How to see Northern Lights in Iceland

Northern Lights: How? Where? When? In our guide, you'll find everything you have to know about the Aurora to make your dream come true.

Northern Lights will leave you speechless – everyone should see them at least once in a life. The Aurora season is at its peak right now, and Iceland is one of the best places in the world to see them. There’s nothing to wait for. Let the hunt begin!

The Northern Lights, in other words Aurora Borealis, are a real Arctic wonder and there is no exaggeration in that. What’s more, Iceland is one of the best places in the world to observe them and definitely our favourite. Every time we have an opportunity to see it, we just can’t take our eyes off this magical spectacle. It’s impossible that you can be bored with this unique, marvellous view. Also, Icelanders confirm that; even those who have already seen it hundred times are still very excited. In fact, each Aurora is special.

What causes Northern Lights?

Now it’s time for a little reminder from geography and physics lessons. So what exactly causes this breathtaking phenomenon? A fundamental reason is the Sun. In short, because of explosions on the surface of the Sun so-called solar wind is emitted, a stream of protons and electrons of very high energy. When the solar wind reaches the electric field of Earth, some particles are dispersed, and the rest is attracted by magnetic poles. The particles get to the ionosphere close to magnetic poles, where they collide with the atoms, and in a result make them glow. At that moment we tilt our heads back and become hypnotised by dancing lights.

Best time to see Northern Lights

Happily those who want to see this fantastic light show have plenty of time. Northern Lights in Iceland start to appear at the end of Augustand can be observed until the end of April. It doesn’t mean that in other months the Sun is not active, nothing of that kind. In the summertime in Iceland it is completely bright at night (by the way this is also an interesting phenomenon – Midnight Sun). As you can see, the Northern Lights season lasts almost eight months. If you don’t like winter, you can visit Iceland in September or October. The chances of seeing the spectacle are the same as in the winter. We have been lucky enough to see amazing Northern Lights even at the end of August, many times.

What is needed to see the aurora?

  • high solar activity
  • clear sky
  • darkness (away from the cities and built-up areas; ideally, if the Moon is in a new moon phase, but it is not a necessary condition)

How to use Aurora forecast

How to use Aurora forecast?

We usually use the aurora forecast prepared by the Icelandic Meteorological Office. We can recommend you this forecast with a hand on the heart because it has never failed us. If you see this page for the first time, you can feel a little lost, but actually, it is really easy to use.

You can find the most important thing on the right side. On a scale from 0 to 9 expected activity of the aurora is shown. If there is at least 2, it’s a very good sign. The activity above 6 is so rare that it practically doesn’t exist (we’ve never seen anything from 7 to 9). An incredible, very strong aurora can be seen when the scale shows 4 or 5. Even at 3, you can count on a fantastic show. When the scale shows 1 or 2, then you might see the Northern Lights, but they won’t be very strong.

Of course the solar activity is not everything. Unfortunately, when the night is cloudy, don’t expect to see the Northern Lights. So now let’s look at the map, which shows us the clouds cover forecast. You should be interested in the white spots. When solar activity is at the level of 4, and you happen to be in a place that is marked on the map as white, then bingo! It’s almost like to win a lottery – well, don’t worry, the probability is much higher actually. Don’t forget to scroll the slide under the map to the right. Even when the sky is clear at the moment, it doesn’t mean that it will be so in an hour or two. If you see a light green spot, it’s still nothing to lose. Ideal conditions are when we have completely cloudless sky, but some small clouds won’t spoil you the show.

Have a look at our original Icelandic fine art prints!

What time to observe the sky?

The Northern Lights can be seen all night long, but they appear more often before midnight than before dawn. The show usually lasts from around a quarter to an hour or even longer. As the light spectacle disappears, it doesn’t mean that it’s over. Sometimes in an hour or two, you can count on a replay. Most of the time we have seen the Aurora between 10 p.m. and midnight. If you are staying in a hotel (of course the best option is a hotel located somewhere in the middle of nowhere, that’s because of lack of light pollution), then you can ask the staff to wake you up if the aurora appears. It’s not an unusual request. No one at the reception will be surprised; many tourists do it.

Usually Aurora starts very delicately with barely visible greenish or whitish glow. It is a sign that soon the spectacle will begin. Often after a few minutes, the Northern Lights begin to move like crazy in the sky. ‘Crazy’ is a very good word for this fascinating, flickering show. Frequently Aurora moves across the sky very quickly, it swirls and almost dances.

Northern Lights: How? Where? When? In our guide, you'll find everything you have to know about the Aurora to make your dream come true.

The Northern Lights are dancing above our tent just before midnight. It was crazy cold that night, but when only we noticed this miracle in the sky, we didn’t hesitate to leave our comfy and warm sleeping bags. You just have to experience it! Westfjords, September 2016.

Northern Lights hunting – how to dress, what to bring?

If you wonder what to wear in Iceland while searching for the Northern Lights, we’ve got just one piece of advice – dress warmly, very warmly. Even if it’s still September, you should remember that at night you can easily freeze to the bone. Sometimes you can wait for a long time until the Aurora appears, and it can dance in the sky for an hour or so. You’d better wear a lot of layers of clothing. Remember about a windproof jacket, gloves, scarf and cap. A torch or headlamp is very useful. And don’t forget about a thermos with hot tea, it will sweeten even the longest waiting time for the light show.

Best place to see Northern Lights

To find the best place to see the Northern Lights, you just have to go out of town (or any other built-up area). Just go somewhere, where there is no glow of lights – such places in Iceland are almost everywhere. Wherever you are, apart from Reykjavik, it usually takes just 5 minutes of driving to get into a perfect spot for observing the Aurora. If you want to capture the magical moment, when the Aurora appears in the sky, find some majestic fjord or other charming place.

You can enjoy this amazing phenomenon also in the centre of Reykjavík, but of course, the Northern Lights away from the city appear to be a lot stronger. And don’t count on great pictures in the city, the light pollution will spoil everything.

‘Northern Lights Tour’, to go or not to go?

In Iceland there are many tour operators, which offer ‘Northern Lights Tours’. Plenty of tourists think that these tour operators have some secret weapon to outwit the bad conditions and they know the places where the Aurora always appears. Well, none of these things. No one can be 100% sure as it comes to the Aurora activity. Whether you will see it or not is mostly a matter of luck. We usually like to organise everything on our own, but we have to admit that if someone comes to Iceland just for a weekend or a few days and is not planning to rent a car, it is a great and basically the only solution. Apart from that, local guides can safely navigate you to fantastic places, where there is no light pollution and Aurora looks its best. We don’t have to tell you that finding your way in the middle of the night in a foreign country is not the easiest task.

Don’t forget to check out the the second part of our guide, where you can find lots of tips about photographing Northern Lights. Whether you are just a typical snapshot shooter or a passionate photographer, we got you covered – our guide will teach you how to photograph Northern Lights, step by step. Capturing the Aurora is not so easy. Especially those who are just starting to be passionate about photography struggle a lot, but even more advanced photographers often have some problems with that. Happy hunting!

Northern Lights: How? Where? When? In our guide, you'll find everything you have to know about the Aurora to make your dream come true.

A tiny Icelandic church and Her Majesty – Aurora. What a show! Westfjords, September 2016.

Have you seen the Aurora yet? How was it? In our case, it surpassed our expectations – million times!

Comments (26)

Wow! stunning pictures! It’s a great guide for those wanting to travel to see and experience northern lights. It’s one of it’s kind of experience!

Oh gosh, I want to see the Northern Lights so badly! They can sometimes be seen in my hometown in Northern Michigan, but I have never been so lucky to catch them. I hear they can also be difficult to photograph by novice photographers. Any tips there??

We are working on an article about photographing the Northern Lights. The second part of our guide will be published in a few days. You will find there lots of tips.

Northern Lights will leave you speechless – everyone should see them at least once in a life.
I haven’t been to Iceland yet but this gives me the shivers to just go. Lovely post and good pictures.

Nice! Thanks for the tips, aurora forecast sounds particularly useful.

The Northern Lights are definitely something worth seeing at least once in your lifetime. I have luckily seen them many times as I live in Finland. These photos in the post are super gorgeous! I wouldn’t mind watching northern lights also in Iceland!

They look so beautiful! I would love to get to Iceland very soon to check out the Northern Lights, and now I know to consult the Aurora forecast tool (very helpful, thank you!) I’m really interested in photography, so I can’t wait to check out your next article on tips for photographing the Northern Lights!

Shane Prather

You are right – seeing the Northern lights is top of my Leap List! Such gorgeous glowing night photos. Thank you for the comprehensive guide!

Thank you Shane! 🙂

This is a brilliant guide and super useful travel planner. Unfortunately Northern Lights can be fickle companions, as I learnt on my recent trip to Finland. Came back without any sightings 🙁

This is by far the most informative site I have come across about the Northern Lights in Iceland. Really appreciate your efforts in sharing all the details. The forecast tool looks like an amazing way to know about the occurrence of the northern lights. How accurate is the forecast?

Thank you! 🙂 In our case the forecast has never let us down, but a forecast is always a forecast. So it’s better to check it a few hours before going for the hunt. Don’t rely on it a few days before.

This is a wonderful resource to know everything about the Northern Lights. Of immense value for people on the hunt for the Northern Lights. Thanks for breaking some of the myths and providing honest advice. Particularly interested about the advice regarding travel operators who offer Northern Lights Tours. Hope we are luck to see the Northern Lights when we get to Iceland.

Your post and pictures of Northern Lights have left me speechless. I so wanna go and observe them once in a lifetime. A great post to learn about Aurora phenomenon. I loved every information given in this post,

Thank you Suruchi, so nice to hear that! 🙂

Wow. Northern lights has been on my bucketlist for long now. And also Iceland. This guide is very informative. Hopefully I’ll get to experience this phenomenon in the near future 🙂

This is high on my list and hopefully, I will get to watch this Natural wonder soon. Such gorgeous photography and I would love to read the second part to find out your photography tips for capturing this.

Awesome! Bookmarked 🙂 I would love to go this year finally to see the Northern lights 🙂 Love all the info in this post! X

Looks like a must see natural phenomenon. It sounds like as long as you rent a car it is not too hard to see a good light show if conditions are good. I like the idea of waiting for the lights in a tent.

It’s been a dream of mine to see the Aurora but I have always put it aside because of the cold. I know that it’s a chase pretty much, as it doesn’t appear every night and you have to be prepared to spend some time until you can actually see it (unless you are very lucky of course). I would love to be in a place in the middle of nowhere, to fully be able to observe it without any light pollution.

I feel completely dazed just reading about the lights. Thanks for the scientific explanation.
Dreaming to visit some day. I was not aware we need to check out the forecasts on this, I always thought it is a natural phenomena occurring every night!

Thanks for such an informative guide. This is not only mine but a lot of other people’s dream to see Northern Lights at least once in a lifetime. Eagerly looking for the next part regarding photography.

Great post and great source of information. Northern lights are high on our list but we only knew that we need to go to Iceland in winter. This post has given a greater insight into the northern lights. Its good to know that there are chances for northern lights in Sep or oct too that is when we would like to visit too. And yes we were even confused if we had to go through tour operators but thanks to you we could manage things on our own. Gonna save and refer this post whenever we are able to make a trip to visit the “Her Majesty – Aurora” 🙂

As you say, hunting for the Northern lights can really be a cold story. Dressing warmly in the Nordic countries at night time during fall/winter/spring is usually a must. Sadly it is hard to combine the Northern Light with warm weather in these countries. Sunshine most of the night during summer really devastates that option. 🙂

Nice info about where to see the Northern lights and also stunning photographs

Thanks Joseph! 🙂

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