logo
1-800-590-1161ContactEarn free travel
logo1-800-590-1161
BlogTravel tipsThe northern lights explained—and where to see them on tour
purple and blue northern lights in sky at night
Travel tips

The northern lights explained—and where to see them on tour

Nov 09, 2021 by Lindsay Day

Whether on TV, in the pages of your favorite travel magazine, or in your social media feed, you might have seen the northern lights—ghostly ribbons of neon yellow, green, blue, and violet light dancing across clear, dark skies. Even better? Seeing the northern lights in person in dreamy spots such as Alaska, Iceland, and Norway. Thinking about traveling to see the northern lights? We’re sharing tips, hints, and how-tos to help you experience the northern lights—and see some pretty spectacular natural scenery—in dazzling, trending travel destinations while on tour.


Img

What are the northern lights?

The light show we see in the sky happens when electrically charged particles from the sun, riding a wave of solar wind, crash through the earth’s upper atmosphere at high speeds. There, they collide with gases, creating energy in the form of light. The auroras occur between 60 and 70 miles above the earth’s surface and can extend hundreds of miles into space.

Where can you see the northern lights?

The northern lights, whose scientific name is aurora borealis, are most commonly seen within a radius of about 1,500 miles around the North Pole. This area is known as the auroral zone, or the auroral oval. (Their southern cousin, the aurora australis, or southern lights, are visible within the same radius around the South Pole.)

The northern lights are visible from northern parts of Scandinavia, northern Russia, Alaska, northern Canada, Greenland, and Iceland. In general, the best place to hunt for the northern lights is above the Arctic Circle (66°33’N).

Wherever you travel to see the northern lights, here are a few rules of thumb to remember: The farther north you go, the more likely you are to spot them. The best viewing spots are remote with little or no light pollution. And bonus points if you can find a spot on higher ground to search from.


Img

When are the northern lights visible?

Technically, the northern lights are present throughout much of the year, but conditions like fog, cloud cover, and light—from the sun, moon, cities, or towns—can obscure them. In summertime, extra-long hours of daylight can make spotting the northern lights especially difficult, even as far north as the Arctic Circle.

Typically, winter season in the Arctic (late-September through late-March or early April) is a winning formula for spotting the northern lights. Up your chances even more by traveling during the equinoxes, which occur in March and September. That’s when the aurora is most active.


Img

Where are the best places to see the northern lights?

There’s plenty to consider when choosing a destination for your northern lights adventure: the type of landscapes you’d like to see, other activities in the area, and how far you want to travel, to name just a few. But when it comes to the probability of spotting the northern lights and the quality of aurora-viewing experience you’re likely to enjoy, here are several top spots:

Alaska

In Alaska, the northern lights are most often visible in the Interior and Arctic regions—places like Coldfoot, Utqiagvik (Barrow), and Prudhoe Bay/Deadhorse. Despite its location some 200 miles below the Arctic Circle, Fairbanks is considered one of the best places to see the northern lights in Alaska. It also happens to be the first stop on our Alaska’s National Parks: Denali & the Kenai Fjords tour.

Canada

The northern lights are visible to varying degrees throughout Canada all year. But they’re most active—and best viewed—in the north during winter’s longer periods of darkness. One of the best places in the country to see the northern lights is Alberta’s Banff National Park, which travelers can visit on tour.

Travelers who want to search for the northern lights farther north can do so on a Customized Tour of Canada, or on an independent pre- or post-tour stay. Some prime northern lights-viewing locations to consider visiting in the north include Torngat Mountains National Park, in Newfoundland and Labrador; wilderness resorts outside Northwest Territories’ capital city, Yellowknife; Churchill, Manitoba; wilderness areas surrounding the Yukon territory’s capital city, Whitehorse; and remote communities in the sprawling, sparsely populated territory of Nunavut.

Learn more about Banff in our Canadian Rockies destination guide →

Iceland

The aurora borealis lights up the sky all over Iceland, with settings like glacial lakes, snow-capped mountains, and fields of steaming geysers serving as dramatic backdrops. This makes the island country an ideal destination for northern lights chasers to visit on tour.

Traveler Edward enjoyed a suspenseful search for the aurora on our Iceland: Reykjavik & the Northern Lights tour. “Finding the northern lights isn’t a guarantee, but the hunt for them is half the fun,” he said. “And when you do see them, it can be a breathtaking experience.”

Wondering what else to do in the Land of Fire and Ice? Check out our Iceland Travel Guide →

Scandinavia

Travelers who visit the Nordic countries on tour and want to see the northern lights can try spending free time exploring away from the bright lights of major cities, such as Oslo, Stockholm, and Helsinki.

Another option: Leaning on our experts to help you design a Customized Tour of northern Scandinavia, or adding an independent pre- or post-tour stay to your trip. Not sure where to go? Here are a few quick hints:

Norway: One of the best places to see the northern lights in Norway is Tromsø. It’s the largest city in northern Norway and sits in the middle of the auroral oval. Farther north still are the islands of the Svalbard archipelago, which are nestled in the Arctic Ocean between mainland Norway and the North Pole. They’re among the northernmost inhabited areas on earth—making them an epic spot for northern lights sightings.

Sweden: For aurora encounters in Sweden, set your sights on Abisko National Park. It’s set in Swedish Lapland, a remote and rural region in northern Sweden that’s home to pristine forests, marshes, mountains, rivers, and archipelagos. Travelers can take an overnight train from Stockholm to Luleå or Kiruna, or hop a roughly 90-minute flight from the capital city.

Finland: Like Sweden, Finland’s own Lapland region is the best place for northern lights viewing in the country. From Helsinki, flights to various airports in Finnish Lapland typically take around three or four hours.

Discover 7 reasons to visit Scandinavia in the winter →

Russia

If you want to see the northern lights on one of our tours to Russia, adding an independent pre- or post-tour stay to our Poland & the Baltics Adventure Tour could be just the ticket. In addition to exploring sophisticated cities like St. Petersburg and Moscow, you can head out into Russia’s more remote reaches for a stellar light show. After all, much of northern Russia lies within the Arctic Circle. Top spots for aurora borealis sightings include Murmansk (it’s set in extreme northwestern Russia, near Finland) and the Arkhangelsk region, in the heart of northern Russia.

Find out everything you need to know to prepare for a northern lights tour →


Img

Tools that track and forecast the northern lights

Just like regular weather, northern lights activity and visibility can be predicted and tracked to an impressive degree. Several mobile apps, websites, and other resources can help increase your chances of a spectacular sighting. Here are a few to try out:


Img

What’s the benefit of searching for the northern lights on a guided tour?

For all their spectacular mystery and beauty, the northern lights can be fickle. If you’re a first-timer, figuring out the best place, time, and conditions for a sighting can feel especially overwhelming. Going on a guided tour takes the guesswork out of the experience, as traveler Ruth discovered on our Iceland: Reykjavik & the Northern Lights tour.

“My goal was to see the northern lights. We did!” she said. “Our tour guide amazed me by layering up and standing outside in the wind and cold. She came back onto the bus to tell us the light show was on and visible.”

Are you guaranteed to see the northern lights if you time your trip just right?

Unfortunately, no. Although our expert guides know the best places and times to hunt for the northern lights, ultimately, whether you get to see the lights is up to Mother Nature. (Fingers crossed!)

What to expect when you see the northern lights

The northern lights most commonly appear between 5pm and 2am. Seeing them might mean staying up late and practicing lots of patience. Displays can last anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours, and they can range from extremely faint to full-on vibrant. If you’re traveling with a seasoned photographer, stay close by; the aurora’s jewel tones are often brighter and easier to see on a camera’s LCD screen.

Most importantly: Whatever display you’re treated to, sit back and enjoy the spectacular show!

Excited to see the northern lights? Find your perfect tour!


Winter travel
About the author | Lindsay Day
A devoted aisle seat-sitter, Lindsay first traveled overseas—to Italy and Greece—with EF as a high-school sophomore. Since then, she’s visited nearly 60 countries on six continents (one of these days, Antarctica!). When she’s not in the office (or the air), she’s probably binge-watching Britpop videos on YouTube, cooking up a new plant-based recipe, or biking on a local rail trail.

Shop all northern lights tours

Scandinavia: The Capitals & the Fjords
14 days | 17 days with St. Petersburg extension
239
From 
$3,789*
 $3,489*
View tour
View tour

Read more Nordic travel articles

purple and blue northern lights in sky at night
Travel tips
The northern lights explained—and where to see them on tour