Dramatic patterns in the sky

Ultimate Guide to the Northern Lights in Iceland

Katrín Sif Einarsdottir
Katrín Sif Einarsdottir
Verified Expert

Northern Lights Over Vestrahorn mountain.

When is the best time to see the Northern Lights in Iceland? Where is the best place to hunt for the auroras in Iceland, and where is the best place to see them in Reykjavík? Continue reading for an ultimate guide to hunting the Northern Lights in Iceland. 

What are the Northern Lights?            

Swirling auroras around an Icelandic farmstead.

The Northern Lights are the visual result of solar particles entering the earth’s magnetic field at high atmosphere, and ionising. Their intensity depends on the activity of the sun, and the acceleration speed of these particles.

They appear as dancing lights high in the sky and vary in colour, usually being green, but occasionally also purple, red, pink, orange and blue. Their colours depend on the elements being ionised.

Solar activity is not regular, however; even if it is a dark, clear night, there could be absolutely no chance of seeing the auroras, no matter how far north you are. It also means that on a midsummer day, the sky could be alive with Northern Lights; they are simply obscured by the brightness of the sun.

Due to the nature of the earth’s magnetic field, the auroras only appear at the poles, usually above the 60° latitude mark in the north, and below the 60° latitude in the south (these ‘Southern Lights’ are called the aurora australis). Iceland, which sits at the latitude of approximately 64° north, is therefore ideally located to spot them.

Before science could explain what these dancing lights were, there were many theories, throughout many different cultures. The old Norse, for example, theorised that they could be the glinting of the armour of the Valkyries, the legendary female figures who chose who would live and die in battle and took the dead to the afterlife.

The Northern Lights dancing above an Icelandic home.

Certain Native American groups reportedly believed they represented the spirits of the dead; the brighter they shined, the happier the dead were said to be.

The auroras have also been considered omens. After Christianisation in Medieval Europe, they were often seen as a warning for dark times ahead.

Confederates who saw them in the sky at the Battle of Fredericksburg, meanwhile, believed that they were a positive omen; while they would brutally win this fight, however, the positive effects of the aurora on their war efforts would not last long. 

What are the Optimal Conditions for Hunting the Northern Lights in Iceland?              

Northern Lights above Mt. Kirkjufell.

To witness the aurora borealis in all their glory in Iceland requires patience, luck, and the following conditions to be met:

  • You must be looking between September to April (while they can occasionally be seen towards the end of August, the lingering sunlight makes them very faint)
  • The night must be as dark as possible (a fuller moon, for example, will dim the aurora)
  • There should be as little unnatural light as possible
  • There should be as little cloud cover as possible
  • There must be enough solar activity

These last two conditions can be researched prior to looking for the lights, by referencing the aurora forecast and cloud cover forecast. However, it is impossible to know more than a few days in advance what the forecast will be. The aurora forecast is measured on a scale of 0-9, which anything above a 2 usually being promising.

The Northern Lights are one of the biggest winter attractions in Iceland.

Contrary to popular belief, the coldness of the temperature has no impact on whether or not the aurora borealis show. In fact, you are likely to have a better experience the warmer it is, as you will be able to marvel in comfort for longer.

Even if all of the conditions above seem perfect, nature can be fickle, and they still may not show. It is, therefore, a simple truth that the longer you stay in Iceland, the likelier it is that you will see them. If you're coming for just a couple of days, then you're limiting your chances of a clear sky and an active aurora. Keep this in mind while booking your trip.

Another possible way to ensure that you have the best chance to catch the auroras is to travel to the Westfjords or north Iceland. These areas have longer hours of darkness, and thus provide more opportunities to see the aurora borealis. In Reykjavík, at the winter equinox, you will have about twenty hours of darkness, while in the northernmost regions, it is closer to twenty-two. North Iceland, particularly to the east, also tends to have clearer weather than the south-east.

The aurora blazing above Vestrahorn in East Iceland.

If travelling in September or April, you could opt to camp in Iceland, and of course, sleeping beneath a canopy of stars vastly increases your chance of seeing the lights. As many campsites are rural, the light pollution in these places will often be minimal. 

Of course, there is a slight chance that even if you take every opportunity, you still might not see them. That being said, there is also a chance you will see the Northern Lights on the plane over to Iceland, or on the drive from Keflavík airport; like is said above, luck is always a factor where nature is concerned, particularly when it comes to catching the aurora borealis.

What is the Best Way to Hunt for the Northern Lights in Iceland?              

To get the best opportunity to see the Northern Lights in Iceland, you have four options. The first is to hunt for them without leaving the town you are staying in; the second is the take a guided tour out into nature; the third is to drive out and search yourself; and finally, you could take a boat cruise.

Each of these options has its advantages and disadvantages, so continue reading to see which will best suit you on your vacation.

Hunting the Northern Lights in Reykjavik          

A beautiful Aurora Borealis Corona over Reykjavik city

If your budget is a concern, and the idea of renting a car to see the Northern Lights or booking a tour seems too extravagant, you can always hope to catch the auroras from the city or town you are staying in.

The best way in which to see them is to find the darkest place possible and wait until your eyes have adjusted. Reykjavík, for example, is quite a spread out city with many parks, thus there are a fair few places to do this.

Perhaps the best spot is by Grótta lighthouse, on the Seltjarnarnes Peninsula in the north-westernmost point of the capital. There is very little light-pollution along this stretch, meaning that, on clear nights with a good forecast, you have a great shot at spotting them. There is also a little geothermal tub, which you can warm your feet up in while waiting for them to show.

The arctic sky is known to produce all kinds of ethereal shapes and cosmic patterns.

Öskjuhlíð is another great place to aurora hunt from. The forest, which surrounds the popular restaurant and landmark Perlan, is very dark, so observing from one of its clearings often achieves great results. Otherwise, watching from one of the city’s parks, such as Klambratún or the larger Laugardalur Park, is also an option.

In settlements outside of Reykjavík, there is usually a lot less light pollution, making this easier. The main exception to this is Akureyri, where you may need to get to the outskirts of the town to find a dark enough vantage point.

Will you see the auroras during your time in Iceland?

Unfortunately, seeking the aurora borealis from urban areas has several distinct disadvantages. Firstly, there will always be more light pollution in towns and cities than in the untouched landscapes of Iceland’s nature. Secondly, you lack mobility, so if there is a little cloud cover blocking the best of the auroras, you will not be able to move around it for an optimal viewing experience.

It should be noted that when the auroras are very strong, you may be able to see them from urban areas even with light pollution, such from a beer garden, your hotel, or just the street. Even if they are quite distinct, they will be much more intense the darker your surroundings.

Hunting the Northern Lights on a Guided Tour in Iceland             

The aurora borealis only appears in the Northern hemisphere.

The most common way to hunt for the aurora borealis is by taking a guided tour into nature. These tours run regularly from September to April whenever the lights are expected, and if they are cancelled or unsuccessful, you will get another opportunity to see them for free.

This 3-day tour, in addition to a Northern Lights hunt, includes the South Coast in winter along with Jökulsárlón, the Golden Circle and Ice Caving

The advantages of such a tour are manyfold. You will be under the care of an expert on the Northern Lights, where to find them, and how to photograph them; you will be mobile enough to move to where the forecast is strongest and cloud cover is at its minimal, and you won’t need to worry about driving yourself in Iceland’s winter conditions.

Of course, such tours may also expose you to landscapes you may not otherwise see.

The northern lights above a snow covered landscape

Those on a budget will appreciate reasonably cheap bus tours, which take you to the most promising locations without breaking the bank. You can book such tours from Reykjavík, Akureyri and East Iceland.

Those less worried about cost—or just very eager for a more personal, immersive experience—can elect to take a super-jeep tour from Reykjavík. On such an excursion, you will have a much smaller group, meaning you have more opportunities to speak with your guide and fewer people crowding around you when you are watching the lights.

You will also have the ability to reach places larger buses can’t for the most remote viewing locations, by travelling over rivers and down bumpy trails.

Long exposures are required to catch the lights on film, which your guide can help you withPhoto from The Northern Lights Tour from Akureyri

It is possible to combine a guided northern lights tour with other excursions, such as sightseeing around the Golden Circle, or a cultural experience, like a lobster dinner.

There are few disadvantages to taking a guided tour of Icelandic nature to see the lights. Perhaps the only reasons, outside of the budget, to elect another option is if you would prefer the uniqueness of watching the auroras from the surface of the ocean, or if you feel confident to drive out to them yourself. 

Hunting the Northern Lights by Driving Yourself in Iceland                  

Dramatic patterns in the sky

If you have a valid driver’s license with English characters (it can be written in other languages, just not other scripts), you have the option of renting a car, and hunting for the Northern Lights yourself. This option means that there will be no other group members distracting you on your tour, no time limitations and you can choose where you go hunting.

Before taking this option, it is essential to be aware of your restrictions. Though in September, October and April, the roads are largely clear of ice, they can be rather treacherous from November to March. If you have little experience driving in icy, dark, rural conditions, it is best to look at alternative opportunities.

If you do feel comfortable, it is still essential you rent a four-wheel-drive vehicle. You must also check the road conditions and the weather forecast before departing, to make sure that your intended destination is accessible.

Driving out to see the Northern Lights in Iceland requires a confident driver in a 4x4.

The latter will also be an invaluable tool to you for achieving the best results. As said above, it will tell you the aurora forecast on a scale of one to nine (anything from three and above is worth setting out for) and the cloud cover around the country, so you know where the skies will be clearest.

Though providing you with privacy and freedom, this option does have its disadvantages. Firstly, you will miss out on the knowledge of an experienced guide, who not only knows the Northern Lights well but also the most secluded places to watch them. Secondly, driving in Iceland in winter can be quite stressful, which, considering most travellers are seeking to unwind on holiday, can be somewhat undesirable.

Regardless, renting a car and hunting for the northern lights remains an excellent option for the ambitious and adventurous. 

Hunting the Northern Lights by Boat in Iceland                 

An incredible view from Faxafloí BayThe Northern Lights over the Imagine Peace Tower. Photo from Northern Lights Tour Deluxe

A final way to enjoy the incredible phenomenon of the aurora borealis is by watching them on a boat tour. Available from both ports at Akureyri and Reykjavík, these tours take you out to sea, far from any light pollution, where you have a great opportunity of a sighting.

These tours are very convenient, heading straight out into Eyjafjörður Fjord or Faxafloí Bay from the downtown harbours of the respective towns. It does not take long from either destination to be far enough from the city lights to start looking to the skies in hope.

The views from Reykjavík's bayPhoto from Reykjavik Northern Lights Cruise

While you don’t quite have the mobility that can be found on a standard bus or super jeep tour, you certainly have much more than if based in a town. The main advantage of this experience, however, is not so much the ‘hunt’ of the lights, as it is enjoying being out on the sea, surrounded by beautiful landscapes, at very least under a canopy of stars.

In spite of this, you will still get a second chance should you tour be cancelled or unsuccessful.

In both Faxafloí and Eyjafjörður, a Northern Lights cruise may also coincide with an unintentional whale-watch; after all, both bodies of water are home to resident white-beaked dolphins and harbour porpoises. Minke Whales are more commonly spotted from Reykjavík, while Humpbacks are regular visitors to the northern waters, but these are usually only found in summer.

Booking Northern Lights Holidays in Iceland                 

The aurora dancing over an Icelandic lighthouse.

If you want your holiday to Iceland to be focused on seeing the lights first-hand, there are plenty of winter self-drive vacations and package holidays that will make this a possibility. They can even suit those only in the country for just a few days, such as this three-day self-drive to the ice caves and this four-day package around the South Coast and Golden Circle.

As mentioned above, however, the longer you stay, the better your chances are of an awe-inspiring display.

Coming for a week would present far more opportunities; this seven-day Northern Lights self-drive vacation, where you can admire the country's beautiful landscapes in the daytime and search the skies for auroras at night, would provide you with plenty. This holiday also provides you with the chance to see the auroras over Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon, a mesmerising experience.

You can even fully encircle the country and the Snæfellsnes Peninsula, hunting for them each night, with this twelve-day self-drive vacation, although this should only be considered by those very confident on the road. 

If you prefer not to drive yourself, then this seven-day winter package is a good option, with its mix of incredible sights, exciting activities and potential Northern Lights gazing each night. Similarly, you can see the entire ring-road of Iceland and the Snæfellsnes Peninsula in winter without driving with this twelve-day package.

The Northern Lights make for the perfect contribution to your holiday photographs.

Hunting for the Northern Lights can be done in a variety of ways, but each method seeks the same result: a magical, ethereal display that will last in your memories for life. Tell us about your experiences Northern Lights hunting in the comments.