Month by Month
Reykjavík Culture Night, August
Northern Lights, mid-September to mid-April
Iceland Airwaves, November
After December’s cheer, the festive hangover hits. The first few weeks of the year can feel like an anticlimax – not helped by long dark nights and inclement weather.
This Viking midwinter feast from late January to mid- or late February is marked nationwide with stomach-churning treats such as hákarl (fermented Greenland shark), svið (singed sheep’s head) and hrútspungar (rams’ testicles). All accompanied by shots of brennivín (a potent schnapps nicknamed ‘black death’). Hungry?
The coldest month in many parts of Iceland, though everyday life in the capital can seem untouched. The countryside may be scenic under snow, but it's mostly dark – there are only seven to eight hours of daylight per day.
Winter Lights Festival
Reykjavík sparkles with this four-day winter-warmer encompassing Museum Night and Pool Night (late-opening museums and swimming pools), plus illuminated landmarks, light installations and concerts. See www.winterlightsfestival.is.
Food & Fun
International chefs team up with local restaurants and vie for awards at this capital feast held in February or March. Teams are given the finest Icelandic ingredients (lamb and seafood, natch) to create their masterpieces. See www.foodandfun.is.
Winter is officially over in other parts of the world, but it’s not time to start celebrating here. The country wakes from its slumber; winter activities such as skiing are popular as daylight hours increase.
It's hard to imagine, but beer was illegal in Iceland for 75 years. On 1 March, Icelanders celebrate the day in 1989 when the prohibition was overturned. With little prompting required, pubs, restaurants and clubs around Reykjavík are especially beer-lovin’ on this night.
Iceland Winter Games
Snowy activities take centre stage in Akureyri, Iceland’s winter-sports capital, including international freeski and snowboard competitions. Tour operators offer ways to get out into snowy scenes (dog-sledding, snowmobiling, super-Jeep and helicopter tours). See www.icelandwintergames.com.
The local design scene is celebrated in Reykjavík at this four-day fest of all things aesthetically pleasing: from fashion to furniture, architecture to food design. It's organised by the Iceland Design Centre, see www.designmarch.is.
Music, creativity and technology: this festival brings all three together for three days in March or April at Harpa concert hall, with more than 70 electronica and hip-hop bands and DJs from Iceland and abroad. See www.sonarreykjavik.com.
Easter is celebrated in a traditional fashion (Easter-egg hunts and roast lamb), and spring is in the air. Days lengthen and the mercury climbs, meaning greenery after the snow melts, plus the arrival of thousands of migrating birds.
Rather ambitiously, Icelanders celebrate the first day of summer (the first Thursday after 18 April) with celebrations and street parades. A case of winter-induced madness? No, it's a nod to the Old Norse calendar, which divided the year into just two seasons: winter and summer.
Reykjavík International Literary Festival
Feeling bookish? This venerable festival gathers international writers for four days of readings and panels in the capital. Check www.bokmenntahatid.is for schedules.
Puffins on Parade
To the delight of twitchers and photographers, the divinely comedic puffin arrives in huge numbers (an estimated 10 million birds) for the breeding season, departing for warmer climes by mid-August. There are puffin colonies all around the country.
May is shoulder season, and isn't a bad month to visit, just before the tourist season cranks up in earnest. Enjoy prices before they escalate, plus lengthening days, spring wildflowers and first-rate birdwatching.
Reykjavík Arts Festival
Culture vultures flock to Iceland’s premier cultural festival, a biennial event (even-numbered years) that showcases local and international theatre performances, film, dance, music and visual art. See www.listahatid.is for the program.
Hello summer! The short, sharp, three-month-long tourist season begins. Pros: the best weather, near-endless daylight, the pick of tours and excursions, the best choice of accommodation. Cons: big crowds, peak prices, the need to book all lodging.
Fishing is integral to Icelandic life, and Seafarers’ Day (Sjómannadagurinn) is party time in fishing villages. On the first weekend in June, every ship in Iceland is in harbour and all sailors have a day off. Salty-dog celebrations on the Sunday include drinking, rowing and swimming contests, tugs-of-war and mock sea rescues.
Hafnarfjörður Viking Festival
The peace is shattered as Viking hordes invade this seaside town near Reykjavík for a four-day market festival in mid-June. Expect family-friendly storytelling, staged battles, archery and music. See www.visithafnarfjordur.is.
Some 11 species of whale are regularly spotted in waters around Iceland. Sightings happen year-round but the best time is from June to August. Whale-watching boat tours leave from the Reykjavík area, from Akureyri and surrounds, and from Húsavík, the country’s whale-watching HQ.
The country’s biggest holiday commemorates the founding of the Republic of Iceland, on 17 June 1944, with parades and general patriotic merriment. Tradition has it that the sun isn’t supposed to shine. And it usually doesn’t.
Opening of Mountain Roads
The highland regions of Iceland are generally blanketed in snow well into the warmer months. The opening of 4WD-only mountain roads is weather dependent, but generally occurs around mid-June; roads are closed again by late September/October. The website www.road.is keeps you updated.
Except for the island of Grímsey, Iceland lies just south of the Arctic Circle. Still, around the summer solstice (21 June) it’s possible to view the midnight sun (when the setting sun doesn’t fully dip below the horizon), especially in the country’s north. The endless daylight is perfect for visiting natural attractions in the wee hours, avoiding peak daytime crowds.
This excellent music festival (www.secretsolstice.is) with local and international acts coincides with the summer solstice, so there's 24-hour daylight for partying. It's held at Laugardalur in Reykjavík.
Although midsummer isn’t as major an event as in the rest of the Nordic countries, the longest day of the year is celebrated in Iceland with solstice parties and bonfires (staged anytime between 21 and 24 June).
The tasty humar (often translated as lobster, but technically it’s langoustine) is pulled fresh from Icelandic waters and served a delectable number of ways in the fishing town of Höfn during the Humarhátíð festival in late June/early July.
Iceland’s festival pace quickens alongside a (hopefully) rising temperature gauge and a distinct swelling of tourist numbers. Expect busy roads, crowded trails, packed camp grounds, no-vacancy guesthouses etc, and book ahead.
Horse lovers: the week-long national Icelandic horse competition is held in even-numbered years at rotating host towns. It's a beloved spectator event and excuse for a country festival. See www.landsmot.is.
Folk Music Festival
The small but well-regarded five-day folk music festival in Siglufjörður welcomes Icelandic and foreign musicians. Enjoy traditional tunes, courses on Icelandic music, dance and handicrafts. See www.folkmusik.is.
Skálholt Summer Concerts
The cathedral at the historic religious centre of Skálholt hosts public concerts, lectures and workshops over a five-week period from July to August. The focus is on contemporary religious music and early music. See www.sumartonleikar.is.
The end-of-the-line Eastfjords town of Neskaupstaður goes off in the second week of July, when the population doubles to celebrate the heavy-metal festival Eistnaflug. Metal, hardcore, punk, rock and indie bands share the stage. See www.eistnaflug.is.
The beloved Bræðslan pop/rock festival has earned a reputation for great music and an intimate atmosphere. Some big local names (and a few international ones) come to play in tiny, out-of-the-way Borgarfjörður Eystri in late July. Check out www.braedslan.com.
Laugavegur Ultra Marathon
Does a 55km mountain race sound like your cup of tea? Then this is the race for you: test yourself on a multi-terrain course (sand, gravel, grass, snow, ice, rivers and streams) surrounded by outstanding natural beauty. See http://marathon.is/ultramarathon.
The busy tourist season continues apace, with Southern Europeans flying north for holidays. By mid-month the puffins have departed (and some whales too); by late August the local kids are back at school, and the nights are lengthening.
This public-holiday long weekend (the first weekend in August) sees Icelanders flock to rural festivals, family barbecues, rock concerts and wild campground parties.
This earth-shaking event occurs in Heimaey, Vestmannaeyjar, on the August long weekend, commemorating the day in 1874 when foul weather prevented the islanders from partying when Iceland’s constitution was established. Up to 16,000 people descend to watch bands and fireworks, and drink gallons of alcohol. See www.dalurinn.is.
On the August long weekend, Siglufjörður celebrates its heady herring-induced heyday with dancing, feasting, drinking and fishy-flavoured activities.
Reykjavík Culture Night
On Culture Night (Menningarnótt), held mid-month, Reykjavikers turn out in force for a day and night of art, music, dance and fireworks. Many galleries, ateliers, shops, cafes and churches stay open until late. See www.menningarnott.is for a full program.
Your chance to get sporty, mid-month in Reykjavík sees more than 15,000 people sweat it out in full- and half-marathons, as well as fun runs. See www.rmi.is.
Out and proud since 1999, this festival brings Carnaval-like colour to the capital on the second weekend of August. Up to 100,000 people (more than a quarter of the country's population) attend the Pride march and celebrations. See www.hinsegindagar.is/en.
Could there be a more beautiful location for a fireworks display than Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon? For one night in mid- to late August, an annual fundraising event is staged, with buses shuttling spectators from Höfn, Kirkjubæjarklaustur and Skaftafell. See www.visitvatnajokull.is.
Tourist arrivals decrease significantly and prices drop, making this a good time to visit. The weather can still be agreeable, but summer-only hotels, attractions and services are closed. Highland roads are closed by month's end.
Reykjavík Jazz Festival
Early in the month, Reykjavík toe-taps its way through five days dedicated to jazz, man. Local and international musicians blow their own trumpets at events across town. Check out www.reykjavikjazz.is.
An autumn highlight, the réttir is the farmers’ round-up of sheep that have grazed wild over summer. The round-up is often done on horseback and the animals are herded into a corral where the sorting takes place (participants and spectators welcome). Naturally, it’s all accompanied by much rural merrymaking.
Reykjavík International Film Festival
This intimate 11-day event from late September features quirky programming that highlights independent filmmaking, both home-grown and international. There are also panels and masterclasses. Check the program at www.riff.is.
October marks the official onset of winter, with cooler temperatures, longer nights and the appearance of the Northern Lights.
Also called aurora borealis, these colourful, dancing lights are caused by charged particles from solar flares colliding with the earth’s atmosphere. They can only be viewed in the darkness of night with no cloud cover. The best months for viewing are from October to April (from mid-September, if you’re lucky).
Summer is a distant memory. November sees nights lengthening (the sun sets around 4pm) and weather cooling, but Reykjavík parties hard, with big crowds gathering for its flagship music festival.
You’d be forgiven for thinking Iceland is just one giant music-producing machine. Since the first edition of Iceland Airwaves was held in 1998, this fab festival has become one of the world’s premier annual showcases for new music (Icelandic and otherwise). Check out www.icelandairwaves.is.
Days of Darkness
East Iceland (Egilsstaðir and the fjords) perversely celebrates the onset of winter over 10 days in early to mid-November, with dark dances, ghost stories, magic shows and torch-lit processions during its unusual Days of Darkness (Dagar Myrkurs) festival.
The frozen blue wonder of natural ice caves becomes accessible close to glacier edges from around November through to March. For safety reasons you must visit with a guide – tours can be arranged with local operators in the southeast, between Skaftafell and Höfn.
A festive atmosphere brings cheer to the darkest time of the year. Christmas markets, concerts and parties keep things bright and cosy, followed by New Year’s Eve celebrations. Note that some hotels are closed between Christmas and New Year.
New Year’s Eve
Festivities aplenty on 31 December, with dinners, bonfires, fireworks (lots of fireworks – these are sold as a fundraiser for the beloved national search-and-rescue organisation), parties and clubbing till the early hours of New Year’s Day.