They sparkle, flash and dance in the winter skies like the fires of heaven itself, or, if you prefer, the lights of Valhalla, or Nirvana… What, exactly? The Aurora Borealis of course: the Northern Lights. Those who have been lucky enough to see them do indeed frequently refer to the experience as a near-religious one, or at the very least a very up close and personal encounter with the mystical wonders of Mother Nature.
The lights and colors, shapes, streaks and sounds of the Aurora Borealis are never the same twice. The vibrant hues of light – pinks, azures, greens, bright golds and countless more – can often appear quite otherworldly, unearthly. Seeing the Northern Lights is on the bucket list of many an everyday adventurer – but where are the best places to go to see this wonder of the natural world? Here is the lowdown on the Northern Lights, plus some tried and tested viewing places where you can go to experience this unmissable phenomenon…
What are the Northern Lights?
Commonly known as the Northern Lights, the official name of Aurora Borealis was named after Aurora, the Roman goddess of the dawn. The phenomenon occurs when highly-charged electrons emitting from the solar wind collide with a variety of atmospheric elements within the ring that surrounds the North Pole.
The Northern Lights do not appear in the same way each year. They tend to work in an 11-year cycle with highs and lows of activity. The best time to see the lights is undoubtedly starting from December into the New Year. There is of course no way of predicting the exact dates the Aurora Borealis will appear, but there are certainly a number of key places to visit where you will have the best chances of seeing the light show of your life.
1. Norway – The Frozen North of Svalbard
As a rule, the higher the latitude of your destination, the more likely you are to be able to get a significant glimpse of the sought-after lights. The first thing that you need to know is that Svalbard is incredibly far north. It is located between the 74th and 81st parallel, all the way into the Arctic itself. The Northern Lights may appear here at any time between November and February.
This part of the word has many other wonders too, not least the manifestation of the Polar Night. From the middle of November until the end of January, Svalbard has no daylight. There is only a blue twilight when the day is at its lightest, which means that everyone has a far greater chance of seeing the Aurora. Even if you don’t get lucky enough to catch the Aurora Borealis, then you still have the option of trying to spot reindeer, walrus, polar bears and other Arctic life: if you loved Frozen Planet, you’ll love Svalbard.
You can reach Svalbard by flying from the UK to Oslo, then flying onto Longyearbyen which is the primary settlement on Svalbard and the best base from which to visit the region. There are a number of viable hotel options. Alternatively, make your way up from Tromso.
2. Finland – Your Own Igloo in Kakslauttanen
The Kakslauttanen Arctic Resort is the best Northern Lights location to visit in Finnish Lapland. Enjoy the pleasure of lights-gazing as you stare out of the sky from a glass igloo; stay in a traditional log cabin which will warm your deeply chilled cockles with its sauna and open fire. Should the lights fail to flicker into life, then try a thrilling reindeer safari, or hiking through Urho National Park to fill in the time.
You can fly from Manchester, London and Edinburgh to Ivalo, stopping off in Helsinki, or if you prefer, sly straight into Helsinki and make your own way up north.
3. Sweden – Bond with the Ice in Jukkasjärvi
Have you heard of this remote village? You may, as Jukkasjärvi. in the Kiruna region of Sweden, is home to the country’s first ice hotel. There are night flights which you can take to see the Northern Lights that operate from Jukkasjärvi and when the stars align so that you can actually see them it is truly remarkable.
However, should they fail to appear, then take a tour of the Esrange Space Center. From there you can gaze across Sweden’s starry, starry nights and wait for the Aurora Borealis to appear. Alternatively, you could go wild and indulge in a little snowmobiling. Also, you should note that you don’t have to stay in an ice hotel, there are other options. To reach Jukkasjärvi you have to get to one of the more remote areas of Sweden, arrange a flight to Stockholm then fly, drive or catch the train to Kiruna.
4. Iceland Easy Ride to Reykjavik
One of the great advantages of heading off to Reykjavik to see the Northern Lights is that it is far more accessible than the above sites, which in turn makes it more affordable than the more remote locations. Moreover, while the lights are clearly one of the main attractions, you can find other things to keep you happily occupied in Iceland. The Blue Lagoon is a treat whatever the time of year; there are many places where you can go snowmobiling and skiing. As much of Game of Thrones was set there, there is also a whole industry catering to showing the super-fans the key sights.
Hotels aren’t cheap, but you can shop around on Skyscanner hotels. There are also many reasonable flights from EasyJet and other budget airlines. Oslo, if you are so inclined, visit Greenland afterwards by flying there from Reykjavik. This is far more hard-core lights hunting, but the Aurora Borealis is visible from late September to early April.
5. Fly Off to Northernmost Canada
Long-haul flights are rarely cheap, which, for most people, makes Canada far more expensive compared to the other Norther Lights destinations. However, the Aurora Oval covers the provinces of Yukon, Northern Saskatchewan, Newfoundland, Nova Scotia and British Columbia, Northwest Territories, which makes you highly likely to see the lights in this magical, faraway spot. Plus there are amazing accommodation options, lots and lots of snow sports. Fly to Canada with any major airline, such as British Airways.