The aurora is one of the world's most beautiful natural phenomena. It lights up the night sky in both the northern and southern hemispheres during certain times of the year. Sadly, viewable auroras in the southern hemisphere are rare, so head north to see the most spectacular displays. The brilliant aurora borealis explodes across the sky in neon patches, arcs, and ribbons of yellowish-green across the night sky. While these light shows aren't visible everywhere, when they are, they're breathtaking.
Ask most astronomers, and they'll tell you the best sites to see the northern lights are places that aren't prone to light pollution. The smaller communities of northwestern Canada hold the greatest promise for catching breathtaking views of the northern lights from the end of August until April. Plan a trip during the first few weeks of winter for the best displays when the skies are the darkest and most clear. The Midnight Dome, a 2900 foot hill above Dawson City, provides a panoramic view of the night sky, the perfect viewing point for nature's best light show.
The high northern latitudes of Alaska set it up as a prime viewing spot for seeing the aurora borealis in shades of green, yellow, red, and purple from late February to early April. In the interior region of Alaska, Fairbanks is a popular destination for those seeking the best views. It sits within the auroral oval where the northern lights are most visible. The city's official aurora season is from August 21 to April 21. A wide array of accommodation options are available in the area, from hotels, chalets, and resorts to geodesic igloos with clear ceilings. During the day, enjoy dog-sledding or ATV tours.
Between mid-April and mid-August, there is no darkness in Iceland. But starting in late September, you'll enjoy breathtaking views of the northern lights. The capital city of Reykjavik in southwestern Iceland is a great spot to view the aurora borealis and provides lots of opportunities for some much-needed relaxation, including a geothermal beach and 17 super-warm swimming pools, and several nearby natural areas. You'll find several elevated places where you can view the northern lights around the city. When the weather permits it, hop aboard a boat cruise launching from the Reykjavik harbor. The view from the ocean is magnificent.
Abisko National Park provides some of the best panoramas of the northern lights on the planet. No nearby city lights will hinder your view. It's not just the night sky display that will mesmerize you, but the majestic backdrop of this breathtaking mountainous area of Sweden will, too. Jump aboard a chairlift transport to the top of Mt. Nuolja, the site of the Aurora Sky Station. Sit in on one of the sky station's presentations, or just take in the transcendence of the green lights and the stars looking down on you.
Norway's largest city, in the northern part of the country, rests in the middle of the auroral oval. Steep mountains and long, narrow fjords frame the Tromsø landscape. The official season for aurora viewing in northern Norway begins in September, although there may be powerful activity in February and March. To observe the northern lights, head to the outskirts, away from the car headlights, streetlamps, and house lights in the city.
Greenland is one of the top destinations for viewing the northern lights with minimal light pollution and an abundance of clear, nighttime skies. Nuuk sits on the southwestern coast and is the country's capital city and main port. The aurora borealis is so bright here; you can stand in the city's center and still experience the phenomenon in its full, vibrant glory. The purples, blues, and greens of the aurora reflect off the ivory snow, inspiring those lucky enough to see it in person.
Not only is this site an incredibly beautiful nature and wildlife area in northeast Scotland, but it is also one of the top destinations for stargazing. You don't even need to bring any equipment. The skies here are incredibly dark, and you'll find no security lights or street lamps to impede your views. The Cairngorms is on the same latitude as Norway and Alaska, making it a prime spot for catching sight of the northern lights. The Cairngorm Mountain car park, Feith Musach, and Glenlivet Estate face north, making them excellent spots for nighttime skywatching.
The best sites to see the northern lights are above the Arctic Circle. Lapland, the northernmost region of Finland, is a great place to add to your aurora borealis travel itinerary. Locals say it is a land with eight seasons, not just four. Once winter arrives, you can enjoy 200 nights each year of aurora spotting, with the best viewing occurring between October and March. Rovaniemi, the official hometown of Santa Claus, sits in a pine forest alongside the Raudanjoki river and is a great location to catch a full-blown Finnish aurora experience.
In far northwest Russia, the Kola Peninsula lies almost completely within the Arctic Circle. A populous but small port city, Murmansk, is also the best place on the peninsula to view the northern lights. Not only is it a budget-conscious destination, but the chances of catching sight of the aurora are also high. From mid-August until the end of April, there are more than 150 nights of the phenomenon, which can last for a few minutes or several days.
This town is just 14 miles north of Tartu in central Estonia and rests peacefully on the shores of Lake Saadjärv, a popular recreational area. The water in the lake reflects the shimmering green northern lights as they appear across the sky, creating a mystical glow on its surface. If you're not a fan of crowded tourist destinations, Saadjärv is off the beaten trail, so there are fewer obstacles to obscure a peaceful and memorable experience.
The people of the Orkney Islands call the Northern Lights' Merry Dancers'. These dancers put on their show in autumn and winter, and you can check social media for the latest updates about perfect conditions. You'll need some skill with a camera to capture the spectacle adequately.
But good ol' Aurora isn't the only reason to visit this Scottish archipelago. There are standing stones à la those in Outlander. The people are friendly, the landscapes moving, and there's a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Heart of Neolithic Orkney, to explore. Archaeologists are still digging up clues about the past here. When it's the winter solstice, the sunset lights up Maeshowe, an ancient chambered tomb, and it's a collective moment of joy.
Want to see the Northern Lights just as Princess Leia did? Head to the mining town Yellowknife in Canada's Northwest Territories, where Carrie Fisher witnessed an awe-inspiring display in 2013. It was the fourth time lucky for the actor, who had attempted this bucket list item in Scotland, Sweden, and Iceland without success. Perhaps Yellowknife will conjure up good luck for you as well.
You'll find the world's first ice hotel in Jukkasjärvi, and it's arguably worthy of a Snow Queen. You just might find the Northern Lights too. The skies are usually dark during winter, and the bonus nighttime provides more opportunities to see the light show you've dreamed of. Make friends with reindeer, moose, and sled dogs, hop on snowmobiles, and savor the fact that you've made it to storied Lapland.
Greenland's population is so small that light pollution isn't an issue, and the improved visibility ups your chances of seeing the magical Northern Lights. Only about 500 people live in Kangerlussuaq, a remote Arctic destination in western Greenland with fjords and glaciers. You can walk onto the vast ice sheet spot musk oxen, caribou, and gyrfalcons, and the best time to see aurora borealis here is between August and April.
Voyageurs National Park is an International Dark Sky Park and one of America's most underrated protected spaces. You won't encounter crowds; all the better to gaze up at the Milky Way and commune with nature.
The best places to view aurora borealis or sensational STEVE are Woodenfrog Beach, the Ash River, and Rainy Lake Visitor Centers, and the Voyageurs Forest Overlook parking lot. Houseboats and lakes bode well too, but full moons and cloudy skies don't, so do your checks before you go.