Where should you stay in Iceland to see the northern lights? There are a number of factors which will affect whether you will see the northern lights or not. Some of them you can only cross your fingers for, others you can actually prepare for. We want to give you the best possible chances of seeing the magic in real life and have therefore created a quick guide to help you on your hunt for aurora borealis – including tips on how to see the northern lights from our hotel; one of the best locations in Iceland for aurora spotting.
Northern lights over Trofhús Retreat – luxury hotel on the Golden Circle.
What are the Northern Lights or Aurora Borealis?
The northern lights are often called one of the greatest wonders of nature and refers to the shimmering green light you can witness swirl over the northern sky as soon as night has fallen. At times you can also see the magical light break into violet, red, yellow and blue tones.
The northern lights, also known by its latin name; aurora borealis, have inspired many myths throughout time. In earlier years it was a common belief that the northern lights were created by gods, spirits and other beings with magical powers. The vikings believed the northern lights to be a bridge to Asgard, created by Thor and the other gods of norse mythology. Science provides another explanation to the phenomenon.
Did you know that the northern lights actually are a result of dangerous particles being hurled at earth from the sun?
A brief explanation to how the northern lights are created:
- The sun constantly ejects clouds of gas, also called solar winds, that consists of charged particles.
- Sometimes earth is hit by these particles, whereby they are caught by earth’s protecting shield – the magnetosphere – and directed towards the poles of earth.
- As the particles penetrate the magnetosphere at the poles, they crash into atoms and molecules in the atmosphere.
- Resulting from these collisions are small busts of light, called photons. As countless numbers of these collisions happen at the same time, the result is the swirling light that we recognise as aurora borealis.
You might also be wondering why the aurora sometimes appears in shifting colours?
The determining factor for the colour of the aurora is the altitude at which the collisions happen. Different gases are found at different altitudes in the atmosphere and these have differing reactions to the collisions. Collisions at lower altitudes generally produce green and yellow colours, meanwhile collisions higher up in the atmosphere produce more blues and reds.
If you would watch the northern lights from space, it would take the form of a halo around the north pole, stretching out above Iceland, Greenland, Northern Scandinavia, Russia, Alaska and Canada. If the aurora activity is strong, it is possible to see it from latitudes further south, however if you want to be sure to see the northern lights – these make up the optimal locations to do so.
The perfect conditions for seeing the Northern Lights
There are three crucial elements you need to be in good terms with to be able to see the northern lights in Iceland:
- Aurora activity
- Clear skies
Meanwhile they to a certain extent are out of human control, there are ways in which you can increase the probability that they will work in your favour.
Northern Lights Guide: How to maximise chances of seeing Aurora Borealis in Iceland
Beyond hoping, wishing and praying this is what you should do to maximize the chances of seeing the northern lights while visiting Iceland:
- Visit Iceland at the optimal time of the year
- Choose a hotel where the conditions are likely to be favourable
- Check – but don’t get hung up on – weather and aurora forecasts
- Plan for flexibility
When should you go to Iceland to see the Northern Lights?
Contrary to common belief, the northern lights can occur at any time of the day, however without darkness it won’t be visible to the naked eye. Therefore, as the sun does not set in Iceland in the summer, the best chances of seeing aurora borealis occurs in the period between fall and spring; more specifically from September to March.
Meanwhile September and October have somewhat shorter nights compared to the following months, this time is sometimes preferred as the temperatures usually are a bit more pleasant. Moreover, the risk of snowy and rainy weather is slightly higher during the winter months.
There is however no guarantee that one month will be better than another. Aurora is usually visible during the whole of this period between September and March. Easier said than done, but you just need some luck with the weather.
A frequently asked question is how long you should stay to maximise the chances of seeing the aurora.
A common recommendation is a minimum of 5 to 7 days to allow for Iceland’s notorious weather to do its thing. The longer you stay, the higher the likelihood for seeing the northern lights are, as it is not likely to be cloudy for a larger number of days in a row.
Additionally, there is an endless amount of sights to see and activities to keep busy with in Iceland – chances you will become bored are slim. Read more about the sights and activities near our hotel, one of the best for seeing the northern lights in Iceland, here.
Why Torfhús Retreat is one of the best Northern Lights hotels in Iceland
The million dollar question is: where in Iceland should you stay to see the northern lights?
In theory you can see the northern lights from everywhere in Iceland, but as discussed above – darkness is a requirement. Therefore the light pollution from cities like Reykjavík, or even street lighting, is likely to diminish or, worst case scenario, rob you of your entire experience.
One of the best places from which you can enjoy the northern lights without obstructing factors, is the Golden Circle. Comfortably located just about one hours drive from Reykjavík, this is an excellent choice of location. For most people who travel to Iceland, the Golden Circle, just as the northern lights, is a bucket list activity anyway, why it makes even more sense to choose a hotel in the Golden Circle area.
Torfhús Retreat is a northern lights hotel on the Golden Circle and has the optimal conditions that enhances your chances to see aurora:
- Secluded from roads and villages – guaranteed free from light polluting
- Allows for flexibility – you don’t need to drive anywhere, just have peek outside the window to see if the light show has started
- Each residence has its own geothermal basalt stone pool – can you imagine watching the aurora dance over the sky from the warmth of a hot tub?
- Privacy – See it in the company of your loved one(s)
- In close proximity to all Golden Circle sights – the perfect starting point for daytime exploring
At Torfhús Retreat you live in your own turf house, just like the vikings did back in the day, but with the amenities of a modern luxury hotel. The Torfhús experience has been described as rustic and wild, meanwhile indulgent, warm and cozy. Read more about Torfhús Retreat and what Icelandic luxury means here.
Keep an Eye on the Weather and Aurora Forecast
This is one of the factors that you just need to cross your fingers for. The aurora activity is nearly impossible to predict more than a couple of hours before the actual show.
If aurora is going to pay a visit and how strong it is going to be, depends on the solar storms. The more charged particles the earth gets hit with the more vibrant aurora we get.
If you are unsure of how to read the aurora forecast, there are three things you need to know:
- The green on the map is clouds
- The white indicates a clear sky
- The Kp index indicates the degree of aurora activity – the higher the better
The Kp index is a scale from 0 to 9. At the latitude which Iceland is located everything above a 2 is usually visible. A good piece of advice is however to not put too much emphasis on the scores.
A high score does not necessarily mean a spectacular amount of aurora, meanwhile a low score does not mean that there is no chance of seeing aurora. The truth to be told the forecast rarely shows a score higher than 4, but even a 3 will give you a good show.
An aurora hunter’s worst enemy is clouds. It may not be scientifically proven, but the weather starting to improvise must definitely be the cause for most headaches and disappointments for travelers in Iceland.
The sky does not have to be completely clear but if it is covered by a thick layer of clouds, the chances of seeing the northern lights are slim to non-existent, to be completely honest.
Most Importantly – Be Flexible and Stay Observant
If you are staying at a northern lights hotel, i.e. a place where conditions are optimal, essentially all you have to do is go outside to check whether anything is happening.
The best time for spotting aurora in Iceland is between 8pm and 1am, although it in theory could appear at any point in time, as long as the sky is dark. Aurora activity can go from 0 to 100 in an instance; sometimes it starts out as a white smoke-like wave across the sky that suddenly catches colour.
Do not rely on the forecasts too much – winds can change directions, predictions are not always right; everything can happen.