Icelanders take New Year’s Eve very seriously and their enthusiasm to celebrate has made Reykjavik one of the most fun places to toast the beginning of the new year. From huge bonfires that spring up throughout town to the amazing fireworks display that lights up the sky at midnight, this holiday is the biggest party of the year for Icelanders and visitors alike.
It's also a great excuse to take a week-long vacation and explore the magical wonderland that the "land of fire and ice" turns into during the winter months. Dogsledding, glacier hiking, touring ice caves: the list of seasonal activities goes on and on, and that’s on top of the stunning snow-covered landscape that will accompany you anywhere you go.
At night, look out for the Northern Lights which often illuminate the sky and make for an unforgettable sight. You'll likely need to drive outside of Reykjavik to spot them, but many locals have even seen them from the downtown area when the sky is clear and the aurora activity is high. Pro tip: download the Aurora app, which monitors real-time aurora activity and sends you alerts whenever there’s a good chance of catching the elusive celestial phenomenon.
Day 1: New Year’s Eve in Reykjavik
Make plans to arrive at Keflavik Airport in the morning on December 31 and pick up your rental car. The drive to the city center takes about 45 minutes. If you are planning on staying in a hotel, book a room a few months in advance—this really is the most popular day of the year to be in Reykjavik so don’t wait until the last moment to find accommodation.
Days are short in the winter—the sun will not rise until after 11 am and set a little before 4pm—which gives you about four hours of relative sunlight. Fortunately, Reykjavik has a small and very walkable downtown area so getting places doesn’t take long. Take a walk along one of the two main shopping streets, Laugavegur Street and Skolavordustigur, and reach lake Lake Tjornin, which freezes in the winter so you can ice-skate, a popular activity among locals. Of course, you can’t miss Harpa Concert Hall, the futuristic building that’s in the center of the town’s cultural life, as well as the Sun Voyager sculpture, a five-minute walk from the Hall, overlooking the harbor.
New Year’s Eve festivities start around 8:30 pm when bonfires are lit. In 2016, there were ten bonfires across the city, and they tend to be at the same places each year. Ask a local or your hotel receptionist for tips, but the bonfire at Ægissíða beach, west of the city center is a popular option.
Don’t be surprised if the city quiets down from 10 until about 11:30 pm—the festivities are not over yet. Icelanders go home to watch a popular comedy show on TV, so streets may seem a bit empty during that time. But as soon as it’s over people flock outside and the party begins. The square in front of Hallgrimskirkja Church is a good spot to watch the amazing fireworks.
You can also opt for a boat tour that lasts about an hour and a half, which will give you a front-row seat and unobstructed views of the beautiful firework display.
Day 2: Glacier Hiking
If you're not too tired from the first night's festivities, head to Sólheimajökull glacier, located in the South about a two-hour drive from Reykjavik. One of the most accessible glaciers in the country, it has become a popular choice for hikers. Gravel road number 221 will lead you from Route 1 to the Sólheimajökull parking lot that serves as a meeting point for most tours.
All tour companies provide ice-walking equipment but you should bring waterproof pants, a jacket, and a very good pair of hiking shoes. Enjoy the frozen field of ice formations and otherworldly views, but never wander off and always follow your guide’s instructions. Glaciers have many hidden crevasses that can cost you your life. Expect to spend about two hours exploring the glacier, and if you opt to do some ice-climbing as well, that will add another hour to your total time.
Day 3: Horseback Riding in the Snow
Whether you are a complete beginner or a pro, horseback riding in the snow is a must-do activity in Iceland. The origins of the Icelandic horse can be traced back to Viking times and now there are around 80,000 horses in the country.
Many of them live on farms - quite a few in the vicinity of Reykjavik - that are open to the public, and many companies even offer pick-up services from your hotel. If you'd rather use your own vehicle, the drive should not take you more than half an hour to an hour depending on the farm you've selected.
Once there, expect to spend about 90 minutes riding through the breathtaking wintry scenery of the Reykjanes peninsula. You will also learn more about the breed and its history. Just like with any winter tour, wearing warm socks and waterproof clothes is essential as winds tend to be very strong this time of the year.
Day 4: Super Jeep Tour to Landmannalaugar
With its rugged landscape that is often not accessible in the winter via normal transportation, Iceland is the perfect destination for thrill-seeking visitors. One such region is Landmannalaugar in the Icelandic Highlands in the south. The area is famous for its wonderfully-hued rhyolite hills, hot springs, and volcanic landscape.
Tour this remote region in a modified super jeep that cruises the hostile wintry terrain with ease, allowing you to explore places and see sights that you wouldn’t be able to in a normal vehicle. Don’t forget to bring a bathing suit, as there’s nothing quite like taking a dip in a hot geothermal spring surrounded by a snow-covered field. Most tours start at a meeting point in the vicinity of Hella and Hvolsvollur, small towns about an hour to an hour and a half drive along the main Route 1 road from Reykjavik.
Day 5: Dogsledding through the Countryside
There is a reason why dogsledding tours sell out months in advance—it is a once-in-a-lifetime experience that allows you to see the country through a unique lens. Expect to spend about an hour racing through the Icelandic countryside in a sled pulled by friendly huskies that you’ll even get to meet and cuddle after the ride. Bring warm clothes, sunglasses, and of course a camera with you.
The most popular dog sledding farm is Hólmasel, located about an hour and a half south of Reykjavik, which makes it perfect if you were also hoping to stop at some of Iceland's beautiful and well-known sights along the South Coast.
Day 6: Snowmobiling Glacier Tour
While most people only see Iceland’s glaciers from afar, if you're looking to spice up your vacation with some serious adrenaline-inducing experiences, consider booking a snowmobile tour. The tours usually last between two to three hours and take place at the biggest glaciers in the country located along the south coast: Vatnajökull, Langjökull, or Mýrdalsjökull. The Langjökull tours usually start from Gullfoss, about an hour and a half northeast of the capital.
Mýrdalsjökull is an especially exciting option because of the sweeping views of the south coast that you see from the top of its icecap. It is located very close to the small town of Vik, or about a two-hour drive from Reykjavik. If you plan to join an ice cave tour the following day, plan to stay in Vik overnight - it will put you significantly closer to your meeting point the next morning.
Day 7: Ice Cave Exploration
People often describe Iceland’s landscape as “otherworldly” and nothing deserves that title more than ice caves. They are formed inside glaciers in the winter after the melting water in them freezes. The result is caves of different size lined with icy walls in blue and black (the black is actually volcanic residue) that will blow you away.
Most tours take place in Vatnajökull glacier, about a four-hour drive from Reykjavik if you didn't opt to stay in the small fishing town of Vik the night before - which is highly recommended due to limited daylight hours in winter months. After your adventure, head back to Reykjavik or spend another night hanging out in Vik before heading back to the capital for your flight home.