Iceland, like the UK is an island nation and over the years a complex and essential network of lighthouses has built up. Initially beacons were burnt on hill tops to guide seamen safely to shore and then over time coastal churches developed and were used as markers for those returning home. There are now just over 100 lighthouses protecting the coast as well as light markers to help navigate harbours and ports.
Icelandic lighthouses cover the 5000 miles of coastline in a variety of forms. Some are small and squat while others are tall towers, standing dominant in the landscape. All are distinctive and unique in their own way.
Getting to the lighthouses is not always easy. Some, like Þrídrangarviti on the Westman Islands can only be reached by air. The journey is not easy and reaching this lighthouse, perched on a basalt column 4 miles offshore is a feat in itself. Others have a road to the front door making visiting incredibly easy.
Photographing Lighthouses in Iceland
Most lighthouses in Iceland can be accessed in one way or another to record your travel memories. To get the best views it is better to explore the area on foot and to find a location a short distance from the tower. For some there is only one viewpoint and this is for a reason, usually for safety.
Standing right under the lighthouse will not normally result in a pleasing photograph. They are much better photographed in their surroundings giving context and scale to the photograph. For this a wide angle lens is useful. You will also find that lighthouses taper and are good candidates for geometric distortion. Use the horizon rather than the lines of the lighthouse to make sure you are straight.
To escape the normal image of a lighthouse, get creative. Include surrounding plants or focus on something other than the lighthouse to give an alternative pleasing image.
Look for small details and if you can get inside then explore windows and doors as well as the staircases that are all unique to the individual lighthouses. If you can reach the lantern then this gives you a whole raft of options with reflections and patterns being perfect for alternative photographs.
Safety and Planning when visiting Icelandic Lighthouses
Many of the lighthouses in Iceland are accessible whatever the weather or tidal conditions. However, many of them are located in extreme locations and careful planning is needed to reach them safely.
Weather and Road Conditions
The first big consideration is the weather and road conditions. This can change in the blink of an eye making planning complicated. When looking at the weather think about the time to get to the lighthouse as well as your return trip. Are there any weather warnings in place or road closures for the twelve hours after your visit. The weather may come in on your return and this could cause complications. It is also pointless making a trip to a lighthouse if it is going to be shrouded in fog and you will see nothing (as happened on our trip to Dyrhólaey). The three of the best places for weather and travel forecasts we found were Safe Travel, Road (the site for the road authorities) and the Icelandic Met Office. Checking forums and chat groups can also provide up to date information on the roads and access arrangements although these should be secondary to official information.
Tides can play a part in organising a lighthouse visit. Either because the lighthouse can only be reached at certain states of the tide or because you want to photograph it with the tide in (or out). Tidal information for Iceland can be found at TidesChart. Not only look a the times of low and high water but also the height of the water. This is against what is known as chart datum a point set within the country to standardise the measurement of the tides which vary with the phases of the moon. Remember that even if you get to somewhere at low tide you still need to get back. Always set out as the tide is going out so you know you have enough time to return safely.
Not all lighthouses can be reached without land-owners permission. Make sure you do not cross private land. You should also be aware of the surrounding environment and take care to preserve the land. Lighthouses such as Hraunhafnartangi in the far north and Grotta just outside Reykjavik have restricted access during the summer months to protect ground nesting birds. Signs and barriers are clear and should not be ignored. Some lighthouses are open and provide clear opening times. These are mainly in the south of Iceland where visitor numbers make it worthwhile for the owners. You can also stay in some of the lighthouses with one option being Hornbjargsviti in the Westfjords.
Sunrise, Sunset and Night Skies
Iceland has both extremes from never ending daylight to limited daylight. The time of year that you visit will alter the options for visiting and also when you want to visit. In the summer months when the days are never ending you can visit the lighthouse through the night and experience prolonged golden hours and limited darkness. In the winter months sunsets are earlier (you may even achieve sunrise and sunset in the same day!) and you have the chance of northern lights as well. Neither option is better as they are both totally different experiences. Both options do need planning. There is no point turning up for sunrise if the sun rose three hours before you arrive or you arrive and everything is masked in fog. Similarly, standing in the cold for hours waiting for the clouds to clear on the chance of northern lights when storm clouds are building is a waste of energy and safety. Always check the weather forecast before you leave. Sunrise and sunset times can be found on the amazing Time and Date website which also provides information on how dark the night will be. If you are going for northern lights over a lighthouse then Aurora Forecast is worth checking before you head out. This site includes live cloud cover as well as aurora activity.
Icelandic Lighthouses - The Extremes
The most northerly lighthouse in Iceland is Hraunhafnartangi Lighthouse. It is located 10km northwest of Raufarhöfn and just 800m south of the Arctic Circle. First constructed in 1951 it is a square tower with a balcony and red lantern.
Dyrhólaeyviti is found on the central south coast of Iceland overlooking the lava arch at Dyrhólaey near the town of Vík. It is a short square castle like tower with a red lantern. The current tower was installed in 1927 after being built in Sweden.
Dalatangi Lighthouse is the most easterly lighthouse and the furthest east you can drive in Iceland. It is located down a rough track near the village of Mjóifjörður. The drive to this lighthouse is not east with sheer drops to the sea and a rugged mountain pass to navigate.
Bjargtangar Lighthouse is located on the bird cliffs of Látrabjarg in the Westfjords. It marks the westernmost point of Iceland and is the westernmost building of Europe. Given its geographic importance it is a very simple, almost boring tower built in 1948.
The tallest lighthouse is Garðskagi on the Reykjanes Peninsula near Keflavik. It stands a huge 26 metres tall.
Three metres seems to be the shortest towers that are built in Iceland. There is a small collection of short towers all of a similar design. These can be found at Arnarstapaviti and Hólmavíkurviti as well as other locations around the country. They are usually placed on high cliffs giving them a more ‘normal’ focal length.
Dalatangi Light holds the position of oldest Icelandic lighthouse as well as being the furthest East. The original lighthouse was made from basalt in 1895 and still sits in position today. It was replaced in 1908 by the current lighthouse.
An earlier lighthouse at Valahnúkur in Reykjanes was built in 1878 but this was replaced by Reykjanesviti in 1908 after earthquakes and surf damage destroyed it beyond repair.
First Reinforced Concrete
List of Lighthouses in Iceland
South Iceland Lighthouses
South East Iceland Lighthouses
South West Iceland Lighthouses
North West Iceland Lighthouses
North Iceland Lighthouses
North East Iceland Lighthouses
West Iceland Lighthouses
List of Icelandic Lighthouses adapted from Vitar á Íslandi by Guðmundur Bernódusson, Guðmundur L. Hafsteinsson and Kristján Sveinsson.