Part of Iceland’s immense charm is its weather — the spontaneous force that controls all activity for people living on (and visiting) the island nation. A matter of a few minutes can turn your sunny-day adventure into an afternoon spent waiting on the side of the road for a blizzard to pass. And while some may view that as a total vacation bummer, I prefer to think of it as an opportunity to fully experience the Land of Ice and Fire.
As someone who has a serious interest in Iceland and visits multiple times every year, I’ve quickly learned to appreciate Iceland during all its seasons and wild weather patterns — and figured out the best itineraries for all situations.
Ahead, you’ll find the best times to visit Iceland based on a number of factors: budget, high and low tourist season, weather and more.
The cheapest times to visit Iceland
If you don’t really care about weather-specific activities, my advice is to take advantage of the shoulder seasons in spring and fall when crowds are thin and accommodations are cheaper (think: March, April, September and October). There are often cheaper flights during these time periods as well.
TPG is constantly scouring flight deals and we’ve recently seen prices under $300 for round-trip flights between Boston and Reykjavik on low-cost Icelandic airline Play.
Related: Great fall, winter and early spring deals on flights to Iceland
Naturally, flights to Iceland during the winter are going to be the cheapest, aside from the main holidays like Christmas and New Year’s (ticket prices skyrocket during those weeks), but in terms of value, consider visiting in the spring. Even if you pay a bit more, you may get more value given the more mild weather and longer daylight hours.
PALL JOKULL FOR ICELANDAIR/THE BROOKLYN BROTHERS/GETTY IMAGES
When to visit Iceland to avoid crowds
If you’re looking to take in the sights without hundreds of other strangers, look again to the off months of March, April, September and October. Since the weather is a bit more erratic than it is during the summer, fewer travelers take the risk.
If good weather is not on your list of things you care about, head to Iceland in the dead of winter (December, January or February). It’s going to be colder, but that and the extremely short days keep the crowds at bay.
When to visit Iceland for events
Music festivals in Iceland
There are a number of festivals to keep in mind while planning your trip to Iceland. For the musically inclined, check out Iceland Airwaves in November, the Reykjavík Jazz Festival in August, Aldrei fór ég Suður in April, Secret Solstice in June or the four-day rock and metal festival, Eistnaflug, in July.
The atmosphere at the Iceland Airwaves Blue Lagoon Chill Party. NICKY DIGITAL/CORBIS/GETTY IMAGES
Art, film and culture festivals in Iceland
For arts and culture, there’s the Reykjavík International Film Festival in September and October and the LungA Art Festival in July.
If you’ve done your research on the Icelandic sagas, plan a trip over the first Friday after Jan. 19 to partake in the Thorrablot celebrations. This mid-winter festival brings locals and travelers together to dine on the unusual foods of Iceland’s past like fermented shark, boiled sheep’s head and congealed sheep’s blood wrapped in a ram’s stomach.
Icelanders also celebrate the summer solstice, which occurs over June 21. With nearly 24 hours of sunlight, the bonfire celebrations go late into the night.
Related: 9 common mistakes you don’t want to make in Iceland
The best times for whale watching in Iceland
During the winter, it can be hard to spot any kind of wildlife in Iceland, given the harsh climate. If you’re looking to spot migrating whales passing by, plan a trip between April and October — otherwise known as prime time for whale spotting. You can catch sight of minke, humpback, sperm, and fin whales, along with orcas, and there are plenty of tours on the Reykjavík Harbor that will take you to the best locations.
Whale watching in Húsavík, Iceland. DAVID CANTELLI/UNSPLASH
The best times to see puffins in Iceland
Puffins at Látrabjarg cliffs, the westernmost point in Iceland. ALEX WALKER/GETTY IMAGES
There are a few excellent spots to see Iceland’s most adorable bird in its natural habitat, but no matter where you plan to go puffin-spotting, the best time to do it is between April and August.
You’ll find the largest puffin colony in the world on the Westman Islands, known as Vestmannaeyjar in Icelandic. You can even arrange a minibus tour where a local guide will share the history of the islands and take you to some of the local puffin hot spots.
Related: 7 things to do on your next trip to Iceland
The Látrabjarg cliffs in the Westfjords provide a picturesque locale for seeing puffins and, along with them, millions of other birds who call the cliffs home, including razorbills and northern gannets.
Two animals you will see no matter when you visit: sheep and horses, and lots of them. Wool textiles are a huge part of the country’s retail market and exports, while Icelandic horses have become a key player in the area’s tourism industry — horse rides across the countryside have become a popular bucket list item for the animal’s distinct “fifth gait.”
Sheep grazing in an old lava field in western Iceland. WOLFGANG KAEHLER/LIGHTROCKET VIA GETTY IMAGES
The best times to hike in Iceland
Summertime is easily the best time to go hiking in Iceland, but it will also mean busier trails. To really get away from the crowds, you can hire a private guide who will bring you to some lesser-known hikes in the highlands, but this region is only accessible during snow-free months.
There are hiking trails open during the wintertime, but they will be less challenging (despite the blowing winds and heavy precipitation, of course). You can find hiking just about anywhere during any time of the year if you do the research. There are plenty of opportunities to take a stroll around almost all of the major attractions, from Pingvellir National Park and the waterfalls along Route 1 in the south to Reykjanes Peninsula and the famous Búðakirkja: a lone black church that sits on a lava field.
Tourists walk through a rift in Pingvelllir National Park. MELANIE STETSON FREEMAN/THE CHRISTIAN SCIENCE MONITOR/GETTY IMAGES
Consider your priorities: Do you want to hike through the Highlands or into some of the trickier areas of the north? Plan your travel for June, July or August. Are you more interested in snowshoeing or glacier walking? Find a tour company to take you to some of the prettiest spots during December, January or February. All other months offer great hikes, it just depends on the weather forecast for the day.
The best times to cycle in Iceland
Cycling the Ring Road is ambitious, but the views make it all worthwhile. Plan your trip during the summertime — preferably late June — for the most daylight. The sun stays up practically around the clock during this season, making it easy to bike long into the night without worrying about visibility. But don’t forget your eye mask if you actually want to sleep.
Route 1, aka the Ring Road, passing through Geysir, Iceland. KALLE KORTELAINEN/UNSPLASH
The best times to drive around Iceland
Let’s settle one thing: You can drive around Iceland during any time of the year, you’re just going to have different types of weather to worry about. You must choose if you want a leisurely, sunny road trip or if you are just looking to get from Point A to Point B. If you anticipate any snow during your trip, make sure your car has four-wheel drive. You will thank yourself over and over again.
Driving through the snow can be brutal. ROBERT BYE/UNSPLASH
It may seem obvious, but if you want a true road trip, go during the summertime when sunlight is abundant. Book your road trip around Iceland for July and you’ll never regret it.
If you aren’t afraid of driving through some true “winter weather” — hail, snow, blizzards, torrential downpours and a blip of sunlight all in the span of a few hours — you can drive in Iceland any month of the year. But the country will shut down the roads if they’re impassable, so keep that in mind. For example, you won’t be able to visit the highland region during the winter, or take some mountain road shortcuts.
The best weather for special activities
There are some things that can only be done during specific seasons in Iceland, which is part of what makes the destination so special. But if you’re looking for hot springs, never fear: relaxing in a hot spring is a year-round activity.
A man-made thermal pool in southern Iceland. JOHN FREDRICKS/NURPHOTO/GETTY IMAGES
You will definitely get the most out of your hikes if you plan a summer trip. Not only will the weather be better, but you can get access to the multi-colored landscapes of Laugavegur and the so-called Volcanic Trails in the Highlands.
Laugavegur, Iceland. MICHAEL HACKER/UNSPLASH
In the colder months, you have the opportunity to get close to Iceland’s famous, electric-blue glaciers. Glacier hikes, ice caves and iceberg spotting are all popular — and encouraged — activities during the winter.
The ice caves, especially, are a huge must if you’re visiting during the winter, as they are completely inaccessible during the summertime. To visit them, you’ll need a trained guide familiar with the region. Do not try and visit these on your own as the melting pattern can be unpredictable and extremely dangerous.
Another strictly wintertime activity is northern lights spotting. The aurora borealis will only appear under extremely dark, clear conditions between September and April; when the nights are long you have a better window of time each day when you can view them.
Exploring ice caves at night can lead you to a chance to also spot the northern lights at certain times of year. JONATAN PIE/UNSPLASH
There are some things in Iceland that can only be experienced during a certain season, meaning there truly is no bad time to visit the country. With that in mind, you should make a list of your vacation priorities. Looking to see the ice caves? You’ll need to visit during the winter. Want to hike in the highlands? Again, that whittles down your travel options.
No matter when you choose to visit Iceland, though, you’ll be treated to the country’s unparalleled beauty, exciting outdoor activities and majestic wildlife.