December in Iceland? What to Know Before Visiting
Iceland is probably one of the most stunning countries in the world, with a 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.
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 with December and here is what I realized.
P.S. The images in this post are not necessarily related to my written content 🙂
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.
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 cancelled 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).
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 not even a guarantee for that).
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.
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 and 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 highland of the country – in which you are only allowed to drive with 4×4 vehicles. It is not part of the Ring Road and a place that is well liked 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 seriously 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 on 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 I was warned that it could be really dangerous.
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 streets of the Ring Road will be open in December or not.
Sure, of course, heavy snow fall 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 in the south is normally fine.
Tours and Activities
Iceland is very touristy in the forms 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 yourself into different activities because Reykjavik is interesting, but surely NOT the best place to see in Iceland.
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 yourself all the tours you are interested in, but be prepared that they will be cancelled. Not only the Northern Lights tour got cancelled a few times (because the sky was not very clear and the prediction of seeing them was low), but also other activities were cancelled.
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 actually 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 cancelled tour(s) can be done on your spare day.
Don´t worry about money though – if tours are cancelled, 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).
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?!
Well, 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), and so you just have to walk a few extra meters (crampers are the answer) and 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 amount of visitors quickly drops after New Year’s Eve and also in the other winter months, so if you don’t like crowds, don’t come in December.
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 in case 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.
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).
None of us expects bikini weather in Iceland in December, right? 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 Icelandlic winter months.
And I must say that weather in December is actually more pleasant that 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.
Weather can never be predicted and that is okay. Just be prepared that it CAN be extremely cold in December (locals told me, that they had -20 degrees few days prior to my visit).
And with the cold, there also came storms and a lot of wind – especially so if you are in front of a stand waterfall or at the coast it can be pretty tough, so make sure to dress warm.
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. For several days, it rained without much break – 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 (felt more like a British winter). So, a day in th ehot pool is definitely one of the best things to do in Iceland.
Though rain can happen at any time of the year, cold in combination with a lot of rain is quite frustrating and something I did not expect. But that was not actually the worst….
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.
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 still failed very badly to actually 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 there is something 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.
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.
While I still am amazed with 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 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 very short days, I would not have minded all the other issues that traveling in December brought along. As far as I can tell, the scenery was amazing – but so it is in other winter months, so take sure to visit at the right time for you!
If you are still looking for the perfect place to stay in Iceland, check out this accommodation guide.