Iceland information

The Best Time to See the Northern Lights in Iceland with a Rental Car


Iceland is one of the world’s top destinations to see the northern lights. Driving in Iceland gives you the flexibility and freedom to see this phenomenon at its most impressive.

Of course, you can take a northern lights tour in a conventional tour group, where you’ll be shown the aurora borealis alongside many other people. But in your own vehicle, you’ll have the chance to see the magical display all by yourself.

So, what’s the best time to see the northern lights in Iceland with a rental car? In this guide, we share everything you need to know, including when to travel, the best conditions, and much more.

What are the northern lights?

The northern lights—also known as the aurora borealis—is a multicoloured display that can be seen in dark skies in the extreme north of the planet. It’s widely and rightly known as one of the most incredible experiences you can have.

This light show is caused by chemical reactions on the surface of the sun, known as solar storms. These are violent explosions that launch millions of charged solar particles into space. They can happen between once a week and several times a day, depending on the conditions.

These charged particles would hit Earth if it wasn’t for our planet’s atmosphere. Instead, many bounce away back into space. Others get caught up in the Earth’s magnetic field, where they’re dragged towards the north and south poles.

When you look up into the night sky in Iceland and see these colourful curtains of light, what you’re actually seeing is these solar particles crashing into molecules in our atmosphere. All these collisions are very violent. As a result, the molecules heat up and glow—and that’s why you see these vibrant colours.

So, why is Iceland such a great place to see the northern lights? Because it’s far in the north and because it’s very sparsely populated. That means there’s a short drive to experience very little light pollution, so you can see the aurora in all its glory.

Northern lights in Iceland

When to see the northern lights: The conditions you need

The northern lights don’t happen every night. As we said, these solar storms that cause them can happen multiple times a day or much less frequently, such as weekly.

Unfortunately, that means it’s never guaranteed that you’ll see the aurora borealis. However, if you understand the optimal conditions, then you can increase your chances.

There are three factors that you need for the best display of the northern lights:

  • Strong solar activity. Without solar storms happening, you won’t see the northern lights. According to scientists, the sun goes through phases when it’s most active—known as “solar maximum”. This happens every 11 years or so, and 2023 to 2025 is one of these periods. You can track the sun’s activity on websites including the Icelandic Met Office.

  • Clear skies. For you to see the aurora borealis from Earth, you need to have a clear sky. Simply, cloud cover will block you from seeing the display. Again, the Icelandic Met Office is a useful tool for weather forecasts, so you can find a place where there may be fewer clouds.

  • Low light levels. You can sometimes see the northern lights from downtown Reykjavík, if they’re very strong. However, light pollution tends to make them appear less bright and less impressive. It’s best to go into rural Iceland, away from the city lights, to see the display at its most spectacular.

It may seem like a challenge to have all of these factors in place at the same time. But conditions don’t need to be perfect for you to enjoy the aurora borealis. That’s where having your vehicle comes in handy—so you can easily move to find the best spots.

What are the best times to see the northern lights in Iceland?

There’s no doubt that the winter months are the best time to see the northern lights—for a very simple reason.

Winter is the season when the nights are darkest for the longest. In December in Iceland, days are very short, thanks to our location close to the Arctic Circle. Throughout this month, we experience as much as 20 hours of darkness a day, giving you lots of time to see the northern lights.

However, December isn’t the only time to visit to see the aurora borealis. The northern lights are regularly seen throughout the entire winter period, from September to April. There are enough hours of darkness throughout these months to give you a great chance to see them.

Something to remember, though, is that you need clear skies to see the northern lights. While there’s more light later in the season, you may have a better chance of avoiding cloud cover.

Can you see the northern lights during the summer? Not really. In the summer months of May to August, we have the midnight sun, when there is light throughout the night. You just won’t get the darkness you need.

What time of day is best to see the northern lights?

The northern lights don’t stick to a schedule. They can happen at any time of day—but if it’s too light you just might not see them.

In short, you can see the aurora borealis at any time, as long as it’s dark. In the depths of winter, this can be from mid-afternoon to mid-morning. In September or April, though, you’ll need to wait until the evening at least.

Northern LightsWhy choose a rental car for your northern lights adventure?

As you’ll now understand, you need to find the right conditions to see the northern lights. When you visit, some areas in Iceland may be cloudy, while others may have clear skies. Having the freedom to move around will be essential for your northern lights hunt.

That’s why we would recommend that you use a personal vehicle when chasing the northern lights. It’s a convenient and flexible way to change location depending on the local conditions—to give yourself the best chance of seeing the display.

Some people will choose to join a northern lights tour on their trip to Iceland. These can be great if you want to travel with like-minded people. However, seeing the northern lights in large groups can detract from the beauty of the experience.

Instead, in your own vehicle, you can find the perfect spot to see the display with your loved ones. Plus, you’ll have the comfort of your car to travel in too.

What are some of the best locations in Iceland to view the northern lights by car?

Sometimes in Iceland’s winter, you can glimpse the northern lights as you’re going about your day. But more often, you need to track down a specific place where you can see them well.

Luckily, there are many such places in Iceland. Here are some of our favourites across the country that are accessible by car.

1. Snæfellsnes peninsula

Snæfellsnes is a peninsula on the west coast of Iceland, about 2 hours north of Reykjavík. Often referred to as “Iceland in miniature”, it’s home to a glacier, gorgeous coastlines, and the iconic mountain Kirkjufell.

As it’s surrounded by ocean, it’s a great place to see the northern lights. This means there’s very little light pollution. Plus, when the northern lights do appear, they light up some breathtaking natural landscapes.

It’s also all reachable by car. Come off Highway 1 (the “Ring Road”) at Borgarnes and take Highway 54 to Snæfellsnes. Stop outside Grundarfjörður to see the northern lights over Kirkjufell.

2. The Arctic Coast Way

The Arctic Coast Way is a road trip you can do at any time of year. It’s an itinerary that takes you along Iceland’s north coast, showing you fishing villages, islands, and deep fjords.

Anywhere along this route can be a good opportunity to witness the northern lights—although you’ll have the best chance if you’re at a distance from Akureyri, the “Capital of the North”. The route is 900 km (550 mi) in total, with most of it looking out over the Arctic Ocean.

Tröllaskagi peninsula is a great option, for instance. Alternatively, visit the area around Lake Mývatn, for low light pollution and a gorgeous landscape.

3. Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon

Jökulsárlón is justly known as one of the jewels of Iceland. It’s a vast lake fed by the melting glacier, Vatnajökull. Visitors typically come to see the icebergs that float in its waters.

It’s an incredible place for northern lights hunting. To the north, there’s nothing but wilderness, meaning light pollution is low. And it’s truly a breathtaking experience when the aurora borealis appears above the lagoon’s icy waters.

You’ll find Jökulsárlón about 380 km (240 mi) to the east of Reykjavík, along the south coast. While you’re here, check out the Diamond Beach, where icebergs melt on the sand.

4. The Golden Circle

One of Iceland’s best-known travel itineraries, the Golden Circle takes in three of south-west Iceland’s top sights: Gullfoss waterfall, Geysir, and Þingvellir National Park.

All of these are great destinations for northern lights hunters, and they’re all easily accessible by car. For instance, Þingvellir is less than an hour’s drive from Reykjavík.

As it’s so straightforward to access, you may find other people chasing the northern lights here too. But with so many options, it’s easy to find yourself alone. One of our favourite options is to visit Öxarárfoss, one of south Iceland’s most beautiful waterfalls.

Aurora Borealis Iceland

What are the best places to see the northern lights near Reykjavík?

Can you see the northern lights from Reykjavík? On a good day, you definitely can. However, the difficulty with northern lights hunting in the city is the light pollution. With street lights and buildings around you, the aurora borealis can become a little muted.

However, that’s not true of all places in and around Reykjavík. For instance, if the conditions allow, you have a good chance to see the northern lights in these 3 places:

  • Seltjarnarnes. This little suburb of Reykjavík sits at the tip of the city’s westernmost peninsula. Drive out of town to the Grótta lighthouse and you’ll be far from the city lights.

  • Sky Lagoon. To the south of the city is Sky Lagoon, Iceland’s newest spa. It overlooks the Skerjafjörður from the south, potentially offering views of the aurora borealis. You will need to pay a ticket to enter, as it’s a private lagoon. However, it’s the perfect context in which to see this display.
  • Heiðmörk. To the southeast of Reykjavík is Heiðmörk Park, the capital region’s largest natural reserve. You’ll find paths, forested areas, and Lake Elliðavatn. The banks of the lake are the best place to see the aurora borealis here, with abandoned cottages and low light levels.

In your own vehicle, you’ll have the flexibility to travel between these different places, depending on the conditions. And, who knows, maybe you’ll find your own secret spot to see the northern lights.

Helpful apps and tools for planning your aurora hunt

When visiting Iceland, you might feel like it’s a challenge to know when and where to see the aurora borealis. That’s normal—not even Icelanders get it right every time! However, there are some useful tools out there that can help you understand the conditions.

Basically, you need to look at two different kinds of forecasts to understand the conditions. Firstly, there’s the weather forecast, which will tell you about crucial factors such as cloud cover.

Secondly, you’ll benefit from a tool that forecasts disturbances in the Earth’s magnetic field that result from solar wind. This is measured using the Kp-index, a scale from 0 to 9 that tells you the likelihood of seeing the aurora. The higher the number, the likelier it is.

There are a number of tools that you can use to find this information:

  • Icelandic Met Office. The website of the Icelandic Meteorological Office is your most useful tool for tracking the aurora. It gives you Kp-index data as well as reliable weather forecasts. If you’re just going to use one tool, use this one.

  • Aurora Forecast. Another reliable tool is Aurora Forecast, which focuses on the Kp-index and cloud cover—all on a single page.

  • Northern lights alerts app. It’s not a tool for forecasting the aurora, but this app lets users share live information on when and where they’ve seen the northern lights. You’ll receive an alert, so that you can see it too!

Like weather forecasts in any country, it can be useful to compare different forecasters, so that you can get the most reliable prediction.

Go northern lights hunting in Iceland with Höldur Car Rental

Safety tips for driving in Iceland during northern lights season

Northern lights season is the winter. It’s when days are shortest, the weather is particularly changeable, and you may find snow on the ground.

This means that driving in Iceland can be a little more challenging than at other times of year. To keep safe, you should ensure that you and your vehicle are prepared.

  • Ensure your vehicle is ready for winter. If you’re hiring a car, your rental operator will equip it with winter tyres. However, it’s best to check that they’ve done so before you drive away.
  • Check the forecast before you go anywhere. The weather forecast is not just useful for seeing the aurora. It’s important for your safety too. Before you travel, make sure you know what to expect, whether that’s fog, high winds, or snow.
  • Pack some emergency supplies in your vehicle. Packing some additional layers, some warm clothes, and some snacks is a good idea if you’re leaving the city. Plus, you may want them if you’re standing outside gazing at the aurora.
  • Save some important emergency numbers. The phone number for the emergency services is 112 (as it is elsewhere in Europe). It’s useful to have your car rental operator’s phone number to hand too.
  • Plan your route. In winter, most highland roads (known as F-roads) are closed. It’s important to know what roads are open before you head out. You can check road conditions at

You should also follow the general rules for driving and parking in Iceland, even if you’re driving at night.

Frequently asked questions about seeing the northern lights in Iceland

If you still have questions about seeing the northern lights in Iceland, we answer them here.

Can you see the northern lights in Iceland?

Iceland is one of the best places in the world to see the northern lights. That’s because it’s very far north, right on the edge of the Arctic Circle. It’s also very sparsely populated, so there’s little light pollution to spoil the view.

Can you see the northern lights in Iceland by car?

The best way to see the northern lights in Iceland is by car. You’ll have the freedom to choose your destination and the flexibility to travel at your own pace. That means you don’t need to follow someone else’s schedule, as you would on a group tour.

How can you maximise your chance of seeing the northern lights in Iceland?

The best way to maximise your chances of seeing the northern lights is to spend as long as possible in Iceland. This will give you the greatest opportunity to enjoy the best conditions and to travel to the places where you’re most likely to see them.

However, this is not a possibility for every visitor, of course. Instead, what you can do is regularly check the aurora forecasts, so that you know what conditions to expect and where.

It needs to be said though: you cannot guarantee that you’ll see the northern lights in Iceland. It’s a natural phenomenon, and no one has control over when it will happen.

When can you see the northern lights in Iceland?

You can see the northern lights in Iceland between the months of September and April. The best time for it is the darkest months of the year, namely December and January.

That said, there’s a chance of seeing the northern lights whenever the skies are dark. The processes that cause the aurora borealis don’t only occur in the winter!

What is the best month to see the northern lights in Iceland?

The best month to see the northern lights is probably December. This is when the nights are the longest and the skies are the darkest. This provides the best conditions for the aurora borealis.

However, you can see the northern lights throughout the winter months, between September and April. As long as the sky is dark and there are few clouds, you have a chance to see it.

Which part of Iceland is best for northern lights?

Technically, the northern regions of Iceland are the best places to see the northern lights. That’s because they’re further north. The northern lights tend to appear most strongly closest to the poles.

However, you can see the northern lights across all of Iceland. You just need to have the right conditions. You can check these at the Icelandic Met Office.

Are northern lights visible in Reykjavík?

While Reykjavík is not the best place to see the northern lights in Iceland, it’s definitely possible to see the spectacle in the city. You just need to get as far as possible from any light pollution, such as streetlights, cars, or buildings.

The Seltjarnarnes peninsula is a great option for seeing the northern lights within the city.

How rare is it to see the northern lights in Iceland?

It’s not at all rare to see the northern lights in Iceland. The processes that cause the aurora borealis are happening very regularly—you just need some darkness and a clear sky to see them.

Throughout the winter, the conditions are often right to see the northern lights. However, you still need to be lucky!

Do northern lights happen every night in Iceland?

There’s no guarantee that the northern lights happen every night, no. They typically occur between once a week or multiple times a day.

That does mean that on most nights, the northern lights are likely. It’s particularly true during periods of “solar maximum”, such as between 2023 and 2025, when solar activity is at its highest.

When am I most likely to see the northern lights in Iceland?

You’re most likely to see the northern lights during December or January. This is simply because it’s darkest for the longest, meaning there’s a greater chance that the aurora borealis will be visible.

However, you still have a very good chance of seeing the northern lights during the rest of the winter—between September and April.

Can you see the northern lights in Iceland without a tour?

You definitely can still see the northern lights in Iceland without a tour. Tours are a great option if you’re travelling solo and you want to meet like-minded people. However, for everyone else, driving yourself is often a better idea.

In your own vehicle, you’ll have the flexibility to travel at your own pace to the destinations that most interest you. And when you get there, you’ll often have the place to yourself, without the tour groups.

Go northern lights hunting in Iceland with Höldur

The winter is the best time to see the northern lights in Iceland. And thanks to the flexibility and freedom it gives you, the best way to see this spectacle is by car.

At Holdur Car Rental, we help visitors to Iceland hire the vehicles that best suit their needs. We’re the largest car rental operator in Iceland, with over 7,000 vehicles in rotation. So, whether you want a camper, an electric vehicle, or a 4x4, we can set you up with the perfect car for your northern lights adventure.

Explore our range to book your vehicle. Or find out more in our guide to driving in Iceland.