Top 5 places to see the Northern Lights in Iceland
February and March (near the solstice) are statistically better for spotting the Northern Lights than the darkest months of the year. So there is still time to plan that long weekend this year with the Aurora Borealis in mind. The first week of April is the last week I would give anyone a good chance of spotting them. After the 15th of April the daylight hours begin to overtake the night and experiencing full darkness to see the Northern Lights is too difficult. Late August will be your next opportunity.
So I want my final post regarding Northern Lights this winter to be a (green) lighthearted post detailing my top 5 spots for seeing the Northern Lights without having to drive around in the dark aimlessly for hours.
What makes a good Northern Lights spot?
Firstly, a very brief explanation of what makes a place good for spotting the Northern Lights. It’s not rocket surgery, trust me. The main aim is to find darkness. Unencumbered darkness. No street lights. No busy roads. And no structures obstructing your view. These are the only factors you can affect yourself. The rest of the time you just have to cross your fingers and toes that the skies are clear, the moon is low and the sun is sending its electrically charged particles towards us that night.
Hot tip from a local
Do not, and I mean definitely do not, join any of those big bus tours that leave from Reykjavik. They are the cheapest but the reality is they drive straight out of town often to the same spots as many other companies and sit there with their engines on and lights shining for an hour or two then drive you back. It is cold, it is uneventful and there is a much smaller chance of seeing them. When you count up the physical ‘hunting’ hours it will barely be more than 1. Considering we can have up to 16 hours of usable nighttime in Iceland that doesn’t sound like a good deal to me.
Without further ado.
1. Snæfellsnes Peninsula
Or more accurately, the Kirkjufell mountain (pictured) famous for its arrow shaped appearance and for being filmed in Game of Thrones. The Snæfellsnes Peninsula is only 2 hours from Reykjavik so you can enjoy a wonderful day wandering around broken sea cliffs at Arnastapi and driving around the Snæfellsjökull volcano, detailed in Jules Verne’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth. If you are driving yourself then pick a hotel on the north side of the peninsula. My favourite village in the entire country is the sleepy fishing village of Stykkishólmur. Its lonesome lighthouse perched atop the north facing sea cliff is a quick walk from most hotels and dinner spots. If you are joining a tour operator then they will likely spend the evening traversing the coast with you looking for clear sky but will (hopefully) allow you a long lie the next day so you can stay up late yourself to keep the hunt going. The following day, you can spend the morning in the quaint cafes and start your drive south. I often stop off at the luxurious Krauma hot pool on the way back to Reykjavik to unwind.
2. Lilja Guest House in South East Iceland
This little guest house in the middle of nowhere is actually a working farm with a newly built hotel on the land. To say this place is secluded is an understatement. It is the furthest east I would be willing to venture in one day from Reykjavik. The hotel is basic but clean and comfortable with locally sourced food. The real draw however, is that you have open fields, empty landscapes and no villages or towns in any direction. All the lights in the hotel are turned off after dinner except some ground lights (and even they can be switched off if you ask nicely enough). This family owned guest house is also quite perfectly just 30 minutes drive from the world famous Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon and Diamond Beach. This area doubles up as the pick up location for ice cave tours too so it’s well worth spending at least 1 night in this area and exploring the next day.
3. Reykjanes Peninsula
We refer to this area as a gem hiding in plain sight. Reykjavik is skirting the north east side of this peninsula so you are literally only a 30-40 minute drive from the city to get into seclusion. The airport and Blue Lagoon are situated on this peninsula too but further west. This leaves many tourists distracted by the famous spots leaving the entire south coast with its bubbling hot pools, acid rivers, multi-coloured rocks, mighty cliff edges and crashing waves practically empty. Everything is so close to each other that all the best sights can be seen in around 5 hours. A perfect tour during the darker months of the year. Then pivotally there are very few people living in this area once the darkness comes. Find a great spot near the coast and enjoy the darkness alone. Some people like to sleep overnight here too but most will make their way back to Reykjavik once tiredness sets in. Small group Northern Lights tour companies like Happy World like to spend time here in their off-road vehicles.
4. Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon
Some of the best light shows I’ve ever seen have been while sitting by the edge of this lagoon with friends. If the sky is clear you can easily see the icebergs in the lagoon floating by you. There are no hotels here (yet) so you will need to travel a little while from your hotel to find this spot. But it is well worth it. If you are with an experienced guide or are an avid photographer you should be able to get that perfect picture that shows both the dancing curtains of the Northern Lights and the translucent white and blues of the icebergs in the foreground. A tricky picture to achieve but one of the most unique on the planet. A recent trip with a photographer (pictured) proved that car lights can sometimes be useful. We lit up the icebergs with car lights and still had plenty of darkness for the green to appear in the night sky. Perfect. Hotels that are close enough to this lagoon to try this are Fosshotel Glacier Lagoon, Hotel Skaftafell, HALI Country Hotel and Lilja Guest House.
5. Seljalandsfoss Waterfall
This final one is a little strange as an addition as it seems to be more a case of ‘right place at the right time’ whenever I find the Northern Lights here. But my goodness, when you do catch a glimpse it is truly magical. Seljalandsfoss is arguably the most popular waterfall on the south coast of Iceland. In the middle of the day there are more buses and cars than I’d care to count, but for good reason. This is a waterfall created from glacier meltwater pouring off the active volcano that stopped 100,000 planes from flying back in 2010, Eyjafjallajökull. Importantly, it is the only waterfall that is lit up in the dark in the area. This means that you can explore this waterfall in the dark and even venture behind it on warmer nights. The great thing about this spot is that it is often ‘on the way’ to somewhere else so stopping here to see the waterfall is a must regardless. So if you are unlucky with the aurora borealis then at least you can see an impressive 200ft waterfall in the dark.
Find darkness and activities
So that’s it for my Northern Lights posts this winter. Next month will feature something a little different. You’ll notice from above (and from previous posts) that I’ve included other activities as reasons for each of the 5 being great Northern Lights spots. This is because your chances of seeing them on any given night is not certain so you might as well enjoy the other things Iceland has to offer in the meantime. Northern Lights are never guaranteed so make sure you plan your trip with lots of other activities along the way.
Ryan Connolly is Co-Founder of Hidden Iceland. Hidden Iceland specialises in private trips, taking you to some of the hidden gems of Iceland with a passionate and experienced guide.