Grapevine’s Best Of 2016: Tips For Seeing The Northern Lights

Grapevine’s Best Of 2016: Tips For Seeing The Northern Lights

john rogers
Photos by
Art Bicnick

Published November 20, 2016

Reykjavík is a relatively small city, but even so, sometimes you need a bit of local advice to find what you’re looking for, whether it’s a good people-watching spot, somewhere to see some contemporary art, or the best place to catch an Icelandic movie. Don’t worry, friends—we’ve got you covered via our Best of Reykjavík 2016 series. Here are some of our favourite spots in Reykjavík, for all kinds of super-fun days and nights out. Enjoy! And if you try our list, you can let us know what you thought of the selections via letters@grapevine.is.

Keep Watching The Skies

2016, by Icelandic standards, had a beautiful summer. As winter approaches there’s a sense of satisfaction amongst Icelanders, who are happily embracing the change of season having gorged on more vitamin D than they’ve grown accustomed to in recent years.

The darkening skies also herald the return of the northern lights. And although received wisdom says they’re best seen during midwinter, when the nights are at their longest, the fairer autumn months are perhaps even better for aurora-spotting.

So, here are our tips on how to maximise your chances of spotting those elusive northern lights.

1. Check the aurora forecast
One big advantage of autumn for aurora-spotting is that the winter weather hasn’t yet set in, so there’s more chance of clear skies. Veður.is is the Icelandic Meteorological Office, and they offer forecast maps that look at projected aurora activity, with added cloud cover information. The scale they use for aurora activity goes from one to nine, and even a two or three on the scale can mean an impressive green glow across the sky; a four or a five can be very bright indeed, with blue, white and pink hues.

2. Look out for alerts
Sometimes the aurora can give a dazzling ten-minute display that fills your Facebook feed with photos, but by the by the time you’ve finished what you were doing and gone outdoors, it’s over. If you live here, it’s no big deal—but if you’re visiting, it could be your only chance. So if you receive an alert (try the “Northern Lights Alert” group on Facebook, for example), our advice is to drop what you’re doing and get outdoors quick. And remember to dress warm—you could be out for a while.

3. Dodge the city lights
To see the lights at their brightest, you’re going to need to get away from light pollution. People staying in downtown Reykjavík often gather at Hallgrímskirkja, Sæbraut or Arnarhóll, but there are better spots you can try, such as the pier behind Harpa with a yellow lighthouse at the end. But if you want to see the aurora at their best, you need to step out of the city centre. You could go to Perlan, the nearby hilltop visitor’s centre, and find a dark clearing in the surrounding woods; or you could go out to Grótta, the lighthouse in Seltjarnarnes at the extreme west of the Reykjavík peninsula.

4. Get out of town
An even better plan is get out of town completely. There are a huge variety of tour providers offering to take people out into the wilderness, keeping an eye on the cloud cover map to find out where the clear skies are, via bus or boat. You could also get some extra use out of your rental car, and go exploring independently. A few recommended spots that aren’t too far away are the Heiðmörk nature reserve, the Þingvellir national park, and the Hvalfjörður area. Look out for a secluded spot, with unimpeded views in as many directions as possible. Good luck!

Read more of our Best of 2016 lists here.


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