If you’re an avid globetrotter or a first-time solo backpacker, then your bucket list is probably a prized possession and we highly recommend adding a trip to see the northern lights, if it’s not already there this winter.
Some background on the phenomenon – the northern lights, or the aurora borealis, are most often seen in Northern Scandinavia in a band that stretches between 66°N and 69°N called the aurora zone. Colorful lights dance across the sky when electrically charged solar particles and atoms in earth’s atmosphere collide with gasses, causing the oxygen and nitrogen to emit light.
Catching them in action takes a bit of patience and luck, as the light spectacle is a fleeting event and you also need to know when and where to get your best shot at taking in the aurora borealis.
Here are five top destinations for seeing the northern lights up close and personal:
- Lapland, Finland
- Lapland, Sweden
- Tromsø, Norway
- Reykjavik, Iceland
- Yukon, Canada
1. Lapland, Finland
Lapland is located in the Arctic circle and straddles Finland and Sweden in the northernmost part of both countries. The Finnish side of Lapland has many unique features – our favorite being it’s the North Pole, home to Santa Claus and up to 200,000 reindeer!
Stay at a glass igloo at Santa’s Hotel Aurora in Luosto, located in the picturesque Pyhä-Luosto National Park. There you can grab a sleigh ride through the snow-covered forests at the Jaakkola Reindeer Farm which warmly comes with a bonfire camp chock-full of snacks, hot beverages and maybe even a Rudolph sighting.
Or opt to stay at the famed Kakslauttanen Resort where you don’t even need to get out of bed to catch the northern lights. Simply lay back and look up through your glass-domed igloo as you drift off to catch the aurora lights dancing across the night sky above.
2. Lapland, Sweden
Located just to the west of Finland is the magical wilderness of Swedish Lapland. It’s located in one of the coldest places in the world and offers a few unparalleled northern lights experiences.
If you manage to nab a winter stay at the Ice Hotel, you may meet some of the passionate artists who gather in the town of Jukkasjäarvi to build a new rendition of this Arctic wonder annually as in spring, before the hotel melts back into nature. The owners did add a hotel structure so you can visit all year round, but what makes the original location special is the cold suites with temperatures ranging from 17-23 degrees Fahrenheit and an Ice Room with a bed made of, well, ice.
The Ice Hotel offers plenty of advice on how to dress and what to bring, and they offer bucket list-worthy excursions like a snowmobile safari, nightly photography tours to catch the aurora borealis away from light pollution and a visit to the Aurora Sky Station in Abisko. With its high altitude position, the station has optimal conditions for viewing the lights.
Another option is the Arctic Bath Hotel and Spa, a floating oasis in a remote part of Lapland. It’s one of the best locations for catching the northern lights due to its remote location. You can choose from the land, water or suite accommodation, all equipped with wood-burning stoves and skylights to view the show. With a full range of activities from a moose safari to skiing, a first-class restaurant and a fully equipped spa and wellness center, you’ll have plenty to do in the middle of nowhere. And if relaxing is the goal, the best feature is their plunge pool with its unrestricted view of the aurora borealis at its finest.
3. Tromsø, Norway
Based in the heart of the aurora zone, just 220 miles above the arctic circle, Tromsø is northern Norway’s largest city. From September to March this part of Norway is completely dark from early afternoon until late afternoon, hence the high probability of seeing the lights.
Tromsø itself is a modern city, so there are plenty of things to do when you’re not busy chasing aurora, including exploring fjords, whale watching and snowmobiling. And come January-February of each year, the city hosts the Northern Lights Festival, a 10-day music and performing arts event.
We suggest lodging a bit outside the city to avoid noise and light pollution. Just eleven miles from the Tromsø airport is Camp North Tour where you can take in an authentic nature experience, staying in tents equipped with a fireplace and cozy blankets.
If you’re down to travel a bit further, The Aurora Borealis Observatory, located on Senja Island, is a must. Their glass igloos give you a nearly 360-degree view of the sky, all from the comfort of a warm winter wonderland resort. The hotel also offers traditional styles of suites, with huge windows so you can appreciate the aurora light show from the comfort of your room.
4. Reykjavik, Iceland
Iceland’s capital is a favorite for travelers due to its geothermal pools, volcano tours, delicious culinary taste, hikes and warm culture. There is so much to see and do, and even if you don’t manage to catch the northern lights, it’s still worth the trip.
But this is all about chasing aurora, so your best shot is to travel a bit out of the city once you’ve explored all it has to offer. Located 90 minutes outside Reykjavík, Hotel Ranga awaits. To make sure you don’t miss the main event, the staff will wake you up when the lights appear so you can take them in from their observatory that boasts a retractable roof. And to top it off, local astronomers are there to assist you with identifying the planets and the stars above using Iceland’s largest telescope. You can also take part in whale watching, dog sledding to glaciers and freshwater fishing during your stay.
If you prefer something closer to Reykjavik, Ion Adventure Hotel provides an unforgettable experience. Built from an old geothermal power plant building, it’s ecologically friendly and conveniently located in one of the best spots to see the northern lights fill the sky. One of the highlights is the Northern Lights Bar with its dimmed lighting and wraparound windows where you can watch the aurora inside, with your favorite drink and an exquisite meal.
Another out of the box option is to view the northern lights in the air. Travelers who take a flight on Icelandair from North America to Europe might be lucky enough to look out the window and see the spectacular sight from above. In an effort to encourage travelers to spend some time in Iceland, Icelandair’s created the Hekla Aurora plane, which allows passengers to fly overnight close to the Arctic Circle and engulf themselves in the dancing lights without cloud cover from above. And if you miss the show, the aircraft features dramatic LED-lighting overhead in the cabin that looks and feels like the real deal.
5. Yukon, Canada
Yukon, Canada is remote, wild and beautiful. Vast wilderness at its finest, except for the local bears and caribou who roam freely below the breathtaking snow-covered peaks or the occasional town and village. The colorful blanket of the northern lights here can only be described as pure magic.
If your next adventure finds you here, consider the Northern Lights Resort and Spa in Whitehorse which features aurora glass chalets, complete with ﬂoor-to-ceiling windows for prime views while you’re snuggled in bed. You can pamper yourself at the spa or choose from a variety of cold-weather activities like dog sledding, snowshoeing or soaking in the local hot springs.
Another Canadian option is Yellowknife, which is known as the “Aurora Capital of North America,” due to its prime location and excellent viewing conditions. From the shores of Great Slave Lake, you have a 95% chance of spotting the lights from August to March. So if you want the best bet, this might be it.
In Yellowknife, you can watch the aurora borealis in all its glory at Aurora Village, an Aboriginal-owned experience. Stay the night in a homey teepee and nab a 360-degree view of the night sky from custom-made, heated outdoor seats that swivel all the way around so you never miss the lights.
Ready to take on aurora?
The northern lights are a spectacle that everyone should experience at least once in their lives. Though catching them is never guaranteed, you can check the latest conditions with 30-minute forecasts of the lights show from the Space and Weather Prediction Center which is based on real-time data.
It’s time to book that winter adventure, and we’d love to tag along.