Elcia Villa from Dallas Texas asked me on Facebook the other day to write a post about what is the best way to see the Northern Lights in Reykjavík. Why I didn’t think about writing this post myself is a mystery to me so I am more than happy to oblige. I must admit that I don’t know an awful lot about the scientific side of things when it comes to the Aurora Borealis and I hope you can forgive me for that.
What are the Northern Lights or Aurora Borealis?
First of all, if you have never heard about the Northern Lights before, you can start by checking out what Wikipedia has to say about them. Basically they are (usually but not always) green lights that can be seen from places in the far north such as Iceland, Scandinavia, Alaska and northern parts of Canada. Because of their nature it looks like the lights are moving around the sky, dancing if you will, and it’s a pretty spectacular sight. In Chinese and Japanese culture it’s believed that a child conceived under the Northern Lights will be blessed with good fortunes so if you don’t like looking at them you could always go back to your hotel for some hanky panky and hope for an heir.
The official Aurora season in Iceland is from October till March but like with so many other things that have to do with Icelandic nature it’s not something you can say with any certainty. For example, the first Northern Lights of the season in Reykjavík this year were seen around the middle of August. The ideal conditions to see them are when it’s cold and dark outside and the Aurora activity is high. The cold per se is not an factor but the sky has to be clear which it usually is on very cold nights.
Where and how
Now that you know a little bit about the Aurora Borealis you probably also want to know how to see them. There are three things to consider before you do anything else.
The more aurora activity the more likely it is that you will see them. My scientific handicap prevents me from telling you why it’s more active some days than others but thankfully the Geophysical Institute of the University of Alaska Fairbanks offers a nifty Aurora forecast on their website that tells you how high or low the Aurora activity is for any given day. The higher the number on the scale, the likelier it is that the Northern Lights will be visible – if the conditions are right.
It has to be dark outside so Aurora spotting is a night time activity. It’s also a fall, winter or early spring activity since during the summer months it’s pretty much bright all the time.
Unfortunately Reykjavík is usually pretty cloudy which is a bummer if you are on a hunt for those mystic green lights. Clear skies and sub-zero temperatures usually go hand in hand so if the weather outside is cold and still there’s a good chance for an OK visibility.
You can spot the Northern Lights…
If you find yourself in Reykjavík with all three magical boxes checked, you should probably put on your hat and mittens and go out for a walk. Keep your eyes at the skies but make sure you don’t walk into any lamp posts or get hit by a car. If the Aurora is strong enough you might be able to see it right away but trying to avoid the light pollution is always a good idea. Head for Grótta light house, Miklatún or Hljómskálagarður parks, Öskjuhlíð (that hill where The Pearl is) or anywhere else where it looks a bit darker than the rest of the city.
If you are traveling in a group or you are already best buds with all the people at your hostel, you might want to think about renting a car for the night and get out of the city. You don’t have to go far and any direction is good. Many go to Þingvellir National Park but any pitch black place will do. Make sure you dress well or you might be in danger of loosing your toes or fingers in the cold. Not literally but you know what I mean. Check out my buddy James and his Affordable Car Rental for the best prices in town.
…on a tour
If you are more of a organized tours and travelling in a big group kind of person most of the tour operators in Reykjavík offer Northern Lights tours in some shape or form. I know of one Super Jeep company that offers a somewhat strange but delicious combination of Northern Lights and Lobster and my friends at Special Tours offer Northern Lights tours at sea. For a more traditional take on the Northern Lights tour try Iceland Excursions or Reykjavík Excursions. My dad’s company, Icelandic Taxi Tours, can also take you on a smaller more intimate tour for a reasonable price (shameless plug).
Finally, it’s probably worth mentioning that right now and for the next few years the aurora activity in Iceland is unusually high so if the Northern Lights is your thing – you should probably hurry on over.