During my ten days in Iceland, I desperately wanted to see the aurora borealis. But I couldn’t figure out where to see the Northern Lights in Reykjavik!
While on a road trip around the Ring Road, I attempted to see the Northern Lights in Hofn, Reykjavik, and other cities, with very little luck.
It took until the final night, but I finally caught a glimpse of that glorious green glow in the sky. And I saw it right from downtown Reykjavik.
Read on for the story of how I saw the Northern Lights in Iceland, with some tips for where you can see the aurora when you’re in Reykjavik.
Where to see the Northern Lights in Reykjavik
This is crunch time. Our ninth and final night in Iceland. The last chance to possibly see the famed aurora borealis.
If we don’t see anything in the sky tonight, the trip was awesome anyway. But I’d still really love a genuine Northern Lights experience.
As we make the left turn and see the long, dark road ahead of us, I know we’ve found the perfect spot. The houses and city lights of downtown Reykjavik are hidden behind us. We’re surrounded by water on most sides, and very few cars are driving past.
This is the ideal location to pull over and watch for the Northern Lights.
Tonight, the forecast is only a 3 on the 1-9 scale on Vedir, the most reliable (but still not that reliable) aurora forecasting site. A 3 is still ok, as long as there’s no cloud cover.
Since we had spent so many fruitless hours watching for the lights already this week, we decide tonight that we’re not going to drive way out into the country looking for a quiet, dark spot.
There’s got to be a place to watch the Northern Lights in downtown Reykjavik! Or at least somewhere close by.
Getting away from the city lights is a challenge in a city of 122,000 people. But on the street maps, we notice a peninsula on the far west of the city limits.
It’s surrounded by water on three sides, with a golf course at the end of the road and no houses around. This seems very promising!
Sudurstrond is name of the street. We head there sometime around 10pm. We locate a parking lot about two-thirds of the way down the road, before reaching the golf course grounds.
Three other cars are already here sitting in the dark, which is a positive sign. This must be a good place to watch the Northern Lights in Reykjavik!
Finally the light show emerges
Nothing is visible in the sky yet, but we start taking long exposure shots (20-30 seconds) with our cameras. It’s not long before a few streaks of green show up. Score! The lights are coming out!
A few more cars arrive, which causes minor chaos each time because their lights interrupt our shots. No big deal. We wait patiently for the next window of darkness.
The woman in the car next to us has a huge tripod and appears to be getting some cool photos. The family behind us doesn’t seem to realize that the lights are even visible yet.
As we keep shooting, streaks of green begin to appear across the sky. Now they’re visible with the naked eye!
The streaks appear to be slowly rolling and folding in the air, growing stronger and then fainter, larger and then smaller, always changing.
The pics I get tonight aren’t great, because my trusty pocket camera inexplicably cannot do long exposure shots. So I’m left with my phone.
But that’s fine. I’m not really here for the photos. I’m here to soak in the moment, the experience of seeing the Northern Lights in person for the first time.
As the light show continues, we get a little experimental and try some fun photos. My friend Jason gets a great shot of the sky behind a nearby vehicle.
We stand in front of the lights, trying our best to hold poses for 30 seconds. It’s freezing cold and windy, so we have to keep going back inside the car to warm up.
We can’t start the engine, though, because then the car dashboard would light up and interfere with the photos.
The frigid temperatures can’t ruin this experience. I decide to try for one last photo by resting the phone on the ground against a water bottle, then running over to stand on a small hill in front of the lights.
I bring out the signature “arms raised” pose. The photo works. At this moment, I really am on top of the world.
Tips for Seeing the Northern Lights in Reykjavik
-For the absolute best chance of seeing them (though there are still no guarantees), book a Northern Lights Tour. They’ll drive outside the city, away from the city lights, for the clearest, most unobstructed view of the sky. If you can afford it, definitely book a tour.
-If you want to see them on your own instead of taking a group tour, you’ll need to find a remote place with very few city lights. That’s hard to find right in Reykjavik.
The best option in the city is the same peninsula we went to. Put “Golfklubbur – Seltjarnarnes” into your GPS. That’s the golf course at the end of that strip of land.
Otherwise, drive outside the city to the loneliest roads you can find. Sit there after dark, and be patient!
-Check the aurora forecast on Vedir. There’s a scale from 0 to 9. The higher the number, the better chance of seeing the Northern Lights. A darker color on the map indicates a higher number.
Any number over 5 means a great chance of seeing the lights. But even a 3 means there’s a chance. The night I saw the lights, the forecast was only a 3.
-September through March is the best time to see the lights. They can appear any time of night, although midnight-ish tends to be one of the most common times that they’re visible. Shoot for 10 pm to 2 am, if you have the stamina to sit there for that long.
-Try some long-exposure pics on your phone, even if the lights aren’t visible to the naked eye. You may be surprised that they may show up on a photograph.
-Dress very warmly! Even sitting in your car at night while get very cold. And if the lights are visible, you’ll want to get out of the vehicle to get a better look.
Attempting to See the Northern Lights in Hofn and Other Cities
My time in Iceland in September was plagued by cloudy weather, making it difficult to see the lights. This is often the case, so it wasn’t a surprise.
On night three in Hofn, on the southeastern side of the country, I got a few weak aurora pics, but I never actually saw the green lights in the sky.
Sometimes, it turns out, your camera can pick up the Northern Lights with a long exposure shot, even when they’re not visible to the naked eye. That’s what happened in Hofn.
This is the best Northern Lights pic I got in Hofn. It’s so weak you barely see a green tint in the bottom of the frame:
Meh. This photo is nothing to write home about, right?
Because the lights are unpredictable, we spent probably 10 hours total over the course of the trip, sitting in the car in the cold, waiting in vain for a light show that never happened (until we reached Reykjavik.)
In Akureyri, we set up camp on a pullout on the mountainside across the bay from the city. Getting pics of the lights above the city would have been sweet. But they weren’t visible that night.
In Egilsstadir, we found a great spot in the parking lot right behind a large abandoned ship near the lake known as Lagerfljot. If the aurora showed up right behind the ship, we’d have positively epic images. But they weren’t visible that night.
In the small town of Holmavik, we didn’t even need to leave our Airbnb – the house had skylights allowing us to look directly out to the rural sky. But again, mother nature did not cooperate, and the Northern Lights did not appear.
Thank goodness our luck was better in Reykjavik!
Related Iceland Content
If you’re planning a trip, see my tips on how to eat cheaply in Iceland. Here’s a photo essay of the unique side of Iceland. Here are seven myths about traveling in Iceland.
Read about quirky Icelandic places like the Museum of Sorcery and Witchcraft, the Museum of the Phallus. Learn what fermented shark tastes like, and where you can try it.
And here’s a huge blog post detailing the 30 most amazing things I saw in Iceland. Bookmark this post and try to see them all!
Do you have any other suggestions for where to see the Northern Lights in Reykjavik?