Welcome to our complete guide on where to see the Northern Lights in Iceland! After spending a week exploring the country in the depths of winter, we were lucky enough to see the elusive aurora borealis (also known as the Northern Lights) twice during our stay. We were somewhat overloaded with information whilst researching the best way to see the Northern Lights online, so we thought we’d summarise everything into one guide to make your life easier.
There are some key considerations and ways to read the weather forecast when learning where to see the Northern Lights in Iceland. Read on for our top tips, forecast instructions and everything else you need to know.
If you’re lucky enough to see the aurora, be sure to send us your photos! We’d love to see them. 😊
What are the northern lights and why are they so popular in Iceland?
The Northern Lights, scientifically known as the aurora borealis, are an atmospheric phenomenon that create a light show of green waves of light in the sky. The visual effect is created as energised particles of light from the sun rapidly slam into Earth’s upper atmosphere, hitting Earth’s magnetic field. They’ve been given their ‘Northern Lights’ name as they’re typically visible in the Earth’s northern hemisphere, often around the Arctic circle.
Iceland has quickly become one of the best places on the planet to see this cool light display. The aurora is so prominent here due to the country’s northern hemisphere location. Couple that with unique Icelandic scenery and you have the perfect setting. Some people visit the country solely for the chance of seeing this amazing phenomenon!
The best time of the year to visit Iceland for the Northern Lights
Whilst you can see the Northern Lights at any time of the year, the winter months guarantee you the best chances of witnessing the aurora. Visit between September and April and you might see this evening sky spectacle. February is known to be the best time of the year to see the Northern Lights in Iceland, so if it’s high up on your must-see list, there is no better month. Whilst it’s possible to see them in the summer months, it’s quite rare due to the lighter night skies.
The best conditions to see the Northern Lights
To see the Northern Lights in their full glory, there are certain weather conditions that must be met. These include:
High solar activity – there’s a scale known as the KP-index that measures solar activity on any given evening. It measures between 0 and 9, with 0 being the lowest level of solar activity. 2-3 is the most common level in Iceland in the winter months, but it can sometimes soar to 6 or 7 if there’s an intense solar storm (if you’re very lucky). This is where spectacular evening light shows are in effect!
Expect an average solar activity of 2 – 5 throughout a winter visit. You really need a minimum aurora activity level of 3 for a chance to see the Northern Lights.
You can view the current aurora HP-index for tonight on the Icelandic weather website here. We recommend checking this every evening during your visit as it can change quickly. The forecast is most accurate after 6pm on an evening.
Low cloud cover – To see the Northern Lights in the sky, you need clear skies, or at least partially clear skies. Even the strongest of solar storms are hidden by cloud. What makes this challenging is the fact that winter in Iceland is the best time to see the Northern Lights, but it also has the cloudiest and most adverse weather conditions.
Monitoring cloud cover in the sky for your area is another essential step in reading the aurora forecast. You can use this to determine your chance of seeing the Northern Lights each evening.
To check cloud cover for the area you’re staying, visit this page on the Icelandic weather website early in the evening.
To read the map, look for white sections in the area you’re staying/visiting. Low and medium cloud cover is represented with a green colour, so if your area is covered in green, you have a very low chance of seeing the aurora.
Clear or partially clear skies (shown as white on the map) tells you that you have a good visibility, thus a good chance of seeing the aurora.
Dark skies – The third consideration for seeing the Northern Lights in Iceland is dark skies. This is why winter is such a good time to see the aurora; the skies are darker than the summer months. To maximise your visibility and chance of dark skies, you need to head outside after 10pm on an evening (although it’s still possible to see the aurora earlier). Between 10pm – 12am is perfect!
Another consideration for dark skies is light pollution. If staying in a densely populated city such as Reykjavik, there’s a very slim chance you’ll see the aurora. You’ll need to head out to the countryside for darker skies, where there’s less light pollution. Alternatively, visit a less light-polluted area of the city, such as Grotta Lighthouse if staying in Reykjavik. More on that below!
If you monitor the above factors during your stay, you’ll maximise your chance of seeing the aurora.
Should you book a Northern Lights tour?
Northern Lights tours are evening guided tours that take you out into the wilderness for a chance to see the aurora. There are various companies throughout Iceland that organise tours, and they’re mostly based out of Reykjavik.
As the Northern Lights are in the sky and free for anyone to see, you don’t need a tour to see the aurora, but it can make your life easier. You won’t have to read the weather forecast or search yourself. You simply board a tour bus or boat and the experts will take you to the best locations.
We personally recommend Northern Lights tours for those that don’t plan on hiring a car in Iceland. If you do have a car, you can drive to a good location yourself and save on tour costs.
Pro-tip: Book a Northern Lights tour that gives you a free ‘second chance’ tour. They’ll take you on another evening tour if you weren’t able to see the aurora during your first attempt.
Northern Lights tour recommendations:
Where to see the Northern Lights in Iceland:
Taking into account the above considerations of less light pollution away from the city, here are some great places to see the Northern Lights in Iceland. Remember, it also heavily depends on low and medium cloud cover in your area, plus the aurora KP-index.
- Grotta Lighthouse, Reykjavik – The best place to see the Northern Lights if staying in Reykjavik. The lighthouse is only a 10-minute drive from the city centre.
- Thingvellir National Park – a 1 hour drive from Reykjavik, this spectacular national park is a great place to see the Northern Lights amongst nature.
- Reynisfjara Black Sand Beach, Vik – The dramatic basalt cliffs and long stretches of black sand on Iceland’s south coast set a cool scene for evening aurora shows.
- Jökulsárlón / Diamond Beach – Also on the south coast, the glacial lake and ice covered beach of Jökulsárlón will set a scene like no other for your aurora viewing experience.
- Goðafoss – One of Iceland’s best waterfalls. The northern orientation of Goðafoss ensures amazing Northern Lights views reflected on the falls below.
The above is just a small selection of popular places to see the Northern Lights in Iceland. You can see them practically anywhere if the conditions are right! There’s nothing better than driving out into the wilderness and finding a quiet place to enjoy the spectacular light show without any tourists in sight. Simply check the area for cloud cover on the map beforehand and aim for a KP-index of 3+.
A step-by-step guide to seeing the Northern Lights in Iceland
To summarise everything we’ve mentioned, we’ve listed simple steps to follow to increase your chance of seeing the Northern Lights in Iceland.
Every evening, look at the following around 6pm:
- Check the current aurora KP-index level for the area you’re planning to see the Northern Lights. Visit the Icelandic aurora forecast website here to do this. If the KP-index is 3 or above, proceed to the next step. If 2 or less, abort mission and check again the next evening.
- Check the coverage of low and medium clouds on the Iceland weather page here. Look for at least partially clear skies, highlighted in white on the map. If your entire area is covered in green low and medium cloud cover, abort mission and check again the next evening.
- If both of the above steps are looking good, congratulations, you might just see the Northern Lights this evening!
- The final step is to head out to the countryside (if you’re not already staying outside of a town). Choose a place that looks to have the best aurora conditions on the cloud cover map, or a recommend destination on our list above.
How to take cool photos of the Northern Lights
The amazing photos you see of the Northern Lights are often long exposures. Therefore, sometimes people are a little underwhelmed when seeing them with their own eyes for the first time. Whilst still very cool, they don’t appear as bright as they do in photos. To take great photos and get the same amazing effects as those shown on social media, keep the following in mind:
- Use the ‘night mode’ on your mobile phone camera if you have the feature. This will allow more light into the lens and produce cool results.
- Set your ISO to a high level and use a slow shutter speed (15-30 seconds) if using a professional camera.
- For videos, use the timelapse feature on your camera. This is popular on GoPro’s and many mobile phones.
- Angle your shot to include a nice land feature such as a town, lighthouse, mountain or beach. Two thirds of your shot should then be angled toward the sky.
- Use a tripod.
- The Northern Lights appear in bursts and can be surprisingly quick. Have your camera switched on and ready to capture.
- Play around with your camera settings for the best results.
- Ensure your phone/camera is fully charged and bring along extra batteries.
Our top tips for seeing the Northern Lights in Iceland
- Visit Iceland for a longer period of time. Staying for 6 days instead of 3 days doubles your chance of seeing the aurora. Even better if you visit for longer!
- Stay outside of the towns and city, way out in the countryside. There’s less light pollution, which means darker skies and higher visibility.
- Consider booking accommodation in more rural areas of Iceland. There are some amazing lodges and guesthouses outside of towns. This means that you’ll already be in a good place to see the aurora and won’t have to travel away from a town late on an evening. Simply step outside.
- Visit during the winter months of September – April. We personally love Iceland in February. It’s the best month to see the Northern Lights and it has an enchanting snowy façade.
- Bookmark the Northern Lights forecast websites on your phone for easy access.
- Plan your Northern Lights adventure early evening. You may have to drive a little further away for a spot with good visibility.
- Pack plenty of warm clothing, snacks and drinks for your evening of aurora sightseeing. It can be very cold as you wait patiently for the sky to light up.
- Start searching for the Northern Lights on the first night of your trip. If you leave it until later, you’ll have less chance of seeing them before you return home.
That wraps up our complete guide on where to see the Northern Lights in Iceland. We wish you the best of luck seeing this impressive phenomenon! If you stick to the tips and follow the forecast websites featured in our guide, we’re confident you’ll get a glimpse of this elusive evening light show. We highly recommend standing outside to see if you can see them each evening during your visit. Each night provides different colours, patterns and intensity of aurora borealis.
Were you lucky enough to see the Northern Lights? Send us your pictures on social media. We’d love to see them! 😊
Check out our other Iceland travel guide below:
By RickyAuthor bio:
An adventurer at heart that loves anything outdoors. Beaches, mountains and amazing scenery is everything I love about travel! I also enjoy home comforts and need a nice place to relax and re-charge after every trip.