It’s no secret that visiting Iceland in winter means huge savings compared to the summer. And if you’re able to take a last-minute trip in the coming weeks, you can also enjoy holiday cheer in full force without the holiday weekend premiums. (The same geothermal energy that makes the Blue Lagoon such a hotspot is responsible for the inexpensive energy costs that set Christmas lights aglow across the island nation.) Sure, you’ll have to bring the layers -- average Reykjavik temperatures vacillate between 39 and 30 degrees Fahrenheit -- but there are plenty of ways to handle the cold. Here are some of our favorites.
1. Stay at a hotel with spa perks, for less.
Perhaps these hotels are top of mind because of the airline's airfare and accommodation packages -- think: flights, three-night accommodations, and tours from $769 per person -- but the Icelandair Hotels are great for warming amenities, too. In the heart of the city, Icelandair Hotel Reykjavik Natura folds spa access and free WiFi into the room rate, which starts from $119 per night this month (compared to $246-$330 in July). Take reprieve at the indoor pool, steam bath, sauna, and hot tub, or simply lounge by the cozy fireplace.
Even closer to the North Pole, the welcome mulled drink at Icelandair Hotel Akureyri is the perfect prelude for dashing across the street to one of the country’s best Olympic-sized geothermal pools. In December, rooms here go for as low as $135 per night, compared to $250-$350 in July.
2. Feast to your heart's content.
Sometimes (or, for some travelers, always) warming up is synonymous with fueling up. And there isn’t a heartier time to do so than in December, starting with the popular bar and rotating restaurant at Perlan (“The Pearl”). Around Christmastime, a sumptuous Jólahlaðborð buffet offers specialties only available just after game season. Think of Ptarmigan soup (grouse stew) and savory smoked lamb -- following plate after plate of seafood, roasted poultry and beef, and colorful desserts.
Putting a bit of spin on this tradition is New Nordic restaurant Vox, where Friday and Saturday nights through mid-December feature a classic Christmas dinner followed by a ball and dancing. Holiday enhancements appear on the menu for other dinners, lunches, and brunches, too.
If you're looking for just a taste and not a smorgasbord, head over to Tapas Barinn for a splurge-worthy prix-fixe menu featuring smoked puffin with blueberry sauce, Icelandic trout, silky Minke whale, and -- yes -- reindeer. Following it up with a shot of Brennivin (Icelandic schnapps) is not for the faint of heart, but it's what the locals do and a great way to warm up before an after-dinner stroll through downtown.
3. Shop till you drop.
You have the perfect excuse this month to duck into a store (or five): Gifting new clothes is a strictly followed Icelandic holiday tradition. Thanks to an abundance of lopi -- the fine wool of local sheep -- a Christmas sweater is always a safe bet. In Iceland, the iconic patterned collars pop with textures and colors. Find your favorites at the Handknitting Association of Iceland in Reykjavik, where you can also get stocking stuffers like delicate, handcrafted snowflake ornaments for just $5.
Opportunities for other types of present-hunting abound, too. For a cultural souvenir, find a miniature version of the Yule Cat, a naughty black beast who according to local folklore will eat those who don’t get new threads by Christmas Eve. You can find him or his mischievous comrades -- 13 troll-like Yule Lads meant to scare children straight -- in many shop windows and decorations as well, testaments to Icelanders’ dark sense of humor. Buy a likeness at the Christmas Village in Hafnarfjorour, just a short bus ride from Reykjavik and open on weekends, featuring other seasonal goodies and live entertainment. The Christmas Land shop at Perlan is open year-round.
4. Take a hot soak.
It’s not a novel idea, but hot springs are a must-do in nippy weather for a reason. And we do have a local off-the-beaten-track tip for you: Head to the largely undiscovered Lake Myvtn. The suggestion comes courtesy of Michael Raucheisen, Icelandair’s marketing communications coordinator, who says: “It’s pretty much like what the Blue Lagoon was before that became the major tourist attraction that it is today. The nature baths are filtered with fresh water and not salt, and it’s a lot more intimate.” Need other ideas? Check out these additional Blue Lagoon alternatives, from public pools to more hidden springs.
5. Keep your eyes on the photographic prize.
Love taking photos? Distract yourself from the weather with the best shooting conditions ever. While December means six hours of sunlight, you’ll enjoy lots of that lovely afternoon glow -- typically fleeting in the rest of the word -- that the pros covet. And if capturing the Northern Lights has been on your bucket list, now’s the time. The Lights are predicted to be brilliant this winter, before fading in the coming years as it enters a new solar cycle. (Don’t miss our aurora-hunting and photographing tips.)