Surely one of the most incredible and majestic natural phenomena, the Northern Lights have fascinated mankind for centuries with its other-worldly beauty. To see the waves of light floating in the dark sky and illuminating the ice landscapes and snowy lands – it really is magical! Visible only in the Northern Hemisphere, the Aurora Borealis is best seen during the winter months when the nights are long and dark. If you’ve been craving to witness this phenomenon for yourself, then read on to discover more about this mysterious phenomenon and which countries are the best for watching the Northern Lights.
The Best Places to Watch the Northern Lights
What are they? | When is the best time to see them?
Iceland | Finland | Norway | Sweden | Canada
Tips & tricks to enjoy the show
What are the Northern Lights?
The Northern Lights – or Aurora Borealis if you’re wanting to be a bit more scientific – almost seem so surreal that they might as well be magic! But as you’d expect, science has an explanation for everything! This is a phenomenon that actually occurs in both northern and southern hemispheres close to the magnetic poles – in the north it’s known scientifically as the Aurora Borealis, while in the south it’s known as Aurora Australis. As the sun projects vast amounts of radiation through space through so-called solar wind, some of these electrically charged particles hit the earth’s atmosphere and react with gasses such as oxygen and nitrogen. Different gasses and altitudes create the different colours we see. Green, the most prevalent colour, is produced by particle collisions with oxygen at lower altitudes, but higher up in the atmosphere it can turn a deep red colour. Nitrogen creates slightly rarer blue and lilac colours. If you’re extremely lucky, you could encounter Northern Lights that are completely red from top to bottom!
When is the best time to see the Northern Lights?
The best conditions for seeing the Northern Lights:
- September – April
- Away from city lights
- Dark nights with clear skies
Now that you know what the Northern Lights are, it’s time to learn how to maximise your chances of seeing them! In general, the Northern Lights are quite unpredictable – you’ll only be able to get forecasts a couple of hours in advance. However the best time of year to go is between September and April, when they’re most often sighted. In the Northern Hemisphere, the nights get much longer and darker towards the colder months, so this gives you a wider time frame to see them. To maximise your chances, you’ll have to be far away from any light pollution generated by city lights and scope out an area that’s free of clouds. The darker and clearer the night, the better!
I can recommend some really handy websites that provide fantastic aurora forecast services. The first is Service Aurora, where you can see predictions for current aurora strengths and the areas covered. Norway Lights is another great website for seeing the aurora in Norway that only runs during the observation period, but the handy GO, TRY, WAIT recommendations are great for when you’re sitting on the fence about heading out into the polar nights.
Iceland – the Land of Ice and Fire
When thinking of places to see the Northern Lights, Iceland is usually the first one that pops to mind! The country is great choice if you want to see the Aurora Borealis since its northerly latitude means that the phenomenon is visible more than 8 months a year from mid-August to mid-April. You can either check up on the forecasts yourself or book at tour directly with a guide, but as long as the conditions that I’ve mentioned above are met, you’re in for a good chance of seeing them!
The nights are slightly longer to the west and north of the island, so it’s best to journey to these areas if you want to chase the aurora. However you could even head in the opposite direction to of the most famous area to watch the Northern Lights! The sandy beach at Vík and Jökulsárlón, a glacial lagoon just off Route 1 between Hof and Bjarnanes, both offer secluded location to watch the aurora without requiring you to trek off-road. Despite being towards the south-east of the island, it’s a straight forward drive from Reykjavík and these accessibility makes them great choices even during adverse winter weather. Chances are you might even see the Northern Lights above Reykjavík too!
Finland – the Kingdom of the Aurora
We’re moving on to the next country in Northern Europe where you can easily see the magnificent Northern Lights: Finland. The snow-decked pine forests offer a fantastic environment to watch the Northern Lights and often add a touch of Christmas magic to the whole experience too. In the far north of Finland, you’ll be able to catch a glimpse of the fabled Northern Lights between September and March pretty much every other night, so this is a good destination to pick if you don’t want to take too many risks. Once all the conditions are right it’s best to stay outdoors for as long as you can as the aurora can come and go quite quickly! The climate in Finland can be bitterly cold, so it’s best to go with a guide – temperatures can often drop 40°C below zero so it’s a good idea to be as best equipped and well prepared as possible!
One of the coolest Northern Lights experiences you can do in Finland is booking yourself a stay at one of the glass igloos at the Kakslauttanen Arctic Resort. Here you’ll be able to sleep beneath the stars and watch the aurora from the warm comfort of your little igloo. Another great place to check out is the Arctic Snow Hotel in Lehtojärvi, which offers similar accommodation (plus the opportunity to sleep in a hotel room carved out of snow).
Norway – Northern Lights
Want to see the Northern Lights whilst visiting the wonderful country of Norway? Well then, head north of Norway between the end of September and the end of March to see the bright spectacle appear before your very eyes. Norway is particularly appreciated by tourists who want to see the Northern Lights, as it is possible to witness spectacle whilst in comfort. There are several places in the country to see this natural phenomenon. Tromsø seems to be a good place to start: in the north of the country, between fjords, lakes and mountains, the bustling city is the playhouse of many Northern Lights. Another legendary place to admire the Northern Lights in an exceptional natural setting is the Lofoten Islands, the land of the vikings at the time. The spectacle is magnificent as the lights are reflected on the sea for double pleasure!
The Best Accommodation in Norway
Sweden – Immersion In The Heart of Sami:
Back to Lapland, but Swedish Lapland this time, to discover this fourth country where is is possible to see the Northern Lights. In Sweden,, in addition to horseback riding, sledding with dogs or snow biking, you will have the right to an unforgettable spectacle, nightfall. In Sweden, I recommend the Aurora Sky Station, one of the best places in the world to admire the aurora borealis. Located at an altitude of 900m, this viewing station is located in the driest and least cloudy region of Sweden, where over 200 northern lights can be seen each year. The second place I recommended to witness this magical light show is the village of Jukkasjärvi, located 200 kilometers north of the Artic Circle. What made the reputation of this place is the incredible Icehotel, a hotel made of ice where you can admire the Northern Lights.
Canada – Yellowknife, the world capital of the Northern Lights:
It is time to leave Europe to discover a country well known by lovers of the aurora borealis: Canada. On the other side of the Atlantic, there are many places to admire the natural phenomenon in Canada: in Alberta, you can see the sky illuminate in the Wood Buffalo National Park, while in northern Quebec you will have to go to the Bay, away from the light pollution of the cities. Generally, the Northern Lights are visible in February and March and then in September and October.
If you want to be totally sure that you will see the Northern Lights, then you will have to take the road to Yellowknife, in the Northwest territories of Canada, 512 kilometres south of the Artic Circle. This city is located under the auroral oval which gives you a 90% chance to see the aurora borealis shining over the Great Slave Lake, the 10th largest lake in the world!
The Best Accommodation in Canada
Tips and tricks to enjoy the show:
Now that you know where to go to see magnificent aurora borealis, let’s move on to the practical side. Aside from Iceland, where you can take a direct flight to Reykjavik, other places such as Lapland or Northwestern Canada will require several planes. However, it is quite simple:
To reach Finnish Lapland: Take a flight to Helsinki, then take an internal flight to Rovaniemi airport, Lapland’s main airport.
To get to Swedish Lapland: Take a flight to Stockholm, then take an internal flight to either Lulea or Kiruna airport.
The way to the north of Norway: Take a flight to Oslo, then take an internal flight to Tromso airport.
Here are my tips and tricks to maximize your chances of seeing the Northern Lights and to have this magical, unforgettable moment:
- Watch the forecast: many websites give “Aurora Forecasts” which provide a probability index to see the Northern Lights. Have a look at Aurora Service and Norway Lights.
- Plan a reasonable length of stay: As I said before, the Northern Lights are unpredictable. I therefore advise you to stay at least 5 or 6 days in order to give you the best chance.
- Rent a car: in order to see the Aurora Borealis, it is better to avoid the cities and the presence of light. Therefore, I recommend that you rent a car so that you can go and hunt for the Northern Lights in isolated places.
- Choose a camera with a tripod: if you want to capture this magical moment, you will have to rely on something other than your smartphone. In order to capture the beauty of the spectacle, it is best to use a tripod to make the camera as stable as possible. Also, remember to adjust the shutter speed!
- Cover up: during your hunt for the Northern Lights, you will be outdoors, north of the Artic Circle, during the night – need I say more?! Think about adapting your outfit with padded shoes, scarf, gloves, hats… in short, the whole shebang!
Well, there you are! You are ready to make your childhood dream come true and to go and admire one of the most impressive natural phenomena! If you have ever had the chance to see an aurora borealis, do not hesitate to tell me your experience in the comments, I am curious to know about your story!