Emma Friedlander is a writer & editor. After receiving her degree in history, she headed to Europe to write about her favorite places full time.
2023 is shaping up to be a great season for the Northern Lights in Iceland. Read up on the Northern Lights in Iceland in 2023-2024 for the best time to see the sky erupt in color.
The Aurora Borealis - beautiful, colorful, dancing lights in the sky. What are they? Where can you see them and when is the best time to do so? We share our guide to spot this once-in-a-lifetime phenomenon.
The Northern Lights are one of the most popular sights in Iceland, with many visitors delaying their trip until the “perfect” time to see them. Hunting the aurora is a thrilling experience and the reward is far greater than you can imagine - if you are lucky enough that is!
Northern Lights season is officially underway
In this guide to the Northern Lights, we’ll teach you what causes this natural phenomenon, how to determine the best time to seek the lights and the best viewing locations. Follow these tips to see the sky explode in color.
WHAT ARE THE NORTHERN LIGHTS?
The Northern Lights are electrically charged particles from the Sun that collide with gaseous particles from the Earth upon entering the atmosphere. They tend to occur close to Earth’s magnetic poles, which are located in the North and the South. Iceland, being so close to the Arctic Circle, has a great Northern Lights viewing success rate.
The most popular colors of the Auroras are pale green and pink, yet you might also witness shades of violet, red, yellow, and blue. The lights cover the sky in various shapes. Most of the time they fall as drapes, painting the sky in translucent patterns but sometimes, they can appear in patches of saturated color or shoot into the sky as rays of light.
HOW LONG DO NORTHERN LIGHTS LAST?
It all depends on the solar wind–and a little bit of luck! Low solar activity can mean the aurora is only visible for a few minutes, whereas high solar activity can generate auroras that last all night.
WHAT CAUSES THE NORTHERN LIGHTS
The first person to accurately explain the Aurora Borealis was a Norwegian scientist named Kristian Birkeland (1867-1917). He organized expeditions to high-latitude regions and researched the atmospheric electric currents that explained the nature of the Aurora Borealis. He was nominated for the Nobel Prize seven times.
Sky full of Northern Lights in Iceland
According to the scientific explanation, the aurora is the dazzling end result of a series of events that begin at the sun. The lights are caused by collisions between electrically charged particles coming from the sun as they enter the Earth’s atmosphere.
On the surface of the sun, the superheated gas molecules are highly explosive. Charged electrons and protons escape the sun’s gravity from time to time. During these solar eruptions or solar flares, hot plasma is blown into space which then travels towards the Earth. This is called the solar wind.
When these particles reach our planet, they collide with the Earth’s magnetic field which deflects the majority of them. Due to the irregular shape of the magnetic field, however, some particles manage to get through the shield in the areas where it is weaker, such as around the magnetic poles.
After entering the Earth’s atmosphere, the particles interact with the gas atoms, causing the emission of energy and light. This is what we perceive as a colorful light show in the night sky. Some researchers claim that the reaction also comes with a certain noise but this can only be detected by sensitive microphones.
Auroras are not a phenomenon that is unique to Earth. Jupiter, Uranus, Neptune, and Saturn all experience auroras as well.
The Best Places to See the Northern Lights
There isn’t really a bad place to see the Northern Lights in Iceland. It’s the only place besides Greenland where you can see the Aurora Borealis from any point in the country.
To improve your chances of glimpsing the aurora, drive far out from Reykjavik and away from major artificial light sources. This is a fairly easy thing to do since the vast majority of Iceland is unspoiled and sparsely populated.
Iceland’s most iconic landmarks are popular places to see the Northern Lights. Not far from Reykjavík, admire the lights from Thingvellir National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The large hill that rises above the park is a great viewing spot. The beauty of Thingvellir is only enhanced by the flashing night sky.
Hot springs, a cabin, and the Northern Lights – what else do you need?
Even deeper into the wilderness, the Westfjords and East Iceland feature stunning light displays over unspoiled nature.
Can you see the Northern Lights in Reykjavik?
Yes, it’s possible to see the Northern Lights in Reykjavík! In fact, Reykjavík is the only capital city besides Nuuk, Greenland where you can see the Northern Lights. Reykjavíkers swear they can see the lights from their bedroom windows during bright aurora displays!
The most popular viewing spot within the city proper is Öskjuhlíð Hill, at the base of the Perlan Museum. Search for the Northern Lights on the Perlan’s 360° viewing platform until it closes at 10 p.m. After that, huddle together among the trees of Öskjuhlíð. You’ll forget you’re even in the city as you stand under the night sky.
Only a couple of miles west of downtown Reykjavík is Grótta Nature Reserve on Seltjarnarnes Peninsula, an aurora paradise. On clear winter nights, locals and tourists bundle up to watch the skies from Grótta Lighthouse.
Can you see the Northern Lights from the Blue Lagoon?
Yes! The Blue Lagoon is a good place to see the Northern Lights because it’s located further out in nature, away from the light pollution of large settlements. The geothermal hot pool is nestled in the wilds of the Reykjanes Peninsula.
The Northern Lights over the Blue Lagoon
If you visit after sunset, you may get lucky and see the sky flash green as you float on cloudy turquoise water.
What is the best month to see the Northern Lights?
Any winter month is a good time to see the Northern Lights. In order for the lights to be visible, the skies must be dark and clear. As you get closer to midwinter, the nights stretch on longer and the aurora is more easily spotted.
Reach prime Northern Lights country in a Super Jeep
You can see the Northern Lights from late August to May, but it’s best to visit between October and April. The night skies will be much darker, improving your chances. Our Northern Lights tour guides check the forecast every day and seek out the ideal viewing spots for guests.
If you really want an excellent shot at a sighting, visit as close to midwinter as possible. November and February are great times to increase your odds while avoiding the dead of winter.
The darker the skies, the better chance of seeing the lights. Around midnight is the best time of night to see the Northern Lights. Your chances are best from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. That being said, nights can last forever in the Icelandic winter. You might catch the Northern Lights at 8 o’clock in the morning or 8 o’clock at night. When the sun’s away, the lights can come out to play.
Northern Lights Forecasts
Northern Lights forecasts tell you the level of solar activity on any given night. They take into account solar patterns and cloud cover to predict how likely the Northern Lights are to appear.
The Northern Lights glimmer over the Solheimasandur plane wreck
Each day, the forecast gives an aurora score from 0-9. The higher the score, the better your chances of seeing the aurora lights. As I write this, the aurora score is 3, or moderate. That means there’s a pretty good possibility of a sighting. Maybe we’ll catch the Northern Lights tonight!
BEST CONDITIONS FOR NORTHERN LIGHTS
THE NORTHERN LIGHTS SEASON
The polar lights appear near the Poles. In these areas, the winters are very dark while the summers are completely bright. The closer we get to the poles, the more the days and nights disappear and there is half a year of darkness and half a year of brightness instead.
Iceland is close enough to the North Pole to have a few months of the midnight sun during which the sky is too bright for the Northern Lights to appear. They are still there but the sky is lit up by the sun so we cannot detect the Aurora Borealis in Iceland.
In winter, however, there are a few weeks of almost complete darkness. There is also a seven-month-long period from September to March when we have both dark nights and bright daylight which allows us the chance to enjoy the auroras at night. Therefore, only those who come to Iceland between late August and early April will have a chance to see the aurora.
Northern Lights over Kirkjufell mountain in Iceland
THE SOLAR ACTIVITY
The Earth is constantly immersed in the solar wind but it has to reach a certain strength to cause the emission of light in the sky. Solar activity is something we cannot really predict and have no control over. Sometimes we have active Northern Lights appearing many days in a row but sometimes they do not appear for days. It is just a matter of luck. The longer you stay, the more chances you will have.
THE WEATHER CONDITIONS
The weather in Iceland is another thing that no one can control. The Northern Lights are only visible when the sky is clear or when there are at least clear parts of it. The collisions take place many kilometers above the clouds, so a layer of clouds can act like a curtain. If the curtain is closed, you will not be able to see what is happening behind it.
If the sky is cloudy over Reykjavík, it is worthwhile to check out the cloud forecast and see if there are clear parts further from the capital. This is what Northern Lights tour operators do: when they see an opening in the clouds not too far away, they will drive there. You can also maximize your chances of good weather by staying longer in Iceland!
Northern Lights over Icelandic road during winter
THE LIGHT CONDITIONS
The good news is that the light conditions are something we can change easily by getting out of the light-polluted areas. To enjoy the lights in the sky, we need a place that is removed from the city lights. This helps us to perceive the lights better as the strong street or city lights make our eyes less sensitive. But spending a few minutes in complete darkness will change the sensitivity of our eyes instantly. It is possible to see the aurora from the middle of a city as well, but the same show would be much more intense if seen from a darker place.
THE OPTIMAL LOCATION
The best place to go in Iceland for Northern Lights is a flat area with no buildings or high mountains blocking the view and no street lights around. This could be anywhere from a large park or a hilltop outside of the city to somewhere in the remote countryside.
WHAT IS THE BEST WAY TO SEE THE NORTHERN LIGHTS?
The best way to see the Northern Lights is to combine them with something fun. Waiting for the lights to appear in the darkness may be less boring if you are with fun people, listening to legends, stories, and scientific facts about the Auroras. It is even better if you have the opportunity to sit back in a comfortable, heated bus or soak in a hot spring while you pass the time.
You can rent a car and drive yourself to a location or you can take a tour. Driving is only recommended for those who have experience with dark, wintery roads. If you do not want to bother researching the right conditions, checking the forecasts, and researching the cloud cover, you can join a guided day tour where an experienced local guide will take you to the right place.
If you’re staying in Reykjavík, devote your evenings to the bustling nightlife! No, I don’t mean the clubs (though they’re worth a visit) — I mean the Northern Lights. Each night, our expert aurora guides motor out of Reykjavík in a Super Jeep for a Northern Lights chase. Join the hunt for the best possibility of catching the aurora.
Take your Northern Lights pursuit to the next level in a Super Jeep. Our Super Jeep tours are just like our regular Northern Lights tours out of Reykjavík, except that our aurora guides operate special off-road Super Jeeps to take you farther into nature. Roll off the beaten track, over trails, forests, and rivers that most buses and vans can’t pass. Deep in nature and far from artificial light sources, you might be treated to your own private light show.
Guided Arctic Adventures Northern Lights tour
SELF-DRIVE NORTHERN LIGHTS TOURS
If you are a skilled driver with strong experience driving in winter conditions, you can also head out to find the lights on your own. It is, however, strongly recommended that you do some research before heading out into the dark.
You will need to find a safe parking place where you can exit your car and walk around in the dark. When you begin to see the lights, you might become excited and distracted, so make sure that you are in a safe place where you can enjoy the moment to the fullest.
It is illegal to stop on the side of the road – even if you see others doing it. This is highly dangerous and people have died in accidents caused by aurora hunters. To find a safe and spacious parking area, you must check out the place in the daylight before heading out in the dark.
You might want to pack headlights so that you can inspect the area in case you decide to walk away from your car a bit. For the best comfort, bring a thermos with some hot liquids and maybe a blanket and some pocket warmers.
EXTRA TIPS FOR AURORA HUNTERS
HOW TO DRESS FOR A TOUR
Dress warm clothing and get some hot beverages to warm up
Since you will be standing around doing very little activity while you wait, it is important to choose the right clothing. Here are our ultimate tips for the best aurora-watching outfit!
A windproof outer layer is a must. Iceland is a windy country and the wind can seriously decrease your thermal comfort if you do not have a windproof shell. (Both a jacket and trousers, too.)
Your inner layer should be warmly insulated. A duck-down jacket or a thick fleece or wool sweater and insulated pants should be fine.
A comfortable, long-sleeved base layer, shirt, and leggings are recommended. This will add a lot to the insulation.
A windproof hat (or a good hood on your coat), gloves, and a cozy scarf are also necessary.
A pair of warm socks (preferably wool) and sturdy, waterproof boots are especially important if you will be standing in the snow.
Reusable pocket warmers or wrist warmers are great items to have on hand during long waiting periods.
HOW TO PHOTOGRAPH THE LIGHTS
Photographing the aurora is not easy for someone who is not a professional photographer. On certain Northern Lights tours, you will get help from the tour guide to set up your camera correctly and will also get the chance to be photographed with the Northern Lights in the background if you do not have a camera.
It's not so easy to photograph the Northern Lights
If you decide to go on a self-driven aurora trip, you will need certain skills and equipment to take a photo in the complete darkness required. The following tips will help you to make the most of your pictures.
A tripod: The shots will need an exposure of at least a few seconds, making a tripod a must. Getting the perfect picture of the lights with a handheld camera is impossible.
Manual settings: Your camera should be switched to manual mode and the diaphragm adjusted to the largest setting available. The lower the diaphragm number, the better. We recommend 1.4, 2.0, or 2.8.
A high ISO performance: Your camera must go up to 3000-5000 without producing much graininess. In older/cheaper cameras, an ISO of over 400-600 can make your pictures grainy while expensive professional cameras can handle much higher ISO settings.
Manual focus: Camera lenses should also be fitted with a focus indicator as autofocus is not suitable for photographing the Northern Lights.
Long exposures: In the beginning, the shutter speed should be adjusted to four seconds. You might need a shorter time but generally will need around 4-15 seconds. We do not recommend going over 20 seconds as this will create a “star trail” in the sky.
Extra batteries: Cold temperatures and long exposures can cause your batteries to drain very quickly.
Wide-angle lenses: These lenses are recommended for picture taking as they let in as much light as possible while allowing as much of the scene into the frame as possible.
A headlamp: Before trying to take a picture with anyone in it, try to light them up using a headlamp or some other light source. Remember that during a long exposure, they will have to stand completely still so as not to result in a blurry image.
Shutter release: Finally, a remote shutter release or a self-timer function on your camera can be very useful for this kind of picture.
But, remember that there is no camera that can capture the feeling of being in that incredible atmosphere or seeing the lights firsthand. It is just a tool to help you remember the experience of a lifetime!
Who would you like to watch the Northern Lights with?
Other commonly asked questions
Aurora forecasts allow you to predict the Northern Lights and plan your chase.
What do the northern lights look like?
There’s no unified description of what the northern lights look like. They can come in different shades and shapes depending on the night conditions. Sometimes they can look as gentle as if it was painted with a brush. Sometimes they can cover the whole sky.
They come in different colors too. Shades of green, violet, pink, and blue are the most common:
Green: Particles collide with oxygen at 90-200 km height. This is the most common color as the eye is also the most sensitive to the color green.
Dark Red: Particles collide with oxygen at a height of more than 200 km. Dark red colors are most often seen the highest in the lights caused by electronically charged molecules that have excited the oxygen atom.
Bright Red: Nitrogen within 90 km. A common color when the solar winds get strong and very charged electrons excite the molecules.
Purple & Blue: Active Nitrogen.
Pink & Yellow: When red and green lights mix together.
How to see the northern lights in Iceland?
There are several ways of seeing the magnificent northern light in Iceland. First, you could stay in the countryside hotel where the northern lights are present. Some hotels even offer a wake-up service in case they appear. Check out the best hotels to see the Northern Lights.
If you're staying in Reykjavík and don't have a car, you could try to catch them in the capital. Grótta Lighthouse and Öskjuhlíð Hill are among the most popular places to search for Northern Lights.
The easiest way to see the Aurora is by getting a guided Northern Lights tour from Reykjavík. Your professional guide will pick you up and take you to the best places to see Northern Lights based on that night's forecast.