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Wondering where to see the Northern Lights? The aurora borealis, that unicorn of the skies, is sought by many but witnessed by few.

However, if timed correctly and with a little research, you can uncover the best places to see the Northern Lights and when to travel for a (almost) guaranteed sighting. However, remember that it is a natural occurrence, so anything can happen.

What are the Northern Lights?

The Northern Lights are caused when particles from the sun collide with atoms in the earth’s surface, resulting in an explosion of color. This explosion decorates the skies in luminous shades of green, red, and purple. It is enthralling and mesmerizing.

Where to see the Northern Lights?

To see these dramatic natural displays requires the right sky conditions and absolute darkness, hence the elusiveness. If you head to the right areas, like the Scandinavian countries, in autumn, winter, and spring, you’re most likely to catch them.

Be prepared to put in long nights wherever you choose to travel, as apart from Svalbard in Norway, most appearances take place during the night between 10pm and 4am.

Where to see the Northern Lights: Scandinavia

Many of the Scandinavian countries lie within what is known as the aurora zone or oval. They are some of the best countries to head to if you’re hoping to see the Northern Lights.

Accommodation ranges from luxurious igloos to more modest facilities, but all offer the highest probability of catching a glimpse. The different destinations also offer other interesting activities to fill the day whilst waiting for the star guest’s appearance at night.

Tromso, Norway

Norway’s northernmost, and one of its largest, cities, Tromso, also regarded as the gateway into the Arctic, lies in the center of the aurora zone. It is considered one of the likeliest and best places to see the Northern Lights. Aim to be here anytime between September and early April for your best chance.

Two tours are on offer: the Northern Lights Chase, which could take up to 10 hours depending on weather conditions, takes you to remote areas by car, bus or boat. The other is the Northern Lights Experience. It involves an overnight stay in a traditional tent known as sami lavvu and activities such as snowmobile rides and dog sledding.

Svalbard, Norway

Another place in Norway to see the light show is on the archipelago islands of Svalbard, located between Norway and the North Pole. It is one of the northernmost places in the world and experiences what is known as polar nights, total darkness.

Its main settlement, Longyearbyen, provides perfect conditions to to see the lights between November and February. Svalbard is the only place in the world where you could be lucky enough to see the aurora borealis during the day.

Lapland, Finland

If you want to catch the Northern Lights in Finland, head to its Lapland region. Among its tall pine trees, surrounded by serene wilderness, you’ll find the Kakslautten Resort, which offers an experience like no other. This area is thought to experience the Northern Lights at least 200 nights a year, and here you can see them in style.

The accommodation offered includes glass igloos to give you a glimpse of the sky without leaving your bed or kelo glass igloos that combine traditional wooden chalets with an extended glass area. They provide your own little private observatory from which to witness the phenomenon – all you have to do is stay awake for them.

That’s not all, though. Here are also log houses with open-air saunas to watch the lights in comfort. On top of all this, there is a wide variety of activities, from reindeer sledding and husky and snowmobile rides to ice fishing safaris.

Iceland

Another Scandinavian country to see the Northern Lights is Iceland. The season here starts in September and lasts through to April. Other than Greenland, it is the only country where you can spot the amazing sight from anywhere.

In one of its southernmost towns, Hella, you’ll find the Hotel Ranga, whose remote location has minimal light pollution, increasing your chances of catching the magical display. The hotel, part of the Small Luxury Hotels of the World, offers luxury accommodation in a log-style lodge and has an observatory perfect for watching aurora’s antics across the skies.

Perhaps the most popular destination for the Northern Lights in Iceland is Reykjavik, the country’s capital city. It offers countless options, including the Oskjuhlio Hill with its 360° viewing platform at the top. When it closes at 10pm, people usually huddle at the bottom to await the display.

Alternatively, if you head two miles out of the city, Grotta Nature Reserve is a haven for aurora spotting. Its interesting black beaches along the Seltjarnarnes Peninsula offer the best place and time to see the Northern Lights. The lighthouse located on its island is one of the most popular choices.

Greenland

Greenland is the other country where you can observe the Northern Lights from absolutely anywhere. Here, the lights appear all year round and even have a special name: Arsarnerit. It means ‘the ones who play with a ball’, perhaps in reference to the display’s movement as it appears in the sky.

However, before you rush off to pack your bags, remember that the right conditions are crucial to visibility. The best time to see the lights here is from September to late March or even early April. One of the best places for viewing the Northern Lights in Greenland is the Hotel Arctic in illicit. It’s the world’s northernmost four-star hotel, where views of the lights come against a backdrop of glaciers.

If you are on a budget, the small town of Kangerlussuaq is a popular option that boasts 300 nights of clear sky a year. With a good chance to view the display, you will also find various types of accommodation to suit all budgets. Kangerlussuaq lies close to the world’s largest ice cap and is perfect for exploring the arctic wildlife abundant in the area.

Jukkasjarv, Sweden

Last but not least among the countries in the Scandinavian region where to see the aurora borealis is Sweden, and it’s done spectacularly here. Since 1989, in the town of Jukkasjarv, a hotel made entirely from ice is erected for use from December to April. The hotel’s rooms all feature different ice sculptures. Temperatures are kept between 23°F and 17°F to prevent the ice from melting. It is a truly once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Apart from the aurora sightings, they also offer different excursions, including snowmobile safaris and a course on capturing the perfect picture of the lights.

For one of the most rewarding Northern Lights experiences, head to the nearby Aurora Sky Station. It is located on Mount Noulja, which rises nearly 3000 feet above sea level, and has next to no light or noise pollution; it’s a perfect place to view the lights between October and March.

Where to see the Northern Lights: Canada

Also within the aurora borealis zone, outside the Scandinavian region, is Canada, where the occurrences happen almost 300 days of the year. This high frequency makes it one of the best countries to see the Northern Lights in the right conditions.

Canada’s northern regions have near-perfect conditions if you time it right, as it’s where the lights are most active. In the autumn, the Lake Lodge and Wilderness Resort in Blachford offer accommodation with outside hot tubs from which you can observe the display.

Alternatively, anywhere by the lake is perfect; you could even build your own igloo for the occasion, and instructors are available to guide you through it. If you happen to be in Yellow Knife in the winter, the Aurora Village is where to go for rather spectacular nightly displays.

The Yukon Valley, Canada

The Yukon Valley lies well within the aurora borealis oval and therefore offers one of the best chances to see the display in Canada. Head out of town and into the less developed areas of Campbell, Watson Lake or the Kluane National Park. They have little or no light pollution and offer some of the best conditions to spot the display, especially between November and March.

The Northern Lights Centre at Watson Lake also offers opportunities to learn about the science and mythology surrounding the lights. The Kluane National Park is worth a visit on its own as it’s home to some of Canada’s highest peaks and numerous different types of bears – the widest variety in the North Americas.

Sightings of the lights usually involve long nights, so why not reward yourself with a pampering session afterward at the Northern Lights Resort and Spa in Whitehorse.

Churchill, Canada

In the sub-Artic Circle neighboring Hudson Bay in Northern Manitoba, Churchill ranks among the top places to see the Northern Lights. The area is known for its polar bears but is also where you can observe beluga whales and Arctic foxes. The best times to see the lights here include February and March. This also happens to be the coldest time, with temperatures falling way below zero.

Therefore, taking a guided tour is highly recommended in your search for the lights. Don’t let the thought of freezing temperatures put you off, though. The tours are done in style, with heated Tundra buggies complete with full bars. How better to view the lights?

If you are keen to learn more about the phenomenon and stars in general, you can book a learning vacation at the Churchill Northern Studies Centre. Lessons here include tuition on taking the perfect Northern Lights pictures.

Find more things to do and see while on your winter trip to Canada.

Where to see the Northern Lights: Scotland

This may come as a surprise, but northern Scotland lies at the same latitude as some of the best countries to spot the Northern Lights such as Norway and Alaska. You need to time your visit right, and of course, the weather conditions play a part too.

On clear nights, the dazzling lights can be spotted across the UK as far out as Kent. The Cairngorms National Park has an Internal Dark Sky Park designation, making it the ideal place to view them when active, usually between October and March.

Shetland Islands, Scotland

Some of the most likely places to see this natural theatrical exhibition in the Scottish skies include the Shetland Islands. Here, they can often be seen flashing across the skies on clear nights in the winter. However, it is hard to predict exactly when, so consider booking a week’s holiday to increase your chances of seeing them; the islands are incredibly stunning around this time of year.

Winter on the isles is when the North Atlantic Orca are thriving and can often be spotted feeding along the shores. The islands also witness increased humpback whale activity. As if that weren’t enough, the Up Helly Aa Viking fire festival takes place from January to March.

In celebration of their Viking history and survival through a harsh winter, festivities are held all over the Islands from Sumburgh to Norwick. However, the most spectacular, involving a procession with over 1000 torch bearers through the dark streets, is held in the capital at Lerwick on the last Tuesday of January – it’s quite a spectacle.

Outer Hebrides, Scotland

With some of the UK’s darkest skies, the Outer Hebrides are home to some of the best places to observe the Northern Lights in Scotland. You can pick from one of four isles, Lewis, Uist, Barra or Harris, to head to in the winter months. Consider a February trip to Lewis, the largest of the Islands, when it hosts the Dark Skies Festival.

It’s your chance to enjoy the best of the Islands with music, theater, film, and local delicacies. Apart from the Northern Lights, the skies here are also perfect for watching the Milky Way or the famous Andromeda Galaxy, among other fabulous heavenly displays with the naked eye.

Where to see the Northern Lights: Alaska

Alaska lies directly under the aurora borealis zone. Occurrences take place virtually all year round here, but they are best viewed from August to April, depending on where in the country you are.

Fairbanks has great sightings on clear nights, but Chena Hot Springs Resorts (60 miles away from the city) offers the best conditions to view them in Alaska.

Removed from any light pollution, it lies right under the most active stretch of the lights. There’s also an Activity Centre where other ‘chasers’ hang out late, waiting for the lights. It’s a great chance to meet and mix with like-minded people.

Where to see the Northern Lights: Pennsylvania

If you’re not willing to go as far north as Alaska, head to Pennsylvania and the Cherry Springs State Park in September for a chance to spot the lights.

The park has worked hard to protect its sky area, achieving a Gold-Level International Dark Sky Park designation, meaning there’s very little light pollution. The conditions are conducive for the Northern Lights and the Milky Way, which can often be glimpsed lighting up the skies here.

The park is popular with amateur stargazers and has various viewing points. The most popular one is a field at the top of a mountain, accessible all night. There are also domed observatories throughout the park which you can rent. The best of them is the Sky Shed, which has an entire roof that opens up to the sky.

About the author

Jeanifer BreklingGrowing up in Alaska, Jeanifer took the beauty of its nature for granted. Now that she lives in a more cosmopolitan place, Jeanifer loves to get back to nature wherever she goes, with hiking, camping, snowboarding and diving always a highlight. As a mother of three, Jeanifer is always looking for new places to go that the whole family will enjoy. Follow Jeanifer on Linkedin for more travel inspiration.

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