Wrapped up warm in coats and boots and blankets, with a scarf tied around your neck, looking up and seeing lights dance and light up the sky… for most of us, that is a bucket list moment.
The northern lights are a phenomenon that fascinates most of us and it is becoming easier now to get access to the places where we can see them.
While we often call them Northern Lights (aurora borealis), they can be seen on the southern hemisphere as well and are then called Southern Lights (aurora australis), but you can only see those in certain places such as New Zealand, southern parts of Australia (Victoria and Tasmania) and of course, Antarctica.
The northern lights are easier to see because you can more easily travel to the areas closer to the North Pole such as Alaska, Canada, but also Scandinavia, Finland, Greenland and Iceland.
What are the Lights?
The scientific explanation by Northern Lights Centre Canada is that the lights are “collisions between electrically charged particles (ions and atoms) from the sun that enter the earth’s atmosphere”.
The colours will depend on the distance: furthest away are red, the most common is bright green, and the closest ones are blue and violet. Note that the videos you see of the northern lights are sped up, what you will see moves much slower, just like when you watch clouds move in the sky, you often hardly notice it at first.
They are most frequently seen closer to the poles, which means we need to head far, far north. And while they can occur at any time of day, we are only able to see them when it’s dark, which makes December to March the best months to try and spot them due to the longer nights and clear skies in that season. Peak hours are during maximum darkness, which usually means from midnight to about 4am – so wrap up warm!
Where can you see the Northern Lights?
As we head closer to the North Pole, there are less and less places to go, and even fewer are inhabited, let alone tourist destinations. However, that doesn’t mean it is impossible.
The two basic options are: go to a place in the middle of nowhere, meaning flying north and then making your way further north by car and stopping in a small village (we don’t recommend sleeping in your motorhome or similar unless you have experience in these extreme weather conditions), or go to a beautiful winter wonderland hotel which is set up specifically for those looking to catch the spectacle in the sky (those other activities are of course on offer during the day).
Anywhere north will do, think: Alaska or Canada or, if you want to stay on this continent, Sweden, Norway, Finland, Greenland, Iceland.
In Alaska, you have the option of doing a cruise to see the northern lights as early as September. If you are travelling around Alaska, consider a tour that takes you just outside Fairbanks at night. You can stay in the city but get away from the city lights at night to get the best view of the spectacle.
In Canada, some of the “easier” places to access are Whitehorse in Yukon, where you can fly into the small airport (from Vancouver for example) settle in one of the local hotels, try snowshoeing and dog sledding during the day and just head a few minutes out of town at night to try and spot them. Remember you will be standing still in the cold (up to -40 degrees or below) for a while, so rent clothes upon arrival.
Similarly, you can fly into Yellowknife in the Northern Territories which also has hotels and activities as well as opportunities to see the northern lights. If you head to Churchill, Manitoba, you have the added perk of being able to look for polar bears! Have you seen those videos of (now sadly sometimes very thin) polar bears roaming a town? That’s Churchill, Manitoba. If you want to try your luck a bit further south, Jasper and Banff National Parks do get northern light activity. It’s a little closer and lots of hiking to do during the day if you can brave the cold.
Greenland is a great place to see the northern lights, but you will need to coordinate a few flights as you need to fly into the capital Nuuk first, and then fly to Ilulissat airport (alternatively, visit Iceland and fly from Reykjavik into Ilulissat) for the best views. It’s a very quiet place which offers a few tourist activities and northern lights as early as September.
An easier journey is to Norway. Direct flights to Tromsø with Norwegian Air are available from London relatively cheaply (if you book in advance) and you arrive straight at the heart of the Arctic, which is undoubtedly one of the best places to see the northern lights.
Unique and memorable experiences to team with the Northern Lights
For an unforgettable hotel experience, book yourself into the Ice Hotel in Sweden. It is remote, with very little light pollution and therefore ideal to enjoy the Aurora Borealis. And of course, you will be staying in one of the most unusual hotels of your life – made out of snow and ice.
If you want some independence, you could go on a little road trip in Iceland. Fly into Reykjavik and hire a car, just check your route carefully beforehand and make sure your car is safe for winter and find hotels along the way. At night time, head away from light pollution to enjoy the lights. You don’t need to do a full road trip either; in the southern part just a couple of hours south-west from the capital, the lights can already be spotted.
For the ultimate family Christmas holiday (with an added bonus of northern lights) head to Lapland. Yes, it’s a real place in Finland called Rovaniemi where you can enjoy all the typical winter activities as well as visit with Father Christmas and you can see the northern lights. If you want an extra special experience, book yourself into a glass igloo so you can watch the lights or the night sky from inside your igloo.