There’s no doubt about it, Iceland is world-renowned for being one of the best locations in the world to see the ethereal Northern Lights. Frequently, travellers’ main objective when visiting our shores in the winter months will be to catch a glimpse of this incredible natural phenomenon.
You may be surprised to find that it’s actually not just travellers with a passion for discovering the Aurora Borealis. Icelanders too have a unique bond with their natural environment and enjoy the winter hunt for the colourful skies above.
However, not everyone has the time to venture far away from Reykjavík on their travels and spend hours in search of the perfect location to watch this cosmic treat.
This is why I’ve compiled this list of the best places you can watch the Northern Lights in and very near to Reykjavík from my own personal experience. I hope this will help out our visitors who are staying close to the city to tick off this spectacular natural phenomenon.
I’ll break this down into the top 7 locations as well as explain the conditions required to see the Aurora Borealis.
What Weather Conditions Do You Need to See the Northern Lights?
There’s nothing worse than getting excited about heading out for an evening of hunting the ever sought after Northern Lights to then find out the weather isn’t exactly playing ball!
Enemy number one for Aurora hunters are the clouds.
The beautiful phenomenon is the interaction of the sun’s solar wind hitting particles in the Earth’s atmosphere, which occur at heights between 80 – 640 km above the Earth’s surface. Clouds, however, rarely exceed 18 km up.
So, in simplicity, if the sky is covered in clouds, you’re not going to see the Northern Lights.
Your next worst enemy is light pollution.
Most of the time, you need to be away from artificial light so your eyes can clearly see the night sky above. This means you need to be away from streetlights, car lights and the ambient lights from buildings to get your best view of the heavens above.
- Make sure to check out our Northern Lights Tours
Lastly, and perhaps most obviously, you need darkness.
In Iceland, we only have proper darkness from late August until early April. Between May and August, we have incredibly long days, peaking at over 21 hours of daylight with the popular Midnight Sun.
So, if your plan is to see the Northern Lights, make sure to book a visit to Iceland between September and April for your best viewing chances.
In summary, the conditions you need to see the Northern Lights are: Good visibility without clouds or with cloud gaps, no artificial lights, and proper darkness. So make sure you book your visit during the winter months.
- Make sure to check out our selection of Winter Holiday Packages
The only other element you need is positive solar conditions from the sun and plenty of luck. Though scientifically our estimations on potential activity levels and displays have gotten so much better in recent years, it is so wonderfully unpredictable that you never know what to expect.
Located on top of the hill Öskjuhlíð, Perlan is one of the major landmarks of Reykjavík, and its glass dome can be seen all around the city.
Translating to ‘the Pearl’ in English, this is often a great spot to watch the Northern Lights from.
The dome itself was constructed with the intention that it could reflect the dancing Northern Lights above on its roof, which on a particularly strong Aurora night is very impressive.
From Perlan’s observation deck, you can watch the Auroras dance over the roofs of Reykjavík’s houses, with the impressive Hallgrimskirkja church as the centrepiece of your view.
This is again an easily accessible location, just a 5-minute drive from the centre of Reykjavík, with a car park with plenty of room and enough vantage points to get enough space and peace for yourself.
There’s also something extra special in gazing up at the Northern Lights as they swirl and move over the heads of Reykjavík’s residents unaware of the cosmic show going on above them.
You can take a moment to see how the early settlers believed in the stories and folklore of what the Northern Lights were. For instance, to the Norse faithful, they were considered flashes from the armour of the Valkyrie before heading off to battle. Whereas, to those in Finnish Lapland, it was believed the Aurora Borealis was caused by an Arctic Fox running across the sky with his tail painting the canvas of the night.
To reach Heiðmörk nature reserve in the winter, you’ll definitely need to rent a car.
This delightful nature retreat is only a short 30-minute drive from the centre of Reykjavík and is a great place to watch the Northern Lights in a rural setting.
Heiðmörk is far away from the city’s light pollution and contains plenty of dark spots to get an ideal view of the Northern Lights.
For the photographers among you, Heiðmörk also has an incredible rarity in Iceland: plenty of trees. This can help frame some iconic shots with your wide-angle lenses when the Aurora starts to dance above you.
- Make sure you check out our Private Northern Lights Super Jeep Tour
As both a bigger and a less popular spot than Grótta Lighthouse, Heiðmörk nature reserve will give you much more peace and tranquillity to enjoy one of nature’s greatest wonders away from the crowds (including tour buses and travellers) but only a short journey from the city.
Another great spot is in the neighbouring satellite town of Mosfellsbær, located only a 15-minute drive away from Reykjavík city centre.
Here, you will be away from Reykjavík’s light pollution and get a much better view of the Northern Lights as they creep over Mount Esja.
There is a lovely walking path around the outskirts of Mosfellsbær behind the residential houses which give you wonderful views out to the shore with Mt. Esja straight in front of you.
Again, as this is a much lesser-known spot, the only others you’ll likely encounter on your hunt are some of the passionate Aurora-loving Icelandic locals.
Take your time here to watch the show, get some great pictures and videos and breathe in the Northern Lights all around you.
4. Lake Kleifarvatn
Lake Kleifarvatn is again only a 30-minute drive from the centre of Reykjavík.
It’s a fantastically peaceful location in the middle of the richly volcanic Reykjanes peninsula. But, what makes this location perfect is the complete darkness, the fully unobscured view of the sky, and for photographers, the stillness of the water.
Again, this is a location few venture to, making it a rare hidden gem for Northern Lights enthusiasts.
- Check out our Northern Lights Super Jeep Tour from Reykjavik
Also, there is a car park to ensure you’re parking in a safe place and a small beach you can walk down to to set yourself up for a night of watching the erupting heavens.
3. Þingvellir National Park
If watching the Northern Lights wasn’t enough for you, how about watching them in a scenic geological setting between two tectonic plates (North American and Eurasian)?
Sitting in the middle of Iceland’s most popular travellers trail, the Golden Circle, this is a fantastic location to enjoy nature’s greatest cosmic wonder.
For photographers, the foreground is amazing, depending on where you decide to set up your spot.
- Make sure you check out our Small-Group Northern Lights Minibus Tour from Reykjavik
For instance, if you want to frame your shot with a traditional Icelandic building, then Þingvellir Church makes for the perfect foreground image. I recommend that you set up your camera tripod across the water facing the church to get the ever sought after water reflection shot.
Alternatively, if you’re after experiencing this natural phenomenon in the presence of a waterfall, then take the short walk from the car park to the magnificent, and frequently ice-covered, Öxarárfoss.
There are also plenty of fantastic stops around Iceland’s largest natural lake, Þingvallavatn. This will help you better find seclusion and experience the Aurora on your own terms.
Þingvellir National Park is about a 45-minute drive from Reykjavík’s city centre, and well worth the trip.
- Be sure to check out our Golden Circle Tours
During the daytime, Þingvellir is filled with tourists. However, in the evening, just in time for the Northern Lights, the place empties, and you should be able to enjoy the celestial wonder relatively alone.
2. The Sun Voyager
A sigh of relief for those of you not planning on renting a car – the Sun Voyager sculpture is only a 10-minute short walk from the city centre of Reykjavík.
It is a sculpture by Jón Gunnar Árnason, described as an ode to the Sun in the shape of an old Viking boat. The ship is also facing north towards Mt. Esja, across the bay along Reykjavík’s coastal front.
The coastal path is dotted with street lights which can impact your visibility. Fortunately, the Sun Voyager sits in a slightly darker cove and should give you excellent visibility if conditions are favourable and solar activity is particularly strong.
On a cold winter’s night, this is also a great spot to see the powerful beam of light emitted from the Yoko Ono Peace Tower on the island of Viðey, adding an extra dose of wonder to your evening.
I’m again a little biased here as I live in plain sight of the Sun Voyager. And in the winter months, I have regularly brushed my teeth while watching the Northern Lights from my apartment window. So, I can assure you; it’s a good spot!
1. Grótta Lighthouse
I’m going to be biased here because frankly, I love Grótta Lighthouse.
Sitting on the edge of the Seltjarnarnes peninsula, Grótta is the ideal combination of darkness, peaceful tranquillity, and proximity to the city. For Aurora enthusiasts based in Reykjavík, this is the perfect Northern Lights cocktail for great displays.
The lighthouse itself can easily be reached when the tide is out, giving you a fantastic foreground for any pictures you’d like to take. Also, with it being right by the water, it can be a wonderful spot to get that perfect Northern Lights shot with reflections in the water.
During the winter months, this can be a popular destination for travellers in search of their first glimpse of the celestial show. Frequently, drivers will come and leave, switching on and off their headlights which can both ruin a long exposure picture as well as impact your own visibility.
Instead, make sure you head out of the car park and onto the beach where your visibility and pictures won’t be impacted. As your eyes adjust to the darkness, you can clearly make out the mighty mountain, Esja, in the North. Here you can revel with other travellers as the skies explode and dance in colours above you.
Of course, as always in Iceland, the best way to get there is by car. It’s around a 5-10 minute drive from the centre of town, making it a great location for which to rush out on short notice when conditions and solar activity is right.
Alternatively, if you’re travelling without a car on your visit to Iceland, there are a few options for you to visit the peninsula. You could walk there; the trip will probably take around 45 minutes. Alternatively, you can grab one of the many Hopp scooters dotted around the city. Other options include taking a bus or a taxi from the city centre, which isn’t too expensive.
How to Maximise Your Chances of Seeing the Northern Lights?
For those of you planning on staying in Reykjavík for the majority of your stay, my top advice is to take every opportunity to look for the lights. Try and check out a selection of the best local spots listed above and see which one provides you with the most luck.
The primary attribute you’ll need to have is patience. Frequently, travellers will only stand outside for a short period before giving up and heading either back into the city or to their accommodation.
- Check out our 8-Day Winter Self Drive Tour of West & South Iceland to maximise your chances of spotting the Northern Lights
The Northern Lights are incredibly unpredictable, and I can’t stress enough the importance of remaining patient and keeping the faith. Bring a nice cup of hot chocolate, set up your camera, and stay wrapped up while looking to the stars.
In my experience, patience has always rewarded me with the most incredible Northern Lights displays. In fact, it’s most often when most people have turned around and headed home that I’ve enjoyed the best Aurora Borealis displays all to myself.
However, if you’re planning on visiting Iceland for a longer period of time, I’d highly suggest you take advantage of either a Winter Package or a Winter Self-Drive. On a more extended excursion, you can both explore more of Iceland and take advantage of visiting different locations from which to gaze up into the heavens.
Let’s face it, Iceland is much much more than just a chance to check out the Aurora Borealis. It’s home to mighty glaciers, volcanoes, endless waterfalls, hot springs, ice caves, mountains, black sand beaches and the most awe-inspiring fjords.
The Northern Lights are just the cherry on top of what will likely be a fantastic trip to our little rock in the middle of the Atlantic if you’re planning on visiting Iceland in winter.
What if the Northern Lights Conditions Aren’t Good?
If your hunts prove unlucky due to unfavourable conditions, then don’t worry, there is another option. Perlan’s Áróra exhibition is the first-ever 8K Northern Lights planetarium show.
It combines science and art to create a unique experience, taking customers on a journey through the Icelandic and Arctic landscapes. On your trip, you’ll see some incredibly realistic looking Northern Lights dance all around you.
This fully immersive experience lasts 22 minutes, and will both dazzle you with the landscapes and spectrum of dancing colours. It will also uncover the science behind this phenomenon and the fascinating stories humankind believed for millennia.
No matter how you plan on travelling around Iceland in winter in search of the Northern Lights, we’ve got you covered. Whether that’s finding the best places to watch the Aurora Borealis around Reykjavik, taking your chances further away or even if the conditions are not in your favour, we can help you find this cosmic show.
If you’d like to learn more about the Northern Lights or how we can tailor-make your Iceland trip to maximise your chances of seeing them, please feel free to get in touch and a member of our local enthusiastic team will be delighted to assist you!