What are the most popular things to see and do in May in Iceland? What is the average temperature and can visitors expect rain, snow or sunshine? How many daylight hours are there? Can I see the Northern Lights or Midnight Sun? What cultural events are going on throughout the month? Read on to find out everything you need to know about Iceland in May.
In a land of constant change, every month in Iceland is unique, and May is one of the more preferable months to travel here.
Not only are flights, accommodation, and car rentals all cheaper throughout May—a precursor to the upcoming summer season—but the weather is drastically on the upswing, transforming Iceland into a land of blossom flower, natural rebirth, and transient sunshine.
In May, Icelanders begin to step out of their winter hibernation, venturing out into the rare reality of the sun, blue skies, and longer days. With it comes an atmosphere of youthful excitement.
Icelanders have long by now known how to use their time well when it's sunny, relaxing in the city parks, enjoying the geothermal beach or hiking Mt. Esja, sipping Gull in an outdoor beer garden, taking to the kayak and hosting BBQs. In this rush of excitement and anticipation, visitors may even catch a rare glimpse of an Icelander sporting shorts.
Perhaps most important for those visiting, however, are the tours and activities open throughout the month of May. Thankfully, almost every option is available; whale watching, snorkelling, scuba diving, ATVs, horseback riding, lava caving, hot spring hunting, glacier and mountain hiking, mountain biking, surfing, sightseeing… the list is endless, and with more daylight hours available, Iceland in May can very quickly be turned into a non-stop adventure.
But you cannot see the Northern Lights.
The aurora borealis is a solar phenomenon that can only be seen with clear skies at night; considering that the sun is almost at its peak (Midnight Sun), seeing the Northern Lights will in no way be a possibility.
There are also a number of festivals, events, and public holidays in May, adding a cultural overlay to your vacation here. Not only are there two festivals—RAFLOST: Icelandic Festival of Electronic Arts and Saga Fest—but there is also the opportunity to celebrate religious holidays and even attend events organised as part of the International Day of the Icelandic Horse.
So read on to discover the possibilities open to you throughout May in Iceland; whether it's a holiday focused on gentle relaxation or adrenaline-fuelled action, there is always an opportunity just over the horizon.
Visiting Iceland in May means that you will have the opportunity to partake in an enormous wealth of different past times and activities, ranging from the relaxing to the adrenaline-fuelled.
Though certain areas of the country are still inaccessible during May—such as the Central Highlands—a lot of experiences are still available as the summer months begin to roll in.
Hot springs are some of Iceland's more popular summer attractions. Thankfully, with relatively mild weather and calm winds, May is perhaps the best month to do just that.
Iceland is dotted with geothermal pools; some well-known, others little more than modern-day folklore. Despite the difference in surroundings and temperature, Iceland's geothermal pools are sure to give you joy.
But you should find out where the pools are before you set out travelling because some are located on private land and, thus, entering requires permission from the landowner. Asking locals for recommendations is a sure-fire way to find the best spots and ensure that you don't get lost along the way.
As opposed to hot spring hunting in the winter—a pastime that involves hopping around at sub-zero temperatures trying to recover your clothes from the wind—May makes taking a dip an experience to write home about.
Photo by Harshil Gudka
If you’re looking for something a little less natural (though, culturally, second-nature to Icelanders), May is an excellent time to visit some of Reykjavík’s swimming pools.
With the sunshine out and the holiday spirit kicking in, you’ll be surprised to find that Iceland’s swimming pools more closely resemble spas, with hot tubs, saunas, and steam rooms. After all, why not shed that jet lag and start your holiday in the most relaxed way possible?
One of the most popular and accessible pools for visitors is Laugardalslaug in Reykjavik. Aside from geothermal hot tubs, the pool offers water slides, a steam room and sauna, an adjacent gymnasium, an Olympic-sized swimming pool, and an area for kids to play with ease. There is also a shallow, heated pool for relaxing in, an excellent way to stretch out and chill. As with most pools in Iceland, it also has an amazing slide with no upper age limits (you're never too old!).
Be aware of the rules when it comes to public pools in Iceland; it's not only culturally expected, but required, to shower naked before entering the water. This is not to satisfy the fantasies of the changing room warden, but to help combat the spread of bacteria.
The UNESCO World Heritage site, Þingvellir National Park, located only forty minutes drive from the capital, is home to one of the Top 10 Diving and Snorkelling sites worldwide; the glacial gorge, Silfra Fissure.
A light stream runs crystal clear water from Langjökull glacier, a process that takes up to fifty years as the water travels through the underground networks of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. Because of this, divers and snorkellers in Silfra will experience a light current—no stronger than a lazy river—which means there's very little reason to exert energy on swimming.
Snorkelling and scuba diving at Silfra do have some prerequisites to ensure the safety of those participating and to protect those guiding you in the water.
As with any underwater activity, Silfra requires a great level of respect, knowledge, and self-determination. As for the specific requirements; snorkelling in Silfra is open to all those above 16 years old age, over 150 cm and weighing more than 45 kg. Participants must be physically fit, able to swim, and not pregnant. For all those over 60, a written note from the doctor is also required.
As to be expected, the requirements for scuba diving in Silfra are a little tougher to meet. Most importantly, participants must be a certified PADI open water diver with proof of dry suit experience within the last two years.
Drysuit diving, especially in cold water, is unlike the Caribbean model of wetsuits and swimming shorts, requiring a firmer grasp of the theory and practise of scuba. At Silfra, the minimum age is 17, though all those under 18 years old require a written consent slip from their legal guardian. Participants will also have to sign both a liability and a medical form before entering the water.
Aside from the fissure itself, guests to Silfra will have a chance to see the sheer beauty and drama of the fissure's surroundings, Þingvellir.
This National Park is an extremely important location for Icelanders for a number of reasons; first of all, it is where one of the first democratically elected parliaments in the world was founded. To this day, that governmental body is known as the Althingi, though parliament is now in Reykjavík. Guests today can walk right up to where these historical gatherings were once held.
The second reason for its cultural relevance is the site’s geology. Þingvellir is one of the only places on the planet where you can see both the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates at the same time. The moss-covered volcanic fields in between the tectonic plates could be described, continentally, as "no man's land."
Some scuba diving operators will also travel out further to other dive sites, such as the nearby Davíðsgjá (David’s Crack), the darker and deeper cousin of Silfra, in Þingvallavatn. Other dive sites include Strýtan, the WWII “El Grillo” Cricket shipwreck, the river Litlaá and the ocean site, Garður.
These sites have completely different requirements, however, and may only be available at certain times of the year. For other dive sites, it is recommended that you contact the dive operator directly.
If you can forgive the on-again-off-again weather, hiking in May in Iceland is, quite truthfully, one of the more satisfying pastimes you can undertake during your holiday. Not only is the fresh air good for you, but hiking is one of the optimum ways to experience the Icelandic countryside, allowing you a closer glimpse at the meadows, valleys, and trickling streams that make this island what it is.
The most accessible hiking trails to the capital can be found at the neighbouring Mt. Esja, which overlooks the city. At a height of 914 metres, the two most popular recreational trails are to the summits Þverfellshorn (780m) and Kerhólakambur (851m).
The hike itself is divided into four sections, getting more difficult and requiring more skill and experience the higher the trails lead. Those who reach these grand heights are privy to an incredible panorama of Reykjavik and the surrounding Reykjanes' Peninsula.
Do be aware that the Central Highlands and its hiking trails are still closed during May. The roads necessary to drive to them are unstable and it is illegal to attempt to gain access. For those who are looking to trek the Central Highlands and Landmannalaugar, the best time to visit is in July.
For anglers, May is one of the better months to fish in Iceland, hitting the season just as it begins.
Iceland boasts some excellent river fishing, but there are also opportunities to fish in the ocean and to "try what you catch!"
However, all fishing in Iceland is private and fishing times are at the discretion of the landowner, many of whom like to see the fish spend the year in peace.
This is not only to guarantee the sustainability of the fish population but also to guarantee that the land itself is not trampled or made into a fishing circus for anglers.
To ensure you get the best results on your fishing trip, we always recommended that you book a guided fishing tour in advance; angling guides know the best spots, the best techniques and, most importantly, all rules and regulations.
The type of fishing you're interested in will define the time of year you choose to arrive.
According to Icelandic law, migratory brown trout can be fished between April and October; this is the time when you can expect rivers to be opened to the public.
Before fishing in Iceland, you must be aware that the country has strict fishing laws. For instance, no equipment that has been used abroad may be brought into the country unless it has a certificate of disinfection, in order to prevent water pollution or contamination. All organic live bait is also strictly prohibited.
It is a good idea to do a little research regarding these regulations before organising your trip.
Horse riding throughout May is one of the most engaging and spectacular ways to see the Icelandic countryside up close; more importantly, it presents you with the unique opportunity to meet the famous Icelandic horse.
Icelandic horses are omnipresent in Iceland, but no one can truly say they know the breed until taking to the saddle themselves.
Icelandic horses—though smaller than their overseas counterparts—are well-known for their friendly nature, reliability, strength, and intelligence. They are also very experienced with visitors, meaning that underconfident riders will find themselves "on good hooves."
Prospective riders will first be introduced to the basics of being in a saddle, either through an informative video or a personal briefing from one of the guides. Then, it's out to the stables where you'll mount your trusty steed and take off in convoy into the beauty of the Icelandic wilderness.
Passing through farmland, gentle rivers, and delicate valleys, you'll be privy to a gorgeous perspective on the Icelandic countryside and on Icelandic travel, historically.
For those literature and history buffs out there, horses have long been venerated in Icelandic culture and play a major role in Norse mythology. One notable example is Sleipnir, the eight-legged horse of Odin, who was said to have created the dramatic Ásbyrgi Canyon in North Iceland when his giant hoof stomped the ground.
Looking at the horse community in Iceland today, as well the growing popularity of horse riding as a pastime, one could argue that devotion and veneration for horses are still present, and have even strengthened.
Lava caving tours are open throughout May and make for a thrilling trip into Iceland’s volcanic, subterranean universe.
Aside from fantastic displays of red, orange, and purple rock, lava caving presents guests with the chance to gain deeper insight into the geology of Iceland. Where else, after all, can an individual touch the fossilised remains of ancient lava flows and rivers, the descendants of a time when Iceland was a hotbed of elemental chaos?
Most lava caves in Iceland are easily accessible and can be traversed with an average level of physical fitness. However, some caves have very narrow segments, so you might have to duck, crawl, and climb your way through the raggy rock formations.
For those who aren't comfortable in the dark or in confined spaces, lava caving might require a good deal of forethought, though caving guides are experienced in dealing with guests with a range of needs.
Your friendly caving guide will give you all the equipment you'll need—helmets, headlamps, etc.—and will readily answer any question you may have as to the history and formation of such cave networks. Make sure to bring a good pair of hiking boots or shoes because the terrain inside is uneven and often wet with dripping water.
Iceland is famous for its mystic landscapes; the enormous ice caps that stretch and cover the country are, perhaps, its greatest natural attractions, creating dramatic panoramas that defy belief.
Many visitors to Iceland rightfully choose to get a closer look at these mighty natural features, opting either for a glacier hike or an ice climbing tour. Either of these options is sure to give you a heart-pumping, adrenaline-fuelled trip into the lion's den of Icelandic natural beauty.
Before we get too hyped up, however, there are a number of things to get straight. First and foremost, hiking the glaciers without a guide is extremely dangerous and irresponsible. You do not know the paths, techniques, or inherent risks like your glacier guide does, a highly experienced professional with years of training in climbing, hiking, and first aid.
Not only will your guide know the safest and most spectacular routes, they will also provide you with all of the equipment necessary to tackle the ice cap, such as helmets, snowshoes, hiking poles, and crampons.
For those taking to the glaciers, make sure to first dress up in some warm layers—multiple pairs of socks!—and don't forget the camera; photos are bound to blow you away.
May is an optimum whale watching period in Iceland; guests on the boat are free from the winter winds to instead enjoy the spectacular scenery, rolling waves and, of course, Icelandic wildlife. As opposed to a windy, three-hour ordeal, guests can instead hope for a pleasant and relaxing boat trip under the sunshine, even enjoying a beverage or two as they look out for signs of these majestic animals.
It is almost guaranteed that you will see at least one species of cetacean throughout your trip; breaching Minke Whales, a relatively small species, are the most common sighting, as are pods of dolphins.
Whale watching boats in Iceland are fitted with the latest radar technology and are in constant communication with one another, meaning your chance to see some of these creatures is the best that it can be.
Birdlife enthusiasts will also enjoy the seabirds that nest on the neighbouring cliffsides or swoop across the waves in their search for fish. Bird species including Gulls, Fulmars, Auks, Ducks and Gannets.
In certain areas, guests may even be able to spot another of Iceland's iconic residents: the puffin. This adorable creature graces Iceland's shores from early April until September each year.
Iceland boasts of the largest population of Atlantic puffin in Europe, flocking to the coastline to nest in the summer months. They arrive in April, so May is the perfect time to spot the adorable 'Clown of the Sea'.
The summer months open up the rugged Westfjords to visitors, which are largely inaccessible in winter. Visit the westernmost part of Iceland and in fact, Europe—a cliffside called Látrabjarg, and you'll find our rotund friend, the puffin. Látrabjarg is rich in birdlife and you'll be able to see a range of species; just be mindful that you are on a cliff, and practice caution.
Many tours offer to take you to see the puffins in conjunction with whale watching, but there are also tours all over the country that will focus on bringing you closer to these curious critters. Check out this express tour leaving from Reykjavík, a perfect activity for animal lovers and families alike.
Aside from the many attractions on offer in Iceland in May, there are also a number of festivals that draw crowds from home and abroad, exploring the highlights of Icelandic and international music and art. May also sees religious celebrations, historical festivals, and even a commemoration day for the Icelandic horse.
Saga Fest is a fairly new music and arts festival, but it's already proved itself to be quite unique. Founded by Scott Shigeoka, Saga Fest is built around the vision of “connecting people to each other and to nature.”
The festival emphasizes communality and sustainability. It is an intimate two days fueled by imagination and innovation. Tickets to the event come with a packet of seeds, intended to be planted by the festival goer to help to reforest Iceland.
Guests at Saga Fest can expect sharing and companionship; every participant will help to contribute to the overall festival atmosphere, be it through performance, volunteering, or organisation. Saga Fest is proudly egalitarian, emphasizing instead that there is no hierarchy between artists and participants.
After the success of the first Saga Fest, founder Scott Shigeoka remarked: “I am full of love, gratitude, inspiration, excitement, warmth, and ambition. Saga Fest was such a massive undertaking by all involved, but in the end—even with the obstacles that are always present in producing visionary live events—it transformed into a beautiful and hugely impactful experience for everyone.”
Previous Saga Fests have always felt incredibly international; alongside Icelandic locals and artists, representatives from over sixteen countries including Pakistan, Germany, and Hong Kong have attended.
Ascension Day is one of the oldest Christian holidays, celebrated forty days after Easter to commemorate the ascension of Jesus to heaven. Ascension Day is a public holiday in Iceland; children are given the day off at school and most workplaces close down. Icelanders tend to take the day at home with their family and will often dine on traditional cuisine.
Those visitors to Iceland who are interested in religion—or, perhaps, in architecture—can maximise this day by visiting some of Iceland’s most iconic churches.
Reykjavík alone has: the modernist Lutheran church, Hallgrímskirkja (one of the city’s famous landmarks), as well as the 1899 green-roofed Chapel, Fríkirkjan í Reykjavík by the city pond, Tjörnin. There is also Landakotskirkja (Landakot’s Church), formally referred to as Basilika Krists Konungs (The Basilica of Christ the King), the designated cathedral for the Catholic Church of Iceland.
There are, of course, many other beautiful church buildings across Iceland that are worth visiting. Akureyrarkirkja, for example, is the Lutheran Church of Akureyri, instantly recognisable by its two, cuboid steeples, its clock face centrepiece and the staircases leading up to its entrance. The Catholic church, Kaþolska Kirkjan, can also be found nearby.
Since 2007, RAFLOST has been the pioneering festival for electronic artists—computers, dance, music, games, poetry. Over the last decade, the festival has become a force of nature, attracting artists from across the world to experiment and participate in this rare, collective experience.
Held in Reykjavík in May of each year, RAFLOST collaborates with the Ministry of Education, Science and Culture and the Icelandic Academy of Arts to bring together all those impassioned by the artistic potential of electronic art. Festival organisers hope that the event annually will help to stimulate grassroots electronic music in Iceland.
RAFLOST attracts artists from almost every corner of the globe, creating the perfect safe space to nurture both local and international talent. In the past, giants of electronica like Morton Subotnick, Todor Todoroff, and Mikael Fernström have all wowed audiences with their festival performances at RAFLOST.
The vast majority of attractions at RAFLOST defy the imagination; in previous years, festival goers have borne witness to robotic sumo wrestling, improvised electro-acoustic performances, internet video-parties, DIY hacking workshops, and even computer-generated poetry.
Credit: Horses of Iceland Facebook.
The International Day of the Icelandic Horse arose through a collaboration between the Icelandic Equestrian Association and the marketing initiative, Horses of Iceland. Celebrating every aspect of this unique and domestic breed, the event covers a weekend and focuses on a horse parade through Reykjavík, with open stable days across the country.
The annual horse parade begins at the city centre, a uniformed spectacle of proud steeds and their loyal riders. At 1 pm, the Mayor of Reykjavík gives a speech to mark the celebration and then the parade kicks off, a steady and unified trot down Skólavörðustíg, Bankastræti, Austurstræti, Pósthússtræti and finally, Vonarstræti.
The parade ends at the Parliamentary Square, Austurvöllur, where spectators get their own chance to meet and ride the horses.
The second part of the festival is something of a joint-effort between stable owners and enthusiastic members of the Icelandic horse community. Open days are held at participating stables across the country for friends and families to meet the Icelandic horse breed up close.
The festival’s intention, from the outset, has been to showcase the Icelandic horses’ many excellent qualities to an international audience, as well as to stimulate and enlarge the community and tour operators here in Iceland. In support, the government has promised an investment of 25 million Icelandic krona over four years in a bid to help to strengthen industry growth.
Falling on the same day as the International Day of the Icelandic Horse, May 1 is a public holiday—depending on your location, either 'Labor Day' or ‘May Day’.
May Day in Iceland has become something of an unofficial day of protest in Iceland. Individuals carry banners and signs making their personal demands and concerns clear. Although there isn't a unified subject, many Icelanders argue for things like wage equality, shorter workdays and work weeks, and flexible in-and-out of office hours.
In previous years, protesters have gathered together at Hlemmur Bus Station before marching down the main street in downtown Reykjavik, Laugavegur. Finally, the procession ends at Ingólfstorg Square where a number of speeches are held and cakes and coffees are supplied by representatives of Iceland's trade unions.
Iceland’s weather in May is, however, certainly on the upturn; as the dying days of winter take their last breath, the sunshine begins to make a more routine appearance and the winds slow to a gentle breeze.
On average, May has more sunshine hours than any other month and the least rainfall. One can expect temperatures to range between 5° C (41° F) and 20° C (68° F), meaning stepping out in a t-shirt and shorts is sometimes possible.
However, be sure to pack yourself some sturdy winter clothing because the weather is unpredictable, and it's possible you'll end up in a hailstorm in May.
As for daylight hours, May sees a great increase from April; at the beginning of the month, the sun rises at 5AM and sets at 22:00. The end of the month sees the sunrise at 3:30AM and set at 23:30, meaning that there are only four hours of darkness.
May is an excellent period for travellers to maximise their holiday experience, hoping to get in as many sights and activities as possible.
If you're still stuck for ideas, check out the following Guide To Iceland itineraries—the perfect inspiration for your May holiday to Iceland. We have included a number of itinerary lengths in order to better help you find the best fit: