Reykjavik is a beautiful city all year long, but during Christmas time it really shines. To all our fellow Christmas lovers out there take note, a trip to Reykjavik in December is a must and we have plenty of reasons why!
Starting in the middle of November you will see Christmas lights going up all over the city. The downtown streets are lined with twinkling lights and fully decorated Christmas trees can be seen all around town. Add in some fresh snow and Reykjavik turns into a winter wonderland making it the perfect place to kick off your holiday season!
You might be thinking, “what about the darkness”? It is true, it will be dark a lot of the time with only about 4 hours of daylight in the month of December, but the darkness doesn’t keep people from being out and about! From magical Christmas markets to holiday concerts, the city is abuzz with people out enjoying all the festivities that this time of year brings.
To ensure maximum holiday fun we have rounded up 10 of the best Christmas themed activities to do in Reykjavik during December. Any one of them will get you in a festive mood, but we definitely recommend enjoying them all, it is the holidays after all!
1. Discover all the Christmas Decorations Around Town
When it comes to Christmas decorations Reykjavik goes above and beyond. Lights twinkle from house windows, strands of garland zig zag across the streets of downtown, dozens of Christmas trees are set up all over the city and Christmas music is played everywhere you go. Large bells dangle across the street and shops sparkle in all the Christmas lights that cover them. It truly is a magical time in the city!
While you might have only a few hours of daylight to explore the city you won’t need it with all the festive decorations brightening the streets. To enjoy the decorations all you have to do is take a stroll around downtown, but there are a few Christmas decorations you will want to be sure to keep an eye out for as you won’t want to miss them.
• Yule Cat - this 5 meter tall statue of the Icelandic folklore character the Yuletide cat can be seen downtown at Lækjartorg. With over 6,000 LED lights on the statue it certainly brightens things up!
• Oslo Christmas Tree - Christmas doesn’t officially start in Reykjavik until the Christmas tree sent from Norway has been properly lit and Christmas songs have been sung around it. Located at Austurvöllur Square, the Oslo Christmas tree is a tradition that started in 1951 where the city of Oslo gifts Reykjavik a Christmas tree to signify the strong ties between the two nations.
• Skólavörðustígur- a charming street that leads up to the famous Hallgrímskirkja church, the view from this street is a must see during Christmas time. Before you make your way up the road to reach the church take in the view of the large Christmas bells hanging across the street with Hallgrímskirkja in the distance. Add in some snowflakes and it is one magical sight to see.
2. Enjoy a Christmas Concert at Harpa
One of Icelanders favorite ways to kick off the Christmas season is by enjoying beautiful Christmas music at one of the many Christmas concerts around town. Many have a tradition of attending specific concerts, others try and take in as many concerts as they can. One of the best places to enjoy a Christmas concert is at the unique concert hall, Harpa.
Harpa is an impressive space to visit year-round, but during the Christmas season it becomes majestic with the Christmas decorations set up around the glass panels the building is constructed of. Harpa has a full schedule of Christmas events to enjoy, you can find their calendar of events here to see what is happening while you will be in the city. Enjoying Christmas music in this beautiful location is a guaranteed way to get you in the Christmas spirit!
3. Send a letter to Santa
Get in touch with your inner child and mail your Christmas wish list to Santa! As you stroll down the main shopping street, Laugavegur, keep a look out for Santa’s mailbox. Located outside the cutest Christmas shop in town, Litla Jólabúðin, you will find a large red mailbox with a pair of Santa’s boots next to it. Inside the store you can purchase letters from Santa to be mailed to your loved ones, a fun little way to spread some Christmas magic.
While in the store take a look around to get an idea of some of the traditional Icelandic Christmas decorations. In the store you will see several displays of the cute yule lads and the somewhat creepy Grýla and Yule Cat. Be sure to check out the large variety of Christmas ornaments, these make for wonderful souvenirs of your time in Iceland. You will find all kinds of Christmas cheer in this stop.
4. Go Shopping on Laugavegur
If you are hoping to get some Christmas shopping done while in Iceland you are going to want to head to the main shopping street in Reykjavik, Laugavegur. A popular street for visitors year round, Laugavegur really brings the Christmas cheer with shops and restaurants getting all decked out in Christmas lights and decorations starting in November.
On the sidewalks of Laugavegur you will find street vendors out serving delicious roasted nuts, the smell alone is magical! And keep an ear out for carolers belting out some Christmas tunes. The shops along this street range from gift shops to Icelandic design stores, thrift shops and art galleries, so you can be sure to find the perfect gift for whoever you are shopping for.
A fun Christmas tradition happens on Laugavegur on the 23rd of December. In the late evening Icelanders head out to do the last bit of Christmas shopping downtown. You will be amazed at how packed the streets get, the crowds alone are a sight to be seen! Even more special is seeing all the Icelanders greet each other as they run into their loved ones out shopping, you can just feel the Christmas magic in the air.
5. Visit the Christmas Markets
Christmas markets have been a long tradition throughout Europe, so it may come as a surprise to learn that until recently Christmas markets were not to be seen in Reykjavik. Thankfully this has changed in recent years and there is now several Christmas markets to visit around the city. And while they may not be the large Christmas markets you will find in other cities the Christmas markets around Reykjavik are full of Christmas cheer.
A few Christmas markets that we recommend adding to your December visit are:
- Yule Town at Ingólfstorg
Adorable little Christmas houses and a beautifully lit ice skating rink fill this square during the month of December. Enjoy the Christmas music playing throughout this makeshift Christmas village as you browse the different hand-crafted gifts, decorations, and foods on offer in the market. Complete the visit with some time spent skating around the ice skating rink that is beautiful lit up with Christmas lights twinkling all over.
- The Christmas Village in Hafnarfjörður
Twenty minutes out of downtown Reykjavik nestled in the lava fields is the town Hafnarfjörður. Here you will find one of the larger Christmas markets as Hafnarfjörður city center is transformed into a Christmas village. Open on the weekends in December, this Christmas village is full of live entertainment, little wooden cabins selling arts, crafts and delicious Icelandic treats, and horse-drawn carriage rides. Be sure to keep a look out for the Icelandic Yule Lads who are known to make a visit to this Christmas market.
- The Christmas Market in Heiðmörk
Located on the south-east outskirts of Reykjavik in the forest area of Heiðmörk is a charming Christmas market that has become a tradition for families to visit each year. This Christmas market is one of the most popular places for locals to purchase their Christmas trees. The Christmas tree sale is operated by the Reykjavik Forest Service and for each tree that is sold 50 new ones are planted! Christmas stories are read around cozy bonfires, local arts and crafts are for sale, and live music can often be heard. The tranquil setting just adds to the magic of this Christmas market!
6. Try a Christmas buffet
Christmas buffets, known as jólahlaðborð, are a big part of the Icelandic Christmas celebrations. All around town restaurants will put out their special Christmas buffet menu full of traditional Icelandic dishes. Icelandic companies will have Christmas buffets and many families and friend groups head out to a restaurant for a Christmas buffet or two each holiday season.
Some of the traditional dishes you can expect to find at one of these Christmas buffets are:
• Laufabrauð - very thin flat bread that is decorated with leaf-like, geometric patterns that you make by hand or with a brass roller. Once you have cut out your design you then fry the Laufabrauð briefly in hot fat or oil. Tasty on its own but amazing with hangiköt.
• Síld - marinated or pickled herring, a popular option is herring with curry dressing and raw onions.
• Rúgbrauð - a dark rye bread, often this is enjoyed with smoked salmon or pickled herring on top.
• Hangikjöt - smoked lamb that is boiled and then served either hot or cold.
• Caramelized Potatoes - potatoes sautéed in butter and sugar, they are a delicious pairing with the smoked lamb.
The beautiful and tasty Laufabrauð
If you are interested in learning more about what other types of dishes are popular at Christmas time in Iceland check out our article all about the traditional dishes of an Icelandic Christmas dinner.
7. Go Ice Skating
Is it really a Christmas trip without heading out for an ice skating experience? In Reykjavik we are lucky and have two magical locations to enjoy some ice skating, Tjörnin pond and the Nova ice skating rink, both of which are right in the city center.
For years locals have enjoyed skating around the beautiful Tjörnin pond. In fact, you often will find a group in the middle of an ice hockey game with others enjoy a skate around the large pond. This location is of course dependent on the weather, but if the temperatures are well below or at freezing (which they usually are this time of year in Iceland) and have been for many days prior you can almost guarantee the pond is frozen and ice skaters will be out enjoying this area while they can.
While this is not an official skating rink and no equipment is provided, if you happen to travel with your ice skates you will want to enjoy a skate here! The views of Reykjavik from the pond are truly magical. Don’t have your own skates in your suitcase? No problem, you will see many slowly making their way across the pond in regular shoes, taking in the views as they glide along the way.
Note: Please use best judgment before walking onto the pond, you do not want to have any accidents if the ice is too thin, or the pond is not completely frozen. Feel free to ask in city hall (located next to the pond) to confirm if it is safe to head out onto the pond.
For a second option for ice skating in Reykjavik head to Ingólfstorg Square where you will find a cozy little Christmas market and the beautifully decorated Nova ice skating rink. This rink is new to the city but has quickly become a Christmas tradition for locals. With over 100,000 lights brightening up the skating rink and Christmas music playing away it is one magical location.
This skating rink is great for those traveling with little ones as they have plastic seals for them to push around to help learn how to skate. The Christmas market around the rink is the perfect spot to grab some warm drinks or treats while on a skating break as well. The ice skating rink is free to enter, skates and helmets can be rented for 990 ISK (7 Euros/7.4 USD)
8. Visit Árbær Open Air Museum
This unique museum is a great place to visit year round, but during Christmas time Árbær Open Air Museum becomes a magical place. Each Sunday during Advent Árbær Open Air Museum has a full schedule of Christmas fun. A visit to the museum during this time will give you a first hand look at Icelandic Christmas traditions in a memorable way.
In the different houses you can experience a variety of Icelandic Christmas activities. Try your hand at making the traditional laufabrauð or Christmas decorations. Or enjoy a taste of some of the traditional dishes such as hangikjöt or skate fish. Visits from the Icelandic Yule Lads and signing of Christmas songs are also on the schedule. Be sure to visit here to get your own experience of an Icelandic Christmas!
9. Experience the Christmas Book Flood
Jólabókaflóðið, Christmas book flood in English, is a beloved tradition where a large amount of new books are published in the weeks leading up to Christmas. What happens to all these books published around Christmas time? They are given as gifts of course.
In fact almost all Icelanders will receive a new book at Christmas time. This tradition of giving books as Christmas gifts dates back to WWII when restrictions were put on imported gifts, however the restriction on paper was not as strict therefore books became a common Christmas gift. Today this tradition is as strong as ever with a record number of Icelandic books being published in 2019!
Head to any of the bookstores around Reykjavik and you will see displays all around with the newly published books. Often times you will find one of the authors doing a reading from their new book in the bookstores around town. Even the grocery stores become filled with book displays! Join in on the fun and pick up a book or two, you will be able to find books in all genres to enjoy.
10. Spot the Yule Lads Around Town
The Icelandic Yule Lads, known as Jólasveinar, begin making their appearance 13 days before Christmas arriving one by one each night and leaving small gifts for the children. Each of the 13 Yule Lads has their own distinct character, for example the Yule Lad Þvörusleikir, spoon licker in English, is known for his love of licking wooden spoons.
During these 13 days you will find the Yule Lads all over Reykjavik from animations appearing on the walls of buildings to pictures on the milk cartons, the Yule Lads are everywhere. As you walk around town keep a lookout for the Yule Lads and see how many you can find!
Any of these activities will have you in the Christmas spirit in no time. All you need is fresh snow and it will complete a magical Christmas experience in Reykjavik! If you are interested in learning more about how Icelanders celebrate the holidays you may want to read our guide to Christmas and New Years guide. Happy Holidays, and as we say in Iceland, Gleðileg jól og farsælt komandi ár.