Seeing the Northern Lights in Iceland What You Need To Know by

Seeing The Northern Lights In Iceland: What You Need To Know

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Seeing the Northern Lights in Iceland was the number one thing we wanted to do on our trip to Reykjavik. In fact, the mystical green lights in the nighttime sky are one of the top reasons to visit Iceland in Winter. Rather than hoping to get a glimpse of the Northern Lights from Reykjavik, we booked a tour that would give us a better chance of witnessing the natural phenomenon in Iceland.

During our trip to Iceland, the Northern Lights tours were canceled due to unfavorable weather for three straight days. However, on our fourth and final night in Reykjavik, the skies were clear, the conditions were right…and the chase for seeing Northern Lights in Iceland was on!


Northern Lights Reykjavik, Iceland FAQs

Luxe-Adventure-Traveler-Iceland-Westfjords-Northern-Lights Jennifer Dombrowski Seeing the Northern Lights in Iceland

Photo courtesy of Lux Adventure Traveler

Before we jump into the details of our experience seeing the Northern Lights in Reykjavik, Iceland, we are answering a few of the most commonly asked questions.


What Are The Northern Lights?

Northern Lights – also called Aurora Borealis – is a natural light display. Often glowing green in color, the appearance of the light in darkened skies is a complex chain of events that begins far from the earth’s atmosphere.


Demystifying the Aurora Borealis

On the sun, a mere 93 million miles from earth, there are explosions called sun storms. The particles released move at a rate of 245 miles per second, escaping the suns gravity. When these particles stream in the direction of Earth, they can get pulled into the atmosphere by Earth’s magnetic field.

When the particles collide with atoms and molecules in the Earth’s atmosphere, ionization occurs and creates light – which is what we call the Northern Lights. The particles form in a belt around the North Pole and usually move from west to east. The Aurora Borealis can last just a few minutes to several hours.

Of course, another essential factor is darkness. In the wintertime, Iceland has little daylight – and the darkness is ideal for seeing the Northern Lights. However, during the summer, it doesn’t get dark enough in Iceland to see the Aurora Borealis (though, the phenomenon still occurs…it just isn’t dark enough to see it!).

Rather than the lights just mysteriously appearing in the sky, some truly technical and scientific factors must align in order to see the Northern Lights. A sun storm has to occur 2-3 days beforehand, the viewing area has to be void of distracting lights and the sky has to be clear.


Are the Northern Lights in Iceland?

Yes! Iceland’s northern location near the Arctic Circle (where the particles naturally gravitate) make it an ideal place to see the Northern Lights. Furthermore, because Iceland is sparsely populated and there are fewer cities (which means fewer city lights), the sky is dark enough to see often the mesmerizing green glow. However, Northern Lights in Iceland will only be visible during the winter months.


When is the Best Time to See Northern Lights in Iceland?

Because dark skies are required to witness the Aurora Borealis, the best time for Northern Lights in Iceland is from September until March, when the country experiences more darkness than day light. Between autumn and winter, there isn’t necessarily a ‘best month’ to see Northern Lights in Iceland. It is possible – as long as all other factors align – to see the Northern Lights in Iceland during any month from September to March.   

Therefore, the best time to visit Reykjavik for Northern Lights is in the late autumn and all through winter.


What is the Best Place to See the Northern Lights in Iceland?

The best places to see Northern Lights in Iceland are away from the city! The artificial light from streetlamps and buildings in Reykjavik can make it difficult to see the Aurora Borealis – so finding a place where it is dark offers a better chance at seeing them.

Because there is vast, undeveloped land in Iceland, finding a place away from the city lights is not too difficult. That said, hiring a guide or joining a tour will likely increase your chances – as locals know the best spots for where to see Northern Lights in Reykjavik and all around Iceland.


Can you see the Northern Lights in Reykjavik?

Yes! Despite the city lights, it is sometimes possible to witness the Aurora Borealis right in the city center of Reykjavik. The best time to see the Northern Lights in Reykjavik is late at night, when there are the least number of city lights causing interference.

We never saw the glow in the city but heard that the best chance to see Northern Lights in Reykjavik near the city center is along the northern coastline.


Where Can I Find a Northern Lights Reykjavik Forecast?

Although the best time to see Northern Lights in Reykjavik and the countryside is during the autumn and winter, other necessary factors must occur in order for the glow to appear.

The National Weather Service of Iceland provides a helpful Aurora Forecast on their website.


Reykjavik, Iceland Northern Lights Tour

Kristin Addis www.bemytravelmuse.comiceland-photography Seeing the Northern Lights in Iceland

Photo courtesy of Be My Travel Muse

Now that you know how to determine the best chances for seeing the Northern Lights in Iceland, you need to decide whether you want to chase the lights on your own or join a Reykjavik tour.

We opted for a tour. For us, it was the easiest, hassle-free way to get a glimpse of the green lights in the sky over Iceland. The tour guides know the best places to see Northern Lights near Reykjavik – and the drivers are accustomed to driving in the Iceland winter conditions.


Best Northern Lights Tour Reykjavik

There are numerous Northern Lights Iceland tours that depart from Reykjavik – ranging from big bus tours to private adventures to night boat cruises. Because we were on a budget when we visited Iceland, we opted for an affordable large group bus tour. While we know there are far better personalized small group tours, the cost-to-value ratio of our tour was spot on. Book it now!

One of the things we liked best about our Northern Lights tour is that they only run the tours if there is a chance of seeing the Northern Lights. There is no reason to get bundled up and drive out into the Icelandic countryside at night if the skies are overcast. By late afternoon, we were notified electronically as to whether or not there was a Northern Lights tour. If not (which happened three days in a row), we were able to easily re-book the same tour from Reykjavik for the following day.

However, one downside is that most of the tour buses then gather at the same spot. While there is plenty of room, it is far from a private affair.

To find the best tour that suits your needs, we recommend searching (and reading fellow traveler reviews!) on Get Your Guide.


Our Experience Seeing Northern Lights In Iceland

Kristin Repsher Seeing The Northern Lights in Iceland

Photo courtesy of Boots and a Backpack

It was our 4th and final day in Reykjavik and we had yet to see the Northern Lights in Iceland. The day had been mostly cloudy – and the fierce winds were brutally cold. My optimistic outlook and high hopes that skies would clear to see the Northern Lights were waning. However, as the hours passed and darkness came, we had yet to receive a cancellation notice from our tour company. Still doubtful, it wasn’t until an hour before the 9:00pm departure that we finally realized the chase for the Northern Lights was on.


Preparing for our Northern Lights Tour

In preparation for an evening of chasing the Northern Lights, I donned about every layer of clothing I had in my backpack. I pulled on double layers of socks, pants, coats, scarves, gloves and hats. I double-downed my double layers with a total of four shirts. When it was time to go, I slipped on my Sketchers – the only shoes I brought with me to Iceland (big mistake) – which were still slightly wet from exploring Reykjavik earlier in the day.

I wasn’t fooled – I knew I would be cold. However, my excitement of seeing the Northern Lights in Iceland was quelling my worries.

I brought both my travel cameras in an attempt to capture the Northern Lights in the night sky. Before arriving in Iceland, I had spent a little time reviewing the manual settings necessary to photograph the Northern Lights. Both of my Canon cameras (a DSLR Rebel and pocket-sized PowerShot) were prepared with the recommended settings and I had extra batteries to help withstand the cold weather.


Chasing Northern Lights by Tour Bus

We met our tour at the Reykjavik BSI Bus Terminal and departed on time. As we headed out on the road, we could see whipping snow in the headlight beams. The tour company had determined that the best spot for seeing the Northern Lights from Reykjavik was an hour away at Thingvellir National Park (which we had already visited on the Golden Circle Tour).

As our guide was talking about historic sightings of the Aurora Borealis in Iceland, the two-way radio crackled to life. We could hear a muffled voice but the words were in Icelandic. Our guide stopped mid-sentence and grabbed the radio, speaking into it in the language we didn’t understand.

When he finished the conversation, he addressed the bus, “It’s just been confirmed {dramatic pause} Northern Lights have been spotted.” A ripple of excitement rushed through the bus. He continued, “And, if you are seated on the left side of the bus {we were!}, I believe those are the Northern Lights glowing in the distance.” Out the window, we could see a soft glow in the sky. It was reminiscent of seeing city lights from afar in the fog, but with just a tinge of jade.


Seeing the Northern Lights in Iceland

We turned into Thingvellir National Park and our bus, along with several others, filed into a parking lot. I secured my layers, got my cameras ready and we dashed off the bus. When we stepped into the open field, we were blasted with a wind as cold as ice. It slapped my cheeks and instantly froze the hairs inside my nose. With our eyes not yet adjusted to the darkness, we waded into snow that was 6+ inches deep.

Beyond the road we arrived on, toward a mountain, we could see two distinct streams of lime green light in the sky. This was it. This is what we were waiting for. This is what we were chasing. We were seeing the Northern Lights in Iceland with our very own eyes!


Photographing the Northern Lights

We scrambled to find a place to set up our cameras, as we needed complete stillness if we were to have any chance of getting a clear photo. Without a tripod, we would have to improvise. The ground, covered in snow, certainly wasn’t an option. We spotted a picnic table, cleared off the snow, set down a plastic tarp and angled the cameras toward the Aurora Borealis. The wind was so fierce, however, that as soon as we would let go of the cameras, the wind would rattle them.

Leaving the cameras on the table was not an option, but I was shivering so hard that I was shaking the table when I tried to steady it. Fairly counterproductive. We got off three shots. One look at the preview screen showed we got zero results.


Watching Aurora Borealis

I soon realized I was spending more time looking at the camera than I was looking at the incredible display in front of me, which was not how I envisioned experiencing the Northern Lights. I turned my focus from photographing the sky to actually watching the sky pulse with Northern Lights.

The ribbons of green expanded and brightened then dulled and brightened again. The light danced across the high Icelandic sky, silhouetting the mountains in distance. It was like watching a stream of fairy dust. A million stars twinkled above us; the constellations were more vibrant that we had ever witnessed them before.

We watched until our toes were frozen solid and we could no longer feel our faces…which was about a total of six minutes. When we reluctantly retreated to the warmth of the bus, we weren’t alone; the bus was nearly full and we were soon on our way back to Reykjavik.

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Top Tips For Northern Lights In Reykjavik, Iceland

Juliana Dever Seeing the Northern Lights in Iceland

Photo Courtesy of Clever Dever Wherever

Seeing Northern Lights in Reykjavik was one of the top reasons why we traveled to Iceland during the winter – yet, we were woefully unprepared. While it is something we will never forget, in hindsight, the experience would have been much more enjoyable had we adequately planned for the event.


Winter Weather Gear

As full-time travelers, we pack for all seasons…and we only carry backpacks. Our luggage doesn’t leave a lot of room for gear that is best suited for extreme winter temperatures. On our trip to Iceland, we didn’t pack boots or windproof coats. For the most part, the winter weather in Iceland was much milder than we anticipated.

However, on the night of our Northern Lights Tour, the temperatures were frigid and the howling wind felt brutal. Even though we had piled on multiple layers, the cold cut right through our clothes.

We highly recommend traveling to Iceland with more weather-appropriate gear. Specifically, we suggest packing good winter boots, thick socks, a heavy winter coat and a warm winter hat.


Travel Camera & Accessories

Photographing the Northern Lights can be tricky. A good camera and tripod are essential. While some novice photographers can be lucky, to best ensure you will capture the Northern Lights it is best to study the camera settings and practice a few times before your trip.

Want our best advice for photographing the Northern Lights in Iceland? If you haven’t practiced your night photography, forget the camera and simply enjoy the glow in the sky.


Travel Insurance

Not only can travel insurance helpful when there are flight cancellations or lost luggage, but it can be crucial if travelers are injured or get sick while abroad. Consider traveling protected with World Nomads


Top Tips For Your Trip To Iceland

Reykjavik Winter Experience, Church, Iceland

Planning a trip to Iceland can be overwhelming – there is so much to see and do! We created a detailed 3-Day Iceland Winter Itinerary that can help you plan your trip!

We also have specific tips for what to eat in our Iceland Food blog post. And, for a taste of local beer, we have an article dedicated to where to find Reykjavik Craft Beer

Looking for more tours in Iceland? Read about our the sights on the Golden Circle Tour and what to see on an Iceland South Coast Tour.


Start planning your trip to Iceland! Search for the lowest airfares, the best accommodations and fun things to do…then start packing!  Want more travel planning tips? Head over to our Travel Planning page for more information and tips on traveling – and for country-specific information, take a look at our Travel Guides page!


We want to know: Have you seen the Northern Lights in Iceland? What was your experience like? Did you try to photograph it? How did you pictures turn out?  Tell us in the comments!


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Seeing the Northern Lights in Iceland Everything You Need To Know by

6 thoughts on “Seeing The Northern Lights In Iceland: What You Need To Know

  1. Anonymous

    Sorry your photos did not turn out, but enjoying this phenomenon first hand was the thing to do! The science is as exciting as the electromagnetic waves created!

    • I heart Science! The Northern Lights are truly a spectacular phenomenon! If When we have the opportunity to see them again, I’m going to be better prepared (and practiced!) with my cameras!

  2. I love photography and I know how important it is to have the right equipment with you. I agree with you: if you don’t have the right camera with the right lense (anda tripod) then better just enjoy the moment. Don’t waste time and energy on the pics. Just be in the moment… 100%. You will buid better memories.

    • This is so true! In a world where everyone now carries a camera with them, I think moments get lost in the rush to attempt to capture them. Instead of enjoying it, the moment turns into documenting it.

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