Iceland Northern Lights – Travel Guide

Table of contents

What are the Northern Lights?

Iceland attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors in winter. Excited travelers of all ages and from even the farthest corners of the world besiege city stops in the evenings, waiting for their guide. But what are the Northern Lights? How do we explain this natural phenomenon that has delighted human eyes for centuries?

It all starts in the sun, where gas explosions throw a million tons of matter (mainly protons and electrons) toward our planet every second. These particles, flying at an alarming speed of a million miles per hour, are called the solar wind. Worse yet, they are on a collision course with Earth! Fortunately, there is something that protects us. We are talking about an electromagnetic field that redirects these particles towards magnetic poles. When the solar outburst is significant, the solar wind can strain the resistance of the magnetosphere, and high-energy particles will be pushed into the atmosphere in large numbers. Here, with the help of some friends, they will create one of the most spectacular shows designed by Mother Nature – the Northern Lights. 20 to 200 miles above our planet’s surface, electrons and protons “meet” oxygen, nitrogen and neon atoms. High-energy particles of the solar wind combine with neutral atoms in our atmosphere, which become excited and begin to emit light. Thanks to this, we can observe the Northern Lights in the winter sky, and their color depends on the wavelength of the photon emitted by a given atom.

Can you explain what the Northern Lights are to a thirteen-year-old?

Have you ever played with magnets? If so, you know that they attracted or repelled each other when properly positioned. Think of our planet as a giant magnet (thanks to the liquid iron always being present in the Earth’s core) whose invisible electromagnetic field (the force responsible for attracting and repelling magnets) spreads around our planet like a shield. On the other hand, we have the Sun, which gives us life, but can also be the source of some problems. Chemical reactions taking place on the surface of the Sun cause the ejection of invisible, electrically charged particles, which, after traveling 93 million miles, reach the previously mentioned electromagnetic field of the Earth.  This is where the work of our giant magnet begins, repelling the solar wind and changing its flight path. However, with stronger solar winds, our shield can become overloaded. When this happens, many protons and electrons from the Sun collide with neutral oxygen and nitrogen atoms in our atmosphere. The previously sleeping atoms of our atmosphere are energized and begin to emit energy in the form of light that we can see in the winter sky as the Northern Lights. 

What is the best time to hunt Northern Lights in Iceland?

The forces of nature that cause the Northern Lights to appear operate daily. However, this does not mean that you can see the Northern Lights every day. Between May and August, there are practically no nights, or they are very short, and therefore, the chances of successful hunting are meager. The best time of the year will be from September to April.

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Where can you see the northern lights in Iceland?

Where can I see the northern lights? This is a question that I hear almost every day as a guide, but there is no simple answer to it. The main rule is to find a dark place, preferably away from the city. If we stay in a built-up area, seeing the Northern Lights will be much more challenging due to city light pollution. The second issue is clouds, so you must use appropriate weather maps and find a place with clear skies. Once you have selected the place where you will start your hunt by browsing the maps, all you need to do is dress warmly and be patient.

Where can I see the Northern Lights on the South Coast of Iceland?

As previously noted, the location of the Northern Lights may change from day to day. For this reason, no one can guarantee that you will definitely see the Northern Lights in this or that place. However, there are iconic places that can make your experience even more special. One of the most spectacular places on the south coast is the Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon with its adjacent Diamond Beach. When there is sufficient solar activity, giant colorful streaks dance in the sky just above the thousand-year-old ice of the Vatnajökull glacier. Another fantastic location on the south coast is the black sand beach of Reynisfjara. One of the most beautiful non-tropical beaches in the world, with unique rock formations, has so far attracted not only millions of tourists from all over the world but also producers of the famous Game of Thrones production. You can also choose from one of the most unique Icelandic waterfalls like Seljalandsfoss or Skogafoss (the latter was also immortalized in the production of Game of Thrones).

Can I see the Northern Lights on the East Coast of Iceland?

The east coast of Iceland is relatively sparsely populated, so you shouldn’t have any problem finding a suitable place. Just turn off the main road, enter one of the fjords, and wait for your first Northern Lights.

Can I see the Northern Lights on the North Coast of Iceland?

You can also go hunting for the northern lights here! The fact that the north has longer nights and usually less cloudiness than the rest of the country will work to your advantage. When looking for the most spectacular places in the north, remember Lake Mývatn and the Ásbyrgi Canyon. We advise you to avoid Akureyri as this is the second-largest town in Iceland, which means there will be too much light pollution. 

Can I see the Northern Lights on the West Coast of Iceland?

When exploring the west coast, don’t forget about the western fjords! It is a beautiful region where tourism is not as widespread as in the south of Iceland. So, if you are looking for peace away from the most crowded tourist places, this is the perfect place for you. If you manage to catch the Northern Lights at the Dynjandi Waterfall, you will thank us for the tip! Apart from the western fjords, on this side of Iceland, you will find the Snæfellsnes peninsula with Mount Kirkjufell (another Game of Thrones location), beautiful mountains and some of the most incredible rock formations in the world.

Where can I see the Northern Lights in Reykjavik?

When hunting Northern Lights, it is best to go outside the city, away from the city lights. However, it may happen that you will not have the opportunity to join one of the tours or organize it yourself. Are you doomed to failure, then? Fortunately, not necessarily! You must remember that your luck will be the deciding factor when hunting for the Northern Lights. Even if you join an organized tour with an experienced guide, you will not be guaranteed to see the Northern Lights. If you stay in the city, you have one more significant obstacle – city light pollution. The brighter it is in a given place, the paler the Northern Lights you will see. However, if you have no other choice, it is worth at least trying. Trying to find a darker place on the city map, such as parks or less developed areas, would be a great idea. A good option would be to go to the Seltjarnarnes peninsula, especially at its end, next to the island of Grótta. There are not many buildings and city lights there so that you can see the northern lights there relatively often. The area around the Perlan Museum, with the surrounding forest and other city parks, will also be a good place.

Can I see the Northern Lights from camping in Iceland?

Unfortunately, this is not the best idea, and it is not about the location itself but about the Icelandic weather. Due to the climate on the island, camping sites are only open from April to September. While you can see the Northern Lights sometimes in April and September, you don’t have the chance to see the Northern Lights from May to August.

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How to take the perfect photo of the Northern Lights?

We know perfectly well how important it is for anyone visiting Iceland to hunt the Northern Lights. Taking a good photo of your first Aurora is the icing on the cake, but to take it, you need a few steps:

  1. Choose the right place – for a good start, you must go to one of the countries in the far north. Popular choices for travelers include Alaska, Iceland and Norway.
  1. Check the forecast—You already know that the strength of the Northern Lights depends, among other things, on the sun’s activity. You can check this and other factors in advance using one of the popular applications (we recommend Hello Aurora). When solar activity is high, don’t forget also to check the cloud forecast! It would be best to find a place with the most transparent sky possible.

3. Prepare the equipment:

  • Camera: You’ll need a DSLR or mirrorless camera that allows manual setting control. While you can capture the Northern Lights with a smartphone, a dedicated camera will give you much better results.
  • Lens: A wide-angle lens with a fast aperture (f/2.8 or wider) is ideal for capturing the vastness of the aurora-filled sky.
  • Tripod: Since you’ll be using long exposure times, a sturdy tripod is essential to keep your camera steady and avoid blur.
  • Remote Shutter Release (optional): This helps minimize camera shake when taking long exposure shots.
  1. Camera Settings:
  •  Set your camera to Manual (M) mode.
  • Use a wide aperture (low f-number) to let in more light. Start with f/2.8 or wider.
  • Increase the ISO (usually between 800 and 3200) to make the camera more light-sensitive.
  • Experiment with different shutter speeds. Start with around 10-20 seconds and adjust as needed. Longer exposures can capture more detail but may also result in star trails.
  • Manual focus: Set your lens to manual focus mode and adjust it to infinity (∞) or slightly before to ensure sharpness.
  1. Compose Your Shot:
  • Look for exciting foreground elements like trees, mountains, or lakes to add depth to your photo. Finding a proper spot in Iceland should not be a problem.
  • Position the camera to capture the Northern Lights filling the sky, keeping in mind the direction they’re moving.
  1.   Take Test Shots: Before the northern lights get very intense, take some test shots to fine-tune your settings and composition.
  1.  Capture the Moment: Once you’re happy with your settings and composition, start taking your photos of Northern Lights. Be patient and keep shooting as the lights dance across the sky, adjusting your settings as needed.
  1. Review and Adjust: Periodically review your photos on the camera’s LCD screen to ensure you get the desired results and adjust as necessary.
  1. Post-Processing: When you’re done shooting, you can enhance your photos further using photo editing software like Adobe Lightroom or Photoshop. Adjusting contrast, brightness, and color temperature can help bring out the beauty of the Northern Lights even more.

Remember, taking perfect photos of the Northern Lights can be challenging, but with practice and patience, you can capture some truly unique photos of this natural wonder!

Guided tours in Iceland

If you still don’t feel confident after reading this guide or prefer to be under the care of an experienced guide, you can join one of the tours. Many companies are organizing Northern Lights Hunting in Iceland, so finding a seat on the bus should not be a problem for you. Remember, however, that Iceland is visited by as many as 2.5 million tourists annually! Therefore, in such a small city as Reykjavik, it is not possible for all buses to stop at the hotels in the center. The city authorities solved this problem by establishing special bus stops. You will recognize them by their red and blue colors, and the complete list can be found at You don’t have to worry too much as every hotel in Reykjavik city center has a stop nearby, a maximum of 10 minutes walk away. Once you find your stop, wait patiently for your guide. It is possible that your stop will be crowded with dozens of people, and different companies will pick you up. Most buses are marked, so remember the name of the operator from whom you purchased your ticket. Many people buy tickets from intermediaries and then look for the intermediary’s name on the bus, which can be confusing. So, when booking a ticket, ask whether you are talking directly to the operator and, if not, what the operator’s name is. Each guide has a list of guests, so you don’t have to ask each driver if they have come to pick you up. Wait until he starts reading the list, and you will be ready to go when you hear your name. On average, the trip lasts four hours without a specific route. As guides, before we pick you up from your stop, we check weather maps and determine a route that will give us the best chance of spotting the Northern Lights. On such a trip, you not only have a greater chance of seeing them, but you will also learn from your guide about the Northern Lights and Iceland itself. Stories about the brave Vikings who sailed to Iceland in the 9th century and their difficult life on the island will make these four hours fly by. Also, remember that winter in Iceland can be freezing, mainly due to the wind, so appropriate clothing is essential! Visitors often complain about the weather, but we used to say that there is no such thing as bad weather, only inappropriate clothing. Good luck with your hunt!


What does the color of the Northern Lights depend on?

The color of the Northern Lights depends on the wavelength of the photon emitted by a given atom. The collision of the solar wind with various atoms of our atmosphere causes the Northern Lights of different colors. Excited oxygen atoms (mainly in the lower atmosphere) emit green and red light, while nitrogen atoms (higher in the atmosphere) emit blue, dark red and purple light.

Is the Northern Lights phenomenon known only by this name?

Actually, no! You must know that our magnetosphere pushes the solar wind toward both poles. This phenomenon near the North Pole is called Aurora Borealis, while near the South Pole, it is called Aurora Australis.

Is there a guarantee of seeing the aurora borealis if I book a Northern Lights hunting tour?

Unfortunately, no. As mentioned above, luck is an important factor in hunting the Northern Lights. However, you may find some consolation in the fact that if you fail to catch the Northern Lights, most companies allow you to make another attempt without an additional fee.

What kind of equipment do I need to prepare before hunting the Northern Lights in Iceland?

The most essential piece of equipment will be appropriately selected clothing. Remember that nights in Iceland can be really cold in the winter months, so a fleece, raincoat, hat and gloves are essential. Don’t forget about your photography equipment. Otherwise, no one will believe that you actually hunted the Northern Lights in Iceland!

Is the duration of the Northern Lights hunting always the same?

No, it may be different each time. It depends on many factors, such as who your guide is, what the weather is like, whether you were successful with your hunting, and the mood and energy of the group. It is safe to assume that it takes about 4 hours. 

What time of year or month is best to hunt for the Northern Lights in Iceland?

To see the Northern Lights, visit Iceland between September and April.

What are my options if I want to hunt for the Northern Lights in Iceland?

There are a few options for seeing the Northern Lights in Iceland. The easiest way is to book a guided tour and hunt for the Northern Lights with an experienced guide. Other options include renting a car and going on your adventure. This option is a bit trickier, but if you read this guide and prepare properly, I’m sure you can do it! Last but not least, you can try your luck in the city. 

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