Experiencing the Northern Lights has always been on my bucket list and after years of planning and delaying, 2017 was the year. I almost decided on Finland as the country to view the lights from, and then a traveler friend told me that Iceland would be a much better choice. My first reaction was that it would be freezing in Iceland, it will be difficult to reach, expensive … however, I was thankfully proven wrong and decided to go to this mystic land of ice and fire as they call it…
…. and it was truly the most magical experience and probably one of the best decisions of my life… let me tell you why.
1. Winter in Iceland is not that cold
Yes, I’m sure you’d wonder how a country called “Ice”land won’t be freezing cold. Surprise! Even though Iceland is located close to the Arctic Circle, it experiences milder winters than any of its neighbors – thanks to two things – the impact of the Gulf Stream that passes through Iceland, and also the high level of geothermal activity – the entire country literally has a pool of hot water under the surface of the earth, which keeps it nice and warm. Even in peak winters, the temperatures in Iceland are in the range of +2 to -2 (although when I was there it did -6 also). This is, of course, nothing compared to other Nordic countries (-14 to – 20), in fact at this time, temperatures in New York, Amsterdam or London would be lower than Iceland! However, its good to bear in mind that the wind chill factor in Iceland is quite high-the winds can be really strong and proper clothing & shoes are a must. Another huge advantage is that even in winters Iceland gets 5-6 hours of daylight, which is a rare commodity in this part of the world.
2. Northern Lights – very accessible & easy to spot & beautiful of course!
In most Nordic countries, to reach a location perfect for viewing the Northern Lights takes anywhere between 8-12 hours from the nearest airport, and then you reach the place and wait for 4-5 days to spot the lights! Iceland is different – the accesses to the lights is the easiest here I think – fly directly into Reykjavik and within an hours drive from the city are perfect spots away from city lights and the Northern Lights are just right there. So no extra train, flight involved here.
It’s best to make a base in Reykjavik, and either hire a self-drive car or join one of the many Northern Lights tours. Since it was my first time there, I did not want to take a chance with driving on icy roads I decided to take the tours. There are two types of tours – one short one and one is a longer option (8-10 hours), I would highly recommend that you take the longer one – the guides are more experienced, the locations they take you to are further away (and therefore darker and much less crowded than the fixed spots of the shorter tour), and they give you nice hot chocolate which is the best thing on a freezing night! Since it was Christmas our guide decided to make it special for us and took us far far away to Kirjufell mountain (of Game of Thrones fame) and it provided the perfect canvas for the dancing lights!
The other thing I would really recommend is to stay at least one night in a remote location far away from the city, I stayed one night at a cute guest house next to the Atlantic Ocean on the South Coast and it was one of the best nights of viewing! Loved the silhouettes of the mountains that the lights formed.
A few essential tips:
- There are lots of Aurora forecast websites and you can keep track of when to go (however, when I was there, I saw the forecasts changing every few hours – so I wouldn’t rely on this too much in advance)
- The simplest way for me was to just see if the skies are clear and the stars are visible. Its almost guaranteed viewing in these conditions
- Warm up well as its long nights of staying outdoors, lights have their own mind and you may need to be out in the open for long! Some nice Icelandic vodka may be a good idea!
- Carry a good camera and a tripod if you want to get some pictures. There is an iPhone app for it, however, the images are not the best with that ( camera settings and tips in another post)
I have to literally thank my stars (and lights!), I got to experience the lights 4 nights in a row… and that happens only in Iceland!
3. A land of Magical Winter Landscapes
Travelling across Iceland in winter is like living in a dream, the landscapes in winter are a true out of earth experience. I constantly felt like I was on the surface of the moon or mars (in fact I got to know later that the movie Interstellar was shot here for exactly this reason!) – vast fields of volcanic land covered with snow, partially frozen waterfalls, blue glaciers with fresh snow on them, hot geysers throwing hot steam up to 100 feet in the air, icebergs floating around, black sand beaches with ice stones…it’s simply magical. And every few years, one of their many volcanoes erupt, making it even more interesting. Large parts of the island are simply untouched with no humans, animals or plants – no wonder this is the land of Game of Thrones’ beyond the wall, the labs of Die Another Day and many others!
4.Hot Springs & Hot Pools
Carry a swimsuit to Iceland in winters! I know you would think it as a weird suggestion, but behold – Iceland is spotted with natural hot springs all over the country which can be enjoyed all year round, however I think the experience of entering a hot water spring when the outside temperature is sub-zero is something else and its extremely calming for the body after experiencing the chills for a few days.
The Blue Lagoon is, of course, the most famous and a must visit, and guess what it’s blue only in winters – in summers apparently it has a greenish color because of algae growth. This was one of the most surreal experiences of my life, beautiful hot water, some algae mask on the face, a glass of beer in hand with snow laden mountains all around… it really couldn’t get more magical.
I did not get a chance, but if you can do find your way to some other open hot spring in the middle of nowhere and just take a dip. Another thing locals do in winters is going to the hot swimming pools in Reykjavik, they are not too expensive and a perfect place to relax and meet some interesting locals.
5. Great light in winters for photography
In winters there is daylight only for 5-6 hours, which makes it important that you plan your outdoor time accordingly, however, what’s beautiful is that the sun never rises till the top and stays at an interesting angle to create some amazing soft lighting with pinks and purples and oranges and golden hues. I’m not a morning person at all and never capture sunrises, but here I could, an 11:30 sunrise is not bad even for a late riser.
6. Ice Caves inside the glaciers – open only in winters
This is another out of earth experience, which you may have seen in interplanetary pictures or on National Geographic but at least I had never thought I would be inside one! These are blue caves inside glaciers, naturally created by melting water, the colors & textures inside are something I had never seen before. Most tour companies run cave tours only in Winters (Nov- Mar) as in summers the caves become unstable and not safe. It’s not just the cave, it’s the entire experience of the roller coaster ride through the glacier in a huge 4WD truck, vast frozen rivers with snow-capped mountains around, climbing up the glacier (and probably slide down it!) that makes this experience completely extraordinary.
7. Reykjavik is totally white & in a festive mood!
I was in Reykjavik for Christmas, and loved the vibe of the city around this time – the whole city is dressed up with lights, there is a special ice rink in the middle of downtown, there is festivity all around. A fun fact – in Iceland, they don’t believe in Santa Claus, instead, there are 13 Yule Lads they believe in; who live in the mountains and come to town 13 days before Christmas, one every day. It’s a local tradition to spot them in town during this time. I was lucky to experience a White Christmas in Reykjavik, snowfall on Christmas Eve – couldn’t have asked for anything better. The snowfall made the city completely white and made a dreamy town even dreamier. Definitely worth spending a few days here and just soaking it in.
I haven’t even mentioned the people and their sense of humor, the unique culture of how they name people, how they go on protests with kitchen utensils , the fact that that Iceland has no armed forces and that their police don’t carry guns (instead they have an active Instagram account!) It’s amazing how such a small country with only 336500 people can have so much to offer… so what are you waiting for… head to Iceland in winters!