10 August 2020 by Saija Kokkonen
A short break holiday to Norway, Lapland, 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 2019-20 promises some of the best Northern Lights viewing for many years. With so many great destinations and amazing excursions on offer, Northern Lights holidays are fast becoming an essential part of the travel calendar. Below, we pick out the best Northern Lights holiday destinations across Norway, Lapland, Iceland and Greenland.
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 can I see 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 holidays in Norway
A city break to Tromso is a great introduction to Northern Lights viewing. The capital of Northern Norway, Tromso 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 or head to Malangen Resort located just over an hour outside of Tromso and framed by spectacular fjords and mountains. 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 Tromso 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 Hurtigruten Northern Lights Cruise. These are often get booked up early, so plan now for next winter.
Read our blog: 24 Hours in Tromso
Try your hand at ice fishing at Lyngen Lodge and enjoy the warmth of an open fire
Northern Lights holidays in Sweden
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 during a Highlights of Lapland experience, you can go moose spotting on horseback, and take sled rides powered by both reindeer and huskies.
The UFO, Treehotel, Harads
Northern Lights holidays in Finland
Hotel Harriniva in Finnish Lapland is a cosy retreat set deep within the Arctic Circle. The pine-clad wilderness hotel boasts saunas, outdoor jacuzzis, snow igloos, spa treatments and a working husky farm – with action-packed days exploring the snowy wilderness of western Lapland by husky sled and snowmobile. Optional activities range from husky safaris and reindeer sleigh rides to ice fishing trips and snowmobile excursions in search of the Northern Lights. And be sure to make use of the free toboggans that the hotel provides – guaranteed fun for all the family. At the appropriate time of year there are also trips to see Santa, a personal encounter that begins with a ride through the snowy forest on a snowmobile sled. Individual families will then be met by an elf and guided up a candlelit path to meet Father Christmas in his private log cabin.
Northern Lights holidays in Iceland
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 SuperJeep expedition through snow and rivers and across mountain glaciers and volcanic sands.
Northern Lights in Iceland
Northern Lights holidays in Greenland
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.
Daytime sailing, Ilulissat
Northern Lights holidays to Canada
While Scandinavia and Nordics grab many of the auroral headlines, there are also plenty of options across the Atlantic, with Canada's northern provinces offering some of the finest Northern Lights viewing around. And, given the sheer scale of the country, it's easy enough to find a slice of dark sky all to yourself for some truly spectacular displays. Best of all, there's plenty of opportunities to add something extra to your holiday – it's a longer flight, after all – so why not combine your Northern Lights experience, perhaps at a wilderness ranch in the Yukon, with a winter road trip through Alberta or even a luxury rail journey aboard the iconic Rocky Mountaineer. Alternatively, head to spectacular Manitoba and the town of Churchill on the shores of Hudson Bay for the chance to see the Northern Lights and spot polar bears on one, unforgettable adventure.
Northern Lights Ranch & Spa, Yukon
Northern Lights holiday excursions
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. Why not receive practical photography lessons from an expert? They are enthusiastic and helpful, and will help you hone your skills so you can take back some seriously spectacular photos to share.
Photography lessons is an excellent way to help you enjoy the auroras even after your holiday ends
- 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. See our guide on how to photograph the Northern Lights for more information on capturing this elusive phenomenon on film.
- 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.