To see the northern lights, unsurprisingly you’ll want to go north. Caused by charged particles from the sun colliding with atoms in Earth’s atmosphere, the lights form an “auroral oval” over the geomagnetic North Pole, so they occur most frequently in any area within approximately 1,500 miles of the pole. They’re most easily viewed when skies are clear and dark, free from light pollution from cities and the moon. That makes Alaska and parts of Canada, which have long nights and ideal auroral latitudes, safe bets for viewing.
Americans in the lower 48 shouldn’t despair, however; strong solar winds can sometimes result in the aurora appearing farther south. Hey, it’s even been spotted in Atlanta. The dazzling natural display can be experienced in a variety of locations across the globe. Towns in Europe and North America market the lights as a tourist attraction, offering experiences for adventurers and luxury travelers alike.
From Churchill, Canada, to the vast Finnish Lapland and one rather unexpected U.S. destination (spoiler: it’s in Pennsylvania), here are the absolute best places to see the northern lights.
The bitter cold that often comes with chasing the aurora can be a real deterrent, but what if you could see the lights while soaking in a natural hot tub? Enter Fairbanks’ Chena Hot Springs Resort, whose boulder-enclosed lake offers the opportunity to enjoy a warm soak along with the light show. Fairbanks lies directly beneath a band of auroral activity, meaning from August to the end of April the town regularly experiences a celestial display of green, yellow, and purple.
The phenomenon is most frequently seen between 11 p.m. and 2 a.m., but the early-to-bed crowd need not worry. Chena Hot Springs Resort guests can request a wake-up call when the aurora is spotted in the sky.
Norway has no shortage of prime vantage points. First and foremost is Svalbard, a string of Arctic islands midway between continental Norway and the North Pole. Because the archipelago experiences polar night, or perpetual darkness, between mid-November and February, it offers visitors double the opportunity to see the lights and is the only inhabited place in the world where you can experience the phenomenon during the day. Join a three-hour snowcat safari or brave the cold on a snowmobile tour complete with a stop for warm drinks and biscuits.
Tromsø is northern Norway’s largest city and is situated in the middle of the auroral oval. The city offers visitors a wide variety of tours to choose from during its dark season from late September through late March. One fun way to see the auroral display is to ride a cable car up Mount Storsteinen, which provides one of the best views of the northern lights in the city. Or, if you prefer to experience the magic while sipping Akvavit, slide into a table at the Skybar at Clarion Hotel The Edge.
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North of the Arctic Circle in Finnish Lapland, surrounded by towering pines, is a surreally beautiful place to experience the aurora. We recommend dozing off while watching the dancing display from within a glass igloo at the romantic Kakslauttanen Arctic Resort. In addition to rooms made of wood or glass, there’s also a traditional log house. The resort organizes aurora hunting expeditions if you prefer to watch the lights while skiing down a slope, riding a reindeer-drawn sleigh, or participating in another memorable activity.
Accommodations for enjoying the northern lights abound throughout Finland, ranging from seaside glass villas and lakeside domes to cabins with large windows and glass roofs. The lights make an appearance over Finland about 200 nights per year, so you couldn’t pick a better destination for an auroral vacation.
With minimal light pollution and near-perfect visibility in some places, Greenland provides exceptional odds for viewing the milky-green lights. A three- or four-night stay during the aurora season (September to early April) offers the best chance of spotting them. Settle into the Hotel Arctic on the edge of the Ilulissat Icefjord. Most of the rooms come with a stunning view of the fjord and its breathtaking icebergs.
If roughing it is more your style, plan a trip to Kangerlussuaq. This former U.S. military base gets about 300 clear nights a year — prime conditions for aurora viewing. The local guide company Albatros Arctic Circle runs northern lights tours, including one that involves camping on the Greenland Ice Sheet (an experience typically reserved just for researchers and expeditioners).
From August to April, the northern lights swirl across the sky above Canada’s Yukon Territory. Depending on cloud conditions, light pollution, and the night’s auroral activity, you could spend hours watching the neon shades of green and yellow. Learn about the science — and folklore — surrounding the colors at the Northern Lights Space and Science Centre in Watson Lake.
Book one of the glass chalets at the Northern Lights Resort and Spa in Whitehorse, then follow your night out in the cold with a day of pampering at the spa. The hotel’s All-Inclusive Winter Aurora and Activity Package includes nightly guided aurora viewing and photography opportunities.
The aurora can be seen across the U.K., as far south as England’s Kent and East Anglia, in the autumn and winter months. But the best bet is to head for the northernmost parts of the Highlands or the Shetland Islands. In Shetland, the northern lights are known as the “Mirrie Dancers.”
Book the Keeper’s Cottage at Sumburgh Head, a restored Shetland lighthouse overlooking a puffin nesting area on the Atlantic, or venture to the Isle of Lewis to see the display above the Calanais Standing Stones, a circular formation of rocks erected thousands of years ago. Before you go, sign up for the AuroraWatch UK alerts about viewing conditions so you never miss a sighting.
In Churchill, Canada, you can watch the lights dance over a family of polar bears from the comfort of your sleeper car. The Manitoba town, which experiences auroral activity more than 300 nights a year, is a top destination for seeing the majestic animals in the wild. Run by Natural Habitat Adventures, a conservation-focused travel partner of the World Wildlife Fund, the Tundra Lodge offers accommodations inspired by train cars in prime bear-spotting territory. If you want to deepen your understanding of the wildlife or the northern lights, book one of the Churchill Northern Studies Centre‘s multiday educational tours.
Cherry Springs State Park, Pennsylvania
You don’t necessarily have to go far north to glimpse the lights. Isolated from large cities like Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, Cherry Springs State Park is committed to preserving its exceptionally dark sky. The area is classified as a gold-tier International Dark Sky Park (the highest designation given by DarkSky). The park uses special light fixtures that don’t inhibit visibility and has strict rules about flashlights and car headlights. And even if you miss the aurora borealis, on a clear night you’re all but guaranteed an exceptional view of the stars. Check the park’s website for special events like astronomy programs and public viewing nights. You can keep track of when and where the northern lights will appear with a forecast service like the one from The University of Alaska Fairbanks.
Hotel Rangá, in southern Iceland, offers a range of cold-weather activities, from whale watching to glacier tours and freshwater fishing. But its trademark is the northern lights. Located in the countryside, the hotel experiences minimal light pollution, making for optimal viewing conditions during the season (September to April). Closer to Reykjavik, the Ion Adventure Hotel‘s Northern Lights Bar features dimmed lighting and wraparound windows, so guests can watch the aurora from inside and with a drink in hand.
At Icehotel in Jukkasjärvi, guests can choose from traditional hotel rooms, chalets, or ice rooms and suites in a separate Icehotel structure that’s rebuilt every winter. Temperatures in the ice structure range from 23 degrees to about 19 degrees Fahrenheit, but don’t worry: They come equipped with thermal, expedition-style sleeping bags to keep you warm.
The hotel offers various excursions that include a snowmobile safari in the wilderness and nightly photography tours to catch the phenomenon in a natural setting away from light pollution. Guests can also plan an excursion to the nearby Aurora Sky Station in Abisko. Located about 3,000 feet above sea level, the station experiences little light pollution, providing optimal viewing conditions. The station says it gets aurora views on 70 percent of the nights it’s open (from November to March).