The Northern Lights are one of the biggest draws of visiting Iceland in winter. In all honesty, Iceland is also one of the biggest gambles when it comes to selecting Northern Lights holidays because of the island nation’s notoriously unpredictable weather. While there are statistically better chances to see the Aurora other places, Iceland is worth the gamble. The jaw-dropping gorgeous landscapes and variety of things to do for adventure seekers like us undoubtedly make it our favorite country on the planet. So roll the dice, because when the Northern Lights do come out to dance there’s just not a prettier place on Earth to watch the show from. That’s why we put together this complete guide to how to see the Northern Lights in Iceland to help you plan your Northern Lights trip.
Best Time to Visit Iceland for Northern Lights
The first step in planning trips to see the Northern Lights is knowing when and where to see the Northern Lights. In Iceland, Northern Lights season is anytime from the end of August through mid April. The sky has to be dark enough for the Aurora to be visible, and though the Aurora actually occurs all year round, the long hours of daylight and Midnight Sun period from April through August make it impossible to see the Northern Lights during these months. That’s why the best time to see Northern Lights in Iceland is from the end of August through mid April – it’s the only time period that the sky is dark enough that you can witness this natural phenomenon.
When it comes to the best month for Northern Lights in Iceland, there’s not a specific answer. All the right conditions have to come together in order to put on the greatest light show on Earth. The sky needs to be dark and clear, and solar storms have to be active enough to produce the collision of solar particles and gas atoms inside of the Earth’s atmosphere. No matter which month you choose to visit, know that fall and winter are the best time of year to see Northern Lights in Iceland because it’s the only time of year to see Northern Lights in Iceland.
We personally love September and recommend it as the best month to see Northern Lights in Iceland. The high temperature in September is a very comfortable average of 52°F (11°C) and lows of 43°F (6°C). Iceland averages around 3 inches (76mm) of rain in September and half of that in North Iceland, where it’s drier and more stable. There’s also an average of 13 hours of daylight in Iceland in September, so the days are still long enough that you can see a plethora of things but the nights are long enough and dark enough that the Northern Lights are often seen.
It’s also well known that the Northern Lights are stronger and frequent around the time of the autumn equinox, which occurs between between September 21 and September 24 every year. That’s because around the autumn equinox, the Earth’s tilt makes us perpendicular to the sun. We won’t get in to all the scientific geometry of this, but basically the angle of the Earth’s tilt during this period makes it easier for the solar winds and charged particles that cause the Northern Lights to occur to get caught in Earth’s magnetic field. It still doesn’t guarantee you’ll see the Aurora Borealis, but the chances are scientifically stronger during the autumn equinox.
December and January are the months that Iceland receives the most precipitation. It’s doesn’t mean you won’t see Northern Lights, but we wouldn’t say these months are the best time to see Aurora Borealis in Iceland. Again, the north experiences a much colder winter than the south and west making the weather a lot more stable. Less precipitation, actually nearly half as much precipitation, falls in the north as in Reykjavik.
Top 3 Places for Where to See Northern Lights in Iceland
Your chances of seeing the Aurora are highest when you know the best place to see Northern Lights in Iceland. For such a small country, Iceland does have micro-climates within it. And these little pockets are essential to increasing your chances of seeing Northern Lights in Iceland, since the only predictable thing about the weather in Iceland is that it is 100% unpredictable.
Myvatn: Dramatic Landscapes
The North of Iceland experiences colder temperatures than the South Coast, due to the Gulf Stream. That means that the weather is more stable and predictable in the North than the South. That also means that the North is an excellent place for Northern Lights viewing.
You want to avoid staying in Akureyri since it is the second largest urban area in Iceland just behind Reykjavik, and the capital of the North. Myvatn, however, is the perfect small village with plenty to do and keep you busy when you’re not hunting for the Northern Lights.
South Coast: Waterfalls and Glacier Lagoons
While the South Coast experiences the most unpredictable weather of anywhere in Iceland, Icelanders always joke to just wait 15 minutes for something different. You can experience high wind, sunshine, rain and even snow all in the same day. The clouds tend to be fast moving, making Northern Lights viewing more challenging.
But when the Northern Lights do come out to dance, there’s hardly a more spectacular place to see them on the planet. Glacier lagoons with floating icebergs illuminated in green under a curtain of the Aurora Borealis and an eerie plane crash with green billowing up like flames from a camp fire make for some of the most wow-inducing shots of this natural phenomenon.
The Westfjords are the least populated and also the least visited part of Iceland. While winter tours are available, winter tourism is not a busy time in this part of Iceland due to the complete unpredictability of the winter weather in the Westfjords. High winds can delay flights for days at a time, so the best way to reach the Westfjords is with 4×4 vehicle and plenty of time allotted for travel. Just avoid planning travel to or from the Westfjords in winter on Saturdays; that’s the only day of the week that the snow plows do not clear the roads and Route 61 is the only road in or out of the Northern Westfjords.
All that said, the Westfjords offer some of the most dramatic landscapes and best Northern Lights viewing on the island. The small population means there is almost no light pollution and the Northern Lights are easily spotted just by stepping out the door of your guest house. We recommend planning a Westfjords Northern Lights trip to in September or early October to avoid the potential winter weather delays.
Best Hotels To See the Northern Lights Right Out Your Door
Your absolute best chances of seeing the Northern Lights in Iceland is to book a hotel or guesthouse away from the light pollution of the cities. Some hotels offer a Northern Lights wake-up call upon request, and others are just a fantastic location where you can keep watch simply by popping your head outside to have a look for the dancing Aurora Borealis.
We’ve researched and these are the best hotels in Iceland for seeing the Northern Lights right outside of your door:
Hotel Ranga: Hella, South Coast
Hotel Ranga is easily accessible set just off of Iceland’s Route 1, which circles the entire island nation. But located 8 kilometers outside Hella, the luxury hotel is far away from any light pollution. It’s situated on a salmon river and just a few minutes drive from Seljalandsfoss, Iceland’s famous waterfall that you can walk behind.
Aside from the fantastic location, Hotel Ranga is one of the top spots to observe the Northern Lights in all of Iceland. It’s not so much the location, since the only predictable thing about weather on the South Coast is that it is unpredictable. However, Hotel Ranga employs a night watchman who’s sole job function is to keep lookout for the Aurora. You can check off your room number at the front desk nightly for a Northern Lights wake-up call. They’ll even find you if you’re in the dining room or relaxing around the hotel, as the staff did when we were still at dinner and the Northern Lights came out to dance.
Vogafos Guesthouse: Myvatn, North Iceland
Like Hotel Ranga, Vogafjós Guesthouse‘s location makes it a perfect location for Northern Lights viewing. Set on a farm in a lava field, the individual cabins are far removed from the light pollution of, well, anything. The farm is also a short drive from the pseudocraters of Lake Myvatn, fields of Icelandic horses and natural hot springs, all of which make for gorgeous backdrops to your Northern Lights photos.
Vogafos Guesthouse doesn’t offer a Northern Lights wake-up call, but it’s easy enough to set your alarm regularly and just poke your head outside your door to check for the Aurora. We saw one of the best Northern Lights displays we’ve seen right outside our door at Vogafos.
Hotel Húsafell: West Iceland
Hotel Húsafell boasts an average of three Northern Lights sightings each week during the winter Aurora season. Situated near by the Langjökull glacier, the glacier creates a microclimate of clear, cold nights.
The hotel is a newer hotel in Iceland and offers 48 rooms, including one holiday cabin. There’s a restaurant and geothermal baths available on site. You can also request a Northern Lights wake-up call and step right outside the hotel to watch the Aurora show when it makes an appearance.
Hotel Berg: Reykjanes Peninsula
Hotel Berg is located just outside of Keflavik and sits on a hill above the tiny harbor. The proximity to attractions like the Blue Lagoon, many lighthouses and the lesser visited Reykjanes Peninsula make it an excellent base for exploring. And it’s still close enough to enjoy all that Reykjavik has to offer.
Hotel Berg works with a local photographer and Aurora hunter to offer Northern Lights wake-up calls. He phones the hotel when he spots the Northern Lights. We recommend making the short drive to the Hólmsbergsviti lighthouse for a great foreground to your photo.
Heydalur Guesthouse: Westfjords
The Heydalur Guesthouse is so off-the-beaten-path in the Westfjords that Google maps will tell you the address is inaccessible. You need a 4×4 since you do have to drive on a very rough dirt road, but the remote location is worth the effort to get there.
You can book a camping spot for either your tent or camper van or a room in the guesthouse. Either way, all you have to do is pop your head outside and look out for the Northern Lights. With absolutely no light pollution from anywhere, it’s just you, bands of green and about a million stars. You can also wander over to the farm’s natural hot pot for a soak under the Aurora.
The Best Iceland Northern Lights Tours
Do you need a tour in order to see the Northern Lights in Iceland? Absolutely not. But a tour can be great since local guides know the best spots well away from light pollution and where there are patches of clear sky.
We don’t recommend the large group bus tours. They’ll only take you where large buses can get to, which on a Reykjavik Northern Lights tour is typically the visitor center parking lot at Thingvellir National Park or the side of a road. There’s also one guide for a huge group of people, and it can be nearly impossible to get away from those that insist on shining flashlights all around, using the flash on their cameras and just creating light pollution that can ruin your photos.
If you’re going to pay for a Northern Lights tour, do yourself a favor and book a small group tour or a private tour. The best Northern Lights tours will also offer you a tour on another night if you don’t see the Aurora on your first night out, but if you’re booking a combo-type tour that combines an activity or sightseeing at other sites then a return tour typically isn’t offer. Most Iceland Northern Lights tours also operate out of Reykjavik, with far fewer options available in North Iceland. We’re rounded up a few recommendations so you don’t end up disappointed on the bus tours.
Can you see Northern Lights in Reykjavik? Yes, but they have to be quite strong and the light pollution of Iceland’s capital can make it hard to photograph them. That’s why we recommend this small group tour in a Super Jeep that picks up from centrally located Reykjavik hotels. It’s a 4-hour Northern Lights hunting focused tour and the Super Jeeps (custom built SUVs with monster tires) are able to get to locations that the bus tours never could. You get out of the city and away from all the lights. There’s hot chocolate and cookies to snack on while you wait for the lights to appear, and if you don’t happen to find the Northern Lights you can rebook the tour (subject to availability) for another night at no additional cost. The Super Jeeps can accommodate six people maximum, so you really don’t have to worry about a bus load of tourists using flashlights and camera flashes.
This Golden Circle and Northern Lights tour in a Super Jeep is a full day 10-hour version of the Northern Lights by Super Jeep tour mentioned above. This one first visits the attractions on the Golden Circle like Gullfoss waterfall, Thingvellir National Park and Geyser before it gets dark. Then once the skies are dark, you go hunting for the Northern Lights. Any admission fees to sites visited are included, though there’s no meal included. Pick-up and drop-ff to centrally located Reykjavik hotels is included and this tour also has a maximum of six passengers. This tour doesn’t offer a free rebooking for another day if you don’t see the Northern Lights because it is a combo tour that includes a full day touring the Golden Circle.
Another option is to see the Northern Lights from the water on a Northern Lights Cruise from Reykjavik. The Faxaflói Bay has a microclimate and the skies above it are often clear, making it a great place to see Northern Lights close to Reykjavik. The cruise lasts 2.5 hours and warm coveralls are provided to wear while onboard. There are snacks and hot drinks for sale aboard as well. If sea conditions aren’t good enough for the cruise, you get the option to have a bus tour instead, rebook for another night or have a full refund. If you don’t see the Northern Lights, you do get a ticket to join another cruise during your trip.
This is the same Northern Lights cruise mentioned above, but before boarding the cruise you enjoy a 9-course Adventure Menu dinner at one of Reykjavik’s best restaurants on the harbor. The Kopar 9-Course Dinner and Northern Lights Cruise from Reykjavik starts with the Adventure Menu at Kopar. The menu is rarely ever the same, but you can expect some Icelandic specialties like cod and lamb filet. It’s a delicious restaurant and a great way to start an evening of Northern Lights hunting. Unlike the Golden Circle and Northern Lights Super Jeep combo tour, this one is operated by the restaurant and cruise company separately so the cruise company still offers you a ticket to join another cruise during your trip if you don’t see the Northern Lights.
If you want a bit of an adventure while looking for the Aurora, this Northern Lights Hunt by ATV tour is an awesome option. You ride ATVs along Lake Hafravatn and Mount Hafrafell while the local guides keep an eye out for the Northern Lights. You get picked up from centrally located Reykjavik hotels and then suit up in a warm suit and safety equipment at the base camp outside of Reykjavik. You start riding the ATVs right at 9:30pm and the tour lasts for 3 hours, which is the prime time for when to see Northern Lights in Iceland. There’s breaks to take in the landscape while warming up with hot drinks the guides brought along.
There’s hardly a more idyllic scene than imagining sitting in one of Iceland’s famous hot pots while the Northern Lights dance overhead. This Northern Lights and Secret Lagoon by Super Jeep tour aims to deliver precisely that idyllic scene. After getting picked up in Reykjavik, you head directly to the Secret Lagoon to soak in the hot pools there. Hopefully the Northern Lights cooperate and come out to dance overhead, but if they don’t you’ll go on a hunt in the Super Jeep after your visit to the Secret Lagoon. The guide will hunt down a clear patch of sky and if things really just aren’t looking good for the Northern Lights to make an appearance, you can visit another natural hot pot or explore some nearby caves. Admission to the Secret Lagoon, pick-up and drop-off in Reykjavik and on board wifi are included. Be sure to pack a bathing suit and a towel for the Secret Lagoon.
Can you see the Northern Lights in Akureyri? Like Reykjavik, yes you can but it’s always best to get out of the city. If you’re staying in North Iceland, this Northern Lights Tour from Akureyri by Super Jeep takes you out to the best spots to see the Northern Lights in North Iceland. While you wait for the Northern Lights to come out, there’s hot chocolate and Kleina (Icelandic twisted doughnuts) to help keep you warm.
Our Top Tips for Seeing the Northern Lights in Iceland
We’ve written about this pretty extensively, but our top tips for seeing the Northern Lights can basically summed up into putting the effort in to seeing them. There’s no guarantee and there’s certainly no specific time. You just have to take your chances.
- Book a Northern Lights tour, especially if you’re basing yourself in Reykjavik or Akureyri. A tour is an easy way to get out of the city and local guides know spots where the skies typically have clear patches. Most importantly, tour guides know exactly what to look for. The Northern Lights don’t always appear like they do in photos since the camera’s sensor is capable of seeing a broader color spectrum than our naked eyes are and you very well may not even know you’re looking at the Northern Lights.
- Even if you book a tour, the Northern Lights don’t always cooperate during the tour. To increase your chances, book a hotel in a more remote location. And better yet, book one that offers a Northern Lights wake-up call like the ones I mentioned above.
- Just because the Northern Lights are a no-show before your bedtime, don’t give up. Set your alarm to wake-up and check for the Aurora every 30 minutes. You might need a vacation to recuperate from your Iceland vacation, but witnessing one of the greatest natural shows on earth is worth losing a little sleep.
- Spend at least 5 nights in Iceland. There’s plenty to see and do to fill a 5-day itinerary in this beautiful Nordic nation.