Iceland in the winter is a popular destination for those looking to see the beautiful northern lights. The best way to view this spectacular natural display is far from light pollution, which is why most people leave Reykjavík and head into the darkened countryside on an Aurora hunt.
However, not everyone has the opportunity to venture out of the city late at night. Of course, you can always join a Northern Lights Tour and have a professional guide drive you to the best places outside the city.
But what if you decide to hunt for the lights at the last minute and tours are fully booked? And you don’t have a car? Should you give up all hope of seeing beautiful auroras?
Absolutely not, dear reader! I’m someone who’s lived here her entire life (most of which without a car) and know of a few great spots to look for the northern lights within the city. I’ll also tell you about some good places just outside the city if you have the means to drive but don’t want to drive for a long time in the middle of the night.
But before you head out on a northern lights hunt, make sure the conditions are right:
What Weather Conditions Do You Need to See the Northern Lights?
Essentially, there are two things you need to witness the northern lights: clear skies and darkness.
The first part, clear skies, depends on Mother Nature’s mood. Though we cannot control the weather, meteorologists seem pretty confident in their predictions. So before heading out, visit the Icelandic Met Office’s website for the latest cloud coverage forecast. This website also gives you an indication of how strong the lights will be.
The second thing you’ll need is darkness. The Northern Lights can only appear in a dark sky, which is why you can’t see them in the summer (thanks to the Midnight Sun). You also want to avoid light pollution from street lights, buildings, and cars, as it can diminish the effects of the Auroras.
That is not an easy task when you want to see the Northern Lights in a city like Reykjavík. However, it is not impossible. Below are my favourite places to watch the Northern Lights in Reykjavik.
Best Places to See the Northern Lights in Reykjavik Without a Car
Though Reykjavík isn’t a particularly large city compared to major metropolises (or even large towns), it is still filled with streetlights, cars, and buildings that emit light. All of which can ruin your view of the northern lights.
However, the lights are often strong enough to pierce through the glow of the city, although not many people realise that. I’ve walked past tourists on Laugavegur Street talking about wanting to see the northern lights and not realising they were dancing above them. So rule no 1 when searching for the northern lights is: look up!
Although the lights might not appear as strong in downtown Reykjavík as they would elsewhere, there are a few hidden spots here where the view can be more favourable. Below, I have listed my favourites that are easily accessible without a car. Just remember to dress warmly!
Grandi Area & Old Harbour
The Grandi Area is a short walk from Laugavegur Shopping Street in downtown Reykjavík. In recent years, Grandi has transformed from an industrial fishing site to a cultural hub filled with restaurants, cafés, and art galleries. You can also find great visitor attractions like the Whales of Iceland exhibition and FlyOver Iceland here.
Though Grandi is growing, there are still areas where light pollution is low. Walking along the harbour by the ocean on a lovely evening is a favourite pastime for many locals, especially when the northern lights forecast is good. You’ll not only get a good look at the lights here but also great views of Reykjavík with Harpa Concert Hall, Hallgrímskirkja, and Mt. Esja.
A short distance from the Grandi region is the land-tied island of Grótta. This beautiful nature reserve is popular among locals for birdwatching in the summer and northern lights hunting in the winter. At the tip of the island stands Grótta Lighthouse, surrounded by black sands and a jagged coastline.
Grótta is about an hour’s walk from downtown Reykjavík via a scenic walking path along the ocean from the Grandi area. You can also take an e-scooter or a bus to Grótta, but remember that the northern lights often appear in the middle of the night and buses in Iceland stop running around 11 PM.
Sun Voyager Sculpture
The Sun Voyager is a large steel sculpture on Reykjavík’s waterfront that resembles a Viking ship. Overlooking the ocean and Mt. Esja, the Sun Voyager is a popular photographic location in summer and winter, especially when the northern lights are out.
The Sun Voyager is located a few minutes’ walk from Laugavegur Street. But that also means that there might be a lot of people around. So if you are looking for more privacy, take a little walk along the walking path from the sculpture, in a direction away from Harpa Concert Hall.
Along this path are a bright yellow lighthouse and countless other spots great for viewing the northern lights. Make sure you keep your eyes on the ocean as well; I’ve spotted a few seals swimming on my evening walks.
Perlan & Öskjuhlid Hill
Travelling in Reykjavík, you’ve undoubtedly noticed the dome-shaped building on top of a forested hill a short distance from the downtown area. The building is Perlan, and the hill is Öskjuhlíð, both excellent places to view the northern lights.
Öskjuhlíð provides plenty of dark spaces amongst the trees to view the beautiful aurora borealis. Perlan, on the other hand, has an excellent observatory deck for a 360° view of the lights dancing above the rooftops of the houses of Reykjavík.
Furthermore, if the aurora forecast is bad on your visit, or you are visiting in the summer, you can visit Perlan’s Northern Lights Planetarium. It is a fantastic audio and visual journey of some of Iceland’s most epic landscapes, bathed in the glow of the Auroras.
Reaching Öskjuhlíð on foot will take about 20 minutes from Hallgrímskirkja Church, but if there isn’t ice on the road, you can use an e-scooter service and dart to the top of the hill in no time.
Best Hidden Spots in Reykjavík to See the Northern Lights
If you already have a car but don’t have the time to go out of the city to hunt for the northern lights, I got your back! There are a few hidden spots within Reykjavík you can go to that offer great views of the beautiful auroras.
These places can also be reached with an e-scooter, if there isn’t too much snow on the ground, or a bus. However, know that buses in Iceland don’t run late at night so be careful not to lose track of time as you stare in awe of this celestial display.
And as always: dress warmly!
If you are looking for privacy on your hunt for the northern lights in Reykjavík, look no further than Heiðmörk Park. Heiðmörk is Reykjavík’s largest nature retreat, located on the outskirts of Reykjavík, about a 30-minute drive from the city centre.
You’ll find great walking paths that lead to beautiful lakes, forested areas, and lava fields here. Perhaps the most notable place for northern light hunting in Heiðmörk is near Elliðavatn Lake. On its banks, you’ll find small abandoned cottages and trees (a rarity here in Iceland). Both can help you frame your shots when using a wide-angle lens to shoot the beautiful auroras.
Reynisvatn & Hafravatn Lakes
Reynisvatn and Hafravatn are two lakes near Reykjavík’s suburb, Grafarholt, both great spots for northern lights hunting.
The former, Reynisvatn, is perhaps easier to find and can be reached via bus. It is close to the settlement, but since no street lights surround it, it is dark enough to see the dancing auroras.
Hafravatn, on the other hand, is more secluded and you need a car to reach it. However, its seclusion means it is further from city lights, providing even better conditions for viewing the northern lights.
Mt. Úlfarsfell is located in the greater Reykjavík area, not far from the lakes Hafravatn and Reynisvatn. The best way to reach it is by car, and there is a parking lot at the foot of the mountain so you can park and explore the area on foot.
For years, a regional forestry association has been planting and maintaining trees on the slopes of Úlfarsfell, creating a dark enough environment to view the northern lights.
The mountain is not only a popular spot for viewing the northern lights. According to a friend who lives nearby, it is “the best” place to watch the fireworks on New Year’s Eve.
Best Places to See the Northern Lights From Reykjavík
Though hunting the northern lights in Reykjavík is possible, it is always better to get away from the city lights and into the dark countryside for the best viewing conditions. However, even if you have a car, you might not want to spend hours searching for a good spot in the middle of the night.
By far, the easiest way to see the northern lights is on a Northern Lights Tour. Not only will you be accompanied by a guide who possesses the latest northern lights forecast, but you won’t have to drive in the middle of the night (you can even take a little nap on the way back!). The guide will also help you photograph these dancing lights if you wish.
If you rather not be tied to other people’s schedules, you can head out on your own in search of these glowing neon-coloured lights. Of course, you can go to countless good places, but below is a list of my favourites that are no more than an hour’s drive from the city.
- Þingvellir National Park on the Golden Circle Route
- Lake Kleifarvatn on the Reykjanes Peninsula
- Hvalfjörður Fjord in West Iceland
- Garður Lighthouse on the Reykjanes Peninsula
- Akranes Lighthouse in West Iceland
When looking for the northern lights in Reykjavík, you need clear skies and darkness. You can check the aurora forecast to see if the skies are clear, but as for darkness, you need to avoid any light pollution. That task might be challenging in a city like Reykjavík but not impossible.
The best places to see the northern lights in Reykjavík for those without a car are:
- Grandi Area and the Old Harbour
- Grótta Lighthouse
- The Sun Voyager Sculpture
- Perlan & Öskjuhlíð Hill
The best hidden-gem places for northern lights in Reykjavík are:
- Heiðmörk Park
- The lakes Reynisvatn and Hafravatn
- Úlfarsfell Mountain
However, the best way to see the northern lights is on a Northern Lights Tour. A professional guide will take you to a good spot outside the city and even help you set up your camera to capture this celestial display. Traveo can also arrange for a custom tour for you, to maximise your chances of seeing the beautiful Auroras. Click here for a free custom proposal.