The 10 best places on earth to see the Northern Lights
Seeing the northern lights in person is on almost every adventurous traveler’s bucket list. This magical phenomenon of colorful lights in the night sky is truly a sight to behold. Most people never get to see them because, well, seeing them is not exactly easy. There are only a few places on the planet that regularly get treated to the northern lights. And even then, many people miss out on the northern lights due to poor weather. In this post we will go through where to see northern lights and our top 10 places to see the northern lights in this guide below.
NORTHERN LIGHTS BASICS
The aurora borealis – more commonly known as the northern lights – is a phenomenon that occurs near the earth’s poles caused by collisions of electrically charged particles from the sun in the earth’s atmosphere. They usually show up in shades of green, but can be red, purple, and pink as well. As dark skies are needed and polar regions experience the summer midnight sun, the northern lights are only visible from September to April, depending on your location.
The appearance of the northern lights is typically constrained to eight countries. These are the United States (Alaska), Canada, Denmark (Greenland), Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia. Sometimes the aurora oval (think of the aurora oval like a rain radar map but for the northern lights) dips down into places like the UK, Ireland, the Faroe Islands, the contiguous United States, and the Baltic countries, and a few times a year even further south. But this is not common enough to base a northern lights focused trip in one of those places. All northern lights trips should be based in one of the eight countries mentioned above.
We won’t go through all the best tips for viewing the northern lights in this post. Here we just focus on locations. Below we’ve listed the 10 best places on earth to see the northern lights based on our personal experience as well as information from fellow northern lights hunters. The list is specific locations and not generic locations like “Norway” (duh!).
The locations are vetted based on probability of seeing the northern lights, weather, and winter daytime activities, which is essential to any northern lights based vacation. The list is in no order, so don’t consider it a ranking system.
1: AKUREYRI, NORTHERN ICELAND
The far north of Iceland offers travelers with a wild experience. Significantly less populated than Reykjavik, Akureyri is the de facto capital of northern Iceland. Barely 30,000 people call it home and the small city is tucked away between towering coastal mountains. While northern Iceland gets more snow than the south on average, it often has clearer skies than the Reykjavik region.
The area around Akureyri is quiet and uninhabited, making it the perfect place to avoid light pollution. You’re just south of the Arctic Circle in this part of Iceland, and the aurora oval passer overhead just about every night.
In the daylight hours, the Akureyri region offers numerous recreational activities and some of the most spectacular waterfalls in all of Europe at Godafoss and Dettifoss. These waterfalls also make for incredible backgrounds for northern lights photographs.
2: BETWEEN VIK AND JOKULSARLON, SOUTHERN ICELAND
The Iceland Ring Road between Vik and Jokulsarlon is another one of the best places in the world to see the northern lights. While it’s further from the Arctic Circle, South Iceland often has strong aurora forecasts. There are not too many hotels between Vik and Jokulsarlon but there are dozens of cozy cabins. An Icelandic cabin is perfect to relax in while awaiting the northern lights to make an appearance.
The most famous beach in Iceland – the Reynisfjara Black Sand Beach – is just outside of Vik and provides a beautiful backdrop to the snowcapped cliffs above the beach. Be sure to also check out the Vik i Mydral Church, another excellent place to watch for the northern lights. There’s nothing like the aurora borealis dancing across the sky over an Icelandic church in the middle of nowhere.
About 200 km northeast of Vik you’ll find the glacier lagoon of Jokulsarlon. This is a shallow lagoon full of little icebergs as the base of a giant glacier. The lagoon is practically on the coast, just separated from the beach by a narrow strip of land. The beach – known as Diamond Beach – is also full of tiny icebergs, though they’re more like ice rocks than icebergs.
The backdrop of the Jokulsarlon glacier and lagoon make for an amazing place to see the northern lights. There is not much civilization between Vik and Jokulsarlon. The serious lack of any light pollution adds to the experience of viewing the northern lights in this part of Iceland.
Near Jokulsarlon, you’ll also find the Skaftafell Glacier, one of few glaciers in the world you can still walk on, though only through an organized tour.
3: SNAEFELLSNES PENINSULA, WESTERN ICELAND
Iceland is a country with incredibly natural beauty, and perhaps nothing exemplifies that more than the Snaefellsnes Peninsula. At the western end of the island, this thin volcanic peninsula protrudes out into the North Atlantic Ocean.
A rugged land of volcanoes, geothermal hot springs, and dramatic mountain peaks, the Snaefellsnes Peninsula offers exciting activities for the daylight hours. But when the sun goes down is really when the Snaefellsnes fun begins. The peninsula has very variable weather, and hardly goes too long with complete overcast skies. That means that you have the chance to see the northern lights almost every single night.
The Snaefellsnes Peninsula holds Iceland’s most famous mountain peak, Kirjufell. This sharp peak comes right out of the sea, and w
ith the dueling waterfalls at the base of the mountain (on the other side of the road, however), it makes for one of the most beautiful places to watch the northern lights in Iceland. The dueling waterfalls are a very popular place for northern lights photography, so make sure to stake out a spot for the best photos.
4: TROMSO AND SENJA, NORWAY
Norway offers some of the most dramatic coastal scenery in the world. It also contains one of the most modern and cosmopolitan cities north of the Arctic Circle. Tromso is home to over 70,000 people and is easy to get to, with numerous daily flights from Oslo, Stockholm, Helsinki and Frankfurt and seasonal flights from many other European destinations like London and Paris.
While Tromso has plenty of light pollution, the surrounding region is an Arctic winter paradise, with stunning mountains and very few people. If you drive about 3 hours southwest of Tromso you’ll arrive at the dramatic coast of Senja Island. Senja is one of the most beautiful places in a country full of spectacular natural scenery. It’s relatively unknown on an international scale and offers miles of dark roads perfect for chasing the northern lights.
5: LOFOTEN ISLANDS, NORWAY
The Lofoten Islands are without a doubt the most beautiful place on the planet to watch the northern lights. This chain of islands in Arctic Norway is known for its steep coastal mountains and tropical looking white sand beaches. Very few words can describe just how stunning the Lofoten Islands are. Getting there isn’t even too difficult, as there are a few small airports on the islands that fly to Oslo.
The Lofoten Islands are just above the Arctic Circle and receive about 6 hours of twilight during the polar night. A winter visit will be quite snowy, and many restaurants, museums, and shops will be closed. But hotel and cabin rates are significantly discounted from summer highs, and there is nothing quite like watching the northern lights dance over a jagged peak from your beach cabin in the Lofoten Islands!
6: ROVANIEMI, FINLAND
Of all the places on this list, Rovaniemi in Lapland, Finland is the only destination that is specifically catered to winter travel. Not that nobody visits in the summer, but Rovaniemi’s peak tourist season aligns with northern lights season.
Rovaniemi bills itself as the official home of Santa Claus. Reindeer are everywhere and reindeer sledding is a popular activity in the region. Dog sledding and snowshoeing are also popular in the winter. There’s even a Santa Claus themed village about 5 miles north of town.
Rovaniemi is a decent sized city just south of the Arctic Circle that’s home to over 60,000 people. In recent decades the Rovaniemi tourism board has done an amazing job of attracting international visitors to the region for winter activities. There are numerous igloo hotels and resorts outside of the city that are specifically designed for you to view the northern lights from the comfort of your bed. Some of these resorts even have aurora alarms that will ring in your room whenever the lights are on display just so you don’t miss it.
When it comes to winter luxury in northern lights territory, nothing beats Rovaniemi. There are plenty of budget accommodation options too, however, as Finland in general is cheaper than its Scandinavian counterparts. Rovaniemi is a hip place to visit in the winter though, so expect a lot of other visitors and higher prices than other places in Finland.
6: KILPISJARVI, FINLAND
If you want to go to Lapland, Finland but avoid the hordes of other northern lights seekers, Kilpisjarvi in the far, far north of the country might be for you. Just 2.5 hours from Tromso, Kilpisjarvi is a winter wonderland of boreal forests and frozen lakes perfect for dogsledding under the twilight of the polar night.
Kilpisjarvi is far smaller and cheaper than Rovaniemi as well. There are only a few restaurants and one supermarket. But the lack of humans makes for an amazing place to see the northern lights. There is only one highway in and out of Kilpisjarvi, but there are numerous places to pull over along the road to wait for the northern lights. And with the town being so small, you don’t even really have to do that. You can chill in your cabin and catch the aurora dancing across Saanatunturi mountain to the east of the border with Sweden to the west.
8: ABISKO, SWEDEN
While a little off the radar for most people, the tiny town of Akisko is well known in Sweden for being the best place in the country to see the northern lights. At the very far north of Sweden, Abisko is one of the few places in Sweden with mountains.
More importantly, Abisko is known to be in a particular location that forms pockets of clear skies. As clouds form over the Norwegian mountains to the west, the unique geography and geology of Abisko keeps them away from the valley and surrounding Swedish mountains. Combine the often clear skies with limited light pollution and the fact that the Aurora oval travels across this part of Scandinavia almost every night and you have prime conditions for seeing the northern lights.
During the daylight hours Abisko is not quite as entertaining as some of the other locations on this list. While it’s mostly known for a summer hiking area, snowshoeing and cross-country skiing are common in the winter months. Getting to Abisko is also not too difficult, as it’s near Narvik Airport in Norway. There’s also a train station should you wish to take an epic train journey from Stockholm!
9: YELLOWKNIFE, CANADA
Yellowknife is essentially the middle of nowhere. Located at the northern coast of the Great Slave Lake in the Northwest Territories province of Canada, Yellowknife is difficult and expensive to get to. But if you make the journey to Yellowknife, you’ll likely be treated to a spectacular northern lights show at some point during your trip. The city is small, making it easy to get outside of town and away from any light pollution.
The Canadian skies are dark up here, and the aurora oval often hovers over Yellowknife. Being so far from any ocean, the skies are usually clear for days on end, meaning your chances of seeing the northern lights are high. The only thing you really have to manage in Yellowknife is the bitter cold.
It’s far, far colder in this part of the world than it is in Iceland or Scandinavia. Think -30 degrees cold. At that point it doesn’t even matter if that’s in Fahrenheit or Celsius. It’s just plain cold. But for those who brave the cold and come prepared with proper clothing, seeing the northern lights over the frozen Canadian tundra is an experience not soon to be forgotten.
10: IN AND AROUND FAIRBANKS, ALASKA
While the best places to see the northern lights in the United States might be in the far north of Alaska, places like Barrow and Gates of the Arctic are difficult to get to and unforgiving during the polar night. This makes Fairbanks the de facto northern lights capital of the U.S. Located about 200 miles south of the Arctic Circle, the Fairbanks region falls within the Aurora oval on most nights and offers vast adventure opportunities during the daylight hours.
The city of Fairbanks is home to about 33,000 people. It’s a little city, but its size means that you usually have to get outside of town away from artificial light to chase the northern lights. This is easy, however, with ample roads in and out of the city. During the day, it’s a short 20-minute drive to the Christmas-themed village of North Pole, Alaska, where you can celebrate Christmas every day of the year and maybe even catch northern lights show over Santa’s workshop!
BONUS: SVALBARD, NORWAY
If you’ve never heard of Svalbard, it’s a chain of islands in the Arctic Ocean that is so far north you can basically see Santa Claus. At 78 degrees north, its capital city of Longyearbyen is the furthest north continuously inhabited place on earth. It’s only about 650 miles south of the North Pole and is inhabited by blood-thirsty polar bears.
Up here, the polar night gets literal. From November 13 to January 29 the sky is pitch black. There is no twilight. The sun finally rises in mid-February and the days increase in length rapidly from there. The complete and utter darkness makes seeing the northern lights possible 24 hours a day, though the nighttime hours will still offer the best chances.
Svalbard isn’t on most people’s radar for northern lights trips, as the complete darkness can be difficult to adjust to and winter temperatures are dangerously cold. But should you wish to experience 24-hour darkness there are daily direct flights to Oslo even through the heart of winter. And as for the polar bears? You don’t have to worry about them in the winter while they are hibernating.
Some effective tips for viewing the Northern Lights
- Select an appropriate time and location: For optimal viewing, plan to visit remote areas or high latitudes during the winter months (September to March) when there is less light pollution.
- Monitor the weather conditions: Clear skies are crucial for seeing the Northern Lights, so be sure to check the weather forecast in advance.
- Exercise patience: Seeing the Northern Lights is not guaranteed, so be prepared to spend several nights searching for them.
- Dress appropriately: Northern Lights viewing can be cold and lengthy, so dress warmly in layers and bring proper gear such as hand warmers, hats, gloves, and sturdy footwear.
- Bring necessary equipment: A camera with manual controls, a tripod, remote shutter release, and extra batteries are recommended for capturing the Northern Lights.
- Consider booking a tour: If you are unsure of how to find the Northern Lights or where to go, consider booking a guided tour with a local expert who can provide transportation, knowledge, and equipment.
By following these tips, you can increase your chances of witnessing the captivating beauty of the Northern Lights and make the most of your experience.
Conclusion on where to see Northern Lights
Experiencing the Northern Lights is an exceptionally magical encounter that every individual must encounter at least once in their life. The striking display of vivid lights elegantly swirling across the sky is an extraordinary view that cannot be replicated anywhere else on the planet. Not only is it a spectacular sight to behold, but it also induces a feeling of amazement and admiration that can make you feel both insignificant yet connected to the vast universe surrounding us. The Northern Lights serve as a reminder of the exceptional beauty and enigma of our planet and the universe we exist in. Observing them firsthand presents a chance to escape the daily stressors of life and immerse yourself in a natural wonder that has fascinated people for centuries. Hence, seize the opportunity to witness one of the most awe-inspiring natural wonders globally and go and see the Northern Lights for yourself.
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