What comes to mind when someone mentions Iceland? Chances are it’s probably those dreamy green Aurora lights in the dark night sky. It’s no secret that Iceland’s nature is a wonder to be explored, home to surreal landscapes which are probably the inspiration behind many Windows screensavers. Chasing the Northern Lights is a popular tourist activity in Iceland and many travel agencies have crafted whole itineraries around it but what’s the truth about seeing these lights and what goes beyond Iceland’s typical attractions?

Weather forecasts and northern lights apps are the most used tools aimed at helping travellers experience the lights. Yet how do you read them and how necessary are they? I’m no expert on the matter. My love affair with Iceland was brief but there I met Ryan Connolly who has been guiding tourists in the country for the last 4 years with his travel agency Hidden Iceland and knows a thing or two about how to get the best out of this striking destination.

Weather predictions

“The KP-Index is often wrong,” Ryan shared in a chat. “This is a scale from 0-9 that many tourists rely on for forecasting. People assume that this is a scale of strength, and yes it does give some indication of this but the reality is this scale is in reference to how far from the poles the northern lights can be seen. So, when in Iceland (close to the poles) you don’t need a high number to see them. I’ve seen spectacular light shows with a forecast of 2 and underwhelming shows with a 5 or 6. So the short version is, if it’s a clear sky, get outside and look up.”

That’s the thing about the northern lights. As many apps or websites do their best to predict when they will be more visible – and they do help give you an indication – these fairy-like lights are unpredictable. All you need is a cloud-free sky and when they are out, you won’t miss them.

Sometimes, you just need a little bit of luck. During my visit, Ryan kept sharing the tragi-comical tale of his girlfriend who needed 11 trips before finally catching the northern lights. A friend saw them on her first trip there. Nobody said life is fair but it does add a sense of adrenaline to your evenings in Iceland.

Going north

Don’t assume you have to go north to see the northern lights – geographically speaking the difference between the south of Iceland and the north is minuscule. There will be no discernible difference in one part of Iceland to another. Therefore, your goal should not be to travel north, but rather find empty unencumbered views. Avoid high mountains, forests and buildings.

Lesser-known attractions

Besides the aurora lights, the enormous waterfalls and the black sand beaches there are so many hidden gems left to discover in Iceland. The most overlooked times of year are actually some of the best as I learnt from Ryan; April/ May and September/ October. April/ May is the time of the year that birthing of the lambs and other farm animals takes place.

“You may think this is no different from any other country but the key difference here is that the farmers release the lambs and sheep into the wild during this period. They roam free until the end of the summer, so spotting a sleepy lamb by the side of the road, or curiously walking up to you, as you go on your glacier hike becomes the norm. With more sheep than people in Iceland this is the only time of year I would consider it to be ‘crowded’ in Iceland,” commented Ryan.

Then concurrently, in September/ October the farmers and all the locals go off on horseback in search of the sheep that have scattered throughout the summer. They are brought back onto the farm to protect them from the winter chill. The herding period can be quite the experience if you get caught in it as you drive from one spot to the other.

Iceland, with its tiny population, UNESCO World Heritage Sites and vast open spaces is an ideal place to enjoy nature all to yourself this summer or winter. While Iceland doesn’t have any volcanoes erupting right now there is still plenty of warm spots under the ground. That means for every chilly night searching for the northern lights you have the chance to warm up in a natural hot pool across the country.