The 15 Best Places to See the Northern Lights

2021-08-23

These destinations will inspire even the most experienced aurora chaser.

The northern lights, also known as the aurora borealis, are a spectacular natural light show visible at certain times of the year in the northern hemisphere. This phenomenon occurs when electrically charged particles from the sun enter the Earth’s atmosphere and collide with gaseous particles, such as oxygen and nitrogen. The experience is surreal, with vibrant hues of blue, green, pink and violet dancing across the night sky. The best places to see the aurora borealis offer little to no light pollution and clear skies. Many top viewing spots have websites with aurora trackers and staff members at some hotels will wake up visitors when the lights appear (if requested). Read on to discover the top destinations where you can see the kaleidoscopic northern lights.

Fairbanks, Alaska

Fairbanks is one of the best places in the world to view the northern lights as it’s located directly under the Auroral Oval. This ring-shaped zone sits over the Earth’s geomagnetic north pole, where aurora activity is concentrated. Visitors can expect to see the lights on an average of four out of five clear nights during aurora season, which lasts from Aug. 21 to April 21. Other activities visitors can enjoy in late summer include a ride on the Riverboat Discovery or panning for gold. For a festive holiday experience, visit the Santa Claus House in the city of North Pole (around 13 miles southeast of Fairbanks). Travelers can also see ice sculptures in February and March at the impressive World Ice Art Championships or take a dog sledding tour. For excellent chances of aurora viewing, book accommodations at the upscale Aurora Villa.

Tromsø, Norway

Located above the Arctic Circle, Tromsø is one of several top spots to view the northern lights in Norway. The northern part of the country is dark from the early afternoon until late morning between September and late March. With this extreme darkness, there are more opportunities to see the aurora. Tromsø itself is a modern city, so there’s plenty to see and do when you’re not looking up at the sky, including a visit to the beautiful Arctic Cathedral. In late January to early February, the city hosts the Northern Lights Festival, a multiday music and performing arts event. Aurora chasers can view the lights on their own, opt for a five-day guided Nordic adventure with Kensington Tours, or go on an exhilarating husky trekking tour in the Arctic wilderness.

Lapland, Finland

Lapland is located in the Arctic region of Northern Europe, meaning that the northern lights are visible approximately 200 nights a year. Finnish Lapland is also the home of Santa Claus, the indigenous Sámi people and approximately 200,000 reindeer. In northern Lapland, aurora chasers can expect to see the lights every other clear night between September and March. They can appear suddenly, and then quickly vanish, any time after sunset and just before dawn. For a bucket list experience, watch the impressive light show from a glass igloo in Santa’s Igloos Arctic Circle in Luosto. This resort town is about 72 miles north of the town of Rovaniemi and is set among the picturesque and hilly landscape of Pyhä-Luosto National Park.

Orkney, Scotland

This group of captivating islands, located on Scotland’s remote northern coast, is one of the top places to see the northern lights in the country. Fall and winter are the best seasons to witness the aurora, also known in local dialect as the “Mirrie Dancers.” This time of year brings cold evenings with clear skies, which makes for ideal viewing conditions. A few places to see the spectacular light show include from the top of Wideford Hill, along the coast in Birsay or on the beach at Dingieshow. In addition to the aurora, Orkney is home to breathtaking coastal landscapes and more sheep than you can count. Travelers can also visit the Heart of Neolithic Orkney, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which includes monuments dating back 5,000 years. While here, plan to stay in the historic town of Kirkwall, the capital of the Orkney Islands.

Yellowknife, Canada

Yellowknife is the capital of Canada’s Northwest Territories. It’s also known as the Aurora Capital of North America. With its position in the middle of the Auroral Oval, the city puts on one of the world’s most awe-inspiring light shows from January through March. Located on the northern shore of Great Slave Lake, Yellowknife boasts winter sports such as ice fishing and snowmobiling. At the end of March, as temperatures begin to warm, Yellowknife hosts the Long John Jamboree on Yellowknife Bay. The event’s festivities include sugar shacks, ice carving and dogsled races. For a once-in-a-lifetime experience, make reservations to stay in a teepee at Aurora Village to view the lights. The property offers aurora-themed tours as well as activities like dog sledding and snowshoeing.

Jukkasjärvi, Sweden

The optimal place for viewing the aurora in Sweden is in the northern part of the country, in Swedish Lapland. Visitors to this region can see the illuminated skies during the darkest months, from September to March. The small Swedish village of Jukkasjärvi sits about 124 miles above the Arctic Circle on the Torne River and is an ideal locale for aurora viewing in Swedish Lapland. Plan to book accommodations at the world’s first year-round ice hotel, ICEHOTEL 365. If you’re up for the adventure, reserve one of the artist-designed cold suites with temperatures as low as -8 degrees Celsius. The rooms are sculpted of ice and include beds with reindeer hides and thermal sleeping bags. For the less adventurous, the property also offers heated traditional rooms and chalets. During your stay, take advantage of the property’s guided Northern Lights Safari that includes a snowmobile ride and dinner in a wilderness cabin. You can also learn how to capture incredible images of the northern lights on one of their photography tours.

Reykjavik, Iceland

September to April is the best time to chase the aurora borealis in Iceland. For optimum viewing away from the light pollution, head to Öskjuhlið. This densely wooded area in Reykjavik has walkways and paths where you can see the nighttime show. Atop of this forest sits Perlan, which features the only planetarium in the country as well as a museum with exhibits about Iceland’s nature and geography. While here, don’t miss the panoramic views of the city from the institution’s observation deck. From this vantage point, visitors can see the Snæfellsjökull glacier, Keilir Volcano and the mountain of Reykjavik, Esja. During your stay in Reykjavik, consider splurging on an overnight tour with Buubble.com. This experience includes multiple sightseeing spots and a night spent under the magical northern skies in a bubble at the 5 Million Star Hotel.

Kangerlussuaq, Greenland

Greenland may not be the most accessible place to travel for viewing the northern lights, but those who make it there will be thrilled they did. The tundra of Kalaallit Nunaat (the Greenlandic name for the country) is one of the top places on the globe to see the aurora. The 300 days a year of clear skies make it an ideal spot to see the lights, but the best viewing window is from September to April. If you travel to Kangerlussuaq, you’re almost guaranteed a show. This tiny town, located on a fjord right along the Arctic Circle, is one of the most renowned places to view the aurora in Greenland. Kangerlussuaq is also a former U.S. air force base and home to the Greenland Ice Cap.

The Upper Peninsula, Michigan

The Upper Peninsula of Michigan boasts one of the top northern lights viewing locales in the U.S. during the spring and fall, yielding impressive astronomical shows during warmer months. Throughout the summer, the Milky Way is visible across the sky and late summer evenings entertain visitors with meteor showers. Travelers can splurge on a stay at the Mission Point Resort on Mackinac Island at the confluence of Lake Michigan and Lake Huron. The resort’s staff will notify guests of potential northern lights sightings. The Headlands International Dark Sky Park, located in Mackinaw City, is another draw situated nearby. The park was one of the first 10 International Dark Sky Parks in the world and is the perfect spot to gaze at the aurora.

The Kola Peninsula, Russia

The aurora season on the Kola Peninsula in northeastern Russia extends from late August until April, but winter is the best time to see the lights. This is because the region, which sits within the Arctic Circle, has an impressive 42 polar nights, meaning the area is shrouded in total darkness for more than 24 hours. It’s also one of the more temperate and accessible regions in Russia where you can chase the aurora. The best place to view the lights on the peninsula is from the small port city of Murmansk, which is located in the northwest part of the region. To see other parts of the area, opt for a five-day tour with Russia Discovery. This package includes viewing the northern lights, glamping on the tundra, visiting the coastline of the Arctic Ocean and a dog sleigh tour. The company also offers an 11-day Northern Lights Express holiday tour that features stops in Moscow and St. Petersburg.

Saadjärv, Estonia

Several destinations in Estonia are popular with local aurora chasers, but Saadjärv is known to have the most consistent sightings during the winter months. This town is located approximately 14 miles north of Tartu in central Estonia, and situated on Lake Saadjärv, which is one of the 10 deepest and largest lakes in the country. It’s also close to the Vooremaa Nature Park, so there’s plenty to do in the region when you’re not watching the lights dance in the sky. The lake is a major recreational area with beaches, places to stay and museums, such as The Ice Age Centre. You can also visit nearby Alatskivi Castle or explore Elistvere Animal Park in Tartu.

A Viking Ocean Cruise Along the Coast of Norway

Embrace the winter and set sail for the Arctic Circle to experience the aurora in northern Norway. Viking’s 13-day itinerary departs from London for the North Sea with stops in ports of call that are top aurora-viewing locales, including Bodø, Tromsø, Alta and Narvik. The cruise ends in Bergen. While on land, take in the natural beauty of the snow-blanketed landscapes and book bucket list excursions like a night spent in an igloo hotel or go dog sledding with huskies. You can also chase the lights into the wilderness by snowmobile or view them from a Sámi tent atop Mount Pæskain in Alta. This Viking Cruises itinerary is offered from mid-January to mid-March.

Voyageurs National Park, Minnesota

Located on the international border of Minnesota and Ontario, Voyageurs National Park is a more than 218,000-acre labyrinth of boreal forests, lakes and streams. Voyageurs is also a newly certified International Dark Sky Park. Year-round aurora viewing is possible on evenings with clear dark skies, but the best time to see the show is during the winter. If you’re traveling between mid-May to late September, plan to stay in the park at the historic Kettle Falls Hotel. For a guided tour to view the nighttime lights display, which can include the Milky Way and the constellations, check out Voyageurs Outfitters. This company receives alerts from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and then offers evening boat trips to see the lights, depending on the aurora forecast. There’s usually a five-day advance notice for the tours. For the serious aurora chaser, inquire about spending the night deep in the woods in one of the company’s heated yurts.

A Railway Journey in Alaska

Vacations by Rail’s six-day adventure explores the rugged and vast beauty of The Last Frontier via the Alaska Railroad’s Aurora Winter Train. The flagship route between Anchorage to Fairbanks boasts beautiful views from the comfort of your seat or the train’s Vista Dome Car. This tour package features overnight stays in Anchorage, Fairbanks and the remote Bettles Lodge. At 35 miles above the Arctic Circle, the Bettles Lodge affords travelers some of the best views in the world of the aurora borealis. During the daylight hours, check out other Alaskan activities such as exploring the wilderness by snowmobile or bundle up and go ice fishing. You can even try your hand at dog mushing with your own team of Alaskan huskies. This expedition is available between October and April. Prices include hotels and train ride mentioned above, two nights at Bettles Lodge, five meals, Arctic clothing and gear and other activities such as cross-country skiing and guided snowshoe excursions.

A Cunard Cruise in Northern Europe

Cunard offers three sailings in October and November to view the Northern Lights in Norway, one of the world’s top destinations to see the aurora perform its magic. Two 12-night cruises sail round trip from Southampton, England, on either the Queen Victoria or Queen Mary 2. Ports of call on the Queen Victoria include Stavanger, Andalsnes, Romsdalsfjord, Narvik and Tromsø. The Queen Mary 2’s cruise to the North Cape features stops in Tromsø, Trondeim, Bergen, Alesund and Stavanger. An extended 26-night round-trip, trans-Atlantic crossing from New York City on the Queen Mary 2 is another option for seeing the North Cape’s dramatic cliffs as well as the northern lights. Also known as Nordkapp, the North Cape plateau is far above the Arctic Circle where the Atlantic and Arctic oceans meet and is the most northern point in Europe.

Courtesy of USNews

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