Ribbons of colour dash across the night’s sky. Rising, falling and flickering in an evermoving tapestry. Stillness engulfs you. Time evaporates.
Catching sight of the aurora borealis (often called ‘the northern lights’) – and time in the places they appear – is a spellbinding travel experience. So to savour every second, these are 10 best places to see the northern lights (plus the best season to travel).
What are the northern lights?
When solar wind from the sun collides with the earth’s magnetic field, it’s pulled towards the earth’s poles and released into the atmosphere. This reaction causes curtains of colour to appear in the dark sky – green, red, pink, violet, white, blue, or/and yellow.
Galileo Galilei coined the term ‘aurora borealis’ to describe this wonder by the north pole: combining words for the Roman goddess of dawn (Aurora) and the Greek god of the north wind (Boreas).
Today, adventurers venture to places of 60 to 75 degrees °N latitude and stay up till dawn on a clear night in anticipation.
Why is September the best month to see the northern lights?
The earth’s axis tilts more towards the sun’s solar wind around the autumn equinox (22 September), meaning there’s a higher chance of this geomagnetic reaction in the atmosphere.
Plus September’s cooler (rather than freezing) winter air and ice-free lakes and mountains make the following 10 places blissful retreats for northern lights watching.
10 best places to see the northern lights
Look closely, there are some surprises along the way.
Head north to Finland’s enchanting Lapland for the highest chance of seeing the northern lights. Its 65-72°N latitude puts it in the ‘northern lights belt’ and causes these magical lights to appear around 200 nights per year.
Touching the artic circle, Rovaniemi (Lapland’s capital and official home of Santa Claus) presents a snowy paradise and otherworldly viewing spots in the form of glass roof cabins staring up at night. Likewise, a 3-hour drive north takes you to remote, forest-filled Saariselkä – where sightings are common.
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The ‘Land of Fire and Ice’ is also home to spectacular lights. Drift away from the artificial lights of its cool capital Reykjavik – 30 minutes by boat – to a blissful spot surrounded by mountains on Trafalgar’s Iceland tour. One of the world’s best places to see the northern lights. Elsewhere, Akureyri park (in the far north) and Vík (187km southeast of Reykjavik) are also spellbinding spots.
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It’s only right that a country adorned in natural beauty is home to magical northern lights displays. We recommend heading to charming Tromsø (nicknamed the ‘capital of the Arctic’) to keep an eye out. As well as the lookout points at remote Alta in northern Norway – famed as ‘The Town of the Northern Lights’ among locals.
Swedish Lapland offers a mystical northern lights experience. Head to Abisko National Park – located in the ‘auroral oval’ (a highly active region centred on the earth’s magnetic pole where auroral emissions happen). What’s more, Abisko’s wonderfully low rainfall means the nights are clear and aurora borealis appearances for two weeks in a row aren’t uncommon.
Further afield, Kiruna (in the far north) feels like another world – especially while you eat dinner outside in eager anticipation of the lights on Trafalgar’s Scandinavia Northern Lights tour.
The United Kingdom
Dancing waves of colour have appeared in Scotland (the Isle of Skye), Ireland (Malin Head in Donegal’s Inishowen Peninsula) and England (Cornwall, the Lake District, Kent and Norfolk – the latter as recently as August 2022) due to the rare chance strong solar wind and perfect clear conditions. A clear example that aurora borealis is all about being in the right place, at the right time. So always keep your eyes peeled.
A country of clean air and gorgeous islands, Estonia’s stock is rising as a northern lights retreat. Venture to Lahemaa National Park on the north coast, as the peninsula’s here jut out into the Gulf of Finland and its clear skies. Plus Viimsi and Paljassaare, near Estonia’s capital Tallinn.
The United States
You read that right. Many of the world’s most colourful northern lights have been spotted in the United States. Top tip: head to Idaho Panhandle National Forest (80km south of the Canadian border) for stunning reflections off Priest Lake. Other options include Acadia National Park (Maine), Voyageurs National Park (Minnesota), Cherry Springs National Park (Pennsylvania) and North Dakota.
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Take an enchanting trip to the US’ far northwest tip for ultra-clear sightings. Welcome to Alaska: where Fairbanks and Denali National Park offer two of the best places to see the northern lights. They are visible approximately 4 out of 5 nights in September.
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Canada is easily one of the best places to see the northern lights thanks to its northern latitude – with the highest solar activity found in September and October. We suggest picking a spot by Great Slave Lake in Yellowknife (northwest Canada), Jasper National Park (in Alberta), Wood Buffalo, Churchill and Yukon to soak it in.
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We hope you enjoyed reading about the best places to see the northern lights. Where are you visiting first?