcano is the reason for the cave's unique color, since volcanic ash has become trapped in the ice.

If you can’t make it to Iceland over the winter, you can see one of those man-made ice caves. Easily accessible from Reykjavik, the Langjökull Glacier displays an enormous cavern that was drilled into the country’s second-largest glacier. The site isn’t too far from the last stop on the Golden Circle, so you could easily tack this activity onto your trek around the famed loop. And if you’re really pushed for time, there’s another manmade cave at the Perlan Museum in Reykjavik.

Iceland hot springs
Sky Lagoon Iceland

Soak in hot springs

At this point, plenty of people know that there’s so much more to Iceland’s geothermal bathing scene than the Blue Lagoon. In fact, there are more than 45 natural hot springs spread throughout the majestic country. Because Iceland sits on the spot where the continental plates pull apart and lava boils up (resulting in 130 volcanoes, over 30 of which are still active), the geothermal activity heats up a lot of materials just below the surface—including a whole lot of water. Some of this water is just the right temperature for human enjoyment while other pools will melt your skin off, so before you go Goldilock-ing your way into whatever watermass you see, check to make sure people are allowed in it. In addition to boiling geysers, you can find pools that have cold water pumped into them to make the water more bearable, free hot tub-like natural springs you can hike to, and pools with facilities built around them and an entrance fee.

The Blue Lagoon falls into the latter category, and one reason why so many people still go there is thanks to its built-up complex with changing stations, a bar, pale-blue waters, and Instagram fame. One slight hack to visiting the Blue Lagoon, though, is to go during the winter. Overly photographed in the summer, the destination appears to come with a real-life filter come winter, where due to the horizon-hugging sun, everyone is haloed in an ethereal layer of glowing steam.

Or, you can always opt for one of Iceland’s many other hot springs. An excellent alternative to the Blue Lagoon is the Sky Lagoon in Kópavogur, the town right next to Reykjavik, which also features a swim-up bar and locker rooms but sports a slightly more luxe feel and a sleek Scandinavian aesthetic. These bubbly waters are pumped into a rocky enclosure perched on the capital’s bay, allowing bathers to gaze out at the ocean while they soak. You can also add on the spa’s five-step ritual, a circuit that begins with a hot sauna followed by cooling down with a mist spray, rubbing on a body scrub, lounging in a steam room, and washing it all off before returning to the pools.

Elsewhere, Myvatn Nature Baths provides the same milky blue waters as the Blue Lagoon but without the overhyped price tag. It is, however, located about five hours from Reykjavik on the north side of the island, so you’ll want to tag it on to some other northern adventures.

For a free version of the above, Reykjadalur involves a hike with awesome views and a hell of a payoff at the end. The trailhead sits in the town of Hveragerði, about a 40-minute drive from Reykjavik, and it takes most people about an hour to complete the mile-long hike to the springs. (The path is mostly uphill and includes one gravely section where it’s advised to walk slowly.) Along the way, you’ll spot a small waterfall alongside boiling hot springs and mud pots that are too hot for bathing, as well as plumes of steam sometimes drifting across the path. The best part arrives at the end: your very own bathwater-warm river. The river’s warmth lessens the farther you get from its source, so you can either follow the adjacent boardwalk or wade into the water until you find your ideal temperature.

Fagradalsfjall Volcano
Photo by Nicole Rupersburg

Hike right up to a lava-spewing volcano

You might’ve seen the Fagradalsfjall Volcano erupting all over Instagram, but photos really don't do it justice. After big eruptions in 2021 and August 2022, a river of lava filled the surrounding valleys, burying several hiking trails that existed just weeks prior. At times you could see streams of lava shooting 1,500 feet into the air. (That’s higher than the Empire State Building—by a lot.) Don’t worry, these days it’s considered inactive, but you can still see new lava from the last eruption flowing between the crater and the hiking trails. And if you’re still nervous, you can check the safety status of Fagradalsfjall online.

New infrastructure to support tourism is being put in place, as are common sense safety measures (in other words, there will be warnings, but if your eyebrows get singed off because you got too close, that’s on you). The trailhead is just 45 minutes from Reykjavík and 20 minutes from Keflavik Airport—meaning you can literally hop off the plane and head straight for the volcano.

Different paths take you either five miles or nine miles roundtrip to the crater or flowing lava—it all depends on how close you want to get. Sturdy footwear is a must, since the trail, though mostly graded, can still be quite steep with a lot of loose rock, and warm layers are essential, as it gets extremely windy and cold up there. Of course, always prepare for those unpredictable rains and generally crappy weather, while knowing all the while it’ll be well worth it.

Westman Islands
Photo by Nicole Rupersburg

Visit the lesser-known Westman Islands

Just a two-hour drive east of Reykjavík along the southern coast, you’ll find Vestmannaeyjar, a.k.a. the Westman Islands. The archipelago’s only inhabited island, Heimaey, is accessible via a 45-minute ferry ride. You can take a day trip from Reykjavík (and catch an amazing sunset on the ferry ride back) or stay overnight for more leisurely exploration. While in Heimaey, check out Tanginn for Scandinavian and Indian dishes inside a beautiful dining room looking out over the harbor. And you absolutely must go to Slippurinn, where chef Gísli Matthías Auðunsson creates rustic yet delicate dishes, often by foraging the islands for wild herbs and seaweed bound for both meals and cocktails. What’s more, guests enjoy his creations in a beautifully renovated space built from a former shipyard machine shop.

For incredible views between meals, embark on an extremely short hike up to the top of Home Rock (Heimaklettur). It’s just 1.2 miles roundtrip, but comes with an 846-foot elevation gain. You’ll climb sheer cliffs on near-vertical ladders, with some additional ropes and chains to get you through the “you fall, you die” spots. The sights from the top are gorgeous, and you might even come across a standoff with a sheep on the narrow trail.

While on the Westman Islands, you’ll probably want to see a puffin. These lands are home to the largest Atlantic puffin colony in the world, so puffin-peeping is one of the big draws here beginning in April. If you take a car over on the ferry, drive out to the Great Cape (Stórhöfði), where you can hang out in a popular puffin hut looking out from the cliffside or hit the beach at night and watch the birds come home to roost.

There’s also the family-run Kayak & Puffins tour. Owner and guide Egill Arngrimsson will take you out to explore the cliffs and caves of Klettsvík Bay, where you’ll see scores of puffins and other seabirds. Bonus—you’ll also make a stop at the Beluga Whale Sanctuary’s natural sea inlet, home to rescued residents Little White and Little Grey.

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Danielle Hallock is the travel editor at Thrillist, and she has yet to take off her crampons.

Nicole Rupersburg is a freelance writer covering food, travel, arts, culture, and what-have-you. She winters in Las Vegas and summers in Detroit, as does anybody who's anybody. Her favorite activities include drinking beer and quoting Fight Club.