View over Perlan museum and Reykjavík

Things To Do In Reykjavík In May

May is a wonderful time to be in the world's most northerly capital city.

Sitting so high on the globe means that Reykjavík enjoys the midnight sun in summer. By the time we get to the end of May there are only about four hours to each night, so there's plenty of light to see the sights. Temperatures have hauled themselves up to the 3 °C to 9°C range (37°F to 48°F), and the chance of snowfall is small, making travel easier.

Return of the whales

Whale watching tours from Reykjavík

The return of the sun in May is felt not only on the land, but off the Icelandic coast. Every year, the warming waters tempt back whales who like to spend summer around our bays and fjords.

Humpbacks and minkes return from exotic southern locations such as the Caribbean — or even South America — to rejoin the few hardy souls who have stayed in Icelandic waters over winter. Dolphins and porpoises also start to show up again, and the numerous whale-watching operations based around Reyjkjavík's harbour areas get back into full swing.

Whale watching is one of Iceland's unique selling points as a visitor destination, and without a doubt, should be one of your things to do in Reykjavík in May. You can take your pick of operators, who should all supply customers with a waterproof one-piece overall and a life jacket.

Obviously, go prepared to take photos and video, but also be prepared to get cold and — possibly — not to see any whales. Unfortunately, nature doesn't perform on cue. Some operators may offer a further trip free of charge if that happens; do check when booking.

But before you venture out to see them, learn all about Iceland's whales and ocean waters in Perlan's Underwater World exhibit. Our interactive cinematic experience will give you the low-down on how Iceland's position at a confluence of cold and warm currents creates a unique mix of marine life, including over 20 species of baleen and toothed whales.

More whales, but this time indoors

Whales of Iceland exhibition in Reykjavík

Nothing beats seeing these magnificent mammals up close. But if you don't have sea legs, then Whales Of Iceland in the city's old harbour area deserves a place on your list of things to do in Reykjavík in May.

This attraction boasts life-sized models of 23 different species of whale, dolphin and porpoise, along with cinematic presentations about marine conservation. The exhibit's ambience is set by soothing whale sounds, and both human-led and audio tours are available.

Puffins also return


As well as coaxing whales back to Icelandic waters, the warming weather also ushers back another emblematic animal to our coastline: the Atlantic puffin.

These endearing birds can live for around 20 years and mate with the same partner for life. They return to Iceland from warmer climes around May to meet up and breed after probably having spent the winter apart. Big colonies gather in places such as Dyrhólaey on the south coast, Látrabjarg in the Westfjords and Stórhöfði on the Westman Islands.

But they also nest in Faxaflói Bay around Reykjavík, such as on the little islands of Lundey and Akurey, and you can take boat excursions from the city's old port area to spot them. It's definitely one to add to your list of things to do in Reykjavík in May.

Puffins nest on cliffs to protect themselves and their offspring from predators, which makes it tricky to see them up close. You either have to stand at the bottom of a cliff and look up, or on the edge and look down, neither of which activities is normally very safe!

So, we have provided you with a safe and convenient alternative at Perlan. Our realistic reconstruction of Látrabjarg cliff allows you to stand at the very foot of the rock face and look up at the sites of nesting puffins: a truly awesome experience.

Power to the proletariat

The first of May is a day set aside in many countries to celebrate the working folk, and Iceland is no exception.

Verkalýðsdagurinn, or Labour Day, is a public holiday on which there are traditionally protest marches and gatherings in Reykjavík. It's a tradition that stretches back to 1923, when workers marched through the city demanding retirement insurance and an eight-hour day.

Do join the marches if you feel moved to do so, and don't be concerned about uncivil behaviour on the streets. Iceland is by and large a peaceful country, where people know how to air their differences and grievances respectfully. And if you're lucky, there might even be a marching band!

Day of the horse

Icelandic horse

May 1st is also the International Day of the Icelandic Horse. These beautiful creatures arrived with Nordic settlers in the 9th century, and for over a thousand years, it has been illegal to import any horse into Iceland. This means that they have become purebred animals that are unique in the world.

Icelandic horses are smaller than many breeds, but don't make the mistake of referring to them as ponies. Their hardy constitution means that they can withstand the hail, winds and snow of Icelandic hillsides, and you will often see them standing out in the harshest weather. Don't worry, they're quite used to it.

Due to their genetic makeup, Icelandic horses have four or even five gaits as opposed to the standard three — walk, trot and canter/gallop — of other horses. You can think of the extra two gaits as fourth and fifth gears for the horse!

Spring is a great time to experience riding an Icelandic horse. There are numerous horseback tours to be found in the capital area, and a day in the saddle should definitely be on your list of things to do in Reykjavík in May.

The brutal beauty of Hallgrímskirkja

Hallgrímskirkja church

For many visitors, Reykjavík's imposing Lutheran church on the hill needs no introduction. Images of its functionalist concrete exterior adorn the covers of countless travel books about Iceland, and it is undeniably an Icelandic icon. A trip to our city which misses Hallgrímskirkja is simply incomplete, so make sure a visit is on your list of things to do in Reykjavík in May.

Completed over four decades following the end of the Second World War, and visible from nearly all parts of the city, the church has long been a landmark by which Reykvíkingurs can orientate themselves.

The 74-metre tower is one of the tallest structures in the country, and visitors can ascend it to take in views of downtown Reykjavík with the sea and mountains beyond. The building's striking northwest elevation resembles two rows of organ pipes, but the design was inspired by the columns of volcanic basalt rock which are emblematic of Iceland.

While you can visit Hallgrímskirkja all year round, May is the best time. You don't have to battle the high-season crowds, and the sun stays up late so that you can enjoy the view from the tower. On the whole Reykjavík's buildings remain stubbornly low-rise, making the view from the top of Hallgrímskirkja a rare and beautiful thing, (rivalled perhaps only by the view from Perlan's observation deck).


Is May a good time to visit Reykjavík?

There's never a bad time to visit Reykjavík! Iceland's capital city has something to offer visitors every month of the year; it just depends on what you're looking for.

May is still shoulder season in the Icelandic tourist industry. So, although you'll be rubbing along with other visitors as you move around Reykjavík, a visit in May will allow you to side-step the crazy crowds of August.

The weather is warming up in May (as much as you might expect in a country with a name like Iceland!), and the days are getting long, so there's plenty of daylight to see the sights. And the snows having melted means that it's so much easier to drive on Iceland's roads, (although the highlands and some other higher-altitude routes may still be closed).

Can you see the northern lights in Reykjavík in May?

Iceland's high latitude means that it is blessed with midnight sun in summer, and by the end of May, Reykjavík nights have shrunk to only about four hours of twilight. Since you need dark skies to see the northern lights (or aurora borealis), then you'd be better off coming another time of year to catch these shimmering sheets of green and purple.

December and January are much better bets as they're the months when nights are longest and blackest. March and September are also worth considering, as the atmospheric activity which produces the aurora tends to peak during those months.

But if you are visiting us in May, we can still show you the wonder of the northern lights via Perlan's Áróra show. This amazing hi-tech audiovisual experience, staged in Iceland's only planetarium, takes you through the myths and mysteries surrounding this solar phenomenon, as well as the remarkable science behind it.

Is Iceland still cold in May?

May temperatures in Reykjavík generally stay above freezing but in single Celcius figures (i.e. below 48°F). It never gets balmy in Iceland, but most Icelanders would consider those relatively pleasant conditions.

Snowfall in Reykjavík is unlikely in May, although the rule with Icelandic weather is always to expect the unexpected. So pack hiking boots and waterproofs, gloves, hats and scarves. And dress in layers so that when the sun does make an appearance, you can take some of them off. But when the wind kicks off, you can layer up again.

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