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How to See the Northern Lights in Iceland

Figure silhouetted by the northern lights in Iceland

Set just below the Arctic Circle, Iceland benefits from a northern location prime for viewing the colorful natural phenomenon that is the northern lights, or aurora borealis. To give you the best chance at spotting the elusive lights for yourself, we’ve gathered everything you need to know—from expert advice on what to pack right through to our pick of the best places to go.

Traveler beneath the northern lights on a tour from Reykjavik. Photo: Brian Fulda / Viator

Tips from a northern lights tour guide

Guðrún Dagmar Haraldsdóttir is a Gray Line guide who leads northern lights tours around Iceland. We asked her for her top tips on how you can maximize your likelihood of seeing the aurora borealis on your Iceland trip.

When to go

“To see the lights, you need a lot of darkness,” Haraldsdóttir says. But the darkest month of December—when Iceland sees as little as only four hours of daylight—isn’t necessarily the best time to go. (Editor's note: September to March is generally considered to be the prime time to see the Northern Lights in Iceland.) For the best chance at timing it right, Haraldsdóttir recommends following an online aurora forecast to see the intensity of upcoming aurora activity.

Expected weather conditions

The aurora arrives in Iceland during the coldest, darkest months of the year, but generally, the country doesn’t get as frigid as its name suggests. Winter temperatures hover around 32 degrees Fahrenheit (0 degrees Celsius), higher than those seen in other northern lights destinations like Alaska or Finland.

What to pack

“In Iceland, we never talk about bad weather—we talk about bad clothing,” Haraldsdóttir says. She recommends aurora hunters bring thermal underwear in addition to warm layers and outerwear. Think winter coat, snow pants and shoes, and thick hats, gloves, and socks. “A thin pair of gloves (merino wool or polyester) inside your thicker pair can be helpful when you’re taking pictures,” Haraldsdóttir adds.

How to take photos

  • “Taking photos with your flash won’t work—ever.”
  • “A tripod and a long exposure are your very best friends when taking pictures of the lights."
  • “Your camera needs to have manual settings ... and needs to be usable with a high ISO setting.”
  • “The lens needs to have a focus indicator because out-of-focus images won’t work in this situation.”
Guide gives travelers tips on how to take photos of the northern lights. Photo: Brian Fulda / Viator

Best places to see the northern lights in Iceland

You can see the northern lights from nearly anywhere in Iceland. Even in Reykjavik, where most travelers stay while in the country, there are elevated spots and easily accessible places that are nearby yet far away from the modest city lights. These are our top picks of where to go sky-gazing.

The northern lights just outside of Reykjavik, as spotted on a Gray Line tour. Photo: Brian Fulda / Viator

Reykjavik: Ideal for those short on time

How to go

  • Night cruises: The still waters of Faxaflói Bay make an ideal spot for aurora watching.
  • Coach tours from downtown: Led by experienced aurora-hunter guides, tours visit nearby spots where you’re most likely to witness the aurora, depending on the evening’s conditions.
  • Independently by rental car: Both Grótta and Öskjuhlið are within a short driving distance of downtown—and you can keep warm in the car while you wait.

Where to go from Reykjavik

  • Just three miles (five kilometers) from downtown Reykjavik, Grótta is a nature reserve known for its lighthouse, birdlife, and dark skies.
  • One of Reykjavik’s highest points and home to the glass-domed Pearl (Perlan) landmark, Öskjuhlíð Hill is a quiet woodland offering excellent visibility in all directions. If you don’t have any luck with the night sky, visit the Pearl planetarium before 9pm for a simulated aurora viewing.

Things to do when you aren’t chasing the aurora

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Goðafoss waterfall, a 30-minute drive from Akureyri, is a popular aurora-viewing spot. Photo: Marc Marchal / Unsplash

Akureyri: Ideal for return visitors to Iceland

How to go

  • Jeep tours: Traveling by 4x4 vehicle, a driver guide takes you deep into the wilderness and to nearby waterfalls, craters, and lakes.
  • Coach tours: In the company of an experienced aurora hunter, you’ll maximize your chances of spotting the sometimes elusive lights with the added bonus of round-trip transport in and out of the city.
  • Independently by rental car: Several ideal aurora locations are within an easy driving distance of Akureyri—and you can plan your own itinerary. Pro tip: Always check your route before departing—road conditions can be poor, and some roads may even be closed, during the winter.
  • Night cruises: By getting out on the water, you’ll avoid the light pollution of the city streets.

Where to go from Akureyri

  • About eight miles (13 kilometers) outside Akureyri, Gásir is an old medieval trading site far enough from town to be away from the light pollution but still easily accessible.
  • A 35-minute drive from Akureyri, heading for the lake at Ljósavatn truly gets you out into nature and well away from the lights of the city.

Things to do when you aren’t chasing the aurora

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The northern lights as seen from the black sands of Reynisfjara Beach. Photo: Chris Ried / Unsplash

Vik: Ideal for nature lovers

How to go

  • Coach tours: On a full-day South Coast tour, you can see some of Iceland’s top natural landmarks, including Seljalandsfoss waterfall and Sólheimajökull Glacier, all before hunting the lights at nightfall.
  • Independently on foot: If you’re staying in town, it’s just a stroll down to Reynisfjara Beach.
  • Super Jeep tours: Head off road on a guided adventure in a sturdy Super Jeep to catch the northern lights away from the crowds.

Where to go from Vik

  • Vík’s black-sand Reynisfjara Beach provides a dramatic foreground to the northern lights.
  • The Westman Islands (Vestmannaeyjar), set off the mainland’s south coast, are well placed and free of light pollution. If traveling independently, plan your trip around the ferry schedule to make sure you're able to get back to the mainland after your aurora hunt.

Things to do when you aren’t chasing the aurora

  • Saddle up a surefooted Icelandic horse and ride across the black-sand beach for views of the Reynisdrangar sea stacks.
  • Walk across pure ice on a guided Sólheimajökull Glacier hike.
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The vast sky above UNESCO-listed Thingvellir National Park lit up with the aurora. Photo: Kym Ellis / Unsplash

Thingvellir National Park: Ideal for adventure seekers

How to go

  • Super Jeep tours: Super Jeeps can navigate Iceland's off-road trails, cross rivers, and wind up narrow mountain roads to reach remote areas around the park.
  • Independently on foot: Hike through the geothermal area and find a remote spot to watch the lights.
  • Coach tours: Choose a combo tour to explore the Golden Circle (Gullni Hringurinn) by day and night.

Where to go from Thingvellir

  • The park’s landscape of lava rock and moss make a great foreground for photographing the lights.
  • Set on a volcano, Nesjavallir and the Hengill Geothermal Area have many hiking trails, dramatic views, and bubbling hot springs (for the most part the springs are too hot to bathe in, but they let off warm steam).

Things to do when you aren’t chasing the aurora

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See all Iceland tours
1,136 tours & tickets
Things to do in Reykjavik
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Where to Find the Best Views in Reykjavik
Where to Find the Best Views in Reykjavik