VISIT ICELAND IN DECEMBER – WHAT TO KNOW FOR AN EPIC TRIP

IS A TRIP IN DECEMBER TO ICELAND A GOOD IDEA?

Iceland in December is…interesting! Iceland is probably one of the most stunning countries globally, with scenery so unique-looking that it’s hard to find its equal. And it looks as amazing in the summer months as it does in the winter months.

However, visiting Iceland in December also comes with some problems, and while I don’t say visiting in December is – per se – a bad idea, here are a few things to know when visiting in December. There are many amazing things to do in winter, but I also want to mention the bad and the ugly when visiting Iceland in December.

As a teacher, I cannot choose my holidays (yes, we have a lot of time off, but are not really flexible), so as I wanted to visit Iceland in winter, I had to go in December, and here is what I realized.

December in Iceland, Golden Circle with Arzo Travels
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 P.S. The images in this post are not necessarily related to my written content 🙂

WHAT TO PACK FOR ICELAND IN DECEMBER

Though Iceland in December is not as bad as many think, it is still important to dress warmly. Or better to dress in layers.

Coat – Warm And Waterproof: A warm, waterproof jacket should be one of the first items you think to pack. Avoid choosing a bulky jacket that takes up a lot of space. This can make you feel uncomfortable when you have layers underneath. Instead, opt for a lightweight trench raincoat that will keep you warm, dry, and comfortable. 

Hat: A knitted beanie is a perfect solution for keeping the warmth in while you venture out. A hat will keep you toasty warm wherever you are.

Gloves: A pair of gloves can do wonders for your mobility and comfort. When selecting your options, it’s worth investing in a pair that can dry quickly and are touch-screen compatible.

Scarf Or Turtleneck: A warm scarf and/or turtleneck sweater are key items for keeping your neck covered. A turtleneck sweater is perfect as a garment to wear underneath your jacket, while the scarf can be removed easily. 

Leggings: Leggings are an essential item to pack as you can dress them up or down. You can even wear them underneath your denim as an extra layer of warmth. 

Socks: When it comes to packing socks for your Iceland trip – the thicker, the better. The chances are that you’ll be spending a lot of time outdoors in the snow, and you’ll want your feet to be warm and cozy. 

Thermals: My favorite winter clothes are thermals. A quality set of thermals is your key to enjoying the winter weather in Iceland. You have to wear them on a cold day to believe what a wonderful invention it is!

Comfortable Walking Shoes: If you can only pack one pair of shoes, make sure they are a trusty pair of waterproof snowshoes. You’ll want your shoes to be as versatile as possible. Snowshoes allow you to enjoy a variety of activities while keeping your feet warm and dry. 

Crampers: I bought my crampers in Iceland. I really thought I could make it without crampers, but I was wrong. If you want to walk and see places from different angles, you will need crampers. They were a lifesaver, and while I fell many times on my first day, I didn’t fall after I got them (and only got to see other people falling) because they help walking on ice.

Check out my post on “what to wear in Iceland in winter” for more tips.

Aurora/ Northern Lights in December 

Yes, Aurora, the Northern Lights, do happen, and they are not a myth.

Aurora is a natural light display in the Earth´s sky – mostly seen in the high-latitude regions. Iceland is one of the countries where Aurora shows quite well. 

Mountain Kirkjufell and Aurora in Iceland Northern Lights in Iceland
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@shutterstock

In countries like Iceland, you can normally see them from late August to the beginning of April. 

But though I stayed in Iceland for 12 nights, I never really saw them. I booked a Northern Lights tour in Iceland that was canceled several times because the sky was not clear enough, and the chances of seeing them were very low. And when I finally went, I just saw greenish stripes – known as the Northern Lights.

And since I am a very chatty person, I kept asking people in Iceland if they happened to see them.

NONE really saw the Northern Lights (unless they were locals or people who had been staying in Iceland for a while).

Do you know who saw the lights? People´s cameras. Yep, the camera is much better at spotting and REALLY seeing the lights than our naked eyes. The Northern Lights always look much better on camera than in real life.

It does not mean you cannot see them at all, but they have to be very strong to see them – especially if you expect them “dancing in the sky.” So, visit Iceland in December but don’t expect to REALLY see the Northern Lights. Though the lights can never be really predicted – that is the beauty of nature – there are better months to visit Iceland (probably September or late March/early April).

If you are happy with your camera spotting and photographing them, go for it and visit Iceland in December (though there is no guarantee for that). 

Places to see in December
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Driving in December

Road tripping in Iceland is probably one of the best ways to experience the country, and the Ring Road is one of the best road trips to take.

Driving in December in Iceland
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 In the summer. Not so much in the winter. Driving in Iceland in winter can be tricky.

The Ring Road (or Route 1) is a national road in Iceland that runs around the island. It connects most of the inhabited parts of the country and has a length of about 1,332 kilometers.

Along the way, you will pass many of the main attractions in Iceland – and also get to see the lesser visited places in the north and east of the country. 

Most of the street is paved (with few exceptions where you only have gravel) – so it’s really perfect for anyone who likes to travel independently and see a lot of a country.

Then we have the F Roads that go through the country’s highland – in which you are only allowed to drive with 4×4 vehicles. It is not part of the Ring Road and a well-liked place by those who actually drive it (not too many, though).

BUT, these streets are closed in the winter months, which is, of course, for most of us, reason enough not to consider driving them.

Driving the Ring Road sounds pretty amazing, though – who needs to drive the F Roads if you have a perfect street that runs along the coast? 

Well, in winter, even the Ring Road might be very challenging.

No one really knows whether you can drive it or not – it all depends. On the weather, on the east route, on the day, on your car, on your driving skills, on your courage, and many other things.

I have hardly ever done as much research for a trip as I did for my Iceland winter trip. And I read different opinions on whether you should/can drive the Ring Road or not.

As an experienced mountain driver myself – with little experience with driving in snow – I was still determined to drive before being warned that it could be hazardous.

Could.

And that is the thing with the extreme weather conditions in Iceland. While the area around Reykjavik and the Golden Circle (plus South Coast) are mostly fine to drive in December, it is hard to predict whether the streets of the Ring Road will be open in December or not.

Sure, of course, heavy snowfall can also happen in other winter months, but December is probably one of the worst months to drive yourself around in Iceland.

So, 10 days before my arrival, there was a very heavy snowstorm, which cut many places in the North of Iceland off from the rest of the country. Streets were completely closed, and there was no way of moving at all – so, even if you drive yourself, you might end up being stuck.

So, if you drive in Iceland in December, be aware that sticking to a schedule might be impossible, and you might get stuck – but driving in the capital and the south is normally fine.

Hot pools in December in Iceland
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Tours and Activities in December

Iceland is very touristy in the forms of tours and activities, and you can basically do any tour to any place you want.

Snow covered on glacier in December
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 Golden Circle Tour? South Coast of Iceland, including the Diamond Beach? Secret Lagoon in winter? Everything is possible. Theoretically.

If you don’t drive yourself, you should book yourself into different activities because Reykjavik is interesting but surely NOT the best place to see in Iceland. So, make sure to check out great Reykjavik day tours in winter.

And, since I only did guide tours myself and did not drive, I have gotten my share of experiences with tours in Iceland. 

The good news: all the companies I used were pretty good, and everything went smoothly. I was allowed to reschedule tours – often very spontaneously – change pick-up locations, and more. 

 I can’t complain here. BUT….

Book yourself all the tours you are interested in, but be prepared that they will be canceled. Not only the Northern Lights tour got canceled a few times (because the sky was not very clear and the prediction of seeing them was low), but also other activities were canceled.

Snowmobiling on a glacier was like a big dream that I paid a fortune for. Has that dream come true? 

No. It was one of the tours that I started taking (we went all the way up to the glacier), but once at the glacier, the weather conditions got so bad that there was no way of doing the trip.

So, if you do come to Iceland in December, be prepared that not all tours will take place – especially the more “exotic“ ones. 

So, you could do yourself a favor and plan in a buffer, so any canceled tour(s) can be done on your spare day.

Don´t worry about money, though – if tours are canceled, you will be reimbursed (and if you go to a Northern Lights tour and don’t see them, then you will normally be offered a chance to do another tour the next day or get a voucher which is valid for 2 or 3 years).

Crowds in December

Like me, many people get off during Christmas, and that is good for them. And it does not get any more romantic than spending a cozy night in a snow-covered little hut and taking long strolls in a winter wonderland, right?!

Wrong.

Iceland in winter, Arzo Travels
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 Since many people somehow have the idea to visit Iceland in December, especially around Christmas, it gets busy.

It is not comparable with the crowds in the summer months, but if you visit the main attractions, like Gulfoss Waterfall or the Black Sand Beach, you will meet the crowds.

The good news is that many people don’t walk around a lot (as often there is some ice and places get extremely slippery), so you have to walk a few extra meters (crampers are the answer) will have the place to yourself.

If you don’t walk the extra steps, well, then you have to share the place with many others.

The number of visitors quickly drops after New Year’s Eve and in the other winter months, so if you don’t like crowds, don’t come in December.

Things to dknow about visiting Iceland in December
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Iceland in December is Expensive 

Iceland is such a beautiful country and so budget-friendly. Said no one ever. Iceland is surely one of the most expensive countries in Europe (and probably in the world).

A taxi ride from the International Airport in Reykjavik to the city center can easily cost up to 200€ for 50 km – and that is no scam.

  • Food = expensive.
  • Tours = expensive
  • Peeing = expensive (oh, of course, you can “pee for free,“ but if you use paid toilets, you have to pay a fee – around 1.50€, which is twice as much as German paid toilets).
  • Souvenirs = expensive
  • Renting cars= expensive
  • Dining out= expensive
  • Oh, let´s not forget accommodations, which are…of course, also expensive.

So, you get my point. Iceland is an expensive country, but guess what? December is the most expensive winter month in which to visit.

West of Iceland in December
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 With the crowds, the prices increase – I probably don’t have to explain too much about that here. But if you can visit in November or January, you will automatically save quite a bit (or a lot) on accommodations (and if you rent cars, then there, too).

Weather in December

None of us expects bikini weather in Iceland in December. Good news: many people actually wear bikinis and swimwear even in December because it gets really hot. At least in the hot pools, which are all over Iceland and popular at any time of the year.

But of course, we have the rightful expectation of cold weather (probably with some snow and ice ) in December. 

So, expect snow and ice in the Icelandic winter months.

And I must say that the weather in December is actually more pleasant than I expected it to be. It was cold (around 0 degrees Celsius), but not freezing cold. At least, not for Reykjavik. And not compared to winters in Canada, for example.

Weather in December in Iceland
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 At times, we had -8 degrees celsius plus cold wind – BUT even that was okay.

Weather can never be predicted, and that is okay. Just be prepared that it CAN be freezing in December (locals told me that they had -20 degrees few days before my visit).

And with the cold, there also came storms and a lot of wind – especially so if you are in front of a standing waterfall or at the coast, it can be pretty tough, so make sure to dress warmly.

And since icy streets and icy paths are common, I highly recommend the crampers I mentioned before.

However, what I did not expect was THAT much rain. It rained without much break for several days – maybe the rain came with the English people who work in larger numbers in Iceland. They surely brought the rain as it is quite uncommon to have that much rain in Iceland (it felt more like a British winter). So, a day in the hot pool is definitely one of the best things to do in Iceland.

Though rain can happen at any time of the year, cold combined with a lot of rain is quite frustrating and something I did not expect. But that was not actually the worst….

Waterfalls in December in Iceland with Arzo Travels
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Daylight in December in Iceland

From now on, I will forever cherish and appreciate daylight! Because this is something you will hardly come across during Icelandic winter days.

And this was the biggest struggle for me… I did my research. I knew that days are short in December – but I didn´t know that days in December are short!

December is the month with the shortest days, and the shortest day is the 21st of December. But unless you have visited a country with days THAT short, you don’t really know what to expect.

Again, I did my research, and yet I was shocked by HOW short the days are.

So, what does it mean in terms of traveling to Iceland in December? 

When you wake up, it is dark (and I assume you wake up all before 11 am, or?). It slowly gets lighter before 11 am, but sunrise is normally around 11:30 am.

Reykjavik in December before sunrise
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Reykjavik at 10:40….not pm but 10:40 AM

 

So, this means that if you do a tour (or drive yourself), you will miss out on all the amazing scenery Iceland has to offer. Tours often start around 8 or 9 pm, and though I always stared out of the bus window, I could not see anything. I mean, I definitely deserve an A for trying, but I still failed very badly actually to see something. 

Most people took a nap on the bus, and I can’t blame them. Because there is not much else you can do on the bus. Often, it takes 2 or 3 hours to get from Reykjavik to the main attractions (Golden Circle, Vik, etc.). So, you are sitting in the dark, and you know something is amazing out there in the dark – and yet you still miss out on the amazing scenery.

And normally, by the time you arrive at the sights, daylight is there. Yes – daylight does not completely skip Iceland in December, but you have to be quick to see some of the places you want to see because the sun makes only short appearances. 

So, are you a slow traveler? Then December is surely not the time for you – you have to squeeze in as much as possible to see at least a bit of the country. I mean, where is the fun in seeing the mountains or waterfalls if it is dark? 

Then, on the way back, it is dark again because the sun sets around 3:30 pm, and after 4 pm, it is dark again. So, once again, you can look out of the window, but you won’t see much. Tip: Try to sit n the front seat, so at least you can see a bit, thanks to spotlights.

Sunrise in Iceland in winter
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 Coming from Northern Germany, I am used to shorter days – but NOT that short.

If you plan to stay for more than 3 or 4 days, it can actually become depressing if you are not used to it.

So, of all the above-mentioned December problems, this was the hardest to deal with. With 1 or 2 more hours of daylight, my perception of Iceland and the scenery would probably be even better.

So, make sure to see as much as you can and make sure to bring your Vitamin D pills because that is surely something your body will need.

Winter in Iceland at suunrise
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Is Iceland in December Worth Visiting?

While I still am amazed by Iceland – and think that my December winter trip to Iceland was unique and will always be one of my most special trips, I do not recommend visiting Iceland in December.

There are always pros and cons for each month, and it is about how well you can handle certain aspects. If it weren’t for the concise days, I would not have minded all the other issues traveling in Iceland in December brought along. As far as I can tell, the scenery was amazing – but so it is in other winter months, so make sure to visit at the right time for you! So, why not visit Iceland in November or February? If you are unsure about the best time to visit Iceland – check out my detailed post on when to visit Iceland.

If you are still looking for the perfect place to stay in Iceland, check out this accommodation guide.

Safe Travels, Arzo
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