Witnessing the Aurora Borealis is an unforgettable experience that many people wait a lifetime for – because conditions must be perfect for this spectacular spectacle to take place. But here's the good news: if you choose the right time and spend time in Scandinavia or other northern countries, you'll often be rewarded with a glimpse of the stunning lights. Thanks to the longer darkness and the clear night sky, the months of December to March are usually the best time to observe this natural phenomenon. However, there are places where sightings are possible all year round.
Northern Sweden and Finland
Sweden's northernmost city, Kiruna, is considered Scandinavia's gateway to nearby attractions. These include the ice hotel, the mountainous Abisko National Park, the local Sami culture and numerous reindeer. A short drive from town takes you to an ideal spot for aurora viewing. The weather here is much more stable than on the rest of the coast of Scandinavia. In the nearby Finnish region of Lapland, Rovaniemi serves as a gateway to several national parks. In winter you can see here besides the northern lights also frozen snow covered trees, the so called Tykky sculptures.
Northern Lights in Finnish Lapland
The largest urban area in northern Norway is located about 350 kilometers north of the Arctic Circle. However, thanks to the Gulf Stream, temperatures on this coast of Scandinavia are surprisingly moderate. There are also beautiful landscapes, magnificent fjords and the Lyngen Alps. Spectacular auroras are often seen from the village of Ersfjordbotn, just under 20 kilometers from Tromsø, which is why Scandinavia is often frequented at this location.
In Scotland, the lights have a particularly romantic sounding name: "Mirrie Dancers". They can be seen throughout the UK in the autumn and winter months – even in the south of England, in Kent and East Anglia. However, it is best to head for the northernmost parts of the Highlands or the Shetland Islands, where there is little light pollution. While you're there, head to the Isle of Lewis to see an ancient man-made wonder: the Calanais Standing Stones, a circular rock formation believed to have been formed 5.000 years ago. Before you head out, sign up for AuroraWatch UK for information on viewing conditions so you never miss a sighting.
Auroras over the Calanais Standing Stones
Even without the Northern Lights, Iceland is an exceptional destination with its glaciers, geysers, massive waterfalls and volcanoes. Both latitude and longitude favor viewing the auroras in good weather. You can chase the clear skies on the coastal roads that run around the country. When activity is high, the Northern Lights can even be seen from the suburbs of ReykjavIk – the Grotta lighthouse, for example, is a popular vantage point. And anywhere else on the island, skywatchers can marvel at the dancing lights from outdoor hot tubs, bubble huts and hot spring lagoons.
With minimal light pollution and near-perfect visibility in some places, Greenland offers exceptional opportunities for observing the milky green lights. A stay of three or four nights during the aurora season between September and early April offers the best chance of seeing the lights. For example, pull into the igloos on the edge of the Ilulissat Icefjord to do so. The double rooms are equipped with electric heating, television and a small bathroom. If you prefer something more rustic, plan a trip to Kangerlussuaq. Northern lights are sighted 300 nights a year at this former U.S. military base near the airport. In addition, aurora excursions are offered that include a tour to observe the phenomenon and an overnight stay on the Greenland Ice Sheet.
No light pollution at all: aurora in Greenland
Cherry Springs State Park, Pennsylvania, USA
Cherry Springs State Park, located away from major cities like Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, is dedicated to preserving its exceptionally dark skies. The area is even classified as a "Gold Level International Dark Sky Park" – the highest designation awarded by the International Dark Sky Association. The park uses special lighting fixtures that do not interfere with visibility and has strict rules about flashlights and car headlights. Even if you miss the aurora borealis, you're all but assured an extraordinary view of the stars. Check the park's website for special events such as astronomy programs and public observation nights.
The capital of the Northwest Territories on the shores of Great Slave Lake has its own Aurora Village and special activities for Northern Lights tourism. Canada is a paradise for aurora viewing thanks to its northern location and low light pollution. In other parts of the country, Wood Buffalo and Jasper National Park are popular sighting spots.
Yellowknife: Auroras over the Aurora Village
From August to mid-April, the Northern Lights swirl across the skies of Canada's Yukon Territory. Depending on cloud cover, light pollution and auroral activity, you can watch the neon greens and yellows for hours on end. At the Northern Lights Centre in Watson Lake, you can learn more about the science – and folklore – surrounding these colors of lights. There are also many hotels, restaurants and other establishments locally that offer special events centered around the Aurora Borealis.
Fairbanks, Alaska, USA
Just two latitudes below the Arctic near the international airport and stunning Denali National Park, Fairbanks is one of the best places in the U.S. to see the northern lights. The town even has its own forecasting system and offers tours that take visitors far away from the city lights. The best time to visit is from late August to mid-April, when you will be treated to an unparalleled natural spectacle.
Aurora over Fairbanks
Tasmania and New Zealand
Much more commonly referred to as the Northern Lights than the Southern Lights (Aurora Australis), as there are fewer places in the southern hemisphere where you can observe the spectacle. The best chances are on the island of Tasmania, which is part of Australia, and at the southern tip of New Zealand, where you can see active auroras above the southern horizon in dark skies. These are the places closest to the magnetic South Pole – apart from Antarctica. By the way, the best chance to see the lights is during the equinox.