The northern lights have been 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.
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.
- Ever wanted to see the northern lights? Follow this link to learn the best tips for catching the elusive display.
- Did you know that Iceland has the largest ice and lava caves in the world? Read my story about Reykjavik Sightseeing’s Into Ice and Lava tour.
- Need to visit Iceland on a budget? Read about what it’s like to stay at the Loft Hostel.
Here’s some extra reading to save hundreds on your next vacation or stage of your journey.