If you want to visit the Northern Lights this winter, you'll need to plan ahead as many of the best viewing spots fill up months in advance. With our tried-and-tested insider advice, you'll stand the best chance of witnessing the aurora for yourself.
Tromso, a small frontier city among the fjords of northern Norway, offers one of the best chances of seeing the Northern Lights. And, not only is it buried deep within the Arctic Circle, perfectly poised in the ‘aurora zone’, but it’s a hub for wilderness excursions. Expect everything from dogsledding to snowmobiling. Alongside superb-value hotels, there’s also plenty of extra-special accommodation, including fjord-side resorts, the Tromso Ice Domes and luxury lodges buried in the Lyngen Alps. What’s more, it’s all just a direct flight from London Gatwick.
Northern Lights over Tromso (Credit: Truls Tiller)
The high-latitude islands of Svalbard, flung out midway between the North Pole and the Norwegian mainland, has been named by the Aurora as the optimum location for viewing the Lights. Not only do they occur more frequently the further north you travel, but the archipelago’s proximity to the North Pole makes it particularly sensitive to the geomagnetic activity that causes the light show. And, at the height of winter, the sun never rises. This phenomenon, known as the ‘Polar Nights’, uniquely offers aurora viewing around the clock. Don’t worry, there’s also plenty of winter excursion fun.
The aurora as seen from Svalbard, Norway
Buried away in Swedish Lapland, the historic town of Luleå offers a pristine backdrop for Northern Lights viewing. Highlights include its superb dining scene, church-spire charm and UNESCO-listed Gammelstad – a perfectly preserved 15th-century Scandinavian village. It’s all gorgeously set on an archipelago coast, which – over winter – freezes over. This offers the unique opportunity to head out by snowshoe, dogsled or snowmobile onto the ice trails. Getting far away from any light pollution, it’s perfect for spotting the Northern Lights. At the Aurora Safari Camp, adventurers can even bed down in a Sami-style lavvu tent under the stars. Even better, from December 2020, direct flights from the UK mean easy access to the best the region has to offer.
Dogsledding on Lulea's ice trails
Outside of Luleå, there are plenty of unique opportunities to experience the Northern Lights in Swedish Lapland. Prime among them is, of course, the ICEHOTEL, while the likes of Brändön Lodge keep things traditional. It offers both a classic log-cabin experience and the same coastal ice-trail fun as Luleå. However, if you’re after something extra special, look no further than the Arctic Retreat. Here, exclusive log cabins come with private hot tubs, fire pits and, hopefully, floor-to-ceiling views of the Northern Lights.
Art Suite Haven, ICEHOTEL (Credit: Asaf Kliger/ICEHOTEL 2018)
Not to be outdone by its Swedish counterpart, Finnish Lapland offers its own amazing winter destinations for seeing the Northern Lights. Far from any light pollution, the remote Inari Wilderness Hotel is the iconic log-cabin idyll, with sledding tours taking you to where the displays are brightest. However, perhaps the region’s signature accommodation is its glass-domed igloos. They put you right under the light show every night, so you don't have to go on an outdoor excursion every single evening – rather, the gorgeous lights come right to you. One of our favourites even combines its glass igloos with an ice hotel.
Levin Iglut, Finnish Lapland
Iceland is perfect for those who want to spot the Northern Lights but would want to focus on natural wonders over snow-based activities. For the best value, use Reykjavik as your base and dip out into its spectacular surrounds. Otherwise, embed yourself in a remote lodge to truly get away from it all. Our favourite is Hotel Grimsborgir where you can watch the aurora from a hot tub. You might also want to travel off the beaten track to north Iceland. Here, there are fewer crowds and the weather can be more stable, ideal for Northern Lights viewing. As a quieter alternative to the Blue Lagoon, a dip in Myvatn Nature Baths’ misty-blue waters offers a truly special aurora experience.
Northern Lights over Iceland
The best times to see the Northern Lights
Conventional wisdom has it that the Northern Lights can only be seen in winter. Yes, the longer nights maximise the viewing window, but the aurora can be seen anywhere between September and March. With the sun returning, spring is a locals’ favourite, while the autumn equinox is actually when the Lights are at their most active. Together, the shoulder seasons are perfect for those that prefer milder weather.
In terms of timing, the University of Alaska recommends paying particular attention between 10pm and 2am local time – all the better if you can time your trip to be during the new moon. But be warned that the aurora is a fickle phenomenon, and no one will be able to fully guarantee that you'll see it. Approximately every two hours, an 'active period’ can crop up, and this extra energy is usually visible for about 30 minutes.
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