How to see the Northern Lights in Iceland - the best times to visit and where to stay
At 65 degrees north, Iceland is one of the best places in the world to see the Aurora Borealis
The breathtaking ribbons of colour that make up the Northern Lights are a sight remembered forever by those lucky enough to have witnessed them. The experience is surreal, with vibrant hues of blue, green, pink and violet dancing across the night sky.
From its latitude at 65 degrees north, Iceland is one of the best places in the world to see the Northern Lights, otherwise known as the Aurora Borealis. As a rule, the Northern Light belt is between 65 and 72 degrees north, but the further you go above 66, the more chance you have of witnessing the phenomenon.
One benefit of heading to Iceland on the hunt for the aurora is that the gulf stream makes it a warmer location than other viewing places in Scandanavia if you go in September or March, when the average night-time temperature is 4C.
To see the Northern Lights, you need clear, cloudless skies, and Iceland offers plenty of remote spots with no light pollution. The country’s variety of dramatic landscapes, from waterfalls, cliffs and glaciers to rock formations and mountains, also creates unique opportunities for taking pictures of the lights as they hover overhead.
It’s never guaranteed that you’ll see the Northern Lights during a trip to Iceland, but you’ll increase your chances of experiencing them if you go when it’s completely dark and watch from a non-urban environment surrounded by nature. We’ve rounded up some of the country’s best destinations for star-gazing along with all the details you need to plan the perfect bucket list trip.
When is the best time to see the Northern Lights in Iceland?
From September through to mid-April is when the nights are longest in Iceland, and is therefore the best time to see the Northern Lights.
As you’ll have more chance of seeing the lights when it’s completely dark, it’s a good idea to look at a lunar calendar so you can avoid going around the time of a full moon, which could dim the light show. Aim to arrive about five days before new moon for a very dark week ahead, creating optimal conditions for viewing the lights.
September and March are the peak months of the period, especially around the times of the equinoxes. This is because the magnetic field of the solar wind from the sun that causes the Northern Lights faces at an optimal angle relative to Earth, so you’re likely to see brighter and bolder lights. The weather is also usually less cloudy during these months, meaning better visibility for auroras.
The strongest lights tend to appear between 9pm and 2am, though the best sightings often occur between 11pm and midnight.
What are the best destinations in Iceland for spotting the Northern Lights?
You can view the Northern Lights in Iceland amid a variety of spectacular landscapes. These are some of the best.
Catching the curtains of dancing lights against the backdrop of one of the most spectacular mountains in Iceland (pictured top) is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. You may recognise this place from Game of Thrones, where it was known as Arrowhead Mountain.
Located on the Snæfellsnes Peninsula, it’s more than two hours by car from Iceland’s capital of Reykjavik, so you’ll need to find a base in a town like Grundarfjordur, which has plenty of self-catering accommodation plus a few hotels for Northern Lights hunters. Once there, Grunjufell has a car park that’s around 100m walk from viewing positions.
Just remember to pack some torches as the area is incredibly dark and you don’t want to lose your footing on the way.
Where to stay: The Kirkjufell Hotel by Snæfellsnes Peninsula West Iceland is less than 2km from the mountain so you can fall happily into bed after seeing the Northern Lights. The 29 rooms are basic at this three-star establishment but it is comfortable, clean and right in the heart of a fishing village so you feel like a local rather than a tourist. kirkjufellhotel.is
Located at the end of the Seltjarnarnes peninsula, there is minimal light pollution around the Grotta Lighthouse, making it a magical place to see the light displays. The lighthouse adds a dramatic touch, offering a sense of perspective as a backdrop to the larger-than-life Northern Lights displays.
Some visitors go in the day for bird-watching and stay on as it gets dark for the lights. However, it’s only a five-minute drive from the center of Rekjavik, so it’s possible to go to dinner in the city and pop over to the lighthouse before retiring to one of the capital’s many hotels (which does mean it can be a busy spot on a clear night). The area around the Grotta lighthouse is also home to an Icelandic hot spring footbath known as Kvika, offering visitors the chance to dip their feet in its geothermal waters.
Where to stay: There’s a huge choice of budget, boutique and luxury hotels in nearby Reykjavik. If you want to be within walking distance from most of the city’s top tourist sights, Grandi by Center is a modern four-star hotel with a lively bar and a popular restaurant called HEDINN, serving up traditional Icelandic cuisine. Set in a former steelhouse, the decor combines modern architecture and industrial chic for hip but homely vibes. centerhotels.com
The Jokulsarlon glacier lagoon is the deepest lake in Iceland, full of a series of gargantuan icebergs which have broken off the glacier wall and then float their way out to sea. Being situated in Vatnajokull National Park, the lagoon has no light pollution, so there’s a clear view of the sky’s activity. Should the aurora play ball and put on a show, the slabs of ice here reflect the colours of the lights. It’s not the easiest place to reach, but there are several tour companies based in the nearby town of Hofn offering guided visits.
Where to stay: Overlooking Höfn harbour and with views towards the Vatnajökull Glacier, the environmentally friendly Hofn Hostel is a short drive away from Jokulsarlon. As well as dorms, it offers single and twin rooms should you want more privacy. The staff can help arrange glacier tours, boat and snowmobile trips. hofnhostel.is
With its remote position near the Eyjafllajokull volcano, where there’s absolutely no light pollution, Skogafoss offers potentially perfect viewing conditions for the Northern Lights. As the falls face north and the lights come from a northern direction, it’s an ideal composition for a scene-stealing photograph. Not only does the sky light up in colorful hues when the aurora is visible, but the waterfall adds an ethereal quality by reflecting the lights. However, due to its proximity to the water, the ground can often get slippery. Be sure to wear sturdy, slip-proof shoes for the most comfortable viewing experience.
Where to stay: The Hotel Skogafoss is stationed close by. Breakfast is included in the price of a stay and the hotel’s restaurant offers a taste of traditional Icelandic cuisine. As you’re so close to the waterfall, it’s also worth seeing it by day for a different experience of the powerful 25m drop of water. hotelskogafoss.is
Thingvellir National Park
Thingvellir National Park is a Unesco World Heritage Site and there are no buildings or sources of man-made light anywhere near it, making for spectacular views of the night sky. Once inside, aim for Silfra, which is a rift valley formed by the meeting point of two tectonic plates, the American and Eurasian. Its still and silvery water can capture sharp reflections of the Northern Lights. The secluded Öxarárfoss waterfall is another key draw; the dark rock provides a dramatic contrast to the white foamy water and the greens, blues and violets that make up the Aurora Borealis.
Where to stay: The ION adventure hotel is located 11 miles from the national park, situated at the bottom of Mount Hengill. Its isolated location and spa and sauna offer peace and quiet just an hour away from Reykjavik. The spa features outdoor thermal pools with brilliant views over the mountainside, while sustainability is another key feature, with lava, reused wood, Icelandic wool and other natural materials used extensively in furniture throughout the hotel. ioniceland.is
Lake Kleifarvatn is only a 30-minute drive from Reykjavik, making it easily reachable from the capital (plus there are fewer crowds here than at the Grotta Lighthouse). The area is surrounded by active volcanoes, black sandy beaches and underwater hot springs, making it a fun destination for adventurers by day as well as by night. The lake is still and glassy, making for reflection shots of the Northern Lights, while the volcanic landforms add some imposing drama to the scene.
Where to stay: Located a 10-minute drive from Lake Kleifarvatn, the small coastal town of Hafnarfjördur has plenty of guest house and hotel accommodation. The quirkiest is Hotel Viking, which pays homage to Iceland’s Viking history with a feasting hall carved from timber where food is served by Viking staff. If you’re travelling in a group, you can arrange to be “kidnapped” by a ragtag bunch of Vikings who will take you to the hotel’s annex-cave where all kinds of fun games and traditional food await. You can also go whale watching or relax in the hotel’s geothermal pool. fjorukrain.is
Myvatn offers hot spring bathing and thousands of years of history. The region was formed 2,300 years ago by a huge lava fissure eruption across a range of 12km. A river was blocked by the quick development of a huge lava field leading to the creation of several different lakes. The Myvatn nature baths are lagoonlike outdoor baths with milky blue, mineral-rich water, naturally heated by hot springs. By night, they reflect the spectacular colours of the Northern Lights when visible.
Where to stay: Located next to Lake Mývatn in the north of Iceland and just a short drive from the geothermal area of Hverir, Fosshotel Mývatn prides itself on its close-to-nature design, with a grass roof and picturesque views across the water. Includes a sauna with views over the lake. islandshotel.is
Want to watch the Northern Lights while feeling warm and cosy? Then try viewing them while in one of Iceland’s famous hot springs. Seljavallalaug is a wonderful pick: the outdoor swimming pool is free and open 24 hours a day. It’s also one of the oldest pools in Iceland, and in the middle of nowhere, so you have clear views of the sky. It’s not every day you can swim in a 25m pool halfway up a mountainside. It’s also a 30-minute drive from Vik, where there’s a wide range of budget and more luxurious places to stay, as well as puffin-watching on offer.
Where to stay: Hotel Vík í Mýrda offers a touch of luxury in the middle of nowhere. Set 450 yards from Black Sand Beach, the hotel has a chic bar that wouldn’t be out of place in more metropolitan European cities. Each room offers views looking out over the beach, to the sea or the Reynisdrangar Pillars. stayinvik.is