Six Top Destinations for Viewing the Aurora Borealis
My clients are my inspiration! This week I am thanking the family who asked me to plan a trip for their 2023 summer vacation to see the Northern Lights. What they didn’t realize is that the best locations for viewing the Aurora Borealis have long, bright summer days that stretch into what you might think of as normally ‘nighttime’, with only semi-darkness falling between 9 and 10 pm, and no sky dark enough to observe the lights.
The Borealis is best observed in the months of northern winter, at best, early fall to early spring (September to March), in countries that lie between 10 and 20 degrees from the magnetic North Pole, and usually close to midnight. So bundle up on a clear night and cross your fingers for ideal atmospheric and inner-space conditions: solar winds interacting with charged particles in the Earth’s magnetic field. This creates the colorful streaks of light in green, red, yellow, and purple across arctic skies. Anomalies do occur, however, as they do with all natural phenomena: I saw the Aurora once when I lived in Massachusetts – from my back door!
Iceland's stark landscapes make it a favorite place for photographers to capture the lights. The Aurora is most active during midwinter and is visible from locations all over the country, which has low light pollution. Two of the most popular viewing areas are the Golden Circle, encompassing the Thingvellir National Park and the Haukadalur geothermal valley, and the Snaefellsnes Peninsula, home to the famous Snaefellsjokull glacier—both easy trips from Reykjavik. To avoid crowds, drive to the northern coast on the edge of the Arctic Circle: Reykjanes Peninsula and the northern city of Akureyri are both great choices.
Alaska’s vast snowy wilderness is the most popular and accessible location for US residents to observe the lights, as well as some of the most unique ways to have a memorable experience. You can cruise from Fairbanks, Anchorage, or Ketchikan and view the lights from the water; fly over the Arctic Circle; take an overnight train over the snow-covered Alaska Range; or soak in the Chena Hot Springs while you wait, AND stay warm.
Lapland, in Finland’s northernmost region, is Santa Claus’ official European base. In Finland, the lights are known as revontulet, meaning “fox fire,” after the local fairy tale featuring a fox whose swishing tail sent sparks flying across the north sky. Some ‘light’ lore for you. See what I did there? Northern lights tours are everywhere in Lapland, because viewings occur an average of two out of three nights. You can take a reindeer safari, snowmobile to lookout points, stay overnight in an igloo, or visit the world’s first Northern Lights Observatory, on Haldde Mountain.
The Scandinavian Countries
Denmark - Although it is the most southern country in Scandinavia, it still offers opportunities to see the lights. Greenland’s Inuit populations have been enjoying some of the clearest views of the northern lights for centuries. They believe the Aurora is caused by lost souls of the dead. The territory retains one of the highest rates of aurora sightings. Choose either the popular town of Kangerlussuaq, or the sparsely populated east coast where you cruise among the towering icebergs. Alternatively, Denmark’s Faroe Islands, with regular flights from Copenhagen, are likely one of the most unique locations to experience the lights.
Sweden - Torneträsk Lake, in Sweden's Abisko National Park is renowned for its unique microclimate, which affords weatherproof clear skies. Or visit the Aurora Sky Station, take a chairlift up to the summit, and explore the special Northern Lights Exhibition, and watch the night sky from the open-air observation deck. The darkest months are November to February, and while you're observing the lights, make sure you keep quiet—local Sami mythology dictates that it’s bad luck to make a noise during the Aurora Borealis.
Norway - Norway's wild landscapes offer the most otherworldly backdrops for watching the northern lights. With the northern half of the country stretching into the Arctic Circle and more viewing locations than anywhere in Scandinavia, Norway has some of the brightest and most frequent sightings in the world. The Lofoten islands, Alta, Svalbard, and Finnmark, all have high rates of lights, and Tromsø remains one of the most popular destinations. There is plenty to pass the time while you’re waiting for the midnight light show, as Norway is one of Europe’s premier winter sports destinations.
Now that you know when the Northern Lights show begins we can start planning your vacation. Which country will you visit?
'til next week.