While heading to one of the northernmost cities on the planet during the holiday season sounds downright chilly, the festive charms of Reykjavik in winter more than make up for the freezing temps.
Rainbow-hued streetscapes and Christmas markets await in Iceland’s capital, a giant skating rink lit up with twinkling lights makes for a fun gathering spot, and a soak in one of the city’s thermal baths is the perfect way to warm up after a day of sightseeing.
From sipping cocktails in an ice bar to adventurous day trips, here are some of the best things to do in Reykjavik in winter.
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1) Go shopping along Laugavegur
Colourful Laugavegur street is the heart of the city, and especially comes to life during the holiday season when it’s transformed with Christmas decor and lights.
Lined with a mix of chain stores and local boutiques, this is a great place to pick up Icelandic souvenirs like reindeer hides, gems, wool hats and sweaters. There are also lots of cafes, bars and restaurants, and the highlight is undoubtedly walking down neighbouring Skólavörðustígur, which is Reykjavik’s famous rainbow street.
2) Admire the architecture
Another must-do to include on a Reykjavik city tour no matter what the weather is like outside is to check out all the cool architecture.
The most famous landmark is Hallgrimskirkja, a towering church at the top of Skólavörðustígur that’s also the largest in Iceland. It opened in 1986, hence its more modernist design inspired by Icelandic naturalism like the Reynisfjara black-sand beach and Svartifoss waterfall.
Be sure to head up its tower for sweeping views, and also drop by in the evening to see it all lit up.
You’ll find the Sun Voyager sculpture along the waterfront, and a short walk along the promenade leads to the stunning Harpa concert and conference hall.
It’s won a series of international design awards since its unveiling in 2011, thanks to the striking glass exterior meant to mimic Iceland’s crystallized basalt columns which creates a kaleidoscope of colours inside that change with the weather and light conditions.
3) Sip cocktails in an ice bar
For a sub zero experience, head down into the Magic Ice Bar which is one of the most unique activities in Reykjavik.
Found just steps from Rainbow Street, guests slip on one of the provided parkas and are led inside to slide up to the bar to enjoy a cool cocktail (poured into an ice cup, natch).
Yes, everything is made of ice save for some fur cushions, from the benches to the tables to the intricate carvings on the walls that depict Viking folklore.
While alcoholic bevys about, the bar is an all-ages venue and there are non-alcoholic options for little ones, too. Click here to book
4) Celebrate Christmas in Iceland
While countries like Germany and Austria are better known for their enchanting Christmas markets, Iceland still gets into the seasonal spirit too–and without the crazy crowds.
Brightly-lit Christmas trees and sculptures are found throughout downtown Reykjavik, including the five-metre tall Yule Cat which has more than six-thousand lights and the Oslo Christmas tree which is sent as a gift from Norway each year.
Yule Town in Ingólfstorg Square has charming huts serving hot chocolate and traditional treats, and there’s also a beautiful skating rink lit by twinkling lights overhead. Entry is free, and helmets and skates can be rented on site.
Keep an eye out for the mischievous Icelandic Yule Lads (Jólasveinar) which start appearing 13 days before Christmas. You might see them on walls at the airport, or as animations on the side of downtown buildings in the evening.
5) Fill up during a Reykjavik food tour
Fermented shark, sheep’s head…yeah, Icelandic cuisine isn’t for everyone but it’s sure fun to sample!
A food tour is the perfect way to spend a chilly afternoon during a trip to Reykjavik, and warm up by sipping bevys like local beer and Iceland’s national drink brennivin—AKA ‘black death.’
By booking through a company like Reykjavik Food Walk, you’ll get to discover Reykjavik on foot while also eating your way through the city like a local at some hidden gems.
More than 10 different Icelandic dishes are sampled on the tour, including Graenlandshakarl (the fermented shark); you’re supposed to chew it five times before swallowing, then chase it down with a shot of brennivin if you dare!
Book a Reykjavik food tour:
6) Book winter excursions from Reykjavik
Iceland is truly transformed into a winter wonderland once the first snow falls, and Reykjavik is the perfect base for exploring geysers, trudging through ice caves, and hopefully catching a glimpse of the northern lights dancing overhead.
Local operators run day trips from Reykjavik all year round to experience things like driving around the iconic Golden Circle route, hiking on a volcano and snorkeling between two continents–yes, even when it’s freezing outside!
About 11 per cent of Iceland is covered in glaciers, which you can walk and snowmobile on. One of the most popular is Vatnajökull, which is the largest icecap in Europe and found along the southern section of the Ring Road in Skaftafell National Park.
Book one of these top-rated day tours from Reykjavik:
7) Enjoy the view at FlyOver Iceland
FlyOver Iceland is like an amusement park ride of sorts, except it’s unlike many others you’ve buckled yourself into before.
It may not reach the same speed as your favourite roller coaster, but it does have something else equally fun: a 20-metre high spherical screen showcasing Iceland’s dramatic landscapes during a nine-minute ride.
The spectacular visuals were captured using specialized cameras mounted on a helicopter, and highlight some of Iceland’s most incredible natural wonders including many that are nearly impossible to access.
Guests are buckled into mesh seats, and the state-of-the-art technology includes a moving platform with six degrees of motion which makes it feel like you’re really flying and sensory experiences like bursts of air and the scent of sulphur and lupines.
This is the perfect activity to book during a winter trip to Reykjavik since it’s entirely indoors. Click here to book
8) Explore Grandi harbour district
What once was a simple fishing area has transformed into another bustling part of Reykjavik, while retaining its maritime roots.
Nosh on a traditional Icelandic breakfast at Kaffivagninn, which has been around since 1935 making it the oldest restaurant in Iceland. This is where sailors used to fuel up before heading out for a long day at sea.
The harbour district is lined with stores, clothing boutiques, a food market hall and a number of attractions including FlyOver Iceland, the Reykjavik Maritime Museum, Aurora Reykjavík which is dedicated to science behind the northern lights, the Viking-themed Saga Museum and the Þúfa art installation.
9) Visit one of the quirky Reykjavik museums
Speaking of museums, Reykjavik has no shortage of them–especially some rather quirky ones.
Perhaps most notable is the Icelandic Phallological Museum…AKA the penis museum. Yup, it houses a collection of more than 200 penises and penile parts from almost all the land and sea mammals that can be found in Iceland.
Over at the Punk Rock Museum, get a closer look at the evolution of punk rock in Iceland starting from 1978, in this venue that was built into an abandoned underground public restroom.
One of the top things to see in Reykjavik is the Perlan, which is perched high on a hill overlooking the city and has panoramic views from its observation deck. It also holds the world’s first indoor ice cave which was built with over 350 tons of snow, an interactive glaciers exhibit and a planetarium.
10) Relax at one of the Reykjavik spas
The perfect way to warm up after a day of sightseeing in Reykjavik in winter is with a hot sauna, steam or soak. There are more than a dozen geothermal pools in the city, which look like swimming pools with separate lanes but are naturally heated.
Laugardalslaug is the largest swimming pool in Reykjavik, and massively popular among locals. Sundhöllin is the oldest one in the capital, and located right in the city center. For families, head to Lágafellslaug which has water slides or Álftaneslaug to play in the tidal wave pool. You can find a full list of them here.
For a more tranquil experience, head to Sky Lagoon which is just a five minute drive from the city centre yet feels a world away thanks to its waterfront perch.
The restorative retreat boasts a dramatic 75-metre-long infinity pool, secluded hideaways, a swim-up bar, restaurant and the Seven Step Ritual which combines warm and cold waters, steam, dry heat and fresh air.
Those who visit Iceland in December are in for a treat: since the days are so short, it’s possible to watch both the sunrise and sunset during a scenic soak at Sky Lagoon.
Where to stay in Reyjkavik
Midgardur by Center Hotels: The Center Hotels group has multiple properties around the city, with some a quick walk from the top Reykjavik attractions.
The Midgardur is a top pick thanks to its great city views (be sure to reserve a corner room on one of the higher floors for a panoramic vantage point), and a bus stop right out front which is extremely convenient if you plan to head out on organized excursions.
Its spa is a highlight, and has a large sauna, plunge pool and outdoor hot tub that are the perfect place to warm up and relax after a fun day out in the snow. Click here to book
Icelandair Hotel Reykjavik Marina: This hotel in the Grandi neighbourhood overlooks the harbour, and is a short walk from FlyOver Iceland, Harpa and Rainbow street.
The cozy decor gives it a fun, boutique feel with nice touches like a fireplace and cozy seating in the lobby, and rooms have lots of storage, huge bathrooms and premium L’Occitane amenities. Click here to book
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