Dramatic patterns in the sky

Northern Lights in Iceland - When & Where To See the Aurora

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Learn everything you need to know about viewing the northern lights in Iceland in this comprehensive guide. Discover the best places to see the aurora borealis and learn about when you can see them during the year. Also, find out what the northern lights are and the deep mythology behind them. 



 

What Are the Northern Lights?

Swirling auroras around an Icelandic farmstead.

Dancing in the skies above the land of ice and fire, these striking blue and green lights are at the top of many people’s bucket lists. Yet, many don’t know what they are. 

The northern lights, also known as the aurora borealis, are the visible result of solar particles entering the Earth’s magnetic field and ionizing high in the atmosphere. The ionization gives them their colors, usually green, but occasionally purple, red, pink, orange, and blue.

But solar activity isn’t reliable and can be sporadic. So even during a dark, clear night, Iceland might not have any northern lights. On the flip side, northern lights can occur in the atmosphere on a midsummer day, but the sun’s brightness prevents you from viewing them.

The auroras only appear near the Earth’s magnetic poles. They’re usually visible above a latitude of 60 degrees north and below 60 degrees south, with the ‘southern lights’ being called the aurora australis.

Iceland sits at a latitude of approximately 64 degrees north, making it the perfect place to see the northern lights.

 

Before science could explain the source of the dancing lights in the sky, different people told many stories about their origins.

Strangely, there is a lack of folklore about the aurora in Iceland. Modern scholars have theorized that the Old Norse people might have thought the northern lights were the glinting of the shields and armors of the Valkyries. The valkyries were female figures who guided warriors who died in battle to Valhalla. However, there are no mentions of the northern lights in the old Icelandic sagas, so these are just speculations.

The Northern Lights dancing above an Icelandic home.

Some Native American groups reportedly believed the aurora represented the spirits of the dead. The brighter they shone, the happier the deceased was said to be.

In Finnish, the word for northern lights, 'revontulet' translates to 'firefox.' The Sami people of Finnish Lapland thought that the lights resulted from the firefox running across the snow so quickly that his tail threw sparks into the sky.

The auroras have also been considered omens. After Christianization in Medieval Europe, people saw them as a warning for dark times ahead.

There’s still a lot to learn about the origins of the aurora and the effects of strong solar winds.

You’ll find answers to many of these questions in our FAQ on the northern lights in Iceland for more in-depth information.

When is the Best Time to see the Northern Lights in Iceland?

Northern Lights above Mt. Kirkjufell.

The best time to see the northern lights in Iceland is between September and April. While you can occasionally see them towards the end of August, the lingering sunlight makes them very faint.

We’ve dedicated a whole post to the best time to see the northern lights in Iceland. It includes information about the northern lights season in Iceland and even the best time of the day to see the northern lights.

The general rule is that the darker it is, the better for seeing the vibrant colors of the aurora. Iceland is very dark in the winter, reaching up to twenty hours of darkness during and around the winter solstice, which occurs on December 21 each year.

You also need to check the aurora forecast in Iceland. They’re on a scale of one to nine, and anything above three is worth setting out for, as a two is usually visible. It also describes the cloud cover around the country, so you can know where the skies are clear.

 

 

How To See the Northern Lights in Iceland

An icy road curves under the Northern Lights in Iceland.

Now that we know when to catch the northern lights, the next thing to do is find the best ways to see the aurora borealis in Iceland. There are four common ways to see the northern lights in Iceland:

  1. Hunt for them in the town where you’re staying.
  2. Take a guided northern lights tour.
  3. Rent a car and drive out of town to search for them. (Go here to find Iceland’s best selection and cheapest car rentals.)
  4. Set off into the ocean on a northern lights boat tour.

We’ll cover each of them below, starting with the best places to see the northern lights in Iceland.

Where to See the Northern Lights in Iceland

“Where can I see the northern lights in Iceland?” is a common question by travelers when planning their trip. If the conditions are favorable, you can see the northern lights anywhere in Iceland, but it’s easier and more scenic in some places than others.

It’s worth examining where you’ll stay in Iceland if you want to hunt for the auroras. Ideally, you’ll want to find a place with as little light pollution and cloud cover as possible.

Many of Iceland’s most stunning natural sites are popular places to see aurora borealis. These include Thingvellir National Park in the south, Asbyrgi canyon in the north, and Kirkjufell mountain in the west, being a few of the most notable ones.

Here are some of the best places to see the northern lights in Iceland:

Northern Lights in Westfjords and North Iceland

A beautiful Aurora Borealis Corona over Reykjavik city

The Westfjords and North Iceland have longer hours of darkness and typically less cloud cover than other areas, making them ideal spots for watching the aurora borealis. 

The only exception is Akureyri because it’s the second-largest city in Iceland. Although it is possible to see the northern lights in Akureyri, the light pollution makes it less ideal for viewing them.

 

Northern Lights in Vik and South Iceland

The many remote locations in South Iceland also present great opportunities to see the northern lights. The best place to see the northern lights in Iceland is the Jokulsarlon glacier lagoon, which lies by the Vatnajokull glacier.

You can drive to the lagoon along the Ring Road from Vik or find one of the black sand beaches of South Iceland to enjoy the view of the lights dancing across the sky.

Camping in Iceland to see the Northern Lights

The best places in Iceland to see the northern lights without paying extra are at campgrounds. However, it’s only possible to camp in Iceland between April and September because of the cold winter.

Many campsites are rural, meaning the light pollution will be minimal. During April and August, travelers may see the northern lights. However, the rest of the camping season is typically too bright for them to appear. 

Of course, there’s always a slight chance that you still might not see them even if you take every opportunity. Or you might see them on the plane over to Iceland or the drive from Keflavik airport.

Keep in mind that luck is always a factor when hunting the aurora in Iceland.

How to See the Northern Lights in Reykjavik

Northern Lights over city pond in Reykjavik, Iceland

Even if you’re only visiting the capital, you still have a chance to see the northern lights in Reykjavik.

The best way to see the northern lights in Reykjavik is the same as how to see the northern lights anywhere else in Iceland. You need to find the darkest place possible and wait until your eyes have adjusted. 

Reykjavik has many parks where you can minimize light pollution and maximize your chances of spotting the northern lights. Here are some of the best places to see the aurora borealis in Reykjavik:

Seltjarnarnes Peninsula

Will you see the auroras during your time in Iceland?

Seltjarnarnes peninsula is the capital area’s northwesternmost point. There’s minimal light pollution along this stretch. You have a great shot at spotting them on clear nights with a good forecast. One of Reykjavik's best backdrops for the northern lights is at the Grotta lighthouse.

There’s also a little geothermal tub (Kvika Foot Bath) on the peninsula where you can warm up your feet while waiting for them to show.

Oskjuhlid Hill

Oskjuhlid hill is another excellent place to hunt the aurora borealis in Iceland. The forest, which surrounds the popular restaurant and landmark Perlan, is very dark, so observing the sky from one of its clearings often achieves excellent results.

Parks in Reykjavik

Otherwise, watching from one of the city’s parks, such as Klambratun, Hljomskalagardur or the more expansive Laugardalur Park, are good choices.

Disadvantages of Northern Lights Hunting in the City

Unfortunately, trying to see the aurora borealis in Iceland in urban areas has several disadvantages:

  • There will always be more light pollution in towns and cities than in the untouched landscapes of Iceland’s countryside.
  • If there is a cloud blocking the best view of the auroras, you can’t reposition yourself for an optimal viewing experience.

When the auroras are incredibly vibrant, you might see them from urban areas, even with light pollution, such as from a garden, your hotel, or just from the street. But the darker your surroundings, the more intense the colors will be.

To maximize your chances of seeing the northern lights in Iceland, we always recommend a guided tour.

 

 

Can You See the Northern Lights From the Blue Lagoon?

Yes, you can see the northern lights from the Blue Lagoon. Much like trying to spot aurora borealis anywhere else in Iceland, it depends on the weather conditions and solar activity.

Since the Blue Lagoon is away from the city, there’s less light pollution than in Reykjavik. But being a very popular attraction, and you must book advance travel tickets. These advanced bookings mean it’s unlikely that you will be able to adjust your visit if the weather conditions are not optimal for the northern lights to be visible. 

So the chance of seeing the aurora borealis while you’re soaking in the mineral water there depends highly on luck.

 

 

Photographing the Northern Lights in Iceland

We have dedicated an entire post on how to photograph the northern lights, but here’s a quick summary:

  • Use a DSLR or full-frame camera with ISO capabilities. A mirrorless camera works too, but it’s not as ideal.
  • Use a wide-angle (or even ultra-wide-angle) lens as well.
  • Use a tripod to keep your camera steady and a shuttle release, too.
  • Set the ISO around 1,600 and an aperture of f/2.8 or lower.

Photography is an art, and these settings are just a guideline. If you’re unsure, there are dedicated tours like this eight-day northern light winter photography workshop tour that would help you capture the best photos of aurora borealis and Iceland’s beauty in the winter.

Best Apps to Photograph the Northern Lights

Mobile phone cameras are getting better every day. While they can’t compete with the capabilities of DSLR cameras, here are some apps that can help you get a few decent shots:

These apps either lower the shutter speed or compile a series of photos together to create one shot. Some of these apps need to be purchased, so we recommend you read the reviews and decide which one is best for you.

 

 

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 in Iceland is by taking a guided minibus tour. The mobility and affordability make this the best way to see the northern lights in Iceland.

These tours run regularly from September to April, whenever the northern lights are visible. If the outings are canceled or unsuccessful, the tour company will usually offer you a second opportunity to see them for free.

Advantages of choosing northern lights tours:

  • You’ll be under the guidance of an aurora expert.
  • You’ll be mobile enough to move to where the forecast is most favorable, and the cloud cover is minimal.
  • You won’t need to worry about driving in Iceland’s winter conditions.
  • As a bonus, they take you to places and landscapes you might never see otherwise.

 

This 3-day tour, in addition to a Northern Lights hunt, includes the South Coast in winter as well as Jokulsarlon glacier lagoon, the famous Golden Circle, and engaging in some adventurous ice caving.

Those on a budget will appreciate the cheap northern lights bus tour from Reykjavik, which takes you to the most promising locations without breaking the bank. You can book tours like this in Akureyri and East Iceland as well.

The Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon is great place to find the aurora borealis.

Those less worried about the cost—or just keen for a more personal, immersive experience—can elect to take Reykjavik’s northern lights super jeep tour that includes a photographer guide. 

These tours have much smaller groups, so you have more opportunities to speak with your guide and fewer people crowding around you while you’re watching the northern lights.

You’ll also have the ability to reach places larger buses can’t go and get to the most remote viewing locations by traveling over rivers and down bumpy trails.

Combining a guided northern lights tour with other excursions, such as sightseeing around the Golden Circle, is also possible.

The auroras can be seen over geothermal areas.

If you’re not a fan of group tours, we recommend you go on your own self-drive northern lights hunting tour so you can go aurora hunting at your own pace.

 

 

Hunting the Northern Lights on a Self Drive in Iceland

Dramatic patterns in the sky

If you have a valid driver’s license in the Latin alphabet, you can rent a car and hunt for the northern lights yourself

This means no other group members will be distracting you on your tour, there are no time limitations, and you can choose where to look for the aurora borealis in Iceland yourself.

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

Before choosing to head on a self-drive tour, it’s essential to be aware that driving in Iceland can be tricky during winter. Here are a few things to remember:

  • While the roads are mostly clear of ice in September, October and April, they can be trickier to drive from November to March.
  • All rental cars in Iceland have studded tires during the winter. Even if you feel comfortable driving, renting a four-wheel-drive vehicle is still recommended.
  • You should also check the road conditions and the weather forecast before departing to ensure that your intended destination is accessible.
  • If you have little experience driving in snowy conditions and rural areas, you may feel more comfortable on a guided tour.

For more tips on driving in Iceland, see our ultimate guide to driving in Iceland.

 

 

Hunting the Northern Lights by Boat in Iceland

Auroras can be seen from both land and sea.

Finally, a fantastic way to enjoy the incredible phenomenon of the aurora borealis in Iceland is by watching them on a boat tour.

These tours take you out to sea, far from any light pollution, and offer you a fantastic opportunity for a sighting. Aside from Reykjavik, you can also find northern lights cruises from Akureyri

These tours are very convenient, and head straight out to the bay of Eyjafjordur or Faxafloi bay from their respective town’s downtown harbors. 

You won’t have to travel far from either port to be clear of city lights to catch a sighting.

While you won’t have the same mobility as a standard bus or super jeep tour, you’ll have more than if you’re trying to hunt for it in town.

Boats allow you to see the auroras from a stunning vantage point.Photo from Comfortable 3-Hour Northern Lights Boat Cruise with Transfer from Reykjavik

However, a boat trip’s primary advantage is not the ‘hunt’ for the northern lights. Instead, it’s about enjoying being out on the sea, surrounded by beautiful landscapes while floating under a canopy of stars.

If there’s no aurora to be enjoyed, most tours will offer you a complimentary second chance.

A northern lights cruise in Faxafloi bay or Eyjafjordur bay could also result in a bonus whale-watching experience

After all, whales are common along Iceland’s shores, and both bodies of water are home to resident white-beaked dolphins and harbor porpoises. Minke whales are more commonly spotted from Reykjavik, while Humpbacks are regular visitors to the northern waters, though you’ll usually see these in the summer.

Are Northern Lights Guaranteed in Iceland?

Northern Lights over Vestrahorn mountain during January in Iceland

To witness the aurora borealis in Iceland, you need patience, luck, and the following conditions:

  • You must visit between September and April. While you can occasionally see them towards the end of August, the lingering sunlight makes them very faint.
  • The night must be as dark as possible. For example, a fuller moon will dim the aurora.
  • There should be as little unnatural light as possible (avoid watching under artificial lights).
  • There should be as little cloud cover as possible, as northern lights occur much higher in the earth's atmosphere than clouds.
  • There must be enough solar activity. The aurora forecast is measured on a scale of 0-9 Kp-index, with anything above two usually promising for visibility at Iceland’s latitude.

You can research these last two conditions before looking for the lights by referencing the cloud cover forecast and the aurora forecast in Iceland. However, it’s impossible to know the forecasts more than a few days in advance. 

Contrary to popular belief, colder weather does not affect whether the northern lights in Iceland will appear.

Even if all the conditions listed above seem perfect, nature can be fickle, and the northern lights still may not show. It’s a probability game, so the best chance of seeing the aurora borealis in Iceland is to stay longer. Keep this in mind while booking your trip.

 

Top Northern Lights Hotels in Iceland

The best northern lights hotels are in remote locations with no light pollution. Many hotels offer northern lights wake-up service during the winter season, so guests don’t miss out on the spectacular aurora.

Some hotels in Iceland have geared themselves towards watching the northern lights in comfort, and here are our top picks:

ION Adventure Hotel

The ION Adventure Hotel sits on a dormant volcano surrounded by lava fields near the Thingvellir National Park. It also has natural hot springs nearby, making it a good base for soaking in geothermal water as well.

Hofsstadir Country Hotel

The Hofsstadir Country Hotel in Skagafjordur in North Iceland has wide windows to take in the sweeping views of lava fields and fjords. They serve excellent food, so you can enjoy a meal while waiting for the elusive northern lights.

Hotel Ranga

Hotel Ranga in Hella is 60 miles (100 kilometers) southeast of Reykjavik. It has an observatory and wake-up service for the aurora, ensuring that guests won’t miss the aurora if it happens during their stay.

Magma Hotel

Magma Hotel is a 12-room hotel in South Iceland surrounded by the Eldhraun lava fields. Its remote location means many guests see the northern lights during the winter.

Reykjavik Domes

Reykjavik Domes is one of the only glass-dome-like accommodations in Iceland. Since it’s not in the downtown area, there’s still an excellent chance to see the northern lights if you stay long enough.

Booking Northern Lights Vacations in Iceland

The aurora dancing over an Icelandic lighthouse.

If you want to focus your holiday to Iceland on seeing the lights first-hand, there are plenty of self-drive winter vacations and package holidays that will make this possible

These packages may even suit those only in the country for a limited time, such as this three-day self-drive to the ice caves and this five-day package around the South Coast and Golden Circle.

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

 

 

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

Coming for a week would present far more opportunities. You might want to consider this eight-day circle of Iceland self-drive vacation, during which you can admire the country’s beautiful landscapes in the daytime and search the skies for the aurora borealis at night. 

This holiday also allows you to see the auroras over the Jokulsarlon glacier lagoon, a mesmerizing experience where the lights can often reflect in the icebergs below.

You can also fully encircle the country and the Snaefellsnes Peninsula, hunting for them each night on this twelve-day self-drive vacation. However, this option should only be considered by those who are very confident driving on winter roads.

If you prefer not to drive yourself, you can travel the entire Ring Road of Iceland and the Snaefellsnes Peninsula in winter with this guided eight-day package.

We hope our ultimate guide to the northern lights in Iceland has provided you with the knowledge and courage to come to Iceland and seek out this popular bucket list item.