Will you see them or won’t you? The Northern Lights (or Aurora Borealis as they are known in certain circles) are an elusive bunch. Seen dancing over the skies of Reykjavik, they certainly put the icing on any Icelandic trip’s cake. Yes, you’ll need to venture out on the darkest, and often coldest, of nights, but the sights will be worth it. For the best possible chance of seeing nature’s greatest light show, read on.
When to go
Although the Northern Lights are never guaranteed, you can stack the odds in your favour. Except, like most things where the Aurora Borealis is concerned, details are a little vague. Some say, the best time to see them is when it’s dark. Far from being unhelpful, you really do want the darkest skies for the best shows. In terms of flying out to Iceland, you’ll want to plan your trip between August and April. Yes, this does potentially mean embracing Reykjavik in winter. Though, that’s nothing some technical clothing and plenty of layers won’t fix.
While winter gives you longer hours of darkness, spring is THE season for Northern Lights spotting. The geomagnetic disturbances that cause the light patterns are at their highest, skies are clearer and a slightly longer day length allows you more exploring time. If we had to pick two months? March and September have the ideal Northern Lights conditions.
Orbzii tip: In Iceland, weather is still decidedly bracing in spring and you’ll definitely need more than just a beanie and a can–do attitude to keep out the wind chill. Expect to be outside in all weathers for anything up to a couple of hours – especially if you’re on a Northern lights tour.
Where to see the Northern Lights
Can you see the Northern Lights in Reykjavik? Technically, yes, the skies over the city do get some Aurora action. Though, light pollution and an urban skyline don’t ever really deliver on wow factor. That said, it’s worth peeking out from your hotel window every night to catch the lights – just don’t expect too much. If you’re restricted to the city – with no hire car, and no tour booked, fear not. Reykjavik hasn’t earned the grand title of Northern Lights Capital of the World for nothing. If the Aurora forecast in Reykjavik looks promising, there are still some spots where you can enhance your view.
The North Shore
To eliminate the skyline, go coastal. Get to the shore for a landscape view – and the added bonus of some lightly crashing waves for full sensory overload. The north shore is a great shout – especially the harbour or, the highlight of many Reykjavik walking tours, the scenic sculpture walk.
Central Reykjavik’s pond does suffer from light pollution, but the payoff is seeing those lights reflecting on the water’s surface while the natural light show plays out above. You’re also within easy reach of the cheap eats in Reykjavik if you get too chilly.
This tourist spot isn’t for everyone. But on a night when the Northern lights forecast in Reykjavik is good, it’s one of the best places in the city to see the show. Trot up onto the observation deck for a lofty vantage point, the views over the city’s rooftops aren’t too shabby either.
Up for a road trip? You don’t really need to travel too far from Reykjavik itself to see the lights clearly. Hop in your hire car and drive just 15 minutes to Grótta island. You’ll want to seek out the lighthouse. Though, if the Northern Lights Forecast is good, just follow the crowds. If a traffic crowded Grótta island trip doesn’t appeal, try these spots instead.
Just 30 minutes away, dark, peaceful and, helpfully, comes complete with a car park. The still lake waters make photography that extra bit special. And, despite being an excellent place to view the lights, few venture here. Think rugged volcanic landscape, unrestricted sky views – and even a lake beach to sit on.
Thingvellir National Park
Really up the ante in Icelandic experience terms by seeing the Northern Lights from the centre of the Golden Circle. 45 minutes east of Reykjavik, the Thingvellir National Park straddles two tectonic plates and has a multitude of photography options. Sit by the lake, marvel at the waterfall or perch on a fissure in the earth’s crust.
Heiðmörk Nature Reserve
You won’t see many trees in Iceland, but there are plenty dotted around the Heiðmörk Nature Reserve. Around a 30 minute drive from central Reykjavik, this is another dark sky zone to enjoy. Though, being so close to the city, you might spot a tour bus or two.
Northern Lights Tours
There really is no shortage of options when it comes to Northern Lights tours in Reykjavik. Some come bundled with Golden Circle jaunts, Blue Lagoon pampers and rugged 4×4 safaris. All great if you’re short on time and looking for value for money. But perhaps the best tours are the standalone bus packages that scoop you up from the city and whisk you to a dark sky spot to see the glowing skies. Shop carefully though. Our favourite tour operators are those that only go out if there’s a respectable chance of seeing the lights. Reykjavik Sightseeing offer tours in 10 languages, on a fully kitted out coach that comes with WiFi and USB chargers. Essentials for getting your Northern Light snaps on your socials. They’ve also got an astronomical telescope stowed away to keep you star spotting while you wait for the lights to start their ethereal dance.
Expect to pay kr 6,490 (£36.40) for an adult ticket. For something a little different than the standard coach tour, Reykjavik Excursions runs a Northern Lights by Boat trip. Fair warning though, the stars really must align for this one. Clear skies, solar activity and calm waters aren’t always available all at once. An adult ticket comes in at kr 12,660 (£71) – but they do offer you a free ticket to try your luck again if you don’t see the lights.
Orbzii tip: Planning to snap the lights with your phone? It may be tricky. In Iceland, tour guides will give out settings tips for all types of phone, with one exception. The iPhone. The tip here? Put it in your pocket. Some phones fare better than others, but for the best pictures, you’re likely to need a camera.
Northern Lights Forecast
Those geomagnetic disturbances we mentioned earlier? They are the key to forecasting the chances of seeing the Aurora Borealis in full flow. The dancing lights peak when molecules floating in the upper atmosphere of Earth crash into charged particles in solar winds. Not something you can easily grasp by looking skywards. Thankfully, there are websites and apps that give a Northern Lights forecast for Reykjavik from the Icelandic Met Office. A score of 4-6 is the sweet pot on the 9 point scale, though lights are regularly seen in the 2-3 range. A score of 7 or above? Hugely rare, don’t miss the night skies if this pings onto the forecast.
Orbzii tip: You can’t solely rely on the Aurora forecast. A key part is the cloud forecast. The lights may well be spectacular, but too many clouds spoil the view. Pair the two forecasts for optimum results.