Every country has its traditions of how to bring in the New Year, and Iceland is no exception. You will notice similarities to your own country’s traditions, but Iceland has its own take on the night. If you fancy a winter holiday full of snow and maybe some northern lights, join an Iceland New Year celebration.
New Year's Eve in Reykjavik, Iceland
The routine will, of course, vary between Icelanders, but there’s a common pattern followed between 31st December and 1st January:
The 31st, Day Time
This day is a public holiday. Everyone not in an essential role (such as healthcare), will spend the day relaxing and preparing for the night’s festivities. Many locals will have stocked up on fireworks to hold their own displays in their gardens.
The 31st, Evening
Iceland’s New Year’s Eve traditions include doing what Icelanders love to do: wearing fancy clothes and eating fancy meals. The meal varies but is sometimes centered around reindeer meat or poultry. After dinner, locals will head to their nearest neighborhood bonfire to socialize and let off some early fireworks. After that, another Icelandic New Year tradition comes into play.
Everyone will head home and gather around the television, to watch Áramótaskaupið, a New Year’s comedy special. The show is a series of satirical sketches showcasing the country’s events from the past year. It began in 1966 and is generally watched by over 90% of the population.
How does Iceland Celebrate New Year’s?
The 31st, Night-Time
If you are having a Reykjavík New Year’s Eve, you will see firework displays all around you. The most popular places to watch the sky lighting up are at Hallgrímskirkja (the huge church) and the Perlan hill. Björgunarsveitin, the Icelandic Search and Rescue Service, will host public displays, but many locals will create their own. In fact, all proceeds from fireworks sold in Iceland will go to the Search and Rescue Service.
Fireworks are only legal from December 28th until January 6th, so it is understandable why they are so popular. Unfortunately, it is a popular game to shoot fireworks straight from one’s hands, which is extremely dangerous. When midnight strikes the fireworks properly begin, but they will have been going almost non-stop since about 7 pm.
A particularly special Iceland New Year’s Eve party is hosted by Perlan. This is Reykjavík’s natural history museum which also contains a restaurant and 360° Observation Deck. Perlan’s party includes a welcome drink, four-course dinner with wine, and full access to the dance floor and Observation Deck. You can see in the New Year in style and with the best view of the fireworks in Reykjavík.
If you want to get out of the city and experience a quieter Iceland New Year’s Eve celebration, grab your rental car and drive to the Grótta lighthouse. It’s a 5km (3 miles) drive from the city center, away from the city’s light pollution. Welcome the New Year with a view of the stars, and if the timing is right, with the aurora borealis.
The 31st, Late Night
When the midnight celebration is over, many Icelanders journey to various house parties. There will also be a host of bars and clubs open if you don’t want the party to stop. Many of them don’t open until 1 am, giving you time to refresh after the midnight craziness. A popular spot for the after-party is the club Austur, located on the road Austurstraeti. They are open until 6 am on January 1st, for those that don’t have to be up early.
The 1st of January
This day is also a public holiday, so locals will spend the day recovering. If you are out in Reykjavík on New Year’s Day, it will appear as a messy ghost town. Keep in mind that, as with December 31st, many shops will not be open on this day. So, your souvenir shopping is best completed before or after these days. If you are not too tired, this would be a good day to embark on a road trip. Most people will probably be staying indoors on January 1st, so the roads will be clearer.
Rural Iceland Christmas Tradition
Those who live outside of Reykjavík follow a similar routine: fancy dinner, bonfire, fireworks, watch Áramótaskaupið, more fireworks. In places such as the Westman Islands, many people hike to the highest point and watch the festivities from above. You will probably hear some Icelandic singing wherever you choose to celebrate.
New Year in Iceland 2020
Because Iceland is almost complete COVID-19 free as of writing, things are looking positive for the rest of the year. Tourists are now permitted to enter the country from elsewhere in Europe, provided they undertake a COVID test upon arrival. Full details of Iceland’s COVID status and our travel restrictions can be seen here.
Travel companies are already taking bookings for 2020 Christmas and New Year excursions and tour packages. Icelandic authorities are confident that our already strong situation will continue to improve. So, if you’ve ever thought about spending New Year’s Eve in Iceland, start planning now. Don't forget to check some deals for rental cars in Iceland too!
What Else to do in December in Iceland
There may be points in your winter holiday that you feel the cold is getting to you. That’s fine, we have a solution. Reykjavík alone contains seven naturally heated public swimming pools, and there are many more around the country. You have many options: the public swimming pools, luxury geothermal spas like the Blue Lagoon, or wild, free hot springs.
The Blue Lagoon is only a 50km (31 miles) drive from the capital, but you must book in advance. There is also Iceland’s most famous tourist route on your doorstep, the Golden Circle. This comprises three main stops: Gullfoss Waterfall, Geysir Geothermal Area, and Þingvellir National Park. The journey can be completed in a day and there is something special about viewing these features in the winter. With Gullfoss glittering with icicles and Þingvellir full of snow, you can feel the arctic serenity that is Iceland’s winter.
Dress warmly; the temperature is generally below 0°C throughout winter and can be as low as -10°C in the south.
Take care when driving in Iceland in the winter; snowstorms and strong wind are common. Check the forecast on https://en.vedur.is/ before leaving and only travel if it is safe to do so.
So, there you have it. New Year’s celebrations in Iceland are much looked forward to by locals and tourists alike. With an abundance of fireworks, crisp wintery weather, and beautiful snow-covered mountains in every direction, you’ll never want to leave. See in 2021 in the Land of Fire and Ice.
Samuel Hogarth, Cars Iceland.