Iceland Guide: Seeing the Northern Lights
The Northern Lights, also known as the Aurora Borealis, are a magical natural phenomenon that cause the sky to light up with beautiful colors under the right conditions. I had the good fortune of seeing the Northern Lights on three nights in early March outside of Reykjavik, Iceland.
The difficulty with writing a guide about seeing the Northern Lights is there’s never a guarantee if you will see them. Planning a trip around seeing the Northern Lights is like planning a trip to New York City in winter to see a snowstorm. The conditions are right for it to snow, but it’s up to mother nature if a storm actually comes. The only thing to say for certain is that you need darkness to see the lights, so summer is a no-go.
Should I take a tour to see the lights or try to see them myself
I would recommend doing some sort of tour your first night in town and then if you have access to a car going yourself the following nights (it is unusual to see the lights from downtown Reykjavik, so you do have to go somewhere.) The first time viewing the lights it is helpful to have a guide tell you what to look for and what you are seeing. I was surprised that to the naked eye the lights are not actually as bright as you see in photographs. The camera actually picks up the lights better than your eye.
What kind of tour should I take?
You can take either a bus tour or a cruise out of downtown Reykjavik to see the Lights. I found the cruise to be a very accessible way to see the lights. The cruises leave from the Harbor downtown (walking or a short taxi ride from most hotels and guesthouses) and they have an enclosed area on board with a bar to relax. However, when the lights did come out I found the deck to be crowded and it was hard to get a good photo between the rocking of the ship and the crowd of people around. It also seems as if the cruise is more likely to cancel for bad weather since it is at sea, versus the buses on the road. Here is a cruise option.
You can also take a bus tour from Reykjavik. The bus does take longer because all of the guests are picked up along the way and then the bus goes to three different viewing spots. On our tour it felt like the bus was just driving around to keep us satisfied. The advantage of the bus is that when you are stopped you can spread out and take photos without being in each others way. The downside we experienced at one point when the lights came out while the bus was driving between destinations and there was no where to stop leaving everyone cramming to view through the windows of the bus. Here is a bus tour option.
Can I see the lights anywhere near the city?
Yes! After seeing the lights on both of the tours we decided we were going to spend our time having a nice dinner in Reykjavik. While at dinner we overheard that the Aura Forecast had increased to a four on this particular night. After a quick google search we learned of an area in Reykjavik where people go to see the lights, the Grotta Lighthouse. It was an easy 10 minute drive from downtown. We even saw some people arriving via Taxi.
We had downloaded the My Aurora Forecast (Google Play / iTunes) app at dinner and were able to time our arrival at the peak time for the Lights and saw them right away. I was really surprised we were able to see the lights so close to the city and this made me wonder if the tours that drive an hour outside of the city are really necessary!
Is there a forecast? How do I know if the lights will be out?
Like the weather you can read the forecast to get a sense if you will see the lights. There are two factors in deciding if you will see them, how strong the lights are and if there are clouds blocking the lights. The strength of the lights are measured on a 0 to 9 scale. A 2 or more is strong enough to see if sky is clear. It is very unusual to see more than a 5. You can see the 28 day forecast here.
Hopefully this is helpful if you plan to try your luck at seeing the lights in Iceland!