The best places to see the Northern Lights
Published: 17 February 2014 Editor: Alex Stewart
Northern Lights holiday ideas and practical tips
A short break holiday to northern Scandinavia, Iceland or western Greenland to view nature's celestial spectacle the Northern Lights (aurora borealis) is an increasingly popular choice for travellers. Sightings can never be guaranteed, but you can bolster your chances by knowing when and where to go, and winter 2013-14 promises some of the best Northern Lights viewing for many years as the sun moves into a Solar Maximum phase in which sunspot activity is at its height. With so many great destinations and amazing excursions on offer, Northern Lights holidays are fast becoming an essential part of the travel calendar.
What are the Northern Lights?
The displays are caused by solar winds - streams of particles charged by the sun - hitting the earth's atmosphere. Pulled in all directions by the earth's magnetic field, they stream and billow, arc and flicker like a magical curtain waving through the air. Displays vary in their intensity from a greenish glow to a multi-coloured arc of dancing lights sweeping across the night sky.
Where are the Northern Lights?
Seen just occasionally from northern Britain and points further south, the lights are undoubtedly at their best in the Aurora Zone within the Arctic Circle, between 60° and 72° North, a curve that extends across northern Scandinavia, Iceland and southern Greenland. Most displays occur at a height of 100km above the earth, so on a perfectly clear night the same event can be seen from many different locations on the ground. The lights are strongest and most frequent between November and March, and are best viewed between 6pm and 2am. The displays occur practically every night during this period, but sightings depend on clear skies and minimal light pollution. The further away you are from the artificial lights of human settlements, the greater your chances of catching a display. Regions further inland normally have more cloudless nights, though the eastern winter winds regularly create clear conditions along the coast.
Northern Lights in Norway
Snowmobile ride to view the Northern Lights, Camp Tamok, Lyngen
A city break to Tromsø is a great introduction to Northern Lights viewing. The capital of Northern Norway, Tromsø is a pretty seaside town right in the centre of the Aurora Zone, with many great restaurants and cultural sights, from where you can take a night safari by sled or snowmobile to maximise your viewing opportunities. You can even stay overnight in a traditional Sami tent away from all artificial light in a wilderness camp at nearby Lyngen. Journeying still further north, Alta, the northernmost city in the world, boasts more sightings than any other place on earth, and here you can spend the night in a 30-room designer igloo. A little way down the coast from Tromsø lie the Lofoten Islands, a stunning archipelago with dramatic mountain peaks and vast fjords nestling close to idyllic fishing villages. A popular excursion is a Hurtigurten Northern Lights Cruise. These are often get booked up early, so plan now for next winter.
Northern Lights in Sweden
The Bird's Nest, Treehotel, Harads
Swedish Lapland has some of the most striking accommodation you can choose for a Northern Lights holiday. The original ICEHOTEL is sculpted to a new design each winter, 200km north of the Arctic Circle in the remote village of Jukkasjärvi. You can also experience nature's great spectacle from the fantastical Treehotel nature retreat in the forest of Harads, where themed treehouse rooms include The Mirrorcube, The Bird's Nest and The UFO. Lapland is a winter wonderland where animals are the main transport, and in a Lapland long weekend you can go moose spotting on horseback, and take sled rides powered by both reindeer and huskies.
Northern Lights in Finland
Glass igloos, Kakslauttanen
Hotel Kakslauttanen in Finnish Lapland boasts an extraordinary range of rooms, including year-round luxury log cabins, a honeymoon turf house and heated glass igloos. Each winter, a snow igloo village springs up, complete with a snow chapel and ice bar. More family fun can be had by combining your Northern Lights holiday with a private visit to meet Santa and his elves.
Northern Lights in Iceland
Northern Lights over Hotel Glymur, Hvalfjordur
Iceland's capital Reykjavik has a vibrant nightlife and a rich cultural and arts scene, but for superior Northern Lights viewing, you need to escape the city. Include a night or two in nearby Hvalfjordur (‘Whale Fjord'), where you can watch the lights from the steamy comfort of a geothermal hot tub. Other nature spots to head for to view the lights include the lava fields, creeks and craters around Lake Myvatn, and Vatnajökull Glacier, Europe's largest ice cap. You can combine a fully-pampered wellness weekend at the Blue Lagoon with off-road night tours in search of the Northern Lights, or go for the full 4x4 experience with a Super-Truck expedition through snow and rivers and across mountain glaciers and volcanic sands.
Northern Lights in Greenland
Daytime sailing, Ilulissat
The UNESCO World Heritage town of Ilulissat, where giant icebergs at the mouth of Disko Bay, offers a dramatic backdrop for viewing the Northern Lights. Daytime and midnight sailing among the icebergs are a must, while you can also step on the Eqi glacier, visit the pre-European settlement of Sermermiut, and take a dogsled expedition over frozen fjordlands.
Northern Lights holiday excursions
Husky sled ride, Tromsø, Norway
Whether you have a run of perfectly clear nights, or catch only a glimpse of the lights during your visit, an extraordinary range of snowbound activities and excursions guarantee memorable adventures. Snowmobile safaris, reindeer or husky sled rides, or night-time horse riding are among the exciting options for Northern Lights viewing throughout the region, along with encounters with the indigenous Sami people where you can learn about their spiritual connection to the spectacular phenomenon.
• Take plenty of warm clothing, as you'll want to stay out long into the Arctic night. Wearing multiple layers including thermal underwear is strongly advised for night excursions.
• If you're taking a camera, don't forget to pack a tripod, as for best results you'll be using long exposures.
• In the cold, dry Arctic, the life of camera and video batteries is cut in half, so take spares and chargers.
• Check the lunar calendar before you book, as a full moon can lessen the intensity of the spectacle even more than city light pollution. For the Winter 2013/14 season, new moon phases for optimum viewing fall on 1 January, 30 January, 1 March, 30 March, 29 April. For the winter 2014/15 season, new moon phases fall on 23 October, 22 November and 22 December 2014, then on 20 January, 18 February, 20 March and 18 April 2015.