September In Iceland: The Best Time to Visit

Autumn in Iceland

From the Puffin Patrol to Réttir festivals all around the island, to berry foraging and prime northern lights sightings, a September trip to Iceland offers plenty of excitement to pack into the shorter days of autumn.

In September, the weather is still relatively warm… by Icelandic standards and there are still plenty of sunny days with clear skies. This means that September evenings in Iceland are optimal for northern lights viewing.

Depending on the weather, certain parts of the island may be ill-advised to visit in September, especially if you don’t have the correct type of car rental or winter equipment. The bus stops running to the Highlands from Hella around September 15th. If you’re hoping to add a Highlands trek to your autumn itinerary, please watch the weather. It can snow there really any time of year and you don’t want to be caught unprepared. Note that the bus stops running to the Highlands from Hella around September 15th.

The Northern Lights

Q-Tip: No matter where you are, the Icelandic weather site will become your best friend. It is incredibly accurate (unlike your phone’s weather app) and has an entire northern lights section that will show you cloud coverage and aurora borealis activity hour by hour. On a scale from 0 to 9, a 3 or a 4 is the norm. While a 3 is apparently “low” activity, I saw some absolutely insane ribbons of green and pink that left me in a childlike state of bliss for hours.

If possible, don’t use Reykjavik as your base, especially if you’re hoping to see the northern lights. Before I met my Icelandic boyfriend, I had visited Iceland solo. As I’m both cheap and underpaid, I had to use Reykjavik as my HQ and chose an overnight winter tour of Iceland to experience. I was hoping to catch a glimpse of the northern lights but here’s the thing: the cloud cover is extreme in the winter. People that pay to go on northern lights excursions from Reykjavik have to be damn lucky to see them in winter. Because: A. You have to spend some time driving out of the city B. your tour guides are trying to find a place with less cloud coverage and C. as it probably isn’t an overnight trip, you only have… what, two or three hours to stare up at the skies? And it’s damn cold!

Rent a Place Outside of the City to Experience the Northern Lights

On September 23rd of this year, David and I were driving back home and caught a tiny hint of green in the sky at 10 pm. We pulled up to the house and I tried to capture it with my iPhone (btw, you can with iPhone X and up) but it was brighter in the picture. By 10:45, streaks of pink and green were dancing across the sky so bright that it was actually pretty frightening. It’s so alien! Almost every night thereafter, we saw a fantastic display of the northern lights.

iphone northern lights shot
Shot with my iPhone X

Today is December 11th and as I’m looking at Iceland’s aurora forecast, there is very light activity. There are both high and low lying clouds covering the whole island. This isn’t really me trying to deter you from doing the tour if you are visiting in the winter, it’s just that everyone I’ve personally known hasn’t had a sighting. Instead, explore some ice caves, ride a horse, spend your money in other ways, especially if you’re staying in Reykavik.

iPhone Northern Lights Shot
One more shot with my iPhone. Wild Northern Lights in September!

I understand that rental cars are costly but as far as this list goes, Reykjavik is ill-suited. There are busses that are able to get you from one place to the next and run no matter the weather. If you’re considering public transport out of the city, you can easily make it to either Vik or Hveragerði. Vik is close to Black Sand Beach and about an hour from Diamond Beach and the glacier. Hveragerði is 45 minutes from Reykjavik and has a ton of awesome thermal activity. You’ll see the smoke as you descend the winding mountain road into the town. You can read more about both of the towns here.

The Réttir (Sheep Round-ups)

Rettir, Iceland

Early to mid-September in Iceland welcomes the annual réttirs, or rounding up of sheep. Sheep are let out in the late spring to roam the countryside and are rounded up and sorted by tag in the fall, ushered by horseback riders to their owner’s farms. There is a king of the mountain, yes, a king. of the mountain. Who is in charge of each réttir in a designated area.

There are réttirs around Reykjavik (a minimum 20-minute drive) but for a unique experience and to explore a cool town, I say head to Hveragerði. Hveragerði is 45 minutes from Reykjavik along a bus route and the Rettir pen is at the base of the Reykjadalur Hot Spring Thermal River hike amongst thermal steam. So cool! We caught sight of three Rettirs in the Selfoss and Flúðir area. Note that Selfoss is just a 10 to 15-minute drive from Hveragerði so you’ll have more options in this direction as well.

Rettir COVID 2020
COVID rules: at least two sheep between you and another person!

Réttir Info

While I dearly wish I were the réttir expert, I am not. This was my first year experiencing it (COVID year) and though David has friends that assist in a Rettir in the Westfjords, he was a city kid and never participated himself.

Here is the site that lists the réttirs around the island with a map of them here. Note the date and time. If you’re unsure, go to the tourist center and ask about it as the times and dates change from year to year. Typical réttirs (outside of the pandemic) welcome volunteers and curious onlookers to celebrate once all of the sheep are rounded into the pens. If you are a halfway decent horseback rider, you may be able to participate! There’s a high chance that they’ll give you a boring job but hey, I’d take it! Riding Iceland arranges réttir tours.

Rettir Roundup Selfoss

Berjamór (Berry Foraging)

Come late August and through the month of September in Iceland, you’ll see families foraging along the fjords, in public parks, or out in low brush pastures. Foraging for berries aka berjamór is an Icelandic tradition lost on our generation though it seems to be seeing a great resurgence in recent years. Here’s a site that gives you some tips on where to go. Really, anywhere there is a low brush you are likely to find berries. We went to Hveragerði, on the side of the road near the Reykjadalur Hot Spring Thermal River parking lot. This was a grade-A berry-picking spot and highly recommended. There’s a biking and running trail that winds through the brush so you don’t hurt the plants!

Berry foraging, Iceland
We filled three more containers until we felt we had enough. I made all sorts of fun desserts!

You can make bake some delicious blueberry and bilberry (more pungent & darker in color) muffins with them, a homemade Skyr cake, jam, or easy no-churn ice cream, sorbet or… well, you can just eat them straight! These are just some fun things I did with our berries. The muffins were probably the best idea as they made for an easy, packable snack.

The Puffin Patrol – Westman Islands (Vestmannaeyjar)

I wrote a post about the heartwarming Puffin Patrol. Puffins can be spotted in the summer months in Iceland but come September, the majority have left land… though I did see two to three stragglers. Mid to late September (say the second and third week) in Iceland is your best opportunity to see pufflings aka baby puffins in the Westman Islands. This is when pufflings leave the nest. They set out in the early evening by the light of the moon. Oftentimes though, pufflings will become confused by the town’s evening lights and fly straight into the center of Heimaey.

The Puffin Patrol are the children who live in Heimaey dedicated to saving pufflings from cars, cats, or any other impending danger. When the pufflings have been injured, they bring the poor little guys to rehab at Sealife Trust. Sealife Trust made waves (ha?) this past year for opening the open water sanctuary in Klettsvík Bay for the two beluga whales, Little Grey and Little White, who had been in captivity in Shanghai their entire lives.

You can visit the Sealife Trust to see the pufflings that have been saved and ones that are permanent residents due to some bad scarring. You can also get a tour of the open sea sanctuary and visit the two whales. It’s worth a visit, in my opinion, and the admission fee goes back to helping the sea animals of the Westman Islands.

A Unique Icelandic Tradition Based on Conservation Efforts

While children may bring the pufflings to the Sealife Trust, you’ll also see kids setting pufflings free with their parents. They do this close to the ocean or even on the golf course (which is as close to the ocean as one could comfortably be). The center mentioned above is absolutely worth the visit when going to the Westman Islands. To keep up with the pufflings on the Westman Islands, follow the island’s Instagram and check in on the stories of pufflings being set free with #vestmannaeyjar.

Things to do in Heimaey

One other thing I recommend doing while visiting Heimaey is the Heimaklettur hike. I am uncomfortable with hikes but not completely terrified. If you have real trouble with heights, do not do this hike. It consists of ladders, ropes, and walking along the edge of a cliff for a time. Also, walking back down from the top is pretty scary… I scooted on my butt for a bit!! The views at the top are lovely. You’ll be able to look over Heimaey and the other islands as well! You know those pictures circulating around Instagram of the lone house on the island? Yea, you’ll be able to see that house from a distance! Be sure to wear appropriate shoes for this hike. Do not go when the weather is poor or if it recently rained.

Westman Islands Hike
Beautiful but incredibly steep hike!

Please note that you will need a car to get to Heimaey / the Westman Islands. The ferry leaves from Landeyjahöfn, about an hour’s drive from Vik. Ferry information here. You may prefer to pay the extra amount because Heimaey (the main island) is larger than you may think. It’s not so large that it’s absolutely necessary. In fact, downtown is quite small. But some attractions are a short drive (but extremely long walk) away.

The Westman Islands Hike

Visit Iceland in September!

While the summer made for a wonderful month for an Icelandic road trip, the months of September and October offer great Icelandic traditions to witness and, of course, the northern lights. While we are still uncertain what 2021 will bring, I hope to visit Iceland in September again soon.

What to pack for your trip to Iceland in September: Rain gear, hiking boots, winter camping gear (if you’re headed to the Highlands), a winter hat, plenty of layers, and a winter coat. Always pack a swimsuit (Iceland loves to soak & sauna) and plenty of room to fill with memories of Iceland!