The northern lights are one of nature’s most fascinating spectacles. The scientific name for this phenomenon in the Northern Hemisphere is aurora borealis. The appearances are vast curtains or shafts of light that float across the night sky in colors of green, blue, yellows, and sometimes a tinge of red. It is caused by solar activity ejecting a cloud of gas. This drifts toward the earth and collides with the magnetic field of the planet and produces particles that in turn mix with oxygen and nitrogen, causing the dazzling color display.
Iceland happens to be one of the countries where the most intense northern lights can be observed from the end of August to April because dark and cold nights are what make them visible.
Even though they can be observed throughout the country, there are several places where the northern lights are pure magic. Some are easier reached than others, but we will tell you all about them.
Mother Nature works to her own schedule and whim. Even if you are in the right place at the right time, the northern lights might not make an appearance. Don’t be disappointed. There are plenty of things to do and see at these places. Your trip will never be wasted.
More On Seeing The Northern Lights Around The World
1. Thingvellir National Park
Located in a rift valley in Southwest Iceland, Thingvellir National Park is a World Heritage Site because of its cultural and historic significance as well as its outstanding nature. An example of history: From 930 A.D. to 1789 A.D. it was the site of Alping, Iceland’s parliament.
The area features Iceland’s largest natural lake, Thingvallavatn, a river, and a waterfall. The magnificent Silfra fissure on the northern shore of the lake is even a famous place for diving. In the winter months, Thingvellir is a popular location to see the aurora borealis. The aurora borealis forecast website provides up-to-date information about the conditions and the best spots to watch, so consult it before setting off from the capital, Reykjavik. It’s not a far drive, approximately 35 miles northeast of Reykjavik along Route 1 and then on to Route 36. The roads are plowed most days in winter, but, again, consult the weather reports before your trip.
Threngsli is actually a beautiful stream that runs along Route 1 following the southern coastline of Iceland. It’s considered one of the best places to see the northern lights because of the lack of towns and light pollution. The landscape consists of lava fields, covered with moss in the summer and snow in the winter.
You have two possibilities to get there: Either self-drive by renting a car or go on a tour which might be advisable, considering the possibility of unfavorable road conditions.
3. Seljavallalaug Pool
This is an adventure of a special kind as you will be visiting Iceland’s oldest outdoor swimming pool. It’s a great stop along a northern light-watching tour in the south of the country, following Route 1. The pool was built in 1923. It has to be mentioned that it gets cleaned only once a year, so you might think twice about jumping in. However, as a viewpoint for the aurora, it’s great, and the huge nearby waterfalls of Skogafoss and Seljalauksfoss will take your breath away.
4. Vik/Katla Geopark
Like many of the best places to watch the northern lights, this gem, Vik, in the middle of Katla Geopark, is also located in the south of Iceland.
It is Iceland’s southernmost village with black sand beaches bordering the Atlantic, a volcano, and a glacier to the north. Can you imagine seeing aurora borealis curtains wafting over the Atlantic? Apart from that, there are many outdoor and cultural activities if you have the time. Get your fill of black beaches by admiring the hexagonal black basalt columns of Reynisfjara Beach. A perfect location to watch the northern lights is the adorable, red-roofed Vik I Myrdal Church that sits above the village on a hill. Don’t miss Dyrkolaey Arch and the lighthouse and if you have the time, you might consider hiking the Solheimajakull glacier. To do so, you must join a tour.
Located in the Northwest of the country, at the head of Reykjarfjord, Djupavik is a tiny village with only seven houses, 53 inhabitants, a bakery, and a hotel. It is, however, an ideal location to see the northern lights. In winter the village is often cut off from the rest of the country, so driving might not be possible. There are two weekly flights from the capital, Reykjavik, which is 212 miles away from the tiny Gjogur airport. The village was founded to establish a herring salting factory, the ruins of which can be visited today together with a tiny museum.
In the westernmost point of Iceland, you find Latrabjarg, a double attraction. On the one hand, it’s a great location to see the northern lights, on the other, it’s an 8.7-mile-long cliff that is host to the biggest seabird community in the country. Aurora borealis and puffins, what more can you ask for? Be very, very careful though. The cliffs are fragile, and it’s a very long drop to the beach below. Make sure to check the weather conditions before setting out. The roads are not always plowed. Also, if setting off by car from Reykjavik, fill up your tank. There are not many gas stations along the way.
7. Asbyrgi Canyon
Located approximately 24 miles east of the northern town of Husavik, Asbyrgi Canyon is a spectacular formation within Vatnajokull National Park. The horseshoe-shaped several-mile-long canyon is formed by steep cliffs and divided through the middle by rock formations with a peaceful lake at the end. It’s a place full of legends as it is also known as the Shelter of The Gods of Norse mythology. Here is some instruction on how to get to Asbyrgi Canyon and how to find your way around. Apart from awesome nature, it’s a popular location for viewing the northern lights.
8. Seltjarnarnes Peninsula
Here you have a chance to see the northern lights closer to Reykjavik. The peninsula juts out into the ocean with the Grotta Lighthouse at the end. Geothermal pools invite you to a dip. Visit one of the oldest stone houses of the country, which is a medical history museum, or follow some of the many hiking trails.
The further away you get from towns or villages, the greater your chance to see the aurora borealis because of the lack of streetlights, so this peninsula is an exception as it is close to a city and your best bet if you don’t fancy venturing far from the city in the middle of winter.
Located on the ring road that circles the whole of Iceland, in the south and at approximately 58 miles from Reykjavik, Hella is a prime location to watch the northern lights. It is a small town with about 600 inhabitants, but the location and sights have made it a popular tourist attraction not only because of the aurora borealis. On the shores of the river Ytri-Ranga, it’s popular for salmon fishing. Irish monks who settled here first lived in caves that can also be visited. You have a stunning view of the active volcano Hekla and can enjoy the healing, hot, thermal waters of the famous Secret Lagoon nearby. Due to the many local and foreign visitors, Hella has plenty of amenities, including bed and breakfasts and bungalows, restaurants, and shops -- more than in other places in Iceland.
If you plan to go on a northern lights self-drive tour around the ring road, Hella might be a good place to spend a night. A great option is the aptly named Hotel Hella.
Food And Drink In Iceland
Of course, you have to eat and drink, too. Here’s a bit about what to expect in Iceland. The food is dominated by what the island produces: lamb, cod, herring, and berries. Delicious are lamb chops with lava salt butter; skyr, which is a dip resembling a mix of yogurt and cottage cheese; and smoked or raw herring with new potatoes.
As for drink, there’s Icelandic beer, and for warmth: Brennivin, a strong, unsweetened schnapps similar to vodka. It’s also known as Black Death, so take care.
Iceland is bitter cold in winter, so make sure you are well wrapped up when you go hunting for the northern lights. As many of the best places are in remote and rocky areas, sturdy hiking shoes or boots are a must.
Iceland is a vast but sparsely populated country. Especially if you decide on a self-drive tour, better rent a 4x4, make sure you fill up your tank, and have GPS, flares, and a first aid kit.
Names of locations are often spelled in very different ways, so make sure you know where you are going.
The currency is the Islandic Krona. They drive on the right. Note that your headlights must be switched on at all times, day or night.