The northern lights (or aurora borealis, in more scientific terms) are one of the biggest draws to Iceland. Caused by the interaction of particles from the sun and gases in the Earth’s atmosphere, the northern lights appear as curtains of vivid color, in vibrant green, blue, yellow and red, hovering in the sky and morphing into different shapes.
While Iceland certainly isn’t the only place in the world to view this natural wonder, the Nordic country’s prime location near the Arctic Circle means the light show can be visible for more than 100 nights per year. There are other popular locations for viewing the lights in countries like Norway, Sweden and Russia, but many of these places are less accessible, requiring multiple flights or lengthy ground transport. This factor makes Iceland a great place to check the aurora off your bucket list: The country’s main international airport, Keflavík (set about 30 miles southwest of Reykjavik), welcomes plenty of direct flights from North America, allowing you potential access to the light show almost immediately.
As another plus, Iceland typically has warmer weather than most of the other frigid northern lights destinations. Iceland’s wintertime highs hover in the 30s, while average daytime highs in Fairbanks, Alaska, for example, fall below 10 degrees Fahrenheit in December and January.
However, keep in mind that catching the northern lights isn’t as simple as hopping on a plane and looking up once you land in Reykjavik. The aurora borealis is not visible year-round, and the viewing experience can also vary depending on the weather and exact location. So, while you’re never guaranteed to see the lights, a little planning and forethought can pay off.
(Note: Some of the following activities, attractions and locations may be affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. New policies may be in place, including capacity restrictions, reservation requirements or mask mandates. Check with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the U.S. Department of State and local tourism boards before traveling.)
If you’re in Iceland hoping to catch a glimpse of the aurora, you should consult a northern lights forecast online, which indicates the likelihood of this natural phenomenon appearing on any given night. The Icelandic Meteorological Office has one such webpage dedicated to these predictions. Its forecasts show the Kp index, which measures disturbances in Earth’s magnetic field on a scale of zero to nine; the higher the number on the index, the stronger the aurora activity. The Met Office site also shows the cloud cover across Iceland, helping you determine whether you’ll actually be able to see the lights. Alternatively, Iceland’s Aurora Forecast, which is run by locals with expert knowledge of the aurora, offers a similar forecast on a slightly more user-friendly site.
These forecast methods only estimate the likelihood of spotting the aurora in the coming days – unfortunately, longer-range predictions (for example, weeks or months in advance) are less reliable. There are 27-day forecasts available, but take note that solar activity can occur rapidly and may not factor into such predictions. However, due to the sun’s rotation cycle, if a strong aurora appears, it is considered more likely that the lights will appear again 27 days later, so this type of forecast may still be worth checking.
Even if long-term aurora forecasts are unreliable, you can still plan your trip to maximize your chances of seeing the northern lights. According to Iceland’s tourism authority, the best time to see the northern lights in Iceland is between September and mid-April. While it’s possible to view the lights in August, you may be better off avoiding that month since the nights are shorter, reducing your overall chances of catching a glimpse of this splendor in the sky.
During the rest of the year, Iceland experiences near-constant daylight, meaning there isn’t enough darkness for the aurora borealis to appear. Put simply, if you visit in late spring or summer, you will not be able to see the lights, even if you go to the best viewing locations.
Within that September to April period, there’s some debate about the optimal time to see the lights. You’re generally more likely to catch them during the darkest months (November to January). The sun barely rises around this time of the year, and the extremely long nights mean a longer window for the phenomenon to appear each day. Moonlight can make it harder to spot the light show if the aurora is already faint – so serious aurora chasers may want to plan their visit to coincide with a new moon.
Although midwinter probably offers the best chance of catching the aurora, some people recommend viewing it around the spring or fall equinoxes – that is, around March 20 and Sept. 23 (these dates change slightly each year). The science behind this timing is complex: In short, there tends to be more geomagnetic disturbance around the equinoxes, leading to stronger auroras. But don’t forget that the nights at these times are shorter than in midwinter, so your daily window for seeing the northern lights will also be shorter.
Of course, bad weather can foil your plans regardless of when you visit. Cloudy skies are the main culprit, since they block out the aurora. Iceland’s weather can be unpredictable, so there’s no easy way to plan around this, but your best bet is to book a longer visit to the country. A two-day jaunt could easily be ruined by one patch of cloudy weather; if you stay on the island for a week, however, your chances of catching clear skies are much better.
The aurora borealis can be a tricky phenomenon: It’s not constantly visible and may only appear for short periods even if the skies are clear. You may see the lights appear at any time when it’s dark outside, though the generally accepted best time to catch the show is between 9 p.m. and 2 a.m. – and particularly around midnight.
Even if you’ve consulted the northern lights forecast, seeing the solar activity can be a waiting game. Since you’ll probably be outside while waiting, you’ll want to bring some rugged clothing (think: boots and plenty of warm gear) and perhaps a thermos full of your favorite hot beverage. Iceland is fairly mild for its northern location, but don’t expect balmy weather; temperatures in Fahrenheit can still dip to the 20s or below.
The most basic rule for catching the northern lights is to go somewhere dark – and with Iceland’s sparse population, there’s no shortage of places that fit the bill.
There’s one place you may want to avoid if your sole goal is to glimpse the aurora: Reykjavik. The light pollution in Iceland’s capital and most populous city sometimes drowns out the northern lights, although particularly bright auroras can still be visible in Reykjavik. If you can’t escape the city, try going to Öskjuhlíð, a hill on the south side of Reykjavik that offers decent views of the northern lights from the top. While you’re up there, you can visit the spectacular glass-domed Perlan, a museum and restaurant offering an immersive aurora documentary in its unique planetarium, as well as spectacular views over Reykjavik. Although it’s possible to see the lights from Perlan, the museum typically closes midevening, before the best viewing hours for the aurora.
There’s also the Seltjarnarnes peninsula on the western edge of the city: The top viewing spot here is the Grótta lighthouse, which provides scenic vistas of the night sky just far enough from the city lights. If you have a car but want to stay close to the city, consider driving less than 20 miles out toward snow-capped Mount Esja, which provides a splendid backdrop for the light show (but hiking on the mountain is not recommended during aurora season due to icy conditions).
No other Icelandic towns or cities come close to the size of Reykjavik, although if you are in one of the larger towns like Akureyri, it’s probably wise to head out to the surrounding countryside for optimal viewing opportunities. Beyond these larger towns, Iceland is your oyster for northern lights chasing, as there are few other places in the entire country with notable levels of light pollution.
With so many potential viewing locations on the table, many visitors seek out some of the country’s most scenic locations for catching the northern lights – think fjords, glaciers and black sand beaches. There’s no overall consensus on the best place to spot the lights (in large part because of the abundance of options), but here are a few particularly notable places to see the aurora borealis in Iceland.
This glacial lagoon is adorned with icebergs, which break off from the huge Vatnajökull glacier to the north. It’s also populated by crowds of seals, making Jökulsárlón a stunning place to commune with nature and a formidable backdrop for the shimmering aurora. You can also watch the light show from Diamond Beach, a black sand beach right where the lake drains into the Atlantic.
Reynisfjara and other black sand beaches
Reynisfjara, near the southern village of Vik, is a popular tourist spot, and it won’t be hard to see why once you take in the basalt columns dotted along this black sand beach. You might be able to find yourself a quiet corner either here or on another stretch of shoreline nearby, and you’ll be surrounded by beautiful scenery while you wait for the light show. But be on alert around the water – you must pay attention to your surroundings on the beaches, as so-called “sneaker waves” can cause injury or death. Consider stopping off at the spectacular 200-foot high Seljalandsfoss waterfall on the way; it’s about 40 miles from Vik, on the main road from Reykjavik.
About 130 miles northwest of Reykjavik, the Snæfellsnes peninsula centers around a huge volcano called Snæfellsjökull. There’s plenty of impressive places to view the lights here – consider staking out a spot near the unusually pointy Kirkjufell mountain or on Djúpalónssandur beach, with its black sand and craggy rock formations. You can stay overnight in a number of villages in the area.
Reykjanes has plenty of naturally beautiful backdrops for catching the lights. Kleifarvatn, a large and tranquil lake ringed by small mountains, sits about 20 miles south of Reykjavik, while another option is Krýsuvík, a geothermal area with hot springs south of the lake. While you’re in the area, stop for a dip in Iceland’s famed Blue Lagoon. The geothermal pool typically closes in the late evening during the winter and early spring (too early to see the northern lights, most of the time), but it could still serve as a rejuvenating warmup before you go aurora hunting.
This volcanic national park is located on the rift between two continental plates. About a 30-mile drive east of Reykjavik, Thingvellir – written as Þingvellir in Icelandic – offers varied scenery from volcanoes to lakes and waterfalls. Take note: As part of the Golden Circle tour route, Thingvellir is a popular spot for aurora viewing, so you may not be alone.
These Icelandic locales draw visitors for reasons beyond just seeking out the northern lights. Even if the aurora borealis doesn’t make an appearance, you’ll still be able to feast your eyes upon some of the country’s exquisite beauty – though the popularity of these places also means you may have to share your viewing spot.
If you really want to get away from everyone, consider skipping stops along the Golden Circle and head to some of Iceland’s less visited areas. These places include the stunning Westfjords region in the country’s northwest as well as eastern Iceland with its traditional villages, wild reindeer, lakes and meadows.
There are plenty of ways to organize your trip to see the northern lights: You can join a group on one of Iceland’s top tours, drive yourself around or stay at hotels that offer special aurora-centric features. Regardless of your choice, you’ll want to bring warm clothes – aurora watching can involve several hours outside – as well as a robust pair of boots or hiking shoes to navigate Iceland’s rocky terrain.
You will find no shortage of northern lights tours that you can join. These range from single-day (or night) tours to multiday packages with accommodation and meals included. Taking a group tour may mean visiting multiple locations to view the aurora, rather than sticking in one place, like at a hotel. You’ll also be with local experts who will know the forecast and the hot spots.
But be sure to read the fine print – seeing the northern lights is never a sure bet, and tour operators have various policies to account for this. Some tours (particularly the single-day options) may be canceled and/or rescheduled if the auroral forecast is poor; certain operators may also offer you the chance to rebook for cheap or free if the lights aren’t visible. Others may not be so generous. Longer tours often provide a more intimate experience with smaller groups, although they’re less likely to let you rebook if the lights aren’t visible.
Iceland Everywhere: Northern Lights Midnight Adventure tour
Picking guests up from their Reykjavik hotels, outing organized by Reykjavik tour group Iceland Everywhere runs for three to five hours. The company uses minibuses, so you can expect small groups of up to 16 people, and the tours include an experienced photographer to take some pictures for you. Past guests complimented the passionate guides, and the fact that the company permitted repeat tours for guests who didn’t see the lights.
Special Tours: Northern Lights by Boat tour
Skip the bus tours and take to the ocean for a couple hours with this nighttime aurora-spotting cruise. Leaving from Reykjavik’s Old Harbor, these Special Tours excursions provide expert guides and complimentary overalls to keep you warm. A bar is available on board, and if the lights aren’t visible, you can join another tour for free. Travelers liked the helpful guides, but some caution that it gets extra cold out on the water.
Reykjavik Excursions: Northern Lights – Small Group Tour
This single-day (or night, to be precise) tour lasts about three hours and carries a maximum of 25 people by bus. You’ll be shuttled to a viewing point chosen by Reykjavik Excursions’ guides and supplied with blankets to keep warm. If you don’t get to see the lights, you’ll have the opportunity to rebook for free. Past visitors praise the tour guides’ local knowledge but note that the viewing points may also have other tour groups present.
Arctic Adventures: 2- to 5-day northern lights tours
Arctic Adventures offers a two-day tour focused on the aurora and the Snæfellsnes peninsula north of Reykjavik, including a hot spring and black sand beach, with prices starting in the $400 range. A five-day tour explores the south of the country, including an ice cave and black sand beach, as well as a northern lights boat excursion from Reykjavik; prices are roughly around the $1,000 mark per person. Take note, though, that this tour does not accept children younger than 8, while the age minimum for the two-day tour is 6 years old. The company has received generally good feedback for its organization – negative reviews tend to come from customers who didn’t get to spot the aurora.
GJ Travel: 5- or 8-day northern lights tours
Another reliable bet is GJ Travel, which has been showing visitors around Iceland for more than 90 years. This tour operator has garnered high praise for its “jam-packed” itineraries and extremely experienced guides. GJ Travel offers multiple northern lights tours that also stop off at key sights around Iceland. Choose between five- and eight-day tours and know that these excursions may carry up to 40 people.
This list is just a small sampling of the many tours available – websites like Viator compile plenty more suggestions to cover all tastes. Bear in mind that you may not need to book a northern lights tour to catch a glimpse of the aurora borealis. While specific northern lights tours may put more of a focus on tracking down the aurora with tour guides keeping an eye on forecasts, any multiday tour could offer a peek at the natural light show if conditions are right.
DIY aurora spotting
Travelers who choose to chase the lights without a guide will need a car. Iceland’s limited public transit mostly moves people from town to town, and not to the aurora-viewing spots along the way. If you choose to drive yourself, you may want to consider renting a vehicle with four-wheel drive for some extra safety on wintry roads. However, that feature is not totally necessary: While Iceland has some unpaved routes (called “F-Roads”) that are by law only for four-wheel-drive vehicles, they’re typically only open in the summer. Regardless of when you visit, don’t go off the beaten track – off-roading is strictly illegal.
Although driving yourself to see the northern lights offers more flexibility, taking this route may require an extra layer of planning and responsibility. Aside from consulting the aurora forecasts yourself, you’ll also want to check road conditions via the Icelandic government’s official portal to avoid weather-related accidents.
If driving is too much of a hassle, consider booking a hotel somewhere scenic to catch the northern lights. There are several hotels that cater to aurora spotters, with special viewing locations or even wake-up calls you can request to rouse you if the lights appear after you go to bed.
(Kristján Pétur Vilhelmsson/Courtesy of Hotel Rangá)
Tucked in a charming timber building near the south coast of Iceland, this hotel specializes in aurora viewing, with an observatory on its roof and an aurora wake-up service. The hotel also lends out snowsuits for those who want to spend hours outside and boasts a 24/7 bar with hot drinks to seal the deal. Guests have praised Hotel Rangá’s incredible service, calling it the kind of luxury place that’s relaxing and not too formal.
The Retreat and Silica hotels
(Courtesy of Blue Lagoon Iceland)
The Blue Lagoon’s geothermal waters would be a formidable place to spot the northern lights, but daytime visitors can’t stay past late evening – before the aurora tends to appear. However, guests in the two on-site hotels don’t have to stress about this timing. Offering ultra-chic minimalist rooms, access to private lagoons and otherworldly views, The Retreat Hotel and Silica Hotel at the Blue Lagoon resort offer a true luxury experience, with prices to match: Silica’s nightly rates start at more than 500 euros (which is also more than $500). Despite the price, guests rave about the beauty of this hotel’s location and its stylish design.
(Courtesy of Hótel Húsafell)
Located on a former farm in the Icelandic wilderness, this hotel says it gets an average of three aurora sightings per week in the winter months. Hótel Húsafell also offers a complimentary aurora wake-up service so you don’t miss the show. Its location near the Langjökull glacier means stellar views during the day too. Recent visitors enjoyed the range of activities on offer around the hotel in addition to the restaurant, noting that although the menu options are limited, the food is divine.
Panorama Glass Lodge
(Courtesy of Panorama Glass Lodge)
There’s no need to go out in the cold to see the northern lights when you’re staying in an all-glass cabin. Hot tubs and heated floors at the Panorama Glass Lodge make the views over the rocky tundra all the more cozy. Guests have plenty of compliments for this lodge’s scenic setting, as well as the luxury and comfort of its one-of-a-kind design.
A rustic building now plays host to this stylish yet homey hotel on the Snæfellsnes peninsula, with aurora wake-up calls; fine dining sourced from local purveyors; and stellar views that span glaciers, lava fields and the Atlantic. According to past guests, the old-timey charm and restaurant and bar are serious highlights at Hótel Búdir (also written Búðir).
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