The best destinations in the world to see the Northern Lights and where to stay

Sounding like one of the classier drag names we’ve ever heard, the Aurora Borealis lights the world’s skies with her act, an unpredictable arc of dancing colour, ethereal and enchanting. Rarely performing on schedule, Aurora is one of the harder phenomenon to catch sight of. Instead, we have to roll with probabilities, venturing to cold climes in the globe’s northern regions to boost our luck. Armed with local knowledge of where best to see the lights, your chances will also rise dramatically. Here’s our list of the 10 best destinations to see the Northern Lights with advice on where to stay while on your mission.

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Iceland | Photo: Jonatan Pie

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Up north, you’ll want to head to the Arctic Circle (the so-called Aurora Zone) where altitudes between 66 and 69 degrees north make for the perfect viewing conditions

What are the Northern Lights? 

The glow of the Northern Lights is caused by a collision between gaseous particles found in the Earth’s atmosphere and the charged particles from the sun’s atmosphere which are blown towards Earth on solar winds. Perhaps not the stuff of romance novels but pretty cool nonetheless. Upon collision, these estranged particles release an array of gases, each producing a variation of colour. Oxygen molecules some 100 kilometres above Earth produce the most common pale greenish-yellow glow, while red auroras are the result of oxygen particles colliding at higher altitude (around 300 kilometres up). Other gases create differing colours still, such as nitrogen which varies from blue and purple to red.

A combination of the sun’s explosive heat and its rotation often causes particles to escape from holes in the sun’s atmosphere and make a break for Planet Earth, but more often than not these particles are deflected by the Earth’s magnetic field. At both north and south poles, however, the Earth’s magnetic repulsion is weaker, allowing a number of these drama-seeking particles to enter the atmosphere, et voila.

Iceland | Photo: Benjamin Suter

Iceland | Luke: Stackpoole

Where can we see the Northern Lights? 

Understanding that the polar regions are essentially weak points in the Earth’s magnetic field explains why the Northern Lights phenomenon is so much more likely to occur in the polar regions, particularly the Arctic Circle. Often the height of the aurora can affect visibility; though sometimes the lights extend as close as 80 kilometres from the Earth’s surface, at other times they are as far away as 400 miles above the Earth.

Up north, you’ll want to head to the Arctic Circle (the so-called Aurora Zone) where altitudes between 66 and 69 degrees north make for the perfect viewing conditions. Northern Scandinavia is included in this zone, making it one of the best places in the world to view the lights, though – at times of strong geomagnetic activity – the lights even stretch to northern regions in the UK. At this time, however, we are in the declining phase of the sun’s activity cycle and, as such, solar winds and mass coronal ejections (ahem) are less pronounced. As a result, the lights are more likely to be localised within the Aurora Zone and nations such as Finland, Sweden, Norway, Iceland and Greenland will receive the best sightings. In North America meanwhile, Canada remains a safe bet and though the lights have been seen as far west as New Orleans, they will become once again concentrated around north-western parts of Canada and Alaska.

Down near the south pole, you can also catch the aurora australis, with its own version of rippling light clouds concentrated around Antarctica and the southern Indian Ocean, but this region is harder to reach and as such the lights come harder to spot.

Norway | Photo: Thomas Lipke

When is the best time to see the Northern Lights?

As with much natural phenomenon, the Northern Lights are hard to predict in advance. Solar activity can be tracked but judging when or how frequently the lights will form is almost an impossibility. What we do know is that the sun’s activity cycle is currently at ‘Solar Minimum’ meaning that the lights will be less prevalent for the next few years (until 2024). Sad face.

However, the lights do still occur and some research even suggests more significant solar events happen during the decline phase. All this to say: don’t be pessimistic! Maximise your chances by booking your vacation to the Aurora Zone for the winter, between November and March when darker skies bring added visibility. You’ll also want to reduce any light pollution caused by cities or the moon, heading to rural parts around the new moon. January is the coldest yet generally the best month to view the Northern Lights, with weather conditions improving in February and March and winter snow easing up. Once darkness falls, you’ll want to schedule your aurora hunting between the darkest hours, from around 9.30 pm to 1 am, though sightings can occur both earlier and later.

Iceland | Photo: V2osk

1. Finland

Home of Santa Claus’ Lapland and exceptional Northern Lights views for long stretches of the year, Finland is an incredible first choice. Visiting in winter is certainly an experience as the nation is blanketed in darkness for much of the daytime, but this only makes Finland all the better for aurora hunters. Utsjoki way up north, Kilpisjärvi to the west and the Lapland ski resorts of Levi and Luosto are all perfect bases to view the aurora, where light pollution is minimal thanks to low population density. Rather than awaiting darkness, visitors to these regions can fill their days taking up winter sports, hiking through ice forests or getting Christmas-y in Lapland with reindeer rides.

Towards the northeast of Finland – in destinations like Inari, Menesjärvi, Muotka, Nellim and Saariselkä – visitors can also learn about the Sámi people, Finland’s oldest indigenous culture known for reindeer and sheep herding. For something slightly more in tune with modern lifestyles, however, it’s the rural west that will appeal. As well as Kilpisjärvi, other options include Harriniva, Jeris and Torassieppi, where aurora photographers Antti Pietikainen and Gareth Hutton prefer to work. Lapland is also a comfortable choice where the aurora visible almost every other day. Have a glass igloo Northern Lights experience at Santa’s Igloos Arctic Circle in Luosto, a resort some 100 kilometres from Rovaniemi town among the snowy hills of Pyhä-Luosto National Park.

Where to stay: Golden Crown Levin Iglut can provide visitors with heated glass igloo accommodation in Levi, while Arctic TreeHouse Hotel is the option for more hardy customers in Rovaniemi, providing 360-degree views from the treetops, an Arctic Forest Spa and nearby SantaPark. Kakslauttanen Resort also comes with seaside glass villas and domes as well as a century-old traditional log house complete with sauna.

Photo: Golden Crown Levin Iglut

2. Norway

Seeing the aurora borealis Norway is easy thanks to long hours of darkness and towns based slap-bang in the middle of the auroral oval. Of Norway’s best options, Tromsø is oft vaunted for its minimal light pollution and location at ‘the gateway to the Arctic’. Besides winter travel, Tromsø is popular all year round for its fjord tours, whale-watching and snowmobile adventures in the wilderness surrounding the modern city centre. Most aurora hunting itineraries will feature Tromsø alongside other destinations such as the fjord-laden area of Lyngen and the island getaway of Sommarøy, recouping at Lakeview apartments in Malangen.

Other rural options amidst stunning natural scenery include Senja, Sortland and Lofoten where you can also spot amazing starscapes and native wildlife. Alta is another, known as the City of Northern lights Norway, where the Sorrisniva Igloo Hotel draws visitors with memorable accommodation options. If you’re taking your aurora quest seriously, you might even consider the polar bear territory of Svalbard, the world’s northernmost year-round settlement, accessible via official tours and in almost complete darkness from November to February. The best time to see the northern lights in Norway is in the darkest months from December to February, considering Tromsø’s Northern Lights Festival towards the end of the season as things brighten up for spring.

Where to stay: Kirkenes is yet another town worth considering, at the border to Russia where our first ice hotel northern lights option Snowhotel Kirkenes hosts ice-carved rooms and thermal sleeping arrangements with a sauna to thaw you out after a long day on King Crab Safari, snow sledging and more. Then, opening in 2022 is the Arctic Circle’s first energy-positive and zero waste hotel Svart.

Snowhotel Kirkenes | Photo: Michelle Raponi

Norway | Photo: Matt Houghton

3. Sweden

After Christmas shopping in the fashion capital of Copenhagen, we move to the less-populated region of Northern Sweden to continue aurora hunting. Swedish Lapland is a popular first choice between September to March with daytime activities such as snowmobile safaris, guided walks and photography tours, followed by nightly auroras. Of Lapland’s best bits, try the small village of Jukkasjärvi located 200 kilometres above the Arctic Circle on the Torne River, staying in the cold suites or heated rooms of ICEHOTEL 365, dining in a wilderness cabin before riding along with a Northern Lights Safari run by staff.

While in the region you’ll also want to plan a trip out to the Aurora Sky Station in Abisko National Park, where, at 900 metres above sea level at the country’s most northernmost point, you are more or less guaranteed to catch sight of the Northern Lights from October right through to March. Slightly south of Jukkasjärvi and less popular because of it, Luleå boasts equally as impressive (if slightly less frequent) views of the lights and regular tours run by local guides.

Where to stay: The Ice Hotel in Jukkasjärvi is the most iconic hotel in Northern Sweden, offering rooms sculpted out of snow and ice each winter season. Though frosty sounding, the ice rooms are surprisingly comfy, kitted out with reindeer hides and thermal bedding, with the added option of heated rooms if preferred. Alternatively, try Arctic Bath, a floating eco-spa retreat up at Bodträskfors in Lapland.

Photo: IceHotel

Photo: IceHotel

4. Greenland

Though the nation’s tough climate and lack of infrastructure may put some tourists off, the opportunity for adventure in Greenland is huge. Home to the second-largest ice cap in the world, Greenland is also a fine place to see the aurora which often makes nightly appearances throughout the long winter months. The capital city of Nuuk is a fine place to start, but the tiny fjord towns of Kangerlussuaq and Sisimiut are great rural alternatives for travellers who don’t mind roughing it a little. If visiting Kangerlussuaq, you can also sign up for an overnight stay on the Greenland Ice Sheet, though this type of excursion is lately reserved for scientific research and expeditions.

While t-shirt weather is out of the question, Southern Greenland does come less cold than the north, but as always, the further north you go, the better the aurora displays. Ilulissat towards the far north, as well as the tundra of Kalaallit Nunaat, are prime examples, the latter boasting 300 days of clear skies each year – the perfect conditions to spot the milky-green glow.

Where to stay: Hotel Arctic is easily one of Greenland’s best accommodation options, offering igloos and double rooms based 240 kilometres above the Arctic Circle as the world’s northernmost 4-star hotel in view of Ilulissat’s namesake icebergs floating on Disko Bay.

Greenland | Photo: Dylan Shaw

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Seeing the Iceland aurora borealis is as simple as stepping on a tour bus from Reykjavík and veering into darkness, at optimum visibility in the north and Westfjords regions

5. Iceland

Iceland is the name on all the serious aurora spotters’ lips for its geological beauty and heavyweight tourism industry operating straight out of Reykjavík. Seeing the Iceland aurora borealis is as simple as stepping on a tour bus and veering into darkness, at optimum visibility in the north and Westfjords regions. Another option for those in a hurry is to rent a vehicle from the capital and head into the nearby Öskjuhlið Forest, where despite some light pollution you can also visit the Perlan planetarium and museum which offers panoramic views over Esja mountain, Snæfellsjökull glacier and Keilir Volcano from its observation deck. Recommended however is to take at least a two-night excursion into the Icelandic wilderness, moving by both jeep and boat to cover the most ground.

The best time to see the northern lights in Iceland is from September through to April though some say the best month to see northern lights in Iceland is January when the dark hours are longest. The Northern lights Iceland tend to present as a faint green light and are easily visible when facing north on dark, clear nights. Though there won’t be ‘Solar Maximum’ activity again until 2024, the chances of a solar storm still remain, causing a flare of red, green and blue lights shifting over the Arctic Circle.

Where to stay: Our favourite Northern Lights Iceland hotel is The Retreat at Blue Lagoon Iceland where the open-air luxury spa comes fed by geothermal seas and the rooftop deck has prime northern views. A close second is Silica Hotel also located at the Blue Lagoon Iceland Northern Lights site but the bonus of a private bathing area in stunning mountain surrounds.

Then, Hotel Rangá on the remote south shore is said to be one of the best Iceland hotel Northern Lights experiences, where whale-watching and dog-sledding over the glacier makes great daylight-killing activities. The weather here is also milder, making coastline cruising slightly more appealing. For one more option, consider 5 Million Star Hotel, a novelty end point for overnight tours from Reykjavík where travellers can sleep in a bubble with 360-degree views.

Skógafoss, Iceland | Photo: Balazs Busznyak

Photo: Hotel Rangá

6. Scotland

When the stars align and the conditions are right, Scotland can also be the ultimate destination for aurora gazing, even so far south as the capital city of Edinburgh (and even in England’s East Anglia on a good year). With the sun’s activity cycle in decline until 2024 however, chances are you’ll have to move north of the capital to catch sight of the phenomenon, considering the remote islands of Shetland, Orkney Harris and Lewis or even Caithness at the northernmost edge of the mainland to boost your chances further. The isle of Skye is also a popular destination for the aurora obsessed, specifically the northerly top of Skye where the skies come darkest and closest to the Arctic Circle.

In the regional dialect, the aurora is known as the ‘Mirrie Dancers’ for their shimmering, dancer-like quality, most commonly seen in both fall and winter. If the skies are clear and darkness perfect, try climbing atop Wideford Hill or looking out over the coast in Borsay and Dingieshowe for the chance to spot the aurora, but don’t forget to appreciate the stunning coastal landscapes by daylight too, when you can count great numbers of sheep, hike rugged bluffs and visit the ancient site of the Heart of Neolithic Orkney, a UNESCO World Heritage Site dating back 5,000 years. If the Orkney Islands are in the plan, rest up at the capital town of Kirkwall for added history and slow living.

Where to stay: You’ll feel like you’re still in Scandinavia at The Highland Haven, a minimal cabin found off the North Coast 500 near Dunnet Head, the mainland’s most northerly point. Alternatively, when you’re done with aurora hunting and want to get back to civilisation, consider following our 10-day gay Scotland itinerary.

The Isle of Skye | Photo: FrankWinkler

7. Canada

The Canucks are up! With their untamed natural scenery and vast northern regions that lay unspoiled, it’s hard to see how Canadians stay so humble especially with the aurora borealis in their back garden. Iced over for much of the year and sparsely populated because of it, the north is where most of the night-time sky action happens, particularly the Northwest Territories. Aside from there, Churchill in Northern Manitoba, Newfoundland and Labrador, Nunavut and Yukon all have seriously good displays. If aurora hunting is not so much of a priority, you might even see the lights on vacation in Alberta or trekking in Banff National Park.

Canada offers one of longest aurora seasons, starting as early as August and lasting until mid-April in parts such as Yukon. All this of course depends on cloud cover, light pollution and solar activity, all of which you can learn about at the Northern Lights Centre in Watson Lake beforehand. Herds of Caribou and solitary polar bears roam these areas, making Churchill (and its 300 nights of auroras annually) doubly famous. Winter in Canada is no joke particularly the north but, on the plus side, you don’t necessarily have to go super rural to see the lights; Yellowknife, the capital of the Northwest Territories puts on quite the display from January to March as well as offering ice fishing and snowmobiling on the frozen Great Slave Lake. Stay later in the year to appreciate the thawing city, celebrating the Long John Jamboree with locals on Yellowknife Bay in late March.

Where to stay: Aurora Village near Yellowknife in the Northwest Territories is aptly named for its optimal Northern Lights views flanked by both fireside and cosy tepees.

Toronto, Canada | Photo: Rishabh Malhotra

Photo: Margerretta

8. Alaska

Anchorage Northern Lights can be pretty sensational but it’s around 600 kilometres north of the Alaskan capital that the spectacle really gets going. This is where the city of Fairbanks lies, sitting right under the geomagnetic north pole in prime position. Aurora viewing season lasts from late August to late April but late summer can also be a great time to start your trip for Riverboat Discovery rides and gold panning. Otherwise, arrive during the Christmas period for festive experiences at Santa Claus’ house (just 20 kilometres southeast of Fairbanks). Later on in the season though (from February to March), there’s also added opportunity to catch the World Ice Art Championships or take a dog sledding tour.

Putting some people off visiting Alaska during winter is the bitter cold. Thankfully, however, you don’t have to freeze outside waiting to see the aurora as many hotels in the area will alert guests with a phone call when the lights are visible! Another way to see the aurora in comfort is to board the Alaska Railroad’s Aurora Winter Train, where you’ll be blessed with nightly panoramas in the train’s Vista Dome, from Northern lights Anchorage right up to Fairbanks. Hardy travellers who do brave the cold however will be rewarded with a choice of activities from dog sledging, snowcat tours and helicopter rides over the Arctic Circle.

Where to stay: Booking a heated ‘aurorium’ lodging will help warm you up after a long night watching the sky and Aurora Villa is one of the best. With hypermodern architecture and luxury rooms (as well as a more traditional timber cabin), the villas fit seamlessly into the snowy landscape while providing utmost comfort.

Anchorage, Alaska | Photo: Paxson Woelber

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Iceland | Photo: Ken Cheung

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