While the eternal night may seem daunting, end of year holidays are a great way to discover Iceland, and you can expect a magical Christmas Eve and New Year's Day there.
As you can imagine, you won't be doing the same things at this time of the year as in summer: the days are much shorter and the weather conditions become very unpredictable. However a winter holiday in Iceland will be unlike anything you've ever seen, and there are all sorts of things to do!
At this time of the year from mid-November to mid-March a certain lifestyle sets in, the rhythm of winter (Additional information on Iceland in Winter). The days are brutally short (see our dedicated article on local weather), with 5 hours of daylight near the capital and just 2 hours in Akureyri. Temperatures plummet, but not much worse than those in France (around 0°), however the perceived temperature is much colder because of the wind, which can be relentless.
In central Iceland, the temperatures drop further, far below 0°, but this part of the island is almost entirely inaccessible in winter except via Super Jeep Tours (see excursions below) so you likely won't experience that arctic cold.
Winter is obviously the ideal time to observe the Northern Lights, and that is a light show worth a thousand words.
Contrary to popular belief, Iceland gets quite busy during the Christmas holidays, so you'll need to book in advance, especially accommodation and flights (Flying to Iceland). Some accommodations are closed in winter, as is the case for example with Edda hotels and various guesthouses outside the capital.
And keep in mind that during this period, the rates are about the same as summer for accommodation or flights. You can save money on vehicle rentals, as most visitors don't bother in winter as road conditions can be very unpredictable, and instead book some day trips with a tour guide.
But if you really want to explore, you can rent a 4x4 vehicle which will be fully equipped for winter driving, but travel will remain limited to the roads still open around Reykjavik. (Vegagerdin)
Christmas, known locally as “Jól”, is a cherished tradition for most Icelanders. In fact, Christmas Eve starts several weeks before the 25th in Iceland.
From early December, Reykjavik tunes into the rhythm of Christmas, with the streets and shops decked out in Christmas colors throughout the downtown area, and everyone gets into the spirit of Jól.
On December 24, the local tradition is as follows: The family meal starts early, at 6PM, to leave time for the rest of the evening. This meal is obviously a feast with traditional dishes that range from glazed pork in Coca-Cola sauce, gravlax salmon, or the numerous mutton recipes the locals love so much.
Once the meal is over, everyone opens presents and the practising go to midnight mass.
December 25th, Christmas Day or "Jóladagur" as they call it here, is a day spent with family around another feast of a meal where everyone enjoys their gifts and their time together.
Photo credit: jacek swiercz @fotolia
New Year's Eve is inevitably a huge party celebrated by most Icelanders, especially in Reykjavík. Reykjavík is clearly the place to be to experience New Year's Eve.
As with Christmas, people eat early enough, around 6PM, to have time to enjoy the evening afterwards.
Generally, after the meal, Icelanders head out to launch fireworks and celebrate until midnight when the show reaches its peak. The amount of fireworks launched (see video) in the sky over Reykjavík is quite simply incredible. Icelanders particularly appreciate this tradition.
Ideally, the best viewpoint for the show is the Perlan to gain some altitude and admire the light show. Then people usually meet on Laugavegur Street or near the Hallgrimskirkja Cathedral.
After the fireworks festival, most Icelanders end the evening in bars until they have had their fill.
Whether you're looking for New Year or Christmas, there are countless quality restaurants serving typical Christmas dishes. Here is a selection of great restaurants in Reykjavík for any budget.
And keep in mind, you can book package deals for the perfect Christmas Eve or New Year's Eve:
Photo credit: U. Gernhoefer @fotolia
In winter, there is lots to do in and around town. Most tourists take the opportunity to leave Reykjavík in the days between Christmas and New Year's Day by planning a few tours.
The famous Perlan features a particularly interesting exhibit called “the Wonders Of Iceland” which showcases Iceland's unique and often magical natural phenomena.
The visit always a hit with old and young alike and does a great job explaining these natural features: volcanoes, tectonic plates, earthquakes, geothermal energy, glaciers, ice tongues, icebergs, and the flora and fauna are celebrated here.
Sometimes it's a video, other times a small interactive game. For example, The Perlan teaches you about glaciers with 100 m artificial ice tunnel right there in the building (or rather below it). But it gets cold down there, so wear layers! There is also a superb 360° planetarium that shows spectacular videos of the Northern Lights in 8K!
Thankfully, there are a range of short package tours during winter, for example 2 or 3 days to discover the wonders of the south (ice caves, black sand beaches, Icebergs of Jókülsarlón, waterfalls, Diamond Beach, etc.)
Northern Lights excursions
Ice cave trips and glacier hikes
Going to Iceland during the holiday season is a great way to learn about local Christmas folklore and appreciate Iceland's very Christmas-y winter charm, with Reykjavik becoming a riot of colour for the celebration.
The magic of Christmas starts to set in weeks before Christmas and continues until the New Year's Eve incredible fireworks show.