Searching for some fun festivals in Iceland? Iceland can sometimes come across as a sleepy country from top to bottom. Between a small population, remote location, and a very rustic, folky feel, it doesn’t seem like the kind of place with a colorful hit list of festivals – but you’d be surprised. Iceland is rich in musical, culinary, and artistic talent, much of which is steeped in ancient lore, tradition, and storytelling.
This is a place where every Iceland festival will have you yearning to stay just a little longer, and immerse yourself fully in a contemporary time borne out of homage to the past. If this list of the most popular festivals in Iceland doesn’t have you researching airfares, then nothing else will!
Best Festivals in Iceland! (Month by Month)
1. Dark Music Days Festival (Late January into early February)
When the daytime becomes as dark as it does in Iceland, many of us would need something to lift our spirits a bit. The name of this Icleand festival says it all; The Dark Music Days Festival is a five-or-so-day festival spanning from the last few days of January into early February, taking place over the darkest days of the year in Iceland.
The long-running Iceland festival, now in its third decade, is a key cultural platform for national artists just emerging onto the musical scene, whose music uses different combinations of sound techniques to create a unique and contemporary sound while remaining distinctly Icelandic. Some international artists are welcomed as well.
Since there are so many artists across several days, you can either purchase tickets to individual performances (this is great if there are just a few shows you are particularly interested in) or festival passes that get you admitted to every festival performance on the roster (check the website in November or December for early-bird passes).
Location: Harpa Concert Hall, Reykjavík
2. Winter Lights Festival (February 6 – 9)
The Dark Music Days Festival isn’t the only gathering that revolves around the daylight situation (or lack thereof) of Iceland’s winters. The Winter Lights Festival, taking place in the first week of February every year, was conceived to celebrate the gradually increasing daylight (and therefore, longer-feeling days) that begins after many months of darkness. Among the features at this important festival are light installations, cultural performances, and outdoor activities (so dress warm, because it’s still cold!).
All events are free of charge, except for the Northern Lights Run, but this is one of the best events included in the festival, so don’t let the ticket charge deter you from participating. This is a four to five km walk or run through the city, as the streets are flooded with colored lighting and projections on buildings. You, as a participant, will also be decked out in illuminated merch to wear or use during the event!
3. DesignMarch (late March)
Innovation is the name of the game for Iceland’s DesignMarch festival. Taking place in the last half of March every year, DesignMarch is a showcase for creative and inventive design in a huge array of categories, such as fashion, architecture, and product design (like furniture!).
While there are over a hundred displays, booths, and installations from artists far and wide, there is also a roster of DesignTalks (think TEDTalks style) given by seasoned industry professionals and those who have worked in design communities for decades, offering fascinating insight into contemporary design as it relates to cultural and economic progression.
This is a great chance to see some of the more modernistic aspects of Icelandic culture that are less “center stage” when it comes to Iceland’s global perception. You might come for the fjords and distinctive natural scenery, but there’s all that and more to see when you visit Reykjavík!
4. Sumardagurinn fyrsti // First Day of Summer Festival (end of April)
The weather in Iceland seems to be a leading reason for many of their festivals, whether it’s something to take your mind off the inescapable daytime darkness or celebrating the arrival of sunlight during normal hours. Sumardagurinn fyrsti is no exception. It is a Iceland festival celebrating the start of summer in Iceland.
The festival is celebrated annually on the first Thursday following April 18. According to the Old Norse calendar, this was from a time when the year was divided into only two seasons – winter and summer (in case you wondered why the ‘first day of summer’ is celebrated so early).
This occasion is celebrated nationally, though the highest concentration of events will happen in the capital city. Expect street parades, musical performances, and even sporting events happening in Reykjavík and other big cities around the country.
Location: all over Iceland, but largely in Reykjavík
5. Saga Fest (late May)
This is one of the more unique festivals in Iceland. Taking place in Selfoss, an hour away from Reykjavík, The Saga Fest is dedicated to connecting people to their earth and bridging communities together. One thing that is heavily emphasized is the lack of hierarchies; participants, organizers, artists and performers are on equal footing to make the festival happen, and often work together to bring the festival to life.
This is a festival focusing on sustainability, community, and ecology. Events include dance parties inside geodesic domes, interactive art displays, impromptu jam sessions (participants are encouraged to Bring Your Own Instrument), workshops, open mic storytelling, and huge community bonfires.
Location: Selfoss (1 hour southeast of Reykjavík)
6. Viking Festival (mid-June)
There are a ton of festivals in Iceland in June (including a Color Run, Sailor’s Day & Sea Festival, and a huge arts festival in Reykjavík), so it was hard to settle on just one. But we couldn’t pass up a chance to talk about the Viking Festival. This festival is pretty much what it sounds like: a celebration of Viking culture that will take you back in time a thousand years.
While there are all the usual suspects, like demonstrations of ships, food, handicrafts, and storytelling, the most popular feature of the festival are the reenacted battle scenes by actors. As a festival-goer, you can learn to throw axes and spears, and there are even mock battles recreated for kids, who can also participate (the ‘regular’ ones tend to be pretty scary and realistic.)
Location: Hafnarfjörður, Iceland
7. Siglufjörður Folk Festival (early July)
We haven’t covered many music festivals on this list of Iceland’s popular festivals, but here is another one worth noting. The Siglufjörður Folk Music Festival has grown since 1999 to become a five-day affair, but it hasn’t outgrown the small town of only 1200 (Siglufjörður) in which it takes place. The modest town is the northernmost inhabited place in Iceland, so it’s not the easiest to access, but we promise you won’t be disappointed. This music festival focuses on Icelandic and Scandinavian traditional music and folk dancing.
There are craft workshops and folklore storytelling sessions. You can even take a traditional folk dance class! The backdrop of Siglufjörður also offers some of the most beautiful views in the country, with fjords and mountains surrounding the area, so there’s no better place to immerse yourself in Icelandic musical culture.
8. Fiskidagurinn mikli (mid-August)
When the Great Fish Day was first underway, it lasted only a single day, but popularity over the years made it flourish, and the festival is now a multi-day festival starting on a Wednesday evening and wrapping up Sunday night. The main draw of the festival is the vast seafood buffet, a whopping eight meters long and serving up haddock, cod, salmon, and all the freshest fish and seafood from the area. Try the plokkfiskur, a fish stew, for an authentic taste of Iceland.
There’s more than just food; fjord cruises, street theatre, horseback riding and more is also available during the festival. Perhaps best of all is the prolific whale activity in the area, making whale sightings fairly common but no less exhilarating. If you have time to hop on a whale watching tour, you’ll probably head to bed that night with some fantastic memories of the day.
9. Réttir: the annual rounding-up of the sheep (all throughout September)
If you really want to feel like a local, make your way to rural areas of Iceland in September for Rettir. Every year during this month, farmers will take several days to weeks to travel out to the mountains and valleys (usually on horseback) and round up the sheep they have left to graze freely throughout the summer months. This does require some level of skill on a horse, but there are many ways to help, even if you don’t know how to ride.
While this isn’t necessarily a festival, it happens in such a high volume throughout farming communities, and more and more tourists and travelers are being willingly recruited to help round up the sheep. This collaboration gives it a distinct gathering-like feel – especially when you factor in the Rétaball, a celebration after successfully bringing in the flocks. There’s a homemade meal, traditional song and dance, and the drinking of Brennivín, a type of Icelandic schnapps.
Location: all over rural Iceland
10. Reykjavík International Film Festival (Late September)
You’ve heard of the US Academy Awards, no doubt – well, the Reykjavík International Film Festival is the Icelandic equivalent. One of the largest and most culturally diverse events to take place in the whole country, this is an entirely volunteer-run event spanning 11 days. You can, of course, come to watch new releases in indie film, but there are also panel discussions, exhibitions, and even oddly-located film showings – like inside directors’ homes (how cool would that be?).
For passage into every film screening, it’s about 15,000 ISK. The film selection focuses on emerging directors and screenwriters from over 40 countries, all vying for the Golden Puffin (essentially, the Oscar of Iceland).
The Lighting of the Imagine Peace Tower (October 9)
Designed by world-famous artist Yoko Ono, the Imagine Peace Tower is a light-art installation commemorating the life of John Lennon. Resembling a well, multiple beams of light combine to form one beacon that ascends beyond sight up into the clouds. The endlessly varied weather means that every year that the beacon is lit, it looks a little bit different. The well-like base of the beacon has “Imagine peace” translated into two dozen languages.
Yoko Ono chose Iceland as the location of the art piece due to its peacefulness (it has no military forces to speak of and has been ranked for nearly a decade, consecutively, as the most peaceful country in the world). Though a simple event over very quickly, its message is timeless, and Ono hopes to create a ripple effect through the demonstration that will stay with you and encourage all viewers to be advocates for peace in the years to come.
Location: Viðey Island, north of Reykjavík
Iceland Noir (mid-November)
Though this is a pretty new festival (having only started in 2013), it’s already proven to be quite popular, as the cult genre of true crime grows and becomes more mainstream. This is a pretty short event lasting only two days, but it has grown from a single day, so it could become longer as the years go on, particularly with how many people are interested in true crime and crime fiction.
The festival includes panel discussions, dramatic readings of fiction, and the best part: the Crime Disco on the Saturday night of the festival.
Yule Lads Bath (December)
This is a strange one, but bear with us. The Yule Lads are the 13 sons of Gryla and Leppaludi, trolls that live in the Myvatn region. Every year, the sons take a bath in the Myvatn Nature Baths (similar to the Blue Lagoon for which Iceland is famous). Guests can accompany the ‘trolls’ (actors dressed head to toe in costumes) into the springs, though many of the brothers are grumpy due to dislike of water!
This is definitely a bit of a silly festival, but it’s good fun and a longstanding tradition in Iceland. Plus, a hot soak is bound to feel just heavenly when the weather outside is so cold!
Plan Your Iceland Trip!
Book a camper!
A campervan is the best way to get around Iceland on a budget. While a camper is slightly more expensive than a car, you can sleep and cook in it! Meaning you don’t have to search for any hotels or deal with expensive restaurants in Iceland. Plus you get to sleep in nature every night and still use a heater if you wish! If you want to travel with a Happy Campers van like we did (and you should they are the BEST!) make sure to read our full review. You can easily book using this link, but make sure to book well in advance during high season.
When is the Best Time to Visit Iceland?
In my opinion, the best times to visit Iceland are June, July, September, October, and December – but it all depends on what you want! June-August is high season, but it is also summer in Iceland and when you will find the most pleasant temperatures. It’s also when you will experience the most amount of daylight and get the most of our of your trip. December is great because it is winter, you stand a strong chance of seeing the Northern Lights, it’s low season, and the temperatures haven’t gone to complete freezing yet.
However my personal favorite time to travel Iceland is during the fall months. It’s during September and October where you will see the leaves change vibrant colors around the country. Temperatures are still mild, and tourism is slowing down. You can see the full month by month breakdown for Iceland travel here.
Things to do in Iceland
There are literally so many things to do in Iceland I could write a book about it. Unfortunately, I don’t have that kind of time so I’m showing you the ultimate Iceland bucket list here. Some things that are a must do are go to an Iceland swimming pool, soak in a natural hot spring, stand under a waterfall, and see the Northern Lights.
Photography Gear for Iceland
A high-quality camera is an important packing item for Iceland if you want some great shots while on your vacation. We travel with our Fujifilm Camera and 200mm telephoto lens. Drones have sort of taken Iceland by storm, and can capture fantastic footage as well. We had our DJI Mavic in Iceland, but make sure to use your drone responsibly as many locals are getting increasingly annoyed at the sight of them.
Whatever you do do not forget a tripod for Iceland – especially if you plan on photographing the Northern Lights. You’ll need one for the long exposures.
Is Iceland Expensive?
Iceland is mega expensive. One of the most expensive countries in the entire world actually. Make sure that you plan accordingly and in line with your budget. It’s certainly possible to do Iceland on a budget of less than $100 if you are camping, cooking all your own basic meals, and traveling by public transport or score a good deal on a rental. The good news is that nature is free, and you’ll be able to see Iceland’s beauty without paying for it. So yes – it’s completely doable to have an affordable Iceland vacation.
If you plan on drinking be sure to pick yo duty free alcohol before you leave the airport. A pint of beer can easily run you $15-$20!
Helpful Iceland Travel Tips
- Icelanders speak Icelandic, but every single person I came across spoke English.
- The local currency is the Icelandic króna (ISK). ATM’s are found throughout the country
- Have I mentioned Iceland is expensive as hell? Well, it is! Save money by eating in and cooking for yourself. Check out our Iceland grocery store guide for all the tips!
- Iceland is one of the safest countries in the world; however, it’s always important to use common sense when walking alone at night.
- Tipping is not customary in Iceland.
- Iceland has strong internet infrastructure and you should be able to easily stay connected.
- To feel more at home we use Airbnb you can check out some tips and read more about getting an Airbnb coupon code here. Or just take this coupon for your first stay!
- Sometimes it’s nice just to have a real book in your hands when traveling. We recommend Lonely Planet to get you through those wireless nights.
What to Pack for Iceland
Nothing will ruin your Iceland honeymoon more than getting hurt and not having insurance. We don’t travel without travel insurance and neither should you. You never know what can happen in a foreign country and it’s best to be prepared. World Nomads provides good short term coverage.
You’re going to need something to carry your belongings in while you’re traveling around the world. Even if you’re not doing extensive hikes you need at least something small for day trips. My favorite daypacks are from Camelbak. You can see all our other backpack recommendations below:
Make sure to protect your eyes from the sun when you’re traveling. There are a lot of options for sunglasses and everyone should own at least a pair. It’s best to make sure they do have UV protection for the health of your eyes.
We made our first investment in quality polarized sunglasses with a pair of SMITH Optics Lowdown 2. Truthfully, not everyone needs to invest $150 in a pair of sunglasses, but they do make a huge difference from the crappy $10 ones.
I ALWAYS have a down jacket with me when I’m traveling in the winter, fall, or even spring. They aren’t just good for hikes, but doing anything outside.
Down jackets pack up light and small so there is no reason NOT to have one in your bag. Seriously it could save your life in a bad situation. We wrote a whole post on our favorites (hint –Feathered Friends, Arc’Teryx Cerium LT Hooded Jacket, Patagonia Down Sweater, REI Coop Down Jacket)
Goretex Rain Jacket
We’re building up a collection of shell jackets. We always carry one in our pack and they’ve come in handy many times. Weather around the world can be iffy in October, so it’s best to be prepared. They are lightweight, durable, packable, waterproof, and windproof and really a great travel rain jacket. We have a bunch of different shell jackets after several years, but my favorite right now is from Arc’teryx.
Any jacket can do the job, but the top dollar ones will hold up and really help in inclement weather.
I love real books, but for traveling it can be easier to carry a lighter and more compact item like a Kindle. Plus, then you can download new books on the go!
Please consider purchasing a travel water bottle before your trip! We hate to see one time use plastic bottles ending up in the ocean. The tap water is so good here – seriously please don’t be one of those tourists that buys plastic water bottles. It’s a waste of money and plastic!
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