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The Ultimate Guide To Iceland’s Northern Lights (And Best Places To Catch It!)

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Iyesha  •  Feb 28, 2019

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[Updated 13 March 2020] So you have decided to go to Iceland, the land of Vikings. It’s far and foreign, we know. 😁 We also know that you have seen pictures of their spectacularly breathtaking Aurora Borealis, or more commonly known as the Northern Lights. And now you want to see this ethereal phenomenon with your very own eyes! Credit: Giphy Will it be an epic adventure? Most definitely. Some even say it’s a life-changing event. The land of ice and fire (Game of Thrones fans, we know you like this 😉) lives up to its reputation with volcanoes, glaciers, geothermal pools, and alien-like landscapes. Seriously, just look at these stunning Icelandic photos! If you’re not in love with Iceland after seeing this, we’re totally judging you.
Credit: Old Skool Photography on Unsplash But first, what exactly are the northern lights? Time to recall some physics and chemistry! The magnificent dancing lights are the result of electrically charged particles from the sun ☀️ colliding with Earth’s 🌎 gaseous particles in the atmosphere. Bear in mind, the northern lights are unpredictable. It is not a guaranteed sighting *sigh 😩*. But you can exponentially increase your chances of sighting the dancing lights with these three things: 
  1. There needs to be auroral activity. There are plenty of websites such as this that shows auroral activity.
  2. You need clear skies. Even if there’s high auroral activity, clouds can block your view.
  3. It must be dark. You can’t see it when there’s too much light. Even a bright full moon will dim its aura!
  4. You need a LOT of patience. There will be a lot of waiting in the cold, cold, cold weather ❄️.
Now, to get all three factors at once, plus all the extras that come with travelling (timing, routes, accommodation, clothes, photography gears and all that jazz) require some intensive planning.
When is the best time to visit Iceland?
Late September to late March is the best time to visit, simply because it gets dark as early as 6 pm, giving us longer hours of fully dark nights. Also, December is the darkest month, which might increase your chances of seeing the lights more vibrantly. Whereas January and February have more rainfall and therefore more clouds - so these might be months to avoid!
How long should you stay in Iceland?
 The suggested length of stay is usually seven nights. The lights usually follow a cycle of being highly active for two to three nights, then low activity for three to four nights. But sighting the northern lights is based on luck, chance and patience. This means that the longer you stay, the higher your chances are of seeing it. 
Anyway, there’s so much more to Iceland than the northern lights! 😯 The land of fire and ice is a haven for adventurers and photographers alike! Since you’ll be spending your nights hunting for the majestic dancing lights, why not use your day time to explore the rest of Iceland’s scenic landscapes?
Can you find halal food in Iceland?
Since Islam is such a minority population in Iceland (only 0.3%!), there are not many amenities to accommodate Muslims such as mosques or halal eateries in the country. Iceland’s food culture is heavy on lamb and seafood, so it is easy to find non-pork meals - but do note that there might be cross-contamination of seafood/vegetarian options with non-halal meat, and do watch out for ingredients such as alcohol, bacon, or ham! We recommend checking with the staff before ordering, and do dine at your own discretion. There are a few Muslim-owned restaurants in Reykjavik such as Mandi Reykjavik and Shalimar Pakistani Cuisine . Although these restaurants are Muslim-owned, not everything on their menu may be halal-certified (e.g. not all meats may be halal-certified, or alcoholic beverages may be served) and we advise that you dine at your own discretion. Outside of the city, there are almost no suitable options so it's recommended that you prepare beforehand. If you're travelling with a tour, make sure to communicate clearly with your tour operators about your dietary requirements beforehand. They usually have vegetarian or seafood options available, but you will have to inquire about cross-contamination, animal by-products, and alcohol. #HHWT Tip: Get snacks for the road! Head over to a supermarket and stock up on snacks in case there aren’t any Muslim-friendly eateries while you’re exploring the country. Alternatively, if you have access to a kitchen, you can also shop for your own groceries at the supermarkets for their amazing fresh produce and prepare your own meals.
Are there prayer spaces in Iceland?
 As mentioned earlier, Iceland is not a place with many Muslim amenities. There is only one mosque in Reykjavik (The Grand Mosque of Iceland), so we suggest that you bring your own mat and qibla compass if necessary. For those who are travelling with tour operators, you might have to work your prayer times around the tour schedule. Be ready to pray on the go as not many tour operators accommodate Muslim prayer times (there are no prayers halls on the road for them to stop). 😅 Here are some useful tips for praying in public while travelling!
What's Iceland's weather like?
Imagine experiencing four seasons in one day 🌨☀️⛄️. That’s what you’ll be packing for! Iceland’s weather is known to be unpredictable, and you may end up bundled up at the start of the day and shrugging off your coat mid-day.
One of the popular sayings there is “If you don’t like the weather, wait five minutes”. That’s how fickle the weather is. Be prepared for anything - rain, snow, sun (yes, even sun!), wind, anything!
What should you wear/bring to Iceland?
Dress for warmth and comfort. Chances are you’ll be doing a LOT of walking during the day, and waiting (for the northern lights) at night. The weather there isn’t too kind so you definitely want to be prepared. Use these helpful tips for surviving cold weather so you won't become a popsicle in the middle of the Icelandic wilderness! Ideally, layering is the way to go. Layering would help you get comfortable since you can remove or add on layers accordingly. You don’t want to be too cold the moment you remove the your ultra-padded jacket because you only have one layer underneath. Grab some reliable thermal under layers to make sure you'll stay warm no matter what. You also want to be comfortable enough to move in between indoors, outdoors, and in and out of vehicles. Here are our suggested items to bring to make your trip more comfortable
  1. Comfortable long sleeve t-shirts - be as comfy as you can be!
  2. Water bottle - there aren’t many stops on the road so it’s better to have water with you at all times, especially if you’re not travelling with tour operators. Or refill drinkable water straight from the tap. There is no need to buy water there as it's potable. You can even drink water fresh from the glacial streams! 😉
  3. Lotion and lip balm - a must-have for any cold-weather travels to prevent dry skin and chapped lips.
  4. Umbrella/raincoat ☔️ - it’s good to be prepared for the rain. It might rain up to 5 times a day, sporadically, and you don't want to get wet and risk falling ill.
  5. Comfortable trekking shoes (preferably waterproof) - this is important because you’re going to be spending a lot of time walking. Make sure to use your new shoes before the trip to avoid blisters, especially if you've bought a new pair of leather boots! 
  6. Clothes for the cold - sweaters, scarves, gloves, hats, beanies, woollen sock, long thermal underwear, and more. This useful packing guide will help you out!
  7. Hot hands/heat packs – remember to bring small heat packs to keep your hands warm! These things are lifesavers for any cold-weather trip. Just keep them in your jacket and hold them when you start to feel chilly. Other types of heat packs can be stuck onto fabric - slip these into your shoes so your feet stay nice and toasty.
  8. Waterproof backpack – to make sure all your belongings are safe from the rain!
  9. Ski pants - they keep you warm and are comfortable enough to wear while exploring the countryside!
  10. Jeans 👖 - for the sunnier days in the city! Remember to bring along thermal under clothes to wear underneath these.
  11. Jacket - invest in a good down jacket to keep you warm and well-insulated.
  12. Adapters - The electrical plugs in Iceland are 2 pin 220V 50Hz. Bring adapters for the plugs and wall sockets. Most hotels would have adapters available, but just in case you need to charge your electronics at a pit stop while on the road, it's good to have one with you. 
Getting around Iceland:
Renting a car For those who want the freedom of travelling in their own time and have their own schedules, driving is the way to go 🚘! Rental cars are available around Reykjavik and other major towns. You should be able to rent a car with a foreign license, as long as there’s English on it.
Credit: @_nzry on Instagram Driving around the countryside can be liberating for some. You don't have to follow anyone's schedules but your own. But keep in mind that this requires some intensive planning on your end. You might miss out on hidden gems that only locals are aware of, or even lack the experience to find the best spots for the northern lights. Maybe reach out to tour operators beforehand and check their itineraries, or ask them for tips on hidden gems to visit! #HHWT tip: If you have little experience driving on dark, snowy, rural, or icy roads; we recommend you choose other alternatives as a safety precaution. The roads can get slippery. And if you don’t feel comfortable driving a car, there are plenty of tours you can choose from! Guided tours The most common method would be using guided tours. They usually run from September to March during the northern lights season. You will be guided by Icelandic experts who are familiar with the northern lights, and can guide you to the best locations to sight one! And the best part? You don’t have to worry about driving (in hazardous winter conditions), routes, maps, and planning. Everything is done for you. Just hop onto the vehicle and enjoy beautiful sceneries! There are different tours available for different travellers - luxurious, budget-friendly, adventurous, easy-going, buses, vans, jeeps, and many others. You just need to pick the one that suits you and your time best. Two of the most popular tour operators in Iceland are Guide to Iceland and Extreme Iceland. There are still some disadvantages to using a tour operator so it'll depend on your priorities. Mainly, you would be moving on their schedule, and depending on the type of tour you choose, it can be crowded. #HHWT tip: Most tours would have negative reviews from people who have not seen any aurora, but that is the nature of this phenomenon. Most would also offer to take you for another day if you did not see it on the first, but do be prepared for the possibility that you won't see any aurora at all. Boat The last option is to tour by boat 🚤. These boats are available in Reykjavik and Akureyri, and they take you out into the open ocean away from the city and its urban light pollution. But where the first two options take you on a ‘hunt’ for the northern lights, the boat tour’s main highlight is to take you out to sea and enjoy the magnificent landscape while being under the stars with a chance of seeing the northern lights while you’re out there. 😍
How do I see the northern lights?
First of all, look north! The lights aren’t called the northern lights without reason. They appear on the northernmost part of the sky aka the arctic sky! Once darkness falls, the optimum time to see the lights seem to range between 9.30pm and 1 am.
Credit: Johannes Groll on Unsplash What might seem like grey thin wispy clouds at first can be easy to miss. Try and take a long exposure (20 seconds or so) picture with your camera. If the ‘clouds’ in your photograph appear green - that’s it! That’s a weaker version of the northern lights. Now you have to wait a while longer and hope for the auroral activity to get stronger. 
Credit: Old Skool Photography on Unsplash The colour of the lights depends on the intensity of the auroral activity. The stronger it is, the brighter its colours. The most common colour is green, but sometimes it can be red, blue, or orange! Again, we remind you, these surreal lights are unpredictable. Sometimes they stay for just five minutes *again, sigh 😩*, and sometimes you get a whole show for the entire night!
Where's the best spot for the northern lights?
City
Credit: Wikipedia Commons In the city, the auroral activity has to be pretty strong for you to see them. It’s not an impossible occurrence, and maybe you could be lucky enough to see it right in Reykjavik. But note that in the city, you would lack the mobility to move around if clouds get in the way of your view. Here are a few places we would suggest in the city:
  1. Grotta lighthouse – a small lighthouse on the north-westernmost point of Reykjavik
  2. Oskjuhlio – a beautiful woodlands area in the centre of Reykjavik 
  3. Klambratun – a simple and cosy little park in east-central Reykjavik
Pack some light snacks and a warm drink (their hot chocolates are delicious ☕️) and chill under Reykjavik’s star-filled sky while waiting for the northern lights!
Credit: @_nzry on Instagram You would have much higher chances outside the city, away from light pollution. Drive a few miles out to get away from the light pollution or maybe even stay overnight in Thorsmork just 3 hours away from Reykjavik. Countryside One great thing about hunting for the northern lights is that you can use your day time for other awesome Icelandic adventures! Once you’re out of the city and away from urban light pollution, you can pretty much set up anywhere on a good night and get a great view of the northern lights when they appear. These are some suggestions of places you can visit during the day for beautiful landscape photos.  And (if you’re lucky!) see the aurora borealis in all its glory at night and enjoy TWO natural wonders in one place! 1 - Black Sand Beaches and Vik
Credit: @_nzry on Instagram Vik is a small fishing village on the southernmost tip of Iceland. Just a few minutes drive away from the town, you can find this unique beach, Reynisfjara. Here you can find black sand beaches. Stroll along the beach during the day and admire its uniqueness. 
Credit: Chris Reid on Unsplash At night, when the aurora appears, the black beach and reflective ocean can add an interesting element to your shot. 2- Skogafoss Waterfall One of Iceland’s iconic waterfalls! This magnificent waterfall stands at 60 meters high. You can spend your day exploring the waterfalls to find your favourite angle for your northern lights photo at night.
Credit: @_nzry on Instagram Walk up the steps (at the side of the waterfall) to the top, explore inwards towards the waterfall, or stay back and get a shot of the waterfall and all its surrounding landscapes. You might even get a rainbow 🌈 (or a double rainbow) on sunny days at the waterfall itself.
Credit: Balasz Busznyak on Unsplash #HHWT tip: If you have seen Skogafoss in all its glory, another of Iceland’s famous waterfall named Seljalandfoss is just as spectacular and within driving distance from Skogafoss. 3 - Solheimajokull Glaciers An impressive glacier that is 8 km long and 2 km wide. Unlike most glaciers, Solheimajokull has a mixture of colours from snowy white, ice blue, and black ashes from its volcanic sand. 
During the day you can organize a hike on the glacier! It takes about three hours to hike up to the top but you get to enjoy a view of the colossal glacier once you’re up there. Once you’re done with hiking, take a chill pill, relax, and wait for the sun to set! 4 - Jokulsarlon Ice Lagoon Another of Iceland’s must-visit locations. What makes this glacial lagoon so special is that it is ever-changing. As chunks of ice are constantly crumbling, the lagoon is constantly expanding. This means that for every trip made to Jojulsarlon, you would get a different view!
Credit: @_nzry on Instagram And just some interesting facts, because of it’s unique landscape, it was the filming locations of many Hollywood films such as James Bond's Die Another Day, Interstellar, Batman Begins, and Tomb Raider!
Credit: Wikipedia Commons Imagine getting a view of the northern lights like this over the glacial lagoon! 5 - Eldhraun This 565 km-square feet lava field covered in moss. This bizarre landscape was caused by a cataclysmic event in 1783 when Laki (the volcanic fissure) erupted lava for more than a year! 
This serene yet surreal lava field adds a whimsical touch not just to your northern lights picture, but also your daytime photos. An interesting fact: This was where the Apollo 11 astronauts trained for their 1969 moonwalk due to its surface similarities to the moon. 6 - Thingvellir (Þingvellir) National Park A huge national park about 40km away from Reykjavik, Thingvellir is one of the popular attractions because of its geological, cultural and historical significance. You can explore the Oxara waterfall, Nikilsargia Gorge and check out the tectonic plates.
Credit: @_nzry on Instagram In the park lies a rift valley that shows the boundary between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. The plates are naturally pulled 2cm apart every year!
Credit: Kym Ellis on Unsplash Go past the visitor centre and up to Almanngja for a magnificent shot of the entire park with the northern lights! P.S. Game of Thrones fans, one of the locations in the park, Almanaggja, was used to represent the Gates to the Moon, or the entry to the Eyrie. 7 - Kirkjufell
Credit: Joshua Earle on Unsplash  An iconic Icelandic landmark! This mountain is the most photographed mountain in Iceland. At 463 feet it is a towering figure on its surrounding flat land. This place was the filming locations for the stunningly picturesque The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, and one of the locations north of the wall in Game of Thrones! Game of Thrones fans, this was one of the locations filmed for season 6 and 7.  Without giving anything away, you might recognize it from one of Jon Snow's adventures! 8 - Hvitserkur
Credit: @_nzry on Instagram What is that thing? Is that a creature coming out of the sea? Nope, this Star Wars-like creature is a rock formation that resembles a monster rising from the sea! With its shape and standing at 15 meters high, it is no surprise that sometimes it's mistaken as a living creature at first glance.
Credit: Joshua Earle on Unsplash At night, it looks even more surreal (at times even eerie). Wait for the northern lights to appear, and it’ll look like a scene from a fantasy movie! Note: These locations are scattered on both the north and south of the country. Tour operators may not take you to all the locations we listed, and even to drive there on your own may be time-consuming. We know you want to visit all (we would if we could too). You don’t have to go to all places to enjoy Iceland and see the enigmatic northern lights. There is always next time, and Iceland is that beautiful a place you would want to visit again. 😊 
Photography tips for capturing the northern lights 📸
Credit: Jakob Owens on Unsplash In most situations, your gear won't matter too much. But if you want to get the best shots, here are our recommendations for equipment and settings to capture the ethereal phenomenon. (If you’re still deciding on which cameras to purchase before your trip, have a look at our top 10 recommended travel cameras!) Equipment:
  1. Digital camera (preferably with manual mode and high ISO as you'll be shooting in the dark)
  2. A wide-angle lens (24mm or wider) and a higher aperture (2.8 minimum)
  3. A tripod to steady your camera for the long exposure
  4. Extra batteries (around 3-4) because the cold weather drains batteries faster
 As the light in the surrounding environments is constantly changing, you might have to experiment around with the settings until you get it right. Here are some guides to start with for the shot:   
  1. Image format - use raw if you can, especially for those who will post-process the images. Raw contains much more data than jpeg for you to edit later, and you'll have a higher chance of getting a nicer photo.
  2. Aperture - as you need to capture as much light as fast as possible, a minimum aperture of 2.8 (or as close as possible) is recommended.
  3. Shutter speed - this is dependent on how fast the northern lights are moving. Experiment between 15 to 30 seconds to make sure the stars stay static
  4. ISO - depending on your camera capabilities, this should range between 800 to 3200 ISO. Maybe even higher for high-performance cameras (we know Sony’s beast of a camera, the A7 series is definitely capable of this!).
  5. Experiment. Our recommended settings are just a guide for you. As mentioned before, no environment is exactly the same. Adapt and change as your light changes!
Hotels
 Unfortunately, there aren’t many Muslim-friendly hotels in the country. But many hotels have vegetarian and seafood options available. They usually provide ala carte and buffet options, but we suggest to enquire before consuming as some dishes may have pork, non-halal ingredients, or alcohol. So, for the hotels, we’ll focus on are their other amenities instead such as location convenience, and chances of seeing the northern lights. The Thingholt The Thingholt in Reykjavik is probably as convenient as it gets for those who are staying in the city. This modern contemporary hotel is walking distance from most of the tourist attractions in the city so you don't have to worry much about transportation. There are also plenty of cafes and shops within the area for those who would like to grab a morning coffee and do a little shopping. There’s also a shuttle bus to and from the airport too! So once you land at Keflavik airport, you can conveniently hop on to the shuttle and it’ll take you to Thingholt’s doorstep! Address: Þingholtsstræti 3, Reykjavík, Iceland Contact: +354 595 8530 Website | Facebook | Instagram Hotel Ranga  This beautiful cabin inspired hotel in Hella is a perfect stop if you’re heading to the southern attractions! There is also a possibility of seeing the northern lights without leaving the hotel grounds. They even have hot tubs outside your room so you can enjoy the aurora while having a good soak. The cabin itself makes a stunning foreground for a picturesque photo! Address: Suðurlandsvegur, 851 Hella, Iceland Contact:+354 487 5700 Website | Facebook | Instagram The Fosshotel Glacier Lagoon
Credit: @_nzry on Instagram This stunning modern contemporary hotel is located in Oraefi, near the Jokulsarlon Glacial Lagoon. An ideal overnight location before heading back towards Reykjavik. Each sleekly decorated room is fitted with ceiling to floor windows so you will never miss anything happening in the sky! #HHWT tip: Hotel Ranga and Fosshotel offer wake up calls if there are aurora sightings. If you are staying at other places, check if they do too so you won’t miss your chance! Address: Hnapavellir, 785 Öræfi, Iceland Contact: +354 514 8300 Website | Facebook | Instagram From magnificent auroras to impressive landscapes, there is so much more to this incredible country! We would need ten other articles just to cover it! It definite ranks at the top for places we would want to revisit if we could. 😍