I’ve always wanted to see the Northern Lights – where are the best places to go to maximise my chances of catching this incredible natural show?
The northern lights, or aurora borealis, are the result of solar wind particles travelling towards the earth’s magnetic poles colliding with gas molecules, the outcome of which is visible light. The colours depend on the gas; green most common and is generated by collision with oxygen; blue or red can also be seen and is caused by collisions with nitrogen.
This phenomenon happens most prominently, close to the Arctic Magnetic Pole, a few degrees south of the true North Pole. This “Northern Light Zone” includes parts of Alaska, southern Greenland, northern Siberia, Iceland and northern Norway, Sweden and Finland.
Once you’ve picked your destination, you need clear skies and darkness to see the northern lights, which is why winter, between September and April, is best when there are long hours of darkness in the northern hemisphere.
Many of the places in the Northern Light Zone lay claim to being the best place to see them. Your choice just depends on how far you want to fly and what else you want to do with your break; after all, you need to be prepared for the possibility that you won’t see the lights at all.
Iceland is a good choice because of the number of flights from the UK to Reykjavik, and the city’s choice of hotels, its nightlife and cuisine. You may even get a light show from the city centre, but if not there are viewing spots less than an hour from the city, and free from light pollution.
There are plenty of companies offering excursions. In any destination, try to find a tour that is accompanied by an expert, and even better, one that offers last-minute date changes in case clouds threaten to obscure your view.
Some companies, such as Extreme Iceland, which offers an evening tour for £30, will cancel its excursion if the weather is cloudy. As will Iceland Total, which offers small group tours by jeep from £90.
If you want to stay in Reykjavik, the city’s original hip hotel is 101 on Hverfisgata and is a sleek property that offers stylish, monochrome rooms from around £140. The bar and restaurant are buzzing in the evening and offer a modern take on Icelandic food.
Not too far from the city, about 40 minutes by car or bus, is Iceland’s most popular attraction, the Blue Lagoon, if you fancy a steamy dip and a mudpack. There’s also shopping on Reykjavik’s Laugavegur street, a mix of boutiques and larger stores, and the Reykjavik Art Museum on Asmundursafn, which has a large collection of contemporary art across three venues.
Another European option is Abisko, a Swedish village in the Arctic Circle that claims to have the best cloud-free viewing conditions in Sweden. You can reach it via overnight train from Stockholm or plane from Stockholm to Kiruna, then on to Abisko by road.
You can buy tickets for the Aurora Sky Station for around £65 including chairlift to the station and viewing in the warmth of a thick overall. Or you can splash out and stay overnight (albeit on a camp bed) for £285 including dinner, breakfast and the chairlift.
If you want slightly more luxurious surroundings, the Abisko Mountain Lodge has rooms, self-catering chalets and cabins for up to six people from £70 a night. Other activities on offer include ice climbing, snow shoeing, cross-country skiing, a chance to stay with the local Sami people and avalanche awareness training.
If you’d like to go a little further, Canada lays claim to being one of the best northern lights spots in the world. If you want to get really geeky about the northern lights and learn a bit more about astronomy, you could enrol in one of the five-day courses at The Churchill Northern Studies Centre in Hudson Bay. It’s a short hop by plane from Winnipeg and has aurora and astronomy courses as well as being a good spot from which to see the lights (with at least five nights of sky-gazing opportunities).
There are also activities like dog sledding and digging snow holes, plus lectures on local history, wildlife and folklore. The five-day course costs £640pp, including shared accommodation, meals, lectures and excursions.