There is something almost mystical about Iceland. The rugged landscape shaped by the forces of nature, the lunar-like lava fields and the gushing geysers—all this and much more make Iceland a magical place to discover.
In winter, colorful lights dance in the stellar sky. From green to blue to red to pink and purple the aurora borealis appear out of nowhere and enchant spectators. This is one of the many reasons thousands of visitors head to Iceland during the colder months. The best time to marvel at the nocturnal spectacle of the northern lights in Iceland is from September to April. The days get progressively shorter and the nights longer. Naturally, the weather must play along, there needs to be little light pollution, and the sky should be clear. If all these things come together and solar activity is high, chances are good for colorful fireworks in the sky over Iceland.
A useful tool to help you hunt the northern lights are aurora forecast apps and websites. Boasting a KP score—which indicates optimal conditions with scores above 2 considered promising—these apps let you plan a bit ahead so you aren’t disappointed if you don’t see the northern lights in Iceland.
So, pack some cozy clothes, get your camera ready and grab that insulated thermos of hot chocolate. We’ve already published a story about the most beautiful spots for northern lights in the world to get you started but here are the best spots in Iceland to view the northern lights.
The Snæfellsnes peninsula, dubbed Iceland in miniature, is located in the west of the country. The peninsula’s most famous attraction is Kirkjufell (Church Mountain), which was featured in TV series such as “Game of Thrones.” Thanks to its iconic wedge shape, it’s a particularly attractive motif and easily recognizable. The small waterfall on the access road makes a pretty statista.
The volcano Snæfellsjökull, around 4,600 feet high with its white peak, calmly overlooks the peninsula and majestically rises above the wide plains surrounding it. It’s easy to imagine why Jules Verne chose it as the entrance to the center of the earth in his adventure novel.
The rocky spires of Lóndrangar stand defiantly against the rugged coastline to the south and are a dramatic vantage point by day as well as night. The volcanic vents give a hint of the forces of nature that shaped them. This all makes it one of the best spots to see the northern lights in Iceland this winter.
Although Reykjavik is the capital of Iceland—the northernmost in the world—there are enough places here with little light pollution to afford perfect views of the aurora borealis. Stroll through downtown toward the harbor until the stainless steel sculpture of Jón Gunnar Árnason’s viking ship appears in front of you. Once you have the lanterns at your back and your gaze overlooks the sea, chances are you’ll catch the northern lights in all their splendor.
If the possibility of the northern lights is strong, head to Hallgrímskirkja, a church that seemingly dominates the center of town. Hallgrímskirkja is the second tallest building in the country and sits on a hill that makes it even more imposing. The Expressionist architecture is reminiscent of the basalt columns found throughout the country, while the bright color reflects the many glaciers around Iceland. Take the opportunity to pay your respects to the statue of Leif Erikson, the celebrated Icelandic explorer, who also explored North America.
Thingvellir National Park
Thingvellir National Park sits in the southwest of Iceland and is of particular significance to Icelanders. Starting around 930 B.C., vikings met here once a year for a people’s assembly and founded the Icelandic Parliament, which is one of the oldest in the world. Many years later, on June 17, 1944, it became the site of the Icelandic Republic.
Imposing rock crevices and dramatic jagged boulders in the park indicate the shifting of the Eurasian and American tectonic plates. Combined with the park’s expansive views, the lake and peat houses, you’ll find the perfect backdrop for marveling at the northern lights.
Seljalandsfoss and Skógafoss
Seljalandsfoss and Skógafoss on the southern ring road are two of the most famous waterfalls in Iceland. Seljalandsfoss is about 217 feet high and especially popular because it can be viewed 360 degrees. Take a walk behind the waterfall and look at the surrounding landscape through the falling water.
Skógafoss, which means forest waterfall, is just a few miles to the east, so it’s easy to combine a visit to both. More than 82 feet wide, the water plunges more than 197 feet into the shallows below. According to legend, a viking hid a treasure in the cave behind the waterfall, the handle of which was discovered by a boy many years later. Today you can find it in a nearby museum.
Even though the frontal view is impressive, it’s worth walking to the edge of the fall. From here you’re treated to a view of the waterfall in all its mighty dimensions as well as the region beyond—pretty much the perfect spot to catch the northern lights in Iceland.
Jökulsarlon and Diamond Beach
That Iceland is a country of superlatives becomes evident in the Jökulsarlon glacier lagoon in the south of the island. When glaciers break and chunks of ice up to 50 feet high float toward the sea, they emit a loud creaking sound. When there is no wind, the ice-cold meltwater reflects the sky like a mirror. The place might look familiar to some, as the bright blue icebergs have already served as a backdrop for James Bond and Batman.
Diamond Beach is located on the coast, separated from the glacial lake by a bridge. Here, numerous smaller chunks of ice are deposited on the black volcanic sand and shimmer brightly in the sun like oversized diamonds. Just imagine when they reflect the blaze of color from the northern lights.
Stokksnes and Vestrahorn
More than 6 million years ago, a large central volcano was formed in Stokksnes in the south of the island, which shaped the Klifatindur mountain massif. The Vestrahorn is the most famous part and a popular photo spot. Surrounded by crystal-clear water and black dunes, its peaks rise defiantly in all directions. Stokksnes beach promises the best view and maybe even some seals for company.
Not far from the resident Viking Café, you’ll find an abandoned viking village that’s not as old as you might think. It was built specifically for a Hollywood movie that was never filmed. The village remained standing and is now a popular tourist attraction.
To explore the area during the day, take a small, guided tour on iconic Icelandic horses. A nearby farm is home to an entire herd of the good-natured horses found only in Iceland.
Head to the north of Iceland and you’ll find Asbyrgi Canyon. Steep walls up to 300 feet high form the canyon in the shape of a horseshoe. According to legend, Odin’s eight-legged horse Sleipnir created the canyon with his hoof print. Explore a lake populated by ducks, along with a small mixed forest, sheltered from Iceland’s harsh weather. The birch trees here are special. Instead of the usual black and white bark, they enchant with silvery white.
Where to stay in Iceland
If you don’t shiver easily, Iceland’s numerous campsites are a good place to hunt for the northern lights. Situated away from coastal cities, you’ll be rewarded with low light pollution and a scarcity of people.
But if you’d rather not tough it out, luxury hotels abound. The Hotel Rangá in the south near Hella impresses with its remote location. Its rustic interior—think wooden beams and paneling that evokes images of safari lodges and viking huts—affords guests unique views of the Hekla and Eyjafjallajökull volcanoes. The latter caused numerous flight cancellations throughout Europe in 2010. Guests rate it highly for seclusion as well as the northern lights. Hotel staff make sure you don’t miss the night sky show—there’s a wakeup service and an observatory onsite. The in-house restaurant serves gourmet dishes made from regional ingredients with a Nordic influence.
For a magical, if not exactly inexpensive, experience, head to The Retreat at Blue Lagoon on the Reykjanes Peninsula in the southwest. The outwardly simple spa temple blends seamlessly into the 800-year-old lava flow on which it was built. Thanks to in-house access to the mineral-rich waters of the Blue Lagoon, you have the choice of admiring the northern lights with other Blue Lagoon visitors or to do so in private. The 62 modern suites boast large windows, so you don’t even have to leave your bed to watch the majestic dance in the night sky. An onsite spa, yoga classes, and daily hikes among many other amenities round out the experience.
Just a short distance from the black wooden Búðakirkja Church, sits Hótel Búðir on the Snæfellsnes Peninsula. The vintage-inspired house, built in 2003, welcomes guests with a cozy mix of Chesterfield furnishings, golden details, and modern Scandi design. Relax by the fireplace on cold days or gaze at the surrounding lava fields, glaciers and sea from the carefully appointed rooms. If the northern lights announce themselves, make your way to Búðakirkja Church. The picturesque, stone-walled building is one of Iceland’s oldest wooden churches and makes a fabulous backdrop for your photographs.
If you’re only spending a few days in Iceland and can’t get far, the Reykjavik Domes afford guests dome-shaped luxury tents just outside the capital. Expect intimate, private quarters with a terrace, hot tub and large window. Get cozy with a cup of tea in a rocking chair by the fireplace and enjoy the northern lights in Iceland.