How to See the Northern Lights in Iceland

Aurora Borealis (northern lights) over the glacier lagoon, Jokulsarlon, on Iceland.

 

Sascha Kilmer/Getty Images 

There’s a reason the Northern Lights rank so high on traveler’s bucket lists – they are far from easy to find. But the amount of work you put into researching and planning your trip will be worth the trouble when you find yourself taking in an impossibly large sky filled with dancing lights far from the crowds.

Iceland is a fantastic place to spot the Northern Lights, but there are a few things to know before you embark on your adventure. From the camera gear you’ll want to invest in and the apps you’ll want downloaded to the best spots to see the show and the Northern Lights tours that are actually worth it, consider this your all-encompassing guide to seeing the Northern Lights in Iceland.

What are the Northern Lights?

The Northern Lights are a seasonal phenomenon that happens in and around the Arctic Circle. (There are also Southern Lights, which happen—you guessed it—in the most southern points of the Southern hemisphere.) When solar flares shoot charged particles into the Earth’s magnetic field, the particles interact with atoms and molecules in the Earth’s atmosphere. The color of the Northern Lights indicates which types of atoms and molecules are colliding (oxygen or nitrogen).

Common Northern Lights colors include blue, pink, yellow, green, and purple, but if you’re catching a particularly strong solar flare, they might appear orange or white. Be warned: The Northern Lights won’t look like they do in photos to your naked eye, most of the time. A weak Northern Lights show may even appear as a lightly hued cloud floating across the sky.

When Can You See the Northern Lights in Iceland?

The Northern Lights have been known to show up as early as mid-August in Iceland, but the strongest shows come in September and March (due to the seasonal equinoxes). There is little to no chance of spotting them during the spring or summer, because the sun barely sets throughout this time period. The sun sets before 6 p.m. September through March, making prime conditions for Northern Light spotting.

How to See the Northern Lights from Reykjavik

It’s not common, but you can sometimes spot the Northern Lights from Iceland’s capital city. Locals have been known to turn off all of their lights when this happens, so everyone can enjoy the show.

If you want the best seat in the house, head to Hallgrímskirkja, a tall church at the top of the city. It’s only open until 9 p.m., but in the deepest parts of winter the sun sets around 4 p.m., meaning there is a small chance you might catch them before the church closes. The view from the top of the church is stunning, spanning all of the city’s neighborhoods and harbors.

What to Wear While Northern Lights Hunting

It’s all about the layers! It’s going to be cold, so start with a warm, wool base layer. From there, find a warm sweater—I've found turtlenecks to be a great option—with waterproof pants. Top it off with a waterproof jacket, a scarf, hat, gloves, and warm socks and you’re almost ready. Waterproof boots are one of the most important parts of the outfit. Iceland’s weather is known for being completely unpredictable and you never know when you’ll find yourself trekking through snow.

It’s better to be too warm and be able to remove layers than being too cold, especially when you’re venturing out on your own.

Aurora borealis display over Silfra tectonic plate crack, _ingvellir National Park, Iceland
Johnathan Ampersand Esper/Getty Images

The Best Northern Lights Locations in Iceland

Iceland’s mainland is a mere few degrees south of the Arctic Circle, but you can still see the Northern Lights from any location on the island. They have the ability to show up anywhere, but whether or not you can see them is another story, thanks to light pollution. Thankfully, Iceland is still a very remote country, meaning a lot of it is uninhabited or home to small villages.

But if you’re looking for a picture-perfect location, check out these spots:

  • Grótta Lighthouse: If you’re sticking to Reykjavik, Grótta Lighthouse is a great spot to check out the Northern Lights at the north-westernmost point of the capital city. It’s a 10-minute drive from the city center and easily accessible by taxi or bus and easy enough to walk during good weather.
  • Thingvellir National Park: It’s incredibly easy to find an uncrowded spot in this national park. Two tectonic plates shoot up from the ground, giving you a dramatic setting for your stargazing. But take caution: There are plenty of crevasses in this area that are easy to miss in the dark. Stick to marked trails and be aware of your surroundings.
  • Threngsli: Iceland van rental company Happy Campers cites this as a wonderful place to spot the Northern Lights. Located near the town of Thorlakshofn, the flat area makes a fun landscape for shooting the phenomenon.
  • Seljavallalaug Pool: It’s likely you’ve seen this pool on Instagram. Surrounded by mountains and marked by an old hot spring house, it’s the kind of scene that causes people to buy impulse airplane tickets. But be warned: The water is not as warm as the other hot springs you’ll find around the country. That being said, it is an incredible spot for viewing the Northern Lights—just be ready for a little hike to get there. It’s also one of the oldest pools in Iceland.
  • Ásbyrgi: This spot is located in Jökulsárgljúfur Canyon in Northern Iceland. This area is known as the “Capital of the Elves” and, as legend has it, was created after the god Ódinn’s eight-legged horse, Sleipnir, slammed his hoofs down to create the horseshoe-shaped crater.

What to Bring Northern Lights Hunting

The most important thing is to bring yourself, but here are a few other things to keep in mind:

  • Snacks: There’s no exact way to tell exactly when the lights are going to show up, so bring lots of snacks and something warm to drink. There’s nothing worse than being alone with your stomach rumbling.
  • Extra Layers: When you think you’ve got enough layers, bring another, just in case. And don’t forget an extra pair of socks—event waterproof boots have the occasional slip-up.
  • Your Camera Gear: If you’re planning on taking photos, organize your gear ahead of time. Not only can you not tell when the Northern Lights are going to show up, it’s hard to know how long they’ll stick around. The last thing you want is to waste unneeded time trying to find all of your gear and miss the show.

    The Best Apps to Download and Websites to Check

    It’s not as easy as driving away from the city lights after dark. Do your research to make sure you’re heading out as informed as possible with the best chance at seeing the Northern Lights.

    • Aurora: The Aurora app will send you push notifications when there’s aurora activity in your area (which you can set in the app). This works for any location on the globe, not just Iceland.
    • Vedur.is: Vedur is the local weather website that’s best known for keeping track of the country’s unpredictable weather changes. Not only is it important to keep an eye on the Northern Lights activity, but it’s more important to know when there’s a storm coming. The website also shows cloud coverage, which is an important factor in being able to spot the lights.
    • Soft Serve News: This service shares Northern Lights predictions based on your location. If you’re looking for real-time updates, it offers a monthly notification membership for $4.95 a month. Every time the Northern Lights make an appearance near you, you’ll get a text, phone call or email (depending on your preferences) to alert you. A small price to pay if it’ll help you see the Northern Lights on your next trip!

    Tours Actually Worth Taking

    If you’re not renting a car for your time in Iceland, there are plenty of tours that will bring you to the Northern Lights. Most of them will also pick you up at your hotel.

    • Northern Lights By Boat, Special Tours: Head away from the coast of Reykjavik with a guide who will share the science behind the Northern Lights, as well as a few mythical stories around the phenomenon. The best part about this Northern Lights By Boat tour is that the guides will take care of the photography for you, so you can just enjoy the moment.
    • Northern Lights Snowmobile Tour: This tour will get you up on Langökull Glacier on your hunt for the Northern Lights. You’ll also get a monster truck ride up to the glacier hut before you take off on your snowmobile. Don’t worry about keeping warm: Mountaineers of Iceland will provide warm overalls for your ride.
    • Game of Thrones Northern Lights Tour: Arctic Adventures will take you on a 3-day tour following in the footsteps of your favorite Game of Thrones characters. You’ll visit off-the-beaten track sites in the Golden Circle and Snaefellsnes Peninsula. This tour is about much more than the Northern Lights, but it’s the added perk at the end of your exploring.

    How to Photograph the Northern Lights

    Your iPhone camera won’t be able to do the trick for this task. But with a bit of preparation, you can capture the lights in all their glory.

    • Bring a Tripod: In order to capture as clear a photo as possible, you’re going to need a completely still surface to shoot on. Make sure and pack a tripod for your Northern Lights photography adventure.
    • Consider Using a Cable Release: Again, stillness is key. That means even a simple push of a button can throw off your photo. To erase this risk, invest in a cable release, which allows you to push a remote button to set off your shutter—no contact with your camera required.
    • Remove all Lens Filters Prior to Shooting: You want to steer clear from anything that might blur your shot—make sure your camera settings are manually set and you don’t have any camera filters messing with your shot.
    • For Portraits, Use a Flashlight: When shooting in low light, your camera is going to pick up whatever light source is the strongest. When you’re looking to take portraits in front of the Northern Lights, you’re working with two subjects: the people and the Northern Lights. While on a Northern Lights tour in Finland, I picked up a quick trick: Bring a flashlight. Set a long shutter speed and flash your light toward your subjects a few times throughout the shot. This will help the camera pick up light from the portrait subjects as well as the Northern Lights.
    • Focus on Your Camera Settings: This might be the hardest part of photographing the Northern Lights. Since it has to be incredibly dark for them to show up, it naturally creates a tough environment for taking photos. For your best chances, set your ISO between 800 and 3,200, according to photographer Dean Tatooles, who shared his tips with PetaPixel. Set your shutter speed between 15 and 30 seconds (the longer you’ve got, the more star movement you’ll capture). Set your aperture between f/2.8 and f/5.6 and you’re ready to start taking some photos.
      The Five Million Star Hotel
      Buubble

      Great Hotels for Northern Lights Spotting

      There are stunning hotels all around Iceland, but some of them come with an added perk: prime Northern Lights viewing.

      • The Five Million Star Hotel: The Five Million Star Hotel is a series of transparent bubble hotels near Fludir in Southern Iceland. Located on land owned by a local farmer, each of the bubbles are named after a woman in her family. These bubble rooms are totally secluded from any form of city lights, meaning you can catch the Northern Lights from bed.
      • Ion Hotel: Ion Hotel is not only known for its striking architecture—it used to be a geothermal energy plant—but also the geothermal pool located right underneath the main building. It’s the perfect spot for taking in the Northern Lights. The hotel staff will even give you a call throughout the night if the lights make an appearance. It’s located near the historic Thingvellir National Park, less than an hour’s drive from Reykjavik.
      • Hotel Rangá: Hotel Rangá is so known for being in a prime Northern Lights viewing location that they have their own live feed set up. You’ll also find the Hotel Rangá Observatory on the property—a roll-off roof with two astronomical telescopes,
      • Villa Lola on Airbnb: If Airbnb is more up your alley, check out the Villa Lola apartments. These homes are located in Northern Iceland, near the country’s second-largest city, Akureyi. The location just at the base of Sulur Mountain makes for prime stargazing and Northern Lights photo shoots. It gets better: If you’re into winter sports, this area is perfect for dog sledding, kayaking, or heli-skiing. Fun fact: This region is also home to the northernmost 18-hole golf course.
      • Traustholtshólmi Yurts: This small area is one of Iceland’s best-kept secrets. Located near the mouth of Iceland’s largest glacial river, Traustholtshólmi is technically an island on an island. Accessible by ferry a short drive from the Keflavik Airport, you’ll find a handful of Mongolian yurts dotting the area. There’s nothing cozier than watching the Northern Lights from a campfire, after all.

      If you’ve made it through this extensive guide, consider yourself an expert on spotting Iceland’s Northern Lights. Your next task: Go out and find them!