If Iceland’s capital isn’t on your list of places to ring in the New Year, it should be. We had the idea to celebrate New Year’s Eve in Reykjavik when Tim spent two months living and working in Iceland. In talking with the locals, he learned that Iceland’s fireworks laws are relaxed for New Year’s and a massive fireworks display is put on for the people, by the people. Now that we’ve spent New Year’s Eve in Reykjavik, we can tell you it’s a celebration with a lot more to it than just an incredible fireworks display.
Reykjavik’s New Year’s Eve Fireworks
Fireworks are sold by ICE-SAR (the Icelandic Association for Search and Rescue), a self funded volunteer group with about 3000 individuals making up 100 search and rescue teams. All the proceeds from the fireworks sales go to ensuring ICE-SAR has the best equipment. It’s definitely a great cause since more than 1200 rescues (approximately four on any given day) happen in Iceland each year.
Fireworks were already being lit off from the time we arrived in Reykjavik on December 29. By 8:30pm on New Year’s Eve, fireworks lit up the sky almost constantly. From 11:30pm on, the fireworks just gained intensity until a massive barrage erupted at midnight. We’ve literally never seen anything like it. From our vantage point on top of the Perlan, we had fireworks rocketing into the sky literally from 360° around us.
Gala Dinner at The Pearl
Icelanders ceremoniously start off their New Year’s Eve with a grand family meal. Tim and I decided to splurge and attend the grand gala dinner at Reykjavik’s famous landmark and water tower, the Perlan. We put on our finest, Tim in a suit and tie and me in a cocktail dress, and were welcomed to the party with champagne. We clinked our glasses together toasting to our good fortune to be celebrating New Year’s Eve in Reykjavik.
We were seated with a lovely family of four from Paris, France who had also decided Iceland sounded like a great place to spend New Year’s. We shared wine and chatted about fabulous travels around the world with our new friends Ciaran and Naïr and their two very lucky boys Thomas and Marcus. We traded stories and tips over a delicious meal of smoked salmon and caviar, wild goose soup, and lamb.
10 bonfires (4 big and 6 smaller ones) are lit around Reykjavik starting at 8:30pm. The tradition of the bonfires dates back to the Middle Ages when fisherman would clean the house to ready it for the new year. They would burn all the old things in a massive bonfire. The tradition has carried on, but now-a-days Icelanders just gather around the bonfires to sing and symbolically burn the old.
At 8:15 I swapped my heels for my moon boots and bundled up. It was quite the sight to see all of us ladies pulling on thermal leggings under our cocktail dresses and traipsing out to a fire burning in a field. We joined right in with the massive crowd, lighting sparklers and dancing around the fire as fireworks exploded around us.
You can partake in this Icelandic New Year’s Eve tradition on a New Year’s Eve Bonfire tour with a local guide. The guided tour takes you by bus to some of the biggest local bonfires, before heading to a vantage point to watch the fireworks at 11:30pm.
By 10pm Icelanders are heading home (though they definitely won’t stay in for the night!) to watch Áramótaskaupið, the New Year’s Comedy. It’s a special show that has been broadcast annually since 1966; it focuses on the past year from a satirical standpoint. Over 90% of the population tunes in and it is the talk of Iceland the next day.
Countdown to Midnight
After the bonfires, we returned to The Perlan while Icelanders went home to watch Áramótaskaupið and started our countdown to midnight. At 11:30pm as the explosions of fireworks became more and more frequent, we once again bundled up and headed outside to the Perlan’s 360° observation deck. Icelanders began to arrive in the parking lot below; some just to watch from the vantage point atop the hill, many to light off fireworks.
If the gala party at the Perlan isn’t your cup of tea, another incredible vantage point to watch Reykjavik’s New Year’s Eve fireworks is from the harbor. Join a New Year’s Eve fireworks cruise around Faxaflói Bay and take in the fireworks from the water.
The City Doesn’t Sleep
Bars and pubs stay open until 5am and Icelanders definitely like to dance the night away! We headed home for the night around 1am since we had to be up at 6am again to begin our road trip around Iceland’s Ring Road, but the party was still going and the occasional bang of fireworks punctuated the morning.
Reykjavik was seriously the best place we’ve ever spent New Year’s Eve. The fireworks display is unrivaled from anything else we’ve seen and we’d do it all again in a heartbeat.
Know Before You Go
- GJ Travel hosts the New Year’s Eve party.
- Jacket and tie are required for men, dress (short or long) are required for ladies.
- Bring warm clothes such as leggings, hat, scarf, and gloves for the bonfire tour and watching the fireworks from the observation deck.
- Transfers back to two drop off points in Reykjavik are at 1:00.