Every year, thousands of tourists flock to Iceland to experience the Midnight Sun. For a short period over the summer, the days become so long and bright that the nighttime never really experiences total darkness.
But what actually is the Midnight Sun and when exactly does it take place in Iceland?
Read this complete guide carefully to find out everything you need to know about this unique natural phenomenon, where to go to see it and the events that are happening during this time.
What actually is the Midnight Sun?
The Midnight Sun is a natural phenomenon that only occurs in places that are north of the Arctic Circle or south of the Antarctic Circle. During this occurrence, the Sun remains visible for the entire 24-hours in a day. Even at its lowest point in the night, the Sun hovers above the horizon and never sets.
The number of Midnight Sun days per year depends entirely on the location and proximity to the nearest Pole. The closer the location to either the North or South Pole, the more Midnight Sun days it will have. Only a few countries witness the Midnight Sun every year, and those include Finland, Norway, Denmark, Sweden, northern Canada, Russia, Greenland, Alaska of the United States, and of course Iceland!
Why does the Midnight Sun Occur?
In simple terms, the Midnight Sun occurs because the earth’s axis tilts towards the sun during the summer and away from the sun in the winter. This also explains why the winters are so dark in Iceland, as whilst there is an abundance of sunlight in the summer there is also a shortage of it in the winter months.
To explain a little further, a year consists of 365 days because that’s how long it takes for the Earth to complete a full orbit around the sun. Whilst the Earth orbits the sun, it also rotates on its own tilted axis. This tilting of the axis, as well as the orbits of the earth around the sun, is the cause of the Midnight Sun as well as the four seasons we experience on Earth.
Summer occurs in the Northern Hemisphere between June and August, as this is when the North Pole is tilted towards the Sun. In the Southern Hemisphere, the summer occurs between December and February as that’s when the South Pole is tilted towards the Sun. The closer to the Poles you travel, the more extreme the contrast between dark winters and light summers.
Why does the Midnight Sun occur in Iceland?
The reason why the Midnight Sun occurs in Iceland is thanks to atmospheric refractions. Because, technically speaking, Iceland isn’t located entirely inside of the Arctic Circle. In fact, mainland Iceland is a few degrees south of the Arctic Circle, with only the northernmost point touching the official Arctic Circle line.
This northernmost point is the inhabited island of Grimsey, which is 40 kilometres (25 miles) off the northern coast of Iceland. However, Iceland still experiences the Midnight Sun, it just means that the contrast between winter and summer aren’t as extreme here as perhaps in Svalbard or northern Greenland.
The Spring in Iceland (March to April) and Autumn (September to October), are considered ‘normal’ by global standards, with the sun rising around 6 AM to 8 AM and setting between 6 PM and 8 PM. Therefore, although in theory, the Arctic Circle traces along the latitude of 66.56083° N, in reality, the Midnight Sun can be seen in places up to 90 kilometres (55 miles) from the circle.
The Best Time to See the Midnight Sun in Iceland
If you’re travelling to Iceland between May and August then you’ll get the chance to experience daylight at midnight. The sun actually sets just before midnight but rises again shortly after. The peak of Iceland’s Midnight Sun phenomenon occurs around the summer solstice which is normally on the 21st of June.
Can You See the Northern Lights during Summer in Iceland?
Iceland is known for many things, but perhaps one of its most well known natural phenomena are the spectacular Northern Lights on display here. Whilst the Northern Lights don’t ever really stop, they, unfortunately, can only really be seen when it’s completely dark. Because of the endless daylight Icelandic summers experience, you won’t see the Northern Lights in the summer.
Best Views During the Midnight Sun Season in Iceland
It’s hard not to miss the Midnight Sun if you’re visiting Iceland during May and August, however, there are a few places we recommend you check out to get the best views. A great way of experiencing these places is to rent a car and explore Iceland. Take a look at our guide on everything you need to know before renting your car in Iceland and having the adventure of a lifetime.
Kirkjufell is a mountain situated on the Snaefellsnes peninsula in northern Iceland. It’s a popular destination for those looking to get the perfect shot of the Northern Lights, but it also makes for a stunning setting for the Midnight Sun. The warm colours of the sun will light up this 463-meter tall mountain along with the calm waterfall that can be found in walking distance of Kirkjufell.
Sun Voyager, Reykjavik
If you’re in Reykjavik and don’t want to travel far then we recommend heading over to the waterfront by Sólfarið. Here you can find the spectacular Sun Voyager sculpture, which also makes for a great subject for your Midnight Sun picture.
Another brilliant view of the Midnight Sun is at Perlan, the futuristic-looking building that’s situated on top of a hill overlooking Reykjavik. From up there you can experience an unforgettable show of colour and light on display over Iceland’s capital during the Midnight Sun.
Located near Jökulsárlón glacial lagoon in southeast Iceland, you’ll find the famous Diamond Beach. The name comes from the chunks of clear ice that wash up on the black sand beach. What makes this an incredible place to view the Midnight Sun is the beautiful warm hues of red and yellow light that reflects these diamond-like ice pieces.
If you’d like to experience the Midnight Sun in action then Glymur waterfall in Hvalfjörður is the place to go. This waterfall, which is Iceland’s second-tallest, has a height of 198 meters.
It’s about a three and a half hour hike to get here, which means this viewpoint is only recommended for those who have a reasonable level of fitness. The higher altitude means you get an amazing view of the Midnight Sun reflecting off the magnificent long waterfall.
This stunning waterfall is about a two-hour drive from Reykjavik, located in South Iceland. It’s a great place to see the Midnight Sun as this waterfall has a drop of 60 meters, eventually falling into a pond.
Unlike other waterfalls in Iceland where you can see it from the front, Seljalandsfoss Waterfall offers the unique experience of viewing the Midnight Sun from behind the waterfall. There is a cave which you can walk to where you’ll be able to watch the sunlight beam through the falling water.
Best Experiences to Do During the Midnight Sun in Iceland
Go Whale Watching
Where else would you have the opportunity to go on a whale safari whilst experiencing the Midnight Sun? This is a truly remarkable experience where you get the chance to get up and close and personal with these majestic marine mammals. If you’re staying in Reykjavik then you can book your whale watching during the Midnight Sun tour here. For 3.5 hours you’ll cruise around the endless night observing white-beaked dolphins, harbour porpoises, minke whales and even humpback whales!
Venture Onto the Golden Circle
Regardless of when you’re visiting Iceland, The Golden Circle is a must-see. However, if you happen to be here from June to July then why not experience it during the Midnight Sun? This journey will take you to Thingvellir National Park, Haukadalur geothermal area, Gullfoss “The Golden Waterfall” and Secret Lagoon.
When you go to watch a sunset you usually have to make a sacrifice on what setting you’ll want to be in. Now, imagine watching the geysers shoot water 30 meters during a sunset, or watching the power of Gullfoss whilst the sun is going down - the amazing thing about seeing the Golden Circle during the Midnight Sun is that you’ll get to watch the whole journey on a sunset. You can book your special tour here.
Go for a Swim in one of Iceland’s lagoons
What makes Iceland so unique is the countless geothermal pools around the country. Many stay open for longer during the Midnight Sun. For example, the Blue Lagoon remains open until 11 p.m. from May 31st to June 27th. Then from June 28th to August 18th, it remains open till midnight. That means you can enjoy the panoramic sky views of the endless summer nights whilst relaxing your body in a geothermal pools. This experience is great for those who are in Iceland for a short layover, as the Blue Lagoon is only a short drive from Keflavik Airport.
Join a Marathon Run
If you’re feeling awake from the sunlight anyway, why not use the energy to go for a run? The SUZUKI Midnight Sun Run is a marathon run that has been going on since 1994. The trail takes place in Reykjavik and offers half marathon (21.1 km), 10 km and 5 km options for running enthusiasts.
Experience the Midnight Sun Music Festival
There’s more to Iceland than Volcanoes and Glaciers, in fact, music has been a big part of Icelandic culture. Home to big music stars like Bjork and the band Of Monsters and Men, Iceland also hosts the annual Secret Solstice Music Festival. For 96 hours of pure sunlight, from June 21st to June 23rd, you can immerse yourself into a range of music acts whilst enjoying the peak of the Midnight Sun. Every year this festival displays both internationally renowned musicians as well as brilliant emerging talents.
Enjoy Iceland's Nightlife
Leaving a bar to find sunlight usually means you’ve stayed until the early hours. That’s not the case during the summer months in Iceland since the sun never really sets. If you’re looking for a truly unique experience then why not join one of the fun and knowledgeable guides and take the ultimate Reykjavik pub crawl?
Rent a Car and Explore Iceland
Having the freedom to explore Iceland’s spectacular landscapes at the ease of your own rented car is something everyone should experience. Travelling late in the evening or at night means the roads will be emptier than throughout the day. Often this means you’ll have the roads to yourself, with the magical twilight colours glistening in the sky above you. Take a look at our guide on everything you need to know before renting a car in Iceland here.
Go for a Hike
If you visit Iceland in the summer you won’t be limited by the limited hours of daylight like in the winter. The possibilities of hiking trails are endless in Iceland. If you’d prefer to join a tour then we can recommend some fantastic hikes where you can enjoy the best views of the island. Whether you’d like to join an ice climbing and glacier hiking day tour from Reykjavík, or a south coast and glacier hiking tour on Solheimajokull glacier, there’s something for everyone.
Iceland’s Summer Solstice and Winter Solstice
Summer Solstice in Iceland
Did you know that the old Norse calendar only had two seasons; winter and summer? It’s easy to see why in Iceland as the contrast between the long dark nights and the 24-hours of daylight is quite stark. The Summer Solstice in Iceland is a celebration of the longest day in the year. According to Norse folklore, Summer Solstice was when the Norse god of light, Baldur, was sacrificed. During this night, legend has it that it’s one of the most magical and powerful. So powerful, in fact, that seals are said to turn into humans and cows are able to talk, according to folklore. Throughout Icelandic history, the Summer Solstice marked an important time in the year when the chores of the spring were over and people from around Iceland would flock to Thingvellir to gather for the annual Althing parliament meetings and celebrations. The Summer Solstice was also a reminder that from here on out the days will get shorter again and that it was slowly time to start preparing for the endless cold nights.
Over the years, Christinaity become more popular in Iceland and June 24th was eventually named Jónsmessa (St. John‘s Mass), which was named after John the Baptist. Today, the Summer Solstice is still celebrated by Icelanders, but perhaps with a little less mystic folklore surrounding the event. On the longest day of the year, the sun sets at 12:03 AM and rises again at 2:56 AM. The sky never actually goes completely dark, and instead you can expect to witness that golden glow you get during a sunset, except for much longer!
Winter Solstice in Iceland
Winter Solstice occurs six months after the Summer solstice, on the 21st of December and it marks the shortest day of the year in Iceland. It’s during this time that the Earth’s Northern Hemisphere is positioned furthest from the Sun. In Reykjavik the sun will rise at 11:22 AM and then set again 4-hours later at 3:29 PM. If you’re on the island of Grimsey the days are even shorter - where the sun rises at 12:04 and sets at 2:16! However, even the darkest of days come with their benefits as it’s a brilliant time to experience the Northern Lights (something that’s close to impossible during the summer!).
For the first settlers of Iceland, Winter Solstice celebrations were an important part of the winter as it marked a new year and that the long dark days would start getting shorter again. The celebration was also known as Jol and was celebrated on the 21st of December. Christmas is still referred to as Yule today but the date was moved to the 25th of December due to the Christian influence.
Travel Tips For Visiting Iceland During Midnight Sun and in Summer
How to Sleep During the Midnight Sun in Iceland
Whilst the prospect of having eternal sunshine for an entire 24-hours sounds fantastic, you’ll probably also want to get some sleep. As a result of the abundance in light, the production of the human hormone that is responsible for making us tired, melatonin, is delayed. Which means, the body never quite shuts down from the day and you won’t get the same ‘time for bed’ feeling you during a normal evening. However, with the following tips you’ll be able to manage the Midnight Sun like a local:
- Wear a comfortable sleeping mask that covers your eyes completely whilst you sleep. This is perhaps the most basic and obvious tip, however, it goes a long way!
- Maintain a normal evening routine. Two to three hours before you plan on going to sleep, try and mimic the same conditions as if it were a dark night. Close your curtains to reduce the brightness, turn off as many lights as possible and try to get your environment as dark as possible.
- Wear dark sunglasses if you are camping, or are in the outdoors during the evening time. By limiting the amount of light your eyes absorb you’ll be able to at least feel less awake.
What to wear during the Midnight Sun?
Although the days and nights are filled with eternal sunshine, Iceland never really gets hot. The average temperature in Reykjavik in June is between 8° and 13°C. So, although you won’t be needing your thick winter clothes anymore, make sure to pack a light jumper to comfortably watch the Midnight Sun. The summer months in Iceland are a magical time to visit, and many Icelanders enjoy the endless outdoor activities available. If you’re planning on going on hikes or walks then we recommend wearing comfortable walking shoes, shorts and a long sleeved top.
Renting a Car in Iceland for the Midnight Sun
If you’re up for the ultimate Iceland experience then we recommend renting your own car. A few tips for staying safe on Icelandic roads. First, to rent a car in Iceland you’ll need an international drivers license and be at least 18 years of age. Next, traffic drives on the right side of the road and road rules are very similar to other countries. There are generally three speed limits, these include; City (31mph/50kph); Open roads (49mph/80kph); Highways (55mph/90kph). Lastly, not all gas stations are open 24/7, so if you’re driving at night to explore the Midnight Sun then make sure to fuel up before heading out. If you’re on a budget then take a look at where to get the cheapest in Iceland.