When it comes to planning a Nordic adventure to the land of the northern lights and the midnight sun, there is nowhere better than Iceland and Norway but how do you choose between the two?
Iceland and Norway do share some similarities in that they were both the stomping grounds of the Vikings, their landscapes are very dramatic and stunningly beautiful but they are actually quite different from each other, something you realize once you take a closer look.
In an ideal world, you would, of course, visit both Iceland and Norway, but since they are not the most affordable places to visit and you only get a certain amount of vacation days a year, picking one is the most likely scenario.
In this Iceland vs Norway comparison, I’ll shed some light on both countries so that you can choose the right one for your next vacation, I hope it helps.
While Iceland and Norway are neighbors they are separated by a thousand or so miles of ocean and when it comes to landscapes they are actually very different. A trip to either country isn’t going to have you sitting inside all day, so considering the landscapes of the two is an important part of picking which country, Iceland vs Norway, is best for you.
Iceland’s landscape is incredibly unique, in fact when you drive out of the airport, you’re met with a landscape that I can only describe as a bit like being on the moon.
Iceland was formed by volcanic activity which is still continuing today. Iceland in fact harnesses a lot of geothermal energy to provide their country with clean green energy. The landscape is full of dark rocks, cracky cliffs, gorges, lava fields, and black sand beaches, which are all reminiscent of the moon. But there are two sides to Iceland’s landscape.
Along with the darker moonscape, you also have stunning green valleys, beautiful rivers, magical waterfalls, hot springs, mountains, glaciers, lakes, and more. It’s a truly diverse country and a very unique place to hike around.
Norway’s landscape, unlike Iceland’s, was formed by glaciers and water erosion and between the two, they carved some of the most spectacular landscape on the planet, most notably Norway’s coastline.
I’m sure visiting the fjords of Norway is something you’re dying to do and I couldn’t recommend it more. Norway has the second largest coastline in the world which measures a huge 100,915 km, which is close to three laps around the equator, 2.52 to be exact, and the majority of it is all fjords.
If you have never seen a fjord, imagine sheer mountain cliff faces plummeting into the sea on both sides of it and you’ll get the idea. When I first saw one, I almost shed a tear as we drove over the mountain top and down the winding road looking down the fjord of Geringer, it was that beautiful.
Norway isn’t all fjords though, you also have islands like the Lofotens, glaciers, pine forests, rivers, waterfalls, lakes, white sand beaches, mountains, and more.
I don’t think you can say which landscape is better when comparing Iceland vs Norway, a better question would be which would you prefer?
Iceland’s landscape is stunningly diverse and it feels very much alive with all the seismic and volcanic activity that is going on under the earth. It’s both beautiful, rugged, and interesting at the same time. Norway’s on the other hand has a huge element of peace about it that somehow surrounds the drama of it all. Both are incredibly beautiful.
Since both Norway and Iceland are so far north, you shouldn’t be expecting to sit on the beach in your bikini as the weather doesn’t really allow for that. When making a hard decision about what country to visit on my next holiday, I always take the weather of each place into account and it’s often a major factor in my decision making.
When it comes to Iceland vs Norway and the weather, you might expect them to be quite similar but this is not the case. Since both countries are quite large, and what weather you’ll get depends on where you are in them, we’ll compare Reykjavik vs Oslo to give you a general idea.
The weather in Reykjavik and Iceland, in general, is consistently wet and not very warm, ever. It rains 10-14 days every month of the year, 10 during the summer and 14 during the winter, so if you’re heading to Iceland make sure you pack some rain gear.
When it comes to temperatures, the yearly range of Reykjavik is -2 to 14 °C, -2 °C in the winter months of December to February, and 14 °C between the summer months of July and August.
The best time to visit Iceland if you plan on being outdoors and doing say, a lot of hiking, is between May and September when the temperatures stay around 10 °C on average. It’s actually an ideal temperature for being active outside as you’ll never really overheat but can stay warm at the same time.
When I went to Iceland, I went with my cousin to go on a fly fishing mission but on a budget. Our plan was to camp to save some money but after 3 days of relentless drizzle, we had to rent a room and dry out.
The weather in Olso is quite similar to Reykjavik’s in terms of rainfall, receiving between 9 and 15 days of rain every month, 9 in summer and 15 in winter, and they even get the same amount of average yearly rainfall of 805 and 800 mm respectively.
Where Olso differs a lot from Reykjavik is in the average temperatures. Olso actually gets a proper winter and a proper summer. During the winter months of December to February, Olso can get to -5 °C and in the summer months of June to August, hits highs of 20-22 °C, which is a lot warmer than Reykjavik.
I have to say, when I went camping and fly fishing around Norway, we camped every night we were there and only had to deal with rain maybe 2 nights out of 10. Maybe we got lucky, but it was a far drier experience than camping out in Iceland.
The best time to go to Norway if you want to explore the outdoors is definitely between May and September before the cold sets in.
Another consideration that should be slapped in with the weather is the daylight hours of Norway and Iceland, and luckily they are pretty much the same. One of the major reasons to visit Iceland and Norway is to experience the Midnight Sun and the Northern Lights both of which are only possible thanks to the northern location of both of these countries.
Between May and August, the sun never sets in Norway or Iceland, meaning it drops to the horizon and then comes right back up again, creating the Midnight Sun.
Between November and February, each country only gets 3-4 or even 0 hours of daylight, depending on how far north you are, which gives you an excellent chance of seeing the northern lights dancing across the sky.
As you can see, when it comes to seeing the Midnight Sun or the Northern Lights, both Iceland and Norway are as good as each other.
Now, you probably already know that when it comes to Iceland vs Norway and the costs of traveling around them, they are both very expensive.
I knew this when I went to Norway (which was before Iceland) but the reality of it didn’t set in until I bought a burger at a petrol station. In most developed countries you’d expect to pay around $5-7 USD, I paid $18. My mouth almost dropped to the floor! I realized then just how expensive things were, and I was living in London at the time.
With prices like that, you are going to have to expect to spend quite a lot whether you visit Iceland or Norway, but which one is more affordable?
Having done some number crunching, Iceland is generally more affordable than Norway by around 15%.
You should expect to pay around $21 USD for a basic meal at a restaurant with a drink in Norway, whereas in Iceland you’ll be paying $16.50. Bottled water in Norway is hugely expensive at $3.21 and in Iceland, it’s just $1.95.
If you’re planning on making your own meals at an Airbnb let’s say, to save a few bucks, then your grocery shopping in Iceland is going to cost you around 24.5% less in Iceland than it would in Norway. A bottle of beer in Norway at a supermarket is around $5 and it’s $2.50 in Iceland.
When it comes to accommodation, the differences aren’t as huge but they are still there. For a dorm in a hostel, you’ll pay $15 a night in Iceland and $30 a night in Norway. For a double room in a budget hotel in Iceland, you’ll pay around $70 a night, and in Norway around $80 a night. If you’re going for luxury, then a room in Iceland will be around $300 a night, and it’s the same in Norway.
As you can see, going to Iceland will be a lot more affordable overall so if you want to stretch your budget to the max, Iceland is the place to go.
But, something that isn’t mentioned is that you can legally camp anywhere in Norway for free, whereas in Iceland wild camping is illegal and you’ll need to pay for a campsite, so you could technically sleep for free in Norway if you have the gear with you.
One of the best ways to explore the spectacular landscapes of Iceland and Norway is by hiking around them. Taking strolls around the top of Fjords, fast-flowing rivers, around beautiful waterfalls, through the national parks, and even over glaciers is something you have to do when in either of these stunning countries.
But, how tough is the hiking when it comes to Iceland vs Norway?
It might be surprising to hear but Iceland isn’t a very mountainous country, it’s actually quite flat with rolling hills and gradual valleys that are suitable for anyone’s hiking fitness. The terrain however is quite challenging and it can be very scrambly and rough, especially when walking around the lava fields for example.
That’s not to say Iceland doesn’t have mountains though, because it most certainly does and if you want a challenge there are some serious peaks that will push you to your limits.
The highest peak is Hvannadalshnúkur which measures a huge 2,106 meters above sea level and considering that you start at sea level, the elevation gain is pretty darn serious! There are 8 other peaks ranging from 1500-2000 meters above sea level, so you can pick your battles as you wish.
The trails in Iceland are mostly dirt tracks or moss-covered and if you’re not venturing on a summit, you can have a lovely hike around the country and only have to climb 200-500 feet in elevation as you go.
You can also go glacier hiking Iceland but only with a professional guide. You’ll be kitted out with an ice axe, crampons, and spend half a day trekking over a moving ice sheet, it’s pretty cool!
In comparison to Iceland, Norway’s landscape is a lot steeper and you should expect pretty much every hike you go on to have quite a bit of elevation change, around 1000 feet on average, so 5 or 2 times greater than Iceland.
While the hiking might be a little tougher, the trails in Norway are excellent and well looked after which does make the hiking a lot easier. Plus, your effort in Norway will not go unrewarded as the mountains, valleys, and views are stunning.
You’ll also find a lot more hiking trails in Norway as it’s a larger country and doing a multi-day hike is a reality. There are also some high peaks to conquer in Norway, the highest being Galdhøpiggen which sits at 2,469 meters above sea level, and quite a few more that hit the 2000 meter mark, so if you want a challenge, you’ll find it in Norway.
Like in Iceland, you can also book a 1/2 glacier hike in Norway with all the gear, so don’t think you’re missing out on that experience by choosing Norway.
If hiking is your favorite activity and what you plan on doing most on your trip, then Norway has more to offer in terms of its size, multi-day hikes, and the fact you can legally camp anywhere along the way.
If you love to hike but aren’t quite as mobile as you once were, then Iceland will suit you down to a T. You’ll be able to enjoy the stunning scenery without having to struggle up huge elevation gains.
At the end of the day though, hiking around both of these countries is pretty amazing, and you’ll love them both.
When it comes to things to do in Norway and Iceland, the list really is endless and it’s also a fantastic list of things to check off. One thing that both countries do have in common is the Northern Lights and the Midnight Sun, so if you wanted to see either of these, it doesn’t matter which country you choose.
Being quite similar in their northerly location, there are, of course, a lot of overlaps between things to do in Iceland and Norway, such as going whale watching or seeing puffins, seals, and dolphins, going fly fishing or sea fishing, and more. But there are a lot of different things to do between Norway and Iceland as well.
Iceland had a lot of natural wonders that Norway doesn’t and this is all thanks to the seismic activity going on beneath the ground.
Something you have to do whilst in Iceland is to bathe in the hot springs around the country. The Blue Lagoon is the most famous of them all and is made from geothermally heated seawater. The water is an incredibly bright turquoise blue and warm all year around.
People flock to these waters for their healing properties as they contain minerals like silica and others that are meant to treat your skin and other conditions too.
Lake Myvatn is another get geothermal area where you’ll find hot pools to bathe in with a stunning view of the hills and valleys that surround it. You can even drive to the Seljavallalaug Pool, one of the oldest swimming pools in the country that is filled with geothermal spring water so you can swim in it all year round.
One thing you have to do in Iceland is to witness some of the seismic activity going on around the island. You can actually look down between two tectonic plates in Iceland.
In Thingvellir National Park you’ll find Þingvellir Plain and this is where the European tectonic plate and the North American tectonic plate are moving apart from each other creating a deep canyon. You can also travel around the geothermal sites and see geysers shooting into the air and see the world’s most active volcano, Helka Volcano.
Some of the most beautiful waterfalls in the world are in Iceland and you have to go and see them while you’re there. Black Fall, Dynjandi Waterfall, and Golden Falls should be at the top of your list. And there are many more to see if you want to a full waterfall tour of Iceland.
From Fjords to waterfalls and islands, to skiing, dog sledding, and even surfing there is a lot to do in Norway that you can’t quite do in Iceland.
The fjords of Norway are magical and it’s certainly worth spending a few nights at a fjord town and I’d recommend Geirangerfjord and the town of Geringer. The area is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and whilst I was there we hired a boat and went fishing for pollock and sea trout, we went kayaking in the midnight sun and had an amazing time hanging out with the locals in the little town.
The Lofoten Islands are a magical part of Norway and they have it all. You’ll find mountains falling into the sea, white sand beaches, great surfing spots, amazing fishing trips, you can go whale watching and discover lots of quaint little fishing villages and eat some amazing seafood.
If you’re heading to Norway in winter and want the full northern lights experience, then there isn’t a better place to go to than Tromso in the north.
You’ll find mountains with amazing views, white sand beaches, and a range of amazing activities like dog sledding, meeting the Mani people, snowmobiling, hiking, and even skiing that you can do whilst the northern lights are dancing in the sky above.
It’s also a great place to be during summer where you can watch the midnight sun try to set into the sea every day and not quite make it to simply rise again.
There are loads of ocean activities available in Tromso too from sailing on a yacht with the northern lights or midnight sun, kayaking around the fjords, going on fishing trips, and more.
Iceland and Norway are both amazing countries to visit, and I have said it before but I’ll say it again, it doesn’t matter too much which one you choose, as you’ll have a fantastic time in both, and should probably go to one this year and the other next year.
I find Iceland more interesting as it is a very unique place between the magical hot springs, amazing waterfalls, tectonic activity, and lots more, plus it’s a lot more affordable than Norway too.
Norway does have a reserved space in my heart though. It is truly a very peaceful place and the peace somehow seeps into your body while you’re there. I will go back to Norway as there is more to discover, as I only scratched the surface in the 10 days I was there.
Roger is a little obsessed with travel. He has been to over 40 countries, broken 3 suitcases and owned over 10 backpacks in 12 months. What he doesn't know about travel, ain't worth knowing!