Iceland Northern Lights Travel Archives - TravelQuest International
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Iceland Northern Lights Travel

Low in the north, a faint green glowing arc emerges from the Arctic twilight. As dusk fades, the glow brightens and expands—perhaps into rays reaching toward the zenith or into curtains of light swaying across the sky. After a time, the celestial light show fades. TravelQuest skywatchers who witnessed this cosmic spectacle return to the warmth of their lodgings, still in awe at the marvelous display of heavenly lights.

Witnessing the northern lights, the aurora borealis, is high on many people’s bucket list. But to see them, you need to travel north, into the Arctic. One of the best places to see these dancing lights is Iceland. Here’s why.

All the prime aurora-viewing locations lie beneath a narrow, invisible doughnut-shaped region in the sky called the aurora oval. Iceland sits directly beneath this oval, making the island one of the best places to catch sight of the northern lights. The aurora is a more-or-less permanent feature of our planet’s high latitudes and, weather permitting, is almost always visible in the skies over Iceland.

When planning a northern lights trip, keep in mind that there is no guarantee you’ll see them. So it’s often said: Go for the scenery, hope for the northern lights. The aurora borealis is almost as unpredictable as the Arctic weather. But thanks to the amazing Icelandic scenery, it’s well worth the journey to this remarkable little island in the North Atlantic.

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A Northern Lights Expedition

Iceland is volcanic landscapes, stunning waterfalls, and the aurora borealis. During the day, it’s the magnificent Iceland countryside that spellbinds us as we visit a variety of sites and sights. Depending on our itinerary, we may climb a volcanic cinder cone; stroll various lava fields including a fairy-tale-like lava sculpture park; explore numerous large, thundering waterfalls and even walk behind one; visit folk museums to discover how Icelanders lived less than 100 years ago; or have a relaxing soak in a geothermal bath.

Iceland is also about Vikings. In Reykjavik, several museums celebrate the country’s Viking heritage with exhibits on the settlement of the island. You can also learn about the famous Sagas, written stories about Vikings in Iceland, some of which are nearly 1,000 years old. Beyond the city, we may stop at a recreation of a Viking longhouse, see the excavated ruins of a 900-year-old one, or visit the replica Viking turf-house of Erik the Red whose son, Leif Erikson, is said to have ‘discovered’ America.

But the best thing about TravelQuest’s northern lights trips to Iceland is that no matter where we go, we’re always under that aurora oval. Whether we’re near Reykjavik (the capital), driving along the beautiful south shore, exploring the island’s interior, whale watching in the far north, or traveling in the (almost) tourist-free Westfjords, each evening of our journey presents another aurora-watching opportunity.

Skógafoss is a beautiful waterfall on Iceland’s south shore; the excellent Skógar Museum is nearby. (Photo by Paul Deans/TQ)
Resembling a Viking longship, the Sun Voyager sculpture sits on Reykjavík’s waterfront. (Photo by Paul Deans/TQ)

Iceland’s Aurora: When and Where

If seeing the northern lights is a critical aspect of your Iceland vacation, then here are a few things you need to know about visiting this island nation to achieve your goal.

Summer is not a good time to visit Iceland on an aurora trip. To see the northern lights, it has to be dark. This is why aurora expeditions do not take place during the summer. From mid-April to late August, the skies in the far north are too bright to see the aurora; some regions even experience 24 hours of daylight. Against sunlight, the faint, glimmering bands of the northern lights are invisible.

TravelQuest’s favorite time of year for aurora travel is toward the end of summer or early autumn. The temperatures are pleasant, the hours of darkness are gradually increasing (but there’s still plenty of daylight for sightseeing), and there is colorful fall scenery—it’s a wonderful time to take an Arctic northern lights vacation. But there’s also science behind our choice of tour dates. Around the time of the autumn equinox (September 21st or so), the Sun and Earth are aligned such that Earth’s magnetic field lets in more charged particles from the Sun than at other times of the year. This means the northern lights tend to be more active in late September than during other months.

As mentioned earlier, all of Iceland is beneath the aurora oval, so the entire island is a prime location for viewing these celestial lights. Still, some sites are better than others, and the best ones are far removed from city lights. Since seeing the northern lights is our priority, we include as many dark-sky nights as possible on our trips. This means that most of our time is spent in the wonderful Icelandic countryside. Here we stay at remote hotels or guesthouses, far from city lights, that have quick access to the outdoors from our rooms. This makes for easy and comfortable northern lights watching at your convenience. Our trip astronomer is with us for the entire journey and will even wake you if an aurora display appears after you’ve gone to bed.

When the northern lights erupt behind clouds, the visual effect can be quite three dimensional. (Photo by Paul Deans/TQ)
The Seltún geothermal field has bubbling mud pools, steaming hot springs, and a strong sulfur odor. (Photo by Paul Deans/TQ)
TravelQuest stays at remote lodgings; step outside, look up, and you might see the aurora borealis. (Photo by Paul Deans/TQ)

Northern Lights Vacation Considerations

When planning our Iceland northern lights excursions, we take into account a number of factors that could affect the success of our tour. We go in September, when the lights are more likely to be active. Most evenings are spent in country lodgings, far from city lights and under dark night skies. We also travel around the time of the new Moon, so moonlight doesn’t interfere with our view of the lights.

We’d also like the Sun to be active when we’re in Iceland, so we travel during years when solar activity is expected to be good. This will be the case throughout much of the 2020s. During our journey, our trip astronomer constantly monitors the Sun, so we’ll know when to expect auroral activity. And while we can’t control the weather, we know from experience that early autumn is one of the better times to visit Iceland.

On some of our stargazing cruises, we’re also chasing the northern lights—often successfully. (Photo by Paul Deans/TQ)

Join Us in Iceland

To reach this exceptional island, you’ll need to fly. From North America, it’s an overnight flight. If you’re traveling to Iceland in September or October, consider choosing a window seat on the left side of the aircraft (the north side as the craft flies to Iceland). Three to four hours before landing in Keflavik (Iceland’s main international airport), keep watch out the window. It’ll be dark, and if you’re lucky, you’ll be treated to a display of the northern lights—a wonderful start to your Iceland aurora borealis vacation.

Once you’re arrived, you’ll find TravelQuest’s northern lights tour is unlike most of the aurora trips offered by other companies. Of course we spend one or two days exploring the sights in and around Reykjavik. The city is small, Viking history abounds, and there is plenty to see. But the aurora borealis is best observed where the lights are few and the skies are dark. Being based in Reykjavik for most or all of our Iceland aurora tour is not for us.

There are plenty of books about the northern lights, many with amazing photos of nature’s heavenly light show. And it’s true that the camera can record more than the eye can see, particularly when it comes to color at night. But all aurora photographs are merely freeze-frame snapshots of a spectacle in motion. It’s impossible for an image, or even a video, to capture the vibrant colors, the rapid motion, and the sky-filling extent of the northern lights. You have to be there to see it for yourself. It’s a sight you will never forget. And Iceland is the best place to see this spectacle.

If you have never seen the aurora borealis, join us in Iceland for our next northern lights expedition. We’ll take in the island’s magnificent scenery during the day, and at night stay in country lodges so our aurora watching can take place under pristine, dark skies. Our trip astronomer will be with us for the entire journey to explain the northern lights, help you capture images of it, and wake you if a display appears after you’re gone to bed. If this appeals, contact TravelQuest to discover more about our northern lights excursions and to learn when our next one takes place.

Header image by Paul Deans/TQ