Par Jonathan Duffy, Arctic Meta
Iceland is known for its abundance of natural beauty, volcanic activity, innovative artists, rich history and, of course, some of the most unique speciality foods you could ever imagine.
Iceland is also a home of incredible contrasts. It has cold dark winters where the country is covered in thick blankets of snow while the skies dance with the Northern Lights; it also has long summer days where the sun seems to shine on forever and ever.
There are many things people know Iceland for, and one of them is the Midnight Sun. So what is it? When does it happen? How can you enjoy it the most on a visit to Iceland?
Read on to find out more.
What is the Midnight Sun?
The midnight sun is a phenomenon caused by a tilt in the axis of the Earth. The Earth is constantly turning as it moves around the sun. This turning of the Earth causes night and day, but there is also a slight tilt to the Earth, and throughout the year, it kind of wobbles slightly from one side to the other.
This teetering helps create the seasons. Throughout June, July, August and parts of September, the Northern Hemisphere is tilted a little closer to the sun. This creates summer, and at the same time, the opposite effect is happening in the Southern Hemisphere (winter).
The tilting of the axis is also why the areas of the planet towards the equator have fewer seasons. For example, parts of Australia and Asia don’t really have the four seasons of spring, summer, autumn and winter; instead, they have a wet season and a dry season.
Throughout the time when the Northern Hemisphere is tilted more towards the sun, the days get longer. This is the most extreme towards the North Pole.
Due to Iceland’s proximity to the North Pole, it experiences a few months of the year where the days are incredibly long, sometimes with no nighttime. This period is known as the midnight sun.
When is the Midnight Sun in Iceland?
The winter months in the land of fire and ice get increasingly dark until the winter solstice. The winter solstice is the shortest day of the year and occurs typically around December 21.
During the winter solstice in Iceland, the sun doesn’t usually rise till 11:30 am and then it sets again at around 3:30pm. During that time, the daylight isn’t very bright, more of a twilight. After December 21, the days begin to get longer slowly over time.
Beginning in May, you would start to notice that the sun sets later and later. By June, the sun won’t set till after midnight, and the days will get longer and longer until the Summer Solstice on June 21.
After this, nighttime will slowly creep back in, but the days will remain long well into August.
How Long does the Midnight Sun Last in Iceland?
During the Summer Solstice, the longest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere, the sun in Iceland will not typically set until 3:30 am. This means that the country will experience 17 hours of daylight.
Even though the sun technically does still set on that day, if you were to stay up late enough to witness it, you won’t see complete darkness.
The best way to describe a sunset on the summer solstice in Iceland is that the sun lightly kisses the ocean, then has a short dip before rising back up into the sky again.
All of this might make you wonder how people operate without night time during these months. There’s a few tricks Icelanders have developed to deal with the eternal sunlight.
Most homes have full blackout curtains or blinds, so there’s no need to worry about lost sleep.
Restaurants and bars close their curtains and dim their lights at around 10:30 pm. This creates an artificial feeling of nighttime, and it totally works.
When I experienced my first summer in Iceland, there were many weekends I left a bar at 2am and was shocked to realise that I had forgotten it was still daytime. It felt a little like being a teenager and realising you had stayed out way after curfew.
The Best Places to See the Midnight Sun in Iceland
Iceland is a small nation but it’s a land full of contrasting landscapes and things to do. There’s some benefits to spending some time under the midnight sun in almost every corner of the country so below are just a few things that might draw you in a specific direction.
The South Coast
Waterfalls are all over Iceland, but the South Coast is the home of some of the most spectacular and famous waterfalls the country has to offer.
Seljalandsfoss is particularly noteworthy because its waters cascade over the open mouth of a cave. You can actually walk into this opening during the summer months and see the waterfall from the other side.
With the almost eternal sunlight, this waterfall seems like it belongs in the pages of a fantasy novel, but it looks even better in person.
The South Coast is also home to the Panorama Glass Loge. You could experience the midnight sun from the comfort of a personal, private holiday lodge designed to bring the outside in.
Imagine being able to witness the wonders of the midnight sun. At the same time, you relax in your own hot tub nestled in the tranquil beauty of the Icelandic countryside. Then you can unwind on a comfortable bed where you can see the midnight sun in all its glory.
If you decide to get a few winks of sleep, a sleeping mask can easily take care of that, but the midnight sun is so exciting you might want to put off sleeping till tomorrow.
Iceland’s Westfjords are a winding array of spectacular cliffs, tranquil inlets and natural wonders that don’t really exist in the rest of the country.
The midnight sun is the best time of the year to see the Westfjords because summertime is when the roads in this part of the country are the most accessible.
On a map, the Westfjords might not look like a big place, but there’s so much to see, you could easily spend an entire week here.
Iceland’s Eastfjords are often referred to as the Untouched East. The reason for this is that the east is one of the most remote regions of the country. For centuries, those who lived in the east were often cut off from the rest of the country. A result is a place filled with incredible nature and unforgettable views.
The Eastfjords is also filled with small towns that all have their own unique rich history. Places like Seyðisfjörður, surrounded by a mountain range and home to a very art-loving community. There’s also places like Fáskrúðsfjörður, which has an interesting French connection thanks to some sailors stationed there who even built their own hospital.
The east also has some of the best campsites in the country, so it’s a great place to visit if you want to save some money.
The North of Iceland
Those who live in Reykjavík have a long-standing rivalry with residents of Akureyri in the north.
It always seems that when people want snow for Christmas, Akureyri gets the best of it. When those in the south are excited about the first warm day of the year, Akureyri seems to flood their Instagram feeds with pictures of incredible sunshine.
For some reason or another, the north of Iceland just seems to have better weather than Reykjavík. If you can spend some time up there during the summer solstice, you wouldn’t be mad about it.
The midnight sun is also at its strongest in the north. With an abundance of natural attractions waiting to be discovered, it’s an incredible place to visit in summer.
If you’re looking for the social, party and event capital of Iceland, this is it. The Icelanders have a word for when you’ve had a little too much fun at a party and wake up the following day feeling a little bit guilty. That word is djammviskubit which literally translates to ‘party regret.’
They also have a word for when the weather is so good, and the sun is shining so brightly that you almost feel it’s your duty to go to a terrace and enjoy the sunshine with friends. sólviskubit, and it basically means ‘sun regret.’
Icelanders are very susceptible to sólviskubit. On the first sunny day after winter, you will notice people finishing work early in record numbers and heading to the sunniest places in the city. People will find a spot at a rooftop bar and refuse to leave until the sun has gone away.
Reykjavik is always a lively city, but it seems to pulsate with laughter and prosperity in summer. If the weather is good, the entire town is in a great mood and wants to just laugh and have fun.
What Can You Do in Iceland During the Midnight Sun?
It sounds cliché, but when you come to Iceland during the midnight sun, the world is your oyster.
The long daylight hours make it possible to fit a lot into your day. The summer months are also the time when most places in the country are easily accessible to visitors. One of the best ways to do this is to take a self-drive tour.
You can explore to your heart’s content at your own pace and not have to worry about your accommodation and itinerary too much.
You can set off on your ideal journey being able to stop whenever you want to as you sample the natural site of one of the most fascinating countries on Earth.
What Events Take Place Under the Midnight Sun?
During the months of the midnight sun, Iceland comes alive with many events and festivals. There are even times throughout the summer where it seems like there’s an endless array of things to take part in.
Here is just a sample of some of the highlights in Iceland during the midnight sun.
Photo: Menningarnott Facebook
This event in Reykjavík is called Menningarnótt in Icelandic. It’s a day that celebrates culture and summer all in one.
It’s usually the first Saturday after August 18 and has been a favourite festival since its first year in 1996.
The day kicks off with the Reykjavík Marathon in the morning. After that, hundreds of thousands of locals descend into the downtown area to enjoy the sun, dance parties, beer gardens and family entertainment provided by the city. The evening ends with fireworks and a concert at the main stage close to the harbour.
The Reykjavík Pride Festival or Hinsegin Dagar is usually held in early August. The Saturday of the festival is the Pride Parade day, and it’s one of the most popular public events in the country.
Pride is a great way to witness the inclusive nature of the Icelandic people, and they are incredibly proud of this festival. The streets are taken over with colourful trucks filled with people in costumes celebrating the differences that make us all unique yet somehow the same.
This day also ends in a concert at the main stage, complete with a festival atmosphere and some partying in the city.
Reykjavik Fringe Festival
Photo: RVK Fringe Festival Facebook
This relatively new festival has become incredibly popular since its inaugural year in 2018. This is a week in July filled with performances, installations, visual art, theatre, stand up comedy and dance.
Local artists and visiting ones from all over the world take over many of Reykjavík’s theatres, art galleries and other venues to bring the city to life with some incredible experiences.
In past years the festival has sold a festival pass that allows the holder entry to every event on the program, and I highly recommend it.
Photo: Iceland Airwaves Facebook
Most people are familiar with the abundance of music festivals Iceland has to offer. Airwaves, Sonar, Secret Solstice and many others have made international headlines as things you need to do before you die, and it’s easy to see why.
Combining the incredible nature and attitudes of Iceland and its people with music just seems to go together like peas and carrots.
Can You See the Northern Lights & the Midnight Sun?
To see the Northern Lights, you need clear and dark skies. So the answer to this question is no, you can’t see the Northern Lights during the midnight sun. However, it doesn’t mean that you can’t see the Northern Lights in the summer months.
Often in Iceland, towards the end of summer (late August, early September) late in the evening, when there is darkness in the skies, the Northern Lights have been known to make their first appearances of the season.
So if you are in Iceland at this time, make sure you remember to look up when the sun has gone to sleep.
As a tourist destination, Iceland really does have something to offer travellers all year round. This is part of what makes it a spectacular tourist destination. If you have seen Iceland in one season, coming back to see it in another will always give you a completely new experience.
Take it from someone who came to experience a little bit of the old Icelandic magic and ended up staying much longer than I ever thought possible; being under the midnight sun is an experience you will never forget.
Call me crazy, but personally, I actually enjoy it so much that I can now sleep perfectly during the midnight sun, without the need to close the curtains.