Catching a glimpse of the magical Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights) tops many travel bucket lists. And for good reason — it's an astonishing natural electrical phenomenon characterized by the appearance of streams of colorful light in the sky, seen only from a few high-latitude places across the globe throughout the winter.
The Northern Lights are the result of collisions between gaseous particles in Earth's atmosphere with charged particles released from the sun's atmosphere. Variations in color are due to the type of gas particles that are colliding. The most common auroral color, a pale yellowish-green, is produced by low-altitude oxygen molecules, while rare, red auroras are produced by high-altitude oxygen. Nitrogen produces blue or purplish-red aurora.
The Northern Lights on display over the Lofoten Islands in Norway
The best places to spot the Northern Lights are close to the North Pole:
- Northern Norway
Visit between September and March for optimal viewing opportunities. Popular cities to view the Northern Lights from are Tromsø, Alta, Narvik, Harstad, Bodø and the Lofoten Islands.
- Northern Finland
In Finland’s Lapland region, Rovaniemi serves as a gateway town to nearby national parks. In winter you can see frozen snow-covered trees — Tykky sculptures — along with the Northern Lights.
- Northern Sweden
Sweden’s northernmost town of Kiruna is near many attractions, like the mountainous Abisko National Park, the local Sami culture and reindeer in abundance. A short drive from the town center is a good spot to see the Northern Lights.
From late August to early April, visitors to Iceland can chase the Northern Lights across Iceland. Try viewing from Kirkjufell mountain on the west coast, or even from the suburbs of Reykjavik. Across the country, many sky watchings take in the Northern Lights from hot spring lagoons.
- Northwest Russia
Head to Russia's Kola Peninsula between mid-September and mid-March for prime viewing of the Northern Lights. This peninsula is north of the Arctic Circle, close to the border between Finland and Norway. While there, experience the rich culture of the indigenous Saami people who are dependent on reindeer for their livelihood.
- Southern Greenland
It's actually possibly to be too far north to see the Northern Lights, so in Greenland, stay farther south in cities like Nuuk or Qasigiannguit. Visitors can also catch stunning natural attractions like Qaleraliq Glacier and its many drifting icebergs.
Yellowknife, Canada, in the Northwest Territory, is home to Aurora Village with lodging and unique activities for Northern Lights tourism. Elsewhere in the country, Churchill, Wood Buffalo and Jasper National Park are popular viewing spots.
The best place to see the Northern Lights in the United States is from Fairbanks, Alaska. It is situated close to the Arctic Circle, has its own international airport and is near the breathtaking Denali National Park. Fairbanks has a Northern Lights forecast system and operates tours to take visitors away from the city's light pollution for optimal viewing.
Did you know the same phenomenon simultaneously occurs at the South Pole? Aurora Australis, or the Southern Lights, are on display in the Antarctic. The Southern Lights can be viewed from Antarctica and the southernmost tips of Tasmania, Australia, and New Zealand.