The northern lights, known as the aurora borealis, are a spectacular natural light show visible at certain times of the year in the Northern Hemisphere. This phenomenon occurs when electrically charged particles from the sun enter the Earth’s atmosphere and collide with gaseous particles, such as oxygen and nitrogen. The experience is surreal, with vibrant hues of blue, green, pink and violet dancing across the night sky. The best places to see the aurora borealis offer little to no light pollution, clear skies and no precipitation. Many top viewing spots have websites with aurora trackers, and staff members at some hotels will wake up visitors when the lights appear (if requested).
While lesser known, polar lights called aurora australis appear in the Southern Hemisphere and are visible in places like Antarctica, Tasmania and New Zealand. This spectacle is more elusive since there’s less land mass in this part of the world — and fewer viewing spots to see the show. But if you’re lucky enough to travel to see the aurora australis, you’ll be rewarded with brilliant displays of color in shades of green, blue, purple, pink, or orange and gold.
Read on to discover the top destinations where you can see the kaleidoscopic northern and southern lights.
(Note: Some of the following activities, attractions and locations may be affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. New policies may be in place, including capacity restrictions, reservation requirements or mask mandates. Check with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the U.S. Department of State and local tourism boards before traveling.)
Fairbanks is by far one of the best places in the world to view the northern lights, as it’s located directly under the auroral oval. This ring-shaped zone sits over the Earth’s geomagnetic North Pole, where aurora activity is concentrated. Visitors can expect to see the lights on an average of four out of five clear nights during aurora season, which lasts from August 21 to April 21. Other activities visitors can enjoy in late summer include a ride on the Riverboat Discovery or panning for gold. For a festive holiday experience in the winter, visit the Santa Claus House in the city of North Pole (around 15 miles southeast of Fairbanks). Travelers can also see ice sculptures in February and March at the impressive World Ice Art Championships or take a dog-sledding or snowmobiling tour.
For excellent chances of aurora viewing, book a private igloo at Borealis Basecamp, a top glamping resort located on 100 remote acres of boreal forest about 25 miles from Fairbanks. You can also book a Northern Lights Tour at Chena Hot Springs Resort. This excursion includes round-trip transportation to the resort from town, a soak in the hot springs, dinner at the on-site restaurant, a visit to the Aurora Ice Museum and an aurora viewing tour in a snowcat.
Located 220 miles above the Arctic Circle, Tromsø is one of several top spots to view the northern lights in Norway. The northern part of the country is dark in the early afternoon until late morning from the end of September to late March. With this extreme darkness, there are more opportunities to see the aurora. Tromsø itself is a modern city, so there’s plenty to see and do when you’re not looking up at the sky, including a visit to the beautiful Arctic Cathedral. In late January to early February, the city hosts the Northern Lights Festival, a 10-day music and performing arts event featuring a variety of musical genres.
Aurora chasers can view the lights on their own while in town, opt for a guided tour with Northern Lights Safari or go on an exhilarating husky trekking expedition in the Arctic wilderness. If you’re staying for several days, book accommodations with harbor views at the Scandic Ishavshotel.
Lapland is located within the Arctic Circle in the northernmost part of Finland. The northern lights are most visible here between the end of August and April — and approximately 200 times a year — so there are many opportunities for aurora spotting. Finnish Lapland is also known as the home of Santa Claus, the Sámi people (the only Indigenous people in the European Union area) and as many as 200,000 reindeer.
For a bucket list experience, watch the impressive light show from a glass igloo at Santa’s Hotel Aurora in Luosto. This resort town is around 70 miles north of the town of Rovaniemi, set among the picturesque and hilly landscape of Pyhä-Luosto National Park. While there, you can also spend a magical evening outdoors under star-filled skies during a sleigh ride through the snow-covered forests. Jaakkola Reindeer Farm offers this 2.5-hour Seeking the Northern Lights with Reindeer tour by sleigh ride; it includes a stop to warm up at a bonfire camp with snacks, hot beverages and local fireside stories.
This group of captivating islands, located about 10 miles from Scotland’s remote northern coast, is one of the best places to see the northern nights in the country. Fall and winter are the best seasons to witness the aurora, also known in local dialect as the “Mirrie Dancers.” This time of year brings cold evenings with clear skies, which makes for ideal viewing conditions. A few places to see the spectacular light show include along the coast at Birsay or on the beach at Dingieshowe.
In addition to the aurora, Orkney is home to breathtaking coastal landscapes and more sheep than you can count. Travelers can also visit the Heart of Neolithic Orkney, a UNESCO World Heritage Site with several monuments dating back 5,000 years. During your visit, plan to stay in the historic town of Kirkwall, the capital of the Orkney Islands. Places to spot the aurora close to town are Inganess Bay and Wideford Hill.
Yellowknife, the capital of Canada‘s Northwest Territories, is also known as the “Aurora Capital of North America.” With its position in the middle of the auroral oval, the city puts on one of the world’s most awe-inspiring light shows from mid-November to the beginning of April. There’s also a chance to see the aurora from late summer to early fall as the lights are visible up to 240 days a year. Located on the northern shore of Great Slave Lake, Yellowknife boasts winter sports such as ice fishing and cross-country skiing. If you visit in March, plan to attend the monthlong Snowkings’ Winter Festival, which features events and activities like a snow-carving competition, an ice slide, a snow castle, live music and more.
For a once-in-a-lifetime experience, make reservations to stay overnight in unique camping accommodations at Aurora Village to view the lights. The property also offers aurora-themed excursions and packages that include three-night tours and activities such as dog-sledding or private dining experiences.
The optimal time for seeing the illuminated skies in the northern part of Sweden, in Swedish Lapland, is between early September and late March. The small Swedish village of Jukkasjärvi sits around 125 miles above the Arctic Circle on the Torne River and is an ideal locale for aurora viewing. With the village’s origins dating back to the 17th century, you’ll still find some of the original homesteads, including an old timber cottage. Today the village boasts about 800 residents — and more than 1,000 dogs.
If you’re up for a chilly overnight adventure, reserve accommodations at the world’s first Icehotel 365 in one of its artist-designed cold suites. Each suite is sculpted of ice with a unique theme and maintains temperatures as low as minus 8 degrees Celsius. The rooms also feature beds with reindeer hides and thermal sleeping bags so you can bundle up during the night. While you’re at the property, take advantage of the guided Northern Lights Safari by snowmobile or embark on a Moose Safari on Horseback atop an Icelandic horse.
October through March is the best time to chase the aurora borealis in Iceland. There are many small villages throughout the country where you can view the show during the long and dark winter, but the capital city of Reykjavik also offers many options for accommodations, restaurants and other activities for your visit. For optimum aurora viewing away from the light pollution, head to Öskjuhlið. This densely wooded and hilly area in Reykjavik sits at 200 feet above sea level and has walkways and paths where you can see the nighttime show. Atop this forest sits Perlan, which houses the only planetarium in the country and a museum featuring exhibits about Iceland. Perlan is also home to the world’s first indoor ice cave and glacier exploratorium. During your visit, don’t miss the panoramic views of the city from the building’s fourth-floor observation deck. From this vantage point, you’ll be able to see the Snæfellsjökull glacier; Keilir, a volcanic mountain; and Esja, the mountain of Reykjavik.
While in Reykjavik, splurge on an overnight tour with Buubble.com. This experience includes several sightseeing spots and a night spent under the magical northern skies in a bubble at the 5 Million Star Hotel.
Greenland may not be the most accessible place to travel for viewing the northern lights, but those who make it there will be thrilled they did. The tundra of Kalaallit Nunaat (the Greenlandic name for the country) is one of the best places on the globe to see the aurora, especially from October to April. For the more adventurous aurora seekers, head to the top of the Greenland Ice Cap for spectacular views of the lights: This impressive glacier covers 80 percent of the country — and is accessible via the tiny town of Kangerlussuaq. Located on a fjord right along the Arctic Circle, the town, also known as the “gateway to Greenland,” was a former U.S. Air Force base and is now home to Greenland’s largest airport.
Greenland Travel offers five-day winter tours to Kangerlussuaq that include visiting Greenland’s ice sheet, dog-sledding and viewing the northern lights. If you want to explore this remote Arctic region further — and have the incredible opportunity to see Greenland’s endangered polar bears — Quark Expeditions offers a 20-day tour that starts in Toronto and sails round trip from Kangerlussaq in mid-September.
Viking Ocean cruise along Norway’s coast
Embrace the winter and set sail for the Arctic Circle to experience the aurora in northern Norway. This 13-day cruise itinerary departs from London for the North Sea with stops in ports of call that are top aurora-viewing locales, including Bodø, Tromsø, Alta and Narvik. The cruise ends in Bergen. While on land, take in the natural beauty of the snow-blanketed landscapes and book bucket list excursions like a night spent in an igloo or a reindeer sledding adventure. You can also chase the lights into the wilderness by snowmobile, take a dogsled ride under the stars or view them from a Sámi tent atop the mountain Pæska in Alta. This Viking Ocean Cruises itinerary is offered from mid-January to mid-March.
Mackinaw City, Michigan
Regarded as one of the top spots in the U.S. to see the aurora, Headlands International Dark Sky Park sits at the top of Michigan‘s lower peninsula, less than 5 miles from Mackinaw City. While the northern lights are hard to predict, the best time to catch a glimpse of this phenomenon is typically during the spring and fall — and experts at the park recommend visitors face north after midnight for the best chance to see the show. The park even maintains an online Clear Sky Chart so you can refer to the weather forecast before you go. There are also other stargazing opportunities throughout the year at Headlands. During the summer months the Milky Way is visible across the sky — and late summer evenings entertain visitors with meteor showers. If you’re visiting between late April and the end of October, splurge on a stay at the Mission Point Resort on Mackinac Island. This iconic property situated along the shoreline of Lake Huron is happy to notify guests of potential northern lights sightings, no matter when they occur throughout the night.
[Read: The Top Things to Do in Michigan.]
Several destinations in Estonia are popular with local aurora chasers, but Saadjärv is one of the top picks for consistent sightings. The town is located about 15 miles north of Tartu in central Estonia’s Tartu County. It’s situated in a forested area on Lake Saadjärv, which is one of the 10 deepest and largest lakes in the country. Saadjärv is also close to the Vooremaa nature reserve, so there’s plenty to do in the region when you’re not watching the lights dance in the sky. Lake Saadjärv is a major recreational area with beaches, as well as nearby cultural sites and museums such as the Ice Age Centre. You can also visit Alatskivi Castle, go snowshoeing in the Männikjärve bog or explore Elistvere Animal Park. For an extended visit, plan to stay at the Antonius Hotel, a luxury boutique property in the heart of the historic city of Tartu.
Voyageurs National Park, Minnesota
Located on the international border of Minnesota and Ontario, Voyageurs National Park is an approximately 218,000-acre labyrinth of boreal forests, lakes and streams. Voyageurs is Minnesota’s only national park; it’s also unique in that, for much of the year, the water-based park’s interior is accessible only by water. As a certified International Dark Sky Park, Voyageurs provides opportunities to view the Milky Way on clear evenings, especially in the summer. Year-round aurora viewing is also possible on evenings with clear dark skies, but the best time to see the show is during the winter.
For a custom guided tour to view the nighttime lights display, including the Milky Way and the constellations, you can hire Voyageurs Outfitters. If you’re on your own in the park, campsite docks offer some of the best spots for northern lights viewing and stargazing. You can also check out Voyageurs Forest Overlook, Beaver Pond Overlook and the Kettle Falls Dam area for top-notch views. Those who prefer to sleep in a warm, cozy bed — and not camp in the park under the stars — can make reservations at the Cantilever Distillery + Hotel, a boutique Trademark Collection by Wyndham property in the nearby town of Ranier, Minnesota.
Abisko National Park: Sweden
Sweden is one of the best spots for aurora viewing in the Northern Hemisphere, with the northern part of the country — known as Swedish Lapland — at the top of the list. While the aurora occurs year-round, the winter months (from November to March) offer the best opportunities to witness it, as there is more darkness than light during the days. If you’re up for the Arctic adventure, December is the ideal month to visit Abisko National Park, which is regarded as one of the best places on Earth to see the lights dance across the sky. The park’s mountainous terrain and clear dark skies offer dramatic front-row seats for viewing the lights. The Aurora Sky Station is one of the best vantage points to see the aurora in the park, with experts on hand to answer questions about the science behind this fascinating phenomenon.
If you’d prefer to chase the lights with a curated tour, Visit Abisko leads 4.5-hour tours with professional photographers and aurora-chasing guides in October and November. This time of year offers offers a unique opportunity to view the lights both in the sky and reflected in the lakes and rivers, which you won’t see if you visit in the winter months.
Located less than 10 miles from the Russian border in Finnish Lapland, this remote Arctic destination is a top-rated locale to view the northern lights due to the lack of light pollution. The best time to visit is between December and March. For further exploration of the region, the Nellim Wilderness Hotel offers the perfect base with year-round activities, including aurora-chasing tours. Guests can opt to head out by car to see the aurora, view it by snowmobile or go snowshoeing in pursuit of the lights. You can even take a sleigh ride through the snow to a campsite on Lake Inari, where no light pollution at all makes this one of the world’s best places to catch the aurora.
When it comes to lodging, the property features traditional rooms, suites, villas and cabins. The Nellim Wilderness Hotel also offers aurora-focused “kotas” (inspired by traditional Sámi huts), as well as cabins and bubble-shaped accommodations for two where guests can watch the dancing lights from their warm, cozy beds. The Aurora Bubbles are even equipped with a laser-heated glass roof that opens up overhead and into the night sky. When you’re not chasing the lights, enjoy other Arctic activities like a husky safari, ice fishing, snowmobiling or a day in the snow meeting the local reindeer.
Around 150 miles above the Arctic Circle, located along the road to the Arctic Sea, Saariselkä is the northernmost ski resort in Finland. This area in Finnish Lapland is known for its stunning scenery, Sámi culture, cross-country and downhill skiing, and Urho Kekkonen National Park — one of Finland’s largest parks. The resort village is also one of the prime spots in the world to view the northern lights as it sits within the “aurora zone” — and there are as many as 200 opportunities per year to see the show. September to November and February to March are the best months to view the aurora, as the skies are clearer than in December and January when they can be cloudy due to snow. But it’s possible to see the northern lights at any time during the season from mid-August to early or mid-April.
Saariselkä is also known for its glass igloos, which are perfect for snuggling up and staying warm while viewing the aurora. You can book two- or four-person igloos at the Kakslauttanen Arctic Resort. This property also offers Kelo-Glass Igloos that combine the comforts of a log chalet with the visibility of the glass roof. The property has an impressive selection of year-round tours and activities, including northern lights excursions on horseback or by horse drawn carriage — or you can head out on a quad bike to see the show.
Stewart Island, New Zealand
The southernmost destinations in the world offer the chance to see the aurora australis — or southern lights. While you might see be able to see them year-round (just as you can the northern lights), certain months are better for aurora viewing in the Southern Hemisphere. Stewart Island is regarded as one of the top spots to see the brilliant display in New Zealand, with 85% of the island encompassed by Rakiura National Park, so there are few people and virtually no light pollution. It’s the southernmost island that’s populated in the country. You can reach Stewart Island by flying into Oban or taking a ferry from Invercargill or Bluff.
New Zealand’s winter months — June to August — are the best time to see the southern lights, but you can still view them in the spring (September to November) and in the fall (March to May). The summer months, between December and February, make it more difficult to spot the aurora, but there’s still a chance you’ll catch a glimpse of the lights between midnight and 4 a.m. For accommodations during your aurora-chasing adventure, reserve a room with a view over Halfmoon Bay and the Foveaux Strait at Stewart Island Lodge, an intimate bed-and-breakfast. This beautiful property is just minutes by foot from Oban village — and the property will pick you up at the airport or ferry terminal for your stay.
Tasmania sits approximately 150 miles south of Australia between the Indian Ocean and the Tasman Sea. The mountainous island is the only place on the planet where it’s entirely possible to see the aurora 365 days a year due to its latitude and its moderate seasonal and light changes. Expert aurora chasers recommend staying in the capital city of Hobart as a base. From here you’ll be able to reach several great viewing locations with unobstructed and open views along the southern and southeast coastlines. Best of all, you can plan to visit any time of year in search of the dazzling aurora australis.
For your stay, reserve accommodations at The Tasman, a Luxury Collection Hotel, Hobart. The historic luxury property is situated along the lively waterfront area, close to the ferry terminal. When you’re not staring at the night sky, splurge on a customized once-in-a-lifetime helicopter flight with Tasmanian Air Tours. Depending on your whims, your private pilot can whisk you away to soar over the sea cliffs; stop at a local winery to sample local vintages; or head south to the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Port Arthur, Tasmania’s historic and most notorious prison.
Expedition cruise to Antarctica
If you’re one of the lucky few people on the planet to travel to the southernmost continent on Earth — Antarctica — you’ll have an adventure of a lifetime, especially when the aurora illuminates the sky. The southern lights are most visible in the winter months (between March and October), but due to the extreme weather conditions, only researchers brave the elements in Antarctica in the winter — and they mostly stay indoors. However, all hope is not lost if you seek to view the aurora australis in Antarctica. Late-season expedition cruises to the last continent offered in March also bring the opportunity to view the southern lights — and enjoy Antarctica’s fleeting summer. It’s also a quieter time to visit as many of the expedition lines have moved their ships to warmer regions around the world.
As the days shorten in length, you may encounter dustings of snow across the otherworldly landscape and ice starting to form on the water’s surface. When it comes to wildlife viewing, humpback whale sightings are abundant, and you’ll still see penguin colonies — including king and gentoo penguins. You can also watch for elephant seals, leopard seals, wandering albatross and other species of birds. When night falls on clear evenings, look for the light show in the southern sky. Cruise lines that offer March voyages include Scenic, Silversea Cruises, Aurora Expeditions, Viking and Ponant.
[Read: The Top Cruises on Small Ships.]
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Update 08/29/22: This article was published at an earlier date and has been updated with new information.