Iceland, the land of fire and ice, with its clean air and stunning northern lights displays, is a popular destination for New Year's trips. And for good reason: Iceland's capital, Reykjavik, definitely knows how to celebrate during these long, dark nights.
Traditionally, the ceremony begins in the evening with the mass at Reykjavik's Cathedral, which many Icelanders listen to on the radio. This is typically followed by a highly-anticipated traditional New Year's Eve dinner. Many people dress in their finest attire, sip champagne, and make a toast to good fortune in the upcoming year.
New Year's Comedy
Áramótaskaupið (or the New Year's comedy) is an annual Icelandic television comedy special and is an important part of the Icelandic New Year's celebration for many. It focuses on the recent year from a satirical standpoint and shows little mercy toward its victims, especially politicians, artists, prominent business people, and activists.
On the night of New Year's Eve, in each quarter of Reykjavik, neighbors meet at a large bonfire, or Brenna in Icelandic, to celebrate the new year while watching the numerous fireworks displays over the city. Attire is much more casual for these outdoor festivities, so trade your heels for walking shoes. These are casual affairs meant for mingling with the neighbors and happen all over the city–typically in neighborhoods like Ægisíða, Geirsnef, Skerjafjörður. You can reference this map created by the city of Reykjavik to see in which parts of the city the bonfires are lit.
Tour operators like Extreme Iceland and Viator even offer bus tours that will take you past all the bonfires on the night of New Year's Eve and include warm beverages and midnight champagne–but you could also take a cab and bring your own champagne.
It's legal for residents to set off fireworks, too, so you can often find colorful displays of all sizes, big and small. The government lifts the ban on fireworks for this one night, and the bigger fireworks displays can be pretty dramatic. After the countdown on the clock, many residents toast with more champagne as the fireworks explode at midnight.
The Party Downtown
Later, locals meet in Reykjavik's small downtown area for a party. After all, Reykjavik's nightlife is famous. On this last day of the year in Reykjavik, there is one unspoken rule: The colder the temperatures, the hotter the nightlife.
On New Year's Eve in Reykjavik, downtown bars usually offer live music typically until 5 a.m. In general, restaurants will be closed, so make sure you get your fill at one of Reykjavik's best restaurants, like Snap Bistro or Mat Bar, most of which should be open during the day. As tourism in Iceland grows, increasingly more restaurants are staying open, but don't count on it. Call ahead to make sure.
See the Northern Lights
If you're not up for a party, an adventure out to see the natural light show of Iceland's Aurora Borealis is another option. September through March is the peak season for Northern Lights viewing so seeing the northern lights for New Year's is a special experience. Unless there is a full moon, you have a decent chance of catching the lights sometime between dusk and dawn. Tours can take you out in the countryside where you'll be far from artificial light of the city and fireworks. A small group tour usually lasts four hours and includes hotel pick up, commentary from a Northern Lights expert, as well as hot chocolate and cookies. Guides will help travelers set their cameras to capture the bests possible images.