Person with torch admiring the northern lights in Iceland

3 minute read

Northern Lights

So you want to see the Northern Lights? Iceland is close enough to the Arctic for them to appear. With dark winter nights and plenty of remote spots, you’ve got a great chance of seeing the aurora borealis in Iceland.

What are the Northern Lights?

The Northern Lights are a natural phenomenon that occurs around the Arctic. You might also know them as the aurora borealis, their scientific name. The easiest way to think about them is as a light show in the winter night sky, made up of colorful ribbons that dance and ripple.

When do the Northern Lights occur?

It’s a little known fact that the Northern Lights are actually happening all the time. You can’t always see them though. This is because there’s often too much light from other sources, like the sun or human activity.

This is the reason you can’t see them in summer, there is simply too much sunlight. Northern Lights season is definitely winter, which in Iceland is from October to March.

Read this blog post on the best time to see the Northern Lights to find out more.

What causes the Northern Lights?

The reason we get the Northern Lights is thanks to a steady stream of particles given off by the sun hitting the upper atmosphere. These particles interact with the Earth’s magnetic field, in a process known as ionization.

You can see the result of this in the form of light in varying hues. The aurora can span all the colors of the rainbow, but the most common are green, turquoise, and purple. Red is a rare occurrence, so it’s a real treat if you manage to spot it.

The earliest mention of the Northern Lights in Nordic writings is from 1230 AD, before they were properly understood. Then, they were thought to be caused by giant fires surrounding the sea, or from glaciers storing up energy and glowing in the dark.

When is the best time to look for the Northern Lights?

To maximize your chances of seeing the Northern Lights, you’ll need 3 things:

  • Clear skies
  • Plenty of darkness
  • High levels of solar activity

Check the aurora forecast provided by the Icelandic Met Office to see if you have the right weather conditions. It also gives you an indication of how strong the sun’s activity is at the moment.

Where can you see the Northern Lights in Iceland?

Technically, you can see the Northern Lights anywhere in Iceland if activity is strong enough.

That said, you’ll probably want to escape the city lights by heading to the countryside for a more spectacular view. Here there’s minimal light pollution, which also makes for much better photographs.

There are lots of viewing locations near breathtaking natural landmarks. Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon on the south coast and Þingvellir National Park on the Golden Circle route are a couple of the most popular.

Read about more of the best places to see the Northern Lights in Iceland.

What is the best way to see the Northern Lights?

For maximum freedom, you can rent a car as part of a self-drive tour. This way you can head straight to a great spot as soon as you hear that the aurora are active.

Another away of catching the Northern Lights is on a small group tour. A local guide will take you by bus to an ideal location in the countryside, away from the city lights. Some tours also include photos, so you don’t need to worry about taking your own.

When you book a vacation package with Iceland Tours, you can join one of these group tours by bus. There’s also the option to upgrade to a super jeep or boat tour, for a next-level experience!

How do you take pictures of the Northern Lights?

Capturing a perfect image of the aurora can be tricky, but if you’ve got the right gear you can get a spectacular shot. 

You’ll get the best results by using a DSLR camera and tripod. Set your camera to a long exposure and keep it steady. As the Northern Lights are constantly in motion, you’re in for some incredible photo effects.

If you can adjust the exposure on your phone camera, you might also be able to get a decent image. Keeping your device still is key though: any movement will lead to a blurry photo.

What should I wear for a Northern Lights tour?

The Icelandic winter can be chilly, although it is probably milder than you’d expect. That said, you’ll want to wrap up warm as you’ll be outside at night, perhaps for an hour or two. 

Here’s what to wear:

  • Warm base layers
  • Insulated winter coat
  • Sturdy walking boots
  • Wooly gloves, hat, and scarf

Find out what else to pack for an Iceland winter tour.