What are the best things to do in Iceland in December and January recommended by locals? Should you visit Iceland in December and January, the darkest winter months of our small island in the North Atlantic Ocean? Is it too cold then? Is it dark all day? Can I even see the stunning Icelandic nature during this time of year? Am I guaranteed to see the Northern Lights in December and January? Are the hot springs all frozen? ...and so on!
As a local, born and raised in Iceland, I often get questions from my friends abroad (I studied and worked in the USA for six years so I have a lot of friends asking!) whether to visit Iceland in summer or winter, along with many of the questions above and other questions related to things to do in December and January. While I highly recommend visiting Iceland in the summer as well, visiting Iceland in December or January, in the thick of the winter, is a completely different experience - It will be a unique unforgettable trip you will never forget.
Timelapse photo by my friend Snorri Þór Tryggvason
To help my friends and other readers, I decided to write a comprehensive overview of everything I recommend visitors to do in Iceland during the months of December and January in Iceland. While I highly recommend you to spend time in other parts of the country if you have ample time, this article is particularly focused on things to do and see in Reykjavik and day trips you can do from your base in Reykjavik.
In the winter months, I recommend visitors to stay in Reykjavik and do shorter organized trips to see the nature - many of the most popular sights are within a few hours from the capital. In the summer months however, I recommend driving around the whole country but this is not recommended in winter unless you are very experienced winter driver and have a lot of time to take into account changes in travel plans due to weather.
Here’s a quick overview of all my recommendations which you can read about in more details below. It’s a long list but I wanted to create a comprehensive list of everything to do and see, to help fellow travelers and visitors plan their trip and pick-and-choose on your own. I’ve tried to blend in off the beaten-path things locals to with some worth-visiting tourist attractions that I wouldn’t miss if I were visiting Iceland. Also - if you have any questions or need help planning your trip, don’t hesitate to reach out to me directly on Facebook Messenger and I’ll respond to you as soon as I can: Ask me a question on FB messenger
The day before Christmas Eve in Iceland is called “Þorláksmessa” or the day of St. Thorlak. Icelanders celebrate Christmas on Christmas Eve starting promptly at 6pm so the day before is one of the busiest shopping days of the year. On this day, the local tradition is to go downtown to shop (all shops are open until 11pm this day), walk around, meet friends, go to a concert and enjoy the holiday spirit. The Laugavegur shopping streets springs to live with street concerts, music and various celebrations - the downtown becomes packed with locals in the afternoon and through the evening. It’s awesome! Also, the older generations (sorry mom and dad!) have a tradition of eating fermented Skate this day so if you smell something weird, stay away! :)
The locals love to enjoy a good Christmas concert in the weeks leading up to the Holidays. In December, there are plenty of great concerts and music events and it’s impossible to count them all up here although I want to particularly mention one of my favorites Baggalútur and then shamelessly plug my own men's choir Karlakórinn Esja. You can find a great list of upcoming music events here and here.
Icelandic people celebrate the new year like none others. They go literally crazy with fireworks as there are very limited restrictions to shooting up fireworks here, unlike the USA and many other countries. Right around midnight, you will find the locals shooting up massive fireworks in every street and backyard, litting up the sky! One of the best places to observe the craziness as a visitor is by the iconic Hallgrímskirkja church - or get to know a local and have them invite you to their family’s private celebration. Another option is to observe the New Year's Celebration in Iceland from Sea.
If you have kids, there are also several massive bonfires earlier in the evening which you should definitely check out. Here’s a list from Reykjavik city I found of the bonfires (it’s outdated but doesn’t really change much from year to year) if you want to check it out on your own (that’s what I would do) but here’s also a guided tour of the bonfires. Last but not least, if you want a truly local authentic experience, a local tour guide we work with at Travelade offers this unique local New Years Experience called Magic and Mystery.
It has become an integral part of the Holiday season for many locals to join a Christmas Buffet at one Reykjavik’s restaurants or hotels. Last year I joined the Vox lunch christmas buffet which was delicious! Here is a good list of Christmas buffets in Iceland and various restaurant offers in December and January. However, the list is unfortunately in Icelandic so you might have to be creative using Google translate - but you can see the names/logos of the restaurants and just find their own website which usually is also in English. To learn more about the Icelandic Christmas traditions and taste some of the most popular dishes, you could also join this great Christmas walking tour downtown Reykjavik.
I’ve previously written an article with my top 10 restaurants in Reykjavik which I update regularly and all of the restaurants I recommend are great in December and January as well! Except for Dill right now since they closed at their previous location and are currently working on opening up at a new location. If you want to get a taste of some of the best restaurants in one evening, this Reykjavik Food Walk is an exceptional idea - and it’s even at a great price relative to all the food and drinks that are included (Warning: Food and drinks in Iceland are generally insanely expensive). It is also super important to book in advance particularly on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, New Years Eve and January 1st. Historically, a lot of restaurants are closed during those days so the ones open get booked up well in advance! Here is a good list of all restaurants open during Christmas in Iceland.
If you are a runner - or just want to jog around Reykjavik in a costume - I highly recommend joining the New Years Eve Run in Reykjavik. It’s a 10K run which has become a real tradition by a lot of local runners and is a great way to run off all the food consumed over the Holidays and end the year with a rejuvenating outdoor experience in the city.
There are few things better to get into the Christmas Holiday spirit - if that’s your thing - than visiting a cute local Christmas market while sipping a hot drink.
My three favorites are:
Those who know me know I love the outdoors. Therfore, this list of outdoorsy things to do in December and January is probably where I would personally start - a good mix of nature and activities.
Icelandic people love starting or ending their day in one of the local neighborhoods’ swimming pools - and for a good reason. It’s cheap, it’s warm, and it’s rejuvenating. Whether you want to swim or just sit and relax in one of the hot tubs and chat with your friends or join in on a conversation with locals. Here is a list of all the thermal swimming pools in Reykjavik and their opening hours, and here you have the swimming pools in neighboring towns of Kópavogur , Garðabær and Hafnarfjörður.
I often get the question whether the Blue Lagoon has become too touristy and crowded and is still worth a visit, or if the locals actually go to the Blue Lagoon. While it’s definitely touristy and as a local I don’t go there often (unless with friends visiting from abroad), I always tell people it’s hand down worth going. The Blue Lagoon does a great job of controlling the number of people visiting at any given time (Hint: You need to book weeks in advance if you book directly) so overcrowding is not a real issue in my opinion. Visiting the Blue Lagoon is simply an awesome relaxing semi-natural spa experience that is different from anything else you have ever done. Therefore, don’t miss out on the Blue Lagoon just because it is popular by other tourist, it really is popular for a good reason. If you don’t have a car on your own, I recommend booking this round trip tour around Reykjavik and the Blue Lagoon with entrance included.
Heiðmörk is an outdoor paradise just outside of Reykjavik, it’s literally a few minutes drive away from anywhere in Reykjavik. It’s mostly popular by locals who frequent there during all seasons for walking, hiking, trail-running, country-skiing and hanging out. During December there’s also the Christmas market there on weekends. It’s really a hidden gem very close to Reykjavik that’s off the beaten path of most visitors and tourists. Unfortunately the Heiðmörk Nature Reserve homepage is only in Icelandic but here is a map of Heiðmörk in English.
It may not be as famous as the ice-skating rink at Rockefeller Plaza in New York, but we do however have our own Christmas ice-skating rink right in the center of Reykjavik. It’s located on Ingolfstorg Square and is surrounded by small Christmas booths and shops. It’s definitely worth walking by and if you’re in the mood, why not rent the gear to hop on to the ice!
Taking a walk or a run near the lighthouse in Grótta, very close to downtown Reykjavik, is an awesome way to spend a couple of hours during December or January. During this time of year, I recommend going there either right before noon or around 3 or 4pm in the afternoon. During these hours in Winter the natural light is spectacular for capturing the moment in a photo. The lighthouse is beautiful, there is a black sand beach, lots of birds and wildlife, and plenty of paved walking paths.
Wait what? People always look at me with big eyes when I recommend them to go snorkeling in Iceland which I fully understand. Snorkeling in the cold winter months isn’t exactly what first comes to mind when people envision their trip to Iceland. That said, if you are into outdoor activities and want to experience a once-in-a-lifetime snorkeling trip it is definitely worth considering doing.
Silfra is a fresh-water underwater canyon in Thingvellir National Park in Iceland. The Silfra Canyon is located right in between the American and Eurasian continental tectonic plates and is a unique geological wander. The water is famously clear and visibility can reach well over 50 meters in the water. There is a good reason why this area has become a world-known snorkeling and scuba diving place attracting people to Iceland for this sole purpose. Going with a high quality tour operator is important and I recommend this Snorkeling tour in Silfra for those looking for a great experience. It comes with free photos from the tour. You will get dry-suits for snorkeling which also doubles down as a floating device but it still gets cold on this tour, so be warned! That said, becoming a little cold for a moment is definitely worth it for an unforgettable moment.
Another amazing outdoor activity in Iceland is going snowmobiling. It’s a super fun activity that is best enjoyed with friends. It’s actually very easy to drive a snowmobile and anyone can do it. All you need is to have a valid driver's license. Needless to say, a snowmobiling adventure needs to be booked with a solid tour company. Here are a couple of great day tour options for those staying in Reykjavik as these include free pickup in Reykjavik: Snowmobiling in Langjökull Glacier from Reykjavik and this combo-tour which also includes an ice cave exploration; Glacier Snowmobiling and Ice Cave from Reykjavik
Exploring a natural ice cave is one of the few things that can only be done during the winter months in Iceland! In the summer time it is not save so this can only be done in the right season. What few people realize is that in Iceland there are both man-made ice caves and natural ice caves. Visiting both is an unforgettable experience but clearly a different one.
Here are a few ice-cave options I recommend:
In addition to these all-natural ice cave exploration options I mentioned above, there is a massive man-made ice cave which is also incredible about a couple of hours from Reykjavik. In this experience called Into the Glacier (Note this tour starts at location so you need to have your own car - here is the same Into the Glacier tour with pickup from Reykjavik).
Finally, there is also a small man-made ice cave right in the middle of Reykjavik so if you're short on time, definitely check out the Perlan Glacier and Ice Cave Exhibition. I didn’t have too high expectations for it before visiting but it surely did surpass my expectations, it was worth the visit!
If you have never been on a real glacier, it is definitely something you need to check off your bucket list. There are plenty of options to do this in Iceland in December and January, ranging from very easy to more challenging and adventurous. Here are a few great options which all start in Reykjavik:
Most visitors come to Iceland at least in part due to its one-of-a-kind nature which you can definitely also enjoy during winter. Here are a few nature and sightseeing related things to do in December and January.
The million dollar question every single visitor asks, will I be able to see the northern lights in Iceland? Well, if you are coming in December or January, you are definitely “in season” so you have a pretty good chance to see these natural phenomena with your bare eyes. However, as with everything in nature, there is definitely no guarantee and you could hunt them for a week without spotting them if conditions are not in your favor.
In order for you to spot the northern lights, the sky needs to be clear - or at least partially clear - as well as a favorable auroral activity such as a strong interplanetary magnetic field and solar wind speed. Therefore, if you are going to hunt for the Northern lights yourself, the most important part is to check the forecast and go hunting when the aurora conditions are favorable. The same applies if you decide to go with a guided tour, it’s actually best not to book your trip far in advance but rather with a short notice when you see that conditions are looking good. If people want to maximize their chances of seeing the Northern Lights in Iceland in December or January, I therefore always recommend people to have some flexibility in their schedule and allow for at least one backup day if the first night doesn’t pan out. This website is a great source for the northern light forecast as well as this one by the Icelandic Met office.
Friends visiting also often ask me if they can see them by themselves or if they need to book a guided tour. The answer is that you can most definitely see them by yourself if you have a car to drive out of the city lights. I find it to be more of an adventure to go on my own searching for the northern lights - which is super fun - but in all honesty it is a bit more likely to go with a guided tour since the guides are experts on the forecast, know great off-the-beaten path places and most importantly, they often talk amongst themselves each night meaning that if the lights get spotted in some other area than they are located in they quickly know of it and can take you there directly. Hence, if you are short on time and don’t have a car, I definitely recommend going on a guided tour. If you do book a guided northern lights tour, I do recommend these two:
Aside from the Blue Lagoon, the Golden Circle is probably Iceland’s most famous attraction. It’s a great road trip through a few of the major natural sights in Iceland that can easily be done in a day. The Golden Circle includes a stop at Thingvellir National Park, the “Golden waterfall” Gullfoss and Geysir geothermal area where the original Geysir is located from which the English word “geyser” is drawn from, true story! This drive can either be done on a guided tour with literally almost every tour operator in Iceland or as a self-drive. I personally recommend doing it as a self-drive if you have the option of renting a car. That way you can do it at your own pace and be in control. Here is a great article by my friend Nina about everything you need to know about the Golden Circle.
In recent years, it has become more and more popular to add a stop at the “Secret Lagoon” which really isn’t much of a secret at all anymore! It is however a great old-fashioned natural hot spring which is really great. It’s a lot less touristy than the Blue Lagoon with somewhat limited facilities and fewer people. Overall, a great place to visit if you are doing the Golden Circle drive. In case you are not comfortable driving in the winter conditions in Iceland in December or January, you can also do the Golden Circle and Secret Lagoon guided day tour from Reykjavik.
Doing a super jeep tour is an incredibly adventure if such tours are within your budget. There are a ton of different options for super jeep day tours from Reykjavik and as I’ve mentioned in some of the other highlights above, you can also combine them with other day tours such as northern lights hunting. If you do have a couple of days to spare, the ultimate super jeep adventure is this two day trips to Landmannalaugar in the highlands. It’s mind blowing to get there in the winter and dip into an all-natural hot spring surrounded by picturesque landscape. For a one day trip I recommend either this Super Jeep, Caving, Lobster and Midnight Wonders or the Eyjafjallajökull Volcano Black Beach Safari in a Super Jeep from Reykjavik.
If you are looking to get a little more off the beaten path this time of year, the Snæfellsnes Peninsula is the perfect place. It’s only a couple of hours drive from Reykjavik and while it’s super popular during the summer, fewer people visit in December and January. On the peninsula you will find a few awesome small villages such as Stykkishólmur as well as monumental mountains like Kirkjufell which has become world famous since it was featured in Game of Thrones. For those fans out there, a big part of everything north of the wall was actually filmed in Iceland. Here is a solid article with a list of all the Game of Thrones filming locations in Iceland. If you are looking for a guided tour around Snæfellsnes Peninsula, this Snæfellsnes Minibus Tour is a great choice as it also includes a local dinner.
If you are looking for things to do for a day in Reykjavik exploring on your own and don’t care for driving outside the city, here are few experiences in the city that are worth checking out.
It seems that many visitors believe that whale watching is only done during the summer months but it can actually be done successfully year round, also in December and January. Here is a great classic whale watching tour that runs throughout the year and here is a list of multiple whale watching options and combo tours by Special Tours.
#22 Whales of Iceland
Now if you want to learn about all the whales swimming in the Atlantic Ocean around Iceland, see them in their real size (jaw-dropping!) but aren’t really in the mood for a boat trip this time of year, you can simply check out the Whales of Iceland Exhibition.
The big glass dome visible from most places in Reykjavik, called Perlan or “the Pearl”, is a great idea for spending a couple of hours in the city. In addition to its excellent views over the city, the whole building has been completely renovated in the last few years and some really amazing interactive glacier and space exhibitions have been opened up. It even has an indoors ice-cave. I’ll be honest when I say that my expectations when visiting the new exhibitions for the first time were somewhat low but I was very pleasantly surprised and had a great time! You can book Perlan Glacier and Ice Cave Exhibition here.
If you are comfortable driving in winter conditions in Iceland then renting a car is my preferred way of exploring the country. There are many parts of the country, you can easily get to yourself such as the Golden Circle, Blue Lagoon, South Iceland with the Black Sand Beach and Snæfellsnes Peninsula - and doing so in your own car is both cheaper and often more fun than going on a guided tour in a large bus. Just make sure you are comfortable driving, have some flexibility in your schedule to make adjustments if the weather changes, and make sure to keep good track of the weather forecast and road conditions.
Car rental prices in Iceland are unfortunately expensive relative to most other countries, so in my opinion it’s worth looking for better prices than the large multinational rental brands. Therefore, I always recommend this local car rental company to save on car rental in Iceland. It’s a mid-size family company with solid cars in all size categories and a great service.
Iceland is sometimes nick-named the smallest big city in the world because it has so much to offer compared to other cities of similar size. Museums are no exceptions. Here is a list of only a handful of recommended museums in Reykjavik. This is by no means meant to be an exhaustive list:
The nightlife in Iceland is famous for how vibrant it is. All the bars and clubs in Reykjavik are located in a close distance from each other in the downtown area. Different from the nightlife in many big cities where people choose one place for the night, the locals in Iceland almost always hop from one place to another in the same night. I’ll happily admit that while I was very much up to date about the nightlife scene a few years ago, my knowledge of the latest and greatest has becoming increasingly outdated since I became a dad last year :) Therefore, here is a better guide about the Icelandic nightlife from a younger friend. While I haven’t tried it myself, I have also heard super positive reviews from travelers who have joined this Reykjavik Bar Crawl which comes with a few drinks included.
The iconic glass building by the Reykjavik small boat harbor is called Harpa and is Reykjavik’s music and conference hall. It’s a stunning building designed by the Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson. It’s the home of many concerts, the Icelandic symphony orchestra and multiple events and conferences. It’s definitely worth a stop!
If it isn’t on Insta, it didn’t happen - right? Well, in any case there are several sights in Reykjavik that are worth snapping a selfie at or a group photo with friends. My top three are: Perlan, Hallgrimskirkja church and the Sun Voyage.
Last but not least…. If you really want to become a true local in Iceland and to the things local to in December and January - you go to one of the many local ice cream stores and indulge yourself with some tasty flavors. No matter how cold it is in Iceland, you will find the locals in an ice cream store, sometimes even with a line outside the door in the freezing cold. My personal favorite is Valdís.
Congrats on making your way all the way down here... I hope my comprehensive guide for things to do in Iceland in December and January was helpful! If you have any questions or need help planning your trip to Iceland, feel free to send me a message on Facebook.