Discover the best things to do in Iceland in December. December is one of the best times to visit Iceland due to the excellent conditions for viewing the northern lights and the uniquely enthusiastic festive spirit that energizes the locals during the holidays. Learn about the weather, the best places to visit, fun things to do, must-see attractions, and more in this complete guide.
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 exploring Iceland in December is far from dreary!
While this may seem a little bleak, the high festive spirits around the country at Christmas time combat any seasonal blues.
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 note to make your trip as safe as possible.
Continue reading for all you need to know about Iceland in December, starting with what to do in Iceland in December.
As a primarily Lutheran country, Iceland has developed unique and wonderful traditions around Christmas time. December is widely considered to be the second-best time to visit Iceland because of the explosion of Yuletide joy.
In Icelandic and related Scandinavian languages, the holiday is called 'Jol,' which echoes English's yule. Christmas in Iceland is a celebration of light, as the days start getting longer after the winter solstice. "Gledileg jol!" echoes down the streets of Reykjavik, a warm greeting to passersby.
Iceland formally converted to Christianity in 1000 AD at a session of the Althingi. Still, heathen practices persisted even after its formal adoption—and were sanctioned by the law if "practiced in secret." Even today, Asatru, the Old Norse religion, makes up around 1% of the religious population.
The Christmas celebrations in Iceland take place during Advent, and they weave together both Lutheranism and Paganism. The festival officially starts on the fourth Sunday before Christmas Eve, when the Christmas trees are lit across the country.
In the capital, the great Oslo Christmas Tree (yes, it's from Norway) is lit at Austurvollur ("The Eastern Field"), and the event is very popular. If you attend this, you'll see the first of the Icelandic Yule Lads!
These 13 brothers, who made a comeback in Iceland in the 1930s thanks to poet Johannes ur Kotlum, now dress up in full Santa regalia. Originally, they were frightening, ugly, and mischievous trolls. They're sneaky but not necessarily frightening (this depends on your outlook: one troll slams your doors, one steals milk from your cows, and another peeps into your windows. One even steals candles made from lard, presumably to stave off starvation).
Before Johannes ur Kotlum's poem formally laid out 13 Yule lads, the lads were continually changing – and the list did include a few zombie-like maniacs, like Lungnaslettir (Lung Splatter), who carried his lungs in front of his chest and beat children with them.
Their mother, a giantess called Gryla, is the terrifying part of the story. She's a cannibal, alongside her third husband, Leppaludi, who is several centuries older than her and more likable. Gryla descends the mountain every Christmas to kidnap and eat naughty children (and, possibly, grown adults).
Gryla 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 Bjork 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 23.
Restaurants in Iceland serve wildly popular "Christmas buffets" to which families and co-workers flock. Shops stay open until 10 p.m. from December 15 until December 23. Even bars host Christmas concerts and shows.
Note that some shops, restaurants, and tours may be closed or have limited opening hours at some point. Closures mainly occur between December 24 to December 26 and December 31 and January 1. Icelanders hold the biggest Christmas gatherings and exchange gifts on Christmas eve.
Those who want to enjoy the season outside the capital region could head to Obyggdasetur islands, the Wilderness Center. They host 'Nostalgia of Christmas' tours throughout December, where you can learn about the festival's history in Iceland while enjoying homemade Icelandic Christmas food.
Similarly, New Year's Eve in Iceland is a huge event. In Reykjavik, it's arguably the city's most lively and exciting night of the year.
At the turn of the year, thousands upon thousands of people take to the streets to watch one of the largest firework shows in Iceland. Locals buy fireworks in bulk from the Icelandic Search and Rescue organization (to fund them!) and set them off pretty much wherever they want to.
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 21), the Imagine Peace Tower on Videy Island is relit until December 31. 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 tower base has 'Peace' written on it in 24 languages, and the pillar of light can appear up to four kilometers in the air on clear nights.
On New Year's Eve, Reykjavik also hosts a 10-kilometer 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.
Besides Christmas and New Year, visitors coming to Iceland may be interested in the Winter Solstice. Every year on December 21, the Imagine Peace Tower on Videy Island is relit until December 31. 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 John Lennon. The tower base has 'Peace' written on it in 24 languages, and the pillar of light can appear up to 2.5 miles (four kilometers) in the air on clear nights.
It may be cold out, and many of the roads are closed, but there are still plenty of things to do in Iceland in December.
There are plenty of things to do in Reykjavik with the Christmas season in December. Also, many tours still run, meaning there's still quite a lot to do inside and outside the city.
Christmas in Reykjavik is one of the biggest highlights of December in Iceland. To make the most of your vacation, check the Visit Reykjavik website for 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 Hafnarfjordur, which is in the greater Reykjavik area. This settlement has deep ties to folklore and tradition, and its residents go all out. The hip town center turns into a fairytale Christmas village during the season.
Photo by Regina Hronn Ragnarsdottir
However, the best place to feel the Christmas spirit is at the Arbaejarsafn Open Air Museum, part of the greater Reykjavik City Museum. This museum is usually open only during summer, but it's also open on weekends in December, from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m.
The area features the turf houses and churches of old Iceland, with staged areas showing how Icelanders of various economic backgrounds traditionally celebrated. Christmas in Iceland has always been an important holiday, and the festivities in Hafnarfjordur will help you learn about Iceland's past while enjoying a hot cup of cocoa.
There's also an adorable gift shop in Hafnarfjordur that sells Christmas goodies and confections. You can see how tallow candles are made (considered an excellent gift because they provided light throughout winter—but let's not forget, they were also used as bait for Candle Stealer) in the stable. And when you get hungry, you can try the Christmas dinner staples: smoked lamb (hangikjot) and leaf bread (laufabraud), which is not made of leaves.
Photo by Regina Hronn Ragnarsdottir
There are guided museum tours at 1 p.m. and a Christmas service in the turf church at 2 p.m. The Icelandic Yule Lads arrive to entertain guests from 2-4 p.m. At 3 p.m., there's a celebration of dancing in the square of the reconstructed town.
You can buy tickets to the museum on location or through the purchase of a Visit Reykjavik 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.
One of the biggest events on New Year's Eve is the fireworks set off around the capital. The most popular spots are Hallgrimskirkja church and the Perlan Museum.
The best vantage point is, without a doubt, Hallgrimskirkja church, the iconic church that overlooks the city. Though no matter where you are in the city, you're sure to get a decent show. If you want to be on the safe side, protective glasses are sold around the city in the lead-up to the night.
Reykjavik also hosts a 6.2-mile (10-kilometer) run on New Year's Eve. The event is hugely popular among locals, and participants often dress up in costumes to win prizes. The race starts and finishes at Harpa Concert Hall.
After the run (or some pre-partying), there's also the famous Reykjavik nightlife for you to enjoy!
However, the festivities are not the only reason to come to Iceland in December. Many great activities are still running, and ice caving is one of the most renowned and spectacular in which you can take part.
Water running underneath the glaciers opens up tunnels within them, allowing visitors to explore the fantastical world inside an ice cap. Every December, three glaciers experience tunneling, which opens up an opportunity to learn about these natural phenomena.
Iceland's ice caves are a beautiful part of the country, and ice cave tours are one of the most popular tourist activities, but they are natural formations, which means that they don't always cater to traveler 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's 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.
Vatnajokull, the largest glacier in Europe, is the most common destination because of the incredible sites surrounding it, which are accessible throughout the winter.
Another 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 there short and easy.
With just four hours of sunlight in the weeks around the winter equinox, you'll have plenty of opportunities to hunt for the northern lights in the 20 hours of darkness each day. There are just two conditions that make for a perfect view: high solar activity and minimal cloud cover.
You can check on both of these components on the Icelandic Meteorological Office website 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 see the northern lights in Iceland. First, you can stay in Reykjavik and try to spot them from its darkest places, such as Grotta Lighthouse or Klambratun Park. If they are particularly strong, you'll be able to see them even in areas with some light pollution, like a dimly lit street or your hotel window.
However, the main problem with this approach is that light pollution limits the auroras' intensity, and you can't maneuver away from cloud cover with the same ease you'd have in a vehicle.
A second option is to take your rental car (or your car) and go out to hunt 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 dangerous situation.
The final option is the most comfortable and most reliable: taking a northern lights tour. These excursions are led by experienced guides who know Iceland's roads and road conditions well and are also very knowledgeable about the aurora borealis. They can explain the phenomenon to you, answering all your aurora-related questions while helping you with your camera settings.
To top it off, if the tour is canceled due to unfavorable conditions, or the forecast was wrong, and the lights didn't appear, you can retake the tour 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, many private tour options are available. 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 Reykjavik.
Photo by Regína Hrönn Ragnarsdóttir
You can tour lava caves throughout the year, but these excursions are exceptional 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.
Leidarendi lava cave 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 was dug out, so it's not necessarily the best choice for those uncomfortable with tight spaces.
People anxious about tight spaces might look into touring Vidgelmir cave or Raufarholshellir cave. The entrances to both are vast, with steps that lead to wooden pathways. The routes are well lit, and the caves' height means that you don't even need to crouch 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 fissure is located between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. The ravine is filled with water from the Langjokull glacier as they pull apart.
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 maintains a constant temperature of two degrees underground, so it doesn't freeze until it reaches lake Thingvallavatn.
These conditions make for an extraordinary snorkeling site. Visitors marvel at the vast, cathedral-like spaces and vividly-blue water. In winter, its appeal only increases. How many people can say they swam in Iceland in the middle of winter?
During your dive, drysuits keep you 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 they'll provide you with the appropriate equipment.
Of course, no activity is without risks, and snorkeling in the Silfra fissure is no exception. Therefore, to take a Silfra diving or snorkeling tour, you must be over 16, at least 110 pounds (50 kilograms), and four foot nine inches (150 centimeters).
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 several other whales.
The two best places for winter whale watching tours in Iceland are Faxafloi bay in Reykjavik and the Snaefellsnes Peninsula. Tours for whale watching in Reykjavik in December leave from the Old Harbour like the rest of the year and last between two and three hours.
The most common species is the white-beaked dolphin. This acrobatic animal travels in pods and exhibits behaviors like breaching and bow riding. You may also see the elusive harbor porpoise and perhaps even a group of great orcas.
Picture by Tómas Freyr Kristjánsson
However, because of the herring that spend winter around the Snaefellsnes peninsula, those eager to see killer whales should depart from here. Leaving from either Grundarfjordur or Olafsvik, you will set off into Breidafjordur bay to see these magnificent creatures.
In this area, you also can see pilot whales, which are pretty hard to spot, and even beaked whales.
The former is located on the south coast between Skogafoss waterfall and Vik, and you can take a Solheimajokull glacier hike day tour. Some of these tours also include an ice climb for some added adventure.
The Skaftafellsjokull glacier is on the far side of the South Coast, located within the Skaftafell Nature Reserve. The views from this glacier are spectacular.
In December, most tours of this area 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 Jokulsarlon 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.
You can also take a snowmobiling tour. There is an express snowmobiling tour from Reykjavik to the Langjokull glacier. 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 the Langjokull glacier, you can also visit human-made tunnels that 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. However, the advantage of an ice tunnel tour is that it's less likely to be canceled because of hazardous conditions.
What to see in Iceland in December? There are plenty of locations where you can simply go sightseeing throughout December. The famous Golden Circle, Iceland's South Coast to Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon, the Snaefellsnes Peninsula, and the Reykjanes peninsula are mostly accessible. Choose between a multitude of tours, or rent a four-wheel drive car and drive yourself (more on this below).
Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon in Southeast Iceland is one of the best, most-accessible seal-watching locations in winter. The icebergs that fill it are mesmerizing, too.
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 100 feet (30 meters) away from the water's edge because of the notorious sneaker waves along this stretch.
Driving into the highlands isn't possible unless you join this day tour of Landmannalaugar in a super jeep. The thick snow covers the roads and may even cover the road signs entirely.
The weather and road conditions may limit access to North Iceland, East Iceland, and especially the Westfjords.
Nonetheless, it's possible to book this winter seven-day self-drive tour to North Iceland. The itineraries are flexible because the weather in Iceland in December is a force to be reckoned with.
Is the Blue Lagoon open in December? You'll be happy to hear that it's a yes! But it's still as popular as ever, so if you can't book tickets to the Blue Lagoon, consider hitting out one of the best swimming pools and hot tubs in Reykjavik.
A nice soak in hot water after your winter adventures is sure to be a soothing outing—and rather exciting if there's a snowstorm raging while you're kicking back in hot water.
While Christmas and New Year events are the main draw of Iceland in December, and there are many activities you should not overlook, it's essential 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.
Absolutely! Iceland in December is one of the most festive times of the year, with Christmas and New Years' Eve in full swing. The winter solstice also means you get the longest hours of nighttime throughout the year, which is perfect for northern lights hunting.
As we've covered, all the glacier and ice cave tours are also at their peak. The only important thing is to pack all your winter gear on this trip!
Aside from being aware of Iceland's December weather, it's important to pack enough warm clothes and the short daylight hours.
But the most important thing to be aware of is driving in Iceland in December.
The temperature means that the roads are often icy. Therefore, if you plan on renting a car, it's highly recommended that you rent a four-wheel drive. If you want to drive out of the capital and into the country, it's 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 more experienced drivers take the wheel.
Hopping onto a tour is undoubtedly the easiest, safest, and most stress-free option; you won't even need to drive from Keflavik International Airport to Reykjavik!
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's 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 depart and that you let somebody know beforehand. The roads into the Highlands and around the Westfjords are now closed, and you don't want to become stranded or snowbound. We recommend always checking the road conditions before you drive.
The Icelandic Meteorological Office 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. Others are susceptible to avalanches after heavy precipitation, so make your plans accordingly, and be flexible if you can see that the roads could compromise your safety.
In December, the weather in Iceland is one of the coldest out of the year. Iceland is also very windy during this month. 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 quite dark. And the combination of dark, cold, and wetness can be a real downer. It's essential 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.
How cold is Iceland in December? In the winter, the temperature generally hovers around freezing— ranging between 34 F and 39 F (-1 C and 4 C). December is one of Iceland's wettest months, with 3.8 inches (97 mm) of precipitation.
Snowfall is common in December. 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.
While the rest of the country might be covered in snow, it's likely that Reykjavik won't be beneath it. The capital's climate is warmer than the rest of the country, and it tends only to be covered in snow sporadically between January and April.
To fully enjoy the festivities in Iceland in December, Reykjavik is the top choice. The roads to North and East Iceland and the Westfjords are affected by the weather, making the capital and South Iceland the two best options.
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 a romantic winter wonderland that lures couples worldwide.
Additionally, the holiday season means that the city and surrounding towns are at their most beautiful, decked in lights and decorations, brightening up the nights and creating a fairytale ambiance.
Snuggle up inside warm cafes, stroll the streets, explore the impressive countryside, and admire the northern lights at night.
You can enjoy an eight-or-nine day holiday to Iceland in December in many ways. Some may prefer to base themselves in Reykjavik, while others may wish to see as much of Iceland's nature as possible.
Different travelers have different interests, ability levels, and budgets. Therefore, the suggested itinerary below can be adjusted and tweaked to suit the individual but has an overall 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 self-drive winter packages that could get you to the most popular destinations easily within a week if you so choose.
There's a two-day road trip to the Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon, which involves ice caving, and can be combined with a five-day self-drive around the west (for example, the Golden Circle and Snaefellsnes Peninsula). The combination will allow you to see a huge swathe of the country in about a week, and if you are staying longer, to enjoy the Reykjavik festivities, too.
The ambitious could even do these two as a combined nine-day winter Snaefellsnes and South Coast 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 consisting of tours and packages instead.
The most obvious choice for any traveler coming to Iceland is this eight-day winter wonderland package. In just over a week, you'll get to see the Golden Circle, the South Coast, Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon, the Snaefellsnes Peninsula, and you have the choice either to use a free day to explore Reykjavik or to fly to Akureyri and see the sites around Lake Myvatn.
You'll go ice caving, take a complimentary northern lights bus tour or cruise, and choose between horse-riding, snowmobiling, or snorkeling.
As December is the festive season, 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 Keflavik 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 settle into your hotel in Reykjavik.
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 decked in lights and decorations.
You'll spend more time in Reykjavik later on your holiday, but first, you'll head out into the countryside. With this two-day tour, you'll explore the South Coast, seeing sites along the way to the Jokulsarlon 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.
You'll spend your fourth day in Iceland further exploring Reykjavik. You can start in the morning by learning about Iceland's fascinating history at the Reykjavik Maritime Museum or by having a giggle at the world's only Phallological Museum before heading to the Arbaejarsafn Open Air Museum when it opens at 1 p.m.
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 excellent restaurants or check out the nightlife at one of its many bars.
On days five and six, you'll take a two-day trip to the Snaefellsnes Peninsula. You'll have the opportunity to see its many diverse features and landscapes, such as Mount Kirkjufell, Snaefellsjokull Glacier, and the Londrangar sea stacks, as well as the chance to go seal watching and lava caving.
On day seven, you'll see 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 snorkeling; the choice is yours.
On day eight, you'll head back to Keflavik Airport for your flight home. If you have a more extended holiday, you can spend extra time seeing more of Reykjavik and finishing up your Christmas shopping.
Are you going to Iceland in December? Let us know if the guide was helpful to you and which tours you are most interested in!