Quick Q&A: When is the best time to see the Northern Lights in Iceland?

Ahhh – the northern lights. Or the Aurora Borealis, which I think is a more enigmatic name for them. This collision between electrically charged particles from the sun that enter the earth’s atmosphere and make grown people cry. Either of joy or disappointment (when they fail to show). And every tourist’s favorite conversation topic during the sometimes challenging winter months in Iceland.

I know I’m speaking from a position of Aurora privilege when I say that it never ceases to amaze just how excited people are about the northern lights and the lengths they will go to see them. We who live here have grown up with them and kind of take them for granted. Don’t get me wrong, I like the northern lights and I think they’re beautiful but if I didn’t have folks following me on various social media accounts that show their appreciation for my (very bad) photos of the northern lights – I’d probably stay home most of the time and watch Netflix rather than freezing my butt off gazing at the sky.

I do kind of understand the draw though, it might be a once in a lifetime thing for many people who visit us which is why I always try to give our walking tour guests the heads up when the forecast is really good and I stop people on the streets and point up if I see them. Because I’m nice that way.

During the winter months, I sometimes feel all I do is answering questions about the the northern lights but now that summer is coming to an end and the aurora season is upon us, there’s one northern lights question that seems to be on everyone’s mind: What is the best time to see them?

Question: When is the best time to see the northern lights in Iceland?

Let’s start with the basics, there are three things you need in order to have a chance at seeing the northern lights:

  1. Darkness

  2. Clear skies

  3. Aurora activity


The fact that you need darkness to see the northern lights automatically eliminates the summer months when it’s bright all the time. The earliest we usually see the northern lights is after the middle of August and the latest somewhere around the beginning of May.

November to March are the darkest months of the year in Iceland and that’s why we often talk about those months as the Northern Lights season. The northern light tours usually start running around the middle of September though and are operated until around the middle of April.

So the first thing you have to think about is visiting Iceland when it’s actually dark enough to see the lights.

Clear Skies

If there’s one thing we’re not lacking in the winter it’s darkness, but there are other things to consider too. It’s not enough that it’s just dark, you also have to be blessed with a clear sky if you want to fully experience the aurora. It doesn’t have to be completely clear, although those are the best possible conditions of course, but the sky at least has to be visible through the clouds.

Speaking of clouds, they mostly lie 2-8 km above the ground while the northern lights are usually about 90 -130 km above the ground. So you don’t have to be a genius in math (or even understand the metric system) to figure out that if it’s completely cloudy, you won’t see any northern lights.

Unfortunately, the winter months tend to have the most precipitation here in Iceland and where there is rain or snow there are also clouds. The good thing about the Icelandic weather is that it changes quickly and often (even within the same day) so even though it snows in the morning the sky might be completely clear by night. Since you can’t predict what the weather will be like months in advance (or even a day) you have to rely on a little bit of luck when it comes to the weather. The worst weather tends to be between Novermber and March, although in between storms and mayhem (not real mayhem – just over-dramatic “why is the weather so bad” type of mayhem) we also often got beautiful crisp days that almost makes you forget about the bad days.

If you stay in Iceland for a week in winter, I would say there is a decent chance that you’ll get at least one clear night (or at least clear enough to see the sky) during your stay.

By the way, a lot of people think it needs to be cold to see the northern lights but this is not true. The reason people associate cold nights with northern lights is the fact that it’s usually cold when the sky is clear. I don’t know enough about meteorology to explain that one but I’ve lived here long enough to know that it’s true.

Aurora Activity

Great, so you’ve got this covered – all you have to do is come to Iceland for a week somewhere between September and May and you’ll have enough darkness and a somewhat good chance of a clear night.

If only it was that simple!

We have one thing left to talk about from the three northern lights essentials and that’s the aurora activity. Statistically, the northern lights are most active in March, April, September, and October. The most active period of the day (statistically) is usually between 11 pm and 1 am although they can happen at any time outside of that period too.

There are many things that affect the activity level: sunspots, coronal holes and solar flares (I hope that these are not all the same thing – I really know nothing about astronomy) some of which are predictable while others are somewhat random. Thankfully, you don’t have to be an astronomer to figure this out because there are northern lights forecasts available that will help you with this (The Icelandic Met Office Space Weather Prediction Center). Although most of them will only predict the coming days some have a 27 day outlook that might help you decide whether or not to do a trip on short notice. Apparently, Kp-level of 3 and higher is promising.

To summarize

You need all three of the things mentioned above to come together to see the northern lights. I read a lot of different things while researching this post (mostly reliable Icelandic online sources) and it’s my conclusion that the best time to visit Iceland for the northern lights is probably late September/early October. End of March/beginning of April could be good too but the weather tends to be nicer in the fall than early spring.

Having said that – nature, despite being predictable to some extent, is still nature and we cannot control it. So even though the statistics say that something is likeliest to happen at a certain time it doesn’t mean it necessarily will. So my advice to anyone wanting to visit Iceland in winter is to not make the Northern Lights the main thing about your trip. Treat it as a special bonus if you see them but come for all the other great things you can see and do in Iceland to avoid disappointment.

If you see them: YAY [insert emotion]!
If you don’t see them: bummer but you just did a snowmobile ride on a glacier/went inside a volcano/saw Orcas in their natural habitat (to name a few) and it was amazing!

The northern lights should just be your cherry on top.

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29 thoughts on “Quick Q&A: When is the best time to see the Northern Lights in Iceland?”

  1. Daniel says:

    Stayed ten days in Iceland last November. Didn’t see Northern Lights. Still totally worth it.

    1. mm Auður - I Heart Reykjavík says:

      Last winter was exceptionally bad – there were unusually many bad days in the middle of winter. The fall and the spring were slightly better.

    2. tenny says:

      we are also planning to visit iceland this Nov, during thanksgiving break. very excited, but don’t have any plans made yet. Would you mind sharing your experience (what kind of tours or place have you visited etc..).. thanks!

  2. Surly Mermaid says:

    Hello! We just visited Iceland this August (took your walking tour) and are already planning our next visit.
    After reading this post, do you think September would be better than April for a 10 day tour around Iceland? We hope to see not only the auroras but also all the other amazing sites and features of Iceland in more remote locations including the northwest and eastern parts of the country.
    Takk Takk

  3. Esther says:

    I’ve visited twice; the first time at the end of March staying in Reykjavik and it was overcast and foggy the whole week so we didn’t even get a chance to go out to look for them as all the tours were cancelled. The second time was mid-November when we stayed in Akyururi and we had clear skies but no aurora activity 🙁
    Just booked a week next February so fingers crossed for third time lucky but I just love being in Iceland for all it offers that seeing the lights would indeed just be a bonus (if I see them then maybe I can make an excuse to come and see you in the summer next time 😉)

    1. mm Auður - I Heart Reykjavík says:

      I hope the third time’s the charm!

      1. Esther says:

        Thank you, hoping to get on your tour too since it didn’t exist the first time we visited and we didn’t send enough time in Reykjavik the second 🙂

    2. Kara Spowart says:

      I am looking to go Feb 2019 Please let me know if you managed to see them!!!
      Thank you.

    3. Prakash says:

      Please share your experiences with us. We are planning a trip on March end.

  4. Anne Cortes says:

    I was planning to go to iceland March 30-April 5. Would I get to see the northern lights?

    1. mm Auður - I Heart Reykjavík says:

      I’m sorry but I can’t answer that. You might see them, you might now. All depends on the things discussed in this post.

    2. Rosie says:

      so did you end up seeing them? I was planning on going at that exact time but didnt get a chance

  5. Jennifer says:

    We’re here in Iceland now (October 22-27th, 2017)!!! Do we need to get out of Reykjavik improve the odds of seeing the lights? Where are all the bus tours going? Are the lights a fast, fleeting, sporadic event or can they be seen from everywhere over a course of an evening?
    I’ve enjoyed reading your posts, we’re going to follow your south coast self drive tour tomorrow!

    1. mm Ásta - I Heart Reykjavík says:

      Hi, Jennifer.
      I hope you have seen the northern lights already, since the chances are not excellent for tonight. The guided tours normally just head to where there is a clear sky, to maximize the chance of seeing the northern lights, so they don’t always go to the same place. The lights tend not to super fast, not like a flash, more like waves of light washing across the sky, everything from a few minutes up to a much longer time.

  6. Amy Schubert says:

    We just got back from Iceland Yesterday. We spent 5 hours looking for them on December 2nd with no luck. The next day was rainy and then December 4th we went back out and we saw them! I felt like crying for about 2 seconds. It is so exciting to finally see something that you have read about and heard about for years.

    1. mm Auður - I Heart Reykjavík says:

      I’m glad you got to see them! 🙂

      I was so young when I first saw them that I probably didn’t think much of it 🙂

  7. Delia Florea says:

    Hello. I was meant to do a cruise in the Caribbean in February. It’s my 33rd birthday and I’ll be alone so I was hoping for something special. Unfortunately, being single sucks while booking cruises as I’d have to pay for two (take that! for not having found the other half) I’d love to see the Northern Lights as it’s been a long time dream of mine so maybe I can change my plans to come to Iceland. What do I need to do? Thank you.

    1. mm Auður - I Heart Reykjavík says:

      You should check out these itineraries that we put together for our solo travelers:


  8. Lynsey says:

    Regarding this part: “The reason people associate cold nights with northern lights is the fact that it’s usually cold when the sky is clear. I don’t know enough about meteorology to explain that one but I’ve lived here long enough to know that it’s true.”
    The answer is that clouds trap heat close to the surface (greenhouse effect), so cloudy days hold more heat while on clear days the heat escapes into space more easily. Just thought I’d share that tidbit of info! 🙂
    I’m headed out to Iceland next week…. fingers crossed for some aurora action!

    1. mm Auður - I Heart Reykjavík says:

      Thank you for that 🙂

      I hope you get to see them too!

  9. Thank you for this great information. We’re traveling to Iceland at the end of March. We’ll drive down the south coast. Do you think we’ll need to book a separate tour or would we be ok to observe Northern Lights near Vik or Hofn (sorry about the lack of special characters) by ourselves, given the conditions you listed exist?

    1. mm Auður - I Heart Reykjavík says:

      No, you shouldn’t need to reserve a tour. Like I tried to explain in this post you just need the darkness, clear skies and decent activity levels.

  10. James says:

    Thank you for going into such detail. I was worried that I had to start asking around when I got to Iceland. Great post!

  11. Alpa says:

    Thank you for this informative post. Is December (around Xmas) a good time to visit Iceland? Besides getting an opportunity to see Northern Lights, what are some of the other activities that you would suggest? And of course what is the weather like at that time? Thank you

    1. mm Auður - I Heart Reykjavík says:

      I’ve written a few posts about visiting Iceland around Christmas that might help you and here is one: https://iheartreykjavik.net/2015/12/christmas-in-reykjavik-everything-you-need-to-know-about-your-december-visit/

  12. Janine says:


    I understand that seeing the Northern Lights in person totally depends on the weather forecast. However, if I were to visit Iceland and do a road ring tour during Christmas till NYE, I was wondering what are the chances of getting clear skies and good weather forecast? I’m doing day tours as well to see the falls, glaciers, and geysirs; so I worry that Iceland is more prone to getting snowstorms and blizzards from late December till early January compared to the other winter months, resulting to all of my tours and activities getting cancelled. Would I be better off travelling to Iceland in March to get clear skies than in December?

    Thank you for this informative post! 🙂


    1. mm Auður - I Heart Reykjavík says:

      It’s impossible to say anything about the weather as this summer has proved (we hardly saw the sun for two whole months) so I can’t answer your question 🙂

      Maybe this post will help: https://iheartreykjavik.net/2017/02/what-will-the-weather-be-like-in-insert-month-in-iceland/

  13. Milka says:

    Hi there, can you please advise for orca watching/spotting courses in Iceland? Thanks very much!

    1. mm Auður - I Heart Reykjavík says:

      There’s no place in Iceland with guaranteed Orca spottings. In the winter (Jan to Mar approx) they can sometimes be seen on the northern part of Snæfellsnes but in the recent winters they’ve seen them less and less. They can also be seen on whale watching trips from Reykjavík in winter but it’s definitely not an everyday occurrence.

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