The aurora borealis is one of nature’s most spectacular phenomena. With its brilliant colours and mysterious dance in the icy arctic nights, it represents an aspirational experience that attracts travellers from all over the world, who wish to witness its irrational magic firsthand. But where in the world are the best places to see the Northern Lights’ evocative dance?
That is the purpose of this article, to accompany you on an exciting journey from the highlands of Norway, Sweden and Finland to the cold Greenland, Alaska and Canada for a unique opportunity to experience the magic of the Northern Lights.
“The northern lights are a poem of nature, a silent symphony of colours dancing in the night sky”. – Rune Christiansen. Norwegian writer.
Mythology of the Northern Lights
This phenomenon has, unsurprisingly, fascinated and amazed (and sometimes terrified) many northern cultures and peoples for centuries. Each has its own interpretation and symbolism of the aurora borealis, and these meanings are deeply rooted in their history and traditions.
For the Sami, for example, an indigenous people of the northernmost parts of Scandinavian countries such as Norway, Sweden and Finland (also on the Kola Peninsula, Russia), the Northern Lights are perceived as a mystical manifestation representing the spirit world and the afterlife. According to their ancestral beliefs, these lights would represent something like a gateway to the afterlife, whereby the souls of the deceased can cross through it to reach the afterlife.
For the Inuit of Greenland or Canadian lands, the aurora borealis is seen as both a magical and terrifying phenomenon. According to Inuit legend, the aurora borealis is caused by the spirits of ancestors who have gathered in the sky to play a ball game with the skull of a walrus. However, it was also said that if you got too close to this light, you risked being decapitated and dragged towards it. It was also said that if someone misbehaved or showed disrespect to the elders, the northern lights could descend from the sky and take that person away.
In other northern cultures, the aurora borealis is interpreted in quite different ways. The ancient Vikings, for example, saw it as a representation of the Valkyrie, a divine being who carried the souls of warriors killed in battle to Valhalla. In Finnish culture, the northern lights are seen as a sign of good luck, and it is believed that if someone is conceived under the northern lights, they will have a prosperous and happy life. They also believe that the Northern Lights are a good omen for hunting and fishing, and that singing and dancing during the Northern Lights can attract good luck.
Where to see the most beautiful Northern Lights?
Where are the best places in the world to see the northern lights? Let’s take a trip around the globe and take advantage of the opportunity to travel to fascinating places where it is worth stopping for the auroras, because there are plenty of other reasons. Here are the 10 best places in the world to see the Northern Lights:
If someone asked me about a country where I would recommend to go to observe the dance of the green and red lights, I think Norway would be the first thing that would come to my mind. It is the TOP destination for seeing the Northern Lights, with a wide variety of places to experience this phenomenon.
And if I had to fly to one place, it would be Tromsø, known as the “Gateway to the Northern Lights” and from there to the Lofoten Islands and the Vesterålen archipelago as well as the island of Senja, which offer stunning views of the sea and the sharp-peaked mountains where you can witness and photograph the incredible play of light in the sky.
Alta is also another place in Norwegian Lapland to look out for and, if you’re up for adventure, the Svalbard archipelago, a place with more polar bears than inhabitants, has plenty of nights lit up by the dance of the magical northern lights. In fact, between December and February it is under the domain of the polar night.
Iceland is by far one of the most popular places in the world to see the Northern Lights, thanks to its clear skies and freedom from light pollution. Although they can be seen all over the country, the best places to encounter them are in the Landmannalaugar area, Thingvellir National Park, the Reykjanes Peninsula as well as Skaftafell National Park, the Lake Jokulsrarlon area or under the glacial influences in the large Vatnajokull Park in southern Iceland.
As for the north of Iceland, the Lake Myvatn area or the area around Godafoss waterfall are usually well-chosen spots to enjoy this spectacle, but what about the Snaefellsness peninsula and the mythical church-shaped mountain featured in Game of Thrones (Kirkjufell)? Also, being sparsely populated, the West Fjords are exceptional for finding the best locations for viewing and photographing the Northern Lights.
In Iceland, the auroras can be seen from late August to early April. Without temperatures as extreme as those found in the winters of Lapland, Greenland, Alaska or Canada. Although maintained that the devil in Iceland is not the cold but the wind, so camera tripods can be strong and heavy enough to withstand its onslaught.
Glimpsing the dancing northern lights ranks as the number one of the many pleasures of winter travel to Swedish Lapland. Can say without any misunderstanding or exaggeration, that in Swedish Lapland you have probably seen the best northern lights of life. In addition, in different places such as the Abisko National Park, considered one of the places on the planet with the highest probability of success in terms of aurora sightings, the surroundings of Kiruna (with Jukkkasjärvi or the frozen lake of Alttajärvi as great allies) or the road between Gällivare and Jokkmokk (Porjus by means of).
But there are many more fascinating places to see the northern lights, such as the Nikkaluokta Valley, Stora Sjöfallet National Park or the Storforsen rapids. But, as you know, the most important thing is to find a clear spot with no light pollution. And so, when it happens, we will enjoy the magic in all its splendour.
Like the previous countries, Finland is one of the northernmost countries in Europe, so it is also considered one of the best places to see the northern lights due to its location. Although the number of nights with clear skies is somewhat lower than in Norway and Sweden, perhaps because the cloud cover is more difficult to “move”. Some of the best places in Finland to try to see aurorae are:
Finnish Lapland: This region in northern Finland is one of the best places to see the Northern Lights. Some of the most popular spots to see them are Rovaniemi (outside the city, of course), Saariselkä, Levi, Ylläs and Pyhä-Luosto.
Kilpisjärvi: This small town in the far northwest of Finland, on the border with Norway and Sweden, is another great place to see the northern lights. Kilpisjärvi is known for its mountainous landscape and clear skies, making it an ideal place to see the auroras.
Oulanka National Park: This national park in eastern Finland is one of the best places to see the northern lights. As well as being a stunning place to see the northern lights, it also offers a wealth of winter activities such as cross-country skiing and snowshoeing.
Nellim: This small village in the Inari region of northern Finland is a great place to see the northern lights. It is known for its natural landscapes, such as Lake Inari, and is one of the least affected by light pollution in the country.
Greenland is, of course, a must on this list of the best countries and territories to go out and hunt for the northern lights. In fact, it is one of the areas of the world where you can see them from a more southerly latitude (the southern part of Greenland has auroras from the end of August, as it gets dark a little earlier), although past the Polar Circle it is easier. At Ilulissat, next to the icebergs of Disko Bay, the scenery is extraordinary. Kangerlussuaq, however, is the most likely to have a successful aurora safari, as it enjoys a greater number of cloudless nights.
It is not usually a popular winter destination to visit to see this phenomenon as it is more expensive to get there than Norway, Sweden, Finland or Iceland, for example.
If we jump across the pond, another country where the aurora borealis is quite common, especially in the Northwest Territories, where clear skies, high latitude and the absence of light pollution allow the phenomenon to be enjoyed in splendour. Some of the essential locations across the country include:
Yukon: This territory located in the north of Canada is considered to be one of the best places to see the northern lights. It is worth taking note of Whitehorse, Dawson City and the Tombstone region.
Northwest Territories: This northern Canadian province is a natural treasure trove of immense value. There are several popular viewing locations, including Yellowknife, Inuvik and Fort Simpson.
Alberta: Although not as far north as the Yukon or Northwest Territories, Alberta can be a great place to see the northern lights. The city of Edmonton, or rather the surrounding area, could be a good starting point, as could Jasper and Banff National Park. But the scenery in the area justifies a trip regardless of the time of year.
Manitoba: In the province of Manitoba, the town of Churchill is one of the most popular places to see the northern lights. Churchill is known as the “polar bear capital of the world” as well as beluga whales, but it is also considered a wonderful setting for viewing the northern lights.
Nunavut: If I had to choose just one Canadian region, this would be it. Its Inuit soul and wilderness, with the thousand stories of the mythical Northwest Passage sprinkled in countless books, make it a dream for lovers of great travel. Some of the best places to see northern lights in Nunavut are Iqaluit, Sirmilik National Wildlife Reserve, Ellesmere Island and Quttinirpaaq National Reserve. But you’re just as likely to encounter a polar bear, a pack of wolves or a group of musk oxen as you are to see auroras.
After Canada and continuing with the imaginary line in this great circumpolar journey in search of aurora borealis, Alaska appears, the diamond in the rough that the United States bought from the Russia of the Czars in the 19th century (it was a real bargain). A trip to Alaska is synonymous with great scenery, a unique collection of animal species in the wild, and becoming the protagonist of your own adventure book.
Although it is true that most of those who plan to visit it in summer, in its harsh winters there is the more than feasible possibility of attending one of those shows that only skies full of aurora borealis are capable of offering. To do so, take note of the area around Fairbanks (whose university studies and monitors the phenomenon) and Denali National Park, where you can combine the search for northern lights with other activities such as cross-country skiing, snowshoeing and snowmobiling.
The Russian Federation, being the largest country on the planet and located in the Northern Hemisphere, also has an infinite number of locations from which to glimpse the magic of the aurora borealis. In fact, a significant part of the territory lies on the line of the Arctic Circle, which indicates that there is a huge area of land whose skies reflect the green, mauve and red tones in which this natural phenomenon finds a way to say “Hello, world”.
Among the best places to witness this natural phenomenon are the Kola Peninsula (the main city of which is Murmansk) in the northwestern part of the country, the northern Kamchatka Peninsula, Chukotka (in the Russian Far East along the Bering Strait) as well as the Yamal Peninsula in the far north of the country inhabited by the Nenets. Not forgetting, of course, Wrangell Island or the Franz Josef Land archipelago (the much lesser-known Russian Svalbard).
Although Scotland is not as popular as list best places in the world to see the Northern Lights, this phenomenon also happens here. It is therefore a good idea to take note of some of the most important places to achieve our goal of observing the northern lights. For example, the Shetland Islands or Orkney, not forgetting the Isle of Skye, Cairngorm National Park, Loch Lomond National Park and the Trossachs. Although with a high KP it sometimes even reaches Edinburgh (although we would have to retreat to areas with little or no light pollution), although this is rare and rarely happens.
The Faroe Islands are, of course, also an interesting and strategically located destination for seeing the Northern Lights. This archipelago located in the North Atlantic between Scotland, Norway and Iceland, receives the northern lights on its islands for most of the winter. However, it wouldn’t be the destination I’d choose first for this purpose, as weather conditions in the Faroe Islands can be dire, with a high probability of rain, fog and high winds, which can make it difficult to see the northern lights. But when one of those clear winter days comes along, the phenomenon can be seen in the spectacular scenery of the archipelago.
It is recommended to look for dark places away from the city lights, especially on the northern coast of the islands. In addition to the possibility of seeing northern lights, the Faroe Islands should be framed as a truly interesting tourist destination little known to mass tourism, with beautiful scenic nature, picturesque villages and a rich and unique culture. Visitors can enjoy hiking through the spectacular natural scenery, visiting villages with traditional houses and sampling the local cuisine. It’s not all about auroras, is it?
Tips for seeing the northern lights
- Find a dark place away from city lights for an unobstructed view of the night sky.
- Check aurora forecast websites (spaceweatherlive is good), as well as weather forecasts (Windy or Yr.no) and visibility conditions before heading out to make sure the northern lights are visible.
- Dress warmly and wear several layers of clothing to keep you warm during the viewing.
- Bring a camera with a tripod so you can capture clearer images of the northern lights. The latest iPhones, if fitted with a tripod, will do as well.
- Keep your eyes accustomed to the dark and avoid using mobile devices (except for taking photos) or torches as much as possible so as not to affect your night vision.
- Be patient, as northern lights activity can be unpredictable and it may take time before they appear.
- Plan your visit during the northern lights season at your chosen location, which is generally from September to early April.
- Consider, in case you don’t bring your own vehicle, hiring a guided tour that will take you to ideal places to see the northern lights and provide information about the phenomenon.
- Keep a positive attitude and enjoy the atmosphere of the night, even if you don’t see the northern lights.
Remember that northern lights viewing is a unique and exciting experience, so enjoy it to the fullest!
“The northern lights seem to be a dream that has materialised, a vision from another dimension”. – Sigurd F. Olson, American writer.