Epic Bucket List Adventures: Seeking the Northern Lights in Iceland


There we were, back at bus stop 1 where we stood with crowds of tourists wearing cozy winter hats, gloves, and extra puffy parkas. The bus took us to the outskirts of the city eliminating any possible glimpse of city lights.

The tour group wobbled off the bus and walked out to a landscape full of small rocks and dips in the ground. It was basically my mom’s worst nightmare.

I couldn’t control my laughter when she grabbed my arm as if she was about to fall into a black hole.

We stood there waiting, some impatiently, for a small glimmer in the sky.

The Bucket List Item

Growing up, items on my bucket list have appeared as fleeting thoughts, lists in a journal, always coming and going.

However, I’ve had one special item on my bucket list practically stapled in my brain for several years: seeing the Northern Lights.

And I knew the one person who would want me to cross this off my bucket list would be my mom.

Our relationship and similar travel style would make us the perfect mother-daughter duo to chase the Northern Lights. I shared all my late-night research and perfectly sculpted itinerary with her.

I’d generally consider us to be patient people, but not when it comes to travel. I have this unstoppable desire to go as soon as possible. And I guess that yearning can be pretty contagious.

I promised her I wouldn’t allow her to fall or slip on ice and I promised myself I’d still look back on the trip as a success even if snow or fog obscured the Northern Lights visibility.

That’s how I convinced her to take this cold weather trip with me!

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Capturing the Moment

I brought my DSLR camera and started snapping pictures right away when we arrived in Iceland. The camera was still new to me at the time, so I couldn’t wait to test it out.

I basked in this new, rare opportunity to walk around a unique town snapping photos while people-watching and listening to the Germanesque tone of the Icelandic language. It felt unreal.

Over at the Hallgrimskirkja Lutheran Church, we took an elevator to the top for a 360-degree view of the city.

The clouds glazed over the snow-capped mountains. The stretch of the sea and the colorful rooftops of the surrounding houses — it was all breathtaking.

View over Reykjavik to the sea

Reykjavik had already proved to be better than I expected during the day, and now we waited in the dark to see if Reykjavik would show its colors at night.

That night, after wobbling from the bus over uneven terrain, each small group in the tour huddled together like Emperor Penguins trying to stay warm in the Arctic.

We stood still for a short time until our tour guide pointed beyond the mountains to the sky. If you focused, squinted, there was a tiny tint of light green fading in and out.

There was excitement in the air and the process of taking group photos was in order. I made sure we were one of the first groups to get our shot taken before the faint lights faded out.

After the Northern Lights subsided, we all hopped back on the bus. The mini coaches followed each other, one by one, back down the hill towards the city.

I was happy to see the Northern Lights, but wished they were stronger. As strong as my coffee the next morning.

Exploring More of Iceland

We weren’t just busy at night; each day we got to explore a new part of Iceland.

One of my mom’s favorites was the Blue Lagoon, where we took off our comfy white robes and touristy flip flops and slowly eased into the hot, soothing water.

The smell of sulfur, the touch of the Blue Lagoon SilicaMud Mask, and the taste of Icelandic Beer was the perfect relaxant.

Bathrobes hanging at the Blue Lagoon in Iceland

We took one full day trip to the Golden Circle and another to the South Coast.

The wind smacked me across the face at the Geysir Hot Spring area and threw water at me when I got too close at the Skogafoss and Seljalandsfoss waterfalls. But I loved every second of nature’s playfulness.

Laura Harris at Reynisfjara Black Sand Beach, South Coast Day Tour in Iceland

I felt like a kid again when I climbed the columns at Reynisfjara Beach. But I really felt like I was on top of the world when day turned to night.

Seeking Stronger Northern Lights

I took a few practice rounds with my still unfamiliar camera gear, assembling my tripod before the real test began. I had a feeling tonight would be perfect.

The terrain in this new location was easier to maneuver in the dark as the snow’s reflection helped guide our footsteps.

This time, the bus hadn’t even stopped before everyone noticed the bright illumination in the sky. From the bus window, we saw the intense aurora move elegantly with the wind.

A misty cloud surrounded me as I breathed heavily in the cold, jumping to find the perfect spot to set up.

I’m sure the other tourists heard my mom and I scream-laughing at each other trying to level my tripod in the dark.

My dry, bare hands started snapping shots…after the photographer helped adjust my camera settings.

I reviewed every picture and continued to become increasingly satisfied.

Northern Lights in Iceland - photo credit Laura Harris for Wanderful

The pictures turned out better than I imagined and my heart was so full. I couldn’t believe I got the chance to capture this moment on camera!

The Northern Lights may be hard to see with a blind eye, but that night I couldn’t have asked for a better scene.

It felt like we had been mesmerized by the activity in the sky for hours, though it could have just been minutes.

Our tour group was craving more Northern Lights after that stunning display, so our guide took us to another location.

We all happily stood and stared at the sky until our feet got too numb and we had to head back inside the bus.

Northern Lights in Iceland with Laura Harris and her mom posing in front of a strong display

Making Memories with Mom

I felt so thankful to have shared that night with my mom. It’s something we can look back on for years.

While doing my research for this trip, there were a lot of suggestions that warned me to go for the destination and not just the Northern Lights.

I have to say: we got lucky and got the best of both worlds!

I cherished the culture, conversation, and Iceland’s nature. But nothing beats the fulfillment of seeing the Northern Lights…twice!

Top Tips for a Trip to Reykjavik, Iceland

Image of the city streets of Reykjavik

1. Spend time researching when to travel to Reykjavik for the best opportunity to view the Northern Lights (best season, moon cycle, type of Northern Lights tour, etc.). Compare and contrast several Northern Lights tours to find what each includes and does not include.

2. I recommend stopping at Brauo for a Cinnamon Roll. The outside of the shop was colorfully painted and the inside was filled with pastries galore.

3. See if the IcelandAir package deal works for you. It includes round-trip tickets, a hotel stay, and one day-trip to choose from.

4. We stayed at the Center Hotels Plaza, which was in the downtown area and walkable to most everything, which was important to my mom and me.

5. Try to do a half-day activity, such as the Reykjavik Food Tour. Our guide brought our tour to several traditional Icelandic restaurants where we tried authentic Icelandic fish, lamb soup, Icelandic ice cream (which was very good), assortments of cheese, Icelandic hot dogs, and more.

6. Take lots of pictures and notes when going on the full-day tours so you remember the names and details of the beautiful sights and cities.

7. Go to Dinner Primo in Reykjavik. This was a reasonably priced Italian restaurant in the downtown area and it was our favorite meal of the whole trip.


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