The Northern Lights (or Aurora Borealis, to give them their scientific name) are a stunning natural phenomenon best seen, as the name suggests, in the northern hemisphere. The Northern Lights most often occur in the form of shimmering curtains of dancing light in pale green or pink, or sometimes blue and red, hanging in the night sky and lighting it up with an eerie glow.
This magical light show has been observed by humans for centuries, and many tribal cultures have myths to explain it. Only more recently, however, have scientists been able to fully understand the complex physics involved.
Essentially, electrically charged particles from the sun are blown towards Earth by the solar wind, enter our atmosphere and collide with gaseous particles. The color and form of the lights are determined by the gases involved, and the altitude at which this happens (up to 400 miles above the Earth’s surface).
The best way to see the Northern Lights is to visit more remote parts of northern Europe during winter. The combination of limited light pollution, long, dark nights and proximity to the Earth’s magnetic pole gives you the best possible chance of witnessing spectacular displays. Here’s our guide to the best places to see Northern Lights:
Northern Light Festival in Tromsø, Norway
The Northern Lights Festival takes place in the historic northern Norwegian city of Tromsø in the last week of January. One of the most northerly cities on the planet, Tromsø lies some 200 miles inside the Arctic Circle and endures long, very cold winters – offset by the beauty of its island setting, ringed by snow-covered mountains. Once a year, the city comes alive as an eclectic mix of Norwegian and international artists perform music ranging from jazz to opera and electronica. This is also one of the best times to witness the Northern Lights, and the experience of enjoying the celestial light effects to the accompaniment of world-class musicians - plus outdoor events like the Northern Lights cruise - make for an unforgettable occasion.
Aurora Sky Station, Sweden
Lonely Planet has declared the Aurora Sky Station to be the best place on Earth from which to watch the Northern Lights. Located on Mount Nuolja, some 3 000 feet above sea level, the dazzling display of lights in enhanced by the almost total lack of light pollution. In other words, there’s nothing to distract you from the shifting green veils of light overhead. Except, perhaps, the food! Aurora Sky Station offers an ‘exclusive dinner’ experience which begins with a starlit chair-lift ride up to the Sky Station. Your evening continues with a four-course dinner inspired by the achingly cool ‘new Nordic’ cuisine, which uses local ingredients and traditional techniques. Think fish, berries, moss, and even reindeer (sorry, Rudolph!). However delicious your dinner, don’t forget to look up – there’s quite a show going on overhead.
Abisko National Park, Sweden
Home to the Aurora Sky Station, Abisko National Park is one of the jewels of Lapland and a winter-lovers’ paradise. Enjoy ice fishing, cross-country skiing – and some of the best Northern Lights viewing anywhere. Ringed by the Kiruna mountains, the park enjoys exceptionally clear skies (even by the standards of northern Sweden). The Aurora display here can be mesmerizing and is rivaled only by the procession of stars rotating slowly through the heavens. Abisko is also home to one of the few hotels that get not just refurbished but completely rebuilt every year: the Ice Hotel. This unique accommodation option boasts what is undoubtedly the coolest bar in Sweden – the perfect place to drink a toast to your Northern Lights experience!
Hotel Kakslauttanen, Finland
Next up on our tour of Scandinavia is Finland, and the unique Kakslauttanen Igloo Hotel. Choose to stay in one of their heated glass igloos where you can recline on your bed, look up through the completely transparent roof and wait for the Northern Lights to flicker on. Or alternatively, opt for a secluded log cabin in the forest, where the crackle of a log fire will greet you as you knock the snow off your boots. This truly is a different place to stay, but the warmth of the hospitality and the accommodation will more than make up for the chill outside – not to mention the glow of excitement you’re bound to feel as you watch the Aurora.
Hotel Ranga, Iceland
Located near Hella, in southern Iceland, Hotel Ranga is just an hour’s travel from Reykjavík – but a world away from the city. Its secluded riverside setting means that the views of the Northern Lights can be entrancing, while many rooms also overlook the active Hekla volcano. Oh, and whirlpool baths too! Our favorite feature of the hotel, however – even better than the deliciously snug beds and the flavorsome ‘farmers’ market’ meals – are the three hot tubs by the lake. Heated by water from some of Iceland’s famous geothermal springs, this is perhaps the most indulgent of all the ways we’ve found to enjoy the amazing display that is the Northern Lights.
If reading this blog has given you more than a flicker of interest in seeing the Northern Lights, talk to us about the best way to maximize your chances of seeing them. Please note, however, that viewing conditions may vary due to factors completely outside our control.