The northern lights are elusive; you hear about them constantly from what seems like everyone, waxing lyrical about the curtain of bright green and blue wisps prancing gracefully through the sky. Yet the chances of seeing them can be limited, to say the least. You need to be in the right country, in the right season, with the right weather – and this last is completely out of your control. Iceland is one of the best countries to visit for a chance to see the northern lights. The viewing conditions are often favourable, and the mountain peaks, mythical basalt stacks, sparkling waterfalls, electric-blue glacial lagoons and wide-open skies make a great backdrop. We've rounded up some of the best places to see the northern lights in Iceland to help you experience this spectacular phenomenon.
Best time to see the northern lights in Iceland
Before we get into the best places to see the northern lights in Iceland, first thing’s first: it's all about timing. The "season" for seeing the aurora borealis runs from September to April. That said, you'll have more chances from October to March. Some years they can be seen as early as August. The aurora activity actually happens throughout the year, but the long daylight hours of the summer make it incredibly difficult to see.
If you're visiting Iceland in winter, remember to wrap up warm as temperatures can dip to -10°C and you'll likely be waiting for some time outdoors in the cold. In December, the sun rises around 11 am and starts setting not long after 1 pm - bad news for your internal clock, but good news for your chances of seeing the northern lights. So you're not left in the dark (pun intended), keep an eye on the Aurora Forecast so you know how likely it is that activity will occur on any given night.
Where to go to see the northern lights
First of all, you need to be somewhere with dark, clear skies – away from the city. That aside, there are some places in Iceland which will give you the best chance of seeing the northern lights while offering a particularly magical experience. It's also worth noting that the further north you go, the better your chances will be, as the natural phenomenon is triggered by the North Pole.
Þingvellir National Park
Iceland is a sparsely populated country, so you don't have to go far to get away from light pollution. Þingvellir (Thingvellir) National Park is historically significant in the country: it was the site of Iceland’s Parliament between the 10th and 18th centuries and where the Silfra drift (the meeting of the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates) is located. More importantly for you, it offers the clear night skies necessary to see the aurora.
The aurora display within Thingvellir National Park © Daniel Schreiber/Shutterstock
Reykjavík boat cruise
If you want something a little different, you can take a boat trip from Reykjavík’s harbour and view the lights dancing above the ocean. This is a slightly risky game: not only do you need clear skies for the lights, but also calm seas. On windy days, they won’t take you out, but it won’t be a wasted trip – you’ll just be ushered out of the city on land instead.
Jökulsárlón is a glacial lagoon that should be on your Iceland bucket-list anyway. It just so happens that the utterly unique landscape also makes it one of the very best places to see the northern lights in Iceland. Located in the southeast, bordering Vatnajökull National Park, the crystal-clear ice boulders on the black sand beach pick up the red and green glow of the aurora borealis, creating a kaleidoscopic effect. This is a particularly good location for photographers.
Northern lights reflected in Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon © Krissanapong Wongsawarng/Shutterstock
Reynisfjara black sand beach
Near the southern town of Vík is Reynisfjara, known for its black sand beach, basalt columns (reminiscent of Northern Ireland's Giant’s Causeway) and ocean stacks, known as Reynisdrangar. It's one of the best places to see the northern lights in Iceland as it provides both dramatic views and the soundtrack of the waves while the night sky puts on its show. Legend has it that the basalt stacks were once trolls who tried to guide a ship to shore, and when daylight broke they transformed into the sharp needles of rock you see now, forever stranded out at sea. At least they always have a front-row seat to the aurora.
Northern lights above Reynisdrangar, the basalt stacks out at sea near the town of Vík © Ghing/Shutterstock
Want to feel like you’re defying Mother Nature? Then watch the northern lights while sitting cosily in one of Iceland’s famous hot springs. Seljavallalaug is our top pick: the outdoor swimming pool is free and open 24 hours a day. It's also one of the oldest pools in Iceland, and, helpfully when it comes to the aurora, in the middle of nowhere. Well, not exactly, it’s in southern Iceland between Reykjavík and Vík. A cosmic light show plus sublime bath-water temperatures? If you ask us, Seljavallalaug is hands down one of the best places to catch the display.
Seljavallalaug hot spring will keep you warm while watching the northern lights above © Mathias Berlin/Shutterstock
A mountain framed by a waterfall and surrounded by lush greenery (or snow in winter), Kirkjufell already looks perfect without the northern lights – it is frequently dubbed 'the most photographed mountain in Iceland'. But when you visit you'll see that rather than being overkill, it's as though nature has thumped you over the head and demanded you pay attention to its showing off. Kirkjufell makes you fall deeper in love with this varied country and provides a stunning backdrop to the light display to boot. Located on the north coast of the Snæfellsnes peninsula, it's just over two hours' drive from Reykjavík.
Kirkjufell mountain and waterfall © Thampitakkull Jakkree / Shutterstock
The further north you go in Iceland, the better your chances of getting a glimpse of the northern lights. With beautiful hikes to be had during the daylight hours and hardly any light pollution at night, head to the small and picturesque northern fishing town of Siglufjörður, located in a stunning narrow fjord. It might be last but it's certainly not least on our list of the best places to see the northern lights. Roads up here can often be difficult to navigate or simply closed due to harsh weather conditions in winter, so always check before travel if driving yourself (if you're comfortable driving in snow and ice), or organise professional transport or a tour. Rough Guides has paired with local travel experts in Iceland who can plan a fully customised itinerary for you.
Siglufjörður harbour at dawn © Nella / Shutterstock