Gap Year to See the Northern Lights


Photo by Álfheiður Magnúsdóttir


written by Daniel Kendal for StudentAdvisor

The gap year is a modern rite of passage, a chance to jet off and see the world before heading to college. A gap year can involve anything from trekking the jungles of Cambodia to hopping around Europe’s capitals to simply relaxing on a beach in Australia. Every trip is different, but each involves one crucial element: choice.

With only one year to get the most out of your break, which trip-of-a-lifetime do you shell out for? Well, I’m not going to lie. I’ve always loved one above all others: tracking the elusive northern lights on an adventure through Iceland. Combining culture, excitement, and a sense of magic, an Icelandic jaunt can offer a unique, snow-drenched alternative to the warmer climates of the Pacific.

Chasing the Lights

The real meat of any Icelandic adventure is your continuing quest to see the aurora borealis at greater and greater extremes. Visible from August through mid-April, the northern lights vary in both shape and intensity, ranging from a faint, ethereal glow across the horizon to familiar shimmering curtains to bolts of lightning-like flares that chase one another across the sky in the strangest patterns. They can be seen all over the country, but the best views naturally occur away from civilization, in the icy depths of the wilderness. Taking a snowmobile tour or two across this beautiful, desolate land to see the northern lights at ever-greater extremities is an unforgetable experience.

[Read: Is Taking A Year Off From College Right For You?]

Glaciers, Mountain Peaks, and Barren Wilderness

Iceland is justifiably famous for its scenery. Exploding geysers; sweeping, frost-bitten plateaus; towering, ragged volcanoes; and endless, pale blue lagoons dot its landscape in an almost haphazard way, and any tour of the interior is bound to expose some unexpected delights. The more adventurous can embark on treks that span hundreds of miles to witness breathtaking, untouched landscapes. Those less-inclined to rough it in the wild can rent a 4×4 vehicle or snowmobile and see the country at their convenience. Although it’s never wise to stray too far from civilization alone, there are enough remote spots for quiet contemplation to last a thousand lifetimes. And in this rugged, prehistoric landscape, it’s eerily easy to lose track of time altogether.


Iceland isn’t all about craggy mountain tops and chilling out in lagoons. Reykjavik may be small by mainland European standards (with a population of only 118,500, it’s a tenth of the size of Barcelona, Spain), but the Icelandic capital is home to a bustling cultural scene that could give even Paris a run for its money. For one thing,Reykjavik appears to be emerging as Europe’s new literary capital, with an estimated one in ten people having a book deal at any given time. Novels are booming, especially in the childrens and crime genres, but other more-literary genres are also popular. Art is also abundant, with Reykjavík rocking more small galleries per mile than nearly any other city, and that’s before we even get to the bustling Icelandic music scene. In short, Reykjavík is the ideal base for any gap-year traveler.

Iceland Airwaves

Speaking of music, the Iceland Airwaves festival is one of the best in the Northern Hemisphere. A melting pot of global and local talent, this yearly party is a collision of everything music—alternative rock, Icelandic epic, electronic, and more. Rolling Stone has called it the “hippest long weekend on the annual music-festival calendar,” and the lineup never disappoints. Spread over dozens of clubs and venues and consistently drawing a crowd of the most interesting, beautiful people from all over the world, Iceland Airwaves is a solid reason to be in Reykjavík in late October.

[Applying to colleges after a gap year]

Daniel Kendal HeadshotDaniel Kendal is a recent graduate who searched for Icelandair northern lights vacations during his gap year and went on to have an unforgettable stay in Iceland.

[Ready for college? Find scholarships on ScholarshipAdvisor!]

Do you think that gap years are helpful or wasteful for students? Weigh in below.

Tags: ,