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Where to see the Northern Lights in the UK

In any normal year Iceland would be top of the list to experience the phenomena but with it just being added to the quarantine restriction list, Skyscanner gives its Aurora Borealis alternatives including several quarantine-free options abroad and in the UK.

Is seeing the Aurora Borealis on your bucket list? You might be surprised to learn that you can witness the Northern Lights in the UK. If you want to increase your chances of catching the lights there are also several quarantine-free options abroad. Our guide explains it all.

Circumstances can change quickly. This article was last updated on 24 September 2020. For more up-to-date information, our handy travel restrictions map is updated every morning with the latest information about where you can go. With Scotland announcing a two week lockdown from Friday 9th October you may have to wait a little longer before you can experience the Northern Lights here. Remember to always check local government guidelines before travelling.

What are the best destinations for seeing the Northern Lights in the UK?

  1. The Scottish Highlands
  2. The Scottish Isles
  3. The Lake District
  4. Northumberland
  5. The southwest of England
  6. Northern Ireland
  7. Wales

Where can I see the Northern Lights abroad without having to quarantine?

  1. Sweden
  2. Norway
The remote Scottish Highlands are light pollution free - after dark, they're perfect for spotting the Northern Lights in the UK

The Scottish Highlands

The Dark Sky National Parks are on the same latitude as Nunivak Island in Alaska and Stavanger in Norway – two of the world’s greatest places to catch a glimpse of the Aurora Borealis. The lack of light pollution makes the Scottish highlands a fantastic place to observe the Northern Lights, with green, pink and white being the most commonly observed hues. Try Aberdeenshire and the Moray Coast, along with the Cairngorm mountains and Tomintoul & Glenlivet area – Cairngorms Dark Sky Park – the most northernly Dark Sky Park in the world.

The Orkney Islands are free of light pollution. Come nighttime, they're one of the best spots to see the Northern Lights in the UK

The Scottish Isles

The Northern Lights are regularly spotted from Scotland’s remote islands especially during the winter months. The tiny islands of Lewis and Harris and the northern tip of the Isle of Skye are great options. Intrepid explorers should also consider checking out the Orkney Islands and the Brough of Birsay.

Derwent Water near Keswick has made headlines for sightings of the Northern Lights in the UK

The Lake District

The Lake District has experienced some impressive activity in recent years especially in Derwent Water near Keswick. With its majestic lakes and mountainous terrain, the Lake District makes the perfect backdrop for the Northern Lights taking your experience to another level. In February 2020 a stargazing festival was held in Keswick by the Cockermouth Astronomical Society. Keep an eye on their website for news of a 2021 event (coronavirus restrictions permitting).

Take a hike along the UK's Hadrian's Wall and you might spot the Northern Lights come nightfall

Northumberland

Along with being the most northerly county in England, Northumberland claims to have the darkest skies in England. Both of which make it one of the better places to catch a glimpse of the Aurora Borealis. Sightings are often reported near Berwick-on-Tweed and over Kielder Water and Forest Park. Even if you get unlucky with the Northern Lights, being able to see the Milky Way and even the Andromeda Galaxy with the naked eye will make it worth the trip.

North Devon is, unexpectedly, one of the best places for seeing the Northern Lights in the UK

The southwest of England

While you’re unlikely to see the Northern Lights from southern England’s larger towns, head into the countryside and you might strike lucky. Exmoor National Park is also an International Dark Sky Reserve. The Oxfordshire countryside has experienced Northern Lights in recent years as have parts of Cornwall. Incredible right?

Giant's Causeway is impressive enough in the daytime, but after the sun sets it's one of the best places to see the Northern Lights in the UK

Northern Ireland

If you thought the Giant’s Causeway was dramatic enough, try seeing these ancient volcanic rocks bathed in solar light. The Antrim coast is the perfect place to see the Northern Lights, thanks to a northerly horizon interrupted only by coastal fortresses and a wild, rugged beauty which doubles as the perfect backdrop for your aurora snaps.

The sun sets over a rural Welsh lake - and after nightfall, the Brecon Beacons becomes one of the Northern Lights hotspots in the UK

Wales

The Northern Lights have appeared over the Brecon Beacons several times in recent years. So good is the stargazing here in general, the entire Brecon Beacons National Park has been designated an International Dark Sky Reserve. You can book a private, two-hour stargazing excursion which starts in Libanus, in the national park.

Want to up your chances of spotting the Northern Lights?

Not only are the following countries in the UK’s travel corridor they are some of the best places to experience the Northern Lights in the world. We always recommend checking with government guidelines before booking any travel. You can also visit our Where can I go? map to see the latest information on travel restrictions.

Sweden

Sweden is another great option for seeing the Northern Lights and Kiruna is where you’re most likely to catch them. The Aurora Borealis can be seen from September through March but like other destinations the darker winter months are when your chances reach their highest. For a truly authentic and unforgettable experience we recommend Camp Ripan where even the street lights are angled to minimise light pollution!

Norway

Between late September and late March, northern Norway is dark from early afternoon to late morning each day. These northerly, clear and dark skies make Norway one of the world’s best places for seeing the Northern Lights. Fly to Oslo and from there, embark on one of many Northern Lights tours that are on offer, in between activities like dog sledding, winter fishing and whale watching.

FAQs: How do I spot the Northern Lights in the UK?

You don’t have to be an award-winning astronomer to appreciate the natural world’s greatest light show. Brush up on the basics with this helpful FAQ.

1. What are the Northern Lights?

Knowing what causes the Northern Lights (what affects their colour, depth and movement) makes observing them infinitely more interesting. So what are they, exactly?

“Aurorae are caused by the interaction of the Earth’s magnetic field with the solar wind – the stream of electrically charged particles emitted by the sun,” explains Professor Jim Wild, an expert in space physics at Lancaster University.

“This solar wind drags remnants of the sun’s magnetic field out into interplanetary space. When it arrives at Earth, the magnetic field in the solar wind can couple with the Earth’s own magnetic field. Ions and electrons are energised by this coupling and some, guided by the terrestrial magnetic field, are funnelled down towards the magnetic poles. Collisions with atoms in the upper atmosphere cause them to glow.”

2. Where can I get live Northern Lights updates?

Keep an eye on AuroraWatch UK for real-time updates on geomagnetic activity. It shows where you’re most likely to spot the Northern Lights on any given night and might help you decide on a last-minute destination.

Dr Stuart Littlefair, a senior lecturer in astrophysics at the University of Sheffield says: “There are several excellent smartphone apps which will alert you to good viewing opportunities, such as Aurora Pro.”

3. How do I look for the Northern Lights?

Wherever you go to spot the Northern Lights, there are some basic rules to bear in mind. To start with, always ensure that you can clearly see the northern horizon. “Even when the Aurora are at their strongest they are usually still far north (directly over Norway and Sweden),” points out Dr Littlefair, who also recommends:

“For the best chance of seeing them from the UK, you want to be as far north as you can be, well away from light pollution so the skies are dark, and with a clear view of the northern horizon.”

Get as far away from artificial light sources as possible, and turn off household lights an electronic devices like smartphones – even the tiniest prick of light can make it harder to see the Aurora Borealis. Finally, remember that patience is key. Bring lots of layers and wrap up warm – and when those beautiful, breathtaking lights finally put in an appearance, we guarantee it will all be worth it.

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