This Ultimate Guide for hunting the Northern Lights in Reykjavik focuses on the factors you personally have control over…location, location and location. All other factors like solar strength, cloud cover and phase of the moon are out of your control sadly. The Northern Lights are visible from late August to late April. Getting out of the city is always a good idea but if you find yourself stuck in Reykjavik overnight then read on to get some tips to still spot the Northern Lights (despite all the nasty street lights).
WHAT ARE THE NORTHERN LIGHTS?
Let’s just keep this one short: The Northern Lights are what you see from collisions of solar particles entering the earth’s magnetic field high in the atmosphere. These charged particles are able to enter the atmosphere where the magnetic field is weakest, up near the south and north poles. The electrically charged particles then collide with Oxygen and Nitrogen particles in the atmosphere ionising them which makes them temporarily glow. For a more detailed description you can head over to our blog on ‘What exactly are the northern lights?‘ Iceland being so far north means we are perfectly situated to see this wonder of nature!
GENERAL TIPS FOR HUNTING THE NORTHERN LIGHTS
TIP 1 — WINTER FUN
If the main purpose of your Iceland trip is hunting the Northern Lights, visit during winter. During summer our days are bright and long. So long in fact that the sun does not set for days on end in mid-summer. Great for growing crops and wildlife. Not so great for Northern Lights spotting. The Northern Lights are visible from mid-August to mid-April. December and January are the darkest months which means you have plenty of night time hours to spot them. This means that most longer day tours from November onwards will give you ample chances to see them while doing other activities.
TIP 2 — CITY LIGHTS
Escape the city and head into the wilderness. Unnatural lights, especially in cities, will dilute or completely obscure the Northern Lights on weaker nights. Luckily Iceland’s population is fairly contained around the greater Reykjavík area so you won’t need to travel long distances, sometimes only a few minutes by car.
TIP 3 — AURORA STRENGTH
If you are self driving, check the Aurora forecast for strength with it’s scale of 0-9. For zero or one you might as well get your beauty sleep. If the strength is as low as 2 or 3 we would recommend still wandering around on a clear night. Just remember there are stars up there too so all is not lost if the strength is a little low. For context, a forecast of 5 and above only happens around 1% of the time so don’t be disheartened by a low KP index score.
Visit the Iceland Meteorological Office website for the aurora forecast here. The map will show the cloud coverage as well as the aurora activity forecast. If there’s a lot of green on the map then that’s cloud. Cloud isn’t your friend in this situation. You need clear skies and the higher the activity rating number the better. Anyone who exclaim that you can still see the Northern Lights through clouds is technically telling you the truth. But the reality is that the faint green haze (mostly appearing in your camera) will perhaps not live up to expectations.
TIP 4 — LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION
Location is everything. Avoiding all light and clouds is one thing, but often the brightest and most active parts of the sky are hidden behind mountains, buildings or trees. As ominous as it may feel, safely pulling off the open road and stopping somewhere secluded may just be your best chance. Failing that, a perfect option is to find a tour that goes out of the city and includes an overnight stay. Hidden Iceland only run Northern Lights tours that incorporate other activities. We choose hotels and guest houses specifically with good open views and no other unnatural light around.
WHERE IS THE BEST PLACE TO SEE THE NORTHERN LIGHTS IN REYKJAVIK?
Despite your best efforts it’s likely you’ll find yourself staying overnight in Reykjavik for at least some of your stay in Iceland. This means a large chunk of your Northern Lights hunting will sadly be surrounded by buildings and street lights. All is not lost though. The Northern Lights can be quite resilient. Some of the best Northern Lights our guests have seen have actually been in Reykjavik. A few years ago we were lucky enough to get such a strong solar storm in Reykjavik that the council actually turned off the street lights to the city to help people see better. Imagine that happening in New York City one night.
The most important tip, regardless of whether you choose to go to any of the suggested locations (below), is to find open sky. And don’t stand directly under street lights. The rest is really up to the sun and the atmosphere.
Possibly the best place in the Reykjavík vicinity and a personal favourite of mine. It’s within the city yet very poorly lit, which is perfect. It’s facing the ocean making the experience even more majestic. If you’re sleeping in downtown Reykjavik this may be a little far to walk, around 1 hour. So a taxi (sorry, no Uber) is probably your best bet if you don’t like the cold. With that said, the majority of the walk towards the lighthouse is by the seafront so you may just see the Northern Lights before getting to the lighthouse.
The closest place to down-town Reykjavík, well within walking distance. I’m sure you’ve spotted Perlan, the big glass dome on top of a hill. The area surrounding it can be great for viewing. It takes around 25 minutes to walk here from Hallgrímskirkja Church. We recommend spending the late afternoon in the family friendly museum, perhaps sticking around for dinner at their rotating restaurant then popping outside to explore as the night descends. They actually have a Northern Lights exhibit inside. So if you are unlucky outdoors then at least you get to know what all the fuss is about indoors.
HEIÐMÖRK NATURE RESERVE
If you have a car then head out east out of the city to Heiðmörk Nature Reserve. It’s a 3 hour walk so don’t attempt to get here on foot. Still, having a nature reserve so close to Reykjavik is a blessing. It is a stunning area by the city border, away from any lights giving you prime conditions for Northern Lights viewing.
This modern monument of a viking ship is situated right on the seafront and is one spot many people walk to. Sadly there are still street lights behind your back but as long as you’re gazing out to sea then you are still unencumbered with buildings and street lights. This spot is ideal if you don’t have transport and don’t want to walk too far from your hotel in downtown Reykjavik.
THE HARBOUR & GRANDI
Again, these areas still have plenty of unnatural light so choose the top three options first. But if you are enjoying some of the night life and tasting some of the local delicacies in downtown Reykjavik you may find yourself not too far away from the harbour area of Iceland. As always, head for the water. When you can see out into the open darkness of the sea then your chances go up considerably.
Good luck and happy hunting!
Hi I’m Dagný Björg, a twenty-something Reykjavík-dweller, mother, designer and freelance journalist who loves getting lost in nature, coffee and easy Sunday mornings.