In fear of getting 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 Forbes selected Iceland as the coolest place to visit in the year 2015? Or why CNN nominated Reykjavík last year 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 and around Reykjavík over the Christmas holidays.
#1 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 market at Heiðmörk. Visitors can stuff their stockings with Christmas knickknacks and artwork from local craftsmen, and wash down Icelandic horse sausages with hot cocoa and mulled wine.
Yule town at Reykjavík. Ingólfstorg. Opening hours here.
Christmas market at Heiðmörk. Opening hours here.
Hafnafjörður Christmas village. Take Bus 1 to the center of Hafnarfjörður. Opening hours here.
#2 Hunt for the Northern Lights
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. Another 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.
# 3 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, Þrír Frakkar and the Hotel Saga Radisson BLU. Just remember to have plenty of brennivín at hand to wash the taste away.
#4 Quaff Icelandic Christmas Ale
The 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.
#5 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. of December and the 1st of January, when the museum will be closed.
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 bus map.
#6 Attend the LGBTQ Christmas Ball
The National Queer Organization (i. Samtökin ’78, the heart of the LGBTQ community in Iceland) hosts its annual Christmas ball in December. Look out for announcements (with further details) at the webpage of the National Queer Organization.
Also look out for the Christmas bingo held by the National Queer Organization and Q – Queer Student Association which will be held at the Student bar (at the University of Iceland), Sæmundargata 4, Reykjavík 101, on the 7th of December from 15-17 pm.
#7 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 20.30 pm and burns out around midnight. Remember to dress warmly, and bring a bottle of whiskey to discreetly warm your bones.
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 22.30 pm when RÚV, the Iceland Public Television station offers its annual New Year’s comedy show. But at 23.25 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 house party 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.