How to plan a trip to see the Northern Lights in Iceland

Northern Lights, or the Aurora Borealis, is one of those natural phenomena that are likely to be in everyone's bucket list, as it was in mine. With such gorgeous pictures of the green and purple lights in the sky floating around all over social media, how can you not want to see it with your own eyes? It had been more than 3 years since I had been dreaming of visiting a place that'd make a fantastic trip for a nature & adventure lover like me, with the opportunity to see the spectacular light show against magnificent backdrops and that is why I chose Iceland over any other country in the high latitudes to see the Northern Lights. If you're planning a trip to see the Northern Lights in Iceland, you've come to the right place because here is where I help you plan your trip from scratch!

The key to seeing the Northern Lights is to have minimal light pollution in the sky. So, the darker the night, the more likely you are to catch the lights. Having said that, there is a reason why people say that the Northern Lights need to be 'chased'. Planning a trip to see the Northern Lights in Iceland requires consulting a few sources, keeping some important things in mind, selecting the dates of travel and the places you choose to stay, sensibly. A lot of it can be managed with planning but luck surely plays a big part in it.

If you're lucky, you will see the lights even if the prediction for it is low on that day, and in the middle of a city, where light pollution is high. But being prepared didn't harm anyone, so it might be a great idea to keep a few things in mind to increase the probability of seeing the Northern Lights in Iceland.


How to plan a trip to see the Northern Lights in Iceland

When planning a trip to see the Northern Lights in Iceland, there are several tips to follow. As a general rule, the darker the sky, the more visible the lights are likely to be. Keeping this in mind, here's what you can look at:

Pick your months of travel carefully
The best time to see these awe-inspiring dancing streaks of nature's most beautiful performance is between September - April, the reason being that during the autumn/ winter months, the sun sets in Iceland much earlier than it does in the summer, which means darker and longer nights.

Northern Lights in Iceland

However, the winter months between November and March can get extremely cold and the weather can be very unpredictable and unfriendly - it is not uncommon to have strong winds, heavy rains and cloudy, gloomy skies during the winter months. This can mean that not only is exploring most of the country harder during these months, it also becomes quite difficult to get the right kind of weather and skies for a good viewing of the Aurora. This is why I choose September/ October, which is still autumn, with temperatures ranging between a manageable 10 degrees C during the day and 2 degrees at night. Although the weather might be a little unpredictable, you're still likely to find some very clear, sunny days if you travel for 1-2 weeks. And the best part - the prices are lower than in the summer because it isn't the peak season for travel anymore! The sun sets at around 7 pm, which means the skies are extremely dark by 8-9 pm, making it perfect for a great viewing experience of the lights.
Better weather during the autumn months also gives you an opportunity to explore the rest of the country, which you will certainly want to do because watching the Northern Lights cannot be the sole purpose of your trip! Iceland is blessed with rugged, natural beauty and so much to do that one cannot go there and not immerse themselves in the wilderness. Moreover, if the sky is overcast most of the time (which is a possibility during the winter months), even if the Aurora chooses to dance in the skies, you're not going to be able to see it!

Keep an eye out for the moon cycle
Since the sky needs to be dark, it’s most likely that the lights will be visible around the new moon time rather than full moon time. Keeping an eye on the moon cycle and planning a trip around the new moon period can prove to be a great strategy. Not only will you increase your chances of seeing the lights, but you'll also see them with more intensity and clarity than you would on a night with the moon shining bright.


Find a place away from the city lights
Since there is usually light pollution in the cities, the further you go from the city, the higher the chances that you’ll be able to see the lights. Do not hesitate to ask the locals where you can head to, to get the best Northern Lights viewing experience. Wherever you are in Iceland, you can be assured that you will never be too far from a national park or a lighthouse on the coast which will be devoid of any other street light or city light pollution. It may not be a bad idea to rent a car and drive 30 - 40 minutes outside the city to catch a spot by the ocean where it is dark.

Check a reliable website for prediction
Since it is Mother Nature, it cannot be predicted with complete accuracy in advance. However, in the short term, there are some very reliable websites such as these: Vedur.is for checking the prediction of the Northern Lights. The website not only shows the cloud cover over the entire country but also the possibility of the phenomena taking place, in the next 3 days. This can help you plan where to be (with minimal cloud cover) and on which day to be able to have a fantastic viewing experience. Anything on the scale of 4 and above means a high possibility, as long as you're not under a heavy cloud cover!

Take a Northern Lights tour
If all this planning is not your cup of tea, then simply take a Northern Lights guided tour. If you do not want to rent a car and do it by yourself, be ready to shell out about €80 per head for a 4 hour tour (a small group bus tour) that'll chase the Northern Lights for you. They will take you to the perfect spots, keep an eye out on the predictions and even provide a pick and drop service right to your doorstep. Some Northern Light tours provide a combo option - you could look at doing a glacier hike along with the tour on a different day for example. Most tours, in the event of not being able to spot the lights, will either offer your money back or a backup plan, like use your credit for another activity. You can also choose to do a Northern Lights Boat Tour or a Big Bus Tour! The earlier you book, the better it is, especially on nights when the prediction meter is 4 or more!

It is, perhaps, one of the best decisions I made while travelling to see the Northern Lights in Iceland. Not only does it give you the flexibility to be out and about on the road at any time of the day (rather night), it also gives you the opportunity to be camping under the stars, far away from cities and towns, in the midst of rugged, untamed nature, with front row seats to this phenomenal show. While I was lucky to have seen the Northern Lights right in the middle of downtown Reykjavik, nothing could compare to the experience of watching them somewhere in the middle of nowhere, from the warmth of my campervan, while cooking myself some hot noodles and sipping on a glass of wine. Not only for the purpose of watching the lights but also exploring Iceland in general, renting a campervan is a great idea, if you're open to adventure and don't mind cozy, small places to sleep in.

Spend at least a week
The more time you spend, the higher the probability of seeing the Northern Lights in Iceland. Although the phenomenon might occur a few times during the period you're travelling, you also need to be lucky enough to have clear skies because cloudy skies are likely to spoil the view or block them altogether. I spent about 10 days in Iceland and was extremely lucky to be able to see the lights on 3 of those. Having said that, despite all the calculations and checking predictions beforehand, end of the day, it’s pure luck!

Be prepared to wait
Although the prediction apps will usually tell you to expect the lights to start around a certain time, the Northern Lights can be moody and unpredictable! Sometimes they might appear and stay only for a while whereas other times, they might dance around for hours. On the first night when I saw the lights, they appeared pretty early and quite intensely in the first 15 minutes itself, lasting only for about 45 min in all, fading away after the first few minutes. However, the second time I saw them, I literally had given up on their appearing at all when suddenly, I saw the first green streak almost an hour after waiting for them to appear. On the third day, the lights appeared quite early but were disappointing because they just were not intense enough. But as the time passed, the intensity increased and they stayed for the next 2 hours, brightly green and purple, prancing around teasingly, making everyone freeze in the blistering cold. If the night is clear, which you'll hope for it to be, you're going to need to dress in layers so that the extremely low temperatures are the last thing on your mind while you stand there, with immense patience, to watch this atmospheric spectacle.

I cannot stress on this point enough. Not only did I regret not being able to capture gorgeous pictures of the Northern Lights in Iceland (I deemed my pictures quite average) because my lens wasn't good enough, the truth is, your camera actually gets it better than your naked eye. You'd be surprised to see how much brighter and prettier the lights can look in pictures captured by a good camera than they do in reality to one's eye. Even an iPhone X camera is not able to do justice to it. Of course, you need to know how to use a good camera (consider taking some lessons before you travel) to be able to get the lights because they're not really easy to capture. Oh, and don't forget to carry a tripod along, you're going to want to take long exposure shots.

Nothing I tell you can prepare you for what you'll feel when you do finally see the lights. And although seeing the lights is definitely an experience of a lifetime, don't let it break your heart if you don't. Plan, but don't over-plan. The best thing about heading to Iceland is that even if you're not lucky and aren't able to see Aurora Borealis, there's plenty else to do and see in the country. Some of the most dramatic landscapes, bucolic pastures, spectacular hikes, breathtaking waterfalls, stunning wildlife, tranquil nature walks and incomparable scenery will more than make up for the lack of your luck. Just remember to pack some warm clothes, keep a flexible itinerary and track the prediction apps to successfully experience the Northern Lights in Iceland.

54 thoughts on “How to plan a trip to see the Northern Lights in Iceland”

  1. That’s very beautiful! The photos are incredible! I have not been to Iceland, but I dream of getting there and seeing the northern lights. Great blog! You inspired me! Thanks!

  2. So amazing! These shots are stunning. I went last April and was told not to plan my trup around the northern lights since they are so unpredictable but wish I would have followed these tips! Reason to return 🙂

  3. Being able to see the Northern Lights in Iceland would surely be a highlight of the trip. So I am glad to come across this post with tips on how to plan a trip to Iceland and see the Auroras dance through the night skies. While the winter months might be too cold for me to bear, Sep-Oct sounds ideal to me. I hadn’t considered the moon cycle while planning to see the Northern Lights in Iceland – that’s a good tip regarding timing the visit around the new moon phase to make the most of the darker skies. I’ll refer to this post when we finally plan our much-awaited trip to Iceland.

  4. Ooo good tip about the moon cycle! I hadn’t thought of that before although I did see northern lights in Iceland back in September a few years ago. The activity was super low tho so barely visible to the naked eye and only showed up in photographs. This totally makes me wanna revisit again!!!

  5. I think the tip on tracking the moon cycle is brilliant. I never thought about that as a factor. I have wanted to see this for years now and will refer back to this article when I do so. Great Detail!

  6. Northern Lights are truly magical. I can only imagine when the sky would light up in violets and greens in the dark! Yes, like many others, seeing the Northern Lights is in my bucket list. But not in the next couple of years. Thanks for sharing your experience and the tips. Perhaps I would also love to explore Iceland on a campervan and see the Northern Lights in the middle of nowhere. Again I can only imagine the experience now! 🙂

  7. Your photos are making me consider to include Iceland in my travel bucket list 🙂
    The northern lights are truly magical, and breathtaking, and I am glad to know that it wasn’t that difficult to travel to Iceland. When I finally got my new (powerful) passport, definitely I will meet these beauties!

  8. Iceland has been in the list of places that I want to visit. Although I’d choose Laplands to see Northern Lights but Iceland is something that I want to visit due to its landscapes. Wish my dream comes true.

  9. After all that, I am so glad that you managed to see the Northern lights. It is good you have shared your personal experience with the tips as it makes it a lot easier to relate to. Noted down that prediction website – at least best to have some kind of lead than to chase blindly. I might consider driving myself, especially since the lights are predictable and the tours are expensive…might need more than a day.

  10. I love this article. So many hints ad helpful advice! Thanks a lot. I dream about seeing Northern Lights, and Island is on my bucket list, too. So, maybe the best idea is to combine it and do this kind of trip. September and October sounds excellent for me, so that I will consider it even for this year.

    1. I love that Iceland has so much else to keep you busy so if you do not end up seeing the Northern Lights, at least you don’t end up being disappointed.

  11. I have been lucky to experience the Northern Lights in America, but the theater in the sky was nothing like the Aurora Borealis in Iceland! So stunning. Never would have guess the fall is the best time see the lights. Iceland is on our list of countries to visit so be sure to time our trip when the night is at its most dazzling!

    1. Fall has better weather so its easier to go from one place to another and also experience other activities in Iceland.

  12. It is nice to know that in September/October there is a chance to see the scene. I always thought this was the winter activity. It is kind of luck to see the scene in a week. But I would also plan for at least one week for the chance.

  13. Seeing the northern lights is something I have wanted to do for a long time. I never knew September and October were the best months to see the lights. I would have thought it would be in the dead of winter. I think doing a combo tour where you do an activity during the day and have a guide to find the lights at night is a good idea. I have heard people who have done a guided tour are happy with the help in “chasing the lights”.

  14. This is so high up on our bucket list, we were thinking Norway but Iceland sounds definitely the way to go. I am not too keen on really cold weather and sounds if we plan to visit Iceland in September and October we should be lucky. We would probably spend a month in Iceland so that would give us time in case the weather was bad. This is a very informative article thanks.

  15. Hi Medha! So true, luck is the biggest factor, we went to Lapland to chase the Aurora but weren’t able to spot the lights, nevertheless we have a fantastic trip to Finnish Lapland. Your post has so many wonderful tips, I really admire anyone who can head out in a campervan and brave the elements! Can you share more details about finding a campervan, booking etc? Thanks!

    1. Hi Manjiri, I have linked within the post another post that I wrote which details out about renting a campervan, what you need to keep in mind, etc. Have a look!

  16. Thanks for this post.i have always been fascinated with the Aurora borealis. When you see it in real life, is it as bright and saturated? I have heard the lights are always enhanced in photoshop.

    1. They actually seem brighter in pictures than they are in reality, but its not because of photoshop, it’s because of the way the camera captures them vs our eyes. Of course, many of them enhance the pictures on photoshop as well.

  17. Picking the time is definitely important to see Northern lights. I visited Iceland but was in May, so couldn’t experience any. Taking a tour and finding a place away from the city lights are great ideas. Thank you for your tips. I definitely save them for future use

  18. Quite useful tips to see Northern lights in Iceland or any other Nordic country for that matter. I agree that Sep – April is the best time to see Northern Lights and checking a website about their occurrence is a good idea. I did everything you mentioned in your post during my two trips, Yet I didn’t see it once. How lucky can I be! Maybe next time I’ll catch them 🙂

  19. Catching Northern Lights is always on my wishlist since long. But due to weather uncertainty I always postpone my trip. Good to know about Vedur.is which checks the prediction of the Northern Lights in Iceland. It is great that this website shows very precisely the cloud covering over the entire country but also the possibility of the phenomena taking place till 3 days. I would love to take a guided tour for this as locals must be knowing more about this phenomenon and it will be great to have some company while having this magical view. Thanks for all tips.

    1. I agree, taking a guided tour is likely to reduce your stress of planning and chasing, and the experts will have the best idea of where to take you!

  20. These are solid tips! I would say not to plan your trip entirely around the Northern Lights because I did with my visit to Iceland and was sorely disappointed when they were covered by clouds. They would be beautiful to see in person one day!

    1. I completely agree with you. But that’s the best thing about Iceland, there’s so much else to see and do that even if you end up not being able to see them, you cannot leave disappointed because of the gorgeous landscapes and nature that you’d have experienced anyway. Even the activities such as snowmobiling, glacier hiking, etc, are so amazing.

  21. Northern Lights is so high on our list. We had booked our flight in 2018 Feb, just for the Northern Lights but due to storm, our flights got canceled. Since then, we are always very reluctant about booking flights in winter. Such an exhaustive guide I must say. Predication APP is a cool idea, will keep that in mind.

  22. Like most people this was on my bucket list but we missed it as we travelled to Iceland in the summer. Again it was a choice to travel to places where you can access only during the summer months or to view the Northern lights. Would love to go again just for the lights and as you said will be in the winter months. Will be more calculative and keep an eye on the lunar cycle as you suggested. it’s an absolute wonder an ne not to be missed .

    1. I also struggled with the decision of visiting Iceland in the summer when more places would be accessible vs winter when you have the chance to see the Northern Lights. Luckily, autumn is the perfect time when you can pretty much do both things!

  23. I’m not sure when I’ll get the chance to do this, but when I do get the chance, I’ll absolutely use this post. To be honest, it’s been a travel goal of mine for as long as I can remember, so thanks for reminding me about that!

  24. Picking the time is definitely important to see Northern lights. I visited Iceland but was in May, so couldn’t experience any. Taking a tour and finding a place away from the city lights are great ideas. Thank you for your tips. I definitely save them for future use!

  25. I stayed in a glass igloo in Finland and had cloud clover. Also took a northern light snow mobile tour but didn’t get lucky. I talked to other people who did a van tour that night and saw them, the van can take you where they are. I’m going to try again in Iceland. I’ll jok beginning of Oct. great tips!

  26. I’m so gutted that we never got to see the northern lights when we were in Iceland. That said, I’m definitely using your guide the next time we visit. That’s a great website to know, vedur.is, and one I’ll be bookmarking! I do like the idea of joining a tour too; we can either all be happy, or disappointed together if we do/don’t see the lights!

    1. And the advantage of joining a tour is that they chase the lights for you, they know the places to head and will take you there.

  27. Did you find the lights to be as bright as in photos? When we went out our guide said they were in full force, but it really just looked like a milky-white light pollution in the sky. It didn’t seem like what we had seen photos of at all. I’d be curious to know if we just caught a bad night or if they are not as visible to the naked eye as you mention under the camera section. We probably should have tried a few more nights to get more views. Good tips on the camera, I brought my DSLR but I didn’t have the right lens and didn’t get the photos I wanted either.

    1. The lights were quite bright on 2 of the nights I saw them but not as bright as they seem in my photos. The camera, despite not having the right lens, managed to capture them much brighter than visible to the naked eye. On one of the nights, it was cloudy and I hardly saw the lights, but the camera managed to capture them purple!

  28. Seeing the Nothern Lights and visiting Iceland is on my travel bucket list! I appreciate you explaining various ways to see them from DIY to taking a tour. I’m more of the DIY planning type of person so I would prefer to find them on my own. You mentioned that it was best to escape the city life to see the Northern Lights. Did you have a recommended spot to see them?

    1. Hello Jackie, depending on which part of the country you are in, you’ll always have areas outside the city where you can go and watch. For example,if you’re in Reykjavik, you can head to the Grotta Lighthouse which isn’t too far from the city yet in a place with much less light pollution. Even Kirkjufell mountain and the waterfall near it are amazing backdrops to see the Northern Lights in. Þingvellir National park is another great option. One night I saw the lights at the Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon and even that was really amazing!

  29. When I went for hunting the Northern Lights I went in Tromso, north of Norway. The funny thing is that I stayed there for two weeks just to make sure that all conditions to witness the Northern Lights were met. But I think that it’s great too see in any other part of the world and Iceland must be one of them.

    1. I’m sure Norway is a great place to see the lights too. How many times did you manage to catch them in a span of 2 weeks?

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