Northern lights travel guide, including top northern lights experiences, tips for seeing the northern lights, when to see the northern lights and northern light
There are some experiences that are so extraordinary they make you cry at the wonder of it all. Or at least have a lump in the throat. The first great whale that you see. The sight of quarter a million king penguins on a beach in South Georgia. Or seeing the northern lights in all their magnificent glory.
The first part of an auroral display usually comes from the east, as the earth rotates into the area of maximum activity. You’ll most likely see a pale green column first, but this may then grow into billowing sheets. If you’re really lucky, the whole sky will be full of curving, twisting shapes.
Although green is the most common colour, red is occasionally seen – but this can be considered a bad omen by some, with many superstitions around it.
You are most likely to see the northern lights in the far north. This auroral band includes Greenland, Lapland and far north Canada and Alaska.
The best places to see the northern lights
- Swedish Lapland – Abisko, high in Arctic Sweden, is considered by many to be the top place in the world to witness the northern lights. Set in a rainshadow, it is Sweden’s driest spot, and is well away from light pollution too. The phenomena is most often seen between 10pm and 11pm; take a chairlift up Nuolja Mountain to Abisko Sky Station for the best 360-degree views.
- Norwegian coast – Tromsø, north Norway, is a reliable spot – cruise there aboard a Hurtigruten ferry, which ply the Norwegian coast year round and also leave any light pollution behind. If the aurora don’t show, you can still enjoy gliding through the icy Arctic.
- Dalton Highway, Alaska – Northern Alaska is treated to magnificent auroral spectacles. This road makes hotspots accessible; try Ester Dome, outside Fairbanks, for great views, and tiny Wiseman for extreme isolation.
- Fort McMurray, Canada – This Alberta outpost has a higher mean temperature than other Canadian aurora hotspots (so you won’t get so cold while watching) and, according to one local operator, if you stay three nights you have a 97% chance of seeing the lights sparkle.
- Hebrides, Scotland – The aurora does flicker over the UK – albeit unreliably. The far north, more remote regions of Scotland are the best bet. Head to the Hebrides – there are few streetlights, and the fresh Atlantic winds help keep the skies clear.
- South Iceland – Get away from the lights of Reykjavík and Iceland is one of the planet’s best places for the aurora, situated in one of the most active auroral regions. Hotel Rangá in the island’s rural south is run by a northern lights expert; staff will wake you if the displays are good.
- Rovaniemi, Finland – The capital of Lapland (and, incidentally, home to the most northerly McDonald’s) boasts around 200 auroral displays per year.
- Greenland – Low light pollution and ideal latitude mean the whole island is prime for aurora viewing.
- Stewart Island, New Zealand – Wrong pole, different phenomenon – in the southern hemisphere you may spot the aurora australis. It’s harder to see (there are fewer landmasses close to the South Pole) but southern New Zealand is your best option. Try Stewart Island; its Maori name, Rakiura, translates as ‘glowing skies’, possibly a reference to the aurora.