With darkening skies and cooling temperatures, light up your winter with one of the earth’s most spectacular shows: The Northern Lights. Each experience is entirely unique depending on your location, weather and luck. The Northern Lights are caused by electrically charged particles travelling through the earth’s magnetic field, driven towards the Poles which creates the ‘wavy’ style movement. The actual lights themselves are caused by gases being expelled into the atmosphere, creating a variety of deep colours.
Also called the Aurora Borealis, there have been many mythical explanations for the lights throughout history. Native Americans believed them to symbolise their deceased friends dancing in the sky. Australians had the opposite view, thinking the light displays indicated deadly fires in the spirit world. What remains true today, is that witnesses of these incredible lights often report experiencing a spiritual and emotional viewing. Make sure to research the below locations to find the best option for you, and complete your travel checklist before departing!
The Northern Lights are best seen between November and March where the nights are longest. The locations vary on price and accessibility, but are certainly worth putting on your bucket list, and each country offers its own special activities. So, sit back, wrap up, and witness the greatest natural show the earth has to offer!
Okay, perhaps it's not the most exotic suggestion, but it is possible to see the Northern Lights from various locations in Scotland. Whilst cloudy skies and rain may make spotting them harder than in other countries, a clear and crisp winter night in Aberdeen, The Highlands or the islands can offer a deep green light display.
I was lucky enough to see the lights from the walls of Stirling Castle two years ago, which made for a very special first time viewing experience. Whilst it would be unwise to book a trip to Scotland purely for the Northern Lights, it is definitely worth keeping an eye to the skies if you plan to visit Scotland during the winter months.
Reykjavik in particular is a trendy city to visit at the moment, with a whole host of quirky activities. Iceland is fairly small in size, meaning it is very easy to join a tour or rent a car around the island in search of the best viewing location. What’s more, it's an opportunity to combine outdoor adventures with city activities even if you’re only there for a short stay.
Autumn is the ideal time to visit, as the lights are abundant and temperatures higher than in the depths of winter. For keen photographers, Iceland’s vast and picturesque landscape makes for an impressive backdrop for timelapses. Icelandair’s planes even offer a neat little (electric) light show on the ceiling of their plane when the lights are dimmed for take off and landing, to get you excited for your stay.
An adventurous choice, Greenland’s remote and sparse scenery makes for a fantastic location to see the lights in all their glory. It is harder to get to than the other countries, especially in the depths of winter, but worth it for thrilling light shows, husky rides and snowshoeing in the wilderness. The best way to see the lights is by boat, especially as you get to sail past towering icebergs and see arctic wildlife in its natural habitat.
Greenland isn’t a member of the European Union, but the UK and Greenland still have an agreement concerning medical treatment for British nationals, so still take your European Health Insurance Card with you!
Treat yourself to some of the world’s finest beer and kick back with a view of the Norwegian skies. The most popular viewing location is the city of Tromso where many tour companies operate. However, an alternative display may be found in the less popular northern Lynen. There is far less light pollution, and stunning fjords compete with the wonders of the sky, even at night.
For a more indulgent experience, head to Sollia near the Russian border – it offers fine dining restaurants to fill you up before chasing the lights. Due to the expensive nature of Scandinavia, it may be worth your while to rent a car and explore the region on your own terms. Check out regulations on driving in Europe here.
Northern Finland is a stand out place to witness the Northern Lights, and, boy, do the Finns know it! They call the lights Revontulet, meaning ‘foxfire’ after a local fairytale about a fox which sent sparks across the sky with its tail. In many cities, such as Luosto, tourists are given an ‘Aurora Alarm’ to alert them to light activity. Due to the low population of Finland, there is little light pollution to interfere with the lights. Take advantage of the snowy open plains and explore the Arctic!
Finland is also a good choice for families travelling to see the Northern Lights. Is there anything sweeter than the image of snuggling up in a log cabin, with reindeer (and Santa for any younger members of the group) possibly nearby?
Like Scotland, Sweden’s lights are most commonly a vibrant green colour that sweep through the sky. The Swedish lapland operates a unique micro-climate and is the perfect location to see the lights from. It's worth noting that local Sami mythology warns that making any noise through a light display is extremely bad luck…
When chasing the lights, stick to northern Sweden rather than the coastal areas, as this is where clear skies are abundant. Murmansk in the Kola Peninsula gets 40 days of continuous darkness each year!
For years, the Russian Saami tribes have gathered on Lake Lovozero to read their fortunes in the skies. Before joining them, pack all the thermals you can get, as Russia has jarringly cold winters.
Arkhangelsk is in the heart of the Russian north and offers very accessible views of dancing lights, as well as being one of the best locations to see the rare yellow lights. Opt for either a nifty two-hour flight from Moscow, or a scenic 22-hour train ride to reach this viewing point.
For the most impressive light display, travel to the closest settlement to the Arctic's capital city: Salekhard. Each year the city sees Polar Day, where the upper edge of the sun never drops below the horizon. Nomadic people such as the Nenets have lived in the freezing city of Salekhard for centuries, but are rewarded by a beautiful light show multiple nights a week.
Russia requires in depth research before visiting, here’s a summary to prepare you for your epic Northern Lights journey across the biggest country in the world.
Alaska is the only place within America to see a truly vivid light display. Easily accessible from Seattle or through Canada, it is a great place to add to the tail-end of a North American tour.
Alaska’s famed wilderness is a serene and peaceful backdrop for the Aurora, but be wary of moose and bears in the snowy tundra! Staying in the Denali Mountain Morning Hostel, I had the most magical night. The hostel operated an unofficial ‘lights alarm.’ At 2am a gentle knock on the dorm door roused us, and we all poured out – strangers in the darkness from all corners of the globe standing in silence, gazing up at the shimmering lights on a backdrop of constellations.
If you travel further north in Alaska, hire an experienced guide – the Alaskan wilderness can be the most unforgiving in the world. Get effective insurance to have your back in case anything goes wrong!
But it's not just the remote areas from which you can see the lights; the state’s biggest city, Anchorage, sees the lights frequently during winter. A twenty-minute drive from the city centre takes you to Flattop Mountain, offering a brilliant view of the stars, the city, and the all-important Northern Lights.
Like Alaska, the lights can be seen in various regions in Canada, but the wilderness offers the most unadulterated view of the lights. They dance all along the Yukon, alongside roaming caribou and mighty moose. Here’s a nifty map that pinpoints the best locations to see the lights!
Canada has some of the most diverse cities in the world, making it a good idea to combine city jaunts with northern province visits for the Aurora Borealis. Whilst waiting for night to fall, why not go on a dog sledding tour?
It's worth noting the Northern Lights can be shy and unpredictable – make sure you book a long enough stay with plenty other amazing winter activities to do alongside your nightly light shows! For winter sports you usually need an upgraded insurance plan. Pick a reputable tour company to avoid disappointment, and enjoy the trip to its full potential! With light forecasts due to dwindle between 2019 and 2021 there is no better time to check the lights off your bucket list than next year!
About the Author
This article is written by Kirsten Robertson. Kirsten is an avid solo traveller and a Student Ambassador for the UK Foreign Commonwealth Office Travel Aware campaign. For more information about how to #TravelAware, visit the Foreign Commonwealth's website.