Most visitors know that Northern Lights can be seen in this latitude, but not many have heard about the Midnight Sun in Iceland. As it can affect your trip, here's all you need to know about it.
Summer visitors to Iceland experience the midnight sun, a phenomenon that only exists north of the Arctic Circle or, in the southern hemisphere, south of the Antarctic Circle. That’s right – you don’t need to be at the North Pole to experience it. Iceland just qualifies – although the mainland sits a few degrees south of that magic line, the Arctic Circle does pass through Grímsey Island, situated 40 kilometers (25 miles) off the country’s north coast.
The Arctic Circle’s latitude is about 66.5°N, while the Icelandic capital Reykjavik is located at 64.1° N. So even though most of Iceland isn’t right inside the Arctic Circle, you’ll still experience the midnight sun phenomenon. Throughout the country, the sun sets after midnight for much of June. Sunrise is around 3 o’clock in the morning, giving an official day length of something in the region of 21 hours. That means extra time for a road trip with your rental car.
But in between sunset and sunrise, it never really gets dark. Instead, you’ll experience what’s known as civil twilight. That’s a scientific term, coined for the period where the sun is a few degrees below the horizon. In practical terms, that means on clear days there’s enough light to be able to see to do most things outside. And if you’re indoors trying to get some sleep, you’re going to need blackout curtains and an eye mask.
The good news is that means there’s plenty of extra time to fit in your sightseeing, and when there’s as much to see as there is in Iceland, that’s very good news indeed. Whether you opt for a tour of the Golden Circle, a late-night soak in the famous Blue Lagoon or a hike through Iceland’s marvelous countryside liberally scattered with waterfalls, there are plenty of ways to enjoy those bonus hours of summer. Be prepared to stay up late and wake up early – you can sleep when you get home!
One thing you won’t experience if you’re visiting Iceland in June is the Northern Lights. To be able to see this incredible natural phenomenon, you need a cloudless sky, solar activity and above all, the sky to be dark. It’s this last requirement which is the deal breaker. If you’ve put the Aurora Borealis on your Icelandic bucket list, you’ll need to come back between September and April when the Northern Lights are much more likely to be visible.
But before you rule out a visit to Iceland in the summer months, let us tell you what you can do. As with most Arctic Circle destinations, midsummer is a festival season. After the polar nights of Iceland’s long, dark winter, it’s time to get out and celebrate. There’s a real sense of joy as people throw off their winter shackles and have some fun. And because of that, it’s a great time to be in Iceland as a visitor.
17th June is Icelandic Independence Day. The Republic of Iceland was established in 1944, marking an end to Danish rule. But the independence movement was a slow burner, and due, in no small part to one Jón Sigurðsson. He was a lawyer and it was he who resurrected the Alþingi. In 1874, a few years before his death, Denmark granted Iceland a constitution and limited home rule. On 1st December 1918, Iceland finally won sovereignty, recognized as an independent state under the Danish-Icelandic Act of Union which expired at the end of 1943. A vote was held and the overwhelming majority opted for Iceland to become an independent republic. On 17th June 1944, Sveinn Björnsson was elected as Iceland’s first president at Þingvellir and the modern country of Iceland was established. The date was no accident – it was chosen as it was the birthday of Jón Sigurðsson, who features on the 500 kroner note to this day.
Iceland’s biggest festival is Secret Solstice, which markets itself as the Midnight Sun Festival. It’s one of the big three music festivals which take place in the country, and the only one of its size to be staged in the summer, though there are smaller regional festivals during the summer period. (The others, if you’re wondering, are Sónar, which this year lit up the Harpa Concert Hall in April, and Iceland Airwaves, which is scheduled for November.)This year, Secret Solstice is being held from 21st to 23rd June in Reykjavik. The line up features plenty of top international acts, including the Black Eyed Peas, Robert Plant, Pussy Riot and Rita Ora. This eclectic mix is completed by some great Icelandic names too. If you watched this year’s Eurovision Song Contest, you can’t fail to have noticed the inimitable Hatari, whose message spans politics, art and music. If your Icelandic music knowledge begins and ends with Björk and Sigur Rós, then it’s time for an update, as there are a whole host of Icelandic groups waiting to strut their stuff.
Though Icelanders celebrate the summer solstice between June 20th and 22nd, the 24th is a special occasion too. This is when Jónsmessa takes place. Named after John the Baptist, it’s a night when it’s believed that certain creatures have extraordinary powers. According to superstition, cows are able to speak, seals become human and heavy stones float to the top of ponds. Elves try to tempt humans into their world and will do so if you wait at a crossroads where all four roads lead to a church. That isn’t generally considered to be a good idea, and neither for that matter is the custom of stripping naked and bathing in the dew.
Runners of all ages take to the streets of Reykjavik on the evening of June 20th (in 2020, the event will take place on June 25th) for the Midnight Sun Run, an event which is accredited to the Icelandic Athletic Federation. Three race lengths are offered: the full half marathon, a 10K run and a 5K aimed at families. It’s a fun way to experience the midnight sun and one that’s a little different. Regardless of the distance, you sign up for, the race begins at Engjavegur street in Reykjavik and finishes up at Laugardular, the hot springs valley where it was once the custom to take your laundry. These days, the hot springs serve a different purpose and the chance to take a dip in thermal baths to soothe those aching muscles isn’t something most places can offer after a long-distance run. It’s just another example of an Icelandic twist on a popular activity.
The only thing Iceland can’t guarantee if you come during the Midnight Sun season is the sun itself. The country’s notoriously fickle weather means that sun in Iceland is a highly prized commodity. It’s one that cannot be relied upon, though of course, you’ll have the best chance of good weather if you time your visit for the summer months. But even if you don’t enjoy blue skies for the whole of your visit, a chance to experience the Midnight Sun in Iceland is something you won’t forget in a hurry.