Guide: Celebrating the festive spirit in Reykjavík
Introducing the holiday season in the centre of the capital.
1. The center of attention
You can create a festive program for December revolving around the Hallgrímskirkja church. Built on Skólavörðuholt hill, Reykjavík’s most prominent landmark towers 75 meters (244 feet) over the downtown. On top, you have an observation tower, with probably the best view of the capital and surrounding mountains.
The church dome is blessed with great acoustics and Iceland’s largest organ, a grand German Klais, which attracts many of the world’s best organists. You can experience both at several concerts in the month of December (see schedule at hallgrimskirkja.is).
On New Year’s Eve, the square in front of the church is the place to visit if fireworks are your thing (more about that later in this list).
The church and the tower are open 9 am to 5 pm. Admission for the tower is 700 ÍSK for adults and 100 ÍSK for children.
2. More music
The Icelandic Symphony Orchestra’s Christmas concerts have become part of many Icelanders holiday traditions. This year’s concerts include holiday favourites, Christmas classics and classical ballet music and will be interpreted in Icelandic sign language.
3. Hot water & star-gazing
There is something fantastic about dipping into a hot outdoor pool in the middle of a crazy winter blizzard. The Sundhöllin swimming pool, close to Hallgrímskirkja church, is a beautiful indoor swimming pool, with outdoor hot tubs. During frosty, clear nights in this darkest of months, you can unwind in the hot water and enjoy some star-gazing. And if you are lucky you can even catch the magnificent Northern Lights.
4. Christmas window displays
Reykjavík has adorned itself for the holiday season. While walking through town stop to take in the creative and inspirational window displays on Reykjavík‘s two main thoroughfares, Laugavegur and Skólavörðustígur. It is sure to get you into a festive mood!
5. Eat, drink and be merry
The annual Christmas buffets, known as “jólahlaðborð” in Icelandic, are a huge part of the Icelandic Christmas celebrations. Come November, many restaurants and hotels will offer Christmas buffets that include seasonal dishes to spread the Yuletide cheer. The food is frequently accompanied by a shot of snaps or specially brewed Christmas beer. Gleðileg jól!
6. Keep an eye out for the Yule Lads
As Christmas approaches the Icelandic Yule Lads head into town. The weeks before Christmas Eve one can expect to see one, or more, Yule Lad parading around town in their festive costume. Also, keep an eye out for the amusing animated Yule Lads that bedeck the walls of numerous buildings in down-town Reykjavík.
7. Mass in Icelandic or English
To experience a church service or a mass in a language that you don’t understand can be a soulful experience, but the neighborhood churches also offer services in English and other languages. Iceland’s only Catholic church, Christ the King Cathedral, is located in a beautiful building at Hávallagata 14-16. Lutherans can choose between three churches in the area: the aforementioned Hallgrímskirkja and the small Reykjavík Cathedral (Dómkirkjan) at Austurvöllur square are owned by the National Evangelical Lutheran Church (to which 80% of Iceland’s population belong), and the Free Church (Fríkirkjan) in Reykjavík, an independent congregation stationed in a lovely old wood and corrugated iron church by Lake Tjörnin (the Pond).
8. The downtown Christmas Market
At the annual Christmas market in Ingólfstorg square in downtown Reykjavík, you can buy amazing smoked leg of lamb from farmer Elín from Húsavík, hand-made designs, Christmas trees, traditional bjúga sausage, home-made sweets, roasted almonds, a carved whale teeth from the Westman Islands and other lovely home-made foods and goods.
The square is at the end of Aðalstræti street in downtown Reykjavík and the market is formed around an temporary ice skating rink. Entrance is free of charge and guests can rent a pair of ice skates and a helmet for 990 ISK (7 Euros/7.4 USD). If all that won’t get you in the Christmas spirit, nothing will!.
Opening hours: 12pm-10pm from 12-22 December.
9. New Year’s Eve crazy pyrotechnics
The craziest fireworks show you will ever witness is probably the New Year’s Eve display in Reykjavík. The very relaxed fireworks regulations in Iceland give a large part of the population the opportunity to let their inner pyromaniac loose in this spectacular way.
On a typical New Year’s Eve, more than 500 tons of fireworks are blown into the sky in Iceland. That’s 1.5 kg (3 lbs.) for every man, woman, and child in the country. There are two great places to experience this mayhem in downtown Reykjavík: in front of Hallgrímskirkja church and in the park around the Catholic church.
Safety glasses are strongly recommended!
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