Dramatic patterns in the sky

Ultimate Guide to the Northern Lights in Iceland

Katrín Sif Einarsdottir
By 
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 aurora borealis in Iceland, and where is the best place to see a display in Reykjavik? In this Ultimate Guide to the Northern Lights in Iceland, you will find all you need to know.

1. 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. The lights usually appear 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 still be absolutely no chance of seeing the auroras, as there simply might not be any solar activity. 

It also means that on a midsummer day, the sky could be alive with Northern Lights, but 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 see the aurora.

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.

In Finnish, the word for Northern Lights ('revontulet') translates literally to 'firefox'. It was the belief of the Sámi people of Finnish Lapland, and other neighbouring regions, that the lights were as a result of the firefox running so quickly across the snow that his tail caused sparks to fly into the sky creating the aurora.

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 temporary but positive omen. While they would brutally win this fight, the positive effects of the aurora on their war efforts would not last long. 

There is so much to learn about both the science and mythological origins of the aurora that more and more discoveries are being made to this day, particularly 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.

2. What are the Best Conditions for the Northern Lights in Iceland?              

Northern Lights above Mt. Kirkjufell.

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 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 (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 greater than Kp 2 is a good rule of thumb to witness the Aurora in Iceland)

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 Kp-index, with anything above a Kp 2 usually being promising for visibility at Iceland's latitude.

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 will 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 aurora is to travel to the Westfjords or North Iceland. These areas have longer hours of darkness and often statistically less frequent cloud cover, and thus provide more opportunities to see the aurora borealis. 

In Reykjavik, 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 go camping in Iceland.

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.

Luck is always a factor where nature is concerned and particularly when it comes to catching the aurora borealis.

3. What are the Best Places to See the Northern Lights in Iceland?              

When considering the best places to see the Northern Lights, it's worthwhile considering your travel plans in general and thinking about where in Iceland you will be staying.

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 out into nature; the third is to drive out and search for 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.

3.1 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 (Kvika Foot Bath), which you can warm your feet up in a while waiting for them to show.

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

Oskjuhlid is another great place to hunt the aurora. 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 Klambratun or the larger Laugardalur Park, is also an option.

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 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 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.

3.2 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 minibus tour.

These tours run regularly from September to April whenever the lights are expected, and if they are cancelled 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

The advantages of such a guided tour are manyfold. You will be under the care of a Northern Lights expert, who will teach you where to find and photograph the Northern Lights.

On a guided tour, 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 in Iceland's winter conditions.

Of course, such tours may also introduce 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 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 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.

There are a 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. 

3.3 Hunting the Northern Lights on a Self Drive 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.

Driving in Iceland can be tricky. 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 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 make sure that your intended destination is accessible. The latter will also be an invaluable tool to you for achieving the best results.

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

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 two is usually visible) 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, 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.

3.4 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 Reykjavik, 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 Eyjafjordur Fjord or Faxafloi Bay from the downtown harbours of the respective towns. 

You won't have to travel far from either port in order to be far enough clear of city lights to catch a sighting.

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 views from Reykjavík's bayPhoto from Reykjavik Northern Lights Cruise

The main advantage of this experience, however, is not so much the 'hunt' of the lights. 

Rather, it is about enjoying being out on the sea surrounded by beautiful landscapes, at very least, under a canopy of stars.

In case there is no aurora to be enjoyed, you will usually still be offered a second chance should your tour be cancelled or unsuccessful.

In both Faxafloi and Eyjafjordur, a Northern Lights cruise may also coincide with an unintentional whale watching experience. 

After all, whales are prevalent in Iceland's shores, and 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.

4. 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.

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

Coming for a week would present far more opportunities. In which case, 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 be ideal. 

This holiday also provides you with the chance to see the auroras over Jokulsarlon glacier lagoon, a mesmerising 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 although this option 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 eight-day package.

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

We hope our ultimate guide to the Northern Lights has provided you with both the knowledge and courage to come to Iceland and seek out this bucket list treat. 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 hunting for the Northern Lights in Iceland in the comments.