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.
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 regular. So even during a dark, clear night, there might not be any northern lights in Iceland. On the flip side, northern lights can occur in the atmosphere on a midsummer day, but the sun’s brightness obscures your view of 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 (the ‘southern lights’ are 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 peoples told many stories about their origins.
The Old Norse theorized they could be the glinting of the armor of the Valkyries. They are the Nordic version of angels who handpick warriors from the dead that’d fight in the doomsday battle known as Ragnarok.
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.
Confederates who saw them in the sky at the Battle of Fredericksburg believed they were a temporary but positive omen. While they won the brutal fight, the aurora did not positively affect their war efforts.
There’s still a lot to learn about the origins of the aurora and the effects of strong solar winds.
For more in-depth information, you’ll find answers to many of these questions in our FAQ on the northern lights in Iceland.
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’ll also describe the cloud cover around the country, so you’ll know where the skies will be clearest.
Now that we know how to see 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:
We’ll cover each of them below, starting with the best places 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. You can see the northern lights anywhere in Iceland if the conditions are favorable, 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.
Here are some of the best places to see the northern lights in Iceland:
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.
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.
The best places in Iceland to see the northern lights without paying extra are its 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.
Luck is always a factor when hunting the aurora in 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 is the capital’s north-westernmost point. There’s minimal light pollution along this stretch. On clear nights with a good forecast, you have a great shot at spotting them. One of the best backdrops for the northern lights in Reykjavik is at the Grotta lighthouse.
There’s also a little geothermal tub (Kvika Foot Bath) where you can warm up your feet while waiting for them to show.
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.
Unfortunately, trying to see the aurora borealis in Iceland in urban areas has several disadvantages:
When the auroras are incredibly vibrant, you might see them from urban areas even with light pollution, such as from a beer garden, your hotel, or just 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.
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 it’s a popular attraction, and you have to book advance tickets to visit. These advanced bookings mean it’s unlikely that you will be able to adjust your visit if the weather conditions make it unlikely 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.
We have dedicated an entire post on how to photograph the northern lights, but here’s a quick summary:
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.
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 are paid, so we recommend you read the reviews and decide which one is best for you.
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:
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
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.
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.
If you’re not a fan of group tours, we recommend you go on your own self-drive northern lights hunting tour.
If you have a valid driver’s license with English characters (it can be written in other languages, just not other scripts), 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, no time limitations, and you can choose where to look for the aurora borealis in Iceland yourself.
Before choosing this option, it’s essential to be aware that driving in Iceland can be tricky during the winter months. It’s important to remember:
For more tips on driving in Iceland, see our ultimate guide to driving in Iceland.
A final 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 a northern lights cruise from Akureyri.
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.
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 fjord could also result in a bonus whale-watching experience.
After all, whales are prevalent 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.
To witness the aurora borealis in Iceland, you need patience, luck, and the following conditions:
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 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 staying longer. Keep this in mind while booking your trip.
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:
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 adventures as well.
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 in Hella is 64 miles (102.4 kilometers) southeast of Reykjavik. It has an observatory and wake-up service for aurora, ensuring that guests won’t miss the aurora if it happens during their stay.
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 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.
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 a possibility.
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.
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 provides you with the chance 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 northern lights in Iceland has provided you with the knowledge and courage to come to Iceland and seek out this bucket list treat.
Which northern lights tour would you most like to experience?