When is the best time to see the Northern Lights in Iceland? Where is the best place to hunt for the aurora borealis in Iceland, and where is the best place to see a display in Reykjavik? Will COVID-19 impact your chance to see this natural phenomenon? In this Ultimate Guide to the Northern Lights in Iceland, you will find all you need to know.
Found dancing in the skies above the land of fire and ice, the Northern Lights are one of the world’s most spectacular natural wonders. These dancing lights are at the top of many bucket lists and bring thousands of visitors to Iceland every year. Depending on weather conditions, cloud cover, and your location, they can be hard to spot.
Luckily, we have all the information you need to find them in Iceland, plus how COVID-19 may affect your chances.
The Northern Lights are one of the world's most sought-after natural phenomena. Everyone wants to catch a glimpse of this dancing light show in the sky. Thankfully, Iceland is reopening quickly to help you get your chance; it has provided almost 400,000 jabs as of June 2021, for a population of just over 350,000, meaning the country is close to herd immunity.
As such mask-wearing and social distancing restrictions have been lifted, with the only remaining rules applying to international travelers. Luckily, however, travelers who are fully vaccinated, have proof of antibodies, or come from a list of approved countries are welcome to enter the country without any hindrance, other than filling out a pre-registration form. If you do not fall in one of these countries, you can still come, so long as you have a negative test upon arrival and a second one after five days of quarantine.
As Northern Lights hunting is an outdoor activity, the risks of Covid exposure are minimized further. Tour operators and Icelandic hotels and venues will continue to maintain high levels of cleanliness to ensure everyone's safety.
For more information on traveling to Iceland during the pandemic, be sure to keep updated with our ultimate guide.
The Northern Lights are the visible result of solar particles entering the earth's magnetic field and ionizing high in the atmosphere.
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 color. The lights usually appear green, but occasionally also purple, red, pink, orange, and blue.
Their colors depend on the elements being ionized.
Solar activity is not regular, however. Even if it is a dark, clear night, there could still be absolutely no chance of seeing the auroras due to a lack of solar activity.
It also means that the sky could be alive with Northern Lights on a midsummer day, but the sun’s brightness obscures them.
Due to the nature of the earth's magnetic field, the auroras only appear at the poles. They are usually visible 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 a latitude of approximately 64° north, is therefore ideally located to see the aurora.
Before science could explain what these dancing lights were, there were many theories throughout different cultures.
For example, the Old Norse theorized that they could be the glinting of the armor of the Valkyries. These mythical female figures chose who would live and die in battle and then took the dead to the afterlife.
Certain Native American groups reportedly believed the aurora represented the spirits of the dead; the brighter they shone, the happier the dead were said to be.
In Finnish, the word for Northern Lights ('revontulet') translates to 'firefox.’ It was the belief of the Sámi people of Finnish Lapland, and other neighboring regions, that the lights were a result of the firefox running across the snow so quickly that his tail caused sparks to fly 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 that they were a temporary but positive omen. While they would win this brutal fight, the aurora’s positive effects on their war efforts would not last long.
There is still much to learn about both the science and mythological origins of the aurora. More discoveries are being made to this day, particularly regarding the dangers of strong solar winds.
For more in-depth information on answering some of these questions, you'll find the answers in our FAQ on the Northern Lights in Iceland.
To witness the aurora borealis in all their glory requires patience, luck, and the following conditions to be met:
You must be visiting 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 (a fuller moon, for example, 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 (Northern Lights occur much higher than clouds)
There must be enough solar activity (usually anything higher than Kp 2 is a good rule of thumb to witness the aurora in Iceland)
You can research these last two conditions before looking for the lights by referencing the aurora forecast and cloud cover forecast. However, it is impossible to know what the forecast will be more than a few days in advance. The aurora forecast is measured on a scale of 0-9 Kp-index, with anything above a Kp 2 usually promising for visibility at Iceland's latitude.
Contrary to popular belief, the temperature’s coldness doesn't impact whether the aurora borealis will show.
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 listed above seem perfect, nature can be fickle, and the lights still may not show. Therefore, it is 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 aurora is to travel to the Westfjords or North Iceland. These areas have longer hours of darkness and often statistically less frequent cloud cover, providing more opportunities to see the aurora borealis.
In Reykjavik, you will have about twenty hours of darkness at the winter equinox, 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 southeast.
If traveling in September or April, you could opt to go camping in Iceland.
Sleeping beneath a canopy of stars will vastly increase 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 you still might not see them even if you take every opportunity.
That being said, there is always a chance you will see the Northern Lights on the plane over to Iceland or the drive from Keflavík airport.
Luck is always a factor where nature is concerned, particularly when hunting the aurora borealis.
When considering the best places to see the Northern Lights, it's worth examining your travel plans and thinking about where you will be staying in Iceland.
To have 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 to take a guided tour into nature; the third is to drive out of town and search for them yourself. Or lastly, 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.
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 in which you are staying.
The best way 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, providing multiple places to do this.
There is minimal 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 (Kvika Foot Bath), in which you can warm up your feet while waiting for them to show.
Oskjuhlid is another excellent place to hunt the aurora. The forest, which surrounds the popular restaurant and landmark Perlan, is very dark, so observing the sky from one of its clearings often achieves great results.
In settlements outside of Reykjavik, 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 town’s outskirts to find a dark enough vantage point.
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 will lack mobility, so if there is a little cloud cover blocking the best of the auroras, you will not be able to reposition yourself for an optimal viewing experience.
It should be noted that when the auroras are incredibly vibrant, you may be able to see them from urban areas even with light pollution, such as 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.
The most common way to hunt for the aurora borealis is by taking a guided minibus tour.
These tours run regularly from September to April whenever the lights are expected. If the outings are canceled or unsuccessful, you will usually 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
On a guided tour, you will be mobile enough to move to where the forecast is most favorable, and the cloud cover is minimal. You also won't need to worry about driving in Iceland's winter conditions.
As a bonus, such tours may also introduce you to landscapes you may not otherwise see.
Those on a budget will appreciate the reasonably cheap bus tours, which take you to the most promising locations without breaking the bank. You can book such tours from Reykjavik, Akureyri, and East Iceland.
Those less worried about the cost—or just very eager for a more personal, immersive experience—can elect to take a super-jeep tour from Reykjavik.
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 Northern Lights.
You will also have the ability to reach places larger buses can't go for the most remote viewing locations by traveling over rivers and down bumpy trails.
It is possible to combine a guided Northern Lights tour with other excursions, such as sightseeing around the Golden Circle.
There are few disadvantages to taking a guided tour of Icelandic nature to see the lights.
Perhaps the only reason, outside of your budget, to elect another option would be if you prefer the uniqueness of watching the auroras from the surface of the ocean or feel confident in driving out to them yourself.
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.
Driving in Iceland can be tricky. Before taking this option, it is essential to be aware of your restrictions.
While the roads are mostly clear of ice in September, October and April, they can be trickier to drive 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 ensure that your intended destination is accessible. This last report will also be an invaluable tool for you to achieve the best aurora hunting results.
As noted above, the weather report will tell you the aurora forecast on a scale of one to nine (anything from three and above is worth setting out for, while a two is usually visible). It will also describe the cloud cover around the country, so you will 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 knows the most secluded places from which to watch them.
Secondly, driving in Iceland in winter can be quite stressful, which, considering most travelers are seeking to unwind on holiday, may mean this isn't the option for you.
Regardless, renting a car and hunting for the Northern Lights remains an excellent option for the ambitious and adventurous.
A final way to enjoy the incredible phenomenon of the aurora borealis is by watching them while on a boat tour.
You won't have to travel far from either port to be far enough clear of city lights to catch a sighting.
While you won't quite have a standard bus or super jeep tour’s mobility, you certainly have much more than if based in a town.
However, this experience’s main advantage is not so much the 'hunt' of the lights.
Instead, it is about enjoying being out on the sea, surrounded by beautiful landscapes while floating under a canopy of stars.
In case there is no aurora to be enjoyed, most tours will offer you a complimentary second chance should your outing be canceled or unsuccessful.
In Faxafloi and Eyjafjordur, a Northern Lights cruise may also coincide with an unintentional 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 Reykjavík, while Humpbacks are regular visitors to the northern waters, though you will usually see these in the summer.
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.
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 seven-day Northern Lights self-drive vacation, during which you can admire the country's beautiful landscapes in the daytime and search the skies for auroras 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, 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 yourself with this guided eight-day package.
We hope our ultimate guide to the Northern Lights has provided you with the knowledge and courage to come to Iceland and seek out this bucket list treat. Hunting for the Northern Lights can be done in various ways, but each method seeks the same result: a magical, ethereal display you will remember for the rest of your life.
Tell us about your experiences hunting for the Northern Lights in Iceland in the comments.