Best Places to See the Northern Lights
North of the Arctic Circle in the vast Finnish Lapland, surrounded by towering pines, it’s a surreally beautiful place to experience the aurora borealis, which has been confounding and delighting observers for centuries. Towns across Scandinavia, Alaska, and Canada market the lights as the main attraction, offering experiences for adventurers and luxury travelers alike.
The lights, which are caused by charged particles from the sun colliding with atoms in Earth’s atmosphere, make for a dazzling natural display and can be experienced in a variety of locations across the globe.
In Churchill, Canada, you can watch the lights dance over a family of polar bears from the comfort of your mobile sleeper car. There’s even a chance to see them in the continental U.S. at Pennsylvania’s Cherry Springs State Park, which is noted for its dark skies.
If this is the year you vow to see nature’s light show for yourself, set your sights on these destinations.
The bitter cold that often comes with witnessing the Northern Lights can be a real deterrent. Enter Chena Hot Springs Resort, with its warm, mineral-rich healing waters. The resort’s adults-only Rock Lake offers the opportunity to enjoy a light show along with a soak. Fairbanks lies directly beneath a band of aurora activity, meaning from August to the end of April, the town regularly experiences a celestial display of green, yellow, and purple.
The phenomenon is most frequently seen between 11:30 p.m. and 3:30 a.m., but the early-to-bed crowd need not worry. Guests staying the hotel’s rooms can request to receive a phone call or door knock when the aurora is spotted in the sky.
Norway has no shortage of prime vantage points. First and foremost is Svalbard, a string of Arctic islands, midway between continental Norway and the North Pole. Because the archipelago experiences polar night, or perpetual darkness, between mid-November and February, it offers visitors double the opportunity to see the lights and is the only inhabited place in the world where you can experience the phenomenon during the day. Join a three-hour snowcat safari or brave the cold on a snowmobile tour complete with a stop for warm drinks and biscuits.
The Northern Lights make an appearance over Finland about 200 nights per year. Doze off watching the dancing display from within a glass igloo at romantic Kakslauttanen Resort, north of the Arctic Circle. And the next night, hunt for the aurora on a reindeer-drawn sleigh ride through the surrounding wilderness. In addition to glass and wooden igloos, options also include a nearly century-old traditional log house with its own sauna. Accommodation options for enjoying the natural display in Finland abound, from seaside glass villas and domes set right on a lakeside to a Northern Lights ranch complete with sky cabins hosting glass windows and roofs.
Tromsø is Northern Norway’s largest city and is situated in the middle of the auroral oval, the area noted for having the highest probability of seeing the lights. The city is commonly referred to as “The Gateway to the Arctic” and offers visitors a wide variety of tours to choose from during late August through early April. These include a 30-hour fjord, whale-watching, and aurora-spotting tour or snowmobile adventures filled with hours of scenery.
The mountains and fjords that surround the city are so close to its center that they can be admired from the main street. Explore the area and then head to Emma’s Restaurant to enjoy authentic dishes that range from reindeer stew to seafood selections.
With minimal light pollution and near-perfect visibility in some places, Greenland provides exceptional odds for viewing milky-green lights. A three- or four-night stay during the aurora season (September to the beginning of April) practically guarantees a sighting. Settle into the Hotel Arctic’s igloos on the edge of the Ilulissat Icefjord; double rooms are outfitted with electric heating, TVs, and a small bathroom.
If roughing it is more your style, plan a trip to Kangerlussuaq. This former U.S. military base near the airport counts northern lights sightings 300 nights per year, and hosts aurora excursions that include a tour to witness the phenomenon and an overnight stay on the Greenlandic Ice Sheet (an experience typically reserved solely for research and expedition purposes).
From August to mid-April, the northern lights swirl across the sky above Canada’s Yukon Territory. Depending on cloud conditions, light pollution, and the night’s auroral activity, you could spend hours watching the neon shades of green and yellow. Learn about the science—and folklore—surrounding the colors at the Northern Lights Centre in Watson Lake. And follow your night out in the cold with a day of pampering (dry-brush massage, aromatherapy session) at the Northern Lights Resort and Spa in Whitehorse.
In Scotland, the lights go by a decidedly more British name: the Mirrie Dancers. They can be seen across the U.K. in the autumn and winter months (and as far south as England’s Kent and East Anglia). But the best bet is to head for the northernmost parts of the Highlands or the Shetland Islands.
Book a room at Sumburgh Head, a restored Shetland lighthouse overlooking a puffin nesting area on the Atlantic, or venture to the Isle of Lewis to see the display above an ancient man-made wonder: the Callanish Standing Stones, a circular formation of rocks thought to have been erected 5,000 years ago. Before you go, sign up for the AuroraWatch UK alerts about viewing conditions, so you never miss a sighting.
Polar bears have planted the Manitoba town of Churchill on the tourist map—it’s the easiest place to access that guarantees sightings. But it’s also a terrific spot for viewing the Northern Lights, as it experiences aurora activity more than 300 nights per year. Book a learning vacation at the Churchill Northern Studies Centre to study astronomy and northern lights photography. Or reserve a room at the NHA’s rolling sleeper-train Tundra Lodge for unparalleled proximity to bears in their natural habitat coupled with a chance to see the lights.
Cherry Springs State Park, Pennsylvania
You don’t necessarily need a plane ticket to glimpse the lights. Isolated from large cities like Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, Cherry Springs State Park is committed to preserving its exceptionally dark sky. The area is classified as a Gold Level International Dark Sky Park (the highest designation given by the International Dark-Sky Association).The park uses special light fixtures that don’t inhibit visibility and has strict rules about flashlights and car headlights. And even if you miss the aurora borealis, you’re all but guaranteed an exceptional view of the stars. Check the park’s website for special events like astronomy programs and public viewing nights.
Hotel Rangá, in southern Iceland, offers a bevy of cold-weather activities, from whale-watching and dog sledding to glacier tours and freshwater fishing, but its trademark is the Northern Lights. Need proof? Tune in to the hotel's webcam on any given evening for a live stream of the sky filled with shades of vibrant green, pink, and purple. Located in the countryside, the hotel experiences minimal light pollution, making for optimal viewing conditions during the season (August through the first days of May). Closer to Reykjavik, the Ion Hotel’s Northern Lights Bar features dimmed lighting and wraparound windows, so guests can watch the aurora inside, with drinks in hand.
Every year, artisans meticulously create the Icehotel structure anew, using ice harvested from the Torne River here in Lapland, north of the Arctic Circle.
Guests can choose from cold room suites (hosting temperatures that range from 23 degrees Fahrenheit to about 17 degrees Fahrenheit) and warm rooms, with the Ice Room even hosting a bed made of ice.
The hotel offers various excursions that include a safari complete with coffee and guided walks in search of the phenomenon, snowmobile safaris in the wilderness, and nightly photography tours to catch the phenomenon in natural settings away from light pollution. Through the Lip Lip experience, guests can also work with a hotel guide to take walks searching for the Northern Lights in the nearby forest while taming reindeer.
Guests can also plan an excursion to the nearby Aurora Sky Station in Abisko . Located 900 meters above sea level, the station experiences little light or noise pollution—optimal conditions for viewing the light show. Abisko is known to experience active Northern Lights almost every evening from October through the end of March.
If you prefer to let someone else do the planning, consider a tour operator with dedicated Northern Lights experiences.
For instance, Hurtigruten is offering a cruise taking place over the holidays in 2020 that will travel from Bergen to Tromsø and offer guests views of the lights combined with stops in charming cities and towns within the country. Some tours even combine light viewings with dips in secret geothermal lagoons and meals in countryside restaurants, all for under $160.