9 Places to see the Northern Lights

October 6, 2016

Photographs may be mesmerising, but you need to witness the Northern Lights first-hand to appreciate their true beauty and wonder. Go on a Nordic adventure and see the extraordinary Aurora Borealis with your very own eyes - it's nothing short of a spiritual experience.

What takes the number one top spot on your Bucket List? Trek Machu Picchu? Dive the Great Barrier Reef? Hike the Grand Canyon? Natural wonders of the world are top of everyone’s list of things to see before they kick the bucket and right at the top of the list - the further north the better we’ve been told - sits the iconic Northern Lights.

Formed by the interaction of the solar wind and the earth’s magnetic field and atmosphere, the Northern Lights are a product of charged particles from the sun that have interacted with the gases in the earth’s atmosphere, making them glow. The more magnetic fields that the solar flare distorts, the further south the Northern Lights can be seen.

Read on to find out the top nine places to see the Northern Lights. A word of caution: the Northern Lights are a natural phenomenon so whilst these amazing places are the best destinations to see them in, sightings are never 100% guaranteed.

1. Finland

The Northern Lights over Kakslauttanen glass igloos (credit to Valtteri Hirvonen)

Photo credit: Valtteri Hirvonen @ Kakslauttanen Arctic Resort

Finland is one of the most popular destinations to see the Northern Lights with its rugged landscape, snow-capped mountains and breathtaking hikes providing the perfect backdrop to see the strokes of green and pink that paint the night sky each winter. Visit the Kakslauttanen Arctic Resort in Saariselkä to sleep in an incredible glass igloo, stargazing as you wait to catch a glimpse of the Aurora Borealis. Have some huskies pull you along in a sleigh, dig a hole and fish beneath the snow or relax in a hot tub during the day then wait for the natural wonder to light up the night sky beneath the roof of your igloo. 

If you want to increase your chances of seeing the Northern Lights, you might want to consider booking onto a Lapland Northern Lights Safari. Leaving from Saariselkä, it brings you three hours out of the city by minibus to the clear skies of the countryside, where you'll set down at an igloo and ‘kota’ tent camp to watch the heavens while warmed by sizzling sausages and hot berry juice.

2. Norway

The Northern Lights over Tromso, Norway

Norway has a number of great places to see the Northern Lights. If you're brave enough to travel to Svalbard, an island that sits halfway between Norway and the North Pole and is home to polar bears, then you might be lucky enough to be one of few people to experience the Aurora Borealis during the day. How is this possible we hear you ask? Longyearbyen in Svalbard doesn't see any daylight during its winter between November and February. 

If you're not a fan of endless white wilderness then visit the bustling city of Tromso. Surrounded by fjords and towering mountains, you can still enjoy the Arctic atmosphere but snow dogs won't be your only mode of transport. Located in the middle of the Northern Lights Oval, the city has one of the highest probabilities of seeing the lights. We recommend staying at the Clarion Collection Hotel With where you can enjoy breathtaking views of the Tromsdalstinden Mountain whilst you drink free tea and coffee. 

Book onto a tour that takes you away from the bright lights of the city so you can appreciate the auroras in all their wonder. The Reindeer Camp Dinner is a great way to combine the lights with a cultural experience amongst the Sami people, an indigenous Scandinavian group living in the far north. After feeding the reindeer you'll enjoy a three-course dinner inside a 'lavuu' Sami tent. 

3. Sweden

Aurora Sky Station taken by Chad Blakley

Photo credit: “Lights Over Lapland Photographer Chad Blakley”

Swedish Lapland is one of the most sought after places when it comes to the Northern Lights, with the Aurora Sky Station in Abisko voted as the best place to see the Aurora Borelais in the world by Lonely Planet. 

Located on Mount Nuolja in the Abisko National Park, the Aurora Sky Station can be found at the summit and is a short chairlift ride away. Once in the station you can enjoy panoramic views from the lookout tower and join a guided tour to find out more about the Northern Lights whilst you wait for them to appear. If you want to splash the cash, you could also book their exclusive four-course dinner for some authentic Nordic cuisine then enjoy a guided hike of the mountain. Stay in the nearby STF Abisko Mountain Station, which is only ten minutes away from the sky station and has friendly, helpful staff that can recommend exciting activities to do in the Abisko National Park. If you're after a big adventure you might want to try the 440 km King's Trail, Sweden's best known skiing and hiking route.

4. Greenland

The Northern Lights over Greenland

Surprisingly in Nuuk City, Greenland's capital, it is still possible to see the lights despite the many street lamps. Stay at the Hotel Sømandshjemmet Nuuk, which is only 2.5 miles away from Nuuk airport. Whilst the accommodation may be basic, the hotel does offer 24-hour front desk support and bike hire so you can explore the city with ease. Shop at cool boutiques, enjoy locally-sourced seafood at Qooqqut Nuan and soak up the city's history whilst you patiently wait for the arrival of the Aurora Borealis.  

If you have no luck in Nuuk, head further north to Kangerlussuaq and explore the Greenland Ice Cap, an area that has only recently become accessible to people. Accomodation is limited but we'd recommend staying at the Polar Lodge, an old American airbase located 100 yards from the airport that offers excursions to the ice cap including tundra tours. This area isn't for the faint-hearted with freezing temperatures and sharp icy edges providing a challenge that even the most seasoned of hikers would find difficult. The word 'remote' would almost be an understatement when it comes to Kangerlussuaq, a town that has only 540 residents. Nevertheless, with over 300 days of clear sky a year, Kangerlussuaq is a firm favourite with adventurers who want to explore the deepest, darkest corners of the earth to catch a glimpse of the Northern Lights.

5. Alaska

Northern lights over Alaska

Fairbanks is the place to go if you want to spot the Northern Lights in Alaska. Located in the Aurora oval, this city is the perfect place to catch a glimpse of the shimmering greens and pink shades that are typical of the lights. We recommend staying in the Best Western PLUS Chena River Lodge if you want to enjoy activities by the water such as river rafting. The hotel also offers a free airport shuttle service or free parking if you plan on hiring a car for your Northern Lights adventure. Alternatively, if you plan on visiting the remote Chena hot springs, you may want to stay at the Chena Hot Springs Resort which often plays host to the lights. You can also visit the hot springs on a day trip if you prefer to stay closer to the city.

If you want a true experience of the Alaskan wilderness, sign up for the Arctic Circle and Northern Lights Tour which will take you further north and closer to the Arctic. Experience the remote Dalton Highway as seen on Ice Road Truckers as well as the Trans-Alaska Pipeline and Yukon River. You might get the chance to see some wildlife so watch out for bears, foxes, wolves and lynx along the way. On your return trip you'll be in prime position to spot the Northern Lights so have your camera at the ready and be prepared to be wowed. 

6. Canada

The Northern Lights over Yukon, Canada

You have a few options if you want to see the Northern Lights in Canada. Yukon, a territory that sits to the right of Alaska, offers mesmerising views of the Aurora Borealis whilst also giving you plenty to do during the day. Whitehorse, Yukon is a great destination to visit for cosy cabins, daring dog sledding and lively restaurants. Stay at the Elite Hotel in the middle of Yukon if you enjoy the buzz of a small city. The airport is only a ten-minute drive away and the hotel is home to two restaurants, Giorgio's Cuccina's and Sam McGee's Bar and Grill so you won't have to go far for your evening meal. Alternatively, you could settle in a cabin outside of the city to experience the Canadian wilderness with fishing, canoeing and dog mushing in the day and aurora gazing in the evening. We recommend the Boreale Ranch in Carcross which boasts a sun terrace, mountain views and the chance to see the lights. 

Head further east to Yellowknife in the Northwest Territories or Churchill, Manitoba for more light-gazing opportunities. Churchill is lucky enough to average more than 300 nights a year of the Northern Lights and is the favourite destination for budding astronomers and nature-lovers who visit the Churchill Northern Studies Centre. Take a tour to the Aurora Village from Yellowknife and watch for the Northern Lights from the comfort of your own tee-pee. 

7. Scotland

The northern lights over Scotland

The dark, clear skies of Scotland during the autumn and winter offer surprisingly good conditions for seeing the Aurora Borealis. As in most places, the further north the better so head to the Shetland Islands or Orkney Islands for a long weekend, where you can truly escape from the fast pace of everyday life and reconnect with nature. Bare in mind that the Northern Lights are unpredictable so don't make that your only reason for heading so far north. Plan some walks, cycle the beautiful countryside and discover the history of the islands. To get to the Shetland and Orkney Islands take a flight from Edinburgh or Glasgow or if you want to turn the journey into an adventure, take an overnight ferry from Aberdeen to Lerwick which also stops at Kirkwall and Orkney en route.

We'd recommend staying at the charming Knysna House if you go to the Shetlands. It has a garden to enjoy and is only a two-minute walk from the sea. The Orkney Island Memories hotel is a great place to stay in Orkney if you want an authentic experience, with friendly hosts, amazing views and the chance to see local wildlife. 

8. Iceland

Grotta Lighthouse, Iceland bathed in the Northern Lights

Photo credit: Visit Reykjavík / Ragnar Th. Sigurðsson

Visiting Iceland to see the Northern Lights is a traveller's dream. With active volcanoes, breath-taking waterfalls and huge glaciers, the Northern Lights are simply the cherry on top of a scenically splendid cake.

We recommend basing yourself in the capital Reykjavik and staying at the ultra cool Kvosin Downtown Hotel. The interiors look more like a modern, trendy apartment than a hotel room and you'll also have views of the cathedral and parliament buildings. Explore the city's alternate culture with quirky galleries, cosy cafes and plentiful bars and restaurants to get a real taste of Icelandic life. And you simply can't leave without experiencing the magic of the famous Blue Lagoon.

If you want to escape the city, head to Hotel Rangá which sits between the towns of Hella and Hvolsvöllur and is just over an hour's drive from Reykjavik. With Nordic decor and nothing to see for miles, this hotel is perfect for those who want the ultimate escape. Relax in a hot tub whilst you wait for the lights to appear or if you love your sleep, request a wake-up call for when (and if) they appear. 

9. Russia

9 Places to see the Northern Lights - Russia

Russia's Kola Peninsula offers Northern Lights visibility for up to 200 times a year owing to its location beyond the Arctic Circle. Murmansk, located in the far northwest close to Finland, boasts near-perfect conditions for the lights thanks to the 40 'days' of polar darkness it sees each year. Be sure to wrap up warm if you're headed to this area - temperatures can reach lows of -20 degrees Celsius. We'd recommend staying at the Mini Hotel Rooms & Breakfast for its great location. It's only a five-minute walk to nearby bars, restaurants and cafes and 1.4 miles from the local train station.  Add a little culture and history to your travels and head to Lake Lovozero, where the Russian Saami tribe are said to read their fortunes through the bright streaks of the Northern Lights.

The Aurora season usually takes place between September and late April for all of our featured destinations, so book up and tick another item off your bucket list. Bear in mind that we can't guarantee you'll see the Northern Lights in any of these places, but let's hope you're lucky enough to see them - they really are phenomenal.

Have you experienced the Northern Lights? Tweet us a photo @travioor or share your story on Travioor's Facebook page.

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Laura Peveller While studying for a degree in English Literature and Creative Writing Laura took part in a month-long trek across the southern states of the USA with TrekAmerica. Naturally this sparked her love affair with travel so, after University she set off on the adventure of a lifetime - a six month round-the-world trip to NZ, Australia, Fiji and San Francisco, where she also worked for the Fiji Times newspaper. She's eager to travel again in between copywriting for Travioor.