Though the weather is milder than most people expect, December is one of the coldest months of the year. Temperatures range between 27-36 degrees Fahrenheit, however, without windproof outerwear, this will feel significantly colder.
If you're visiting southern and western Iceland (around Reykjavík), the warm waters of the Gulf Stream create a milder, and rainier, climate than other parts of the world at the same latitude. Because of this, temperatures on the west tend to be less cold during the winter months. In any case, be prepared for sudden fluctuations between sunshine and rain, wind and snow.
Being so close to the Arctic Circle it’s important to note that daylight hours are significantly reduced, about 5 hours the start of the month and 4 toward the end, though if you head north to Westfjords or Akureyri there’s as little as two or none as the sun is blocked by the mountains. It won’t be completely dark outside of the daylight hours as snow reflects the light and dawn and dusk lasts longer as well.
Crowds & Costs
December has few visitors especially at the beginning of the month, one-third the number of visitors than the peak summer season. You’ll get to experience both cities and nature with few crowds and tourists. The days leading up to Christmas and New Years, however, turn into a busy period in Iceland when prices for hotels and flights tend to spike, and booking in advance as well as making restaurant reservations ahead of time is a must.
Where to Go
Even though daylight is limited, there’s no place that should be off your agenda in December. Reykjavík is a great place to start your holiday, with its trendy restaurants, boutique shopping, and festive Advent and Christmas decorations, concerts, and celebrations. Other towns across the island known for winter culture, include Hafnarfjörður, and northern Iceland’s capital, Akureyri with easy access to mountains for winter sports, and Ísafjörður in the country’s northwest.
With the surge in winter tourism, Christmas markets are becoming ever popular in Iceland, in particular, Reykjavík. Immerse yourself in the festive atmosphere and ice skate on Ingólfstorg, go on a horse carriage ride with a hot beverage in hand at the Hafnarfjörður market, immerse yourself in a wintry wonderland at the Heiðmörk nature reserve, and to really understand how Icelanders traditionally celebrate Christmas, visit the Árbær Open Air Museum.
If you came for the ice and snow, head east to Jökulsárlón, the glacier lagoon, west to the Snæfellsnes Peninsula, north to Akureyri for pretty views of snow-laden mountains, Lake Mývatn and a host of concentrated sights and activities: volcanoes, geothermal hot springs, caves, and lava fields.
Due to Iceland’s winter conditions and mountainous terrain, getting around this time of year will likely involve a mix of short flights, 4x4 rentals, and/or Super Jeep transfers and excursions.
What to Do
Due to Iceland’s northern latitude, winter days are short and winter nights are very long making this a great month to check out the Northern Lights. Hire a 4x4 vehicle to seek them out or opt to join a northern lights hunt tour. Aurora Borealis enthusiasts may wish to catch a quick flight to Akureyri and continue on to Grímsey, an island that partially resides inside the Arctic Circle (and your best bet to see this dancing light phenomenon). For further tips on how to increase your chances read this article.
With few foreign tourists, popular attractions during peak season, especially along the southern and western coasts, offer a more intimate experience. Rent a car if you’re comfortable driving in wintry conditions, or join a tour and check out the popular Golden Circle route that consists of Þingvellir National Park, the lava fields of the Reykjanes Peninsula, the Geysir Geothermal Area, and Gullfoss—Europe's second most powerful waterfall. Head further east to Jökulsárlón lagoon to admire the many icebergs before strapping on crampons to do a little guided ice-caving—December offering the most stable conditions for caving.
City centers, in particular, Reykjavík, will be busy with the Christmas season activity: Icelanders flocking to admire and participate in the festive concerts, celebrations, and Christmas markets. Toward the end of the month consider making your way to Hallgrímskirkja, the iconic church in Reykjavík for one of the best spots to witness the colorful spectacle of fireworks as you ring in the New Year.
For more ideas on what to do in the winter, check out this article.
Events in December
Heiðmörk Christmas Market. Just outside of the capital, this sprawling festive market begins the end of November and runs until Christmas. Featuring seasonal music, Icelandic traditions, and yule-related readings and stories for added entertainment.
Christmas Season. Iceland only gets about four hours of daylight around Christmas, so the streets of towns and villages flicker with candle lights and the glow of the Northern Lights. For 13 nights leading up to Christmas, children leave a shoe out at night and wake up to find small presents left by the Yule Lads or Jólasveinarnir, Iceland’s version of Santa Claus. Many shops are closed from December 24 to December 27, when people celebrate together with friends and family.
Yule Lad’s Bath. A fun event that sees the 13 Yule Lads take their annual bath in northern Iceland’s Mývatn Nature Baths. Come for the show, stay for the homemade goods and crafts.
Jólakötturinn (Yule Cat). According to old Icelandic folklore, every Icelander must receive new clothes before Christmas Eve. Those who received no new clothes would be preyed upon by the large and vicious yule cat, who lurks around in the snow on Christmas Eve. The threat originates from farms who wanted to incentivize works to finish processing wool before Christmas time. Those who finished were rewarded with new clothes; those who did not were eaten by the Yule Cat.
New Years Eve. As there are no limitations on how many fireworks you can purchase, and no rules on when and where you can fire them over New Year’s, expect a lively and massive party, climaxing around midnight and continuing into the early hours of the morning.
Traveling to Iceland in December? Check out these great itineraries.
Winter Northern Lights Adventure - 4 Days. This 4-day itinerary offers an introduction to the highlights of southern Iceland, keeping the active adventurer in mind. Experience awe-inspiring landscapes like glaciers, lava-flows, cascading waterfalls, and geothermal pools and rivers, ending each day in search of the Northern Lights. Hike, bike, and stroll as you traverse the rugged lands of Iceland, on foot, or in a Super Jeep outfitted for the rough terrain.
Iceland Family-Friendly Winter Road Trip - 7 Days. This self-drive tour takes you along Iceland's south and west coasts for those in search of unique family adventure. After a day exploring the capital city, Reykjavik, you'll head west to the volcanic Snaefellsnes Peninsula, known as "Iceland in miniature" with a bit of everything (and a fraction of the crowds). You'll then continue to the more popular Golden Circle (Thingvellir, Geysir geothermal area, Gullfoss waterfall), and finish with two nights along the south coast.