The northern lights were on my bucket list for as long as I can remember. How could I not want to see such raw natural beauty? The only problem was where to see them, and when. Although they have been spotted in places like Edinburgh and Montana, I wanted to see the good displays, and those were usually reported in Iceland and Norway – two of the most expensive countries in the world.
I’ve had many friends who went to see the northern lights, sometimes on several occasions, never to actually witness them. I remember one friend convinced they were a marketing hoax to draw people to Iceland, after they had made three failed trips. Other friends had camped for a week in the snow to no avail. I was led to believe that I would have a very small chance of actually seeing the northern lights in Iceland, despite having a full week scheduled to explore there.
Iceland was always at the top of my list of countries I wanted to visit. Thus I was more than excited to get invited by Trablin (Travel Bloggers and Influencers) for a week of tours and seminars in Iceland. I flew in on November 8th. Before I had even landed, I was getting advice on how to see the northern lights.
The first tip I received was to download one of the Aurora Borealis forecast apps, or rather all of them. They would give predictions for hours and days in advance, including specifically where to see them. I downloaded a couple and got really excited when they said I would have a good chance of seeing the lights on the third day of my trip.
I quickly learned that the apps were wrong.
Reykjavik Sailors and Reykjavik Ambassadors
My first adventure in Iceland was a trip to the Blue Lagoon, which I arrived at within an hour of landing in Iceland. I stayed there for a full five hours, luxuriating in the waters. But I had to leave an hour before they closed, as I had a northern lights boat tour booked with Reykjavik Sailors at 9 p.m. The Blue Lagoon was 45 minutes away from Reykjavik, and I didn’t get into town until 8:45. I had enough time to grab a quick sandwich from Subway (for a whopping $15, despite being one of the cheapest stores in Iceland), check into the Loft Hostel (without time to even drop off my bag) and sprint to the dock before the boat left.
I made it seconds before departure time. Several other friends from Trablin where already there, laughing at how excited I looked in my hopes of possibly seeing the northern lights. Yet as we were supposed to leave, we learned that there was a problem with the boat and it couldn’t sail. Luckily, the ship next to ours, belonging to Reykjavik Ambassadors, came to our rescue and we all joined their tour.
Reykjavik Sailors had provided us with warm floating jumpsuits, and we all lined the top deck in the freezing wind, waiting for the boat to leave the harbor. It was a clear night sky, and a good show was promising.
The northern lights didn’t wait for us.
At 9:01 p.m., before the boat could even start its engines, the display began. They started as a thin, hazy line in the sky overhead, perhaps a hand-width wide and a third of the heavens long. I first mistook it for the Milky Way when someone pointed it out. Within seconds, the band had stretched from horizon to horizon, and was gradually becoming more green and defined.
Our tour guide began discussing how it was indeed possible to see the northern lights from the city, despite the light pollution, but we would get underway on our voyage to see them off the coast.
As the craft left Reykjavik harbor, the lights became brighter and brighter, gradually forming the wavy shapes I had seen in photos.
By 9:20, the lights were a bright green bar stretching across the sky. They were bright enough to easily capture on my new Samsung Galaxy S8 phone (although my photographs in no way give justice to the real display).
Two minutes later, the pinks showed up.
For the next five minutes, the sky was a riot of colors. The lights danced wildly across the sky like a celestial serpent. I was giddy!
The guide mentioned it was the best display of the season, and another crew member said it was the best display she had seen in a couple years.
While the spectacular display died down, it didn’t cease entirely. For the next hour and a half, we got to see the shimmer of green across the sky. Even after getting back into the city, I was still able to see them from the rooftop terrace of my hostel.
Chance Encounters of the Second Time
My second day in Iceland was primarily a tour with Reykjavik Sightseeing and Mountaineers of Iceland, visiting the Þingvellir National Park (pronounced Thingvellir), Gullfoss waterfall, the Great Geysir and then riding a snowmobile on the second-largest glacier in Europe. Shortly after leaving the glacier, the bus pulled off to the side of the road, and we all had a chance to see another northern lights show. This one wasn’t nearly a bright as the previous night, but who can complain when you get to see them two nights in a row?!
A Day Tour Becomes a Night Tour with Reykjavik Sightseeing
On the third day, I had another tour with Reykjavik Sightseeing, this one to the largest manmade ice tunnel in the world, Barnafoss Waterfalls, and an Ice and Lava Cave. The tour was supposed to end at 7 p.m., but we were on a private tour, and our wonderful guides figured we needed to have some more fun. Instead of heading back to town, we made a stop at Steðja, one of Iceland’s top breweries. They serve over a dozen flavors, including a delicious Christmas beer with ginger. However, it’s their sheepshit-smoked whale testicle beer which really takes the cake! It’s not bad…if you can get past the gag reflex of knowing what you’re drinking.
As we left the brewery, we had a pleasant surprise. The northern lights were once again dancing across the sky! A clear green ribbon could be seen above the horizon. Again, it wasn’t as bright as the first day, but it was made clear that the first day was exceptional.
As it was already after 7:30, our guide informed us that, if we wanted, we could turn our day tour into an evening northern lights tour. Using their own apps and a network of on-the-ground observers, we went off in search of better displays. The lights continued to wax and wane over the next couple hours, and we had a particularly good sighting at the far end of Hvalfjörður (Whale Fjord).
Tips for Seeing the Northern Lights
- Go in the winter. Most sightings of the northern lights occur in the colder months, but this could also just be due to the midnight sun (24-hour sunlight in the summer months).
- Download an Aurora Borealis Forecast app for your phone. They aren’t the most accurate, only because the northern lights can be really fickle and truly accurate predictions are only good for about 5 minutes.
- Take a tour with Reykjavik Sailors or Reykavik Sightseeing. These companies use special tricks to get to the best places for watching the northern lights. Best of all, if you don’t get to see them on your tour, they will take you out on the next tour for another try.
- Don’t despair. They do exist. If you don’t see them, keep trying. You’ll see them eventually. They are actually so common in Iceland that the locals don’t even notice them anymore!
If you happen to be in Alaska looking for the northern lights, here’s an article on how to see them in Fairbanks, Alaska.
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Iceland is the most beautiful country in the world I’ve been to so far. There are hundreds of attractions around the country, of which I only saw a small handful. Here are some more adventures I went on while there, and a couple other articles I wrote to help you out.
- Why Iceland Didn’t Become My Favorite Country in the World
- How the Loft Hostel Made it Possible for Me to Visit Iceland
- Is Visiting the Blue Lagoon in Iceland Worth It?
- Exploring The Game of Thrones Filming Locations in Iceland
- Mind Blown on the Ice and Lava Caves Tour in Iceland
Here’s some extra reading to save hundreds on your next vacation or stage of your journey.
- 5 Steps to Book Cheap Flights
- Hostels: To Book or Not to Book
- Is Workaway Worth it for the Traveler?
- Click here to claim your $25 credit with AirB&B
Disclaimer: My endless thanks to Trablin, Reykjavik Sailors, Reykjavik Ambassadors and Reykjavik Sightseeing for inviting me on these amazing tours. As always, my views and opinions are completely my own.
This post may contain affiliate links. These links help give me the wherewithal to continue traveling at no additional cost to you. For more information, click here.
wow, what a magical experience. Seeing the northern lights is on my bucket list too. Great tip about downloading the app. I never even knew that existed!
Thanks. I hope you get a chance to see them.
I can’t tell you how jealous I am looking at your post and images! Also, very happy that you had such a good sighting…I spent a few days in Finland early this year chasing the Northern Lights but had no luck. Maybe I need to visit Iceland now 🙂
Thanks. I do hope you get to see them. I know they’re possible to see in Finland, but I’ve never heard of it as a popular destination for them. Usually better luck in Iceland and Norway. And Alaska…
I really enjoyed this post! I have seen plenty of pictures of the northern lights on instagram but never actually read about what it takes to see them. That first shot looks amazing! It must have been even more spectacular in person. What surprised me the most though was the fact that you had to pay $15 for a subway sandwich!!! :O
I have to admit, that first shot was just one out of over a hundred. A lot of them were quite blurry though, since I was on a rocking boat and trying to get a good shot with freezing hands wasn’t easy. And yeah, it certainly was expensive there!
I would most definitely love to see the Northern Lights! However, I’ve been hesitant to book a trip because I’ve been so worried that I wouldn’t get to see them and it would feel like a wasted trip (even if I had fun doing the other activities). Still, it’s good to know that the tour companies will give you multiple attempts to see them!
I hope they show up for you. The other problem is the weather, and Reykjavik is notorious for being cloudy. Hope you see them when you go.
Iceland is my favorite country! I saw the northern lights twice but super super faint! Can’t wait to see them this bright! Good tips!
I still have to say Scotland is my favorite country, but Iceland is certainly the most beautiful. I do hope you get to see brighter northern lights someday.
This is toward the top of our bucket list for traveling. Had no idea it was so hard to plan out when to go and catch these beautiful lights. So it’s good to know that we should have several attempts planned to see them. So glad you got one of the best shows of the season. It truly looks spectacular.
I do hope you get a great show yourself. They really can be so finicky, and there’s just no right place or time to see them. It’s all a matter of luck. Good luck!
Ohhh you were so lucky and I am happy to hear you had such motivated tour guides. Was it very cold, I assume in the winter months? And Iceland getting that popular, I am afraid prices go even higher up?
I was so happy to see the northern lights that I forgot to write about the temperature, but yes, it was absolutely freezing!!! We did have the thermal coveralls, but my face felt like a mask of ice, and I did have to spend a few minutes in the warm rooms below decks to thaw out when the lights dimmed. I know the Blue Lagoon has certainly increased its prices over the past couple years (based on other blogs I read), so I can only imagine the other tours and attractions are increasing similarly. Hope you can make it soon.
We are saving Alaska for last on our trip to see every state in America because of the northern lights. I wanted to save the best for last and wasn’t aware they can be tricky to see. Thanks for the heads up, as it might really save me from some disappointment. The ice cave sound like fun too, I always enjoy visiting caves.
I do hope you get to see them when you visit Alaska! That sounds like a beautiful place to watch as well. I should be able to get a post up just on the Ice Cave soon.
Oh my gosh you’re so lucky to have seen them! They always say not to book a trip just to see northern lights as you never know if they’ll show up- it looks like you enjoyed quite a display.
I certainly was lucky! I wouldn’t say not to book a tour, but I would recommend booking it on your first day in the country, as most of the tours will let you keep trying on subsequent days if you don’t see them.