You’re going to laugh at me for this, but when I booked my ticket to Iceland I had no idea that you can see the northern lights here. Honestly, I didn’t even know what they are. Facepalm, I know. It wasn’t until I started planning my trip that I stumbled upon these elusive beauties.
My second night in Reykjavík I shared a hostel dorm with a girl who’d rented a car and invited a couple of us to go northern lights hunting. Since I hadn’t been a lifelong aficionado of this colorful phenomenon, I didn’t have a whole lot of emotional investment in finding them. Standing out in the freezing cold in the middle of a field, straining my eyes for any sign of color in the black sky, I was starting to question if this was worth it. Warm hostel bed > freezing, windy night.
We were about ready to throw in the towel when I saw a long gray cloud arching across the sky. It slowly started to transform into a dark green and ultimately came alive in a dancing pattern of bright green, magenta, and purple. The whole group started screaming, running around the rental car like madmen, hugging, and wiping away tears. I can neither confirm nor deny that these lights turn people loony. The first time that you see them is an experience you will remember for the rest of your life. The northern lights are without a doubt worth hunting while you are here in Iceland.
Auđur asked me if I wanted to go on a northern lights tour seeing as I’d already witnessed them, and my immediate response was heck to the yes. You don’t have to ask me twice. However, since I’d watched them from the ground, I thought it’d be exciting to catch them from a boat.
The aurora forecast was looking good for this night and the sky was completely clear. I boarded the Special Tours boat at 9 pm and was given a very flattering, bright yellow jumpsuit to wear. That is, flattering if you find puffy, neon, polar bears attractive. Nonetheless, I was warm as a stove the whole night. Can’t argue with that.
Within five minutes of departing the harbor, our tour guide came over the loudspeaker and announced that we could see the beginnings of some lights to the west. I recognized that gray cloud again and watched as it developed into a dark green. The lights seemed to play hide and seek with us for the first 30 minutes, appearing in a dark green haze and then disappearing again. Meanwhile, our tour guide fed us fun facts about the lights and old folk tales from the original settlers. For example, did you know that Icelanders used to think that the northern lights were the spirits of old relatives coming down to chop of children’s heads and play ball games with them? Fascinating, really.
Once we made it to the middle of the bay, an eerie silence overcame the boat. Everyone’s gaze was fixed on the sky. The northern lights were an electric green, spanning across the entire skyline and dancing back and forth. It was like watching the beating of a heart on a monitor. Their reflection in the ocean water produced a mirror image. In the midst of the amazing show, while couples were kissing and I was mid tear (partly because of how single I felt, but mostly because of how beautiful it was), the tour guide informed us that the lights are believed to ease the pain of childbirth. So now was the time to go for it. Thank you, wonderful tour guide, for bringing some humor back to the much too romantic moment.
We were out at sea for about 2 ½ hours and I learned just about everything I ever wanted to know about the northern lights, including how to best capture them on a camera. A boat tour really creates the most stunning pictures because of how the ocean reflects the light. On top of the lights, though, I loved seeing the city from the bay. There are few things as magical as a city glowing in darkness.
While our neon suits were very warm, the boat also has an inside cabin where you can seek refuge. They offer a selection of beverages, including hot chocolate, beer and wine, so you can develop a nice alcohol blanket if you so choose.
A boat cruise, I feel, is one of the best ways to catch the northern lights because it’s a well-rounded experience. You get an educated tour guide to feed you all the best information, you get a relaxing cruise out on the water and great views of the city, and you get a warm cabin to wait inside while the northern lights are preparing for their grand appearance. Therefore, even if you can’t see the lights that night, the perks of being on a boat make up for it. I would undoubtedly do this again, only next time with the hope that round #3 feels less like Single’s Awareness Day.
Good to know
Who should do this tour
This tour is best for people who want to get the most out of their northern lights hunt, with the added fun of being on a boat and seeing the city from the bay. I would recommend it to people who only have one night to catch the lights and therefore don’t want to see the hunt as “wasted time.” I would not recommend it to those who are prone to seasickness. Seeing as you’re on a rocking boat, it is also not best for people looking to take long exposure photos with a tripod.
How to book
Lucky for you, you can book this northern lights boat tour right here on the blog.
Pickup and drop off
The Special Tours boat departs from the harbor at 9 pm. You should arrive around 15-20 minutes early to pick up your tickets and find your seat on the boat. The boat arrives at the harbor, between 2- 2 ½ hours later.
Pickup and drop off from your hotel is available for an additional fee. Please keep in mind though that if you are staying somewhere downtown it’s probably an easy walk to the old harbor and therefore pickup is unnecessary.
The deck of a moving boat is intrinsically windy, but Reykjavík is also prone to strong winds. Therefore, you’ll want to wear your warmest layers to protect from the cold. Special Tours provides overalls that fit well over other bulky layers. Wear thermals, a winter coat, a hat and gloves. The deck can also be slippery, so wear shoes with good grip.
What to bring
A camera! You can leave the tripod at home though since long exposure doesn’t work as well on a rocking boat. The Special Tours crew can help you get the right setting on your camera to capture the best pictures. I’d also recommend bringing a thermos with a warm drink if you don’t want to buy something on the boat.
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This post is a part of a series of posts where Sarah, our 23-year-old Coloradan blog-helping-elf, shares her findings during her 5-week stay in Reykjavík. Before Sarah joined us here in Reykjavík she spent a year in New Zealand where she got a taste for the sweet life of travel. After Reykjavík she’s headed south again to spend a year in Australia.
Read more of Sarah Takes on Iceland here.
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