The best place and time to see the Aurora Borealis (the Northern Lights) in Iceland

  • The Northern Lights or the Aurora Borealis appear, on a regular basis, in Iceland from the middle of September through to the end of March.
Sep 25 2017

What are the best months or the best time of year to see the Northern Lights in Iceland?

The Northern Lights or the Aurora Borealis appear, on a regular basis, in Iceland from the middle of September through to the end of March. Any time outside these months, the Northern Lights do not appear, as the nights are short and daylight dominates the sky. During these moths, the Aurora Borealis appear almost everywhere in the country if the strength, or the Aurora level, is right and the skies are clear. So, you need to visit Iceland, during winter, to see the Northern Lights. Winter is the best season for seeing the Northern Lights in Iceland.

Norhern Lights by Hvaleyrarvatn lake in Iceland

As a rule of thumb, you need to be in a dark place to see the Northern Lights.

What are the best hours to see the Northern Lights in Iceland?

In September, night descends at around 9:00 p.m. in the evening and the night turns dark. As time moves towards the month of December, the darkness sets in earlier, at around 7:00 p.m. And eventually, around 5:00 p.m. From December 21st, the time of night starts to move back later in the evening, until it reaches 9:30 p.m., again in March. In recent years, we have followed the forecast of Northern Lights and have often photographed the Northern Lights, the Aurora Borealis, by visiting various places near Reykjavík, the capital of Iceland and around the country. It is our experience that the time between 9:00 p.m. and midnight is an excellent time to see the Northern Lights. Often, the time between 9:00 p.m. and 11:30 p.m. is the best and most interesting. If the conditions are right, you are almost certain to get a glimpse of the Northern Lights or even better, you will get to see a spectacular show in the sky within that period. If you have time and if you are traveling to Iceland only to see the Northern Lights, it is usually a good idea to hang out and see if the show continues until 3:00 a.m. So, if the forecast is right and you don’t see the Northern Lights in the evening, it is quite likely that you will not see them after midnight.

Norhern Lights in Reykjavík the capital of Iceland

Although this magnificent phenomenon in the sky can be seen in Reykjavík, it is always much better to go outside the city,

Does the weather play an important role in the viewing of the Aurora Borealis?

A clear sky, preferably with temperature slightly below zero-degree Celsius, is the optimal condition to see the Northern Lights. For photographers and for full enjoyment of this spectacular sight, a calm wind makes the night perfect, especially if you are by a lake where the lights reflect on the water, making the whole experience much more enjoyable. But Mother Nature does not take reservations for those who plan to see the Northern Lights and in Iceland, during winter, we are all at her mercy. The weather in Iceland during November through February is often difficult; roads are often risky and hard to drive on and, sometimes, they are closed because they are packed with snow. On the other hand, a snowy day and landscape packed with snow can enhance the experience, as it always brings illumination and depth to the night. If the sky is gloomy and cloudy, you might as well find something else to do. It is, of course, impossible to see the Northern Lights under those conditions. If the wind is strong, it magnifies the cold temperature and staying outside for half an hour, not to mention two to three hours, can become quite challenging.

Norhern Lights in Reykjavík at Kjlalarnes district

And if you have a car, the Kjalarnes district in the northern side of the Kollafjörður bay in Reykjavík is a good place to view the Aurora Borealis

How do we look for the Northern Lights in the sky?

When you are at a location that you have selected and you are waiting for the lights to appear, you will not miss the Northern Lights if they actually emerge and put on a show. But, sometimes, you can see them, even if the strength is low. Most of the time, it starts with a small kind of thin green haze in the sky that develops into neon-green curving and moving lines in the sky. Sometimes, the strength is weak and the Northern Lights appear as a green fog on the dark horizon. So, one thing that the search for the Aurora Borealis requires from you is patience. It is a waiting game that can bring a high reward, because if they appear, the sight is breathtaking and even beyond breathtaking. Sometimes, the show is so strong and so full of colors that the sky almost becomes intimidating and unreal, and almost mesmerizing.

Aurora Borealis in Iceland

Most of the time, it starts with a small kind of thin green haze in the sky that develops into neon-green curving and moving lines in the sky. 

What are the best places near Reykjavík and around Reykjavík to view the Northern Lights?

Although this magnificent phenomenon in the sky can be seen in Reykjavík, it is always much better to go outside the city, to a place where city lights don’t disturb the experience. As a rule of thumb, you need to be in a dark place to see the Northern Lights. But if you want to stay in Reykjavík, a good option is to walk the Sculpture and Shore Walk path. At a slow pace, you should walk the path from the City Center, by the shore to the east, where there is less light. The lighthouse by Grótta, in the neighboring town of Seltjarnarnes, is also a good spot. And if you have a car, the Kjalarnes district in the northern side of the Kollafjörður bay in Reykjavík, by the mountain Esja is an excellent place to view the Aurora Borealis. There is a parking lot by the church. Here you can get a fabulous view of the Northern Lights and from this spot, you can see them dance over the city or over the mountain. Another place is at the lake Hvaleyrarvatn, in the town of Hafnarfjörður, where you can park at the west side of the lake. All these places have good parking lots and good space to walk away from any possible light. Also, they provide the spectacular surrounding required to enhance the experience of viewing the Northern Lights.

A background and foreground is something to think about when photographing Aurora Boreali

Also, they provide the spectacular surrounding required to enhance the experience of viewing the Northern Lights.

What are the other places near Reykjavík to view the Aurora Borealis?

It is also interesting to travel to a beautiful place, like lake Þingvallavatn by Þingvellir or Kleifarvatn lake near the south shore, to enhance the experience, if you want to spend more time to view this compelling phenomenon. At Þingvellir, a great place is to park by the campsite. At Kleifarvatn, we prefer the parking lot by the small cliffs, on the west side of the lake. The car park at Grænavatn lake, near Kleifarvatn, is one of our favorite places. Another great spot is the lighthouse in Garður, on the Reykjanes peninsula. When selecting a place, remember that a vast space is better than a narrow place, or a place where you have a wide view in all directions. And all the places that we have mentioned here requires, at the least, a half an hour to an hour’s drive from Reykjavík.

What are the other interesting places around the country to see the Aurora Borealis?

As we have pointed out in the beginning of this article, the Northern Lights appear all around Iceland. But before you start your trip, you need to look at the forecast for Aurora strength and check if the skies are clear. One of the best places to look is the Icelandic Met Office Aurora forecast. And outside Reykjavík, we have a few favorite places that have the same good conditions that we have mentioned above. Like a good parking lot, there are short trails around the area to widen the space in search of a dark place wide horizon to see every possible appearance in the sky; it is not too remote or difficult to visit and it serves as an interesting foreground and background, if photographing is your thing. In the West Region, our favorite is Hellnar at Snæfellsnes Peninsula, a small hamlet in a beautiful surrounding. In the Northern Region, both Hvammstangi village and Akureyri are great spots. At Hvammstangi, the parking lot by the camping site is great, and the old cemetery and church give the viewing a unique feeling. Akureyri has the advantages that you can drive to many places in all directions to find a good spot. In the east, the town of Fáskrúðsfjörður is our favorite. Here the camping site and surrounding area also give excellent opportunities for walks in darker areas. And last but not least, in the Southern Region, is the iceberg lagoon, Jökulsárlón and the Dimond Beach by the shore, where a stroll will provide you with the rich experience of the Northern Lights with Vatnajökull glacier in the background.

Northern Lights at Hvammstangi village in the north

At Hvammstangi, the parking lot by the camping site is great, and the old cemetery and church give the viewing a unique feeling

How do we prepare for a viewing of the Northern Lights?

Don’t underestimate the preparation, when you start your evening and night tour to see the Northern Lights. You should select a place and stick to that selection throughout the night. If the conditions are right, you are going to see the Northern Lights and it does not necessarily increase your result to drive around. There are always hours between high displays of Northern Lights and viewing them is always a waiting game. To understand the time-consuming factor is one of the main premises when you head out to see the Aurora Borealis. Another one is driving to the spot and find a parking place in time. The best thing you can do is to arrive at the spot an hour or hour and a half before it gets dark and do a quick research at your options to walk around. Get familiar with the area and look for possible short paths that can lead you to darker spots with better views. It is also a good idea to have a flashlight in the pocket to lighten the path, as it can be uncertain to walk in the dark. Because of the unpredictable weather for most of the year, you should always dress for a cold night. It is always a good idea to pack yourself into warm clothes and good shoes while heading out to view the Aurora Borealis. Standing out in the cold for hours is difficult, so make sure that the clothes are warm.

Why travel to Iceland to see the Northern Lights?

Of all the places on the planet, Iceland is one of the best places to visit and see the Northern Lights. From here, the likelihood of actually seeing the Aurora Borealis is good. There are many places to select from, both around Reykjavík (the capital) and around the country. In the countryside, there are also a lot of places and not far apart. It is easy to travel to Iceland from both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. The show in the sky is often beyond spectacular and if everything else fails, there are a lot of other things you can do in Iceland, while you wait for the next opportunity. If you have a few days and you are determined to see the Northern Lights, the odds are that you will succeed, as you will most likely find a place somewhere where you can see the Aurora Borealis.