Icelandic Aurora Borealis in November
October 19, 2010 7:11 AM   Subscribe

A week in Reykjavik in early November and would like recommendations for places to go and things to do. I'm particularly keen to see the Northern Lights, and would like any suggestions for how best to achieve this.

Whilst I realise that the Northern Lights are a natural phenomenon and so no appearance is guaranteed, I'm wondering how likely it is that we will see them at the beginning of next month.

I'm travelling with my girlfriend and wondering whether the Northern Lights tours that are offered around the place are worthwhile? I've read differing reports, and they seem to vary in price significantly. The price seems to determine whether you are in a 4x4 or a coach, but is it as simple as that?

The New Moon appears to be on the 6th November. This is currently the date we are proposing to leave. However, is the visibility likely to be any better on the 6th on the date of the 'full' new moon than it will be on the 4th or the 5th, during the lead up to it? Does anyone have any experience of this? Should we try and extend

Also welcome are any tips or any advice for travelling in/around Reykjavik. We currently don't see any benefit from hiring a car, so are hoping to get by on public transport and/or tour buses. Is this a workable solution?

Are we in for a wonderful holiday, or will we be defeated by terrible weather conditions that mean everything we'd like to see and do will be closed?

What delights should we make sure we don't miss out on over a 6 day trip?

posted by Simon_ to Travel & Transportation around Reykjavik, Iceland (16 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
I did a week in Reykjavik in early September a few years ago and a lot of stuff was closing down then, so you might well struggle to find touristy places to visit. I had to be pretty patient to do the whale watching as it kept getting blown out, and when I did get out it was freezing. I suspect there may be some snowy options available like jeep or skidoo trips to the glaciers, and that could be a good, though not cheap, option.

The blue lagoon typically gets recommended in Iceland threads, while it is outside it can still be viable when it is cold due to the temperatures involved. There is a geothermal energy museum attached if you look for it (you have to leve the blue lagoon building to do so).
posted by biffa at 7:27 AM on October 19, 2010

Incredibly, my girlfriend and I are doing the exact same thing at the exact same time, and I was going to post this exact same question today.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 7:29 AM on October 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

It just started to get cold here, which means temperatures are between 30 and 40. By November it will be 5 degrees colder. Weather is hard to call, but it will be windy.

You can totally get by without a car in the city. It is a small city, and very walkable, and lots of busses. You might want to rent a car for a day (or night) trip, though. You can get one for about 80 dollars if you do decide to do that.

Never did a northern lights tour, though I have considered it. You can see them very well from in the city if you walk up to the Perlan, though. (Took this photo there in march.) I usually keep an eye on this site for deciding which nights to try for photos.

Definitely go to the city pools - cheap and heated and awesome.

Some comments from previous threads that might be useful too:
posted by Nothing at 7:52 AM on October 19, 2010

Here's an old thread and a long answer of things to do in Iceland

I will add that I did go on a nothern lights tour but didn't actually end up seeing the northern lights -- but the tour on the whole was still worth it. We went out in the middle of the night in what looked like moonscape in something of an Arctic wind storm staring at the sky. Totally absurd and high comedic so in that respect, pretty fun but in terms of actually experiencing northern lights -- didn't happen.

Also bring layers, warm socks, hiking boots, and hats.
posted by countrymod at 7:53 AM on October 19, 2010

Oh, and you will have a blast!
posted by Nothing at 8:00 AM on October 19, 2010

My wife and I visited Iceland a couple of years ago and enjoyed it immensely - lots of cool stuff to see. My very favorite activity, though, was going to a ranch not too far outside Reykjavik and riding Icelandic horses. (Sorry, can't remember the name of the ranch, but I suspect there are several good options.) The horses were well-trained and it was very safe, but much more fun than the plodding, nose-to-tail touristy horseback riding which is the only kind you can do in the US with its nutso tort laws. On the way back from our destination - a mossy spring from which both horses and humans could drink - we separated into two groups: inexperienced riders like my wife who felt more comfortable in a walking gait, and experienced riders like myself who wanted to trot and canter. Heavenly.
posted by copperykeen at 9:29 AM on October 19, 2010

I did the same horse thing in iceland and enjoyed it too, dress for rain, wind and mud if you go. One thing to bear in mind is that the hotel receptionists are great are facilitating stuff and that they cab check whether something will run (eg sufficient numbers) and then book for a minibus to pick you up from your hotel. They were happy to do this at even my not-upmarket place.
posted by biffa at 9:55 AM on October 19, 2010

Dunno about the Northern lights, but be prepared to have some difficulty getting around outside of town - tourist season officially ends August 31, and a ton of stuff shuts down or reduces hours/availability from September onward. As for stuff to do in Reykjavik: see my previous comments in this thread. I have no idea how things have changed in the wake of Iceland's near economic collapse, but I'm betting the locals still hang out at the hot pots (an *excellent* way to pass an afternoon or evening), and I'm betting the langoustines are still the most delicious seafood available anywhere.

Also, if you haven't already booked a place to stay: check out Apartment K [reviews]. They won't make your bed while you're out, but you get a great living space with a kitchen, and Kathy is really great to work with.
posted by dilettanti at 10:42 AM on October 19, 2010

Best answer: I went to Reykjavik last spring and I am going again at the beginning of December, so very happy to see this question! You'll have a great time.

I went on a Northern Lights tour and I did see the lights, but what you should know is that we're in the trough of the solar cycle right now, so it's extremely unlikely that there will be spectacular lights. For me, it was kind of, "Oh, that? That's the Northern Lights? That's cool!" I'm totally glad I took the tour even if the lights were on the weak side - as countrymod says it was wild to drive out into the countryside in the middle of the night and stand around in the snow, and our laconic-bordering-on-depressive guide made the whole thing even more hilarious).

If you do decide to take a tour you might want to go with a smaller company than the one I went with (Reykjavik Excursions, sort of the major tour bus company) because there were a lot of dumbasses on my bus who would not turn off their camera flashes. I suspect in a smaller group it might have been possible to get these people to lay off. And don't book the lights tour far in advance, because if it's cloudy or it's a low day for solar activity it's probably not worth it, and you can't predict those very far out.

The Blue Lagoon is great in cold weather. It was snowing when we went last year, and I loved it. The minerals in the water made my hair crunchy for like a week afterwards, which was less than cool, but I've been told that if you slather on conditioner before you get in the water you can avoid this.

We got the local museum pass at the tourist office and went around to a bunch of the museums. I liked all of the ones we went to. It's extremely cheap and I think also works as a bus pass.

Had lobster soup at Saegreifinn - one of the best simple meals I've ever had.

And if you or someone you love is a knitter, check out the Icelandic Handknitting Association stores - great stuff! Actually there were lots of great little craft stores.
posted by mskyle at 10:43 AM on October 19, 2010

Best answer: We were there for the IcelandAirwaves music festival a few years back.

I'm sure you could find 6 days worth of things to do in Reykjavik, but I'd recommend renting a car for at least 2 days and getting out into the countryside. As others have stated, most of the tourist spots will be shut down.

We found some very otherworldly hiking. Take Hwy 1 out of Reyk heading North. Then right before the tunnel under Hvalfjordur, turn East on Hwy 47. Take it all the way to its easternmost point, where there's a smaller road that will go on for a few miles until you reach a parking lot. Then you hike several miles East/NE, following a path that eventually just becomes cairns with blazes on them. Eventually you'll pass through a cave in the side of a cliff that drops you out at the river coming from a huge waterfall. You may have to cross a shady footbridge with a steel cable, or it may be washed out and you might not be able to see the waterfall. But the hike itself is gorgeous and amazing, and there is a HUGE glacier mountain off the east that should be visible. This place should also be on any reasonable map.

Also, the tunnel under Hvalfjordur, on Hwy 1 is definitely worth driving through if, ya know, you're into tunnels.

We stopped in Akranes and Borgarnes, both not very far north of that tunnel. I think Akranes wasn't very interesting, but Borgarnes was beautiful and had a small museum. The drive was also amazingly beautiful.

One thing to watch out for is that "unpaved" frequently means "deep washboard gravel" when it comes to roads there. We set out to take some loop road that claimed to be the most beautiful road in the country, but had to turn back immediately due to our tiny rental not being able to handle it.

After we landed, we went to a lighthouse at the tip of the peninsula where the Keflavik airport is, Gardur I think was the name of the town, and watched the sun rise over the bay.

Once we had returned the rental car, any time not spent at shows was spent walking around the city.

I don't know if it's there any more, but there was an AMAZING vegetarian restaurant on Klapparstigur, on the west side of the street, just south of Laugavegur.

I am certain someone at your hotel could help you find a Northern Lights excursion.

mskyle, we could NOT find Saegreifinn! We hunted all over for it, but either the address we had or the map we had was just wrong.
posted by MonsieurBon at 11:38 AM on October 19, 2010

Best answer: MonsieurBon: I don't know if it's there any more, but there was an AMAZING vegetarian restaurant on Klapparstigur, on the west side of the street, just south of Laugavegur.

That's Á næstu grösum. It's still there and it's still amazing.

I don't know if good coffee is important to you or not, but the best places or coffee are Kaffismiðjan, on the corner of Frakkastígur and Kárastígur, and Kaffi Haítí on Tryggvagata, just before the street joins up with Geirsgata. That said, most cafés in Reykjavík have good coffee, but these two are the best of a good bunch.

As to whether you'll see northern lights... well, northern lights are sparse the world over, as mskyle mentions above, but November in Iceland is likelier than most places in the world. All you need to do is go outside Reykjavík and stare at the sky for a while. There is sparse inhabitation outside Reykjavík, especially going north or east, so it will be very dark. Going on tours is fun, but there's something magical about being outside in nature in the dark just the two of you.
posted by Kattullus at 12:50 PM on October 19, 2010

We also went out of town a fair bit, and I second the warning on road quality, what looks on the map like major roads can be dirt tracks, and often not even flat dirt tracks, parts of the coast road were like someone had driven a plough from A to B and nothing more. Basically its a country with very low population density, and with that density dropping off considerably outsid Greater Reykjavik. Many vehicles lose their insurance on certain kinds of roads. Even roads that look like major roads on the maps can be very basic, I don't know how well this holds but it seemed to us that roads with a 2 digit number were tarmaced, and roads with a 3 digit number were more basic, but this may not hold!

If you go to the blue lagoon, DO NOT put your hand down and pick up a handful of the gravel on the bottom.
posted by biffa at 3:08 PM on October 19, 2010

Seconding Apartment K. We stayed there and it was great.
posted by matildaben at 7:45 PM on October 19, 2010

Seconding biffa's recommendation of not pulling anything off the bottom of the Blue Lagoon!

Also, we stayed at the Hotel Fron, which was inexpensive, clean, and didn't feel like a creepy international chain. It was noisy on Friday and Saturday, as people seemed to stay out partying until 6am. But that was anticipated and wasn't a problem with the appropriate use of earplugs.
posted by MonsieurBon at 10:50 AM on October 21, 2010

Solar cycle or no solar cycle, I've seen quite a bit of the northern lights this fall, even living in downtown Reykjavík. There was a particularly spectacular show a couple of weeks ago as I was driving from Keflavík to Reykjavík, which almost caused me to get acquainted with several light-posts.

Anyway, my brother makes a living doing these kinds of tours, and I can certainly ask him tomorrow about your odds, provided I don't promply forget all about it as soon as my head hits the pillow tonight.
posted by Zero Gravitas at 6:12 PM on November 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

I spoke to my brother, the one I mentioned above, and he says that the solar minimum has passed, and that he's been seeing some excellent northern lights on these kinds of tours this winter. Enjoy yourselves!
posted by Zero Gravitas at 10:38 AM on November 21, 2010

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