Northern Lights or Midnight Sun

Journeys to the Arctic Circle are full of year-round adventure. While summer offers the opportunity to witness the everlasting glow of the Midnight Sun, a winter getaway could reward you with a dazzling display of the Northern Lights. Struggling to choose between them? Our experts delve deeper.

What is the Midnight Sun?

You may have heard tales of lands where the sun never sets – where a colourful fusion of reds, pinks and purples paint the skies well into the early hours of the morning. Far from fantasy, this natural phenomenon is known as the Midnight Sun and occurs during the summer in locations north of the Arctic Circle and south of the Antarctic Circle. Simply, it is exactly what it sounds like – the sun appearing at midnight. It is caused by the rotating earth's tilted axis relative to the sun. During the summer months, the North Pole is angled towards the sun, meaning the further north you go from the Arctic Circle, the more days and weeks you will witness the constant glow of the sun. As the Earth continues on its orbit and the tilt of the northern hemisphere gradually moves away from the sun, the darkness of night slowly returns. The reverse of this during the winter is referred to as the Polar Night, where the sun never fully rises.

Midnight Sun as seen in Ilulissat, Greenland

Why travel to see the Midnight Sun?

Whether you're a night owl or not, the Midnight Sun is a real sight to behold. Expect stunning light during the golden hours around dusk and twilight, before whole nights of perfect light – a real photographer's dream. And, with everything from postcard-perfect views of seemingly never-ending sunsets to late-night hikes and wildlife watching tours in the silence of the wilderness, you can really make the most of your time in the Arctic Circle. Many Nordic destinations offer special "Midnight Sun tours" including kayaking on lakes or sailing past calving glaciers – there is something truly unique about experiencing this all during the early hours, when the rest of the natural world is asleep.

Golden hour in Finnish Lapland 

Where is the best place to witness the Midnight Sun?

Depending on which month you decide to travel and the location you wish to visit, the Midnight Sun may or may not be visible. Given the Midnight Sun can only be seen in the higher latitudes, you'll need to travel to a destination north of the Arctic Circle during a period where the sun does not dip below the horizon at all during a 24 hour period. The months or June and July (as close to the summer solstice as possible) are good months to travel above the Arctic Circle if you wish to experience this phenomenon.

To witness the Midnight Sun alongside stunning nature and idyllic backdrops, we recommend visiting the likes of the Lofoten Islands in Norway, Ilulissat in Greenland or the Svalbard archipelago in the far north of Scandinavia. If you're looking for extended hours to encounter some of the Nordics' extraordinary wildlife, why not consider a rustic Finnish lodge for one of the best places to bear watch in Europe. Click here for a more comprehensive guide of where to best experience the Midnight Sun.

Bear watching under the Midnight Sun

What is the Northern Lights? 

Long before science unraveled the truth of these mysterious polar lights, our ancestors told myths of spirits and monsters that, to them, explained the reasons behind the Northern Lights. Nowadays, though we know the truth about this unique phenomenon, its mystique remains as captivating as ever. Also referred to as the "aurora borealis", or simply "auroras", the Northern Lights are created by solar storms in the sun around 150 million kilometres away from Earth. These create charged particles which travel towards us and are captured by the Earth's magnetic field, moving towards the poles. Once these particles come into contact with the gases within our planet's atmosphere, it causes a reaction. The result: a colourful spectacle of dancing lights across the night sky.

The Northern Lights as seen in Norway's Lofoten Islands

Why travel to see the Northern Lights?

It's top of a lot of people's bucket list for a reason. And, whether you wish to believe the science or that there's something more mysterious going on, it certainly doesn't take away from the incredible beauty of this light show. Picture sitting beside a roaring camp fire in the vast wilderness of Lapland's snowy forests as you witness the spellbinding spectacle of swirling colours dancing overhead, engulfing the entire sky above you – a truly magical sight.

Depending on the solar activity, it is possible for the aurora to take on various shapes, colours, brightnesses and movements. You'll most commonly see it present itself as green, though if you're lucky you may catch hues of pink, red or even violet. As for shapes, it often occurs in ribbon-like formations, but can take the shape of streaming rays or a full rippling curtain. Though you may be tempted to plan your trip around seeing the Northern Lights, we wouldn't recommend travelling solely for the purpose of trying to see the aurora, rather planning around various other activities that you wish to experience, but setting yourself enough opportunities to try to see the Northern Lights. This is because they are a naturally occurring phenomenon and therefore cannot be guaranteed.

Winter auroras as seen from a Sami Lavvu near Malangen, Norway

Where is the best place to witness the Northern lights?

Although the occasionally occur outside of the Earth's polar regions, you are most likely to spot them within the 2,500km radius around the magnetic north pole. All of the Nordic countries offer the chance to see the show, including Norway, Sweden, Finland, Iceland and Greenland – we recommend travelling into the northern regions of these countries, including the likes of Svalbard, where during the Polar Night, you can witness the Northern Lights at any time of day! You'll always have the best chance of witnessing them if you travel between the months of November and March – although you can also see them as early as September if you go to the far north – and somewhere rural and as remote as possible, away from any light pollution. For more detail, take a look at our guide on where to see the Northern Lights here.

Snowmobiling under the Northern Lights in Svalbard