The Aurora Borealis ( or the Northern Lights ) is at the top of many bucket lists. And rightfully so! This amazing natural phenomenon has sparked legends of sky warriors, spirits, and far distant dawns. It has kept people looking up at the long winter night sky for centuries.
When you consider making this bucket list dream a reality, the first country that might spring to mind is Iceland. Iceland is a great place to see them! But, it’s not the only place to see these incredible lights. If you’re looking for something a little different, read on for 3 unique places to see the Northern Lights. Starting right in our own backyard!
First, a little background to prepare you to go aurora hunting:
What is the Aurora Borealis?
The short version: The particles emitted from the sun’s atmosphere break free and strike our atmosphere causing a reaction resulting in light.
The longer version: It’s so hot on the outermost surface of the sun (the Corona) that the hydrogen atoms split into protons and electrons. The gas of the charged particles is electrically conductive. The gas breaks free of the sun and blows away from the surface- sometimes called solar wind. These particles then strike our own atmosphere causing a chemical reaction that results in a release of energy in the form of light.
When are they visible?
For the northern lights to be visible, you need darkness, high geomagnetic activity (storms on the surface of the sun), and clear skies (little to no cloud cover).
To increase your chances, you want to be far north, in the winter months (long, dark nights) and away from light pollution.
But the biggest factor in seeing the Northern Lights is the simple weather report. You won’t see much without clear skies, so keep a very close eye on the weather and cloud cover.
Remember: The lights are an unpredictable force of nature. So make sure the vacation you choose has other things that interest you! That way you’re guaranteed a good vacation, even if the cloud cover isn’t in your favor.
Ok, now that you’re ready to start your aurora hunt, let’s look at some unique locations!
There’s a great Aurora spot right in our own backyard- no passport needed! If you’re looking for something a little more familiar and closer to home, then look no further than Northern Alaska.
You have a great chance of seeing the lights near Alaska’s second-largest city. With plenty of hotels, B&B’s, and its own airport, Fairbanks is easy to reach. To really see the Aurora clearly, you’ll have to travel outside the bright city lights. You can rent a car to visit Cleary Summit, Creamer’s Field, or Murphy’s Dome on nightly trips.
Fairbanks knows they have something special with these fantastic spirits, so many of the hotels offer aurora wake-up calls allowing you to sleep peacefully without the worry of missing anything. They also offer several Aurora tours if you’d rather not rent a car.
Best Time to Visit: The shoulder months of Late-September and Early March give you the clearest skies, but November-February will provide the longest night hours.
Places to Stay: Fairbanks has a huge selection of hotels, but you can also try staying a little outside the city at the Chena Hotsprings Resort or the Borealis Basecamp which offers geodesic igloos with 16ft windows/skylights to really improve your chances.
Other Things to Do: There are numerous outdoor activities from dogsledding to wildlife hikes, reindeer ranches, museums, and cultural sites.
Orkney & Shetland Archipelago, Scotland
Scotland brings to mind Castles, lochs, monsters, whisky, and haggis but the Northern Lights? Picture yourself sitting in a cozy cabin nestled in the windswept northern isles, sipping local whiskey and watching the skies for these Merrie Dancers (as they’re known locally).
If you’d like to plan a trip to Scotland or the UK then this is definitely something to include!
The northernmost Scottish Isles offer incredibly low light pollution with some of the largest expanses of Dark Sky in Europe. Combined with their low lying landscapes, this more than makes up for their “low” latitude compared to other aurora-viewing hotspots.
Reachable by ferry, Orkney & Shetland are the perfect places to make-your-own-adventure when hunting for the Aurora. The “Aurora tourism” boom hasn’t quite reached these isles yet, so there are few tours offered. Which gives you the opportunity to enjoy the lights in an intimate setting, and consider renting a camper van to be able to “chase” them across the isles.
Best Time to Visit: The winter months with the longest nights will be your friend in Scotland- aim for December- February. Visit in January- February to include one of Shetland’s famous Viking Fire Festivals on your trip!
Best Places to Stay: Any of the Islands are a good choice but try to stay away from the light pollution of Lerwick, Shetland. There are plenty of B&Bs and self-catering cabins, but the islands do have a few full-service hotels as well.
Other Things to Do: Archaeological and UNESCO sites ( Orkney has four monuments spanning five thousand years), wildlife walks & hiking, Shetland Ponies, Fire festivals and Folk Music Festivals.
Cruising the Norwegian Coast
If you’re looking for something a bit more structured and with a practical guarantee of seeing the northern lights look no further than Hurtigruten Cruises!
Based in Norway, they have several options for Aurora Hunters. All the cruises head up the coast of Norway to the north-easternmost point of Kirkenes, a town that shares its border with Russia.
These cruises offer onboard guides, lectures, and presentations all about the lights and the stunning landscape. You also have to option of mini shore-excursions during the day in each of the ports! Although there is the risk that you’ll have more clouds on the coast, Hurtigruten offers a “Northern Lights Promise” which is their guarantee you’ll see the aurora or you get another cruise free! Making this option your highest chance of seeing the Aurora.
Their classic cruise starts from Bergen and heads around the coast to Kirken with options for 6-12 days and stopping at 22- 34 ports along the way! You also can choose from their Short Coastal Cruises ( 2-4 days) or Expedition Cruises (12-15 days)
Best Time to Visit: To maximize your nightly hours visit in January or February. Although the “Northern Lights Promise” is valid from October 1- March 31st.
Other Things to Do: The fact that Hurtigruten fits so many ports into their itinerary is pretty amazing. So without too much extra hassle, you can go on mountain hikes, city tours, kayaking, dogsledding and other cultural activities.
Final Tips & Tricks
Some final tips before you begin planning your incredible Aurora Vacation:
- Avoid full moons – five days before the new moon is best
- If you’re taking a tour, aim for the start of your trip so you have another chance
- Use red-light flashlights and keep your eyes off screens for the best night vision
- Bring extra camera batteries
- Be patient
- It’s literally FREEZING outside! Dress in layers.
If this list has sparked your imagination, send us an email and we can make it even easier to plan your Amazing Aurora Adventure!