6 best places to see the Northern Lights this year
Would you like to see the 'Northern Lights', or Aurora Borealis? Viewing their unearthly colours and sounds in the night sky above a snowy Arctic wilderness is on many bucket lists. Let us make those dreams come true! We answer the important questions on when and where you can see the Northern Lights for yourself, including tips for Aurora hunting in:
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Where to watch the Northern Lights \ Aurora Borealis:
1. Svalbard, Norway
You can't get much further north than Svalbard. Up between the 74th and 81st parallel, this island belonging to Norway is well into the Arctic circle - and generally the higher the latitude, the better your chances of seeing the Aurora. The Northern Lights season is between November and February, but the majority of visitors come to experience a different natural phenomenon: the Polar Night. Between mid-November and the end of January, Svalbard is without daylight and in the eerie blue twilight, there are often more Aurora viewing opportunities. Visit outside of this period (ie. when you can see) and you'll be well-compensated with chances to spot reindeer, walrus and polar bears, as seen on Frozen Planet.
How to get to Svalbard: There are flights from the UK to Oslo, then onto Longyearbyen - the main settlement on Svalbard and logical base for a visit, with its handy Basecamp hotel. We mentioned Tromso in last year’s guide - you might find that more accessible.
Best time to book flights from the UK to Norway: Seven weeks before departure.
2. Kakslauttanen, Finland
At the Kakslauttanen Arctic Resort in Finnish Lapland, you can Aurora gaze from the comfort of your own glass igloo, and stay in a traditional log cabin complete with sauna and open fire. If the Lights don’t play ball, try snowy activities such as a reindeer safari or rent some walking skis to explore the nearby Urho National Park. Planning for a Christmas holiday for next winter? It's a mere two hours to the Russian border by road to see Santa in his home at Korvatunturi - or you could take the more traditional route, via dog sled, through the park (and avoid the border crossing).
How to get to Kakslauttanen: There are no direct flights to Ivalo (a 30 minute ride from the hotel) from the UK, but there are flights from Manchester, London and Edinburgh with stop-offs in Helsinki. Alternatively, you could fly into Helsinki, and make your own way up north.
Best time to book flights from the UK to Finland: 24 weeks before departure.
3. Jukkasjärvi, Sweden
The village of Jukkasjärvi in the Kiruna region of Sweden is home to the country's first ice hotel. Northern Lights tours by night flight operate from Jukkasjärvi, but down at ground level, take a tour of the Esrange Space Center, where you can admire Sweden’s starry skies if the Aurora isn’t visible. There are plenty more (cheaper) options for places to stay in Kiruna than an ice hotel, and you can still see the Lights, as well as do fun winter activities like snowmobiling.
How to get to Jukkasjärvi: The northern part of Sweden is pretty remote so you’ll have to fly to Stockholm before flying on to Kiruna. There are alternative travel options but the road is long (36 hours!) so we'd recommend waking up to the magical snow-laden scenery on a night train direct from Stockholm (prices vary according to 'comfort level', see Sweden's national rail website for details).
Best time to book flights from the UK to Sweden: 19 weeks before departure.
4. Reykjavik, Iceland
Reykjavik is still the most affordable and accessible place to see the Northern Lights, but it’s getting more popular. In January 2015, 9,003 Britons visited Iceland, probably because, Lights aside, there’s plenty to fascinate about this land of geysers, volcanoes and blue ice. The Blue Lagoon geothermal spa is on the way to the capital from Keflavík International Airport, stays steamy all year round and costs €40 online for a standard day ticket. And don't miss hunting out Iceland’s Game of Thrones locations while you're in the country.
How to get to Reykjavik: Thanks to easyJet, flights are reasonable: at the time of writing, the cheapest return flights are from Edinburgh, Birmingham and London Luton. Accommodation can be pretty pricey, but have a look for deals with budget hotels like Alba Guesthouse. If you've ever considered visiting Greenland, you can fly there from Reykjavik. It's extreme, but the Aurora is visible from late September to early April.
Best time to book flights from the UK to Iceland: 14 weeks before departure.
5. Northern Canada
With the cost of a long-haul flight to factor in, Canada is more expensive compared to the other destinations on this list. However, the 'Aurora Oval' covers the majority of the country, including the provinces of Yukon, Northern Saskatchewan, Northwest Territories, Newfoundland, Nova Scotia and British Columbia. Canadian Geographic have a brilliant map of aurora locations online, and Dark Sky Finder so you can zero in on prime Aurora viewing spots. With the right conditions, you’re highly likely to see the Northern Lights in Canada, and you can fill the rest of your holiday with skiing at resorts like the huge 8000-acre site at Whistler Blackcomb in British Columbia. Around an hour and a half's drive south is Vancouver, a good base if you fancy some city action, as well as myriad waterfalls and whale-watching opportunities. Take a look at our top tips for a fantastic trip to Vancouver.
Best time to book flights from the UK to Canada: 30 weeks before departure.
6. Scotland, United Kingdom
You don’t have to travel far to be within eyesight of the Northern Lights. In February this year, the coast of Caithness in the far north of Scotland was one of the best places to see the Aurora Borealis – check out the seriously awesome video below.
Scotland has a fair few places for finding a dark sky at northerly latitudes and if Aurora activity is forecast it's not far to do an on-spec Lights chase. If you want winter adventures too, Aviemore and the Cairngorms National Park is a good bet, although you may have to get up high somewhere like Glenshee for snow cover. However, as the frost melts and winter edges towards spring in the Cairngorms, there are all manner of activities you can try, from munroe-bagging (that's mountain climbing to you and me) up Cairn Gorm mountain itself to hiring a bicycle in the Royal village of Ballater and going for a ride in the beautiful nature reserves near the Queen's Scottish home, Balmoral.
How to get to Scotland: Fly to Edinburgh or Glasgow and jump on a train up to Aviemore (around 3 hours from either city), or fly to Inverness for places further north. Alternatively, make like James Bond and hit the lonely roads of Glencoe and other famous locations as you drive through Scotland - the views as you go aren't bad either.
Best time to book flights from the UK to Scotland: 18 weeks before departure.
Cross the Irish Sea and you'll find plenty of opportunities to see the Northern Lights in Ireland. The most northerly point in the whole of Ireland is actually in the Republic, at Malin Head in County Donegal. This area was subject to a striking display of activity a few years ago, though March 2016 saw the Northern Lights reach as far south as County Cork. Stay in the nearby town of Inishowen if you want a base for a few nights - the excellent Inishowen Lodge B&B on the other side of the headland has views across the water to Northern Ireland from the terrace. If you're extra keen, pop over the border and chase the Lights all the way along the beautiful shores of County Antrim or the 'Causeway Coast'. Find more spectacular places to look for Northern Lights, right on your doorstep, with our guide to spotting Aurora in the UK.
How to get to Ireland: Donegal has its own airport, a couple of hours' drive from Inishowen. NI's Derry-Londonderry airport is even closer, at under an hour away (a good excuse to explore both sides of the border!).
Best time to book flights from the UK to Ireland: 16 weeks before departure.
And in case you were missing the basics ✔️
What are the Northern Lights?
Named after the Roman goddess of dawn, the Aurora occurs when highly-charged electrons from the solar wind collide with different atmospheric elements in the area around the North Pole. They work in an 11-year cycle, and we’re currently in a phase of high activity after 2014's 'solar maximum'. Normally, the Northern Lights will stay active for two to three years either side of this period of high activity, meaning that this year could be your last opportunity to see them!
When is the best time to see the Northern Lights?
As with many natural phenomena, the Northern Lights are unpredictable and it's hard to say with any scientific certainty when the best time to see them is. You're most likely to see them between September to March, but just remember to stay away from artificial light.
Technically, they're 'on' all year round, it's just that the summer sun makes them invisible from about April until August. However, conditions can be very different throughout this period: the autumn months bring fairer weather, good if you don't think you could stand the Arctic winter, while the long dark nights during January to March offer some of the best chances to catch the lights in action above the thick, pristine snow.
Where can you see the Northern Lights?
Although we can't predict far in advance when the magic solar winds will appear for each and every light show (get the latest on the Aurora forecast), we can advise on some of the best Northern Lights viewing points, and offer some alternative activities for when there's a no-show.
Read on for more suggestions on atmospheric and downright magical travel destinations 👇
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