Iceland has seen a massive surge in tourism. Over 2.3 million visitors came to the island in 2018, a stark difference from the 565,000 who visited in 2011.
It’s not hard to see why Iceland is a hotspot. Its infinite activities and natural beauty make it desirable for every tourist.
If you’re an adrenaline seeker, glacier hiking will be right up your alley. If you prefer less extreme activities, maybe try bird-watching and sight-seeing.
There is one thing that should be on everyone’s Iceland bucket list, though.
No vacation to the island is complete without seeing the Northern Lights in Iceland. Watching these natural lights dance across the night sky is an experience like no other.
But if you’ve never been to Iceland before, you might not know much about the Aurora Borealis. Keep reading to get all the details you need to ensure you see these lights on your vacation.
What Are the Northern Lights?
If you’re not from an area that sees the aurora borealis, you may not know what they are. Try to imagine a sunset during the darkest part of the night. That’s what the Northern Lights look like.
The lights are a naturally occurring phenomenon. They happen when electrically charged solar particles enter the Earth’s magnetic field. The intensity of the lights depends on the sun’s activity and the speed of the particles.
It’s not unusual for the aurora to dance across the sky in colors like green, pink, and purple. The colors are dependent on the elements that are being ionized.
The lights occur in the magnetic polar regions of both the north and south hemispheres. They typically only appear in places above the 60° latitude mark in the northern hemisphere. Folks can see “Southern Lights” in areas below the 60° latitude mark, either.
Because Iceland sits at around 64° north, it’s the perfect place to view these beautiful lights.
Optimal Aurora Viewing Conditions
It would be too convenient to step outside on any day of the year and be able to see the aurora borealis. A few specific conditions need to be met for the Northern Lights to appear.
Time of Year
The best time of the year to see the lights in Iceland is between September and mid-April. The prime aurora viewing time tends to be between November to February, though. These months are the darkest, but they also bring a lot of rain, snow, and cloudy conditions.
The sky conditions need to be just right to strengthen your chances of seeing the lights. The sky should be as dark as possible. You’ll find that skies are clearer once the temperature gets below zero.
You’ll want to avoid nights where the moon is full as it’ll dim the aurora.
Cloudy nights are the Northern Lights’ worst nightmare. Try to go aurora borealis hunting on a clear night.
Check out the Iceland Met Office website for current aurora forecasts.
You should try to drive somewhere with as little light pollution as possible. You may still be able to see the aurora from the city. But the more unnatural light there is, the less spectacular the sight will be.
Length of Stay
The length of time you stay in Iceland can increase or decrease your chances of seeing the lights. The aurora tends to work in cycles. They will be active for around three nights and then will lie low for a few. The longer you stay in the country, the more likely it is you’ll see the lights.
How to See the Northern Lights
There are several ways you can see the Aurora Borealis on your trip to Iceland.
A walk may be the perfect way to view the Northern Lights, so long as the weather is in your favor. Be sure to pack a warm jacket and wear a lot of layers to stay warm.
For an unhindered view of the lights, rent a car and drive as far away as you can from any light pollution.
If you’re taking Iceland via rental car, there is no limit to where you can explore. Be sure to use caution if you’re not used to driving in wintery conditions.
Several tour companies provide Northern Lights tours. This is the most convenient way for visitors to Iceland to see the Northern Lights. Your guides will not only know the best places to see the lights, but they’ll educate you during your tour, too
Some tour companies even provide aurora tours via boat. Hop on a tour boat in Reykjavik or Akureyri and get as far away from light pollution as you can.
Where to Find the Northern Lights in Iceland
The entire island provides tourists with an excellent opportunity to see the aurora. The lights can even be seen from larger centers, provided the conditions are right.
If you have your heart set on seeing the most breathtaking views, consider visiting one of the places below.
This 3000-year-old volcanic crater is in the Southwestern part of the island. It provides a beautiful backdrop when the aurora reflects on its lake.
Pro Tip: If you’d like to make a day of it, bring some hiking shoes. You can hike around the rim of the crater or even use the ladder to climb down to the lake. We wouldn’t recommend trying to walk or climb down during the dead of winter, though.
Oskjuhlid is about as close to a forest as you’re going to get in Reykjavik. It also happens to be within walking distance of the downtown city core.
If you’ve spent any time in Reykjavik, you know about Perlan, the massive dome on top of the hill. This is where you’ll find Oskjuhlid. The area surrounding the dome is perfect for aurora viewing.
Pro Tip: If you visit Perlan during their operating hours, check out the observation deck. You’ll even get some fantastic views of the city.
Heidmork Nature Reserve
If you have a car rental, you’re going to want to check out the Heidmork Nature Reserve. Located on the outskirts of Reykjavik, the reserve features a vast trail system and interesting lava formations. With over 3,200 hectares, there are plenty of dark areas for aurora seekers.
Pro Tip: If you plan on hiking on the trails in the reserve, be sure to bring enough layers to stay warm.
Thingvellir National Park
Thingvellir provides visitors with lava rock and moss landscape backdrops. This scenery makes for a beautiful composition for your aurora borealis photography.
Pro Tip: Consider driving an hour from the park and staying at the Aurora Bubble Hotel. These clear domes make for perfect aurora viewing with protection from the elements
If you want a different aurora viewing experience, consider visiting the Seljavallalaug pool. This is not something you want to miss during your visit to Iceland.
This is a geothermal pool tucked away in a secluded valley setting amidst the mountains. Try to come before nightfall so you can see the landscape before the northern lights show.
The pool is a little chillier during the winter months.
Pro Tip: Bring your hiking shoes and a headlamp as the pool is a 20-minute walk from the parking lot. Though it’s not strenuous, you probably won’t want to trek it in the wrong type of shoes in the dark.
The Secret Lagoon
This lagoon is a natural hot spring found in a tiny village in the Golden Circle area. This is the oldest swimming pool in Iceland, so it’s a must-see for history buffs.
Unlike the Seljavallalaug pool, the Secret Lagoon is a warm 38-40°C all year long. These warmer temperatures make it the perfect place to relax while you watch the Northern Lights show.
Pro Tip: The lagoon features several geothermal spots near the pool. Little Geysir, for example, erupts every five minutes or so.
If this waterfall isn’t already on your Iceland bucket list, it needs to be. The Skógafoss Falls are among the most famous waterfalls in Iceland. Because of their popularity, it’s best to visit them later in the day.
If you’re going to the waterfalls only to watch the Northern Lights, you’ll be there in the evening anyway. If your schedule allows, though, we recommend visiting the falls before sundown. There are a lot of beautiful sights to see and breathe in before the lights do their dance.
Pro Tip: The rocks surrounding the waterfalls get very slippery, so be careful.
A Bucket List Item for Everyone
There are a lot of things for you to do when you travel to the island. You would be amiss not to include aurora viewing at some point during your trip.
If you want to ensure you have the best odds of seeing the Northern Lights in Iceland, contact us. We specialize in various Northern Light tours that can get you as close to the action as possible. Don’t miss this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see this breathtaking natural phenomenon.