Everything you need to know about the spectacle of nature that tops most travellers’ wishlists
In Norway they were the spirits of dancing old maids. The Finns call them revontulet (‘fox fires’), from a fable about a creature sweeping snow skywards with its tail. The Algonquin Indians thought they were Nanahbozho the Creator lighting fires as a reminder of his eternal love. We know now that they are the result of atmospheric gases crashing into charged particles from the sun producing a celestial spectacular above our planet’s extremes. And that every traveller wants to see – and photograph – them.
It’s not easy. The Northern Lights are a fickle and if we are being honest, that’s part of their appeal. Seeing them is a rare gift. There are no guarantees, but if you follow the advice collated below you’ll increase your odds of being in the right place at the right time considerably. And take a killer photo that will impress all your friends as well.
Got a minute to spare? Try our 60-second guide to the Northern Lights. It’s a quick and easy guide to where and when to see the Northern Lights across the countries that straddle the Arctic Circle as well as an overview of the best places to spot the aurora borealis’s southern cousin, the aurora australis. For more personal advice, William Gray suggests his Top 5 Northern Experiences, from cruising the Norwegian coast to holing up in a cabin in the Yukon.
Figuring out when to see the Northern Lights is not an exact science. Ask any expert and they'll tell you: the best time to see the aurora borealis is when the sky is clear. Sadly, the weather is the one thing you can't control – or predict.
However, we asked those same experts to tell us when you are most likely to see the northern lights and the things you can do to choose the best date. And this is what they suggested. Winter. Night. Clear.
There’s more to getting a memorable shot of the aurora than getting your shutter speed right – and we’ve got two very different guides that tell you everything you need to know. William Gray reminds readers of the little things they might overlook – like dressing warm and giving your shots some content. While Nick Boulos – a self-proclaimed amateur – takes you step-by-step on his journey from taking frankly awful photos to capturing something we could publish in the magazine. Both are well worth reading.
Experiencing the Northern Lights isn’t just about standing about in sub-zero conditions and losing the feeling in your extremities. (Although it can be, if that’s your thing.) From glass-roofed igloos and ‘Aurora Bubbles’ through to concerts in Arctic cathedrals, there are all kinds of innovative and novel ways to stay warm and entertain yourself while waiting for the elusive Lights to do their thing.
Did you know that a child conceived under the Lights will be beautiful and lucky? Or that you shouldn’t whistle when you see them? You’ll find these – and other nuggets of useful information in our guide to strange Northern Lights myths.
You'll find a selection of fantastic tours offered by our partners on our Trip Finder. From specialised photographic trips to journeys that include dog-sledding and a night at the Ice Hotel, you'll find something that will help you realise your dream of seeing the Northern Lights. You’ll find the full list of tours available here.