Essential Tips for Chasing the Magical Iceland Northern Lights

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iceland northern lights above black church on the Snæfellsnes Peninsula .
Northern Lights on the Snæfellsnes Peninsula. Photo credit: Shutterstock

Seeing the elusive natural phenomenon of the aurora borealis ranks at the top of the bucket list for many adventurous travelers. While sightings are possible outside northern territories, your best chance of seeing this colorful display in the night sky exists close to or above the Arctic Circle in places like Alaska, Norway, Sweden and, of course, Iceland. While you can never be guaranteed a showing of the aurora borealis, these tips will hopefully aid you in your quest to see the Iceland northern lights.

The Science and Story of the Aurora Borealis

Named for Aurora, the Roman goddess of dawn and Boreas, the Greek word for the north wind, the aurora borealis stems from solar activity producing brilliant shades of green and purple across clear skies. Typically referred to as the Northern Lights, this natural phenomenon occurs when solar wind particles interact with the Earth’s magnetic field.

While aurora activity is constant, the light show we all crave requires specific weather conditions, minimum light pollution, clear skies and the absence of cloud cover to dance across the Icelandic winter sky.

Best Time to See the Iceland Northern Lights

In Iceland, the northern lights season typically starts in September and runs through April. That’s the best time to visit Iceland to see the northern lights. Although the northern lights remain active throughout the year, dark nights are necessary to capture a glimpse of this colorful display. That’s why – although the charged particles are active in summer months – the midnight sun hides the action.

A true perk of the cold Icelandic winter months, sightings of this stunning natural phenomenon are more likely in remote areas away from the light pollution often found in cities.

iceland northern lights over hotel ranga
Northern Lights over Hotel Ranga on Iceland’s South Coast. Photo credit: Hotel Ranga

Tips for Sighting the Iceland Northern Lights

When you’re on the hunt for the Iceland northern lights, plan to visit Iceland in the winter months when long dark nights are more likely to unveil this bucket list show. First, you’ll want to check the weather forecast because cloud cover is not your friend. The Icelandic Met Office website provides updates on weather conditions, cloud coverage and aurora activity. Also, a northern lights forecast is available on the website auroraforecast.is. The northern lights are said to be most active around the equinoxes in September and March. However, winter nights are longer.

This natural phenomenon unfortunately doesn’t care what time you go to bed and can occur in the wee hours of the night. As a result, many hotels offer northern lights wake-up service for guests. At Hotel Ranga on the south coast of Iceland, your northern lights sightings are enhanced by an onsite high-powered telescope – a treat definitely worth waking up for.

Northern Lights Hunting in Reykjavik

If venturing to more remote areas isn’t possible when you visit Iceland, you still have a chance to see the northern lights in the capital city of Reykjavik. The key is to find the darkest place possible. Parks with minimal light pollution maximize your chances of northern lights sightings. One to consider, the Seltjarnarnes Peninsula, is Reykjavik’s northwesternmost point and features minimal light pollution and the picturesque Grotta Lighthouse. Armed with a favorable weather forecast and clear skies, your chances are good.

With thick trees to block the city lights, Öskjuhulíð, a forested hill just five minutes from Reykjavik’s center, provides an excellent place to experience the northern lights. While you’re there, check out Perlan, the building that sits atop hot water tanks at the top of the hill. Perlan features a rotating restaurant with 360-degree views of the city – an ideal place to go while you wait for your northern lights show.

Northern lights iceland, during winter skies over icy terrain
Winter Skies and Northern Lights. Photo credit: Hotel Ranga

Hot Springs and Northern Lights at the Blue Lagoon

Many people visit Iceland with a focused goal of experiencing the Blue Lagoon. Located 45 minutes outside of Reykjavik on the Reykjanes Peninsula, the city lights fade away making the Blue Lagoon a wonderful place to experience the Iceland northern lights. As you relax in the hot springs with a mineral mask applied to your face and a cocktail from the swim-up bar in hand, you’re all set to experience the natural phenomenon of the aurora borealis!

Northern Lights Hunting on the South Coast

Iceland’s South Coast provides a wealth of places to catch a glimpse of the northern lights in the night sky. Black sand beaches free from light pollution set the scene for a remarkable viewing experience. Another excellent place to blend natural wonders with the natural phenomenon of the aurora borealis is Jokulsarlon glacier lagoon beside the Vatnajokull glacier. The blue waters dotted with glacial icebergs add to the colorful dancing lights in the night sky.

Iceland Northern Lights on the Golden Circle

As one of the country’s most popular tourist destinations, the Golden Circle boasts majestic waterfalls, a geothermal region with active geysers and an abundance of history. Part of the Golden Circle, the wide open skies across the Thingvellir National Park provide ample opportunities for northern lights sightings away from the city lights.

Iceland northern lights over Kirkufell on the Snæfellsnes Peninsula.
Northern Lights over Kirkufell on the Snæfellsnes Peninsula. Photo credit: Shutterstock

Northern Lights Hunting on Snæfellsnes Peninsula

Home to extensive lava fields, waterfalls and Kirkjufell Mountain – Iceland’s most-photographed mountain – the Snæfellsnes Peninsula is beautiful in any season. Combine that beauty with the solar activity when the aurora borealis appears for the ultimate check on your bucket list. A favorite among photographers, the Kirkjufell mountain and waterfalls are worth showing up for early. During winter months when the aurora forecasts are favorable, the lights may appear anytime between 7 pm and 6 am.

Chase the Northern Lights on a Self-Drive Tour

To enjoy the freedom of chasing the northern lights on your, consider a self-drive tour. While winter weather may impact roads in the northernmost regions of Iceland, the south coast, the Golden Circle and Snæfellsnes Peninsula are manageable.

Book a Guided Tour to Chase the Iceland Northern Lights

Of course, there’s something to be said for taking a small group tour where expert guides take care of tracing the aurora activity, driving in winter weather and finding the best places for sighting the Iceland northern lights so that you can add a big check to that bucket list!

Woman holding her arms up and smiling underneath the northern lights.
The author checking the Northern Lights off of her bucket list! Photo credit: Terri Marshall
Based in New York City, Terri Marshall is an award-winning writer covering cultural travel, multi-generational travel, road trips, soft-adventure, camping, cars and characters. From hanging out with penguins in Antarctica to fishing for piranhas in Peru to road-tripping through the jungles of Belize, Terri’s always up for an adventure. Drop her into a landscape filled with mountains, towering evergreens, waterfalls and a glacier or two and she’ll be in heaven. But what thrills her most of all is traveling with her teenage grandkids. Terri serves on the Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Accessibility Committee for the North American Travel Journalist Association (NATJA). She also serves as the First Vice-Chair of the Eastern Chapter for the Society of American Travel Writers (SATW). In addition to writing for SheBuysTravel, Terri’s publication credits include AARP, Island Soul, Girl Camper Magazine, A Girls Guide to Cars, CHILLED, World Footprints, North Hills Monthly, Alaska Business Monthly, Alaska Contractor and more. Follow her on Instagram at TrippingWithTerri.
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