IS IT A GOOD IDEA TO VISIT ICELAND IN DECEMBER? FIND OUT HERE.
Iceland in December is… interesting! Iceland is probably one of the most stunning countries in the world – with scenery so unique-looking that it’s hard to find its equal. In summer as in winter. However, December in Iceland also comes with some problems. I don’t say visiting in December is – per se – a bad idea. There are a just few things to know before planning a trip in December. There are many amazing things to do in winter, but I also want to mention the bad and the ugly.
As a teacher from Germany, I cannot choose my holidays. Yes, we have about 12 weeks of holidays a year, but we are not really flexible. I wanted to visit Iceland in winter and had to travel during my school holidays in December, and here is what I realized.
So, before we talk about that, I will talk about general tips for your December trip before talking about the best activities in December and more.
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WHAT TO PACK FOR YOUR DECEMBER TRIP TO ICELAND
Though Iceland in December is not as cold as many might think – at least not in Reykjavik and South Iceland with temperatures around and above freezing during the day – it is still important to dress warmly. Or better, to dress in layers. These are a few things to pack for your December trip to Iceland.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 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.
- 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.
- 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!
- Make sure you have 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.
- I bought my crampons in Iceland. They are traction devices you attach to your shoes so you can walk even on ice. If you want to walk and see places from different angles, you will need crampons. 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).
- Check out my post on “What to wear in Iceland in winter” for more tips.
THINGS TO DO IN ICELAND IN DECEMBER
The following info is a mix of the best places to visit/top things to do but also some of my thoughts which might surprise you.
Aurora / Northern Lights in December
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. In countries like Iceland, you can normally see them from late August to the beginning of April.
Aurora, also known as the Northern Lights, does happen, and it are not a myth. However…
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.
So, I saw the Northern Light but I did not really see them.
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) or even better countries to experience the northern lights.
Driving in December
Road-tripping in Iceland is probably one of the best ways to experience the country. However, driving in Iceland in winter can be tricky.
The Ring Road trip is one of the best road trips to take. In the summer. Not so much in the winter.
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 road 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 this country. But in winter, the Ring Road might be difficult to drive. No one really knows whether you can drive it or not. It all depends. It depends on the weather, the east route, the day, your car, your driving skills, your courage, and it depends on many other things.
Then we have the “F Roads” – which are not part of the Ring Road that goes through the country’s highland – in which you are only allowed to drive with 4×4 vehicles in the summer months. BUT, these F-Roads are closed in the winter months for us regular people.
I have hardly ever done as much research for a trip as I did for my Iceland winter trip. I read different opinions on whether you should/can drive the Ring Road or not.
As an experienced mountain driver myself (read about an amazing Switzerland road trip here) – 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 areas around Reykjavik and the Golden Circle (plus South Coast) are mostly fine to drive in December with good road conditions, it is hard to predict whether the streets of the Ring Road will be open in December or not.
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. Roads were completely closed, and there was no way of moving at all. If you drive yourself, you might end up stuck.
Driving in the capital and the south of Iceland is normally fine. But for the rest of the country, be aware that sticking to a schedule might be impossible because you might get stuck.
Tours and Activities in December
Iceland is very touristy in the form of tours and activities, and you can basically do any tour to any place you want. 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 lots of 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 guided 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 all the tours you are interested in, but be prepared that they will be canceled. Not only was the Northern Lights tour 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? 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.
You could do yourself a favor and plan for one or two free days at the end of your trip. So, if any tours get canceled, you can rebook them and do it on those spare days.
Don´t worry about money, though. If tours are canceled, you will be reimbursed. Only with Northern Lights tours, I made a different experience – 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 (which most of us will probably not end up using, so it would be wasted money).
BEST TOURS AND ACTIVITIES IN ICELAND IN DECEMBER
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!Since many people somehow have the idea to visit Iceland in December, especially around Christmas, it gets busy. It is not comparable to the crowds in the summer months, but if you visit the main attractions, like Gullfoss Waterfall or 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, if you walk a few extra meters (crampons are the answer) you 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.
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.
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€)
- 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.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 rental cars, 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, like the Blue Lagoon, 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.At times, we had -8 degrees Celsius plus cold wind – BUT even that was okay.
Just be prepared that it CAN be freezing in December (locals told me that they had had -20 degrees Celsius a few days before my visit).
And with the cold, there also came storms and a lot of wind. Especially 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 crampons I mentioned before.
So, a day in the hot pool is definitely one of the best things to do in Iceland.
However, what I did not expect was THAT much rain. It rained without much break for several days. It is quite uncommon to have that much rain in Iceland (it felt more like a British winter).
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….
Daylight in December in Iceland
From now on, I will forever, forever, and ever cherish and appreciate daylight! Because daylight 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 of all 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 and daylight hours?
When you wake up, it is dark. I assume you wake up all before 11 a.m., right? It slowly gets lighter before 11 a.m., but sunrise is normally around 11:30 a.m.
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 p.m., and though I always stared out of the bus window, I could not see anything. I mean, I definitely deserve an award for trying, but I still failed very badly at seeing something.
Most people took a nap on the bus, and I can’t blame them. Because there is not much else you can do. 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 there is something amazing out there – 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 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 of 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 p.m., and after 4 p.m., the sun sets again. So, once again, you can look out of the window, but you won’t see much.
TIP: If you do bus tours, try to sit in the front seat, so at least you can see a bit, thanks to spotlights.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.
WHERE TO STAY FOR WINTER IN ICELAND
For your December vacation, I recommend making Reykjavik your base and going on day trips. Here are some accommodations:
Tower Suites Reykjavik: The most luxurious option for staying in Reykjavik are the Tower Suites. Known to house celebrities on vacation and have some of the best views from their high-level rooms, this is the perfect option if you like to stay in luxury on your travels.
The location is right on the waterfront but still within walking distance of the center of town. They have organic breakfast complimentary each morning, and their amazing concierge service will help get you dinner reservations at all the best spots in town!
Reykjavik Centrum in Reykjavik: Just like the name suggests, this is right in central Reykjavik! This is the perfect location to walk around and explore, and you can easily do day tours from Reykjavik.
The rooms are simple standard hotel rooms, but it’s all about location here. Lovely spot downtown, a cobblestone street with plenty of dining options, and nearby the hop-on and hop-off bus stop. The hotel itself also houses its own bar and café for those nights when you feel like taking it easy or staying in.
Radisson Blu 1919 in Reykjavik: The Radisson Blu is also located in central Reykjavik, with their restaurant 1919 on-site serving locally sourced foods. This is another great option for travelers looking for a mid-range option within walking distance of sights, shops, and restaurants.
Close to the national art gallery and old harbor. They have a fitness center on the property if you like to keep in shape while traveling! They also have a convenient app that displays hotel specials as well as must-see nearby spots.
Hotel Fron in Reykjavík: This is a great central option for “budget travelers (if you can call it that). Reasonable pricing without sacrificing a good walkable location! They are simple apartment-style lodging rooms with daily breakfast served and free wifi. They also have a Scandinavian restaurant and bar on-site and parking available, which is perfect if you plan to take a road trip and continue exploring the country after Reykjavik.
IS ICELAND IN DECEMBER WORTH VISITING?
While I still am amazed by Iceland – and think that my December winter trip to Iceland was one of my most special trips, I do not recommend visiting Iceland in December.
There are always pros and cons for each month! It is about how well you can handle certain aspects. If it weren’t for the short 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.