The Northern Lights, also known as the Aurora Borealis, are a natural phenomenon caused by the collision of solar winds coming from the sun and particles in our atmosphere. The lights can appear as swirling swathes of green, blue, red, and violet light in the dark night sky. The aurora is different every time it appears.
The best places to see the Northern Lights are located within an area known as the viewing oval. This area is centered around the north magnetic pole in the Arctic. However, the Aurora Borealis has been seen as far south as New Orleans.
There is truly no other sight on earth like the Aurora Borealis. For this reason, a polar light viewing trip should be on everyone's travel bucket list.
If you want to plan a trip to see the Aurora Borealis, you should find a place located close to the Arctic Circle with dark skies and minimal light pollution. This list highlights 10 ideal aurora-watching locations.
The Best Places to See Northern Lights
1. Fairbanks, United States
Fairbanks is one of the most reliable Aurora viewing locations because it sits squarely within the viewing oval. Its location in the far north also means that you get plenty of dark sky in the winter for an optimal viewing experience.
The best times for Northern Lights viewing in Fairbanks are between 10 pm and 2 am between August and May. If you're worried about not being able to stay up late enough, many hotels in Fairbanks offer wake-up services when the polar lights are spotted.
Fairbanks, United States.
2. Svalbard, Norway
Svalbard is an archipelago of islands located to the north of mainland Norway. Its largest city, Longyearbyen, is the northernmost permanent settlement on Earth.
During the winter, Svalbard experiences polar night, with the sun staying below the horizon for several months. The months of darkness in the winter are perfect for seeing the Aurora Borealis.
Once you're done watching the lights, you can check out Svalbard's other unique attractions, like the Global Seed Vault that stores seeds in case of a future global catastrophe. Svalbard is also a great place to see arctic wildlife like polar bears and arctic foxes.
Lapland is an arctic territory split, including northern parts of Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia. However, often Lapland is referred to as the far-north of Finland and Sweden. The region is the historical homeland of the nomadic Sami people.
Although it was considered something of a no-man's-land throughout much of history, Lapland looks like a fairytale setting to modern eyes. The snow-covered pine trees, rustic cabins, and reindeer farms all give the region a Christmas-y aesthetic.
Lapland lies squarely within the aurora viewing oval and offers some of the best opportunities for spotting the aurora. In some areas of Lapland, you have over a 50 percent chance of seeing the lights on clear nights.
4. The Shetland Islands
The Northern Lights are sometimes visible throughout the United Kingdom in the winter, but your chances of a sighting increase the further north you go. The best viewing areas in the UK are in northern Scotland, particularly in the Shetland Islands.
These islands, famous for their miniature ponies, are the northernmost land mass in the UK. During your aurora watching visit, you can also check out sights like puffin nesting areas and the Callanish Standing Stones at the isle of Lewis, a prehistoric stone structure reminiscent of Stonehenge.
If you want to sound like a local, call the lights the Mirrie (Merry) Dancers, which is their traditional name in this part of the world.
5. Alberta, Canada
You can see the lights from a variety of spots in Alberta. If you're lucky, they might even show up in the big cities of Edmonton and Calgary.
Alberta is a nature lovers paradise, so there is plenty to see once you've had your fill of the Northern Lights. The province boasts six UNESCO World Heritage Sites all renowned for their natural beauty.
6. The Yukon Territory, Canada
Yukon, Canada has optimal viewing conditions for the polar lights between August and April. The territory's low population and lack of light pollution are perfect for stunning aurora displays.
Yukon is also home to the Northern Lights Centre. This science museum features exhibits explaining the science of the lights as well as explorations of the mythology surrounding the aurora. If you visit Yukon in the summertime when it's harder to see the real lights, you can watch a film of them in the Centre's domed theatre.
This small country in Northern Europe markets itself as an aurora viewing destination, and for good reason. The polar lights here are often spectacular. Since over 90 percent of the population lives in the capital city of Reykjavik, most of the country's rural areas are completely free of light pollution.
Iceland's national airline provides inexpensive flights to Reykjavik from a multitude of cities around the world. The country is famous for its natural wonders like glacier parks, lava fields, and hot springs. A snowshoeing expedition or snowmobile tour are great options for exploring the country's rugged terrain and catching glimpses of the Northern Lights.
Although this large polar island is located off the coast of Canada, it's actually part of Denmark. Greenland's native Inuit population has been viewing and worshipping the Northern Lights for thousands of years.
Greenland is home to Kangerlussuaq, a former US military base that sees the aurora more than 300 times every year. You can book a stay there that includes a night camping on the Greenland Ice Sheet. If that sounds a little rough to you, you can also watch the lights from the comfort of a heated igloo at the Hotel Arctic.
9. Tromso, Norway
Tromso, sometimes called the Gateway to the Arctic, is the largest city in Northern Norway. It's located in the middle of the aurora's viewing oval, so it's a very reliable spot for seeing the lights. The best time to see the aurora in Tromso is between October and March.
If you visit in January, you can check out Tromso's annual Northern Lights Festival, which celebrates the aurora with live music and other attractions.
Tromso offers many tourist activities during the aurora season. You can go on a boat tour to look at whales, or book a snowmobile adventure to admire the fjords and mountains of this rugged arctic region.
10. Cherry Springs State Park, United States
Most of the prime polar lights viewing spots are located in relatively remote areas, but you don't necessarily need to go to the Arctic to see a good light show.
Cherry Springs State Park has some of the darkest skies in the world, receiving a gold rating (the highest) from the International Dark Sky Association. That means that you have a decent shot at seeing the Northern Lights there in winter even though it's located outside of the viewing oval.
Even if you don't end up seeing the lights, you are guaranteed to have an incredible stargazing experience at this International Dark Sky Park.
Best Times to See the Northern Lights
Depending on your location, the lights will be visible in fall, spring and winter. The lights generally are not visible in the summertime.
The lights become more intense and dramatic during periods of high solar flare activity when solar winds bring more charged particles into the earth's atmosphere. These periods follow 11-year cycles. The last cycle happened in 2013, so the next peak year for the aurora will be 2024.
That said, the Northern Lights appear every year, so you don't necessarily have to wait for the next solar flare period to plan your aurora-watching trip.
Even in areas with optimal aurora watching conditions, the lights don't show up every night, and their appearances can be unpredictable. For this reason, it is helpful to use an aurora alerts app.
Aurora alerts apps use data from the US Air Force Weather Agency to predict when the aurora may be visible in your area. They also use data from NASA to monitor solar wind activity. When the probability of aurora sighting is high, the app sends a push notification to your phone.
If you choose to use an app, you should make sure your phone connection will work in the area you are visiting.
Plan Your Trip
The Aurora Borealis is truly a bucket list attraction. As an added bonus, most of the best places to see the lights are also starkly beautiful arctic locations surrounded by breathtaking natural wonders.
Now that you know several of the best places to see Northern Lights, you can start planning your aurora-watching trip. If you want to use an alerts app, which is highly recommended, you might want to consider using a global mobile data service to ensure that your phone works in the remote locations where the lights are the brightest. Just because you're at the edge of the world doesn't mean you have to be disconnected!
- Michael & Susanna @Goodspeed