The best countries from which to see the northern lights in 2023

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Now is the best time of year to see the aurora borealis, or the northern lights. You can catch this beautiful natural phenomenon in several European and North American countries

If, like most of us, you don’t live north of the Arctic Circle, seeing the northern lights is a once-in-a-lifetime experience that you need to be prepared for. We’ve answered some common questions to help you get the best out of your trip to hunt the aurora borealis: when to go, the best outdoor conditions for it, and how to snap the best photos. And you may have thought that you can only catch the lights in Norway or Iceland, but our best-countries list features spots that might be a little closer to home for you…

Frequently asked general questions

Which is the best month for seeing the northern lights?

September to April are generally the best months to go aurora-hunting. The nights are long or, in some very northern places, virtually endless.

What are the best outdoor conditions for seeing the northern lights?

As a rule, the darker the night, the better the view is. Although strong auroral displays can withstand bright moonlight, your chances are better on nights when there’s a new or crescent moon. It might be obvious, but clear skies help too. However, it’s a myth that it has to be cold; it’s rather that the best auroras happen in the far north on clear nights that, because of these factors, tend to be cold. Make sure you’re not near any sources of light pollution — get as far away from towns and cities as you can. And, if you want to get your science on, monitor the solar cycle and the number of spots visible on the surface of the sun. If you can see sunspots, it means that the sun’s pumping out those winds that produce the aurora. And don’t worry about remembering all of this when the time comes — there’s an app for that! My Aurora (available on Apple and on Android) is a great guide to all the variables above, from weather forecasts to sun imagery and maps of solar winds.

How can I take the best photos of the northern lights?

Long exposure and a higher ISO are both key to capturing the lights. Think about getting a wide-angle lens, which will allow you to capture more of the sky; and a tripod, because shivering hands make for bad picture-taking! So, now you’re geared up, where exactly should you go to get to the northern lights?…

Norway (Tromsø, Alta, Svalbard)

The polar arctic Northern lights hunting aurora borealis sky star in Norway travel photographer man Svalbard in Longyearbyen city the moon mountainsIf you want to go all out, head to Svalbard, one of the northernmost inhabited places on earth — Shutterstock

In the northernmost parts of Norway, you can see the northern lights from as early as October. The port city of Tromsø is a popular spot and gives you the chance to book a boat trip away from the city to see the Lights diving and swooping across the ocean. Even further north is the town of Alta, surrounded by tundra, mountains, and forests. The Lights appear most nights, and while you’re there, you can also head up the fjords for some whale-watching, or to go snowmobiling or sledding. Thirdly, the Svalbard archipelago — a remote collection of frozen islands in the Barents Sea — is the place to be if you really want to feel like you’ve made an effort!

Sweden (Abisko, Kiruna)

Northern Sweden and Lapland are also definite options for aurora hunters. Just over the border from Norway, the village of Abisko (and the national park that shares its name) are popular spots. The Aurora Sky Station is a mountaintop observatory that markets itself as “the best place on earth to see the northern lights”… although we’re sure a few other places make this claim too!

Kiruna, Sweden’s northernmost city, also attracts tourists throughout winter, mainly to Camp Ripan where you can experience a slightly more luxurious stay. The “camp” (more of a high-end hotel, really) includes excellent food, a spa, dog-sled tours, and private cabins to come back to after a hard night looking at the heavens.

Finland (Revontuli, Nellim, Kakslauttanen)

Finnish Lapland is home to a number of spots where you can see the lights, some more scientific and more extravagant than others. The Hankasalmi Observatory, around 15 minutes from the winter resort of Revontuli and home to a classic Finnish sauna and spa, is a great place to start. It’s in the middle of some of the darkest countryside in the country, slap bang in the center of Finland, and surrounded by lakes.

Much further north (but also home to a sauna — where in Finland isn’t?) is the village of Nellim. See the lights from the frozen shores of Lake Inari before heading back inside to warm up. For something really special, however, try Kakslauttanen Arctic Resort. Here you can observe the lights from your own glass igloo, warm and cozy in a stunning structure made of local kelo pine and featuring a kitchen, bedroom, fireplace, and, yes, a private sauna!

Iceland (Reykjavík, Thingvellir, Kleifarvatn)

Aurora Borealis or better known as the The Northern Light in Golden Circle, IcelandYou can catch the northern lights from pretty much anywhere in Iceland, but Thingvellir National Park is the aurora-hunters’ Mecca — Shutterstock

Iceland has built an entire industry on the northern lights, so there are stays and tours to suit pretty much every budget and length of stay. In fact, with the right weather conditions, it’s possible to see the lights anywhere in Iceland, even Reykjavík.

However, if you really want to make sure you get the best possible show, you really do need to get out of town, even if just a little way. Þingvellir (Thingvellir) National Park is only 20 minutes outside Reykjavík but it’s known as Iceland’s Mecca for northern lights watchers. Alternatively, head to Kleifarvatn lake only 30 minutes from the capital — nine square kilometers of eerie calm gives off exactly the right atmosphere.

Heading to the hills is another option. Öskjuhlíð in the center of Reykjavík, the hills outside of the town of Akureyri in the north of the country, or nearby Húsavík all provide excellent viewing points. The fishing village of Sandgerði on a peninsula in the very southwest offers views of the horizon almost as far as Greenland.

Finally, for the most Icelandic experience possible, why not hunt the lights from atop a glacier? The Langjökull glacier to the northeast of Reykjavík is 935 square kilometers of frozen magnificence, including ice caves. Stand 1,450 meters above sea level and wait for the lights to come sweeping toward you.

Scotland (Orkney, Shetland)

Northern lights over Callanish stones, ScotlandThe far north of Scotland is a very picturesque place, and when the aurora comes out, it’s like another world — Shutterstock

Not on most lists of places to see the lights, there are parts of Scotland where it’s entirely possible, but you’re likely going to have to get off the mainland. The Orkney and Shetland Isles are your best bet — their treeless, windswept glory lending itself perfectly to a bit of aurora chasing. In Shetland, the lights are known as the Mirrie Dancer, a beautifully poetic phrase that perfectly describes their flitting and flickering.

It’s also possible to see them from the mainland, but of course, the further north you can go, the better. Thurso and Wick in the very northeast are decent bases for aurora-spotting, as is the northwest over the Moray Firth between the mainland and the Isle of Harris.

Canada (Northwest Territories, Yukon)

North America also gets its share of the northern lights, and in Canada, again, you’re going to want to head as far north as you can go. The Northwest Territories and their remote landscape of forests, mountains, lakes, islands, and tundra give a suitably last-person-on-earth feeling, made all the more powerful during the darkest and emptiest of nights, lit only by starlight and the silent magic of the lights.

Yukon, between the Northwest Territories and Alaska, is another option, offering similarly spectacular landscapes. They do cater slightly more to aurora chasers, though, with things like Dawson City’s Midnight Dome, a scenic lookout high above the town where locals gather for the lights in winter and the midnight sun in summer. The lookout affords views of the Yukon River and Klondike Valley, meaning that even if you don’t see the lights that night, come back in the day for some of the most spectacular landscapes in the country.

US (Alaska, Idaho, Maine)

Snowy northern lights scene in Alaska — Getty ImagesAlaska is the obvious choice in the US for seeing the lights — Getty Images

Given what’s written above, Alaska is the obvious place to begin if you’re in the US. Similar to Northern Canada, the wilderness and lack of light pollution make it an amazing place to begin your search. Try Denali National Park, where even if you’re unlucky with the lights, you’ll be able to see the Milky Way and beyond as a blanket of stars covers the sky above your cabin or camp like you’ve never seen before.

Surprisingly, you can also catch the lights in the Lower 48, at places like Priest Lake in Idaho’s panhandle, or at Aroostook National Wildlife Refuge, Schoodic Lake, or Moosehead Lake, all of which are in Maine. Cook County at the northeastern tip of Minnesota is also a shout, as is the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.

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