Guest looks through telescope into the night sky filled with northern lights in Hotel Rangá's Observatory.

Iceland’s Top Public Observatory

Did you know that Hotel Rangá is home to Iceland's only public observatory? Keep reading to learn about the history of observatories and astronomy in Iceland.

Iceland is known for its beautiful natural landscape and fascinating geological formations. However, Iceland is also a significant location in the world of astronomy. People travel from far and wide to experience the night sky from our shores. What’s more, Iceland is actually home to several observatories–one of which is located at Hotel Rangá. In the following post, we share information from astronomer Sævar Helgi Bragason about the history of observatories and astronomy in Iceland. We also share photos and information about Iceland’s only public observatory–the Rangá Observatory.

Hotel Rangá luxury resort underneath a starry night sky.
Located in the Icelandic countryside, Hotel Rangá is an amazing spot for stargazing. Photo by Karl Ólafsson.

What makes Iceland such a unique place in the world of astronomy?

There are several factors that contribute to Iceland’s astronomical significance.

  • Minimal light pollution: At about 380,000 people, Iceland’s population is quite small. What’s more, most of the population is concentrated in the country’s largest cities of Reykjavík and Akureyri. This means that a significant portion of the country is relatively unpopulated. As a result, there are many areas throughout Iceland that have minimal light pollution. This makes it easier to see the night sky without any kind of light interference. Stars, planets and far off celestial objects become clearer. What’s more, the northern lights appear brighter and more vivid in areas with minimal light pollution.
  • Dark skies: Because Iceland is located close to the arctic circle, we experience very little sunlight during the winter months. In fact, Icelanders only see about 4 hours of sunlight during the winter solstice. This means that there are many hours when the sky is dark. As a result, there is more possibility of seeing the stars and the northern lights. It is important to note that there is a flip side to Iceland’s wintertime darkness. Iceland does not experience dark skies during the summer months. Instead, we experience a kind of perpetual dusk, making it impossible to stargaze or see the northern lights. If you want to visit Iceland and experience the wonders of the night sky, you will need to come between late August and early April.

    A band of northern lights stretches out beside Hotel Rangá in south Iceland.
    The northern lights are visible from late August to early April. Photo by Paige Deasley.
  • Northern lights: It is only possible to regularly see the northern lights in select locations. Luckily for us, Iceland is one of them. The northern lights occur when solar particles interact with Earth’s magnetic field. Due to the shape of Earth’s magnetic field, more solar wind interacts with the field near the North and South Poles. Because Iceland is located at a high latitude near the arctic circle, it is an excellent location to see the northern lights.

What weather conditions are necessary for stargazing?

In order to see the stars, there must be completely clear skies. We can check the nightly forecast at Any amount of cloud cover can interfere with our view of the stars. As Icelandic weather can be unpredictable, we highly recommend that you book a stay at Hotel Rangá for several days. This will give you more chances to experience a crystal clear night sky. Check out our offers page to see what kind of multi-day deals are available at this time.

What makes Hotel Rangá such an amazing place to go stargazing?

Hotel Rangá is located in the Icelandic countryside, and we benefit from minimal light pollution. Our location is also ideal for visitors hoping to see the best of the south coast. We are an easy drive from top locations such as Seljalandsfoss, Skógafoss, Reynisfjara, Gullfoss, Geysir and Þingvellir.

Two onlookers admire the pink and green northern lights shimmering above Skógafoss.
An epic shot of northern lights dancing above Skógafoss. Photograph by Stefan Liebermann.

What’s more, we have relationships with trusted local tour operators and can help you book some amazing adventure tours in the area. You will have a variety of exciting activities to enjoy during the day before a nighttime viewing of the northern lights.

Our luxury property also offers excellent amenities. Indulge in a gourmet dinner at our Rangá Restaurant and enjoy a modern take on traditional Icelandic ingredients such as fish, lamb and even local mushrooms. While you wait for the aurora to appear, enjoy a handcrafted cocktail or glass of wine from our well-stocked Rangá Bar.

Couple dining in Hotel Rangá's gourmet Rangá Restaurant in south Iceland.
Enjoy a romantic dinner at our gourmet Rangá Restaurant. Photo by Ingibjörg Friðriksdóttir.

Our property is designed to maximize our guests’ comfort, and we pride ourselves on thinking about every detail. We are passionate about helping our guests to feel well-rested and relaxed. In fact, hospitality is our top priority.

Furthermore, Hotel Rangá is passionate about stargazing–so much so that we created our very own Rangá Observatory! Inside, we have two high-tech telescopes that can be used to see incredible detail in the night sky. But what is the story behind the Rangá Observatory? Keep reading to learn more.

Guests at Hotel Rangá stargazing in the Hotel Rangá observatory that houses two high-quality telescopes.
Stargazing in the Hotel Rangá Observatory. Photo by Ragnar Th. Sigurðsson.

When and why was the Rangá Observatory first created?

In 2014, hotelier Friðrik Pálsson was inspired to create the Rangá Observatory. He saw that our guests were in awe of the Icelandic night sky. A stargazer himself, Friðrik wanted to offer a truly unforgettable experience for guests.

As a result, Friðrik reached out to expert Icelandic astronomer Sævar Helgi Bragason. Together, they designed the observatory structure. What’s more, Sævar gave us excellent advice about the best equipment to see the stars.

We acquired two high-tech telescopes: the 14 inch Celestron Edge HD Schmidt-Cassegrain reflector and the TEC 160ED APO refractor on a Astrophysics 900 mount. These scopes make it possible to see detailed views of stars and planets with exceptional sharpness and resolution. What’s more, our telescopes can also be used for astrophotography.

Man peers through a telescope at the Hotel Rangá Observatory in south Iceland.
Our high-powered telescopes make it easy to see epic details of the night sky. Photo by Ragnar Th. Sigurðsson.

Though there are other observatories in Iceland, the Rangá Observatory is the only public observatory in Iceland. Our observatory is open to all. We want to share our love of the night sky with locals and other stargazers who are visiting Iceland.

Hotel Rangá is also the only public observatory that offers guided tours of the night sky by experts. That’s right–on clear nights, we invite experts like Sævar to come and take our guests on a tour of the night sky. These expert astronomers will help you to use the telescopes, as well as share stories about the stars and planets.

Can you go sungazing in the Rangá Observatory?

Yes–while it is unsafe to gaze directly at the sun, the Rangá Observatory has special equipment that makes it possible to go sungazing. We can look at the sun by attaching a white light solar filter in front of our telescopes. The filters allow us to see sunspots on the visible surface of the sun.

What’s more, we also have a special solar telescope. When we look through the solar telescope, we can see the sun through one particular wavelength emitted by hydrogen, which is in the red part of the spectrum. Through it, the sun looks red; however, that red light makes it possible to see beautiful prominences and filaments rising from the sun.

What is the history of observatories in Iceland?

We asked expert astronomer Sævar Helgi Bragason about the history of observatories in Iceland. He had some very interesting information to share.

Sparkling stars and a distant solar system seen through one of Hotel Rangá's high-powered telescopes.
The Hotel Rangá Observatory has two high-powered telescopes that are amazing for astrophotography. Photo by Gísli Már.

Did the earliest Icelanders have a belief system surrounding the stars, moon and northern lights?

Early Icelanders brought the Nordic culture with them from Norway. In Nordic mythology–which reflects Greek mythology in many ways–the stars and the constellations are the homes of the Gods. The sun and the moon are siblings–Sól og Máni–that the gods threw up into the heavens to take care of the sun and the moon.

Interestingly, there are no Icelandic myths or legends surrounding the northern lights. Of course, in those days, a thousand years ago, people had no way of knowing the true nature of the stars or the planets. A thousand years later, we finally understand that the stars are actually distant suns.

When did formalized study of astronomy first begin in Iceland?

In the eighteen hundreds, Icelanders went to Copenhagen for studies. The first Icelandic astronomer was Eyjólfur Jónsson. He spent most of his career in Copenhagen, but later in life, he built a small observatory at Arnarhóll in Reykjavík. From there, he observed the sun and the night sky.

Distant stars and a solar system seen through one of Hotel Rangá's high-powered telescopes.
Our Rangá Observatory has amazing telescopes through which you can get a glimpse of distant solar systems. Photo by Kristján Heiðberg.

When was the first observatory established in Iceland?

In the late 1700s, an observatory was built at Lambhús next to Bessastaðir (which is now the home of the President of Iceland). From there, Danish astronomer Rasmus Lievog made the first official astronomical observations from Iceland. He had some instruments like pendulum clocks and quadrants for determining coordinates, as well as a refractive telescope.

At the time, Lievog’s telescope was state of the art. However, it was long and not very steady in the windy conditions in Iceland. Lievog also made meteorological measurements. The observatory was dismantled in the early 1800s.

Green and pink northern lights above the Hotel Rangá Observatory.
Green and pink northern lights above the Hotel Rangá Observatory. Photo by Sævar Helgi Bragason.

Are there other public observatories in Iceland apart from Hotel Rangá?

For a long time, the only public observatory in Iceland was the one run by the Amateur Astronomical Society of Seltjarnarness. It’s under a dome on top of the roof of a local elementary school. It’s been there since the 1970s and originally housed a 14 inch refractor. Unfortunately, light pollution from Reykjavík has rendered the observatory pretty useless.

There’s also a small telescope under a dome on top of one of the buildings of the University of Iceland. It also sees very little use due to light pollution. The Hotel Rangá Observatory is the only observatory in Iceland open to the general public.

Two high-powered telescopes pointed at the starry night sky in the Rangá Observatory.
The Rangá Observatory. Photo by Milan & Seila.

Do scholars of astronomy often travel to Iceland to observe and study the night sky?

Scientists very frequently visit Iceland for research or training. Not really to observe the night sky, but to use Iceland as an analog for planetary science research. In many ways, Iceland is very Martian, Lunar and Venusian in appearance. Therefore, scientists often flock to Iceland to make use of our barren, alien landscapes to test out equipment for future use on missions to other planets. In fact, in the the 60’s, the Apollo astronauts did parts of their training here.

Stars and northern lights shot through a fisheye camera in the Hotel Rangá Observatory.
Stars and northern lights shot through a fisheye camera in the Hotel Rangá Observatory. Photo by Gísli Már

Unfortunately, Iceland is often quite cloudy which hinders astronomical research. I know most people find it hard to believe, but northern lights can also obstruct the view of the stars. This is because northern lights can act as a natural source of light pollution. However, Icelandic and international scientists practice aurora research from Iceland.

As a result, astronomers around the world try to build observatories on mountaintops, above most of the water vapor and clouds and far from light pollution. In fact, this is the reason Iceland has a stake in a Nordic collaboration of a big telescope on top of La Palma in the Canary Islands.

A woman peers through a telescope and a man stares into the starry night sky in the Rangá Observatory in south Iceland.
Housing two amazing telescopes, the Rangá Observatory is one of a kind and a perfect place to stargaze. Photo by Milan & Seila.

Are there any plans for more observatories to be built elsewhere around Iceland?

There aren’t many observatories currently in Iceland. The few that are are privately owned by enthusiastic amateur astronomers. One of which is in the town of Höfn Í Hornafirði, where the owner has even been contributing to research on exoplanets and eclipsing binary stars.

Other Icelandic amateur astronomers are into astrophotography, taking beautiful images of the universe from their homes with their own telescopes. Hopefully, more observatories will be created in the future. After all, Iceland offers a view of the night sky with virtually no light pollution.

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Iceland is an incredibly unique place in the world of astronomy. Our country’s minimal light pollution and unique natural beauty make it a wonderful place to go stargazing. Hotel Rangá offers visitors a totally unique experience–access to our amazing Rangá Observatory: the only public observatory in Iceland. If you want to experience the night sky in an unforgettable way, book your stay at Hotel Rangá today.

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