The Best Time To See The Northern Lights In Iceland
The northern lights are one of the biggest draws to visiting Iceland, however they are also one of the most elusive and unpredictable attractions this country has. Although it would be great to easily pinpoint a how to see them, there are a lot of variables to consider for seeing them: season, weather, length of stay, location and luck. Of course, there are lots of fantastic things to do in Iceland and it’s always best to think of seeing the northern lights as an added bonus. So e.g. plan your trip with unique experience like The Aurora Bubble. You will come back happy even if you did not see any northern lights dance. Hopefully this article will answer all your questions about the best time to see the northern lights in Iceland!
What Are The Northern Lights?
First, a little bit of background on them. The northern lights are the result of electrically charged particles from the sun colliding with gaseous particles in the Earth’s atmosphere, causing displays of bright, colourful dancing lights. They are visible in the magnetic polar regions of the northern and southern hemispheres (they are known as Aurora australis in the south) and they can range in colour from white, green, pink and purple.
According to the Northern Lights Centre in Canada, scientific studies have found that the northern and southern Auroras often occur at the same time as mirror images. This of course means that the Auroras are often happening, even if they aren’t visible to us down on the ground. In the northern hemisphere, the lights are best seen from Iceland, Greenland, northern Norway, Siberia, the Canadian territories and Alaska. Thanks to the latitude of the North American continent in relation to the magnetic pole, the lights have been seen as far south as New Orleans! This is a rare and remarkable thing, though. Here in Iceland, seeing the northern lights is most certainly annual and regular, although still rather unpredictable.
The Best Time To See The Northern Lights In Iceland
Guaranteed darkness is the first important factor. The best season to see the northern lights in Iceland is from September to mid-April – these are the months where there are full dark nights. Some sources will recommend November to February, as they are the darkest months with the longest possible window to see the lights, however these sources often fail to take into account that these months can have the worst weather with lots of rain and snow. It is also not unheard of to see the lights as early as mid-August, once the final traces of the midnight sun summer are gone.
Second most important factor is the length of time you choose to stay in Iceland. To get the best odds of seeing the lights, it is recommended you stay a minimum of seven nights in the country. The northern lights usually tend to be very active for two to three nights, then low for four to five nights, in ongoing cycles. Naturally, not everyone can take long trips here and Iceland is a renowned stopover destination, but if the northern lights are on your bucket list we highly recommend you make sure you can take a good long trip here. Given that the factors for viewing them have to all be aligned, the longer time you spend in the country, the higher your chances are of seeing them.
Next important factor is the weather. Since Iceland is a small north Atlantic island, it is subject to fierce and rapidly changing weather. The old cliché “if you don’t like the weather, wait five minutes” could not be truer of this country. In order to see the northern lights, the skies need to be very clear. This often coincides with some of our coldest nights, since clear dark weather in Iceland usually means temperatures below freezing. On warmer nights, there is usually precipitation or at least quite a bit of cloud coverage.
Checking the weather forecast regularly in the days leading to your trip to Iceland will give you an idea of your chances for seeing the lights. Services like the Aurora forecast from the Icelandic Meteorological Office and the Aurora Prediction Page are very useful for hedging your bets. Look for the white parts on the forecast map which indicate the clarity of the sky, then compare whether there are low, moderate or high predictions in those regions. It is very important to check the conditions regularly, especially if you’re doing a self-drive.
As the old saying goes, location location location! Once in a while the northern lights will take Reykjavík by surprise and they are so strong that the city lights don’t matter, but most of the time, it’s best to get away from all the street lights and car brights. Taking your visit out of the capital and into the countryside further increases your chances of catching them. There are many great small towns to visit around the country with beautiful country hotels and guesthouses, just steps from pure un-modernized nature where there is no light pollution.
Our favorite countryside hotels are three. The first is Hotel Gullfoss, on the Golden Circle, not necessarily because it is on the popular circle, next to Gullfoss waterfall, but more because it gets so insanely pitch dark there. In one of the comments on Tripadvisor a client wrote: “I just walked outside of the hotel, just few meters and it was simply pitch dark. So pitch dark I could not find myself.” To be in a complete darkness is just an interesting experience by itself. The other two excellent options are Hotel Borealis (only a hour drive from Reykjavik – very quite and relaxing).
Some towns out in the countryside to consider (you need to rent a car then and maybe drive on icy roads) are Vík and Höfn in the south, Seyðisfjörður in the east, Dalvik Akureyri and Grímsey in the north, Ísafjörður in the westfjords, and Stykkishólmur in the west.
Guided Tours vs. Self-Driving
One big question many people have is whether to go on guided tours or to self-drive around to find the lights. Both of these options have their pros and cons and some people end up doing a combination of both. Guided tours have the advantage of being led by expert guides and drivers who closely follow the forecasts and have a keen knowledge of the road conditions and terrain. Our recommendation goes to the The Aurora Floating tours floating tour operator for their unique experience. Of course, guided tours can place some constraints for certain travellers and can be subject to change based on unpredictable conditions. Other great options are northern lights tours having e.g. stargazing included if no aurora is dancing. Check out this tour from Happy World.
A self-drive can be a really good option, but only if the driver(s) is very familiar with difficult winter roads. Our roads can be icy and snowy as soon as September hits, so it’s very important for drivers to be experienced and comfortable in all weather conditions. It is also very important to follow road regulations and safety precautions given by your rental company and the Icelandic Association for Search and Rescue. Provided you are comfortable with this, building your own driving itinerary to go hunt down the lights can be a very rich and rewarding adventure for your private memories. You will have a lot more freedom to hit the road on a whim if you see that the weather conditions are good near you and take on all the activities and sightseeing you want at your own leisure. Of course, you have to be willing to do a lot more research on your own and be diligent to watch the skies closely.
Hunting the lights, being it a guided tour or a self-drive is great, but recently the whale watching companies in Reykjavik have start offering a northern lights hunt on a boat. The advantages with this is that you don’t need to drive outside of Reykjavik, you can just walk down to the harbor and get on a boat. They will then sail outside of the light pollution. We recommend the northern lights tour from Reykjavik Sailors.
If you plan to spend a considerable length of time here, combining both guided tours and self-driving can be a really excellent option. You can stick to the easier routes on your own as you self-drive and have the same freedom to explore at your pace, but you can also treat yourself to a fun-filled adventure led by an expert guide. There are many tours that go to absolutely stunning locations to hunt for the lights, like the Jökulsárlón glacial lagoon or snowmobiling onto a glacier. Lately sleeping in a view through bubble while seeing the aurora dance for you has become popular. You even listen to Sigur Ros in their underwater speakers! What is great with this type of a tour is that you come back happy and relaxed even if you don’t see the aurora that night. Now that’s really something to Tweet about!
One other important thing to consider when coming to see the lights is bringing the appropriate attire. Remember: it will be winter! The key to dressing warmly in Iceland is lots of layers of natural fibre clothing – long underwear, cotton and wool socks, form fitting shirts and pants, topped off with insulated wind-and-waterproof outerwear. If you plan on spending any amount of time outdoors, this will be crucial for keeping you heated inside and out. And don’t forget a good hat, scarf and pair of mits! If you forget anything though, don’t worry. Reykjavík’s main shopping street Laugavegur has many great stores you can buy locally designed outergear.
Other Things To Do In Iceland
All this being said, it’s really crucial to plan your trip around other activities and sights besides the northern lights. There are so many wonderful things to do in Iceland and with the Auroras being as fickle as they are, it would be a shame to not make the most of a visit here because the lights didn’t turn up. Take in some of the country’s most famous sights on the Golden Circle tour. Easily done by guided tour or self-drive at all times of the year, you’ll see the Gullfoss waterfall, the original and eponymous Geysir, and the continental rift at Þingvellir national park, site of Iceland’s original parliament. Another great and relaxed tour is the South Coast Adventure, comprising the Seljalandsfoss and Skógarfoss waterfalls, the Reynisfjara black sand beach with its basalt column wall, and the magical town of Vík. For a longer drive along the south coast, continue on to see the Jökulsárlón glacial lagoon, where icebergs that break off of the great Vatnajökull glacier float into the sea.
There is also a lot to see and do in the capital city of Reykjavík. Make sure to visit the Reykjavík Art Museum, a network of three separate centres housing a vast array of styles and eras of classic and modern art, each one dedicated to a famous Icelandic artist. The National Museum of Iceland displays a fantastic permanent collection that beautifully transports you through the history of the country from the time of settlement until present day. It also holds many temporary exhibits ranging from textile art to archeological reconstructions. You can also indulge yourself with local cuisine, going to any number of marvellous restaurants specializing in our best produce – lamb, lobster and fish.
Then there is of course the city’s famous nightlife and bar scene that is not to be missed on weekends. The city goes from a quiet fishing town to an all-out rager on Friday and Saturday nights, and there are dozens of bars in the downtown area to suit every taste and fancy. Take in a bit of everything and you are sure to have a fabulous stay in this country, northern lights or no northern lights.
This about completes the guide to seeing the northern lights in Iceland. Remember the factors: darkness, a week-long stay, good clear weather, picking your location and planning your itinerary. With all these taken into account, hopefully you will look up and be dazzled by the beautiful dancing lights. And if they don’t show themselves, you will still have had a great adventure in Iceland!