If you’ve never seen the northern lights before, Iceland is a great, accessible destination for your first experience. If you have seen the northern lights before but not in Iceland, there’s no place quite like it. In short, everyone will enjoy seeing the northern lights in Iceland, which might be why it’s one of the most popular places on the planet for seeing the aurora!
Iceland is home to fascinating geologic formations, welcoming locals (as long as you are a respectful visitor), and stunning natural experiences. The aurora borealis or northern lights are near the top of the list of what draws people to visit Iceland, and you’re not alone in wanting to see them too.
While Iceland is a popular destination and you might encounter some crowds while hunting for the aurora there, it’s also one of the most stunning landscapes on earth. With the aurora dancing overhead, you might just think you’ve been transported to another planet entirely!
In this guide, you’ll find everything you need to know to see the aurora in Iceland, weather permitting. While we can’t make any guarantees, if you use these tips and go to these places and the aurora is out, you’ll hopefully have an unforgettable experience seeing the northern lights in Iceland.
What are the Northern Lights?
If you’ve made it to this post, you probably already know what the northern lights are. In case you’re not familiar with the science behind this amazing astronomical phenomenon, here’s a quick explanation.
In short, the sun is constantly emitting particles. Some of these electrically charged particles from the sun collide with gases in the earth’s atmosphere. As these collisions occur in different gases, light is produced in a variety of colors, depending on the altitude of these collisions. For example, at a certain altitude, oxygen produces the common red color seen in the aurora; lower, it produces the green most commonly seen in the night sky.
In the northern hemisphere, the northern lights also known as the aurora borealis. This name came from Galileo, who named them after the Greek word for the ‘north wind.’ If you’ve ever seen a picture of the aurora, you can understand why he thought they looked like the wind!
The Best Time of Year to See the Northern Lights in Iceland
Because of its high northern latitude, Iceland is a country whose calendar is dominated by winter. The short summer and shoulder seasons are popular for many tourists who want to explore Iceland without snow and ice. If you’re chasing the aurora though, you’ll want those dark winter months to help you.
Autumn (August to September)
It’s possible to see the northern lights in Iceland in autumn. The months of August and September get continuously colder and darker, which are ideal aurora-viewing conditions. On a good, clear night with a strong aurora, it’s possible to see the northern lights during these months.
Winter (October to March)
Iceland’s long winter is prime time for seeing the aurora. Between October and March, longer nights give you ample opportunity to see the aurora if the weather permits. January is the ‘wettest’ month of the year in Iceland (when it snows the most), so keep that in mind when you’re planning a trip since clouds are more common then too.
Spring (April to May)
As winter comes to an end, it’s still possible to see the aurora in Iceland if you’re willing to stay up late into the night. In the months of April and early May, it’s possible to see the aurora, but increasingly less likely as the sun comes back to this part of the world.
Summer (June to July)
Summer is short and sunny in Iceland. The weeks surrounding the June solstice bathe Iceland in sunlight, making it almost impossible to see the aurora because it just doesn’t get dark enough. If your goal in visiting Iceland is to see the northern lights, don’t plan your trip in the summer.
The Best Places in Iceland to See the Northern Lights
Iceland is, for the most part, not a hugely developed country. Vast portions of Iceland are rural or undeveloped, meaning you can find places to spot the northern lights all over the country. Some of the most popular places are near towns or interesting geologic features, but if you’re traveling Iceland on your own, you can set up pretty much anywhere on a good night and get a great view.
Briefly, here are 16 great places to see the northern lights in Iceland:
- Hella – This small town is in a prime location for viewing the Northern Lights. The nearby Hotel Rangá, in particular, is a popular place to stay while watching this incredible phenomenon.
- Höfn – Höfn is a charming little fishing village in southern Iceland. Its Aurora Adventure tour, which takes you to a nearby glacier, is a popular way to go searching for the Northern Lights.
- Skógar – Skógar is a very small, Icelandic village with a population of fewer than fifty people. Because of its small size, you won’t have to worry too much about light pollution interfering with your view of the sky.
- Thingvellir – Thingvellir National Park is one of the most famous tourist destinations in Iceland. It also gets surprisingly dark here at night, which makes it a fantastic spot to view the Northern Lights.
- Threngsli – Threngsli is a beautiful stream that’s actually considered to be one of the best spots in the country to see the Northern Lights. There’s almost no light pollution to speak of, and you get a very clear view of the sky.
- Seljavallalaug Pool – Seljavallalaug Pool is a mountainside swimming pool that’s over 25 meters long. It’s located in a spot that’s far removed from civilization, making it a good place to see the night sky.
- Vík – Vík is a very small village on the southernmost tip of Iceland. It has a black beach nearby that’s isolated from any potential light pollution. This is a beautiful spot for watching the sky at night.
- Eldborgahraun – Eldborgahraun is a lava area in southern Iceland with an altitude of 211 meters above sea level. Its high altitude and isolated location make it very easy to get a clear view of the Aurora Borealis.
- Djúpavík – Djúpavík is a tiny village that’s located miles away from any other settlement. The village itself only has seven houses in all, making it a nice, quiet place to view the Northern Lights.
- Látrabjarg – The rocky cliffs Látrabjarg is well-known for being the home of millions of bird species. Along with being one of the best places to go birdwatching, it also gets incredibly dark at night. This gives you an excellent of the night sky.
- Ásbyrgi Canyon – The Ásbyrgi Canyon is a fascinating horseshoe-shaped formation that is popular among hikers. It is yet another natural location that’s removed from light pollution and is a great spot for viewing the Northern Lights.
- Hvammsfjordur – Hvammsfjordur is a large bay that can be found in western Iceland. It gets very dark at night and is a great spot to go if you’d like to see the Northern Lights and the ocean at the same time.
- Jökulsárlón – This breathtaking glacial lake is one of Iceland’s greatest natural wonders and most popular tourist attractions. When you come here to see the Northern Lights, you have a chance of photographing two amazing works of nature at once.
- Hvitserkur – Hvitserkur is a spectacular rock formation that you can find off the northwest coast of Iceland. It’s far removed from civilization and is another amazing opportunity to see two natural wonders at once.
- Siglufjordur – Siglufjordur is a small fishing village that overlooks a nearby fjord. There’s very little light pollution to speak of, and it’s very easy to find spots outside the village that are good for viewing the Northern Lights.
- Kirkjufell – Kirkjufell is a beautiful mountain that can be found on Iceland’s northern peninsula. There are two-day tours available where you can come to this gorgeous location to watch for the Northern Lights.
Can You See the Northern Lights in Reykjavik?
Like most major cities, it’s hard to see the night sky within Reykjavik. This is especially true in the winter months when snow reflects light up into the sky. There are a few places in Reykjavik where you have better chances to spot the aurora:
- Grótta is a famous, old lighthouse that’s located in Reykjavik’s north-westernmost point. It’s one of the most popular places in the capital to go looking for the Northern Lights, and its geothermically heated pool makes it a very comfortable spot as well.
- Öskjuhlío is a large hill located in the capital city of Reykjavik. It stands over 200ft above sea level. This will provide you with an up-close view of the sky when watching the aurora borealis.
- Reynisvatn is a lake in Reykjavik’s Grafarholt neighborhood. It’s secluded enough that you can get away from some of the light pollution and see the sky a bit better.
Some guides offer aurora tours in Reykjavik too, so they may know additional locals-only spots where you can get a good view of the night sky and the aurora if it’s visible.
How to See the Aurora in Iceland
There’s no guarantee you’ll see the northern lights in Iceland, but these tips will help you get the best chances possible.
1. Plan Your Trip at the Right Time of Year
Because of its northern latitude, the daylight changes dramatically between seasons. As such, if you turn up in Iceland in June expecting to see the northern lights, you’ll be sadly disappointed. (You might, however, see the Midnight Sun!)
Plan your trip for late autumn, winter, and early spring to see the northern lights in Iceland.
2. Check the Forecast – But Be Flexible
Like all natural phenomena, there’s no guarantee the northern lights will be visible in Iceland just because you’re there. The weather might not cooperate, or the aurora might not be as strong as predicted. You should still check the forecast, but understand that nobody can perfectly predict the northern lights, and that’s part of what makes seeing them so special.
Check out these good Iceland aurora forecast resources
- The Icelandic Met Office runs a helpful site with real-time aurora and weather forecast tools.
- Aurora Service has great tools for seeing the aurora forecast for the whole northern hemisphere, including Iceland.
3. Bring the Right Gear
Winter in Iceland is chilly, so be prepared before you head out aurora hunting. You should definitely bring winter clothes and layers, plus a hat, gloves, and scarf to protect your face. Don’t forget your feet too – warm boots make all the difference between a pleasant evening waiting for the northern lights and a miserable one.
4. Be Patient
Similar to tip #2, it helps to be patient once you head outside. Yes, it’s cold. Yes, you’re impatient to see the northern lights. That won’t make them appear any faster. Instead, enjoy the twinkling stars and any planets you can see, plus watch your breath rise in frosty clouds. It’s a winter wonderland in Iceland, even when you’re waiting for the aurora. Don’t forget to look around, as the aurora may appear first in a direction you’re not expecting (including directly up!).
5. Experience Awe
Once you finally see the northern lights, don’t be surprised if you’re speechless or exclaim “wow!” aloud. These are both totally normal reactions to the aurora, and again, your awe is part of what makes the experience so special and memorable.
Popular Day Trips & Tours to See the Northern Lights
Iceland is one of the most popular destinations for seeing the aurora (along with Norway) so you have tons of choices for tours. Here are some tour operators with lots of choices… good luck narrowing them down!
- Extreme Iceland has tons of Iceland aurora tours ranging from 2-3 hours to 16-18 hours to multi-day tours. Multi-day tours add on fun activities like glacier hikes, ice caving, and whale watching along with viewing the northern lights. Whatever your time frame and budget, they probably have an option you’ll like.
- Reykjavik Excursions offers a 3-hour aurora ‘day’ tour from 4999ISK (about $42 USD). They also offer that if you don’t see the aurora on their tour, you can come back for another tour free of charge.
- For the photographers out there, Iceland Aurora offers a northern lights focused aurora tour specifically to photograph the phenomena. Their guides are all photographers, so you’ll get pro-tips to ensure you capture great shots.
- Aurora Reykjavik offers a small-group minibus aurora tour from the capital city. During certain months, your ticket also includes access to the Aurora Reykjavik museum.
The website Guide to Iceland also has a super comprehensive list of aurora tours you can browse. There are over 120 options, so be prepared to scroll for a while!
Tips on Photographing the Aurora in Iceland
Some aurora-chasers will have their heart set on capturing a perfect picture of the experience. If you’re one of those types of travelers, here are some tips:
- Bring the right gear. You’ll need a tripod and remote to photograph the aurora since you’ll be shooting on longer exposures.
- Bring extra batteries. The cold will drain your batteries faster, so bring 2-4x more batteries than you normally use for shooting photos. Or just bring all the batteries you have.
- Shoot on manual. We’ve got some helpful tips on setting your camera up for astrophotography, so check out that resource to get an idea what settings you’ll need.
- Consider your foreground. You might be so excited to photograph the aurora that you forget to put any thought into composition. Iceland is full of stunning geologic features like mountains, glaciers, waterfalls, and lakes. Put one of these in your foreground and your photos will be even more interesting.
Don’t forget to check out our astrophotography tips if you’ve never shot night photography before. They’ll help you make sure you get the kinds of pictures you’re hoping for.
Other questions? We are happy to answer questions about seeing the northern lights in Iceland by email. Contact us.
Featured photo credit: Andrés Nieto Porras via Flickr