Written by Victoria Philpott
Want to see the northern lights in 2014 or 2015? You’ll have to go where it’s cold…
Use our insider’s guide of the best places to see the northern lights and book front row seats to the most spectacular light show on Earth. See the aurora borealis phenomenon and you will treasure it in your book of lifetime experiences. Forget the memory of dull science lessons, this is astronomical wizardry operating at full throttle…
What are the northern lights? | When is the best time to see the northern lights? | Where are the best places to see northern lights? | Scotland | Iceland | Sweden | Finland | Norway | Alaska | Canada | Greenland
What are the northern lights?
Apparently, tourism staff in Aberdeen have, in the past, been asked at what time the ‘lights would be turned on’. Well, if they are not controlled by a domestic dimmer switch, what are they? In the northern hemisphere, as far as 200 miles above the Earth, air molecules collide with electrically charged solar winds blowing across the planet’s magnetic field. The collision causes the air to light up – a similar process happens in neon lights and fluorescent tubes – and the colour variation depends on what gases are present in the air.
When is the best time to see the northern lights?
You can view the northern lights in autumn, through to spring when nights are dark and clear and provide the perfect backdrop for the lights. September, October, February and March mean you won’t have to freeze your tootsies off and withstand the coldest winter months but November, December and also January offer the darkest nights.
Cloudy conditions are no good and avoid a full moon which will give off too much light. Venture out late at night or in the early hours when the air is crisp and clear. For a northern lights forecast, it is best to check local weather and lunar calendars before venturing out.
To demonstrate just how temperamental the aurora borealis can be, when travel writer Bill Bryson famously set off to view the northern lights in Norway, he ended up staying a month waiting for the clouds to disperse!
Where are the best places to see northern lights?
Simple; head as far north as possible. The best places to see the northern lights are within the Arctic Circle which include the wilderness of Siberia in Russia, the Yukon territory and the North West Territories in Canada, Alaska in the USA, Greenland and the northernmost reaches of Norway, Swedish Lapland and Finland. The best displays will be out of town where light pollution will not interfere.
Unfortunately most of these destinations are inconvenient to travel to and can be very expensive. For a cheap trip to experience the northern lights Scotland, particularly the Northern Highlands, and the Isle of Skye are your best bet in the UK. It can however, be a bit pot luck and it is best to make last-minute plans in the UK and to travel only when there is a concrete northern lights forecast.
Scotland is often the butt of all jokes when it comes to weather, but on those glorious days when the clouds disperse, you are in for a treat – remember the film Local Hero? Here the lights are called Fir Chlis meaning ‘Nimble Man’ or ‘Merry Dancers’ in Scottish Gaelic. Despite the jolly ditty ‘Northern Lights of Aberdeen’, the city is heavily affected by light pollution and is no longer a suitable destination to see Fir Chlis.
Your chances are slim but it is still possible to view the northern lights in Scotland, particularly around the Isle of Skye, the Northern Highlands and Dunnet Head the aurora borealis does between November and February. The helpful winds blowing in off the Atlantic can disperse any clouds and clear the skies for viewings at night. These areas are also rich in Viking history and wildlife so even if the weather isn’t on your side you can spend your time spotting seals, puffins and a plethora of other birds which are common sightings.
A top tip? Check the northern lights forecast in Scotland or the UK with AuroraWatch UK which monitors activity using a magnetometer near Aberdeen. Green indicates ‘no activity’ moving to yellow, amber then red for ‘aurora likely’. Better still, follow them on Twitter.
Where to stay…
- Dunnet Head Cottage: A loft conversion available on a self-catering or B&B basis.
- Skye Backpackers: Located in the pretty fishing village of Kyleakin it offers both private and shared rooms and even a caravan in the back garden. There is plenty going on when you are not northern lights viewing including are castle ruins to visit, the majestic Cuillin Mountains dominating the skyline, whisky distilleries and the hostel boasts fantastic views.
- Ayres Rock Hostel: On Orkney island and the most northerly choice in Scotland for northern lights viewing, this hostel has both shared and private rooms with self-catering facilities in a traditionally converted farm house.
In Iceland aurora borealis can suffer from cloudy conditions but still has one up over Scotland: it is closer to the Arctic Circle so nights are darker.
This year, the Bardarbunga volcano eruption has lead to some spectacular lights-spotting opportunities – check out photos of the two amazing natural phenomenon captured together here. With lava erupting at Holuhraun Lava Field, a few kilometers north east of Bardarbunga Volcano in Iceland’s eastern highlands, you can pay crazy money for a helicopter ride or super-jeep tour to see it, and keep those fingers crossed for some lights action at the same time.
Or make Reykjavik your main base and either join a tour (northern lights tours start from about 4.900kr (€30) and hostels work with a number of companies to suite your requirements) or drive yourself about 30 minutes away out of town to see the lights.
A popular lights choice is Þingvellir (Thingvellir) National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and part of the Golden Circle, a 300km tourist drive in Iceland. It is a fantastic spot from which to watch the northern lights dance across the wide open plains and over the rift valley, but even when the lights are absent, the dramatic lava fields and the view to the lake Thingvallavatn, under the soft light of the moon is an amazing sight! A good spot in the park is Almannagjá.
Alternatively, head to one of the beautiful geothermal pools and combine your chance of seeing the aurora borealis with a midnight swim. In the north west of Iceland for example, Reykjanes geothermal pool is close to Olympic size!
If you are travelling between New York City and London, why not find a flight stopover in Reykjavik to break up your trip? Even if you don’t manage to stop off, flights on this route are sometimes treated to glimpses of the northern lights! From east to west, sit on the left side of the plane. If you are travelling from west to east, sit on the right and look out the window as you fly over Iceland.
Insider’s guide: Thomas from Reykjavik Downtown Hostel says…The amazing thing about Reykjavik is that you actually see the northern lights right here in the city. Last week, there were 3-4 days when you could just go outside the hostel and enjoy the light show overhead. I love Saturday nights when everyone is out partying in the city. They’ve had a few glasses of wine and suddenly the lights appear in the sky. Everyone is outside, watching the sky, dancing with them. It feels so unreal but for Iceland, is so common. For people, who would have a car, I would recommend to visit the Grottuviti Lighthouse, only 15 minutes driving from our hostel. A beautiful spot with an endless view out to sea and there is no light pollution to detract from the display.
Where to stay…
- Reykjavik Downtown Hostel: Offering both shared and private rooms overlooking the old harbour, Reykjavik Bay and Mount Esja, some guests have glimpsed the northern lights from their bedroom windows! They have an onsite tour desk where you can book local excursions and they have a lively Facebook page with updates on Iceland northern lights forecast and intensity levels. Find hostels in Reykjavik and in Iceland for a budget northern lights trip.
Check out the Coolest Accommodation in Reykjavik too.
For the perfect dark winter nights, head to Swedish Lapland in the north of the country. Abisko National Park is home to the ‘blue hole’, a mysterious area of sky above a 70km long lake that remains clear, whatever the surrounding weather. This unique micro-climate is scientifically perfect for sky watching during the Polar Nights of winter. In fact, they predict that a traveller staying for 3 nights in the area is guaranteed to see the lights at least once!
Some nights the lights appear for a short burst, others, they flicker brightly for hours, mainly between 7pm and 2am. The Tornedalen region is a winter wonderland where your time cross-country skiing, ice fishing and travelling via husky sledge. Find hostels in Sweden.
In the south, your chances are slim although a lucky few have enjoyed the northern lights in the lake district region of Finland. So head north to up your chances – you could fly in to Rovaniemi or Kuusamo easily. One idea is to combine a northern lights trip with a skiing holiday in Finland. Ruka, full name Rukatunturi, is located in Finnish Lapland and just 25km from Kuusamo ariport. It is popular with World Cup Ski Teams looking for early season training opportunities and is often one of the first ski resorts in Europe to open its slopes from October-November. Some skiiers and snowboarders are treated to northern lights displays on clear winter days from the slopes. You can organise a snowmobile safari, with some companies arranging an open fire where you can watch and wait for the lights. Alternatively try a Finland reindeer safari.
Where to stay…
Motel Willis West: Ideal for budget ski holidays, the motel is just 2 minutes from the ski-lift and the popular cross country ski tracks. There is free Wi-Fi, self-catering facilities, a laundry, sauna and a bar for après-ski. The onsite travel desk can help you arrange cheap northern lights tours in Finland. Find more hostels in Finland.
Perhaps one of the best places to see the northern lights, Lapland in Norway boasts plenty of cloud-free nights between October to March. On the same latitude as Alaska, Greenland and Siberia, Finnmark is the most northern county and also the least populated – perfect conditions if you want the best northern lights view. Karasjok is the capital of the Sami (Norwegian aborigines). Hunting, reindeer herding and fishing are traditions still central to Sami culture and lifestyle today.
If you visit over Easter, concerts, exhibitions and productions are held in the Beaivvá Theatre. Sets are created out of ice and snow and they harness the northern lights to create a dramatic backdrop. Alternatively, they have their very own Sami ‘theme park’ called Sápmi where you can discover the main elements of Sami culture: camp, kitchen, handicraft and magic theatre.
Where to stay…
Engholm Husky Design Lodge: 6km outside of Karasjok, the lodge is a traditional Norwegian retreat. The interior of the ‘Barta’ house displays lovingly homemade furnishings and an open fire for guests to gather round with tasty food and drink. Housing 40-50 trained dogs on the farm, the owner organizes sled tours or guests can relax in the wood heated sauna and outdoor hot tub.
Northcape Guesthouse: Doubles, dorms and family rooms at reasonable prices, the guesthouse is 30km from the fantastic northcape peninsula. On your doorstep are fishing and hunting opportunities and beautiful scenery where you can enjoy a front row seat for the best northern lights display.
Many find Scandinavia expensive but staying in hostels in Norway makes keeping to a budget more manageable.
The promise of clearer skies makes Alaska one of the best places to see the northern lights with extensive window between late august and mid-April, although March is the optimum month for fair weather. Fairbanks has good transport links for backpackers and hostels are much cheaper in winter. The Geophysical Institute in the University of Alaska even offers an online northern lights forecast service and hotline (907 – 474-7558) which provides information up to 2 days in advance. Good observation points on the outskirts of town include the top of Ester Dome or the Chatanika area. Despite the usual grievance of light pollution, you might still catch a sighting in the centre of town along Peger Road or west following the Gilmore Trail but it’s best to head about 20 miles out of town.
When neck ache ensues try the marvellous Ice Museum which, with the help of a walk-in freezer, provides a year-round taster of the Ice Festival that takes place in mid-March and includes ice sculpting competitions open-sled dog racing down the streets. In February, the Yukon Quest is a 1,000 mile international sled dog race held between Fairbanks and Whitehorse Yukon in Canada. It is considered the toughest race of its kind in the world.
Where to stay…
Chandalar Ranch: Located 25 miles out of town, the ranch is the place to experience the great Alaskan outdoors. It offers hostel beds and bunkhouse rooms close to ski and recreational areas.
Billie’s Backpackers Hostel: A fantastic meeting point for backpackers in Alaska, here you can discuss your travel plans with other guests and experienced staff and make use of their tours and travel desk as well as the hostel’s extensive library to plan excursions. It is a little out of town but close to the university if you fancy the young vibe.
Arctic Adventure Hostel: Well within, ‘the zone’ you are guaranteed to see some northern lights action around Anchorage.
Head to the wild reaches of the Tundra for awe-inspiring spectacles of the light dancing in the sky above. The small city of Whitehorse in Yukon Territory is a place seemingly on the brink of civilisation and is a great base for venturing in to the night to marvel at the swirling light displays. Another perk of the Yukon Territory is that it has a dry subarctic climate – so little chance of cloud coverage and Whitehorse is in fact the driest city on Canada! If you are lucky enough to be visiting in February, you can witness the Yukon Quest, a 1,000 mile international sled dog race held between Fairbanks Alaska and Whitehorse. It is considered the toughest race of its kind in the world and is quite a spectacle to behold as mushers race teams of between 6 and 14 dogs over a period of 10 to 20 days.
Insider’s guide: Nancy from Beez Kneez Backpakers Hostel says…If you stick around for at least 4 nights, you are likely to see the Aurora at least once. Last week we just stood on the street in front of the house and saw them dance above us. But some of my guests do prefer to go with a tour company and pay to be picked up and brought back. One thing to bear in mind however – if a tour operator employee says ” Oh yes, I know it is snowing right NOW but there is always a chance it will clear…” please just walk away with your money. The aurora happens so high in the atmosphere that if you can’t see the stars then it is also too cloudy to see the northern lights. Check the aurora forecast first.
For anyone interested in photographing the northern lights, keep the shutter open as long as possible and use a tripod if you have access to one. This way you can let in more light.
Where to stay…
Beez Kneez Backpakers Hostel: A top-rated hostel in Whitehorse with shared rooms and friendly staff. It will be a real home away from home with free internet, a guest kitchen and a short walk to shops and nightlife. On your doorstep are hiking and biking trails, including the Millenium Trail to Miles Canyon and view points at Grey Mountain. Between August and April, staff can send you to a ‘secret viewing spot’, just half an hour from the hostel to see the Aurora. Alternatively staff can arrange a free car pool to make it a 5 minute drive and with the bonus of keeping warm in the car with your own soundtrack! For the rest of the day, why not try skiing or dog sledding?
The final frontier for most travellers, can you imagine a more magical time spent at Christmas northern lights viewing in Greenland? You are guaranteed quite a show from most areas of the country. The capital may be Nuuk but Ilulissat, in Western Greenland, is perhaps one of the most beautiful settings for your Greenland experience. It has a stable climate and you can twin your visit with a trip to see the icebergs in Disko Bay next to the Icefijord, about 35km from the city but visible on a walk of about 1-2km. This makes it less expensive than other Greenland ice-fjords around the country, many of which require helicopter rental or a boat. Your greenish glimmers and spiralling reds and purples are accompanied by the sound of crackling frost underfoot, and all reflected in the fjord. The main northern lights season runs from late August to April but it’s safer to visit between November and March. Most people are required to travel via Copenhagen or Reykjavik to reach the main international Greenland airport of Kangerlussuaq and then change to catch smaller planes to Ilulissat.
Alternatively, Qaqortoq is Greenland’s most southern town with a population of 3,000 people. It is less touristy than Ilulissat, but there is less going on. The main attractions include the 31 “Stone and Man” sculpture project which was created by local artist Aka Hoegh. The well preserved colonial buildings and colourful houses in the surrounding area also make it a picturesque spot next to the Great Lake.
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Thanks to martin_vmorris, James Cridland, ToNG!?, Deivis, timo_w2s, artic_pj, ilovegreenland, bjaglin, Carles Tomás Martí, martin_vmorris, Image Editor, jerryw387 and nick_russill for the images off Flickr! Please note, all images were suitable for use at time of publication according to the Creative Commons License.