The northern lights are elusive; you hear about them constantly from what seems like everyone and their mum, waxing lyrical about the curtain of bright green and blue wisps prancing gracefully through the sky, the chances of seeing them are limited, to say the least. You need to be in the right country, in the right season, while other elements like weather (and cloud cover) are completely out of your control. Iceland is one of the best countries to visit for a chance of seeing the impressive natural phenomenon. The viewing conditions are favourable, and in a land of dusted mountain peaks, mythical basalt stacks, sparkling waterfalls, electric-blue glacial lagoons and wide open skies, the choices for a backdrop are endless. We've rounded up some of the best places to see the northern lights in Iceland to help you harness this spectacular sight.
Best places to see the Northern Lights in Iceland
Best time to see the northern lights in Iceland
Before we get into the best places to see the northern lights in Iceland, first thing’s first: it's all about timing. The "season" for seeing the Aurora Borealis spans September to April, although the best time is more realistically October to March. This isn’t entirely strict, however, as they can be seen as early as late August and activity does actually happen throughout the year, but the long daylight hours of the summer make seeing them incredibly difficult.
If you're visiting Iceland in winter, remember to wrap up warm as temperatures can dip to -10°C and you may be waiting for some time in the cold (human will is not enough; they'll take their sweet time showing up, if at all). In December, the sun rises around 11am and starts setting not long after 1pm - bad news for your internal clock, but good news for your chances of seeing the northern lights. So you're not left in the dark (pun intended), keep an eye on the so you know how likely it is that activity will occur on any given night.
Where to go to see the northern lights
Other than needing somewhere with dark, clear skies away from cities, there are places in Iceland which will give you the best chance of seeing the northern lights, or offer a particularly magical experience. It's also worth noting that the further north you go, the better your chances will be, as the natural phenomena is triggered by the North Pole.
Þingvellir National Park
Iceland is a sparse country, so even if you’re basing yourself in the capital of Reykjavík, you won’t have to go all that far to get away from light pollution. Þingvellir (Thingvellir) National Park is historically significant in the country: it was the site of Iceland’s Parliament between the 10th and 18th centuries and where the Silfra drift (the meeting of the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates) is located. More importantly for us, it offers the clear night skies necessary for to see the Aurora.
The Aurora display within Thingvellir National Park © Daniel Schreiber / Shutterstock
Reykjavík boat cruise
If you want something a little different, you can take a boat trip from Reykjavík’s harbour and view the lights dancing above the ocean. This is a slightly risky game: not only do you need clear skies for the lights, but also calm seas. On windy days, they won’t take you out, but it won’t be a wasted trip – you’ll just be ushered out of the city on land instead.
Jökulsárlón is a glacial lagoon that should be on your Iceland bucket-list anyway, but it just so happens that the utterly unique landscape also makes it one of the very best places to see the northern lights in Iceland. Located in the southeast, bordering Vatnajökull National Park, the crystal-clear ice boulders on the black sand beach pick up the red and green glow of the Aurora Borealis, creating a kaleidoscopic effect. This is a particularly good location for photographers.
Northern lights reflected in Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon © Krissanapong Wongsawarng / Shutterstock
Reynisfjara black sand beach
Near the southern town of Vík is Reynisfjara, known for its black sand beach, basalt columns (reminiscent of Northern Ireland's Giant’s Causeway) and ocean stacks, named Reynisdrangar. It's one of the best places to see the northern lights in Iceland as it provides both dramatic views and the soundtrack of the waves while the night sky puts on its show. Legend has it that the basalt stacks were once trolls who tried to guide a ship to shore, and when daylight broke they transformed into the sharp needles of rock you see now, forever stranded out at sea. At least they always have a front row seat to the Aurora.
Northern lights above Reynisdrangar, the basalt stacks out at sea near the town of Vík © Ghing / Shutterstock
Want to feel like you’re defying Mother Nature? Then watch the northern lights while sitting cosily in one of Iceland’s famous hot springs. Seljavallalaug is our top pick: the outdoor swimming pool is free and open 24 hours a day. It's also one of the oldest pools in Iceland, and, helpfully when it comes to the Aurora, in the middle of nowhere (although, to give you some direction here, it’s in southern Iceland between Reykjavík and Vík). A cosmic light show plus sublime bath-water temperatures? If you ask us, Seljavallalaug is hands down one of the best places to catch the display.
Seljavallalaug hot spring will keep you warm while watching the northern lights above © Mathias Berlin / Shutterstock
A mountain framed by a waterfall and surrounded by lush greenery (or snow in winter), Kirkjufell already looks perfect without the northern lights – it is frequently dubbed 'the most photographed mountain in Iceland'. But when you visit you'll see that rather than being overkill, it's as though nature has thumped you over the head and demanded you pay attention to its showing off. Kirkjufell makes you fall deeper in love with this varied country, and provides a stunning backdrop to the dazzling phenomenon to boot. Located on the north coast of the Snæfellsnes peninsula, it's just over two hours' drive from Reykjavík.
Kirkjufell mountain and waterfall © Thampitakkull Jakkree / Shutterstock
The further north you go in Iceland, the more your chances increase in both getting a glimpse of the northern lights and that glimpse being more impressive (as long as you stay away from light pollution). With beautiful hikes to be had during the season's few daylight hours and hardly any light pollution at night, head to the small and picturesque northern fishing town of Siglufjörður, located in a stunning narrow fjord. It might be last but it's certainly not least on our list of the best places to see the northern lights. Roads up here can often be difficult to navigate or simply closed due to harsh weather conditions in winter, so always check before travel if driving yourself (if you're comfortable driving in snow and ice), or organise professional transport or a tour.
Siglufjörður harbour at dawn © Nella / Shutterstock
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