The Best Times and Places to See the Northern Lights in Iceland (220215travel.bestplacesnorthernlightsiceland)

The northern lights (or aurora borealis, in more scientific terms) are one of the biggest attractions in Iceland. Caused by the interaction of particles from the sun and in the Earth’s atmosphere, the northern lights appear as curtains of vivid color, in vibrant green, blue, yellow and red, hovering in the sky and morphing into different shapes.

While Iceland certainly isn’t the only place in the world to view this natural wonder, the Nordic country’s prime location near the Arctic Circle means that the light show can be visible for over 100 nights per year. While there are other popular locations for viewing the lights in countries like Norway, Sweden and Russia, many of these are less accessible, requiring multiple flights or lengthy ground transport. In contrast, Iceland’s main international airport, Keflavik, (30 miles southwest of Reykjavik) welcomes plenty of direct flights from North America, allowing you to see the lights almost immediately. Plus, Iceland has warmer weather than most of the other frigid northern lights destinations. Iceland’s wintertime highs hover in the 30s, while daytime highs in Fairbanks, Alaska, for example, are less than 10 degrees Fahrenheit.

However, seeing the northern lights isn’t as simple as hopping on a plane and looking up once you land in Reykjavik. They’re not visible year-round, and the viewing experience can also vary depending on the weather and exact location. So, while you’re never guaranteed to see the lights, a little planning and forethought could pay off.

When to go

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Broadly speaking, the best time to see the northern lights in Iceland is between September and April, according to Iceland’s tourism authority. While you could also see the lights in August, it may be wise to avoid that month as the nights are shorter, reducing your overall chances of catching a glimpse of this splendor in the sky.

During the rest of the year, Iceland experiences near-constant daylight, meaning that there isn’t enough darkness for the aurora to appear. Put simply, if you visit in late spring or summer, you will not be able to see the lights, even if you go to the best viewing locations.

Within that September to April period, there’s some debate about the optimal time to see the lights. You’re generally more likely to see them at the darkest times of the year (November to January). The sun barely rises around these times of the year, so the extremely long nights mean there’s a longer window for the lights to appear each day. Moonlight can also make it harder to see the light, although this is only an issue if the aurora is already faint – serious aurora-chasers may want to plan their visit during a new moon, though.

Although midwinter probably offers the best chance of catching the aurora, some people recommend viewing it around the spring or fall equinoxes: that is, around March 20 and Sept. 22 (these dates change slightly each year). The science behind this is complex: in short, there tends to be more geomagnetic disturbance around these equinoxes, leading to stronger auroras. But don’t forget: the nights at these times are shorter than mid-winter, so the daily window for seeing the northern lights is shorter.

Of course, bad weather can foil your plans regardless of when you visit. Cloudy skies are the main culprit, since they block out the aurora. Iceland’s weather can be unpredictable, so there’s no easy way to plan around this. Your best bet is to book a longer visit to the country. A two-day jaunt could easily be ruined by one patch of cloudy weather, but if you stay in the country for a week, your chances of catching clear skies are much better.

What time of day to see the northern lights

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The aurora can be a tricky phenomenon: it’s not constantly visible, and may only appear for short periods even if the skies are clear. It may appear at any time when it’s dark outside, but it’s generally accepted that the best time to see the lights is between 9 p.m. to 2 a.m., and particularly around midnight.

Catching sight of the northern lights doesn’t need to be a total guessing game, though. Various websites offer forecasts that indicate the likelihood of the aurora appearing on any given night. Iceland’s Meteorological Office has a webpage dedicated to predicting the northern lights. The Met Office forecasts show the Kp index, which measures disturbances in Earth’s magnetic field on a scale of zero to nine; the higher the number on the index, the stronger the aurora activity. The Met Office page also shows the cloud cover across Iceland, helping you to figure out whether you’ll actually be able to see the lights. Alternatively, Iceland’s Aurora Forecast, which is run by locals with expert knowledge of the aurora, offers a similar forecast on a slightly more user-friendly site.

Even after consulting the northern lights forecast, seeing the solar activity can be a waiting game. Since you’ll probably be outside while waiting, you’ll want to bring some rugged clothing (think: boots and plenty of warm gear) and maybe a thermos full of your favorite hot beverage. Iceland is fairly mild for its northern location, but don’t expect balmy weather: temperatures can still dip to the teens or 20s.

Where to see the northern lights

The most basic rule for catching the northern lights is to go somewhere dark – and with Iceland’s sparse population, there’s no shortage of places that fit the bill.

There’s one place to really avoid if you want to see the aurora: Reykjavik. As Iceland’s capital and most populous city, Reykjavik’s light pollution sometimes drowns out the northern lights, although particularly bright auroras are still visible there. If you can’t escape the city, try going to Öskjuhlíð, a hill on the city’s south side, which offers decent views of the northern lights from the top. There’s also the Grotta Island Lighthouse, about 3 miles northwest of the city, offering scenic views of the night sky, just far enough from the city lights.

No other towns or cities come close to the size of Reykjavik, although if you are in one of the larger towns like Akureyri, it’s probably wise to head out to the countryside. Beyond these larger towns, Iceland is your oyster for northern lights viewing, as there are few other places in the entire country with notable levels of light pollution.

With so many potential viewing locations on the table, many visitors seek out some of the country’s most scenic locations for viewing the northern lights – think fjords, glaciers and black sand beaches. There’s no clear consensus on the best place to spot the lights (in large part because there are so many options), but here are a few particularly notable places.


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This glacial lagoon dotted with icebergs and populated by crowds of seals is a stunning place to commune with nature, and a formidable backdrop for the shimmering aurora. You can also watch from Diamond Beach, a black-sand beach right where the lake drains into the Atlantic.

Reynisfjara and other black sand beaches

Reynisfjara, near the southern village of Vik, is a popular tourist spot, but with several black sand beaches dotted with basalt stacks within close reach, you might be able to find yourself a quiet corner. Plus, you’ll be surrounded by beautiful scenery while you wait for the show. Caution: pay attention to your surroundings on the beaches, as so-called “sneaker waves” can cause injury or death.

Snæfellsjökull Peninsula

About 130 miles northwest of Reykjavik, this peninsula centers around a huge volcano. There’s plenty of impressive places to view the lights here – consider staking out a spot near the unusually pointy Kirkjufell Mountain, or Djúpalónssandur beach with its black sand and craggy rock formations. You can stay overnight in a number of villages in the area.

Reykjanes Peninsula

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Reykjanes has plenty of naturally beautiful backdrops for catching the lights. Kleifarvatn, a large, tranquil lake ringed by small mountains, sits about 20 miles south of Reykjavik is one option as well as Krysuvik, a hot spring south of the lake. While you’re in the area, stop for a dip in Iceland’s famed Blue Lagoon. The geothermal pool closes at 8 or 9 p.m. during the winter and early spring (typically too early to see the northern lights), but it could still serve as a rejuvenating warm-up before going aurora hunting.


This volcanic national park is on the rift between two continental plates. Just a short drive east of Reykjavik, it offers varied scenery from volcanoes to lakes and waterfalls. Take note: as part of the Golden Circle tour route, Thingvellir is a popular spot for aurora viewing, so you may not be alone.

Many of these locations are popular spots for all visitors to Iceland, not just those seeking out the northern lights. On the upside, this means that even if the aurora doesn’t make an appearance, you’ll still be able to see some of the country’s exquisite beauty. However, the popularity of these places also means that you may have to share your viewing location.

If you really want to get away from everyone, consider skipping stops along the Golden Circle and head to some of Iceland’s less visited areas. These include the stunning Westfjords region in the country’s northwest, and eastern Iceland with traditional villages, wild reindeer, lakes and meadows.

How to see the northern lights

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There are plenty of ways to organize your trip to see the northern lights: you can join one of many tour groups, drive yourself around or stay at hotels that offer special aurora-centric features. Regardless of your choice, you’ll want to bring warm clothes, as aurora-watching can involve several hours outside, as well as a robust pair of boots or hiking shoes for Iceland’s rocky terrain.

There’s no shortage of northern lights tours that you can join. These range from single day (or night) tours to multiday packages with accommodation and meals included. Taking a group tour may mean visiting multiple locations to view aurora, rather than sticking in one place, like at a hotel. You’ll also be with local experts who will know the forecast and the hot spots. But be sure to read the fine print: seeing the northern lights is never a sure bet, and tour operators have various policies to account for this. Some tours (particularly the single-day tours) may be canceled and/or rescheduled if the auroral forecast is poor; they may also offer you the chance to rebook for cheap or free if the lights aren’t visible. Others may not be so generous.

The shortest tours last just a few hours, typically departing from and returning to Reykjavik all in one evening. Bus company Gray Line offers an affordable option starting at 39 euros for adults (about $46), and customers can rebook for free within two years if the northern lights don’t appear (if the forecast is poor, the tour may also be canceled). Travelers have generally given this tour positive reviews, although some indicated that the company could be more organized.

Reykjavik Excursions takes a similar approach, with a tour costing around $55 with waffles and hot drinks sold on board, too. These tours typically use tour buses, so you’ll likely be accompanied by many others – while it has generally positive reviews, some guests expressed disappointment about the group size, and that some viewing locations were crowded with other tours. For a cozier experience, try tour company Wake Up Reykjavik, which runs tours with smaller groups for around 11,990 Icelandic króna (about $97), including hot chocolate and pastries. This company has drawn very positive reviews for its guides’ good humor and in-depth knowledge.

Longer tours may offer a more intimate experience with smaller groups, although they’re less likely to offer the chance to rebook if the lights aren’t visible. Arctic Adventures offers a two-day tour focused on the lights and the Snaefellsnes Peninsula, including hot springs and black sand beaches, starting at $378. A five-day tour explores the south of the country, including ice caves and black sand beaches, as well as a northern lights boat excursion from Reykjavik. It starts at $1,040. Take note: these tours do not accept children under 8 years old (or 6 for the two-day tour). The company has received good feedback for its organization – negative reviews tend to come from customers who didn’t get to spot the aurora.

Another reliable bet is GJ Travel, which has been showing visitors around Iceland for over 90 years. It has garnered extremely positive reviews for “jam-packed” itineraries and extremely experienced guides. GJ Travel offers multiple Northern lights tours that also stop off at key sights around Iceland. Choose between five and eight-day tours. Know that tours may carry up to 40 people.

Finally, Nice Travel also offers an array of aurora-friendly tours that also explore Iceland’s beautiful volcanic landscapes, caves and hot springs. (Keep in mind, though, that there are no aurora-specific tours.) Tours start around $350. As the company’s name might suggest, its guides have earned fantastic reviews for their charming and fun demeanor.

This is just a small selection of the many tours available – sites like Viator list plenty more suggestions to cover all tastes. Bear in mind, you may not need to book a northern lights tour to catch a glimpse of the aurora. While specific northern lights tours may put more of a focus on tracking down the aurora with tour guides keeping an eye on forecasts, any multi-day tour could offer a peek at the lights if conditions are right.

Travelers who choose to chase the lights without a guide will need a car. Iceland’s limited public transit mostly moves people from town to town, and not to the aurora-viewing spots along the way. If you choose to self-drive, you may want to consider renting a vehicle with four-wheel drive for some extra safety on wintery roads. However, it’s not totally necessary: while Iceland has some routes (called “F-Roads”) that are only for four-wheel drive vehicles, they’re typically only open in the summer. Regardless of when you visit, don’t go off the beaten track: off-roading is strictly illegal.

Although driving yourself to see the northern lights offers more flexibility, it may require an extra layer of planning and responsibility. Aside from checking the aurora forecasts yourself, you’ll also want to check road conditions via the Icelandic government’s official portal to avoid weather-related accidents.

If driving is too much of a hassle, consider booking a hotel somewhere scenic to catch the northern lights. There are several hotels that cater to aurora-spotters, with special viewing locations or even wake-up calls to rouse you if the lights appear after you go to bed.

Top hotels for viewing the northern lights

Hotel Rangá

Tucked in a charming timber building near the south coast of Iceland, Hotel Rangá specializes in aurora viewing, with an observatory on its roof and an aurora wake-up service. The hotel also lends out snowsuits for those who want to spend hours outside, and it has a 24/7 bar with hot drinks to seal the deal. Guests have praised Rangá’s incredible service, and the fact that it’s the kind of luxury place that’s relaxing and not too formal.

Hótel Húsafell

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Located on a former farm in the Icelandic wilderness, this hotel claims to have an average of three aurora sightings per week in the winter months. It also offers an aurora wake-up call so you don’t miss the show. Its location near the Langjökull glacier also means stellar views during the day. Visitors enjoy the range of activities on offer around the hotel, although some aren’t big fans of the hotel restaurant.

Retreat and Silica hotels

The Blue Lagoon’s geothermal pools would be a formidable place to spot the northern lights, but daytime visitors can’t stay beyond 9 p.m. – before the aurora tends to appear. However, guests in the two on-site hotels don’t have to worry about this. With ultra-chic, minimalist rooms, private lagoons and other-worldly views, it’s a true luxury experience, with prices to match: nightly rates start 523 euros (about $598). Despite the price, guests rave about the beauty of this hotel’s location, and its stylish design.

Panorama Glass Lodge

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No need to go out in the cold to see the northern lights when you’re staying in an all-glass cabin. Hot tubs and heated floors make the views over the rocky tundra all the more cozy. Guests have plenty of compliments for this lodge’s beautiful setting, as well as its luxurious yet comfy design.

Hótel Budir

A rustic building now plays host to this stylish yet homey hotel, with aurora wake-up calls, fine dining sourced from local purveyors, and stellar views of glaciers, lava fields and the Atlantic. According to past guests, the hotel’s “old fashioned charm” and restaurant and bar are serious highlights.

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