The Northern Lights Factory Near Reykjavík
Legendary Icelandic businessman Einar Benediktsson, who constructed many iconic buildings in Reykjavík, once tried to sell the northern lights to a Danish visitor. Luckily, he did not succeed.
Contrary to the name, the Northern lights do not brighten with every northern latitude. They appear, instead, like a doughnut on top of the globe known as the Aurora Belt, encompassing latitudes 60° to 75° North. Iceland is, roughly speaking, in the middle.
Reykjavík happens to be also in the middle of the Atlantic and as such a major hub of international flights. For most travelers, the city is far easier to get to than the aurora destinations of northern Canada, Alaska and Scandinavia.
Let the search begin
The Northern Lights occur when solar wind particles interact with the Earth's magnetic field. This excites the particles that release energy, causing peculiar luminous green and purple streaks across the skies.
Solarstorms occur year-round; we just can‘t see them over the bright months of summer. Pure darkness is essential and then a mix of luck and effort.
The Icelandic Met Office operates a daily forecast, based on solar winds over the last three days, with a 9-scale activity range. (The scale is not a normal curve; it usually hovers around level three, while strength beyond level five is a rare solarstrom.)
Best practices in Reykjavík
Within Reykjavík, the Northern Lights are rarely strong enough to outshine the city lights. But you don‘t have to go far; Reykjavík has plenty of parks and reserves free of street lights.
The costal walk to Grótta reaches the tip of Reykjavík‘s peninsula, taking only an hour from the city center. The parking lot overlooking the iconic Grótta lighthouse gets busy when the aurora forcast is promising.
For solitude, head to the Heiðmörk Nature Reserve. It is possible to reach the area by public transport to Norðlingaholt, but a private car makes the trip smoother.
To capture a photograph of the Northern Lights over the Reykjavík skyline the hill of Öskjuhlíð is an excellent vantage point.
Northern Lights tours from Reykjavík
Several bus companies in Reykjavík offer special Northern Lights tours. Basic excursions last roughly three hours, beginning with a 30-minute drive to reach dark, scenic areas such as Lake Kleifarvatn and the Bláfjöll Mountains.
Although you can find the Northern Lights without joining a tour, taking one has the benefit of an experienced guide and a driver skilled in winter conditions. Plus, waiting outside is a little easier in the company of other people also dealing with frozen fingers.
Over winter, many tour operators offering day-tours from Reykjavík also tailor the rides to aurora hunting. Bookend the popular Golden Circle, for instance, with a final aurora stop or visit some of the geothermal luxury baths at night.
Another option, blending solo travel and tour structure, is the Aurora Basecamp some 20-minute drive from the city center. The dome-shaped center, allows guests to experience an indoor simulation of the Northern Lights before stepping out to search for the real thing with the help of a guide.
How many nights are enough to see the Northern Lights?
Vividness varies, but generally speaking the Northern Lights appear every other night with clear skies. That means a week-long trip has significant changes of seeing them more than once.
Searching for the auroras is part of the fun and while the forecasts are helpful their still is a lot scientists don‘t know about the vast electromagnetic system that unleashes the auroras and a strong sense of awe on the ground below them.