What do you do in Iceland in December? What is the weather like? Can I still take tours? Will I be able to see the Northern Lights? How do Icelanders celebrate Christmas and the New Year? Read ahead for all you need to know about visiting Iceland in December.
December is one of Iceland’s coldest and darkest months. Snow is piling up around the country and the sun only makes an appearance in the sky for four to five hours a day. But Iceland in December doesn't have to be dreary!
While this may seem a little bleak, the high festive spirits around the country at Christmas time combat any seasonal blues.
Most of the well-known sites and many of the tours are still accessible in Iceland in December, and some activities, like ice caving and Northern Lights hunting are at their peak.
While the climate is cold, the snow and ice transform the island into something new, something ethereal; that said, there are a few things to take note of before to make the most of your time and stay as safe as possible.
Continue reading for all you need to know about Iceland in December.
It may be cold out, and many of the roads are closed, but travellers to Iceland in December will still find a wealth of things to do. With the Christmas season, the city of Reykjavík comes to life with entertainment, and many tours still run out into the country, meaning there's still quite a lot to do both inside and outside of the city.
As a primarily Lutheran country, Iceland has developed unique and wonderful traditions around Christmas time. December is, in fact, widely considered to be the second-best time to visit Iceland because of the explosion of Yule Tide joy.
In Icelandic, and related Scandinavian languages, the holiday is called 'Jól', which echoes the yule of English. Christmas in Iceland is a celebration of light, as the days start getting longer after the winter solstice. Gleðileg jól! echoes down the streets of Reykjavík, a warm greeting to passersby.
Iceland formally converted to Christianity in 1000 AD at a session of the Alþingi, but heathen practices persisted even after its formal adoption—and were, in fact, sanctioned by the law if "practised in secret." Even today, Ásatrú, the Old Norse religion, makes up around 1% of the religiously affiliated population.
The Christmas celebrations in Iceland take place during Advent, and they weave together both Lutherism and Paganism. The festival officially starts on the fourth Sunday before Christmas Eve, when across the country, the Christmas trees are lit.
In the capital, the great Oslo Christmas Tree (yes, it is from Norway) is lit at Austurvöllur ("The Eastern Field") and the event is very popular. If you attend this, you’ll see the first of the Icelandic Yule Lads!
These thirteen brothers, who made a comeback in Iceland in the 1930s by poet Jóhannes úr Kötlum, now dress in full Santa regalia. Originally, however, they were frightening, ugly, mischievous, trolls. They're sneaky, but not necessarily frightening (this depends on your outlook: one troll slams your doors, while another steals milk from your cows and another peeps into your windows. One even steals candles made from lard, presumably to stave off starvation).
Prior to Jóhannes úr Kötlum's poem that formally laid out 13 Yule lads, the lads were continually changing--and the list did include a few zombie-like maniacs, like Lungnasléttir (Lung Splatter), who carried his lungs in front of his chest and beat children with them.
Their mother, a giantess called Grýla, is the really scary part of the story. She is a cannibal, alongside her third husband, Leppalúði, who is several centuries older than her, and more likeable. Grýla descends the mountain every Christmas to kidnap and eat naughty children (and, possibly, grown adults).
Grýla has an enormous black cat, the Yule Cat, which also eats children, but only those who aren't given clothes for Christmas. In recent years, the stories have softened because parents were concerned that these characters were too cruel and frightening for their children.
Below you can hear Icelandic singer Björk sing a Christmas Song about the Yule Cat in true Icelandic fashion.
Nowadays, these figures add to the fun of Advent, which continues until December 23rd.
Restaurants in Iceland serve wildly popular "Christmas buffets" that families and co-workers flock to; shops stay open until 10 pm from December 15th until December 23rd. Even bars host Christmas concerts and shows.
Note that some shops and restaurants in Iceland, 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, the 25th, and the 26th of December, as well as the 31st of December and the 1st of January. Icelanders hold the biggest Christmas gatherings and exchange gifts on Christmas eve.
Visit Reykjavík's website lists the Christmas opening hours of various shops, restaurants, and other venues in Iceland from November onward.
To fully immerse yourself in the Christmas spirit, you should head to the town of Hafnarfjörður, which is in the greater Reykjavík area. This settlement has deep ties to folklore and tradition, and its residents go all out. During the season, the hip town centre turns into a fairytale Christmas village.
The church at Árbæjarsafn Open Air Museum. Photo by Regína Hrönn Ragnarsdóttir
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 during summer, but it's also open on weekends in December, from 13:00 to 17:00.
The area features the turf houses and churches of old Iceland, with staged areas showing the ways in which Icelanders of various economic backgrounds traditionally celebrated. Christmas in Iceland has always been an important holiday, and the festivities in Hafnarfjöður will help you to learn about Iceland's past while enjoying a hot cup of cocoa.
There's also an adorable gift shop in Hafnarfjöður that sells Christmas goodies and confections, a stable where you can see how tallow candles were made (considered an excellent gift because they provided light throughout winter—but let's not forget, they were also bait for Candle Stealer), and houses where you can try Christmas dinner staples: smoked lamb, or hangikjöt, and leaf bread, or laufabrauð (which is not made of leaves).
Photo by Regína Hrönn Ragnarsdóttir
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 from 14:00 to 16:00, and at 15:00, there's 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. The museum presents an excellent opportunity to enjoy the high spirits of Iceland in December.
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 can learn about the history of the festival in Iceland while enjoying homemade Icelandic Christmas food in this Highland locale.
Similarly, 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; locals buy fireworks in bulk from the Icelandic Search and Rescue organisation (to fund them!) and set them off pretty much wherever they want to, but the most popular spots are Hallgrímskirkja and Perlan.
The best vantage point is, without a doubt, Hallgrímskirkja, the large church that overlooks the city—though no matter where you are in the city, you're sure to get a decent show. Protective glasses, if you err on the side of caution, are sold around the city in the lead up to the night; common sense dictates that it's sensible to protect yourself when nearby or using fireworks.
Photo from Imagine Peace Tower Tour
Besides Christmas and New Year, visitors coming to Iceland may be interested in two other cultural events. Every year on the Winter Solstice (December 21st), the Imagine Peace Tower on Viðey Island is relit, until December 31st. It's possible to take a ferry over to the island to watch this ceremony.
This ceremony is sometimes attended by Yoko Ono, who conceived the idea in memory of Jon Lennon. The base of the tower has 'Peace' written on it in 24 languages, and the pillar of light can appear up to four kilometres in the air on clear nights.
On New Year's Eve, Reykjavík also hosts a 10-kilometre run. The event is hugely popular among locals, and participants often dress up in costumes to win prizes. The race starts and finishes at Harpa.
The festivities are not the only reason to come to Iceland in December, however. There are a number of great activities still running, and ice caving is one of the most renowned and spectacular that you can take part in.
Water running underneath the glaciers opens up tunnels within them, allowing visitors to explore the unbelievable world inside of an ice cap. This happens to three glaciers in Iceland in December, opening up an opportunity to learn about these sacred natural phenomena.
Iceland's ice caves are a beautiful part of the country, but they are natural formations, which means that they don't cater to our desires. After heavy rains they often flood, which can compromise their structural integrity, and if that happens, 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.
Vatnajökull, the largest glacier in Europe, is the most common destination 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 to them short and easy.
Photo from Katla Ice Cave Tour
Another such place is Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon; the icebergs that fill it are mesmerising, and it's one of the best, most-accessible seal watching locations in winter.
An option closer to Reykjavík, however, is the ice caving tour within Mýrdalsjökull, the ice cap that covers one of Iceland’s active volcanoes, Katla. Though this tour will not take you down the entire south coast, you'll still be able to see the majority of notable sites on the way, like Seljalandsfoss and Skógafoss waterfalls, which might be frozen!
In winter, this place is incredibly dramatic; the waves that crash against the rocks and along the shore are enormous and unpredictable. Admire them, by all means, but keep over thirty metres away from the water’s edge because of the notorious sneaker waves along this stretch.
With just four hours of sunlight in the weeks around the winter equinox, you will have plenty of opportunities to hunt for the Northern Lights in the twenty hours of darkness each day. There are just two conditions that make for a perfect view: high solar activity, and very little cloud cover.
You can check on both of these components on the website of the Icelandic Meteorological Office, in their Aurora section. As long as both of these circumstances look promising, you have a good chance of spotting the auroras.
There are three different ways to try to see the Northern Lights in Iceland. First, you can stay in Reykjavík, and try to spot them from its darkest places, such as Grótta Lighthouse or Klambratún Park. If they are particularly strong, you'll be able to see them even in places with some light pollution, like a dimly lit street or your hotel window.
The main problems with this approach, however, is that light pollution limits the intensity of the auroras, and you can't manoeuvre away from cloud cover with the same ease that you'd have in a vehicle.
A second option is to take your rental car (or your car) and go out in hunt of them yourself, using the Icelandic Meteorological Office's website to find the best areas. By going down this route, you'll avoid the city's light pollution; to sweeten the deal, you'll be able to find vantage points with no one else around.
Of course, this option should only be taken by confident drivers and you should have a good knowledge of the potential routes you are planning to take so you don't end up in a bad situation.
The final option, however, is the easiest and most reliable: taking a northern lights tour. These excursions are led by experienced guides who don't only know Iceland's roads and road conditions well, but are also very knowledgeable about the aurora borealis. They can explain the phenomenon to you, answering all of your aurora-related questions, while helping you with your camera settings.
To top it off, if the tour is cancelled due to unfavourable conditions, or the forecast was wrong and the lights didn't appear, you can take the tour again free of charge until you see them.
Many Northern Lights tours are very affordable, like this Audio Guided Northern Lights Tour, which you can take in one of ten languages; it's conducted on a larger bus and takes you to the best-known vantage points for the 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 that cannot be accessed by larger buses, ensuring that there are no crowds at the places you'll stop. You can also take Northern Lights cruises out of Reykjavík.
Photo from Caving Tour to Lofthellir Cave
You can tour lava caves throughout the year, but these excursions are particularly special during winter because of the ice sculptures that form within them. Because lava rock is very porous, the water that seeps through them freezes into stalactites and stalagmites.
Leiðarendi is more challenging, but makes for a more adventurous trip; there are no lights or walkways inside, and the whole circuit within requires a degree of clambering and crawling. The entrance is also often blocked with snow throughout winter, meaning that entering it requires you to slide down a chute that you dig out, so it's not necessarily the best choice for those who are uncomfortable with tight spaces.
People who are anxious about tight spaces might look into touring Víðgelmir or Raufarhólshellir. The entrances to both are wide with steps that lead to wooden pathways. The routes are well lit, and the height of the caves means that 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.
Picture from Into the Blue | Snorkelling Day Tour
The Silfra crack 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 from Langjökull glacier.
Because of the filtration process that the water undergoes as it moves through the lava fields, the water that emerges is crystal clear and incredibly clean. It also maintains a constant temperature of two degrees under the earth, so it doesn't freeze until it reaches lake Þingvallavatn.
These conditions make for a very special snorkelling site; visitors marvel at the vast, cathedral-like spaces and vividly blue water. In winter, however, its appeal only increases; how many people can say they swam in Iceland in the middle of winter?
During your dive, drysuits keep you, well, dry, while thick undersuits will stave off the cold; wetsuit hoods and gloves, if used, let the water in, but it warms quickly. Your guides are professional scuba instructors with a wealth of experience in cold water, and you'll be provided with the appropriate equipment.
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, at least 50 kilogrammes (110 lbs), and 150 centimetres tall (4'9").
Photo 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 a number of other whales.
The two best places for winter whale watching in Iceland are Faxaflói bay in Reykjavík, and the Snæfellsnes Peninsula. Many tours run from the capital, 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 exhibits behaviours like breaching and bow riding. You may also see the elusive harbour porpoise, and perhaps even a group of great orcas.
Picture from 2 Day Snæfellsnes Tour
Because of the herring that winter 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 to see these magnificent creatures.
Also in this area, you have a chance also to see pilot whales, which are quite hard to spot, and even beaked whales.
Glacier hiking is also an obvious choice if you're travelling to Iceland in December. Sólheimajökull and Skaftafellsjökull are both relatively easy to hike at this time of year.
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, like this Sólheimajökull Ice Climbing and Glacier Hike.
Skaftafellsjökull is on the far side of the south coast, located within the Skaftafell Nature Reserve. The views from this glacier are spectacular.
Most tours of this area in December are on-location, like this Skaftafell Glacier Hike (medium difficulty), so you'll have to meet your group at the park. There are also two-day packages and three-day packages that include guided glacier hikes and tours of nearby sites, like the Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon.
Glacier hikes are excellent because of the view, but it's so much more than that. They tickle your sense of adventure and are safely conducted by experienced glacier guides who can teach you all about their formation and potential future extinction.
Photo from Snowmobile Tour on Langjökull Glacier
You can also take a snowmobiling tour. Most snowmobiling tours in Iceland are conducted on Langjökull glacier and leave from Reykjavík; you can combine them with other excursions like the Golden Circle.
This thrilling experience usually lasts an hour, in which you are free to blast across the fresh snow. The tour operator provides everything you'll need to stay warm and safe out on the trail, but you'll still need appropriate winter wear beneath your equipment and a valid driver’s license if you're driving the snowmobile.
On Langjökull, you can also visit man-made tunnels have been carved in the most stable part of the glacier—an ice castle inlaid with ice sculptures and individual rooms.
While this Ice Tunnel Day Tour is open throughout the year, natural ice caves are only around for a short season. The advantage of an Ice Tunnel tour, however, is that it is less likely to be cancelled because of hazardous conditions.
Of course, there are plenty of locations where you can simply go sightseeing throughout December. The popular Golden Circle, Iceland's South Coast to Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon, the Snæfellsnes Peninsula, and the Reykjanes peninsula are all mostly accessible. Choose between a multitude of tours, or rent a 4WD car and drive yourself (more on this below).
Driving into the highlands isn't possible unless you join this day tour of Landmannalaugar in a Super Jeep. The roads are covered with metres of thick snow, so much so that the road signs may be completely covered.
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 because the weather in winter in Iceland is a force to be reckoned with.
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 is sure to be a soothing outing—and rather exciting, if there's a snowstorm raging while you're kicking back in the hot water.
Photo by Radka Valova
While Christmas and New Year events are the main draw of Iceland in December, and there are a wealth of activities that should not be overlooked, it's important to know how to prepare for a winter trip to Iceland. The two areas you need to consider more than anything else are the weather and the roads.
In the winter in Iceland, the temperature generally hovers around freezing— ranging between -1° and 4°C (34°F and 39°F). December is one of Iceland's wettest months, with 97 mm (3.8") of precipitation.
While snowfall is common in December, it's fairly likely that Reykjavík won't 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 sporadically between the months of January and April.
To prepare for this, ensure you have a hat and gloves, thermal undergarments, windproof and waterproof outer layers, and warm clothes in between; you'll also need sturdy hiking boots if you're planning to do some exploring.
To complement its cold, wet weather, Iceland is also very windy in December, and sharp winds whip around corners and alongside streets. The same low-pressure system that moves through Iceland in autumn continues into winter, so remember to wear warm clothing and sturdy shoes wherever you go.
It's also, well, dark. And the combination of dark, cold, and wetness can be a real downer. It's important to set a strict time to wake up in the morning and go to bed in the evening to avoid a seasonal slump. And keep your eyes peeled for the lights--both the beautiful Christmas lights that christen the city streets and the Northern Lights.
The temperature means that the roads are often icy. If you plan on renting a car, therefore, it is highly recommended that you rent a four-wheel-drive. If you want to drive out of the capital and into the country, it's absolutely essential.
If you've never driven in snowy or icy conditions before, or aren't comfortable doing so, it may be worth it to skip a rental car, and instead take tours around the country, 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!
To fully immerse yourself in the country without driving, you could book a guided winter package, which will take you to all the sites. If you're happy driving, there is also a wealth of winter self-drive packages to consider.
If you choose to drive yourself around Iceland in December, make sure that you know the exact route you're going to take before you set off, and that you let somebody know. The roads into the Highlands and many around the Westfjords are now closed, and you don't want to become stranded or snowbound. You can always see what roads are open on road.is, but the roads may close while you're on them, so we really don't recommend self-driving in winter.
Icelandic Meteorological Office’s website will give you all the information you need to know about the weather in Iceland in December. For example, some roads, like 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.
December is also a popular month for romantic getaways. With the festive spirit, a sprinkling of snow, Northern Lights and a wide variety of tours, the country becomes an amorous winter wonderland that draws couples from all around the world.
Marriage proposal in Reykjavík's winter wonderland city centre. Picture by jrbowe.
Additionally, the holiday season means that the city and surrounding towns are at their most beautiful, decked in lights and decorations, brightening up the dark nights and creating a fairytale ambience.
Snuggle up inside warm cafés, stroll the snowcapped streets, explore the impressive countryside and admire the Northern Lights at night. Perhaps the festive, romantic air.
You can enjoy an eight-or-nine day holiday to Iceland in December in many ways; some may prefer to base themselves in Reykjavík, while others may wish to see as much of Iceland’s nature as possible.
Different travellers have different interests, ability levels, and budgets. The suggested itinerary below can, therefore, be adjusted and tweaked to suit the individual, but has a broad allure that should appeal to most visitors.
The most important thing to decide before arriving is whether or not you'll rent a four-wheel-drive vehicle and drive yourself. There are a wealth of winter self-drive packages that could get you to the most popular destinations easily within a week if you choose to.
There is a 2-day road trip to Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon, which involves ice caving, can be combined with a 5-day self-drive around the west (for example, the Golden Circle and Snæfellsnes Peninsula). This will allow you to see a huge swathe of the country in about a week, and if you are staying longer, to enjoy the Reykjavík Festivities too.
The ambitious could even do these two as one self-drive package.
Driving in Iceland in winter is only recommended for those who are both experienced and confident. So the itinerary below outlines a trip comprised of tours and packages instead.
The most obvious choice for any traveller coming to Iceland for eight days is this winter package. In just over a week, you will get to see the Golden Circle, the South Coast, Jökulsárlón, the Snæfellsnes Peninsula, and you have the choice either to use a free day to explore Reykjavík or to fly to Akureyri and see the sites around Lake Mývatn.
You will go ice caving, take a complimentary Northern Lights bus tour or cruise, and choose between going horse-riding, snowmobiling, or snorkelling.
As December is the festive season, so you may want to linger in the capital. In that case, combining a few packages will allow you to create a perfect combination of city and nature.
You’ll arrive at Keflavík Airport on day one, jump on the Flybus, and start your holiday in the most relaxing way possible: in the Blue Lagoon. After resting in the tranquil waters until you're fully recharged from your flight, you’ll reach Reykjavík, and settle into your hotel.
After that, you'll have loads of free time to spend in downtown Reykjavik, taking in the Christmas spirit; the main street, Laugavegur, and the downtown area will be fully dressed in lights and decorations.
You'll spend more time in Reykjavík later on your holiday, but first, you'll head out into the countryside. With this 2-day tour, you'll head along the South Coast, seeing sites along the way to Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon on the first evening. If you're lucky, you'll see the aurora borealis dancing above the icebergs.
On the second day, you'll get to go ice-caving before returning to the capital.
Your fourth day in Iceland will be spent enjoying Reykjavík further. You can start in the morning by learning about Iceland’s fascinating history at the Reykjavík Maritime Museum or by having a giggle at the world’s only Phallological Museum, before heading to the Árbæjarsafn Open Air Museum when it opens at 13.00.
The Christmas Spirit here is infectious, and it's a great place to shop for some unique presents. That evening, enjoy a dinner in one of the city’s great restaurants or check out the nightlife at one of its many bars.
On days 5 and 6, you'll take a two day trip to the Snæfellsnes Peninsula. You'll have the opportunity to see its many diverse features and landscapes, such as Mount Kirkjufell, Snæfellsjökull Glacier, and the Lóndrangar sea stacks, as well as the chance to go seal watching and lava caving.
On day seven, you'll take the Golden Circle. Because this will be your last opportunity to immerse yourself in the Icelandic countryside, however, you'll combine it with another tour, like whale-watching, horse-riding, snowmobiling or snorkelling; the choice is yours.
On day 8, you'll head back to Keflavík Airport for your flight home; if you have a longer holiday, however, you can use the extra time to see more of Reykjavík, take in the festive spirit, and finish up your Christmas shopping.