It’s no surprise that glimpsing the Northern Lights tops most people’s bucket lists. The ethereal display of dancing colours is possibly the most-awe-inspiring sight in the world. But like any natural phenomena, the Aurora Borealis is as elusive as it is beautiful. So how can you maximise your chances of bagging a front row seat to the greatest show on earth?
Here’s a bit of science to get you started. This year and next, Auroras will be coming from the sun’s coronal holes – bear with us – and these are more predictable than the lights in other periods, which are from coronal mass ejections that cause big geomagnetic storms. So this year, you can use a 27-day solar rotation to estimate when they’ll show up. Luckily the Space Weather Prediction Centre has done it for you.
So now you know your ejections from your coronal holes, you can plan the fun bit with our round-up of the best places in the world to see Mother Nature’s brilliant magic trick.
1. Abisko, Sweden – fly from £21
The most sparsely populated country in Northern Europe, Sweden is prime Northern Lights territory. It’s also home to the famous Icehotel in the village of Jukkasjärvi in the Kiruna region, a real must-visit with its artist-designed rooms and ice bar. But die-hard aurora hunters should head further north to the small village of Abisko. Its location in the middle of the Skanderna mountain range creates the perfect conditions for light viewing, as the snowy peaks keep the clouds apart for clearer skies. Plus, the almost total lack of light pollution means even the weaker auroras can be seen here. Don’t miss a night visit to the Aurora Sky Station, where an open chair lift floats you up to an observation deck on a mountainside. No wonder this is considered one of the best places in the world to see the great spectacle.
Where to stay: The small and friendly Abisko Mountain Lodge offers various aurora hunting tours, including a snowshoe walk through the wilderness, a guided snowmobile ride or – the warmest option – a minibus drive to coastal viewing spots.
Getting there: The northern part of Sweden is remote, so you’ll have to fly to Stockholm and get a connecting flight to Kiruna before taking the train or bus from there. Or take the night train direct from Stockholm (prices vary according to ‘comfort level’, see Sweden’s national rail website for details).
2. Tromsø, Norway – fly from £78
The largest city in northern Norway, Tromsø covers all bases when it comes to aurora hunting. Its 70-degree north location gives you fantastic odds of seeing the lights, while the abundance of cosy cafés and restaurants will keep your spirits up if nature doesn’t call. Surrounded by fjords, mountains and islands, the scenery isn’t bad, either. Light season is from September to April, and to see them at their brightest it’s wise to escape the glow of the city and take a light hunting tour – hitch a ride on a polar-night dog sled or take a snowmobile adventure. If you visit in autumn, you could be lucky enough to see the sweeping colours reflected in the not-yet-frozen waters. And if you’re there in January-February you can have a Borealis ball at the Northern Lights Festival.
Where to stay: Clarion Collection Aurora Hotel in Tromsø offers three night stays with one night in a Crystal ‘Lavvo’ (a glass-roofed tepee to you and me).
Getting there: There are direct flights from London Gatwick to Tromsø or you can reach it via Oslo from Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Manchester.
3. Reykjavik, Iceland – fly from £50
The hugely popular Icelandic capital is still one of the cheapest and most accessible places to see the lights perform, but if they don’t there are plenty of other natural wonders to discover. Iceland isn’t a snowy winter wonderland like Finland, Sweden and Norway, but what it lacks in reindeers and snow-mobiles it makes up for in geysers, volcanoes and its famous Blue Lagoon. You’ll need to venture out of the city for darker skies, and there are countless Northern Light tours from Reykjavik. Admire the sweeping colours in all their glory from the water with a boat cruise or join a super jeep tour for an adrenaline-fuelled aurora chase.
Where to stay: The Northern Light Inn, between the airport and the city, is a snowball’s throw from the Blue Lagoon geothermal spa, so if you’re lucky you could watch the lights illuminate the sky as you bathe in the hot springs. Or stay dry and take your seat in front of the hotel restaurant’s panoramic window.
How to get there: There are frequent direct flights to Reykjavik from several UK airports, including London Gatwick, London Luton, Glasgow, Leeds, Bristol, Birmingham and Belfast.
4. Moray Coast, Scotland – fly from £45
If you don’t want to go too off-grid on a deserted island in the Outer Hebrides, there are still plenty of viewing opportunities on the Scottish mainland. The Moray Coast, which stretches east of the Highlands’ capital Inverness, is a good choice if you want to be near some non-aurora-based action. The little town of Nairn overlooking the Moray Firth boasts a sunny, dry microclimate, which means perfect light-spotting conditions. By day, you can admire the rugged coast and try to spot the Firth’s famous dolphins or grab a traditional Scottish lunch in Inverness before perusing the stalls at the Victorian Market.
Where to stay: On the banks of the Firth, Invernairne Hotel has the perfect vantage point, with nothing but the sea and the inky black horizon stretching beyond the grounds. A private path leads down from the extensive gardens to the beach, and the hotel has a well-stocked whisky bar to warm you up after a hopeful stroll.
How to get there: Fly to Inverness direct from London, Birmingham and Belfast and Nairn is just a 15-minute drive away.
5. Yukon, Canada – fly from £582
If you’re willing to venture further afield to up your chances of seeing the lights, you’ll be spoilt for choice in the vast expanses of northern Canada. The ‘aurora oval’ sweeps across most of the country, including the vast province of Yukon, where sightings are almost a given with the right conditions. Covering an area larger than Belgium, Denmark, Germany and the Netherlands combined, to say Yukon has a lot of space is possibly the world’s biggest understatement. And with only 38,000 inhabitants, 30k of whom live in Whitehorse, most of that space is empty with virtually zero light pollution – bingo! Autumn is a great time to visit if you want to avoid the harsh deep winter – and you can catch the leaves changing colour with a city break to Vancouver tagged on. Or head over around the March equinox, which is said to coincide with increased solar activity.
Where to stay: The Northern Lights Resort & Spa in the Yukon river valley, is unveiling three new Aurora Glass Chalets this year. Bookable from December, they come complete with panoramic windows, in-floor heating and a fireplace. Just try not to fall asleep before the lights arrive!
How to get to there: You can fly from London Heathrow to Whitehorse (a 20-minute drive from the hotel) with a stop-off at Vancouver.
6. Fairbanks, Alaska – fly from £541
If you really want to feel like you tried your absolute hardest to see the Northern Lights, pack your puffa and head to Fairbanks Alaska. At 65 degrees north, the sky here is a canvas for the sweeping colours, which are on show four out of five nights from August to April. In fact, if you brave the cold here for a minimum of three nights you’ll up your chances of success to 90%! Aside from the main attraction, Alaska’s vast wilderness, pristine rivers and lakes and majestic mountains will send your Instagram into meltdown, while there’s also a vibrant arts scene and the charming downtown area is well worth checking out.
Where to stay: Just over an hour’s drive east of Fairbanks, you’ll find even better viewing conditions at Chena Hot Springs Resort. Enjoy the show from the toasty outdoor pools or the on-site ‘Aurorium’. And if you stay in the Moose Lodge, you can even get a wake-up call if the lights suddenly appear at 3am!
How to get there: You can fly from the UK to Fairbanks with one or more stop-offs at Reykjavik and Seattle.
All flight and prices mentioned in this article are estimates of the cheapest prices based on Skyscanner’s flight search tools. These are subject to change and were correct at time of writing on 2nd October 2018.
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