Every traveler’s life list should include viewing the Northern Lights, or Aurora Borealis, one of nature’s most spectacular phenomena. As the sun moves through its 11-year solar cycle, the activity that causes Aurora Borealis is expected to increase, peaking in 2013, which is why destinations like Sweden made it into Viking Nomads’ Go List for 2014. From late November to March within the Northern Lights zone—latitudes 65 to 72 degrees—solar particles collide with atmospheric gases to create colorful curtains (near the South Pole, Aurora Australis are the Southern Lights). Ideal viewing conditions are crisp, cold, clear, and cloudless skies with little light. You can see this most impressive light show—lasting from a few minutes to several days—in the following regions close to the Arctic.Norway: Observe Polar Night and Polar LightsWhy Go: The northern town of Tromsø teems with Aurora Borealis activity when those extended summer days are long gone. Its location above the Arctic Circle, and within the Northern Lights zone, makes it one of the top places to view shimmering green lights. The town also boasts the world’s most northerly university, brewery, and planetarium. You can cruise Norway’s fjord-lined coast aboard a Hurtigruten ship and get wake-up calls to head out on the deck when the lights appear.
Best Viewing Locations: Tromsø, Alta, Svalbard, Finnmark
Sweden: Learn about Beautiful Blue Holes
Why Go: The area around Abisko in Swedish Lapland is scientifically proven to be an ideal viewing spot due to a unique micro-climate. Close to Abisko National Park, the dark winter night is perfect for sky watching. The 70km (43mi) long Torneträsk Lake helps create the infamous “blue hole of Abisko”—a patch of sky that remains clear regardless of the surrounding weather patterns. For more on Sweden’s spectacular front row seat, check out Fodor’s Go List for 2012.
Best Viewing Locations: Kiruna, Abisko, Swedish Lapland
Finland: Listen for Your Aurora Alarm
Why Go: Head to Luosto in Northern Finland to the Aurora Chalet where, upon arrival, you’ll be handed an “Aurora Alarm” which beeps once Northern Lights appear. In the nearby town of Sodanklya, the Northern Lights Research Center relays your message via the hotel. On chilly cloudless nights, you’re also bound to catch the lights shimmer in the skies over the town of Nellim, close to Lake Inari—Finland’s third largest lake.
Best Viewing Locations: Luosto, Nellim, Utsjoki, Ivalo, Kakslauttanen
Iceland: Explore Beyond Reyjavik’s City Lights
Why Go: Leave the bustling nightlife of the capital city and head out into the wide open plains of Þingvellir National Park—a UNESCO Heritage Site where the North American and Eurasian continental plates meet to cause a rift valley. Under clear dark skies on a freezing night in early March was where I first witnessed the lights dance across the Icelandic sky. Though the show only lasted for 12-15 minutes, it felt like an hour.
Best Viewing Locations: Outside Reykjavik, Þingvellir National Park, the entire country.
Alaska: View Northern Lights in the U.S.
Why Go: Alaska’s location within “the zone” means you’re almost guaranteed to see spectacular light displays. Be sure to move further away from city lights of Fairbanks into the region’s vast wilderness areas of Denali and the Yukon Territory.
Insider Tip: Check the University of Alaska’s Northern Lights forecast to help schedule your viewing trip.
Best Viewing Locations: Anchorage, Fairbanks, Denali, Yukon Territory
Canada: Go North of the Border for Great Views
Why Go: Areas around pristine Lake Superior in Ontario and Northern Canada’s tundra backcountry are prime viewing spots. Head to the town of Whitehorse within the Yukon Territory to best see the swirling lights. Sometimes, the glowing sky can be seen as far south as the American border, but stick to Canada’s vast wilderness for your front row seats.
Best Viewing Locations: Calgary, Ontario, Yukon Territory, Manitoba
Greenland: Experience Great Auroras All Over
Why Go: Greenland still remains a final frontier for the average traveler and from its interior ice remains optimal location, however more accessible areas south and east of Greenland provide just as good viewing opportunities. You can see northern lights from most parts of the country (similar to Iceland).
Best Viewing Locations: Kulusuk, Ammassalik
Scotland: Watch the Sky for a Weather Break
Why Go: The British isles are known for stormy, foggy, and cloudy weather—far from ideal conditions for observing the sky, but on those rare occasions when thick cloud covers break momentarily during dark winter months, you’ve got a good chance of witnessing the display in parts of Scotland’s north.
Best Viewing Locations: Aberdeen, Isle of Skye, Northern Highlands, Dunnet Head
Russia: Brave the Arctic Cold for Arctic Lights
Why Go: In Northern Russia, you’ve got a good chance of seeing Aurora Borealis. The Kola Peninsula’s proximity to the Northern Lights zone also makes it a key area and the town of Murmansk is a popular base . . . if you can handle the below freezing temperatures of a typical Siberian winter.
Best Viewing Locations: Murmansk, Siberia, Kola Peninsula
Denmark: Visit Remote Norwegian Sea Islands
Why Go: North of Scotland between the Norwegian Sea and the North Atlantic, the Faroe Island archipelago is mostly known for puffins and Viking folklore. While its stormy weather mimics that of the British Isles, visitors to this Denmark-owned province could also see the iridescent lights.
Best Viewing Locations: All islands within its archipelago
Top tips for photographing the Northern Lights!
As we move closer to Earth’s magnetic poles, solar particles from the sun’s flares collide with gases in the Earth’s atmosphere and they create red, purple, and green curtain-like lights which dance across the sky called “Aurora Borealis” or more commonly, “Northern Lights”.
This year, NASA is predicting some of the most spectacular displays in over a decade because we will be reaching a solar maximum in terms of activity and flares off the surface of the sun. Solar maximums peak following an 11-year cycle so now is the time to start planning your trip for later this year.
Just seeing these once-in-a-lifetime phenomena is amazing, but for those who would like to capture the lights, here are some tips for better photographing the Northern Lights.