Dómkirkjan cathedral in the centre of Reykjavík

What is there to do in Iceland in December? What is the weather like, and are the most popular sites and tours still accessible? How do Icelanders celebrate Christmas and the New Year? Read ahead, for all you need to know about visiting the land of ice and fire in December.

December is one of Iceland’s coldest months, and, considering the winter equinox, the darkest. Snow is piling up around the country, and starting to settle in Reykjavík, and the sun only makes an appearance in the sky for four to five hours a day. While this may seem a little bleak, it should be no deterrent to potential visitors; any seasonal blues are batted back by the high festive spirits around the country that comes with Christmas time.

Photo above by Regína Hrönnsdóttir

Snowy scenes by Reykjavík City Pond in December

Furthermore, most of the well-known sites and many of the tours are still more than accessible, and some activities, such as ice caving and northern lights hunting, have only just begun again after the summer break, and are at their peak.

Snowy views of Iceland's south coast

While the climate is cold, the blanket of snow and formations of ice add an ethereal, otherworldly beauty to your destinations, meaning that if you dress correctly, you very often won’t even notice it.That being said, there are a few things to keep note of before arriving to help you make the most of your time and to stay as safe as possible. Continue reading for all you need to know about Iceland in December.



Festivities in December

Reykjavík on New Years Eve.

A discussion of Iceland in December cannot start without mentioning Christmas. As a Lutheran country, it has developed unique festive traditions that take over Reykjavík and other towns, and are wonderful to immerse yourself into; Christmas is, in fact, widely considered the second-best time to visit after summer, because of the explosion of Yule Tide culture.

As many know, Christmas was originally a pagan festival, yet few places on earth is this quite so clear as in Iceland. Even the name of it speaks of this past. The holiday is called 'Jól', which has nothing to do with the mass of Christ; it represents a celebration of light, as the days start getting longer after the winter solstice. It is not entirely known where the word originally comes from, but some people believe it derivates from the word 'Hjól' which translates to 'the wheel', representing a new cycle of the year.



Bright and snowy day in Reykjavík's botanical garden

Iceland only converted to Christianity in 1000 AD, yet tenants of old beliefs remained ingrained in the society for centuries after; even today, Ásatrú, the Old Norse religion, is the largest non-Christian belief system in the country.

The Christmas celebrations, or Advent Festival, weave together both Lutherism and paganism, and the influences of both are clearly on display. The festival officially starts on the fourth Sunday before Christmas Eve, when across the country, the lights of the Christmas trees are turned on.

In the capital, this is the great Oslo Christmas Tree, at Austurvöllur, and the event is very popular, especially amongst young families. If you attend this, you’ll see the first of the Icelandic Yule Lads.

Some of the Icelandic Yule LadsPhoto from The Icelandic Yule Lads live at Dimmuborgir, photo by Regína Hrönnsdóttir

Nowadays, these thirteen brothers are dressed in Santa’s regalia, so as to not terrify the children present, but that is not their traditional attire. Originally, they were filthy, tyrannical trolls, who would, over the Christmas season, terrorise families in different ways; one would stare through windows, another would slam doors throughout the night, another would lick the house’s spoons. 

Their mother, a giantess called Grýla, was even worse, descending from her mountain cave to the nearby towns every Christmas to kidnap, stew and eat the naughty children. To complete their harrowing family, Grýla has an enormous black cat, the Yule Cat, which also eats children, but only the ones who don’t get clothes for Christmas; this bizarre condition descends from farmers motivating their workers to finish preparing the autumn wool before the end of the year.

Below you can hear Icelandic singer Björk sing a Christmas Song about the Icelandic Christmas Cat.

Nowadays, these characters are all used throughout the Advent Festival to add to the fun and Icelandic charm. This festival goes on until December 23rd, and the town is alive with events and culture. Restaurants serve traditional Icelandic Christmas dinners; shops deck the halls and are open until 10 pm from December 15th to the festival’s end; and bars host Yule Time themed concerts and shows.

Note that shops and restaurants, as well as some tours, may be closed for a number of days during the Holidays, or have limited opening hours. This will mostly affect the 24th until the 26th of December, as well as the 31st of December and the 1st of January. Icelanders celebrate Christmas on the 24th of December, from 18:00. And the evening before people flock downtown for some Christmas cheer, so make sure you walk the streets of Reykjavík on the 23rd of December.

You can see the Christmas opening hours of shops, restaurants, museums, pharmacies and swimming pools at Visit Reykjavík's website from November each year.

To fully immerse yourself in the Christmas spirit, you should head to the town of Hafnarfjörður, which is part of the greater Reykjavík area. This settlement has deep ties to folklore and tradition, thus the residents go all out with the festivities. During the season, the entire centre of the town turns into a fairytale Christmas village. 

A traditional Icelandic turf church in winter.The church at Árbæjarsafn Open Air Museum. Photo by Regína Hrönnsdóttir

Possibly the best place to feel the Christmas spirit, however, is at the Árbæjarsafn Open Air Museum, part of the greater Reykjavík City Museum. This museum is usually open only throughout summer, but opens on the weekends of December, from 13:00 to 17:00. The area exhibits the turf houses and churches of old Iceland, and examples of how people of different economic backgrounds traditionally celebrated.

There is a gift shop selling Christmas goodies and confectionary, a stable where you can see how tallow candles were made (considered an excellent gift as they provided light throughout winter), and houses where you can try the Christmas dinner staples of smoked lamb, or hangikjöt, and leaf bread, or laufabrauð.

The Christmas shop is full of confectionary, and staffed by women in traditional regalia.Photo by Regína Hrönnsdóttir

There are guided museum tours at 13:00, and a Christmas service in the turf church at 14:00. The Icelandic Yule Lads arrive to entertain guests and prank children from 14:00 to 16:00, and at 15:00, there is a celebration of dancing in the square of the reconstructed town. Tickets to the museum can be bought on location, or through the purchase of a Visit Reykjavík City Card, which gives you access to museums and galleries across the capital.

Those who want to enjoy the season outside of the capital region could head to Óbyggðasetur Íslands, the Wilderness Centre. Throughout December, they host ‘Nostalgia of Christmas’ tours, where you learn about the history of the festivity in Iceland, enjoy homemade Icelandic Christmas food, and immerse yourself in an incredible Highland location, with natural hot springs and unbelievable landscapes.



New Year's Eve fireworks from Faxafloi Bay

If you are staying in Iceland over New Year, you are in for even more festivity. New Year’s Eve in Reykjavík is the city’s most lively and exciting night. At the turn of the year, thousands upon thousands of people take to the streets to watch one of the largest firework shows on earth; there is no order to it, but locals buy fireworks in bulk, and set them off at random, meaning the sky is filled for hours with an unbelievable display.

The best vantage point is without a doubt by Hallgrímskirkja church, on the hill that overlooks the city, though no matter where you are around Reykjavík, you are sure to get a decent show. It is wise to buy protective glasses, which are sold around the city in the lead up to the night, as the randomness of the display poses risks. The lack of safety regulations, however, is undoubtedly part of the appeal; it feels like the entire city is enjoying the same party.



What to be aware of in Iceland in December

Warnings such as this should be a reminder that the roads in Iceland's winter are hazardousPhoto by Radka Valova

While Christmas and New Year events are the main draw of Iceland in December, there are a wealth of activities that should not be overlooked. Before getting into how the landscapes and tours are affected by winter, however, it is important to know how to prepare for a winter trip to Iceland. The two areas you need to consider more than anything else regard driving in Iceland, and what to bring with you.

While snowfall is common in December, it is likely that the city of Reykjavík will not yet be beneath it; the climate of the capital is warmer than the rest of the country and it tends only to be covered in snow occasionally between the months of January and April. Even so, the average temperature remains just below freezing, meaning that the roads are still often icy, even if it is not obvious. If you plan on renting a car, therefore, it is heavily recommended to rent a four-wheel-drive. If you want to drive out of the capital and into the country, it is essential.



Be sure to check Iceland's roads and weather before exploring the countryside

If you have never driven in snowy or icy conditions before, or are not comfortable doing it, it may be worth it to forsake a rental car, and instead get to where you need to go by booking tours and letting the experienced take the wheel. This is certainly the easiest, safest, and most stress-free option; you won’t even need to drive from Keflavík International Airport to Reykjavík, as there is a regular Flybus that will drop you right to your hotel.

To fully immerse yourself in the country without driving, you could look to book a guided winter package, which will absolve you of responsibility while taking you to all the sites. If you are happy driving, there are also a wealth of winter self-drive packages to consider.

If you choose the latter option, then make sure that you know the exact route you plan to take before departing. Many of the roads into the Highlands and around the Westfjords are now closed, and you do not want to accidentally strand yourself in the volatile nature. You can always see what roads are open on road.is.

Icelandic horses braving a snowstorm

It is also essential to be clear what weather you will be facing on each journey, which you can do through the Icelandic Meteorological Office’s website. Some roads, such as Route 1 along the south coast, are very vulnerable to high winds, while others are susceptible to avalanches after heavy precipitation, so make your plans accordingly, and be flexible if you can see that your safety could be compromised.

Regardless of whether or not you are driving, the other thing to be aware of is to bring the correct clothing with you. You will want to immerse yourself in the stunning winter wonderlands across the country and enjoy them; if you are not prepared, you won’t be able to. Ensure you have a hat and gloves, thermal undergarments, windproof and waterproof outer layers, and warm clothes in between; sturdy hiking boots are also required if you seek to explore the places you visit.



Which Tours Are Available in December in Iceland?

December, as the darkest month, is the best time to witness the Northern Lights.

With the right driver, vehicle, clothing, and preparation, you are ready to enjoy Iceland in December. Although the more remote places, mentioned above, are no longer so accessible, there are a wealth of sites still open, which become even more special with the influence of midwinter.

Glacier Ice Caving in December

Ice caves are spectacular, rare features, that only appear under certain conditions.

Ice caving is one of the most renowned and spectacular activities you can partake in. Water running underneath the glaciers opens up tunnels within them, allowing visitors to explore the unbelievable world inside of an ice cap. In very few places on earth is this possible, yet there are three glaciers in Iceland that allow for the opportunity in December.

Vatnajökull, the largest glacier in Europe, is the most common destination. This is largely because of the incredible sites that surround it, which are accessible throughout the winter. One such place is the Skaftafell Nature Reserve; in December, the glaciers have changed from a mix of white snow and black ash to vivid blue ice, and they advance into the reserve making a hike over to them short and easy.

Another such place is the incredible Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon; the icebergs that fill it are mesmerising, and it is one of the best, most accessible seal-watching locations in winter.



The ice caves of Vatnajökull.

An option closer to Reykjavík, however, is the ice caving tour within Mýrdalsjökull, the ice cap that covers one of Iceland’s most active volcanoes, Katla. Though this tour will not take you all the way along the south coast, you will still be able to see the majority of notable sites along this tourist trail on the way, such as Seljalandsfoss and Skógafoss waterfalls.

As the excursion leaves from Vík, you will also see the Reynisfjara black sand beach with its fascinating geology, such as the Reynisdrangar sea-stacks and Dyrhólaey rock arch

In winter, this place is incredibly dramatic; the waves crashing against the rocks and along the shore are enormous and unpredictable. Admire them, by all means, but keep over thirty metres away from the ocean’s edge as there are notorious sneaker waves along this stretch.



The ice caves can be vast spaces, but none are permanent.

A final option is to visit the ice caves of Langjökull. This is particularly notable as they are accessible only with snowmobiles; you spend approximately twenty minutes shooting across the glacier, an experience both exhilarating and spectacular, before starting your exploration. 

The ice caves should not be missed by any traveller coming to Iceland in winter; that being said, however, they are not always too reliable. After heavy rains they often flood, which can compromise their structural integrity, therefore the tour will only be conducted if it is safe. Because of the risks associated with entering an ice cave without knowing how stable it is, ice caving should only be done with an experienced glacier guide, on an official tour.

Northern Lights Hunting in December

The Northern Lights over Buðir, on the Snæfellsnes Peninsula.

The aurora borealis are always dancing across the skies of the north; the only problem is that the sun’s light completely overwhelms them. This is not an issue during December. With just four hours of sunlight around noon in the weeks surrounding the winter equinox, you will have plenty of opportunities to hunt for the Northern Lights throughout the twenty hours of darkness each day.

Two conditions are required for a perfect viewing of the Northern Lights: high solar activity, and little cloud cover. Both of these can be checked at the website of the Icelandic Meteorological Office, in their aurora section. So long as both of these circumstances look promising, you have a good chance to spot the auroras.



The Northern Lights over a lake in Iceland.

There are three different ways to try to see the Northern Lights in Iceland. Firstly, you could remain in the city of Reykjavík, and try to spot them from its darkest places, such as Grótta Lighthouse or Klambratún Park. If they are particularly strong, you will be able to see them even in places with some light pollution, such as beer gardens or from a dimly lit street.

The main problems with this, however, is that any light pollution at all will limit the intensity of the auroras, as well as the fact that you cannot move around any cloud cover with ease, so your entire experience could be spoilt simply because you do not have any mobility.

The auroras over Grotta Lighthouse, in Reykjavík.

A second option is to take your rental car, and set out in hunt of them yourself, using the websites mentioned above to find the best areas. By going down this route, you will avoid the light pollution of the city, and don’t need to worry about other people blocking your view; you will be able to find vantage points with no one else around.

Of course, this option should only be taken by confident drivers in a four-wheel-drive, and again, you should have a good knowledge of the potential routes you are planning to take so you do not end up somewhere hazardous in winter.

Seeing the Northern Lights is on most people's bucket list.

The final option, however, is the easiest and most reliable: taking a northern lights tour. These excursions are led by experienced guides who do not only know the roads of Iceland well but are very knowledgable about the aurora borealis. They can describe to you how and why they appear, as well as help you with your cameras to allow you to capture the best image of them.

To top it off, if the tour is cancelled due to unfavourable conditions, or else the forecast was wrong and the lights do not show, you will get to take this tour again without charge until you get your chance.

Many northern lights tours are very affordable, such as this Audio Guided Northern Lights Tour, which you can take in one of ten languages; it is conducted on a larger bus and takes you to the best-known vantage points depending on conditions.

If you seek a more personal experience, however, there are many private tour options. Some of these are conducted in a Super Jeep, which allows you to reach places which cannot be accessed by larger buses, ensuring that there are no crowds at the places you stop. You can also take Northern Lights cruises out of Reykjavík.

Lava Caving in December

The inside of a cave near Akureyri, Lofthellir.Photo from Caving Tour to Lofthellir Cave 

Lava caves can be toured throughout the year, but are particularly special during winter due to the ice sculptures that form within them. As lava rock is very porous, the water that seeps through freezes into stalactites from the ceiling, and what drips to the floor also freezes and builds up into fascinating stalagmites.

The three most accessible caves throughout the year to witness beautiful ice formations are Leiðarendi, on the Reykjanes Peninsula, Víðgelmir, in the Hallmundarhraun lava field, and Raufarhólshellir, near Hveragerði.

Leiðarendi is more challenging, but also a more adventurous trip; there are no lights or walkways inside, and taking the whole circuit within requires a degree of clambering and crawling. The entrance also often blocks with snow throughout winter, meaning that entering it requires you to slide down a dug-out shute; it is thus not necessarily the best choice for those uncomfortable with tight spaces.



The entrance to Leiðarendi is always blocked with snow throughout winter, but still can be entered by the adventurous.

People with a degree of claustrophobia should instead look into touring Víðgelmir or Raufarhólshellir. The entrances to both are wide with steps leading to wooden pathways that run throughout. The routes are well lit, and the size of the caves means you don’t even need to stoop to move through them.

Lava caving is not a particularly dangerous activity, but having the right equipment (namely, a torch, helmet, and crampons) and an experienced guide are essential.

Snorkelling in Iceland in December

Snorkelling is possible in December in Iceland

Picture from Into the Blue | Snorkelling Day Tour

Like lava caving, snorkelling is available throughout the year, but particularly unique during winter. The main location for this is in Silfra fissure, located in Þingvellir National Park.

The Silfra crack opened due to the geology of the park. It is located right between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates, which, as they pull apart, tear ravines in the earth that fill with water running underground from Langjökull glacier.

Because of the filtration process this water undergoes as it moves through the lava fields, when it emerges in the form of springs in these ravines, it is crystal clear and incredibly clean. It also maintains a constant temperature of two degrees under the earth, so does not cool enough to freeze until it reaches the lake Þingvallavatn.



Silfra fissure under the Northern Lights.

These conditions make for an unbelievably special snorkelling site; visitors marvel over the vast, cathedral-like spaces and vividly blue water. In winter, however, its appeal only increases; how many people can say they swam in a spring between the tectonic plates, surrounded by ice formations on the rocks and white snowy fields?

Though many scoff at the idea of snorkelling in Iceland, particularly in its darkest month, it is more than possible with the equipment available. Drysuits keep you free of water, while thick under suits stave off the cold; wetsuit hoods and gloves do allow the water in, but warm it quickly and provide you with a degree of mobility. Your guides are professional-level scuba instructors with a wealth of experience in cold water and the associated equipment.



Snorkelling is possible all year round in Iceland

Picture from Snorkelling Silfra Day Tour

Of course, no activity is without its risks and snorkelling in Silfra is no exception. To take this tour, therefore, you must be over sixteen, fifty kilogrammes and 150 centimetres, and if you are over sixty or with pre-existing heart or circulatory conditions, you will need a medical waiver. Of course, it is absolutely essential that you take this tour with a qualified guide.



Whale Watching in Iceland in December

A humpback whale breaching in Faxaflói BayPhoto from Whale Watching Tour from Reykjavík

Whale watching in December is a rewarding experience. While the larger baleen whales that come to Iceland to feed in summer have largely migrated south to their mating grounds (although there are often some stragglers who stay year round), there are still many toothed whales to be seen.

The two best places for winter whale watching in Iceland are Faxaflói bay, the bay of Reykjavík, and off the Snæfellsnes Peninsula. Multiple tours run from the capital a day, leaving from the Old Harbour, and lasting between two and three hours.

The most common species is the white-beaked dolphin; this acrobatic species travels in pods, and they are known to exhibit behaviours such as breaching and bow riding. You may also see the elusive harbour porpoise, and perhaps even a group of great orcas.



An orca, pictured off the Snæfellsnes Peninsula.Picture from 2 Day Snæfellsnes Tour

Because of herring wintering around Snæfellsnes, however, those eager to see killer whales should depart from here. Leaving from either Grundarfjörður or Ólafsvík, you will set off into Breiðafjörður bay, and hope for your chance to see these magnificent creatures.

Also in this area, you have a chance also to see pilot whales, which live all around Iceland but are quite hard to spot, and even beaked whales, some of the least known animals on earth.



Glacier Tours in Iceland in December

Witnessing glaciers in December is an incredible experience. In the winter months, they expand with fresh ice, becoming encased in electric blue armour. Thankfully, there are a wealth of different tours, which allow you to enjoy them in multiple ways.

Glacier hiking is the most obvious choice. There are two glaciers you can easily hike throughout winter, Sólheimajökull and Skaftafellsjökull.

Sólheimajökull can be reached with this easy day tour, Sólheimajökull Glacier Hike, as it is located on the south coast between Skógafoss and Vík. Some of these tours also include an ice-climb for some added adventure, such as on this Sólheimajökull Ice Climbing & Glacier Hike.



The dramatic landscape atop Skaftafellsjökull.Photo from Glacier Discover | Glacier Hike from Vatnajökull 

Skaftafellsjökull is on the far side of the south coast, located within the Skaftafell Nature Reserve, a place so beautiful it was once a National Park in its own right. The views from this glacier are thus spectacular.

Most tours running here you have to join on location, such as on this Skaftafell Glacier Hike (Medium Difficulty), although there are two day packages and three day packages where you will get to glacier hike as well as be guided around the nearby sites, such as Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon.

Glacier hikes are excellent, as they do not just provide you with incredible views and a sense of adventure, but are conducted by experienced glacier guides who can inform you all about their formation, processes, and threats.



Snowmobiling in Iceland in December

Snowmobiling on Langjökull glacier.Photo from Snowmobile Tour on Langjökull Glacier

Another option for the glaciers is a snowmobiling tour. Most of these are conducted on Langjökull glacier, with tours leaving from Reykjavík, Gullfoss waterfall, and combined with other excursions such as the Golden Circle.

This thrilling experience usually lasts an hour, in which you are free to blast across the ancient ice, providing a perfect combination of sightseeing and exhilaration. All equipment to keep you warm in the December weather and to keep you safe is provided; you just need decent clothes underneath, and a valid driver’s license if you are taking control.

On Langjökull, you can also partake in a particularly unique experience; man-made tunnels have been carved in the most stable part of the glacier so that you can explore the inner workings of an ice cap in a way unavailable anywhere else in the world. While this Ice Tunnel Day Tour is worth doing, it is open throughout the year, whereas natural ice caves are only around for a short season, so it may be preferred to explore one of them.



Sightseeing in Iceland in December

Gullfoss waterfall during wintertime

And of course there are also plenty of locations where you can simply go sightseeing. The popular Golden Circle, Iceland's south coast all the way to Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon, Snæfellsnes peninsula and Reykjanes peninsula are all mostly accessible (always weather depending). Choose between a multitude of tours, or rent a 4WD car and drive yourself.

The roads are covered with metres of snow in Iceland's highland in winter!

Picture from Landmannalaugar in Winter 3 Days | Super Jeep & Northern Lights

Driving into the highlands is not possible, unless you join this 3 day monster truck guided expedition winter tour to Landmannalaugar. As you can see on the above picture the roads are covered with metres of thick snow, so much that you can not even see the roads and the roadsigns may be completely blocked with snow.

Vestrahorn mountain in southeast Iceland

Access to the north of Iceland, the east of Iceland and especially the Westfjords may be limited due to the weather and road conditions.

It is nonetheless possible to book this 6 Day Guided Winter Package to south, east and north Iceland, and this Winter 7 Day Self Drive Tour to the north of Iceland. The itineraries are flexible as the weather is always a force to be reckoned with during Iceland's winters.

Relaxing in Iceland's Blue Lagoon

No matter what the weather might be up to, it's always nice to soak in hot water, so booking a trip to the Blue Lagoon or checking out some of the best swimming pools and hot tubs in Reykjavík, or the countryside is sure to give you a soothing experience - or even an adventurous one if there's a snowstorm raging while you enjoy the hot water.



 

Romance in Iceland in December

The Oslo Christmas Tree in Reykjavík. Photo from Wikimedia, Creative Commons, photo by Helgi Halldórsson

And finally although it is dark and quite cold throughout December, Iceland comes alive and this is a popular month for those romantic getaway weekends. With the festive spirit, sprinkling of snow, Northern Lights and wide variety of tours, the country becomes a winter wonderland that should appeal to travellers of all kinds.

So long as you dress well, take care driving, and follow the recommendations above, you are sure to have the holiday of a lifetime.

Marriage proposal under Christmas decorations in Reykjavík in December

Marriage proposal in Reykjavík's winter wonderland city centre. Picture by jrbowe.

Additionally the Holiday Season is filled with Christmas decorations all over Reykjavík city and towns across the countryside, brightening up the dark nights and providing winter fairytale views, perfect for that holiday romance.

Snuggle up inside warm cafés with a cuppa, stroll the snowcapped streets, explore the impressive countryside and admire the Northern Lights at night, or maybe even pop down on one knee and propose amidst the twinkling Christmas lights?