Viktoria is a restless adventurer with personal experience in all of the outdoor activities that Iceland has to offer. She has backpacked all over Iceland and she loves to inspire others to make a deep connection with the country during their travels...
The Northern Lights, or Aurora Borealis, is an extraordinary phenomenon that appears in the night sky around the Earth’s poles. Numerous keen tourists travel to Iceland just for that sight. From the tours to the best time and location, learn about everything to Northern Lights show in Iceland in 2023/2024.
Catching the Northern lights is, however, a gift that is not given to everyone who visits Iceland. It takes planning, knowledge, patience, monitoring of the conditions, and, of course, luck.
To increase your chances of seeing them, you should know what the mystical lights are, what conditions are necessary for them to appear in the sky, and where and when to see them. With our guide to Northern Lights in Iceland, you will become a skilled Aurora hunter before even entering Iceland!
WHAT ARE THE NORTHERN LIGHTS?
The Auroras - also called the Northern Lights, the Southern Lights, or the Polar Lights - are a natural phenomenon that appears in the sky in high-latitude regions near the Antarctic and Arctic Circles.
Most often, the Polar Lights appear in a band called the "auroral zone." They can be mostly seen from above the 60th parallel in the north and below the 60th parallel in the south. When seen from space, they circle the Poles like giant halos.
In the Northern Hemisphere, these lights are called the Northern Lights orAurora Borealis while in the Southern Hemisphere they are referred to as the Southern Lights or Aurora Australis. When active, the lights usually appear in both hemispheres at the same time creating similar patterns and colors in a mirror-like phenomenon.
The Polar Lights very rarely occur in lower latitudes. They can, however, happen once in a while after a particularly strong geomagnetic storm. This is extremely rare, though, only happening once a decade at most.
WHAT CAUSES THE NORTHERN LIGHTS?
According to scientists, the Polar Lights are caused by collisions between electrically charged particles traveling with the solar wind and the Earth’s magnetic field and atmosphere.
On the surface of the Sun, gas molecules are highly explosive due to the incredible heat. Thanks to their extremely high energy, these highly charged electrons, andprotons are able to escape the Sun's gravity. Hot plasma is released from the Sun’s atmosphere from time to time and is blown into space, traveling towards the Earth at supersonic speeds. This is what we callthe solar wind.
When the solar wind reaches our planet, itcrashes into the Earth’s magnetic field. Before the charged particles can enter our atmosphere, the magnetosphere deflects the majority of them. Some particles manage to escape and get through the magnetic field in the areas where it is weaker, such as around the magnetic poles.
Then, upon entering the Earth’s atmosphere, the Sun’s particles interact and collide with gas atoms. This interaction causes the emission of energy and light, resulting in what we perceive as the spectacularmulti-colored light show in the night sky. Allegedly, the Polar Lights can even make an ethereal noise that can be heard by sensitive microphones.
CAN YOU SEE THE NORTHERN LIGHTS IN ICELAND?
Yes, you can spot them here. The best time for Northern Lights in Iceland is from October to March since this is when the nights here are longer and darker. While this phenomenon is known to be quite unpredictable, now certain tools can help you foresee when you can detect the Northern Lights.
If you don’t feel like putting all this effort into looking when or where to see Aurora Borealis, there’s a simple way out – book a tour instead! The Northern Lights tours increase your chances of seeing these beautiful lights and save time and effort.
NORTHERN LIGHTS TOURS IN ICELAND
If you do not want to bother checking the forecast and searching for the right spot in an unfamiliar land, you can simply let go and leave it to the professionals. On a guided Northern Lights tour, experienced locals will use their knowledge and local wisdom to help you maximize your chances for success.
SEEING THE AURORA BOREALIS ON A GUIDED TOUR
Local tour guides have a lot of experience and are familiar with both the conditions and the terrain. They know the best viewpoints and the safest parking places. They also have a special license to drive safely in wintery conditions and may even offer you some hot chocolate while you are waiting for the show the begin. Many offer photography during the tour as well.
Northern Lights tours begin in September and run continuously throughout the winter until the middle of April. The location of the tours is chosen based on the actual cloud cover and the Aurora forecast. If the conditions are unfavorable, the tour will be canceled and you will get the chance to rebook on another date or toget a full refund. They will not take you out if there is no chance of seeing the lights.
NORTHERN LIGHTS TOUR OPTIONS
Single-activity day tours:
Now that you don’t have to worry about when or where to see the Northern Lights in Iceland, you can focus on choosing the suitable tour from plenty of amazing options. What are some of those?
Classic Northern Lights minibus tour – hop on a minibus and go on a chase for those majestic lights in the sky. During the tour, you’ll make your way to Iceland’s countryside for some spectacular views.
Adventurous Northern Lights SuperJeep tour – run away from the city lights, spend the night riding off beaten tracks in a special SuperJeep, and prepare yourself and your camera for some beautiful sights.
Exclusive Northern Lights Boat tour – why not experience two good things in one night? If you’re up for that, then an Icelandic vessel will be waiting for you at the Old Harbour, ready to take you to see the show of the night – the Northern Lights.
Once you’re in Iceland, get ready to take everything it offers. And the best way to do so is by booking combo tours. This way, you’ll get to soak in Iceland’s breathtaking nature and engage in some unforgettable activities. Here are a few combinations that include a Northern Lights tour and other fun activities:
Must-see Golden Circle and Aurora watch tour – Golden Circle route is among the most popular places to visit when in Iceland. You’ll see the country’s main attractions during this tour and finish your evening searching for Aurora.
Unforgettable Ice-caving and Northern Lights tour– Explore the inside second-largest glacier in Iceland and continue your adventure later in the evening by looking for the polar lights.
Educational Aurora Museum tour– How does the Northern Light phenomenon work? The Northern Lights Center in Reykjavik is ready to answer your questions and later show how it all looks “in practice”!
For those who would like to get the most of their stay, we recommend the multi-day tours that take you to lesser-known areas, and that give you the opportunity to witness the light show during any day of your travels while you explore Iceland’s charming countryside and famously stunning natural attractions. What are some of the options, you might wonder?
2-day Snaefellsnes peninsula and Aurora tour – spend a few days exploring the western part of Iceland and its distinct nature: black sand beaches, waterfalls, and mountains. What looks good in such surroundings? Aurora Borealis!
If you have a rental car and are a skilled driver, you can also head out to find the lights on your own. The road conditions in Iceland can be challenging in winter, even in good weather. Driving in the dark on snowy, icy roads is only recommended for those who have a lot of experience in those conditions.
Insider Tips for Self-Guided Tours
Due to the unpredictable nature of the Auroras, there is no specific place in Iceland that is the best for seeing the lights. Anywhere far from city lights is good. We do, however, strongly recommend that youdo a bit of research before heading out into the dark.
For everyone’s safety, you are advised tolocate a safe parking place where you can exit your car and walk around safely in the darkness. It is likely that you will spend long hours waiting and then may getvery excited or distracted when the Auroras appear.Stopping on the side of the road is illegal and has the potential to be very dangerous.
To find a safe spot with a spacious parking area that is far enough from traffic, you must plan ahead. It is preferable to check out the place in the daylight before heading out at night as finding a safe parking area in the dark is much more difficult.
For your self-guided tour, you might want to pack a thermos with some hot liquids, pocket warmers, andheadlights so that you can inspect the area if you decide to walk away from your car a bit.
BEST PLACES TO SEE THE NORTHERN LIGHTS IN ICELAND
This question is quite common. It may, however, make a local smile if they hear it. As explained above, there is no specific place where the lights look better than somewhere else. The Aurora display takes place in the sky, therefore any place where you have a good view of the sky is perfect. It is good to avoid places with tall mountains or buildings around. It is also advisable to leave any lit up areas behind. You will need complete darkness.
THE SNÆFELLSNES PENINSULA
Flat areas are often close to sea coasts as in, for example, the Snæfellsnes Peninsula. There are some lovely countryside hotels and guesthouses in the middle of nowhere which are perfect locations for watching the light show. On the Snæfellsnes Peninsula Aurora tour, you have a very good chance of seeing the lights, if they are active.
North Iceland is known for having long dark periods in winter while having statistically more dry weather and fewer clouds than other parts of the country. It is also somewhatcloser to the Arctic Circle. These features make North Iceland an excellent Aurora watchinglocation.
THE ICELANDIC HIGHLANDS
The Icelandic Highlands are completely uninhabited and getting there in winter is only possible by specialized Superjeeps. It is hard to imagine any place that could be more peaceful for watching the Northern Lights thanLandmannalaugar, where you can enjoy the show while sitting in a geothermal hot spring.
ALL AROUND ICELAND
Traveling around Iceland in winter may be the best thing to do tomaximize your chances of seeing the lights. The more time you spend in Iceland and the more you travel, the more chances you will have, for sure! Self-driving in winter requires a lot of good experience in wintery road conditions. Otherwise, you can join a local tour and enjoy the trip without having to drive on ice.
WHERE TO SEE THE NORTHERN LIGHTS IN REYKJAVÍK?
If you prefer to stay in the city and wondering when and where to see Northern Lights in Reykjavík, you still have a few options. In fact, if the Aurora is strong enough, you will even be able to see the lights from the middle of the city from next to a street light! It will, of course, be much weaker than if you had seen it from a darker spot, however. To maximize your chances and get the best out of the experience, you can still find some nice spots in town where the light pollution is lower and your chances will be better.
At the very tip of Seltjarnarnes, the small peninsula at the edge of Reykjavík, there is a lighthouse called Grótta. You can get there on foot, it is a 5 to 6 kilometer (3 - 3.7 mile) walk one way from the downtown area. In good weather, this is a beautiful coastal walk. Alternatively, you can rent a bike, take the bus, or take a taxi. This spot is themost popular Aurora hunting location in Reykjavík because there is a panorama of at least 180 degrees with very low light pollution. Many locals and tourists gather there in the evening to search for the lights.
HARPA CONFERENCE HALL
If you are downtown and you suddenly see the lights, the closest place to go to escape from the street lights would be the coastal area near Harpa Concert Hall. This, however, will not work if the lights appear from the south because the city’s light pollution comes from the south. If the lights appear from the north, you will have almost complete darkness as only the sea will be in front of you.
Perlan, or “The Pearl,” is one of the most famous museums in Reykjavík. It is a glass dome that rests on top of six warm water tanks that store most of Reykjavík's hot water. Perlan sits on the top of a hill, providing an outstanding view of the capital. Even though there would be some light pollution from the city, the small surrounding forest, Ösjkuhlíð Park, shields the spot from the city lights, making it a great place for Aurora hunting.
REYKJAVÍK’S CITY PARKS
There are several parks in Reykjavik that offer great spots thanks to their lower light pollution. The four largest city parks are Hljómskálagarður, Klambratún, Laugardalur, and Elliðaárdalur. Hljómskálagarður is literally only a few steps away from the city center while Klambratún is a bit further away (15 minutes on foot).
Laugardalur and Elliðaárdalur are much larger parks than the first two, but they are also much further away (10-15 minutes by car). All of these parks are excellent places to watch the night skies in the city as they offer large darker areas away from the street lights.
HEIÐMÖRK NATURE RESERVE
Heiðmörk is a wonderful nature reserve and recreational area on the outskirts on Reykjavík, outside of the city lights. With its 3,200 hectares (7,900 acres) it offers a vast dark area for Aurora watchers.
BEST TIME TO SEE THE NORTHERN LIGHTS IN ICELAND
Wondering what is the best time to go to Iceland for Northern Lights? The ultimate Northern Lights season is between September and March. The most ideal time to see the lights, however, is mid-winter between November and February. The reason for this is that the nights are the longest during this period, which means that you can easily catch the Aurora in the morning or in the afternoon without the need to stay up all night.
WHAT IS THE BEST MONTH TO SEE NORTHERN LIGHTS IN ICELAND?
Between mid-November and mid-January, the nights are completely dark for 12 to 13 hours with the addition of a few hours of dark twilight periods in the mornings and in the evenings. This means that the larger part of the day is suitable for watching the phenomena - if conditions allow. Statistically, this is by far the best time to see the lights in Iceland.
WHAT IS THE BEST TIME OF DAY TO SEE THE NORTHERN LIGHTS?
To a local, this question may sound a bit silly, but we understand why you would ask it. If you have read our article through, by now you know more about the nature of the Northern Lights and you understand why this question is so difficult to answer. Every instance of solar and geomagnetic activity is different and makes itimpossible to predict when the Aurora lights will happen - if they happen at all.
On the other hand, the time when it will be dark is different each month, so there is no general answer to the question. One thing you can do is tocheck when it will get dark because that will definitely be needed in order to see anything. Allegedly, most Aurora detections take place in the evening between 10 o’clock and midnight, but the only reason for this is probably that more people tend to look at the sky at that time than after midnight. Most people tend to need sleep more than they need to watch Auroras.
NORTHERN LIGHTS FORECAST, ICELAND
First and foremost, we recommend that you check our very own page for the Icelandic Northern Lights forecast. Here you will see how the conditions are right now as well as how they will be over the next few days. The data is based on the Icelandic Meteorological Office. It displays both the cloud cover over the country and the strength of the solar activity.
NOAA's Current Aurora Forecast for the Northern Hemisphere
To see the Northern Lights in Iceland, you will need to factor in quite a few things. First and foremost, thelocation and timeare crucial. You need to be at the right place at the right time and stay there long enough to maximize your chances.
LOCATION: THE AURORAL ZONE
The first thing you can do is to come to Iceland! It is one of the best places in the world to see the Auroras. Iceland is perfectly positioned in the Auroral Zone and offers the chance to see the Northern Lights 7 to 8 months per year!
Aurora viewing is possible through all of autumn and winter, which lasts from about mid-August until mid-April. The edges of the seasons are, however, not the best time to catch the Northern Lights. The time in this period between sunset and sunrise is too short and it may not even be completely dark. This makes weaker lights hard to detect while waking up to see the lights may be much more tiring.
The best time to see the Northern Lights is fromOctober to March. The nights are pitch black and last 10 to 20 hours. December and January are the darkest months. You can go out to check for the lights at 5 o’clock in the afternoon or at 10 o’clock in the morning. You can also go out, of course, all evening and all night long in between. Your chances are ten times better in mid-winter than at the edge of the seasons.
SOLAR ACTIVITY: HIGH
The Earth is constantly immersed in solar wind whose strength is forever changing. The Polar Lights become visible when the solar activity is high enough to produce strong light emission in our magnetosphere.
Whether the lights will be visible or not depends on many of the factors explained above, but one thing that is definitely needed is high solar activity. This factor is quite unpredictable, but there areAurora forecastsites and applications (listed below) that predict solar activity a few days in advance.
WEATHER: CLEAR SKY
Once you are in Iceland, remember to closely monitor the weather forecast. It does not matter how strong the geomagnetic storm is if the sky is covered by thick clouds. You do not need a completely clear sky. A few clouds will not ruin the experience if there is an active show happening, but a cohesive layer of clouds will make it impossible to see anything.
LIGHT CONDITIONS: THE DARKER, THE BETTER
If the skies are clear and the forecast is promising, the only thing you need to do is to find the best spot to enjoy the lights from. This means getting out of the light-polluted areas, cities, and towns. The darker the surrounding area is, the better your eyes will be able to perceive the lights.
LOCATION: A FLAT AREA OR A VIEWPOINT
The best thing to do is to find a flat area or a higher viewpoint where there are no mountainsor high buildings blocking the view. Sometimes, the Aurora appears very low, close to the horizon. It is important to find a place where you have a clear view of the sky.
SAFETY: A SECURE PARKING SPACE
The right spot needs to be safe as well. You cannot just park on the side of the road in the dark. This is very dangerous. People have died in accidents in Iceland while Aurora hunting. You need to find a safe parking place where you can leave your car and walk around in the darkness without putting yourself or others in danger.
CATCHING THE INVISIBLE: BRING A CAMERA
If you are not lucky and cannot really see any lights, they may still be there, but not visible. Sometimes, when they are too weak for the naked eye to observe, cameras still can catch the lights by using long exposures. For this, you will need a good camera and a tripod.
THE LUCK FACTOR
You may come across a glimpse of the lights in the middle of the city, surrounded by street lights and high buildings. This can happen anywhere and at anytime. The surprise factor can be just as strong as a solar storm, so do not forget to look up at the sky!
HOW TO PHOTOGRAPH THE NORTHERN LIGHTS
Under the best of circumstances, your photos will always serve as a reminder of this amazing adventure. Getting that perfect shot is also a sure way to light up your social media feed with likes and comments about your Icelandic getaway.
USE A TRIPOD
Photographing the Aurora is not as easy as you might think. Your photoshoot will take place in complete darkness. Therefore, the shots will need an exposure of at least a few seconds, making a tripod a must. Getting a perfect picture of the lights with a handheld camera is impossible.
BRING EXTRA BATTERIES
As a technical tip, cold temperatures can cause batteries to drain very quickly, especially in dark places where long exposures are required. That is why we strongly recommend that you pack extra batteries for your camera as the temperature during winter nights can fall quite low.
USE WIDE-ANGLE LENSES
Wide-angle lenses, if possible, are recommended for picture taking as they let in as much light as possible while allowing as much of the scene into the frame as possible. Before trying to take a picture with anyone in it, try to light them up using a headlamp or other light source. Remember that during a long exposure, they will have to stand completely still so as not to result in a blurry image.
REMOTE SHUTTER AND HIGH ISO PERFORMANCE
Finally, a remote shutter release or a self-timer function on your camera can be very useful for this kind of picture. A high ISO can make your pictures very grainy. While an ISO of over 400-600 can make your pictures grainy on cheaper cameras, more expensive professional cameras can handle much higher ISO settings.
USE AN ADDITONAL LIGHT SOURCE
An additional light source can make your photos even better. A flashlight, lantern or a headlamp will do its job just fine.
No one can guarantee that you’ll definitely see the lights while you are in Iceland. But, for the seven months from September to March, your chances will be very good. If you’re unlucky and the Northern Lights don’t appear during your stay, do not allow yourself to get too disappointed. Nature is not ours to control and this is perfectly normal.
If you’d like to get the best out of the situation, go and visit the newly built planetarium in Perlan. There, you’ll have the chance to watch an impressive, informative Northern Lights show.
There is even an Aurora Museum in Reykjavík, which includes a multimedia exhibition, interactive displays, and virtual reality glasses. Make sure to visit at least one of these places!
TO WRAP IT UP
We know how beautiful it can be when a dream such as seeing the Northern Lights finally comes true. We can only imagine your disappointment if you have to leave the country without being successful.Iceland is a mysterious land and does not hand out its precious beauty to everyone. Iceland will make sure thatyou want to come back again and again by helplessly enchanting your mind. Do not be sad if it does not happen for you, but smile for the many wonders you have seen and experienced in Iceland instead. We wish you an amazing trip and good luck with your Northern Lights hunt!