Want to experience the Northern Lights, but don't have the time or budget to book a guided tour? Don't worry - it's quite easy to see the Aurora on your own, even from within Reykjavik city.
The Northern Lights are magical. Ask any tourist in Iceland, and most will admit that one of the goals of their trip is to see the Northern Lights in person – and for good reason! But it can be a real bummer if that was going to be the highlight of your trip… and you miss them. My advice is to go in with an open mind. Being able to view the Northern Lights depends on a lot of variables, including weather, season, and solar activity. The good thing about the Northern Lights, though, is that this natural wonder can be seen on the cheap… as in, for free. Really, you can simply look up, even if you’re in the city center. So don’t worry if you’re here on a quick stopover or if your budget is tight and you aren’t able to book a tour or rent a car to the countryside.
Seeing the lights without a guide, even in a bright city? Yes, it’s possible. Don’t believe me? If you follow these tips, you’ll give yourself the absolute best opportunity to see them for free or cheap. Are you a bit confused on what these Northern Lights that everyone keeps talking about are? No worries – check out this extensive guide about the Aurora for some further reading.
As with most things, timing is everything. The best time to see the Northern Lights in action is from 21:00 to 2:00, which may or may not be a good thing, depending on your jet lag. Also, the optimal season for viewing the lights is from September to April – though this isn’t an exact science. You may luck out and see them during a trip in August, for instance. It’s always worth a shot!
Even more specifically, lights can be affected by solar activity. Websites such as space.com can report on these instances. When I first moved here, there was some action in the sun’s atmosphere. Despite it being relatively early in September, it made for a great Aurora forecast. Keep your eye out for good news like this.
Those aren’t the only parts of the equation, though. Don’t forget about the literal forecast. Ah… just thinking of Aurora weather makes me happy. You know those crisp, clear, chilly winter nights? That’s the perfect weather to see the Northern Lights. Grab a thermos of tea, wrap a blanket around yourself, and go for a walk… but of course, be careful. As you’ve seen, the best time to see the lights is quite late at night, so stay on guard and make sure you watch your step, especially if you’re heading into nature to see the lights.
Okay, those are a lot of variables, right? Never fear – there’s an app for that. For instance, the Icelandic Met Office has a very user-friendly forecast on their website here, including a map of the country and a scale rating of 0-9. And yes, it’s free to use. Don’t be fooled by a “low” rating of 2 or 3 – that’s a good sign; try looking up! What’s nice is that you can adjust the date and look at the forecast for the coming days – that way you can plan your nights accordingly. They even include sun and moonset times, as well as the hours of darkness, specifically for Reykjavík. They also have a weather forecast page.
There are other sites as well – for instance, the NOAA’s website here offers a less specific view of both hemispheres. Nonetheless, it’s quite a lovely visual, and helpful if you’re traveling elsewhere during your trip.
Luckily, Reykjavík is no Manhattan. There are plenty of places in town that are dark enough to be able to view the lights clearly. In fact, I can see them from my balcony, and I remember seeing them over the harbour from my hotel room window back when I first visited here. Generally, if you are outdoors during the nighttime, look up! Unless it’s raining, of course. You never know if you’ll be lucky.
If the Northern Lights are shining, you can head to a number of dark spaces. Tjörnin Pond, for instance, is the perfect location for anyone who is staying downtown. It is easy to get to via main roads, and offers a clear view upward, removed from the tightly buildings of the city. Plus, there are plenty of benches and grassy areas for you to relax at while you take in the views.
Personally, my favorite spot to view the Northern Lights is at Skerjafjörður Beach, where you can see the lights over the water. There is a nice paved walking path there, so it is a little safer to navigate in the dark nighttime. Still, watch your step! It does get quite dark. Bring a flashlight, and a buddy.
There’s also the Old Harbour, where you can enjoy the Aurora as it dances over Esja – quite the romantic view. Still, it is a city, and there is a degree of light pollution. Regardless, you can certainly see the lights, especially if the forecast is particularly good. If you happen to be out in the countryside, you’re lucky! Truly, then, just look up.In particular, if you have a chance to go to Seltjarnarnes is a perfect place to see the Northern Lights. Surrounded by water with plenty of walkways, this picturesque peninsula is well known as one of the best places to take in the Aurora. Plus, it’s a lovely place to visit regardless.
If you have a camera, make sure you bring it along. What better souvenir than a photo you took yourself of the Northern Lights? You’ll want to use a slow shutter speed, so boost up that ISO a bit, slow down that shutter as much as you can, and set your camera down on a tripod or steady surface. (For the more serious photographers out there: Are you concerned about the grain from the ISO? Don’t worry about it - you can use a noise reduction tool in your editing software, and boost that clarity).
It really is fun to see how vibrant each photo comes out! I’ve seen some people take great phone pictures and even videos, so don’t worry if you don’t have a camera on you or if you aren’t particularly interested in photography. The most important thing, truly, is to be present and enjoy the show. It’s once in a lifetime for some people, and it doesn’t last all night. Take it in, and allow yourself to be mesmerised.
Okay, okay – sometimes, you just want a guided tour. And truly, there are some great options. Guides can take you out of the city and into the dark countryside, where you’ll have a clear sky. They’re experts, and they know when and where to go. Plus, guides are always great to talk with about the natural landscape, history, and culture in Iceland… so if you do have the budget, consider taking a guided tour.
Let me direct you to this Wanderlist, which offers a thorough look at Northern Lights tour options. I’d recommend taking a tour that includes free rescheduling – sometimes, the lights simply don’t want to dance, and you don’t want to waste your money!
Hey, if you miss out on the Aurora, don’t worry. Iceland has plenty to offer aside from the Northern Lights – you really can’t leave disappointed. And remember, you can still head to these cool dark places and look up to enjoy the stars, or the chilly Northern breeze on your face.
Photos: Mae Kellert
The best travel recommendations come from locals. Check out these Wanderguides from Iceland by locals sharing their travel tips and hidden gems.