Iceland in December: Pros and Cons, What to Expect In Winter

With its breathtaking views, countless adventures, and popular attractions, Iceland is a highly sought after vacation destination. Iceland in December, though, is a completely different story in many ways. The weather in December in Iceland covers the island with pristine blues and whites.

December in Iceland is a unique month, offering many festivals, activities, and attractions to explore. What’s more, these look unlike they do in the summer months, and provide a completely different experience.

It’s important to take note of the pros and cons of Iceland in December before planning your next unforgettable bucket list adventure to the land of Fire and Ice.

Pros of Iceland in December:

There are many advantages to visiting Iceland in December compared to other months of the year. Some of these include:

  • Incredible wintry sights
  • Access to skiing and snowboarding
  • December Icelandic holidays
  • Horseback riding
  • Abundance of hot springs
  • Seeing the Northern Lights

Incredible Wintery Sights

iceland in december

Iceland was formed from extensive volcanic activity. During the winter, glaciers cover these volcanos, creating an icy wonderland of geothermic activity and deep blue skies. This process aided in creating the beautiful and breathtaking sights of Iceland.

Consider visiting Svartifoss, an attraction at Vatnajökull National Park, surrounded by dark lava and basalt columns. Or, visit the Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon, with its giant chunks of glacial ice breaking off and moving into the ocean.

During the winter, the Sólheimajökull glacier is another popular and well-known site, with black, blue, and white ice crumbling into the lake. Try to catch these sites during sunrise for an extra intense color palette. You can watch the light from the sun complement the natural beauty that Iceland offers its visitors.

Access to Skiing and Snowboarding

Whether you’re a frontcountry or backcountry kind of person, Iceland is a unique, lesser-known European destination for skiers and snowboarders alike. While the resorts are smaller than those in popular places like Switzerland or France, winter sports are a huge hit during the colder times of year like December.

Take a look at the ski slopes of Skálafell and Bláfjöll, which are well-known areas for downhill skiing, cross-country skiing, and snowboarding. These popular winter sport areas are only 25 minutes away from the city of Reykjavík, the capital of Iceland. With many modes of transportation, ski resorts, and gear rental options, skiing and snowboarding in December can be an unforgettable and unique experience.

December Icelandic Holidays

If you visit Iceland in December, you can experience some unique and exciting holiday festivities. Holiday celebrations like Christmas, Þorláksmessa (St. Þorlákur’s Day), and New Year’s Eve light up the streets of Iceland. Many festivities begin on December 12th until December 23rd, Þorláksmessa.

Þorláksmessa is an Icelandic holiday that commemorates the patron saint of Iceland, Saint Þorlákur. During Þorláksmessa, you can enjoy traditional and delicious Icelandic delicacies like fermented shark, Icelandic rye bread, and potatoes before Christmas festivities begin.

The streets sparkle with holiday lights, and caroling and concerts are abundant. Whether it’s Christmas entertainment or New Year’s Eve parties, there are plenty of traditions to experience during the Icelandic holidays in December.

Horseback Riding

While Iceland has plenty of beautiful places to explore, why not tour the sites on an Icelandic horse? There are many farms in Iceland that offer horseback riding tours year-round with their famous Icelandic horses. The Icelandic horse is a unique, hardy breed of horse that is small in size, but still large enough to ride.

Photographers often seek out Icelandic horses to capture photos of their glamorous manes and camera-ready coats, which are only fluffy during the winter time. You can explore spectacular views atop a warm, friendly horse. Considering the cold winter temperatures: What’s better than that?

Abundance of Hot Springs

December is the perfect time to visit Iceland’s well-renowned hot springs. There are around 800 geothermal hot springs, with many of them safe and available for people to soak in. These hot springs occur naturally after years of geothermal activity. While not all hot springs are safe to enjoy, many have calm, warm waters that make popular bathing spots.

The captivating Blue Lagoon features bright blue waters at a temperature of 38-39°C, or roughly 100°F. Additionally, the phenomenal Krossneslaug pool is warm due to water from hot springs in the mountains close by. There is a myriad of hot springs to soak in during the cold, winter seasons.

For more on Hot Springs, please read our article Iceland Hot Springs: Four Incredible Options.

Seeing the Northern Lights

The aurora borealis, also known as the Northern Lights, are a magical experience to see in December. You are most likely to see the natural light show during the evenings of winter months, and there are many places to view them in Iceland. The Northern Lights are caused by the ionization and stimulation of elements in the atmosphere, which results in the emitting of beautiful, extraordinary lights of different shapes and colors.

You can view this incredible phenomenon on a clear or party-clear night with solar activity and little light pollution. Additionally, aurora forecasts are often used to track meteorological data and display days and times you are likely to see them. Many companies offer tours to guide visitors to sites with aurora activity as well.

December is the prime time to get a look at the awe-inspiring phenomenon. The Northern Lights are often-times deemed by tourists the highlight of their December trip in Iceland.

For more on the Northern Lights, please check out our post Northern Lights in Iceland: The Best Locations in Each Region.

Cons of Iceland in December:

While Iceland in December may seem like the epitome of a winter wonderland scenario, there are definitely disadvantages to traveling to one of the coldest, windiest countries on Earth in December. Some of these disadvantages include:

  • Early darkness
  • Unpredictable weather
  • Zero access to Highlands roads without a tour
  • Lack of snorkeling and diving
  • No whale watching excursions available
  • Generally colder weather overall

Early Darkness

Due to Iceland’s high altitude, the days are short and the nights are long. With roughly four to five hours of light, the limited daylight gives you a restricted amount of time to visit sites, especially those that are only available during the daytime.

The December darkness can be intimidating to those that are not familiar with the dynamic light conditions. It is advised that visitors plan their trip carefully and decide which activities are best to pursue during the hours of light. Compared to winter months, summer months have significantly more daylight, and might be more suitable depending on the tourist’s interests.

Author note: We went to Iceland in late April/early May. The sun never truly set, giving us a good 18 hours a day of steady daylight. This was ideal for adventures, but not good for sleeping in or for seeing the Northern Lights.

Unpredictable Weather

The weather in Iceland during winter months is ever-changing. Locals will often advise visitors that, if they don’t like the weather, they can wait five minutes before the weather changes again.

Unfortunately, the cold and diverse weather can affect everything from holiday festivities, to site tours, to winter sports. With the limited daylight, visitors might want to have a back-up plan for any Icelandic activities they might have planned.

Zero Access to Highland Roads Without Tour

The Highlands are easily one of the most popular areas to hike and tour. Located in the country’s interior, the Icelandic Highlands are unpopulated and virtually untouched. This allows tourists to connect with the vast nature the Highlands has to offer. Unfortunately, the unpredictable weather, storms, and heavy snow make the Highlands virtually unapproachable during the winter months.

Unless you are a traveler experienced with Arctic traveling, it is unlikely that you will be able to visit the Icelandic Highlands without a tour. If you are interested in the secluded, uninhabited nature of the Highlands, it is better to visit during the summer months.

Snorkeling and Diving

Snorkeling and diving in the clear, freshwater of the Silfra rift is an unforgettable experience for many tourists. While snorkelers don dry suits and gaze down at the rift’s sites, scuba divers will explore the beautiful, rocky spaces below. The Silfra is a fissure formed between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates.

It is found in the Þingvallavatn Lake, which is a lake in the Þingvellir National Park. As one of the country’s most popular snorkeling and diving spots, snorkeling and diving tours are offered during the summer, so those that are interested in water-oriented activities might not want to visit in December.

For more on diving the fissure, please visit our post Diving Iceland’s Silfra Fissure.

Whale Watching

Whale watching is an exciting experience to enjoy in Iceland. The country’s cold waters off the coast host an abundance of whale species. From orca whales, to blue whales, to humpback whales, there are plenty of marine mammals to view during a whale watching tour.

Unfortunately, the best time to attend a whale watching tour is during the summer months. The summer time is when Iceland’s shores become home to these magnificent creatures, and it is difficult to spot the same amount of marine life during winter months.

Cold Weather

The average temperature in Iceland is usually between the freezing temperatures of -1° to 4°C, or 34°F to 39°F. Additionally, December is considered one of the wettest months of Iceland with roughly 97 mm, or 3.8 inches, of precipitation. On top of the temperatures and rain, it’s not uncommon to experience strong winds during the winter months.

It goes without saying that December is one of the most brutal months to visit Iceland, particularly for those that are not used to cold climates. Its diverse, unpredictable patterns, icy roads, and sharp winds can affect many aspects of your Iceland trip.

These conditions pose safety concerns that visitors need to (1) be aware of and (2) plan to work around. This is important in preventing emergencies and complications during your future trip to Iceland.

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