One of the most exciting goals in the bucket list of a traveller is the experience of witnessing the northern lights live. Close your eyes and visualise looking at a crystal clear sky interrupted only with stars. You are far, far away from civilisation and the accompanying light pollution. You have your trusted mug of hot chocolate in hand and are staring up at a star-studded sky. While you’re stargazing, you catch sight of a wisp of a greyish green cloud across the horizon. In a while, you see more of these clouds and in even more enchanting hues.
Along with the greens come the pinks, and if you pay close attention, some blues and violets as well. As you continue being entranced by this phenomenon, you notice a slight movement, with the clouds appearing to be dancing. You now believe in magic! If fairy tales were real, Fairyland would perhaps exist under what we term the Aurora Borealis and the Aurora Australis.
The story behind the existence of these lights isn’t quite magical as we hoped it was, but of scientific origin. The lights, as we call them, are formed by the charged particles from the sun pulled by the earth’s magnetic field communing with the earth’s atmosphere. The colours are a result of the particles interacting with different gases. For instance, more oxygen lends a distinct green shade, while more nitrogen gives a pinkish hue. Voila!
Like most natural phenomena, catching the greatest light show on earth is not easy. You have a better chance of witnessing them as you draw nearer the Poles, and even then, the lights can prove to be elusive. To make it easier on your research, here is a quick guide on the names of 9 places to catch Aurora Borealis and tick them off your bucket list.
There is no doubt that this is among the best places to view this ethereal display as common to Scandinavian countries. I specify these countries as they offer among the best views. The best time to visit Sweden to see the lights is between September and March. Once you are out of the bounds of a city, you will find meaning in your chase after the lights.
To increase your chances by a large margin, think about visiting areas along the Northern Border like Abisko, Tärendö, and Jukkasjärvi. Places like Farnebofjarden National Park and Arctic Bath Hotel and Spa in Harads, though not precisely along the northern border, are known for good sightings. I must confess that, no matter how much you’ve read up on the subject, it is better to invest in a guide if you are going ‘light hunting’ for the first time. There are tourist guides available to help you pursue the lights in a structured manner.
Sweden’s neighbour on the east is also a terrific place to see the lights. Some parts of Finland, like the other Scandinavian countries, fall between the latitude of 66°N and 69°N, which are aptly called the Aurora zone. If Finland, is your choice, some areas for consideration are Luosto, Lapland, Nellim, Muotka, Saariselkä, Menesjärvi, Inari, Harriniva, Jeris, Torassieppi, and Kilpisjärv.
If there is no budget constraint, you could give Kakslauttanen a try. It offers a singular delight of staying in a glass igloo with a clear view of the sky. This would allow you the starry-eyed company of the lights without having to go outdoors, from the comfort of your own bed! All these spots have knowledgeable Aurora hunters who would be only too happy to share their secret to catching the lights. If planning a trip here, do bear in mind that September to March would step up your chances for sightings.
pNorway sightingFinland shares its northern border with Norway, and if you wish to make your way to the topmost point in these countries, Norway is where you ought to go. While Norway offers both the midnight sun and the lights, this is one country you could enjoy travelling throughout the year. As for the best time to see the Northern Lights in Norway in summer, it is more difficult in the North, as there are longer periods of light and darkness is the fundamental necessity to see this wonder.
If you find yourself there between October and March, you must include cities like Tromsø, Svalbard, The Lofoten Islands, Harstad, Bodo, Alta, Andoya, Nordkapp, Kirkenes, and Lakselv. Of all these cities, it is easiest to reach Tromsø. I assure you that whatever efforts you make to reach the destination of your choice, it will be well worth the while.
There is also a Viking Ocean Cruise, which travels along the coast of Norway, which you could hop on to if you want to tick two things off your bucket list.
If Scandinavian countries aren’t your cup of tea, you could make your way to the next possible country – Iceland. It is in the remote regions across the entire country that you could witness the lights. For best viewings, you could visit the Kirkjufell mountain on the west coast. Grotta Lighthouse in Reykjavik is a popular spot too. Other options could come in the form of Seltjarnarnes in Reykjavik, Vik, Látrabjarg/Westfjords, Eldborgahraun, Sandgerdi, and Djúpavík.
If you find yourself in Iceland between late August and April, you could make your way to the nearest outdoor hot tubs, Bubble Lodges, and hot spring lagoons. You’re sure to thank me for this later.
Like Norway, you may also want to take a cruise to visit a few coastal towns of Iceland and the Faroe Islands. However, as I often say in most of my travel articles, cruises don’t fall among my hot things-to-do. For one, the seas are either blue or green or bluish-green in any country. They are all deep and far from the coastline and offer a similar wobbly experience wherever you cruise.
The beauty of countries like Greenland and Iceland is that they offer a longer window to chase the lights from August to April. While the principle of going northwards works in the other mentioned countries, it will fail in the case of Greenland. Because of Greenland’s location, going too northward will take you away from the Aurora zone. Hence, establishing your base in cities like Ilulissat or Nuuk makes sense as it offers readily available Aurora tours. Cities like Kulusuk, Scoresbysund, and Kangerlussuaq are a good bet.
Good news. If you are visiting relatives in Canada or the U.S.A., you could take small detours, to go and see the lights. In Canada, you could make your way to some parts of Alberta. Also try visiting places like Yukon, Northwest Territories, Nunavut, and Yellowknife. These areas do not promote ample tourism on following the lights, which would have you do it on your own. If you are in Canada between early August and early May, you could make your way to Churchill or Wood Buffalo. For the other venues, the period between late August and mid-April is ideal for witnessing the phenomenon.
Alaska is one of the best places on earth to see the northern lights – colorful bands of light that dance in the dark night sky. Fairbanks in Alaska is known for its light show, and many a tourist go there for the same reason as you. If Alaska seems way up north for comfort, you may settle with the Upper Peninsula in Michigan, Voyageurs National Park in Minnesota, or Pennsylvania to catch a glimpse. Apart from Alaska, the other places in the U.S.A. don’t have regular light shows, so it may take multiple visits to catch a sighting. The comforting part is that you could visit most of these places all the year-round to find the lights as and when they occur. And if you aren’t lucky, you have a host of other sights to catch up on. The lights came as a surprise here, a bonus to an already pre-planned trip for different reasons.
Another place to enjoy a more extended period of light pursuit in the long nights is in Russia. It is easy to make your way to sites like Murmansk, Arkhangelsk, and Petrozavodsk from St. Petersburg. You could also do Siberia, The Kola Peninsula, Naryan-Mar for the same reason. The official season is from September to March. If you’re a Geography enthusiast, you’d know that the days during January and December go without sunlight and hence offer a higher chance to catch the lights. However, safety is a concern here, especially for tourists who aren’t travellers.
The northernmost parts of Scotland, like Aberdeen, Orkney, and Moray coast, should be on your itinerary if watching the lights is your focus. Like the places in the U.S.A., these parts don’t guarantee sightings every night, so you might end up spending more days in Scotland while waiting for the all-elusive lights. The best time to go there is between October and March, but if you aim to visit scenic Scotland, you know you can go there anytime and not be disappointed. On the contrary.
A few notable mentions
Well, those are the 9 places to catch Aurora Borealis. The areas that I have indicated here below are not known for their Aurora Borealis sightings but promise an arresting glimpse now and then. The Faroe Islands in Denmark, Saadjärv in Estonia, and Donegal in Ireland are a good bet. If you happen to be in the area, the lights dancing would be a bonus.
Here is all that you have to know to have the ultimate experience of seeing the Northern Lights-
- The “Lights” don’t play well with other lights. It is a good idea, therefore, to move as far as possible from light pollution. Look for clear and dark skies.
- Do keep the phases of the moon in mind while planning your trip. A full moon may translate well in photos but won’t help to view the lights with the naked eye.
- If you aren’t keen on photographs but go with a tour guide who assures photography, let him be the designated photographer during the tour while you “enjoy the moment”. After all, unless one’s perched in a centrally high location or uses a drone, it isn’t possible to capture the full bliss of the lights. The use of drones is mostly frowned up in most countries, though, so hiring a professional photographer is a better bet.
- If you do want to take home some pictures, learn beforehand on how to set up your camera so that you catch the moment faster than you would in waiting to set up the angle, flash, or otherwise. The phenomenon lasts a few minutes, at best for fifteen. Make the best use of that time.
- Don’t go just for the lights. While lights can be the highlight of your trip, plan other activities there as well. If the lights end up being elusive, you would have different memories to take back from the trip.
- Investing a reasonable amount, even as high as Rs 10,000/- in a travel guide is worth it. I remember my friends who chose to hire a car and lost the point of their trip, in chasing the lights.
- A reliable website to plan a trip is TripAdvisor. There are tours available for booking, when in that city.
That’s a bird’s eye view summary of 9 places to catch Aurora Borealis. From personal experience, in whatever form I have witnessed it, the Aurora Borealis has been among the most amazing experiences I have had. An experience that has stayed ensconced in my memory forever. It is too mystical for rational analysis, too majestic to rule out the presence of a higher being, too magnificent to miss.