Reykjavik in December

Things To Do In Reykjavík In December

Reykjavík, being the most northerly capital city in the world, is as good as it gets if you're looking for a Nordic yuletide. Long winter nights lit by cheerful Christmas lights, a tradition of unique festivities, and the near-certainty of snowfall wait to reward travellers who make the Icelandic capital their end-of-year destination.

1. Gifts of Socks, Books and Light

The Christmas Cat in downtown Reykjavik

Those long winter nights really are long. The solstice on the 21st of December brings the shortest day of the year, with the darkness settling over Reykjavík for 20 hours and the sun just peeking over the horizon for the four hours left. But for centuries, Icelanders have responded to this by bringing their own light into the gloom. Households, outside and in, bathe in the gentle glow of fairy lights. And the city follows suit, hosting a magnificent display of Christmas illuminations in its streets and parks.

One such sight is the Oslo Christmas Tree in Austurvöllur, which celebrates the cultural ties between Iceland and Norway, and the lighting of which—on the first Sunday in Advent—marks the start of the festive season in Reykjavík. And just around the corner on Lækjartorg lurks Jólakötturinn (The Christmas Cat), a large wire-frame seasonal statue festooned with tiny lights. Icelandic yule lore has it that this fearsome creature will devour anyone who doesn't get new clothes for Christmas, so be grateful if you get some socks in your stocking this year.

Speaking of gifts, any list of things to do in Reykjavík in December has to include a little Christmas shopping. Beginning not far from Jólakötturinn, Laugavegur—a semi-pedestrianised avenue of boutique shops and tourist facilities—offers up all kinds of present-buying opportunities. Two standout stores are Hjarta Reykjavíkur (The Heart of Reykjavík), owned by a local artist and selling mugs, puzzles, coasters and posters celebrating the city, and Litla Jólabúðin (The Little Christmas Shop), which caters to any impulses you might have to buy cute Christmas-themed paraphernalia.

Jólabókaflóð (literally "Christmas Book Flood") is the Icelandic tradition of giving books as gifts on Christmas Eve, the idea being that the recipient then spends a cosy festive season immersed in lovingly provided literature. If you want to join in, Hús Máls og Menningar (House of Languages and Culture) on Laugavegur has one of the widest selections of English-language books in town and also boasts a cafe/bar which hosts live music performances. Aficionados of used books can try Bókin on Klapparstígur, a curious old shop which mainly deals in Icelandic-language publications. But make sure you check out the gift shop on the fourth floor of Perlan, where you'll find books capturing Iceland's striking glaciers, volcanoes and northern lights through beautiful photography.

2. Smelly Skates and Unruly Lads

The Icelandic santa clauses, or yule lads, performing in Reykjavik

Another tradition bound to appear in our list of things to do in Reykjavik in December concerns Þorláksmessa (The Feast of St. Þorlák), which takes place on the 23rd of the month. St. Þorlák is the patron saint of Iceland, and his day is widely recognised as marking the end of Christmas preparations. The food traditionally eaten on this day is kæst skata—fermented skate—which, with its strong smell of ammonia and chewy texture, might be a challenge to non-Icelandic palates. But if you're game, you might find it served at more traditional local restaurants, such as Kaffi Loki opposite the entrance to Hallgrímskirkja.

But beyond the merry festive traditions of consuming books and rotten fish, there are plenty of other things to do in Reykjavik in December. Kids especially will love the old Icelandic legend of the Yule Lads, 13 elfin sons of trolls who get up to various sorts of mischief around the festive season. Each one named after their naughty deeds, such as door-slammer or candle-stealer, the Yule Lads create havoc around the houses of humans. However, in more recent times—and in the absence of a Santa Claus legend in Iceland—their image has softened a little, and they have been attributed with bringing gifts to well-behaved children. Animations of individual lads are projected onto various buildings around Reykjavík during the festive season; see if you can spot all 13 of them as you go about the city.

3. Lights for Peace

The imagine peace tower in Viðey

Another source of light in the Icelandic winter darkness is the Imagine Peace Tower, a creative installation on the island of Viðey, which sits in the bay just northeast of Reykjavík. Created by Yoko Ono, the Peace Tower is dedicated to world peace in memory of John Lennon and comprises a plinth which shoots an intense column of light up into the sky. It's lit during the hours of darkness at certain times of the year, including from the winter solstice to New Year's Day. You can easily see it from the mainland, but you can also visit the Peace Tower during that period via tours run by the local boat company Elding.

4. The Other Kind Of Skate

After the light-gazing shopping and lad-spotting, stop by Ingólfstorg—the square in Reykjavík's town centre—for a quick whizz around the ice-skating rink. Every December, the plaza is transformed into a glitzy, festive frozen pond, complete with festooned fairy lights, music, a disco glitter ball and stalls selling hot drinks and other treats.

5. The Best Light Show On Earth

The long hours of nighttime that you'll enjoy throughout December in Reykjavík will provide ample cover of darkness for another kind of winter illumination: the aurora borealis. These shimmering, ethereal sheets of coloured light in the sky are the result of solar particles hitting Earth's atmosphere and actually occur most around the equinoxes in March and September. However, the darkest month of the year, December, provides the best chance of seeing them. You'll improve your odds by hunting them in areas away from sources of urban light pollution; a good spot is the northernmost tip of the Seltjarnarnes Peninsula, in the west of the city.

6. Christmas Farms and Craft Markets

The Arbaer Open Museum in Reykjavik

The Árbær Open Air Museum preserves Reykjavík's history through a living exhibit; visitors are taken through historical farm buildings with original furnishings by costumed guides who demonstrate how Icelanders used to live. On the two Sundays before Christmas, visitors can experience seasonal activities such as casting candles from tallow, printing greeting cards, singing carols around the tree and boiling skate for a festive meal.

Many countries in northern Europe are known for their outdoor Christmas markets. And while the wild weather of Iceland makes that idea a little trickier to pull off, Reykjavík can certainly offer visitors an el fresco gingerbread man or two… Icelandic style, of course.

The Reykjavík Forestry Association runs a Christmas market every weekend during Advent in the forest at Heiðmörk. It's a wonderful chance to combine a stroll in the woods with browsing unique local handicrafts, art and festive foods. It's located a little way out of town but only 20 minutes from downtown Reykjavík if you have a car.

Also, technically out of town—in fact, in the next town over, but only 15 minutes away by car, and you could even take a Reykjavík city bus—visitors will find the delightful Christmas village in Hafnarfjörður (Jólaþorpið í Hafnarfirði in Icelandic). Among the decorated trees and houses are festive treats, crafts and costumed Christmas characters every Friday, Saturday and Sunday during December.

7. Blowing Out The Old Year

Fireworks on New Years Eve over Perlan Museum

You haven't truly experienced New Year's Eve until you've spent the turn of the year in Reykjavík. Fireworks figure hugely in Icelanders' celebration of the year's end, so much so that they describe the celebration as "sprengja út árið" which literally means "blowing out the year". There are no officially organised fireworks displays, just some locally arranged bonfires and every Reykvíkingur in the city letting off their personal stash of fireworks whenever and wherever it pleases them.

There are a few places around the city at which folk gather to make the experience a communal one: Hallgrímskirkja, Harpa and Sólfarið (the Sun Voyager sculpture) are all popular. But the best views of the pyrotechnic mayhem are surely to be found on the top floor of Perlan, where the restaurant, cafe, bar and outside observation deck offer unrivalled 360° views of the skies over Reykjavík and beyond. Perlan hosts a gala dinner on New Year's Eve, but as with anywhere in the city on this special night, you'll have to book—and book early.

At precisely 10:30 pm on New Year's Eve, the fireworks fall weirdly silent as everyone goes indoors to observe another great Icelandic tradition: watching the New Year's Eve special TV programme "Áramótaskaup". The show, which has been around for more than half a century, pulls the nation together through satirical sketches and skits reflecting last year's events in Iceland. More than 70% of Icelanders tune in, and the good news is that you can join them as the programme is normally broadcast with English subtitles.


Tjörnin in Reykjavik in December

Is December a good time to visit Reykjavík?

December is a wonderful time to visit Reykjavík! Festive lights illuminate the city; there are numerous Christmas activities to enjoy and a good chance of snowfall. Plus, if you stay for New Year's Eve, you'll witness an immersive fireworks display unlike anything that you have ever experienced.

Are there northern lights in Iceland in December?

Because you can't predict how nature will behave, you can never tell when the aurora borealis will appear. But since you need a dark night to see them, and December is the time of year when the Icelandic nights are longest, your chances are pretty good if you keep your eyes on the skies.

How cold is Iceland in December?

Temperatures in Reykjavík at the end of the year will usually hover just above freezing, although more remote locations around Iceland may be colder. Remember that the Icelandic weather is unpredictable and the temperature can drop drastically, especially when the wind picks up. Bring plenty of warm layered clothing, walking boots and good waterproof/wind-resistant outerwear.

Is it worth going to Iceland in December?

December can be one of the best times to visit Iceland. Although the days are short and travel around the country might be limited by weather conditions, there is so much for visitors to see and do without straying too far from Reykjavík. And going at the quietest time in the tourism calendar means that you'll avoid the peak-season crowds.

Is Reykjavik snowy in December?

Although you can never guarantee anything about the Icelandic weather, the fact that the capital's temperature hovers around freezing in December means that there's a very good chance of snow in the city during that month.

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