Activities Eco Tourism Europe Iceland

Hunting out the Northern Lights by Boat – Reviewing Special Tours

January 29, 2017

When we made the decision to visit Iceland in the depths of their winter, we had one thing (and one thing only) in the forefront of our minds – the northern lights.  Of course we were excited to see this beautiful island blanketed in snow and for the gorgeous candy-coloured sky that seem to float around throughout the day, but it was the northern lights that drove our booking initially.  We knew that they’d be at their strongest this winter which meant that we weren’t going to hang around until our next holiday in March/April – we were off to Iceland late December!

The following post reviews our experience joining Special Tours on their Northern Lights by Boat trip.

Our tour started boarding thirty minutes before our 9pm departure time after an easy check-in process down in Reykjavik’s Old Harbour.  When you arrive, it’s clear you’re in the right place as you’ll spot a series of structures ready to greet guests.  As one of the larger operations, we had two boats to choose from and promptly boarded in a bid to escape the cold.

Inside the boat, we we pleased to find a snuggly-warm cabin and comfortable seats (so comfy that I even managed to fall asleep on the way back to shore which is very unlike me!) and plenty of warm drinks and snacks on offer to help take the chill off when we returned from outside.

After climbing into our warm onesies, we relaxed for the relatively short trip out into the harbour, all the whilst listening to our awesome guide who patiently filled us in, sharing everything we’d ever want to know about the northern lights.

The following infographic explains the phenomenon (in short) where solar wind travels towards earth and hits our atmosphere – the different colours seen in the northern lights are formed depending on the type of gas and height at which the ions and gases collide.  Of course, there’s a lot more to it than that but it’s a good starting point for your understanding.  If you’re anything like us though, you’re interested to learn more about how and why the northern lights form but are most interested in seeing them for yourself!

Special Tours Northern Lights Boat Tour review, Iceland, Reykjavik, How the Northern Lights work

Unfortunately, Mother Nature isn’t always clued into our plans!

Though we had a strong forecast (you can check the forecast for yourself ahead of your trip here) and relatively clear skies, the beautiful photos that we’ve seen so many times before didn’t quite eventuate for us.

Out on the upper deck of the boat, we waited patiently for the vibrant green hues to wash across the sky but found in reality, the northern lights are seldom as bright as they appear in photographs and that night, luck wasn’t on our side.

We were fortunate to spot glimpses of the northern lights on the horizon and though we urged them to brighten up, they stayed relatively static throughout the evening.

The following photos show what a beautiful display the lights can put on when they’re on form…

Spectacular, right?!

Even though we didn’t see the northern lights in all their glory, was it worth heading out on the water?  It sure was!

We had a fantastic time out on the boat, ticked a bucket-list experience off and enjoyed seeing the city from a different perspective.  Rugging up felt like a real adventure and even without much in the way of northern lights, it was great fun keeping our eyes peeled in the hopes of spotting them.

We would definitely recommend heading out with Special Tours whilst you’re in Reykjavik, Iceland, to track down the northern lights.  Away from the lights of the city, you’ll have the best chance of seeing them and even if you don’t, you’ll learn lots and have a great time in the process… and hey, if you don’t see them, they’ll happily take you out again and again until you do!


Do I need to get out of Reykjavik to see the Northern Lights?

Not necessarily but it really will help!

Though our luck ran a little short whilst out on our boat tour of the northern lights, our patience was rewarded a few nights later when Bessi from Moonwalker Tours fired us an email telling us to drop everything and head outside… when someone says the northern lights are visible above the city, you do exactly as is suggested and head outside right away!

It’s seldom that the northern lights show themselves above Reykjavik so we consider ourselves incredibly lucky that they showed up on one of the evenings we were there.  We watched them dance about before our naked eyes for a good 45 minutes or so before heading back to our hotel.

Northern Lights over Reykjavik, Moonwalker ToursNorthern Lights over Reykjavik, Moonwalker Tours

The reaction between the ions and gases in the atmosphere occurs year-round but it’s only in the winter that the night sky is dark enough to see them.  It makes sense then that the lights above the city are generally too bright to allow the northern lights though which is why most people head out of town to see them.

Can I drive myself out of Reykjavik to see the Northern Lights?

We had a rental car and could have driven ourselves out of the city but in our travels we noted a distinct lack of parking spots on the ring-road near Reykjavik.  This means that although it’s possible to drive yourself out of town, it’s not particularly practical to do so.  If you do want to give it a go, we’d suggest heading out towards the airport where the roads are quieter and it might be easier to find a quiet spot to stop – whatever you do though, don’t just pull aside on the Ring Road incase you cause an accident.

To improve your chances of being in the right place at the right time, we’d definitely recommend booking yourself on a boat tour with Special Tours.


If you’re heading to Iceland, be sure to pin this post for future reference!

Special Tours Northern Lights Boat Tour review, Iceland, Reykjavik

Thank you to Special Tours for so kindly welcoming us for the purpose of this review and for supplying the photos of the northern lights.  As always, all thoughts are our own.

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5 Comments

  • Reply Marlies January 31, 2017 at 6:52 pm

    I also tried to see the Northern Lights when I was in Iceland. We also got a good forecast but didn’t see anythings 🙁 I did it with a bus but I had no idea there was a boat tour! Maybe I will do that next time I go Northern Lights hunting 🙂 😉

  • Reply Frenchie on the road January 31, 2017 at 7:47 pm

    Taking the boat to watch Northern lights seems to be a cool adventure! It’s a pity you didn’t get the best of them that night but still, it must be impressive!

  • Reply Ivy January 31, 2017 at 10:33 pm

    The Northern Lights are also one of our top reasons for wanting to visit Iceland! Glad to hear you guys were able to catch it without leaving Reykjavik. Makes up for the boat! What an incredible experience this must’ve been

  • Reply Jackie Taylor February 6, 2017 at 12:09 am

    The northern lights are so beautiful! It’s one of my goals to see these one day. They must look even more incredible in person!

  • Reply - Exploring Kiwis March 9, 2017 at 10:57 pm

    […] stage we’d not even met him in person but when he went out of his way to help us live out our northern-light-spotting dreams, we knew that Bessi was far more than your average tour […]

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