The ultimate guide to seeing the Northern Lights

Northern Lights in Kiruna, Sweden

Danny Baggs

Posted February 01, 2024

Discover how and where to see the incredible Northern Lights across Europe and North America.

The Northern Lights, or aurora borealis, is a natural light show in the sky so beautiful that it draws people from all over the world to known viewing destinations. It’s a bucket list item for many travellers, especially those with an interest in astronomy.

Here are the best places to see the Northern Lights, plus some tips on how best to spot them. Before you go, make sure to check off your overseas travel checklist, consider travel insurance, and learn how to protect your passport and mobile phone while travelling.

What are the Northern Lights?

The Northern and Southern Lights appear when charged particles from the sun (the ‘solar wind’) slams against the Earth’s ionosphere, or upper atmosphere, at massive speeds. Our planet’s magnetic field deflects the particles towards the northern pole, forming the Northern Lights, and the southern pole, forming the Southern Lights (aurora australis).

Each aurora’s colours are determined by which gases the charged solar particles hit in Earth’s ionosphere. Green – the most common colour – is produced from charged solar particles hitting oxygen molecules at an altitude between 60-150 miles (97-241 kilometres) high. The less common blue forms when they hit nitrogen molecules at an altitude of 60 miles or less, and the rare red occurs when they hit oxygen molecules at very high altitudes of over 150 miles.


Northern Lights in Lapland, Finland

The Northern Lights are formed from charged solar particles hitting gas atoms in Earth's ionosphere. Image: Getty

Top places to see the Northern Lights


If you want to see the Northern Lights, Finland may be your best bet. Finnish Lapland – the region within the Arctic Circle – regularly witnesses auroras on up to 200 nights per year. The most popular Northern Lights destination in Finland is Rovaniemi, right on the border of the Artic Circle.

You should also check out Kakslauttanen Arctic Resort to the north, where you can stay in glass igloos and watch the stars and auroras wheel overhead. Even further north, Inari is also likely to provide spectacular Northern Lights over its frozen Lake Inari in winter.

There’s plenty to do before dark in Finnish Lapland: dog sledding, ice fishing, snowmobiling, reindeer safaris, Nordic skiing and snowshoeing, just to name a few. And with more reindeer than people in Finnish Lapland, there's not much artificial light pollution to obscure the auroras that appear.

Finland’s aurora myth: The Finnish word for the Northern Lights is ‘revontulet’, which translates as ‘firefox’. The myth goes that a mystical firefox runs runs so fast over the snow that his tail causes sparks when it brushes against low-hanging branches, flinging the aurora into the sky.


Northern Lights in Kakslauttanen, Finland

Kakslauttanen Arctic Resort is a popular destination for aurora hunters. Image: Getty


Norway is another very popular Northern Lights destination for tourists. Tromsø, the largest city in northern Norway, regularly experiences the Northern Lights and is a fantastic base for aurora hunting.

Keep in mind, however, that the artificial light pollution from the city may prevent you from seeing the aurora in all its glory. Head out to majestic Lyngenfjord, the epic Lofoten archipelago, or the sparsely populated islands of Senja and Sommarøy for even more spectacular Northern Light sightings.

Norway’s aurora myth: Norse mythology held that the Northern Lights were the reflection from the shields and armour of the Valkyrie: female warriors who guided dead warriors’ souls to the god Odin’s heavenly hall, Valhalla. The Northern Lights were also cited as the Bifrost, a magical bridge that lets the gods travel between realms.


Northern Lights in Tromso, Norway

The Northern Lights often appear over Tromsø. Image: Getty


Head to northern Sweden for perfect aurora viewing conditions: pitch-black skies, minimal cloud cover, and minimal light pollution. The small village of Abisko, nestled in the mountains next to Abisko National Park, is a popular aurora hunting base. Mora is another great base, from which you can also tour the Swedish Lakes by day and search for the Northern Lights by night.

Another excellent area to visit is the Luleå archipelago in the Gulf of Bothnia. The Gulf ices over in winter, allowing you to stand on the frozen sea and watch the Northern Lights shimmering overhead around the islands.

Sweden’s aurora myth: Swedish mythology considered the aurora a benevolent force: a gift from the gods, a herald of good harvests the following year, or the reflection from giant shoals of herring for fishermen to catch.


Northern Lights at Abisko, Sweden

Abisko's dark night skies are great for seeing the Northern Lights. Image: Getty


Iceland is full of natural wonders, from geysers to glaciers to volcanoes to fjords and much more. Its capital city Reykjavik is a cool and quirky city with plenty of Viking history. Best of all, you can often catch an aurora hunting coach or cruise ship to look for the Northern Lights by night.

Travel out to the Snaefellsness Peninsula in the west, Grímsey Island in the north, or the Blue Lagoon in the southwest for bonus aurora opportunities. The Northern Light Inn close to the Blue Lagoon is a perfect location to spot aurora displays during your overnight stay.

Iceland’s aurora myth: The Icelanders of old associated the Northern Lights with childbirth. If the expectant mother looked at the aurora while giving birth, the child would be born cross-eyed.


Northern Lights at Jokulsarlon Glacial Lagoon, Iceland

Try your aurora-spotting luck at Jokulsarlon Glacial Lagoon in Iceland. Image: Getty

Canada & Alaska

Canada and Alaska are brilliant travel destinations in any season, thanks to an abundance of large national parks, incredible wildlife, and plenty of untouched wilderness. But two spots are particularly well-known for their amazing Northern Lights displays.

The first is Yellowknife in Canada’s Northwest Territories. Lying on the north shore of Great Slave Lake, it can display the aurora in autumn and winter. There are plenty of winter wonderland activities to partake in during the day, too, like snowshoeing and cross-country skiing.

The second is Fairbanks in the ‘Golden Heart’ of Alaska. Fairbanks is the gateway to the majestic Denali National Park, which you can explore with local guides by day and night. You’re likely to spot the Northern Lights in this spectacular wilderness. While you’re in Alaska, go south for the ceremonial start of the Iditarod Dog Race: the world’s most epic dog sledding race.

North America’s aurora myth: Indigenous North American aurora myths are as diverse as the number of tribes across the continent. Certain tribes believed the Northern Lights were spirit guides holding torches to help the departed to the next world; others believed the lights were spirits who had violently died, or animal spirits like deer and salmon.


Northern Lights in Yellowknife, Canada

Yellowknife in Canada consistently produces the Northern Lights. Image: Getty

Top tips to see the Northern Lights

Go to the ‘auroral zone’ between September and April

You have a good chance of seeing the Northern Lights anywhere within the ‘auroral zone’: a 2,500km radius in every direction from the North Pole. These extreme northern locations experience the ‘midnight sun’ during the summer months, when the sun never fully sets. You’ll need to visit between September and April, when the sky gets dark again and the sun sets even earlier than in the south.

Look up when solar activity is highest

The solar wind is a constant phenomenon, but its strength waxes and wanes throughout a roughly 11-year cycle. At its peak, the vast solar storms crash against Earth’s ionosphere with extremely high amounts of energy, causing brighter and more active auroras. The next ‘solar maximum’ is due around 2025.

Get away from artificial light sources

It’s more difficult for the human eye to detect auroras when artificial light pollution is nearby. Remote destinations outside of cities, towns or large resorts will supply darker skies. If you’re based in a more populated area, go on a guided Northern Lights safari out in the wilderness for better chances of spotting the aurora.

Check the lunar cycle and weather forecasts

A full moon might diffuse the night sky with unwanted light, while heavy cloud cover can obscure the aurora. It's worthwhile downloading a reputable aurora forecast app, which provide regular updates on the likelihood of an aurora in your area. Remember that the Northern Lights are most likely to appear between 9am and 3am.

Take photos

Photos will show the Northern Lights in all their glory better than your eyes will. That’s because the human eye sees green more easily than other aurora colours like red and blue. Seeing the lights is still spectacular, but take a photo of the sky to see the full colour spectrum on show.


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