If your bucket list only had a few items on it, the odds are pretty good that “seeing the northern lights” would make the cut. People travel for once-in-a-lifetime experiences, and unlike great cities, cultural hubs, and adventurous destinations, naturally occurring phenomena encapsulate that experience like nothing else on Earth.
If this past summer’s reaction to the total solar eclipse is any indication, people are willing to travel for beautiful celestial events. Luckily, the brilliant dance of ethereal colored lights in the sky at the upper latitudes is easier to get to than a once-in-a-decade solar blackout. So, pack your travel backpack, here’s everything you need to know about where, when, and how to see the northern lights in Europe.
What Exactly Are the Northern Lights?
Before you spend (possibly) thousands of dollars traveling to a remote glass dome above the Arctic Circle, you should at least have some idea of what, exactly, the northern lights are, and what makes them so hard to see. Technically called the aurora borealis, the dazzling ghostly light show in the northern sky is actually pretty simple to understand. The light show is caused by solar radiation and our magnetic field.
The Sun is Trying to Kill You: The Northern Lights
While the northern lights usually conjure up images of ice, snow, and long dark nights, the dazzling light winter light show all starts with the hot, hot sun. If you think of the sun as a peaceful yellow ball of warm life-giving light 93 million miles away from us, you’re partly right. The sun does send us the lovely beams of light that warm our surface, create our weather, and feed the plants; which, in turn, feed everything else. Everything alive on Earth is here because of the sun. But the important thing to remember is that the sun isn’t a happy smiling face on a Raisin Bran box.
The sun is an indifferent mass of lethal destruction bigger than anything you can imagine.
This galactic-sized fusion-powered murderball of deadly radiation and mind-numbing heat is a churning, heaving, dense mass many times the size of everything else in the solar system combined. The sun’s incredible mass means that gravity is constantly at work, trying to collapse the sun in on itself. However, violent fusion reactions at its core (a result of this crushing gravity) prevent the sun from imploding. For now.
This constant struggle between inexorable gravity and trillions of violent fusion reactions (aka nuclear explosions) every second of every day constantly ripple through our mid-sized star. If you take a close look at the surface of the sun, you’ll see that it’s not a smooth glowing ball, but a roiling cauldron of the raw power that fuels the cosmos. Each fusion reaction causes the ejection of charged particles from the center of the sun to travel outward to the surface. Often times these ejections arc out from the surface in solar flares that can reach heights many times the diameter of Earth. Scared yet? There’s more.
How the Northern Lights Work: Deadly but Beautiful
When these solar particle ejections are fast enough (or “reach escape velocity” if you’re nasty), they launch waves of deadly radiation towards Earth. Scientists call these events a coronal mass ejection (CME), but let’s call it what it really is—the sun is a murder ball in the sky that flings deadly radiation at you. And it happens all the time.
This cloud of deadly solar gas usually takes about 2-3 days to reach Earth where (luckily) it collides with our magnetic field. A lot of complex changes happen to these particles, and most of them are deflected away into space, but not all. Some of these (now charged) particles ride the invisible magnetic lines that arc toward both the North and South Poles. In the upper atmosphere these particles gain energy as they collide with the oxygen and nitrogen atoms and whatever else is in our atmosphere, and blammo—you see waves of bright lights traveling across the sky—aka the northern lights.
Why Are the Northern Lights Different Colors?
If you’ve seen pictures of the northern lights (and since you’re reading this, you already have), you might have noticed that they’re different colors in different places and times. Green, pink, yellow, blue, purple, and even shades of grey—all of these colors are common for the aurora borealis.
What’s cool is that the color of the northern lights is a direct result of how high the charged particles are when they hit the magnetic field, and which elements they collide with in our atmosphere:
- Yellow and green northern lights = Oxygen (up to 150 miles high)
- Red northern lights = Nitrogen (above 150 miles high)
- Blue northern lights = Atomic nitrogen (up to 60 miles high)
- Purple northern lights = Molecular nitrogen (above 60 miles high)
Share these super cool fun facts with anyone nearby while you’re watching the northern lights. People love fun science facts, right? Right, guys? Guys? Hello?
Where to See the Northern Lights in Europe: The Aurora Zone
Now that you know what the northern lights are, and why they look so cool, let’s get into the best places to see the northern lights in Europe, as well as the best time of year to get your peep on. The options are many when it comes to viewing the northern lights in Europe, but when it comes to frequency, visibility, availability (aka “can you actually get there”), and visa concerns, some destinations are better than others.
While you can see the aurora borealis at latitudes as far south as NYC (when solar and geomagnetic activity peak), the northern lights are most frequently visible in Northern Europe between the 66°N and 69°N latitudes. This region is better known as the “Aurora Zone.” Stretching across Scandinavia—particularly Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Iceland—the Aurora Zone is particularly important during declining phases of solar activity, which we’re currently experiencing.
We’ll get into the timing of the northern lights more in a bit, but the sun goes through 11-year cycles where it puts out more, or less, solar radiation. On “off” years when CMEs are low (2019 is the next projected Solar Minimum), the northern lights are rarely seen outside of the Aurora Zone.
What does all that mean exactly? If you want to see the Northern Lights any time soon, you have to go north to the Aurora Zone. So, let’s look at the best places to see the northern lights in Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Iceland.
Northern Lights Fun Fact: The aurora borealis is named after the goddess Aurora or “Dawn” and Borealis or “Wind.” Aren’t facts fun?!
Northern Lights: Norway
Norway, the westernmost country on the Scandinavian peninsula is a hotbed of northern light activity. Cheap(ish) flights, great infrastructure, and remote, picturesque locations amidst the forests and fjords of this winter wonderland make Norway a perfect destination for the northern lights hunters. Here are a few great spots to see the northern lights in Norway.
Tromsø, located in the middle of the Northern Lights Oval, (hint: that’s a good thing) is probably the most famous destination for seeing the aurora borealis in Norway. This bustling aurora hub is a great spot to start your search, but it might be a little built-up for purists.
Light pollution is a big problem with the aurora, and Tromsø has become a victim of its own success. As the city grows it becomes easier to get here to start your search for the aurora, but more difficult to actually see the northern lights. They even have an airport, Tromsø Airport (TOS), so you can connect directly from Oslo.
If you only have a few days, to search for the northern lights, Tromsø is for you. If you have more time, use it as a jumping off point for places farther north.
Located about a two-hour drive from Tromsø, Lyngenfjord has all the rugged mountain isolation and fjord scenery you could ask for. Literally meaning “quiet fjords,” Lyngenfjord is close enough to transportation to be doable, without the light pollution of the “big” towns.
If you really, really want to get away from it all, the Norwegian islands off the coast are the only way to go. Senja, Norway’s second largest island, features great infrastructure in a remote setting that’s practically designed for northern lights viewing. Often called “Norway in miniature,” the warm Gulf Stream keeps this remote island mild enough to make it perfect for northern lights seekers that want the experience but can’t handle the cold, plus the rugged coastal scenery is the perfect backdrop for your Instagram account.
Bonus: If you somehow strike out on the northern lights, you can see eagles, porpoises, seals, and more on a boat (or kayak) in this vibrant wildlife haven.
Alta is one of the most northern cities in the world, making it easy to see why it’s called the “City of the Northern Lights.” However, the relationship with the lights in the sky goes deeper than just the latitude. This area houses one of the world’s first northern lights observatories built by Kristian Birkeland in 1859, and reportedly gets northern lights shows up to 200 nights a year!
If you’re fancy (and I hope you are), catch the aurora from the Sorrisniva Igloo Hotel in your very own igloo for about $300/per person, per night. It’s cold and expensive, but dang is that a cool way to see the northern lights.
Svalbard, in northern Norway is another spectacular northern lights destination, but according to Lane Nieset, from the Points Guy, it’s also the only place to “catch these beauties during the day as well.” Home to the real hunt for the northern lights, you can pick your method of search—dog sled, snowmobile, or even boat—looking for the (not so elusive) northern lights of Norway here.
Unstad, Lofoten, Norway
Surfing and the northern lights aren’t usually mentioned in the same sentence, unless you’re from the Lofoten islands, in Norway. For the past 10 years, Lofoten has hosted the Lofoten Masters surfing competition—dubbed the “world’s northernmost surfing championship.” While the competition isn’t quite up to the standards of the WCT Championship on the North Shore of Oahu, it’s a unique experience to surf under the Northern Lights.
Open to surfers of all levels, (heck yeah!), the international event is “more like a festival than a competition.” Seriously. They’ve got mobile hot tubs, saunas, and food stands. If you don’t feel up to hunting for the northern lights in the dead of winter, head to Lofoten for the Masters Competition in September 2018 for the kickoff to the aurora season.
Northern Lights: Sweden
If Norway is too crowded for you, head inland to northern Sweden. Sweden is about a quarter as populated as the rest of Europe, so light pollution is practically non-existent which means better auroras. Huzzah. The only problem with Sweden’s auroras is the constant cloud cover in winter. Luckily, there’s one Swedish town with a natural geographic answer to the overcast northern lights killer.
Hands down, the best place to see the northern lights in Sweden is Abisko. Located in a polar desert (yes, that’s a thing), at the top end of the Aurora Zone (on the 68° parallel 200 kilometers above the Arctic Circle), smack in the middle of Sweden’s largest national park (Abisko National Park), is a town with only 150 permanent residents. If you were to draw a venn diagram of the perfect northern lights environment, Abisko would be smack in the middle of all three circles.
Aside from the landscape, the real beauty of Abisko is how the peaks of the mountains surrounding Abisko National Park shield the area from heavy cloud cover that plagues other parts of Sweden in the winter. Combine that with steady winds, and you’ve got a recipe for clear skies year round. Clouds are a serious seasonal obstacle to seeing the northern lights, and while you can forecast for weather, thick Scandinavian cloud banks can form quickly and sit on a place for days.
Fun Fact: Abisko receives the least amount of precipitation in all of Sweden, and has more annual clear sky days than practically anywhere else in Europe. So there.
Simply put, Abisko is one of the best places in Europe to see the northern lights. The light pollution is low, the chance of clouds is low, and the latitude is high (see what I did there?). Residents claim they can see the northern lights an average of 159 nights of the year. That’s nearly 1 in 2 days year round, and almost everyday during the “northern lights season” in winter when the skies darken.
If you want to venture out from Abisko, you have to stay in the world’s first Ice Hotel in nearby Jukkasjärvi (about 1.5 hour drive east). Created in 1989 by the frozen 520 mile long Torne River, the Ice Hotel is a unique experience worth experiencing during your hunt for the aurora. An ice hotel from the 80s? That alone is worth investigating.
Northern Lights: Finland
Finland’s equally low population density (you have to get out of cities to see the good northern lights), and extremely low light pollution, means it’s on par with anything that Norway and Sweden can offer. The advantage tips in favor of Finland’s northern lights centric accommodation.
There are a lot of great ways to see the northern lights, but once you get into the Aurora Zone a lot of places can start to blur together. That’s why watching the green and purple lights streak across the sky from the comfort of your bed in a glass igloo at Finland’s Kakslauttanen Resort is a game changer. Sure, it’s insanely expensive at €400/night, but it’s worth it for a once in a lifetime experience. If you have the means for this premium, luxury northern lights viewing experience, jump on it because it is top shelf.
Another noted aurora gazing region is Finnish Lapland. The dark, crisp night skies with unobstructed views of the northern lights are ideal, especially on the reflective stillness of a frozen lake.
Northern Lights Pro Tip: find a place with a lake. The ice doubles the effect of the aurora borealis, and you don’t even have to do anything.
At around $150/night (US), the Aurora Dome, a heated igloo-inspired tent right on Muonio’s frozen Lake Torassieppi, is a great budget alternative to the sticker shock of Kakslauttanen’s luxury glass igloo domes, while still providing that once-in-a-lifetime northern lights experience.
Paatsjoki, Finnish Lapland
According to Aurora Zone blogger and photographer, Markku Inkila, aurora hunters who head to the the Paatsjoki Bridge, in Nellim, near the Finnish-Russian border, have a “90% chance of success.” That’s a pretty bold claim, but he seems to know what he’s talking about. When asked how many times he’s seen the northern lights he replied:
“I’ve simply lost count of how many times I’ve witnessed the northern lights, but it says something that I have tens of thousands of photos of them.”
And those photos are pretty sweet when you’ve “lost count” of how many times you’ve seen one of the coolest sights on the planet.
Northern Lights: Iceland
Recently Iceland has emerged as a cheap(er) more accessible candidate for American northern lights chasers. Just a short $99 flight from Boston, once you’re in Reykjavik, it’s easy to get out to the empty countryside for all the viewing you can handle. I spent several months there a few years ago, and I drove around the island three times. Drive from Reykjavik, in the south, all the way to the Northwestern fjords in half a day. Less if you’re awesome.
Late autumn (October) is a great time to chase auroras in Iceland, as the weather is considerably milder than winter, but the long nights obviously have their charms. I put together an Iceland summer packing list. If you’re going in winter, beef that up considerably and enjoy all the nordic beauty and isolation that you find in Scandinavian fjords, glaciers, lakes, and remote fields in a much more user friendly environment.
Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon, Iceland
Iceland just isn’t that big, so while you can dig for specific locations to see the northern lights—glaciers, black sand beaches, etc—pretty much every square inch of Iceland is fair game for the aurora. Once you get an hour out of Reykjavik, you’ve essentially left half of the entire 300,000 person population in your dust, so enjoy the dark and the quiet, whily you wait for the show to start.
One particularly picturesque spot (albeit a potentially crowded one) is the Glacier Lagoon at Jokulsarlon on the southern coast. There’s really nothing that improves the northern lights quite like reflection on water, ice, snow, and even the sea. The Lagoon has it all. Bask in the shimmering light in one of the prettiest spots on the whole island, and you’ll definitely have a few great photos to show for it.
Hotel Ranga, in southern Iceland about an hour out of Reykjavik, is built on northern lights tourism. They even have a northern lights webcam pointed at the sky outside where you can tune in to see the show remotely (to get you pumped about your future visit of course).
It doesn’t really matter where you go in Iceland, as long as you get out of Reykjavik, and obviously visit during the right time of year. Which begs the question: when exactly is the best time to see the northern lights in Europe?
Best Time to See Northern Lights in Europe
Aurora borealis events occur year round—there aren’t any seasons in space. However, the biggest factor to seeing the northern lights is complete darkness. So the simple answer is that the best time to see the northern lights in Iceland is any time it’s dark.
Fall, and the long dark nights of the Northern Hemisphere, begins in September, ramping up to the longest night of the year on the winter solstice, typically December 21st. Then the sun gradually returns until aurora events become difficult to see around mid-April. Any month in that time period has the right conditions for witnessing an aurora borealis storm. However, there’s one more important timing concern, and it has nothing to do with the season you go northern light hunting.
The sunspots, CMEs, and solar storms that cause the northern lights occur roughly every eleven years. Yes, there seems to be a solar emissions cycle, and it peaked a few years ago in 2013, but even that “peak” was the weakest solar maximum in a century of measurements. The solar cycle is in decline for the better part of the next decade so make sure you maximize all the other more controllable factors, like time of year, and location. Do your best with what you’ve got.
Tracking the Northern Lights: Apps & Websites
Even though we’re in a solar slump, so to speak, we’re armed with more information and applications of that data than ever before. Harness the processing power of the internet on your phone with a few great aurora tracking apps and websites.
Sure this overly scientific website is in a language you can’t read, but the charts and numbers still make sense if you take your time with them. While this is probably more info than you need, if you can punch through all the white noise, you should be in business.
While there’s no such thing as an aurora prediction model (yet), this site is exactly what it says it is. “Real Time Aurora Tracker” monitors solar and atmospheric activity to predict volatile states that can result in aurora borealis,” or so it says on their site. Sounds good to me.
Dark Site Finder: Light Pollution Map
This tool might be the most helpful takeaway from this article. Use the map to find pockets devoid of light pollution within the aurora zone, and plan your own dang trip. Don’t stick to other people’s maps or recommendations. Make sure you’ve got the necessary gear and experience, and get out there to see the raw majesty and power of the sun and Earth on full display in the most remote place you can find.
If you want to stay mobile, download the Aurora app for kp indications (it’s geomagnetic jargon), aurora oval maps, as well as tracking and predictions for northern lights. It reads like a weather app, but unlike reliable weather apps it has some noticeable drawbacks—like failure to alert you when a potential aurora is actually underway. You can’t get too mad at them though. The maps are detailed, and the data is good, making it a useful tool for hardcore aurora chasers.
The biggest tip for seeing the northern lights is, don’t just go for the lights. Plan a holistic trip filled with other fun winter activities. Book a snowmobile tour. Ride a reindeer. Chop down a tree and then meticulously carve your family history into its aged trunk over a series of months as you learn more about the grain of the wood and about yourself. While your trip should center around the northern lights, remember that they are, by their very nature, fleeting and unpredictable. You’ll be upset if you somehow strikeout and you don’t have anything else planned.
And also, commit to your trip. Don’t just travel to Finland for the weekend and expect to see the northern lights. Give your trip the time it needs to succeed—at least a week, longer if you can. Patience is the secret ingredient to finally seeing the elusive northern lights.
- The best time to see the northern lights in Europe is between October and March
- The best place to see the northern lights in Europe is in the Aurora Zone between 65 and 72 degrees N
- Finland, Sweden, Norway, and Iceland are the top northern lights destinations
- The northern lights are on an 11-year cycle (seriously), and we’re in the trough of that right now, which means you really have to go north if you want to see them