Feeling lost in Iceland over the holidays? Bewildered when faced with the ö’s and ð’s and þ’s of the tourist brochures? Wondering why CNN nominated Reykjavík as one of the 10 best places to spend Christmas? To guide you through the Christmas season, we’ve come up with the definitive list of things to do in Reykjavík over the Christmas holidays.
Visit the Christmas Markets
The Christmas markets are a relatively recent addition to the Icelandic holiday season. In the grand tradition of the German Weihnachtsmarks, wooden huts have been erected in the center of Reykjavík and Hafnafjörður and visitors can stuff their stockings with Christmas knick-knacks and artwork from local craftsmen, and wash down Icelandic horse sausages with hot cocoa and mulled wine.
Reykjavík Christmas market. Ingólfstorg. Open 12-22, and 12-23 on December 23.
Hafnafjörður Christmas market. Take Bus 1 to the center of Hafnarfjörður. Open 12-17 on the weekends, 16-21 weekdays.
Hunt for the Northern LightsNASA forecasts the brightest northern lights this year since 1958 due to the solar maximum, the peak of sunspot counts during the sun’s 11-year cycle. You need to travel outside of Reykjavík to see the Northern lights, and various tour companies offer guided tours in search of the aurora borealis.
Pink Iceland and Reykjavík Excursions whisk you away by jeep or bus to search for the northern lights outside the city. A more affordable option is offered by Special Tours where you can buy a boat ride and look to the sky out on the North-Atlantic ocean.
You can time your tour by visiting the website of the Icelandic Meteorological Office which forecasts the activity of the aurora borealis.
Feast on Putrified Fish
The traditional Icelandic Christmas meal is hangikjöt, smoked lamb, with bechamel sauce, potatoes and canned peas. You can purchase this traditional Christmas meal in just about every other restaurant in the city center, but GayIceland invites you to try a more exotic alternative, skata, or rotten fish, with mashed potatoes and brennivín, the Icelandic akvavit, a meal traditionally offered on the 23rd of December.
We need to dig deep into the murky past of Iceland to find the roots of this tradition. The last Catholic bishop was beheaded in Iceland in 1550 (along with two of his sons), but Catholicism is alive and well in Iceland one day year, December 23, St. Thorlak’s Day. The day commemorates the only Icelandic Catholic saint, St. Thorlak, who died in 1193 after a vigorous battle to uphold the clerical celibacy in Iceland (a principle which was routinely ignored in Iceland. The last Catholic bishop in Iceland, Jón Arason, had six children with his consort Helga Sigurðardóttir, the daughter of priest, and local legend says that every Icelander are descended from that happy couple).
In the Catholic era, it was traditional to fast until Christmas Eve, eating fish instead of meat. We still eat fish on December 23, where the traditional evening meal is skata, or putrid skate with mashed potatoes. Whole apartment buildings have banned the preparation of skata due to its pungent aroma.
Various restaurants in Reykjavík offer skata during lunch hour on December 23. You can dive into this putrid delicacy at the Fish Company, Sjávargrillið, Vox and the Hotel Saga Radisson BLU. Just remember to have plenty of brennivín at hand to wash the taste away.
Quaff Icelandic Christmas AleThe traditional drink in Iceland over the holidays is jólaöl, or Chrismas Ale. Perhaps not unsurprisingly in a country where beer was illegal until 1989, this “ale” is non-alcoholic, a mixture of orange soda and malt extract. You can buy jólaöl in every grocery store year-round, but the DIY minded can make their own.
Every family has their own recipe of jólaöl. Now, the more boring families follow the basic recipe of 50% Egils Appelsín orange soda and 50% Egils Maltextrakt. The more adventurous of us spice up the drink with a slug of Coca Cola. Various theories abound about which jugs bring out the perfect taste of jólaöl, how many minutes the drink should stand before drinking, and in which order the different ingredients should be poured. For a quick taste, pour the appelsín orange soda before the malt extract, but if you have a couple of minutes, pour in the malt extract, wait five minutes, and then carefully add the appelsín orange soda. Top up with a slug of malt and (gasp) cola. This order will ensure the maximum density and quality of the jólaöl foam.
Visit the Ghost of Christmas Past in the Reykjavík Suburbs
Árbæjarsafn offers visitors a chance to observe how Icelanders celebrated Christmas in days gone by. Visitors can learn how to make Christmas candles and gorge on traditional Icelandic Christmas bread and ale. There is a guided tour around the museum grounds every day at 1 pm except the 24., 25., 26. and 31st of December.
Árbæjarsafn is located in Ártúnsholt, Reykjavík. Take Bus 19 from Hlemmur and get off at the bus stop Strengur. Other buses which stop near Árbæjarsafn are Bus 12 and Bus 24. See map.
Discover Non-Sigur Rós Icelandic Music (We do love Sigur Rós btw)
Ásgeir Trausti released his first album in 2012 and is now one of the country’s most popular artists. He has just returned back to Iceland after touring Europe with Of Monsters and Men. On December 27 he will play in Gamla Bíó in Reykjavík, along with the Norwegian artist Kari Jahnsen, whose music has been described as a weird blend of Bon Iver, Poliça and Laura Marling. Gamla Bíó. December 27 at 8 pm. 3,500 ISK. Buy tickets here.
Wishing you had chosen to spend Christmas in the Balkans? You can, if only for one night, in Iðnó on December 27. The progressive Balkan folk bands Ophic oxtra and Skuggamyndir frá Býsans transport guests away from the chilly North to the balmy climes of Southeastern Europe. Iðnó. December 27 at 10 pm. 2,000 ISK. Buy tickets here.
Móses Hightower, Ylja and Snorri Helgason are the rising stars of the Icelandic progressive music scene. These bands join together for a special Christmas concert in Gamla bíó on December 28th. Gamla bíó. December 28 at 9 pm. 3,900 ISK. Buy tickets here.
In the mood to dance? Retro Stefson, Sísí Ey and Hermigervill mix it up in a dance party at Vodafonehöllin on December 30. The house opens at 9 pm and the music starts around 10 pm. Vodafonehöllin is an indoor sports arena just outside the city center. It does not offer alcoholic beverages. so remember to remember to show up sloshed. Vodafonehöllin. December 30 at 10 pm. 3,500 ISK. Buy tickets here.
For the fuddy-duddies who like to learn about a country’s history and cultural heritage (you know who you are), Harpa Concert Hall offers a medley showcasing traditional Icelandic music, folk songs, and psalms. The performers are young Icelandic musicians and the programme is annotated in English. You have five chances to catch the Pearls of Icelandic Song, December 28, 29 and 30 and January 2 and 3. Harpa. December 28, 29, 30, January 2, 3 at 5 pm. 3,900 ISK. Buy tickets here.
Attend the LGBTQ Christmas Ball
Samtökin ’78, the heart of the LGBTQ community in Iceland, hosts its annual Christmas ball at Kiki Queer Bar on December 28th. Look out for announcements (with further details) at the webpage of the National Queer Organization (Samtökin ’78).
Oh, and if you’re not really into the jingle bells, then why not check show up for some jazz at Kiki Queer Bar, tonight (Sunday) and next sunday, where hot frontsman Steini Sax and band will be showcasing their talents. No admission and a pint of beer for only 500 ISK.Celebrate New Year’s Eve with Bonfires, Fireworks, and Frenzied Dancing
You haven’t really celebrated New Year’s until you’ve partied in Reykjavík. Begin the celebration by visiting one of the numerous bonfires erected in the city. We recommend the bonfire in Laugardalur, close to Laugardalur City Hostel, about a forty minute walk from the center of Reykjavík (or a five minute cab ride). The fire is lit at 8:30 pm and burns out around midnight. Remember to dress warmly, and bring a bottle of whiskey to discreetly warm your bones. See map.
Every household in Reykjavík buys fireworks for tens of thousands of kronas, and sporadic shooting starts early in the evening. Be prepared for a lull in the festivities at 10:30 pm when the Iceland Public Television station offers its annual New Year’s comedy show, but at 11:25 pm the whole population of Reykjavík runs out into the streets and starts shooting. A good place to enjoy the view is next to Hallgrímskirkja in the city center.
Spend the rest of the night wandering between the Reykjavík clubs, all of which open up at midnight (remember to bring enough cash; this is the only evening of the year clubs have a cover charge). The party lasts until the wee hours of New Year’s Day. We recommend Kiki Queer Bar, located on Laugavegur 22. Kiki is tremendously popular, so show up early around midnight to avoid waiting in line.
If you’d like guided tours, you can always join the fabulous Pink Iceland’s bubbly bonfire tour, where the operators worry about all those pesky logistical matters like transportation and cover charges whilst you can relax and enjoy yourself. Be prepared for dinner, a houseparty and some cocktails, besides enjoying a bonfire and some fireworks The tour starts early evening and ends at 2 am at Kiki Queer Bar where you can mock the poor schmucks still waiting in line, since the Pink Iceland VIP pass gets you to the front of the queue.