Surely one of the most incredible and majestic natural phenomena, the Aurora Borealis has fascinated mankind 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 the Northern Lights? | When is the best time to see them?
Iceland | Finland | Norway | Sweden | Canada
Tips & tricks to see the Northern Lights
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 Aurora Service, 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 – North of the Arctic Circle
Want to see the Northern Lights whilst visiting the wonderful country of Norway? Well then, head to the north of the country between September and the end of March and you’ll more than likely come across them! Norway is particularly appreciated by tourists who want to see the Northern Lights all while maintaining high levels of 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 plays host to all sorts of auroras. Another legendary place to admire the Northern Lights in an exceptional natural setting is the Lofoten Islands, an area of exceptional natural beauty that Norway is renowned for. To see the aurora dance its way above jagged mountain peaks and sleepy fishing villages… Really breathtaking stuff!
Sweden – Journey to the heart of Swedish Lapland
We’re heading back to Lapland to discover the fourth country where it’s possible to watch the Northern Lights. Sure, we’ve already looked at Lapland before, but this time I’m talking about Swedish Lapland! In addition to horseback riding, dog sledding or or snow biking, you’ll be able to get front seats to this incredible natural phenomenon come 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 kilometres north of the Arctic 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! Over on the other side of the Atlantic you’ve got lots of places to choose from if you want to chase the Northern Lights. In Alberta, you can see the night skies come to life in the Wood Buffalo National Park, while in northern Québec you will have to go to La Baie, away from the bright lights of the cities. Generally speaking 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 north-western territories of Canada, 512 kilometres south of the Arctic 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!
Tips and tricks for seeing the Northern Lights
Now that you know where to go to see magnificent Aurora Borealis, let’s move on to the practical side! Apart from Iceland, the rest of the regions listed above require a bit of a longer journey to get there. However from Ireland it’s nothing too complicated – just one or two stopovers along the way!
- Iceland: From Dublin and Cork there are direct flights with Wow Air to Reykjavík Keflavík Airport with a journey time of approximately 3 hours.
- Finland: There are three major airports in Finnish Lapland: Rovaniemi, Kittalä and Ivalo – you’ll be required to stop off in Helsinki or another Scandinavian city along the way. Ivalo is the northernmost airport, situated within the Arctic Circle – if you want to experience true Arctic wilderness and maximise your chances of the Northern Lights then this is a good choice if you feel adventurous!
- Norway: Tromsø puts you in a great location for exploring the north of Norway as a whole (you could even head up to the North Cape!). Flights involve a stopover, more often than not in Oslo.
- Sweden: Two of the most popular choices when flying to Swedish Lapland are Kiruna and Luleå Kallax. Again there is a stop over on the way but Scandinavian carriers such as Norwegian and SAS provide plenty of connections from neighbouring countries too, in case you want to mix things up a little.
- Canada: Major airports such as Edmonton and Calgary provide good connections to Alberta, and you can even fly to Yellowknife as well.
Here are my tips and tricks to maximise 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, Norway Lights or the Geophysical Institute’s website.
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 bright lights. 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, thermals… 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’ve been lucky enough to see the Northern Lights for yourself, let me know in the comments below! I love to hear your stories!
Feeling inspired by the Northern Lights?
Don’t let the long nights of winter put you off – the Arctic Circle is bursting with places to satisfy even the most adventurous curiosity!