Plan a Trip to Iceland for the Northern Lights | Icelandair
Pingdom Check
09/14/2023 | 10:00 AM

Plan a trip to Iceland for the northern lights

The darker the nights, the brighter the lights! With darkness being crucial for northern lights hunting, the Icelandic winter brings even more opportunities to see the impressive aurora borealis in Iceland. 

Iceland is one of the most magical destinations to see the lights, and it should certainly be on your travel bucket list if it isn’t already.

We’ve compiled some essential northern lights facts and advice into this guide to help you plan your trip to see the aurora borealis in Iceland. Learn about what causes the aurora, the best time and place to see the northern lights, what to pack for your trip, and more!

For the best chance at getting the ultimate vacation souvenir, check out our guide for photographing the northern lights in Iceland.

In this guide:

What causes the aurora borealis in Iceland?

The northern lights – or aurora borealis – is one of the world's most beautiful natural phenomena, and how it's formed makes it even more intriguing. The science underpinning the lights is highly complex, but here's a brief description of what causes the aurora borealis:

Our Sun continuously emits charged particles from its upper atmosphere – known as solar wind – which is projected out into the solar system at monumental speeds. This solar energy reaches Earth's ionosphere (upper atmosphere), where our planet's magnetic field deflects the charged particles towards the poles. There, the particles collide with oxygen and nitrogen in the atmosphere, and this causes the gases to release the extra energy in the form of light. It's this collision that creates the spectacular array of bright colors you see in the night sky.

The greater the quantity of charged particles, the higher the chance of seeing the aurora borealis (at the north pole) or aurora australis (at the south pole).

The aurora often first appears as an arc, stretching from east to west across the sky. Later in the night it may develop into rippling streamers, pulsating globes, a corona of rays that appear from a point high in the sky, or as scattered patches of light.

The fact that the appearance of the aurora borealis can change so much within the course of a single night makes it all the more mesmerizing, and you'll likely stay out well into the night to enjoy this majestic sight.

Iceland's latitude and proximity to the north pole mean it's a prime spot for northern lights viewing.

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What is the best time of year to see the northern lights in Iceland?

In Iceland, the official northern lights season runs from October until March. During this time of year, days are darkest and shortest, which translates to northern lights peak viewing time. Indeed, Iceland’s aurora is often strongest around the time of the equinoxes, when the sun is directly above the Earth’s equator and day and night are about the same length. This typically occurs around March 20 and September 23.

However, the lights have been spotted as early as August and as late as April. Though uncommon, you can’t rule out aurora sightings in these months.

From May to July, Iceland enjoys almost round-the-clock daylight thanks to the midnight sun season, and this means that it never gets dark enough to see the lights. The best time of year to see the northern lights in Iceland is therefore during the fall, winter or early spring, which provide plenty of darkness and increased chances for spotting this beautiful natural phenomenon.

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What weather and conditions do you need to see the northern lights in Iceland?

The northern lights are a fickle beast – often taking even the most avid hunters by surprise with their appearance and/or intensity. However, there are certain conditions that you need in order to be able to see them at all. Crucial factors are a good KP index score along with dark, preferably clear skies.

The KP index measures geomagnetic activity, and is arguably the most important factor for seeing the northern lights. The index shows the most likely time that you can spot the aurora borealis in Iceland and how strong they will appear to the eye. The higher the KP index score, the better your chances of seeing lights, and the more likely you are to see the pink and purple colors, alongside the green, light up the sky.

Dark, clear skies are also important for seeing the lights. A full moon can significantly brighten the sky, making it more difficult to enjoy the show, so it’s ideal if the moon is smaller on the night you want to go looking.

Heading away from light pollution will maximize your chances of a glimpse, although the very brightest aurora can be seen from cities and even through thin clouds.

The time of night can also have an impact on how easy it is to see the aurora in Iceland. Generally, 9pm until 2am is considered northern lights peak time. The lights also tend to get more visible as the night goes on, so the show can be a long but extremely rewarding one.

If you need your beauty sleep, you'll find that many hotels offer an aurora alarm service, calling your room to wake you if there are hints of color in the sky – so that might help you decide where to stay in Iceland to see the northern lights.

Iceland's northern lights forecast

The Icelandic Met Office provides a northern lights forecast with predictions for the next three days. The map shows cloud coverage over Iceland, and there is a numbered KP index scale in the top right corner that shows the level of solar activity. The scale ranges from 0 to 9 (very low to very strong).

The interactive tool allows you to easily view the northern lights forecast for Reykjavík or any other part of Iceland. However, it’s important to bear in mind that the aurora forecast can fluctuate throughout the day. For the most reliable reading, we’d suggest checking Iceland’s aurora borealis forecast at around 6pm.

If you want up-to-date readings on the go, we’d also recommend downloading the Aurora Forecast app. It shows the position of the auroral oval around the Arctic Circle and features a probability indicator so you can predict how likely it is that you’ll see the lights where you are.

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How to hunt for the northern lights in Iceland

So now that you know what you’re looking for, and what to expect, the next step is deciding how you want to experience the lights. There are plenty of ways to search for the aurora in Iceland, but the duration of your stay is a good starting point for narrowing down your options.

Short stays

If you’re short on time or have a stopover in Iceland, then we’d recommend joining a guided northern lights tour. These tours typically last around 3-4 hours, and are run by expert local guides who have the knowledge of exactly where to go and what to look for. Guides also share a few northern lights facts along the way, which can enrich your aurora hunting experience even more.

Long stays

If you’re staying in the land of fire and ice a little longer, you’ll have more options to choose from. Some excursions combine aurora spotting with another activity, such as soaking in a geothermal pool, while others are geared towards photographing the northern lights (with expert guides).

You might even decide to rent a car and go aurora hunting on your own. It’s a great excuse to venture a little off the beaten track and find a unique spot to enjoy the show.

For those who want the stress and fuss taken out of their trip to Iceland, a northern lights vacation package that includes accommodation, flights, and tours might be the perfect option. Travelers can combine aurora borealis viewing with a Golden Circle excursion, whale watching tour, boat cruise, or a glacier adventure for the ultimate Icelandic experience.

Packages include round-trip flights to Reykjavik, and they’re offered from all our international departure cities.

Speaking of flights… If you’re extremely lucky, you might get to experience some of the best views of the aurora borealis in Iceland from the plane! Even better if you’re flying on board our Hekla Aurora aircraft, whose design is based on the beautiful colors of the northern lights.

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What are the best places in Iceland to see the northern lights?

Check out some favorite spots to go aurora spotting in Iceland, but be aware that everywhere in Iceland is a good place to see the northern lights when conditions are good.

Getting out of the city and heading away from light pollution will maximize your chances of a glimpse. Many who hunt for the lights travel to North Iceland (Akureyri, Mývatn and so on) with the aim of getting closer to the Arctic Circle.

While auroral activity is indeed greater nearest to the poles, you can rest assured that the brightest auroras can be seen from cities and even through thin clouds.

In fact, you can easily see the northern lights in Reykjavik, Iceland’s capital. Within Reykjavik, favorite spots to view the northern lights include near Grótta lighthouse, at the westernmost point of the city, and Öskjuhlíð hill. A bit further outside town, the Heiðmörk forest area is easily reached by car and escapes the city lights, and the lake Kleifarvatn area offers a scenic drive to dark skies. On your way to Kleifarvatn, you can stop at the observatory at Aurora Basecamp to learn more about the phenomenon. Þingvellir National Park is another popular spot within an hour's drive of the capital, as is the Garður lighthouse area not too far from Keflavík airport.

In Reykjavík, Perlan sits atop Öskjuhlíð hill and houses a planetarium that during the day shows an immersive northern lights show titled Áróra. The planetarium makes a good summertime option if you want to see what the winter skies are like while the midnight sun shines brightly outside.

Outside Reykjavík, the sky is (literally) the limit for aurora hunting. There are not many cities in the sparsely populated countryside, so dark skies are easy to find. Areas with striking natural landscapes like lakes, mountains or glaciers are some of the best places to in Iceland to see the northern lights. Favorite aurora spots for photographers include Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon on the south coast, Stokksnes beach in the southeast, and Kirkjufell mountain (pictured below) on Snæfellsnes peninsula in West Iceland.

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How to pack for watching the northern lights in Iceland

If you're traveling to Iceland with the goal of northern lights hunting, most of your packing will be dedicated to preparing for the cold. The key to this is layers.

You’ll want a suitcase full of warm clothing that you can layer to suit the weather conditions of the day and be sure that your outer layer is wind- and waterproof. 

Here are some ideas of what to wear for hunting the northern lights in Iceland:

  • An underlayer or base layer of clothing – both top and trousers or long johns
  • Thick, warm socks – possibly multiple pairs
  • Warm fleece or woolen layers – especially jumpers/sweaters
  • Scarf, hat and gloves
  • Sturdy and warm walking boots
  • Waterproof and windproof jacket and trousers

You might also like to pack a warm thermos of coffee, tea, or hot chocolate to give you a little boost of heat during the coldest part of the night.

Since your northern lights packing list contains a lot of bulky items, being smart with space is key. Remember to wear your bulkiest clothing while you travel to free up space in your suitcase.

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Staying safe while out northern lights hunting

Going northern lights hunting in Iceland is an exciting, and often once-in-a-lifetime, experience. To enjoy it to its fullest, be sure to stay safe.

There's plenty of advice for staying safe when traveling in Iceland in winter, including tips on weather and safe driving. 

You'll also find up-to-date weather and aurora forecasts from the Icelandic Met Office, and information on road conditions from the Icelandic Road and Coastal Administration.

If you plan to visit a remote area, it's a good idea to let someone know where you're heading. Safe Travel, from the Icelandic Association for Search and Rescue, allows you to submit a travel plan so that authorities can know where you are in case of an emergency.

We recommend taking a fully charged cell phone and a power bank with you when you go out – when temperatures are low, a phone battery can drain faster than normal.

A big part of staying safe is also dressing well for the weather. It's important to wear warm and waterproof clothing that you can layer up, so that you stay cozy well into the night.

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We hope you’ve learnt some interesting northern lights facts and that you now feel inspired and prepared to plan your trip to see the aurora borealis in Iceland.

We can't wait to welcome you to Iceland, and we hope the skies light up with the aurora during your visit. Book a flight to, from, or via Reykjavík today, or view our northern lights packages for a complete vacation experience.


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