How easy is it to see the Northern Lights in Iceland?

How easy is it to see the Aurora Borealis, those fantastical green bolts of light that appear in the winter sky in Iceland? I found out on an after-Christmas, five-day trip to Reykjavik, the country’s capital.

Quite frankly, it’s not a sure thing. It wasn’t as simple as signing up for the mini-bus tour that departed the bright lights of Reykjavik at 8:30 pm to head for the dark countryside. In fact, the trip I scheduled for our party of four–my husband, daughter, granddaughter, and me–was postponed twice due to cloud coverage.

Our last night in Iceland, the “Magical Auroras” trip was finally on. Still, our bus driver/tour director warned us that several conditions had to occur for a sighting. He spouted off lots of science stuff that quite frankly, went over my head, but I felt he was preparing us for a no-show.

We drove for an hour or so, parked, got out of the bus, and stared at the sky. After twenty very cold minutes, we’d given up and reboarded when a young woman in our group announced that she’d caught something on her cell phone camera right before we’d returned to the bus. (The lights are often viewed better through a camera lens.) She showed her picture to the guide, who then hurried us back outside.

Lo and behold, streaks of green light were appearing. The sky didn’t look like the postcards, but we could now say we’d seen the Northern Lights, the Aurora Borealis. The pictures below were taken by my husband, who’s usually the trip photographer.

We didn’t go to Iceland in the dead of winter just to see the Northern Lights, though. This trip was a graduation present for my granddaughter, who’s a senior in high school. Christmas break suited her busy schedule. We also “owed” her mom a trip abroad, as we once sent her mom’s two sisters to Europe.

Daughter, me, and granddaughter, but I bet you’d figured that out

So what did we do when we weren’t chasing the elusive Aurora Borealis? Hanging out at a church, the Hallgrimskirkja (the Icelandic language is not easy!). This impressive Lutheran church is a focal point of Reykjavik, and we visited it several times as we wandered the city.

Our morning walking tour met here at a cold 17 degrees at 10 am, close to sunrise. Yes, right now, Iceland has only about five hours of daylight each day.

Sunrise at Hallgrimskirkja

New Year’s Eve, the church was a main location for fireworks, although we’d just arrived that morning and were so jet-lagged we didn’t make it to midnight when the real ruckus began.

Incidentally, that’s a statue of Leif Erikson in front of the exploding fireworks in the picture below. He’s the Nordic explorer thought to be the first European to discover North America, long before Christopher Columbus.

Early New Year’s Eve fireworks at Hallgrimskirkja

Our last day in Reykjavik, we went to the top of the church for a photo op of the city.

View from the top of Hallgrimskirkja

You can’t go to the southern part of Iceland and not do the Golden Circle tour. Our trip on snowy, icy roads would have had my Eastern North Carolina mother screaming. On second thought, this woman who hunkered down in the house with her milk and bread at the first snowflake wouldn’t have been on this tour in the first place.

But we ventured out with a seasoned Icelandic driver and saw the three geological highlights: the Gullfoss Waterfall, the Strokkur Geyser, and Pingvellir National Park.

The icy Gullfoss Waterfall…brrr
The Strokkur Geyser, which erupts every few minutes–just wait for it…
Standing in the rift between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates at the Pingvellir National Park

On our tour of the Golden Circle, we stopped at a sheep farm for a bathroom break…and to take pictures of these very smelly animals.

We stayed in Reykjavik all four nights of our trip and had time to wander the town. More than sixty percent of the population of Iceland lives in the metropolitan area of this city, but the streets we walked had a small-town feel. A small town with beautiful views and quirky architecture.

A view of snowy mountains down many streets
Icelanders love cats, even scary ones
Colorful houses stand out in the snow
Christmas decorations still up after New Years (yay!) and yes, there’s the church again

One of our favorite excursions was the trip to the Blue Lagoon, Iceland’s number one tourist attraction. The Blue Lagoon is a large heated geothermal pool “rich with silica and soothing for your skin.” We slathered up with a complimentary mud mask and an adult beverage (except for the underage granddaughter who had a healthy smoothie of some sort). Relaxing!

All refreshed after drinks and mud masks

We’d been warned that food in Iceland is expensive, but we found an upscale food court and restaurants specializing in “street food,” such as the famous Icelandic hot dogs. “All the way” here came with the following: ketchup, raw onions, fried onions, pylsusinnep (a sweet brown mustard) and remoulade.

The best advice I read about trips involving a chance to see the Northern Lights is this: don’t go just for that reason or you may be disappointed. I heard a woman on one of our buses say she has friends who’d been to Iceland three times without seeing these elusive lights.

Instead, pick a destination you’d want to visit anyway, with other activities and sights. And maybe some special time with a granddaughter who’s suddenly all grown up.

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1 Response to How easy is it to see the Northern Lights in Iceland?

  1. What a fabulous experience for the four of you! The church is a magnificent building, and the photo of the fireworks and statue is a great capture! I’m so pleased that you did see the lights. The city itself definitely had lots of interesting things. Your tour out (I’d have been pretty nervous despite the comforting fact that the driver was well seasoned to driving in those conditions) was well worth it! I enjoyed reading about your adventure!


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