14 Top Destinations for Viewing the Northern Lights
K.C. was a featured writer for Yahoo! Travel before joining trips to discover in 2013. She is the author of Best Travel Guide for First Time Visitors to Ireland, an Amazon bestseller every year between 2013 and 2016. She has been a featured expert on Newsweek, Travel + Leisure, Travelocity, among others.
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Every bucket list really should include seeing the Northern Lights at least once. The spectacular display occurs when solar particles enter the earth’s atmosphere, and on impact emits burning gases that produce various colored lights. In the northern hemisphere, its scientific term is the aurora borealis, in the southern hemisphere it’s known as the aurora australis. The most impressive shows last anywhere from a few minutes to several days and can be found in the following destinations.
One of Europe’s most spectacular parks, Oulanka National Park is another great bet for seeing the northern lights early or late during the aurora sighting season, including October and November or March and April. This magnificent national park in the far north of Finland is set in a breathtakingly beautiful rugged landscape filled with snow-covered forests with candle spruces standing frozen before a backdrop of the northern lights. During the day, enjoy cross-country skiing, snow-shoeing or even igloo building. You’ll find cozy log cabins right in the park to lay your head down at night, making a great base to combine a vacation of winter sports with the chance to watch one of the greatest wonders of nature after dark.
Happy Valley-Goose Bay, the hub of Labrador, is located along the Trans-Labrador Highway, an ideal spot for viewing the aurora borealis in eastern Canada. If you can make your way to the top of “OMG Hill” at the Birch Brook Nordic Ski Club on a clear winter’s night, you’re likely to see an array of colors with the northern lights reflected off pristine, snow-covered trails. In addition to watching the light show, this region is a snowmobiler’s paradise and the town features a thriving arts community, with music, arts and drama offered at a new theatre as well as a variety of festivals.
Churchill is famous for its polar bears, making it a great destination for those who want to enjoy the lights along with the rare opportunity to see one of the biggest species of bear in the world. It sits under the auroral zone, with the lights dancing across the sky more than 300 nights of the year. Multi-day excursions are available to see the lights as well as the bears, and the Churchill Northern Studies Center offers the chance to learn more about astronomy and the aurora.
Technically, in New Zealand, you’ll be watching the aurora australis or southern lights, but the show is just as stunning on the other side of the world. On Stewart Island, located about 15 miles south of South Island, you’ll find a great place to view the display, particularly when there’s a lot of flare activity. Even if you don’t get to see them, the island is considered a final frontier for those who love the wilderness, with less than 400 inhabitants, an abundance of wildlife and beautiful scenery.
A top destination in Scandinavia, Tromso is often referred to as “Paris of the North.” It makes for a fabulous and easily accessible destination to catch the northern lights. This beautiful town teems with aurora borealis activity when the long days of summer have passed. Its location above the Arctic Circle makes it one of the best places on the planet to see shimmering green lights. Hopping aboard the Norwegian Coastal Steamer Hurtigruten provides the opportunity to see the display along a fjord. You can even get wake-up calls to ensure that you don’t miss the chance to get out on the deck when the lights appear.
Svalbard, a Norwegian archipelago in the Arctic located about 1,000 miles north of Norway, is an idyllic location for a unique polar adventure that includes that chance to see an amazing light display. The islands offer long, clear winter nights and polar bears, and in the capital of Longyearbyen, the world’s most northern settlement, you’ll find tour companies offering two-day snowmobile expeditions that use the town as its starting point. Going in December is the best bet. Not only are skies completely dark on winter days, but this month is also generally a dry one which decreases the chance of cloudy skies blocking out the aurora.
In Luosto, in Northern Finland, the Northern Lights can be seen on its famously dark nights. Every year, the lights are most likely seen from mid-August to mid-April. Every year, the Northern lights are a common sight at Pyhä-Luosto and the past few years have been excellent for observing the northern lights. Santa’s Hotel Aurora offers glass igloos for seeing the aurora borealis.
One of the best places on the entire planet to see the northern lights is at the Aurora Sky Station in Sweden’s Abisko National Park. If you don’t mind roughing it, you can even spend the night in this research facility. There’s no electricity and just a camp bed, but with the surrounding mountains and favorable prevailing winds combining to create some of northern Scandinavia’s most cloud-free skies, it’s likely to be well worth the minor discomfort. You’ll take a 20-minute ride via chairlift to the station in late afternoon and enjoy a hearty dinner of stewed moose before kicking back and waiting for the big light show. If you happen to fall asleep, you’ll be woken when the aurora appears.
Alaska is one of the most well-known places to watch the lights, with the city of Fairbanks often cited as one the very best spots to see them in the U.S. It’s also the home of the Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, which provides forecasts on Aurora viewing conditions. Of course, to get the best glimpse, you’ll need to get away from city lights and into the vast wilderness. At Chena Resort, guests enjoy watching the display while relaxing in a hot spring. The resort also alerts guests when the lights appear via an aurora alarm service and are home to the Aurora Ice Museum, the world’s largest year-round ice environment, in addition to offering a variety of activities like dog-sledding tours and flightseeing.
Canada’s westernmost territory is regarded as perhaps the best place to see the northern lights in the whole world. While a sighting can never be guaranteed no matter where you are, the lights are most likely to be visible here between January and March. Whitehorse, the territory’s capital and only city, makes a good base for a wide range of wilderness activities, including dog sledding and ice fishing as well as snowmobile tours. The Northern Lights Centre, the nation’s research base into this polar phenomenon, is open at night, welcoming visitors who hope to catch a glimpse of the breathtaking aurora.
The Isle of Skye, connected by bridge to Scotland’s west coast, is not only one of the most breathtaking destinations on earth, in the wintertime, you’ll have an amazing opportunity to see the aurora borealis glowing in across unpolluted skies, together with the milky way and more stars than you can possibly imagine. Of course, the British Isles are also known for frequently cloudy skies, which isn’t exactly ideal for observing the sky, but on those occasions when thick cloud cover breaks for a moment during the long nights of winter, you’ll have a good chance to witness an incredible display. The Orkney Isles, Shetlands and other far northern reaches of the country are also prime spots in Scotland due to very low light pollution.
Kangerlussuaq is home to the only international airport in Greenland, serving as the gateway to the rest of the country. It enjoys an average of 300 clear-sky days each year and is another top destination for aurora seekers. The phenomenon is frequently seen around midnight and is best experienced on a dark, clear night from early autumn September to the beginning of April. They can be seen from anywhere in the country, though many find that viewing the lights while on a dog-sledding adventure is the most unforgettable way to do it.
Murmansk, is located in Russia’s chilly north on the Kola Peninsula. Here the northern lights can be viewed up to 200 times a year. As the main part of the peninsula is located beyond the Arctic Circle, in the summer the sun doesn’t set beyond the horizon for about six weeks. In the winter, polar nights reign. At Lapland Reserve, locals find the aurora in the midst of Saami pagan monuments, sacred lakes and 600-year-old trees. The best time to see the phenomenon is between February and March or September and October when the sky glows with pale green, fiery reds and purple anywhere from several hours to several days.
The Faroe Islands, located north of Scotland between the Norwegian Sea and the North Atlantic is a Denmark-owned province famed for Viking folklore and puffins. The archipelago is made up of 18 islands connected by tunnels, with ferries and helicopters also serving as public transportation. In this land that features rugged mountain tops often enshrouded in fog, it’s worth traveling here for the scenery alone. Keep in mind that the weather also means you’ll have to hope it clears to see the iridescent lights – even if you don’t, the islands are well worth a visit.