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.
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.
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.
If you only have a few days in Iceland and plan to stay in its capital Reykjavik fear not: there are plenty of places in close proximity to witness the northern lights.
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.
If you want something a little different, you can take a boat trip from Reykjavik'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.
Icelandair Hotel Reykjavik Marina - Bold, bright and refreshingly quirky, this harbourside hotel not only enjoys terrific views of the trawlers in dry dock right outside, but its rooms also have a maritime feel with a twist of chic.
Farmhotel Efstidalur - About 15km east towards Geysir along Route 37. Easily the finest place to eat in the region, with much of what they serve up home-reared. Try the steak or carpaccio, or a pan-fried trout; their ice-cream is excellent too.
Snorkel with the trolls - The Silfra Fissure in Þingvellir National Park is famous for its snorkeling spot between the tectonic plates of North America and Europe. The glacier meltwater provides for a gorgeous photo background at one of the top dive sites in the world.
Take a Golden Circle day trip to the Blue Lagoon - If you're pressed on time but want to explore as much as possible, consider staying in Reykjavik and hopping on a day tour like this one to explore the Golden Circle with Þingvellir National Park, Geysir, Gullfoss and end your day at the famous Blue Lagoon.
South of Djúpivogur, the fjords recede into the background and you enter the altogether different world of southeastern Iceland, a coastal band between the East Fjords and Vík which is dominated by Europe’s largest ice cap, Vatnajökull. Covering eight thousand square kilometres, almost 150km wide and up to 1km thick, Vatnajökull’s vast size gradually sinks in as it floats inland for hour after hour as you drive past, its glacier tongues flowing in slow motion from the heights to sea level, grinding out a black gravelly coastline as they go.
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.
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.
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.
Welcome Edinborg - Smart, chalet-like country retreat with a range of en-suite twins and family rooms. There’s plenty of timber furnishings and an outdoor hot tub, and wild scenery in every direction – Seljavallalaug is only a short drive away. Advance booking only; there’s no reception.
Hotel Skaftafell - 5km east from Skaftafell along the Ringroad at the no-horse hamlet of Freysnes. Recent renovations have perked up the formerly tired decor; twenty of their tidy and warm, if uninspiring, en-suite rooms have glacier views.
Take a Crystal Ice Cave Tour - A certified glacier guide will take you inside the cave of Europe's biggest glacier - the Vatnajökull. Take stunning photos in the magical world of blue ice around you.
Glacier Hiking Expedition - Marvel at breathtaking views of the Skaftafell National Park while hiking the Vatnajökull Glacier with a guide. Learn how glaciers are formed and how global warming affects the ice structures.
Snæfellsnes Peninsula is a rugged yet beautiful arm of the Icelandic west coast that juts out into the Atlantic between Faxaflói bay and Breiðafjörður. The north and south coasts are divided one from the other by a string of spiky mountains which run down the spine of the peninsula and culminate in the magnificent Snæfellsjökull, a glacier at the land’s westernmost point.
Compared with the neighbouring West Fjords, the scenery of Northwest Iceland is much gentler and less forbidding – undulating meadows dotted with isolated barns and farmhouses are the norm here, rather than twisting fjords, though there are still plenty of impressive mountains to provide a satisfying backdrop to the coastline.
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.
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.
Herring Guesthouse - With accommodation in two separate buildings in the town, this guesthouse is an excellent choice for sensibly priced, individually decorated rooms, sharing facilities, with a touch of Nordic elegance in Siglufjörður.
Fosshotel Stykkisholmur - Atop a small hill behind the swimming pool, this eighty-room hotel is the largest of the town’s accommodation options. Rooms here are subtly decorated in warm, autumnal colours, and many look out over the green expanses of the golf course.
2 hour Kayak Tour - Take to the sea and discover fishing villages and remote islands on the Snæfellsnes peninsula. A local guide will accompany you and point out the various landscapes and wildlife.
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