Northern Lights: Best Locations and Times to Visit, a Complete Guide
The natural phenomenon known as the Northern Lights or Aurora Borealis is a wonder of nature that sees electrically-charged solar particles dancing through the sky as they enter the Earth’s atmosphere. Thanks to the magnetic poles at the north and south of the Earth, the lights swirl in shades of green, blue, purple and red during the long months of darkness.
Witnessing this stunning spectacle is something that everyone should try to enjoy at least once in their life, although as it’s a natural occurrence, the lights are never guaranteed!
Here we aim to give you an in-depth insight into how to see the Northern Lights, how to choose the best place to see them, choosing the best time of year to visit and other top tips that will help plan your Northern Lights adventure.
Best Country to See the Northern Lights
When starting to think about seeing the Northern Lights, you’ll need to choose which country you want to visit. This can be one of the biggest challenges as each country offers its own unique style. Are you looking for adventure, comfort, proximity or simply a budget-friendly location? Whichever destination you choose, you’ll need to take into account the below points to choose your spot for seeing the Northern Lights.
It is almost impossible to say which country is ‘the best’ for seeing the Northern Lights as there are plenty of factors that come into play when trying to see something natural. You could be in the right place at the right time of year but simply have a week of clouds which cover the magical lights of the Aurora.
The dance of the particles happens year-round, but it is only thanks to the clear darkness of the Northern Hemisphere winter that we are able to see them. This is best found in the “aurora zone” which lies approximately 2,000-3,000km from the magnetic pole (latitude between 66-69 degrees north). Therefore, you’ll want to choose a country that lies within this region. North America (Alaska and Canada), Scandinavia (Iceland, Greenland, Norway, Sweden, Finland) and Russia are all good spots.
Read on to find out more details about where you can see the Northern Lights and what makes each destination different.
See the Northern lights in North America
Where: The great wilderness of Canada’s northernmost regions is one of the best locations to witness the Northern Lights thanks to the pure darkness that lies far away from the country’s towns and cities. The northern regions including the Yukon, Manitoba, Nunavut and the Northwest Territories have acres of pristine wilds which, due to their high latitude, have many months of darkness.
When: The season for spotting the Northern Lights in Canada runs from late-August until April.
Top Tips: The tundra of Churchill in Manitoba is an excellent place to search for the Northern Lights as it is said to have around 300 days of aurora activity throughout the year, plus you may have the chance of seeing polar bears if you visit in October, November or March!
The Inukshuks in Nunavut (human-shaped manmade stone structures) are also a good spot for photographing the Northern Lights as these sculptures make a great focal point for you to fix your camera on in order to catch the glistening green rays behind.
Where: Alaska is unbelievably photogenic year-round but perhaps no more so than during aurora season. You can combine your Northern Lights trip with wildlife watching, hiking and relaxing in hot springs; making for one hell of a holiday! You’re best off sticking to Fairbanks and above in Alaska as this region will offer you the longest nights of darkness and the clearest skies.
When: The Aurora Borealis can be seen year-round in Alaska thanks to the wonderfully clear skies that often reside here but the winter season (late-September to April) offers the longest, darkest nights.
Top Tips: You can camp in Alaska to have the best chances of seeing the lights throughout the night but be warned, it will be epically cold (temperatures can get as low as -30°) so bring as many specialised layers as you can, as well as hand and foot warmers will which be a lifesaver!
See the Northern lights in Europe
Where: With regular cheap flights to Iceland from both North America and Europe, Iceland has seen a boom in Northern Lights tourism. The majority of travellers head to the capital, Reykjavik, and go out for evening tours to seek out the lights. Of course, you can witness the dancing aurora all over the country, so the further you get from the city, the higher your chance of seeing them. Both independent excursions and organised tours are possible in Iceland.
When: Iceland’s aurora season is quite long, running from September to April and the shoulder seasons are arguably the best.
Top Tips: Don’t forget to combine your Northern Lights trip to Iceland with visits to the amazing volcanic landscapes, stunning waterfalls, and geothermal hot springs.
Where: Most of Greenland lies in the Arctic Circle which makes it an exceptional location for witnessing the Northern Lights. Add this to the fact that Greenland is still relatively untouched by tourism and infrastructure and you have the perfect place. However, this also means that the majority of Greenland Northern Lights trips take place by plane or by boat, making them some of the most expensive options.
When: The Greenland Northern Lights season runs from late-August until April.
Top Tips: Chat to the locals about their beliefs about the Northern Lights. There are many myths and legends that relate to the lights such as the belief that children conceived under the glow of the lights will be especially intelligent.
Where: Easy access, solid infrastructure, and beautiful natural landscapes make Norway a great place to search out the Aurora Borealis. This can be a good option for those who want to seek out a little luxury during their trip as you can stay in stylish lodges, spend the days snow-shoeing and husky sledding before relaxing in the hot tub of an evening where you can look for the lights.
Tromsø lies at 69 degrees north and is easily accessible by flight connections from Oslo, so it is one of the best places to see the Northern Lights in Norway. Alternatively, the Lofoten Islands (67-68 degrees north) are a picturesque place to watch the aurora.
When: You can witness the Northern Lights in Norway between October and March. Tromsø’s polar night runs from November to January, during which means from 9am-2pm there is an eerie twilight and the rest of the time it is dark, giving you plenty of time to look out for the lights.
Top Tips: It is possible to witness the magical aurora in Svalbard, Norway’s Arctic Archipelago en route to the North Pole, but as this lies outside of the optimum aurora zone, your chances may be slimmer than on Norway’s mainland. Svalbard has 110 days of Polar Night though, so it is plunged into darkness for much of the winter, and thanks to its clear atmosphere and minimal external light sources the setting can be good for seeing the lights.
Where: If you’re desperate to see the Northern Lights but don’t fancy the plummeting temperatures of Alaska and Svalbard in winter, Sweden may be a better choice. The Gulf stream ensures Sweden boasts slightly milder temperatures, even throughout winter.
You can’t expect to head to Stockholm to see the Northern Lights (the city is too bright and too low in terms of latitude), but if you head anywhere north of Lycksele (around 65 degrees north), then you’ll be in the right place. Jokkmokk, Swedish Lapland and Abisko National Park are all favourites.
When: It is possible to see the Northern Lights in Sweden from September to March, with shoulder seasons allowing a good mix of light and dark so you can enjoy daytime activities and night-time aurora-seeking.
Top Tips: Sweden is notoriously one of the most expensive places to travel within Europe, so it is not for those on a budget.
Where: The north of Finland has become a popular spot to witness the Aurora Borealis during the long polar nights of winter, not least thanks to the stunning glass igloos that have been designed for this very reason! Finland has upped the game in terms of accommodation and tour offerings so you can expect the best when you plan your Northern Lights vacation to this stunning destination. The best thing about Finland’s aurora accommodation is that you don’t even have to leave the comfort of your bed to marvel at the magic of the lights.
When: The Northern Lights are visible on clear days in Finland between September and March.
Top Tips: Finland is said to have the Northern Lights on show roughly 200 days a year so you can pretty much see the lights an average of every other day here! But do check the forecast for clouds before heading out to see the lights.
Where: Last and by no means least is Russia. Russia is not a very well-known destination for seeing the Northern Lights, despite a huge part of the country lying in the Arctic Circle. These destinations throughout the Arctic Circle are not the most accessible (both due to flights and language barriers) although you can easily reach Murmansk in the Kola Peninsula. This means they offer a more remote, untouched version of Aurora tourism, which can be exactly what some people are looking for.
When: The best time to see the Northern Lights in Russia is between September and March. As the north of the country lies in the Arctic Circle, many regions here are plunged into Polar Night throughout December and January making it a great time to visit. Between 9pm and midnight are said to be the prime hours for seeing the Northern Lights (although this varies daily).
Top Tips: Look out for hotels and Airbnb listings in English that offer day trips as part of the stay, or opt for a full tour so you can really make the most of your trip without trying to organise things ‘in country’, in a language with a completely different alphabet!
Best Time to See the Northern Lights
As I’ve explained above, the best time to see the Northern Lights is during the Northern Hemisphere winter. The season can run from anywhere between late-August and the end of April with the aurora being seen on crisp, clear nights.
Choosing the specific month to see the Northern Lights is up to you.
The shoulder season months of August to mid-October and late-February to April are best if you wish to make the most of the daylight hours, as well as looking for the Northern Lights at night. Many of the countries mentioned above offer an exciting array of activities that complement a Northern Lights adventure. This includes dog-sledding, snowmobiling, ice-fishing, and snow-shoeing.
If you just want to focus on the lights, you may wish to visit Arctic Circle locations during the depths of the Polar Night. This is the period during winter when the sun never rises above the horizon, meaning the landscape is either in full darkness or a twilight haze. This season allows you to have plenty of hours of darkness in which to seek out the dazzling colours of the aurora.
No matter which month you decide to visit, you’ll want to keep an eye on moon cycles and weather forecasts. Although the weather can change from day-to-day, the moon cycles are something you can check before you book your trip. Ideally, you don’t want to be seeking out the Northern Lights on a full moon or the few days either side. The moon produces a strong glimmer of light which can detract from the darkness making the aurora harder to see or define.
Chances of Seeing the Northern Lights
As with any natural phenomenon, the spectacle of the Northern Lights is completely out of the control of mankind. It is, however, possible to work with the information we have available to us to try to give yourself the best chance of seeing the Northern Lights.
Of course, nothing is guaranteed, but if you plan your trip to the ‘aurora zone,’ during the aurora season and away from the lights of the moon and any towns, cities or external light sources, you should be in a position to spot this miraculous display.
Just keep your fingers crossed for clear nights, and you’ll be in for one of the most amazing experiences of your life.
What is a “Northern Lights Forecast”?
Thankfully for us, a variety of meteorological and geophysical institutes have collaborated to create Aurora Forecasts which aim to give us the best data possible to assist in seeing the Northern Lights. These forecasts analyse solar wind using data from Nasa’s ACE spacecraft and magnetism using a worldwide network of magnetometers to give information about the movement and behaviour of the lights.
Of course, as the Northern Lights are a natural sensation, the data is constantly changing. Therefore, these forecasts can only predict the activity for up to an hour in advance of it happening. As a result, you cannot use these forecasts to plan when in the season to visit one of these northern regions to see the Aurora Borealis, but when you’re in-country, you can use the forecast to get yourself in the right place at the right place to witness these awe-inspiring dancing lights.
Managing Expectations on your northern lights experience
It is also worth noting that the intensity of the colour of the Northern Lights varies hugely throughout the season and in each different country. The lights can range from a simple white haze through to burning red streaks that mark the sky.
Even when the lights show as a white haze, it is still an impressive occurrence, and you shouldn’t be disappointed. The glow of the Aurora Borealis shows up as a much stronger green light when photographed correctly, so it is worth investing in (or renting/borrowing) a decent camera for your trip if possible.
Should I Choose a Northern Lights Tour or Travel Independently?
Deciding whether to choose a Northern Lights tour or to travel independently is a completely personal choice and depends on many factors. Only you can weigh up the pros and cons of travelling with a tour and decide what is best for you.
Tours can be a great option for those who want to hand over the money and then put their feet up. Organised excursions ensure someone else does the research and planning, meaning, you are free to relax and thoroughly enjoy the experience.
Many tours across Europe combine a few daytime activities with dinner and a Northern Lights evening outing. The onus is on the tour company to get you in the best position to see the lights. Some smaller outfits (and particularly boat trips) will even wake you up and take you out especially to see the lights at whatever time they occur!
The downsides with travelling with a tour is that you are stuck to a fixed schedule and you do not know who else will be in your group. You may wish to stay for hours watching the ballet of lights that is dazzling in front of you, whereas your tour guide may need to have you back by a certain time or half of your group may be complaining about the cold.
There is also the expense to consider. It is likely to be cheaper to travel independently, but it depends if you have the time to thoroughly research your trip and have the confidence and requirements to drive in another country.
The benefit of solo travel to see the Northern Lights is that you are completely in control. If you have your own wheels, you can set yourself up with the Northern Lights Forecast and head to wherever looks like it will have the best aurora activity. Some love the adventure of seeking out the lights, feeling as though they are a storm chaser!
This does mean that you need to organise your own transport, meals, and plan of action and you will have to pay-as-you-go rather than having everything organised in advance.
You could, of course, opt for a glamorous glass igloo or remote cabin and simply stay put until you manage to witness the lights.
Is a Trip to See the Northern Lights Expensive?
It is almost impossible to say how much a typical ‘Northern Lights Experience’ would cost as there are so many variants involved.
At the end of the day, the Northern Lights are just particles moving around in the sky, so they are absolutely free for anyone to see. If you happen to live in Fairbanks, Tromsø or the remote regions of Russia, you may be able to witness the lights simply by stepping outside your front door!
However, if you’re coming from further afield, you will need to plan your trip. This will involve flights, food, accommodation, and potential tours. As the majority of Northern Lights destinations are fairly remote, there is usually a substantial cost involved in getting there. Check out flights by Wow Air, Air Canada Express and Red Wings for reasonable flights, or Eurail for trains across Europe.
If you want to reduce costs, you can opt for camping, rustic lodges or city hostels to save some cash. If you’re camping in the wilds, it’s unlikely you’ll need to join a tour to get into the darkness as you should be there already. If you stay in a hostel in Reykjavik, for example, you’ll need to either join a tour or hire a car to get out of the city.
Tours can range from basic transport packages to whole day excursions and can be booked before you travel or in-country. If you’re staying in one of the main Northern Lights hubs, there certainly won’t be a shortage of options available!
If you’d like to combine your Northern Lights adventure with a more unique wildlife watching experience, you might be looking a more expensive and exclusive option.
Best Accommodation for Seeing the Northern Lights
Again, what you define as ‘best’ depends on your wants, needs, and personality. For some, the cheapest option may be best, while others may want the most comfortable, luxurious option available.
If you can find accommodation in a remote location, between the lines of 65-69 degrees north, then you may have the opportunity of seeing the lights from the comfort of your hotel grounds (if not from the comfort of your bed, hot tub or sauna!!). Being in this location means you don’t only have to plan excursions to areas of darkness outside of the city in order to see the aurora.
Having as much time as possible to look for the lights gives you a greater chance of seeing and enjoying them which would certainly add value to your experience and may make the price tag worthwhile.
Are the Northern Lights Suitable for Children?
Absolutely! There is no age limit on who can enjoy the spectacle of the Northern Lights so you should try to go time and time again throughout your lifetime!
The only thing to think about when travelling with children is the fact that they may get cold or bored much quicker than others while waiting for, or watching the Northern Lights. As the lights are a natural occurrence, they could take hours to appear or may even be visible for just a few minutes. As a parent, you will, therefore, need to explain this to your children so you can manage their expectations.
Layers are an absolute must for anyone wanting to witness the Northern Lights, none more so than children. Standing around in the snow leads to getting cold very quickly, and if you don’t have appropriate clothing, it can make the whole experience quite uncomfortable and upsetting. You don’t want to have to leave early because the kids are cold so make sure you pack proper down jackets, layers of thermals and hand and toe warmers.
It could also be a good option to travel by car with children so that they can feel part of the adventure of seeking the lights out and you also have the warmth of a vehicle as a refuge in the cold.
Other Top Tips
Allow yourself plenty of time to see the aurora
Just like wildlife spotting, you don’t want to give yourself one day, or worse, just a few hours to try to witness something wild and natural. If you pin all your hopes on seeing the Northern Lights on just one visit and you don’t have the chance, you’re bound to feel disappointed. Instead, try to allow yourself at least two or three attempts to see the Northern Lights. If you spot them first-time #winning, but if you don’t at least you have other opportunities to seek them out.
Always keep your eyes out
Just because you’re on a tour doesn’t mean you have to wait for the tour guide to get to the perfect spot and point out the lights, you may be lucky enough to spot them en route to your destination or even elsewhere! So always keep your eyes open just in case you’re the first to see them.
It is also worth noting that the Northern Lights can be seen in any Northern Hemisphere region. As long as you are up north and in darkness, you should keep your eyes peeled for glimmers of light that look different to lunar light. The Northern Lights have been seen in Scotland, China, Estonia, and even Japan!
Why not witness the Aurora Australis?
If these Northern Hemisphere regions sound a little far away, fear not! The same natural phenomenon also occurs in the Southern Hemisphere and is known as the Aurora Australis. Southern Australia, Tasmania, and New Zealand often have sightings of the aurora dance between March and September. Antarctica, Argentina, and The Falkland Islands are also other great options.
Photographing the Northern Lights.
If you have never photographed in dark conditions before, I would recommend doing some research on the best ways to photograph the Northern Lights, so you are prepared whenever the lights decide to grace you with their presence.
There are a wealth of articles out there but here are a few top tips to get you started:
-Use a tripod
-Make sure your flash is OFF
-Set your ISO high
Use manual settings and focus – this allows you to manipulate the aperture and shutter speed as well as ensuring your camera doesn’t spend the whole time trying to refocus
Try to pick something solid in the foreground of your photo such as a building, tree or mountain peak so that your camera has something to focus on
Use a remote shutter release if possible
Don’t forget to bring plenty of batteries. Camera batteries and the cold are not the best of friends so your camera may run out a lot quicker than you’re used to! Be prepared, so you are not caught out without a camera when the lights begin to dance.
Lastly, don’t forget to look with your eyes! It can be tempting to spend your whole time behind the viewfinder – especially once you see the epic photographic results you can produce using the steps above – but it is important you take in the experience with your eyes and mind too.
Whether you book a tour, find a remote lodge or head off on an independent aurora adventure, if you are lucky enough to witness the Northern Lights, you’re sure to have one of the most breath-taking and memorable experiences of your life!
Let us know if you use these tips to seek out the Northern Lights and if you were able to experience the magic of the ethereal dance of the aurora.
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