D ancing across the night sky to a score of undulating rhythms, the aurora borealis has captivated civilisations for centuries. Arriving unannounced after dark, this mysterious phenomenon can take several forms. Most commonly, bands of green arc the horizon, slowly rippling like waves until they crest and fall with such ferocity the darkness of space is swept away by a tsunami of colours.
This mesmerising light show has given rise to multiple myths and legends, with different cultures developing their own explanations. In Norse mythology, the bifröst was a flaming rainbow bridging middle earth and the gods, or the reflections of light bouncing from shields belonging to the Valkyrie fallen angels. Referring to the aurora as aksarnirq, the Inuit believed displays were the souls of their dead ancestors, while Finnish Sami folklore tells the story of a magical fox running across the sky and sweeping snow with his tail. Even today, Japanese people believe that a child conceived under the Northern Lights will be blessed with good fortunes and good looks. Adjustable Led Track Lighting
Science has its own interpretation. Simply speaking, aurora displays occur when charged particles collide with gases in the Earth’s atmosphere around the magnetic poles. These explosive flashes of light change colour depending on whether ions hit oxygen (creating a green or red glow) or nitrogen (giving off blue light). Different strengths of activity are measured by a Kp index on a scale from 0 to 9, with 3 and above promising good displays.
What makes the Northern Lights so special, though, is the beauty no two shows are ever the same. From late August until April, when dark nights return to the northern hemisphere, aurora hunters devote hours to chasing these magical performances which everyone should witness at least once in their life.
Whether cruising along frozen coastlines, hiking through snow-dusted forests or driving across borders in pursuit of clear skies, searching is part of the adventure. Aware focussing on the lights alone is a gamble, creative operators and hoteliers have come up with clever ways to incorporate other activities. Beyond dog sledding, snowmobile rides and reindeer safaris, many new itineraries are emerging. Sail on a fishing boat whale watching for orcas; dip into geothermal pools surrounded by spruce trees; or even take to the skies on a hot air balloon ride.
The choice of accommodation has also become more varied, offering much more than a wooden cabin or a Sami lavvu tent. From stargazing in a glass-roofed igloos to luxuriating in an extravagant spa suspended in a river, everything is geared towards seeing the aurora. While there’s never any guarantee these fickle dancers will pirouette onto their electric stage, it’s possible to maximise your chances with some careful planning and research.
Using science as your guide, the places with the highest probability of Northern Lights sit beneath the aurora oval, an invisible belt wrapping around the Earth’s magnetic poles at higher and lower latitudes. These halos are packed with electrons leaking from magnetic field lines, which collide with the atmosphere to cause the Northern Lights. When solar winds are strong, the band expands to cover a wider area.
In the northern hemisphere, the core of the oval covers latitudes between 60 and 75 degrees in Norway, Sweden, Finland, Iceland and Canada. One of the key spots is Tromso, in Norway, slap bang in the middle of the band. The city itself has a bit too much light pollution (displays are only visible when activity is strong), but the surrounding areas offer excellent opportunities to hunt for clear, dark skies.
A favourite destination for photographers, thanks to its captivating landscape of steep mountains, snaking fjords and pristine beaches, the Lofoten islands lie further south but still within a sphere of aurora activity. The draw here is a combination of raw nature, a lack of light pollution and the chance to be completely alone.
Although the scenery is often more dramatic for photographs, coastal areas do have one complication: frequent cloud cover. Inland destinations such as Ivalo in Finland, where the weather tends to be more stable – but much colder – could be a safer bet. Sheltered by a bowl of mountains, where a micro-climate produces prevailing winds, Abisko in Sweden sits below a ‘blue hole’ of clear skies and has more cloud-free days per year than many places in Lapland.
Alternatively, if you’re prepared to travel long haul, Canada’s Northwest Territories have an excellent track record for viewings, with ultra-low humidity resulting in an average of 240 days of clear skies per year. Local operators in Yellowknife claim visitors have a 90 per cent chance of seeing the lights if they stay for more than three days.
Of course, sightings aren’t guaranteed, but one way to avoid disappointment is by combining winter activities with aurora hunts. Iceland’s hot springs are a comfortable place to wait for displays while having a soak, while days can also be spent exploring the country’s geyser fields and glaciers – which are equally other-worldly.
Multiple airlines – including SAS (flysas.com), Finnair (finnair.com), Norwegian (norwegian.com) and Ryanair (ryanair.com) – operate indirect routes between the UK and Lapland, mostly via hubs in Finland, Norway and Sweden, with journey times between 4.5 to 9 hours (depending on connections). If you’re short on time, a few direct routes operate from London in the winter season: SAS fly to Lulea in Sweden; Norwegian and Wizz (wizzair.com) fly to Tromso in Norway; and both easyJet (easyjet.com) and Ryanair fly to Rovaniemi in Finland.
For those who prefer to enjoy train travel, a good network across Scandinavia makes it possible to reach the far north by rail. An overnight train links Stockholm to Abisko (which is also a one-hour train ride from Kiruna Airport), while there’s also a direct service between Helsinki and Rovaniemi.
Several cruises along the northern Norwegian coastline and the North Cape are also dedicated to Northern Lights viewings, often with guest lecturers onboard to explain the phenomenon. Hurtigruten (hurtigruten.co.uk) and Havila Voyages (havilavoyages.com) are two good options.
Iceland is much easier to access. Several airlines operate between regional airports in the UK and the capital, Reykjavik, making prices more competitive if you book early enough. British Airways (britishairways.com) and Icelandair (icelandair.com) have more sociable departure times, although easyJet, Ryanair and Play (flyplay.com) have the best cheap deals. On arrival, a hire car is essential for exploring.
It takes between 15-20 hours to reach Yellowknife from London, flying via Vancouver with Air Canada (aircanada.com).
Across the northern hemisphere, it’s possible to see the aurora as soon as darkness returns in August right through until April – although peak viewings are usually between November and March. The festive season is typically busy, meaning flights are more expensive. But the most rewarding – and ironically less crowded – periods are the shoulder seasons. Autumn is much milder, while March is regarded as having some of the most vibrant and colourful displays.
Alternatively, peg a trip to one of several festivals: The Kiruna Snow Festival (featuring the snow blower world championships) runs from January 25-29; while the jazz, classical and electronic Northern Lights festival runs in Tromso from January 27 to February 4.
Although last-minute deals for cruise trips do occasionally crop up, holidays on dry land should be purchased far in advance to avoid the spiralling cost of airfares.
Scandinavia and the Nordics are renowned for being expensive destinations, meaning a short trip could cost between £600 and £1,000 – although once the initial outlay is made there are very few costs on the ground. If travelling independently, however, the major cost to consider is fuel. Airfares have also risen dramatically in price and that trend looks set to continue.
Iceland’s restaurants can be astronomically expensive. One way to keep costs down is to hire a campervan with a stove. Happy Campers (happycampers.is) and Go Campers (gocampers.is) rent vehicles year-round, while several campsites with facilities also remain open during winter. Sleeping in your own wheels also grants greater freedom for chasing clear skies.
It’s almost impossible to plan ahead for good weather. But once in a destination, local weather websites are an invaluable tool for finding cloud-free pockets if you have the flexibility to move around. Try yr.no, served by the Norwegian Meteorological Institute, for Scandinavia, and for Iceland use vedur.is, which also features a handy chart detailing aurora activity.
Set at the summit of Noulja Mountain in Abisko, the Aurora Sky Station research centre is both a brilliant vantage point for Northern Lights viewing and a good place to enjoy a gourmet meal. The scenic 20-minute chairlift ride to the high-rise restaurant also adds to the sense of adventure (auroraskystation.se).
Download an app to your phone for predicting aurora activity. One of the most reliable is Hello Aurora (hello-aurora.com), designed by two Icelandic residents, which uses the weather, magnetic fields, and solar storms to estimate the likelihood of seeing Northern Lights for the days ahead. Use it alongside the My Aurora Forecast app, which provides push notifications when there’s a high probability of activity.
Getting off grid and escaping light pollution often means travelling to remote and tricky destinations. For that reason, booking through a tour operator, who can also pre-arrange activities, makes life easier. Specialists in Scandinavia include Best Served Scandinavia (best-served.co.uk), Regent Holidays (regent-holidays.co.uk), Where The Wild Is (wherethewildis.co.uk) and Magnetic North (magneticnorthtravel.com). Discover The World (discover-the-world.com) sells most places encompassed by the Aurora Oval, with a good selection of itineraries in Iceland and Canada. Exodus (exodus.co.uk) and Explore (explore.co.uk) specialise in group tours, while cruises are also suited to solo travellers.
A new direct seasonal flight makes Lulea’s frozen archipelago easily accessible for a short break. Ice roads across solid rivers lead to wilderness activities such as dog sledding and snowmobiling across the Barents Sea. Wander through rows of 400 bright red cottages in the Unesco-listed old town, Gammelstad, and sleep in a modern spa hotel. Wexas (020 7590 0618; wexas.com) offers four days from £780pp (two sharing), including flights, breakfasts and a Northern Lights dinner.
Rapidly becoming one of the world’s top aurora spots, Abisko’s mountain-wrapped wilderness promises high success rates. Combine a trip to the Aurora Sky Station with an overnight stay in Kiruna’s original Icehotel, where suites are crafted with ice freshly harvested from the River Torne. Discover the World (01737 214 250; discover-the-world.com) offers three nights from £579pp (two sharing), excluding flights. Available in December and from January to March.
Havila Voyages is so convinced passengers will see the aurora on their 12-night journeys, they’ve launched the promise of another cruise for free if they don’t. Powered by electric batteries, vessels glide silently through the water, as guests recline on chairs set below a glass roof indoors. Off ship, excursions include king crab fishing in a frozen fjord, dog sledding in the Arctic wilderness or snowmobiling across the North Cape Plateau. The tour includes a stop in Svolvær, in the Lofoten archipelago, to visit traditional red rorbuer cabins and dine at a Viking banquet in a long house. Best Served Scandinavia (0207 664 2241; best-served.co.uk) offers a 12-day round trip full-board voyage (Bergen-Kirkenes-Bergen) from £1,555pp (two sharing), including flights and transfers. Availability throughout January.
High above the Arctic Circle, right below the Aurora Oval, Tromso is an easy base for reasonably priced hotels and leisure attractions. Stay at the waterfront Hotel With, close to the Polar Museum and the Northern Lights Observatory. Hunt for the lights on a guided night-time excursion outside the city and fill remaining time with ice fishing or a horse-drawn sleigh ride around the city. Inntravel (01653 617000; inntravel.co.uk) offers three nights from £930pp (two sharing), including B&B accommodation, flights and an excursion. Available from November 1 to December 18 and January 2 to March 31.
Whether fierce and fleeting or long and lingering, there’s no chance of missing displays in a glass-roofed cabin at the Apukka Glass Igloo Resort. Drift off under the stars and take a snow train excursion to a cosy camp for more chances of capturing the lights in a different setting. Husky rides, snow-shoe hikes and reindeer safaris can also be part of the plan. Regent Holidays (020 7666 1290; regent-holidays.co.uk) offers three nights from £1,265pp (two sharing), including flights, transfers, and some excursions.
If Finland’s chilling winter temperatures are too much to bear, an autumn trip is a pleasing compromise. Spend days hiking through forests, foraging for berries, and stay out for longer on nights where temperatures rarely drop below -5C. Photographers should seize the opportunity to capture reflections of glowing steaks in Lake Inari. Sleep far from light pollution in The Wilderness Hotel. The Aurora Zone (01670 785012; theaurorazone.com) offers four nights from £1,645pp (two sharing), including flights, transfers, most meals and activities. Runs from the end of August to early November.
Famous for their Aurora alarms, staff at Hotel Ranga keep an all-night vigil, waking guests if the lights show up. During the day, views of rivers and mountains are glorious. Use a car to explore South Iceland’s highlight attractions, including glacier and volcano tours and a dip in the geothermally heated Blue Lagoon. Where The Wild Is (0117 450 7980; wherethewildis.co.uk) offers four days from £1,020pp (two sharing), including car hire and excursions. Flights extra.
It’s worth the long drive or an extra flight to reach north Iceland, where skies are clearer and crowds fewer. Entry point Akureyri is a lively city within easy reach of the impressive Godafoss waterfall and Lake Myvatn’s geothermal area of bubbling mud pots, pseudo craters and nature baths. Whale watching trips also cruise along the fjord. Best Served Scandinavia (0207 664 2241; best-served.co.uk) offers four days from £1,215pp (two sharing), including flights, transfers and excursions.
Bone-chilling temperatures and few clouds make Yellowknife a reliable option for aurora viewing. Even more intrepid is a trip to the remote Blachford Lake Lodge, only accessible by air. Far from artificial light pollution, stars shine brightly above the lakeside eco property surrounded by boreal forest. Discover the World (01737 214 250; discover-the-world.com) offers four nights from £2,003pp (two sharing), including most meals, transfers and excursions. Excludes international flights. Available from January to April.
Train tracks still run all the way to Churchill, a frontier town frequented by polar bears. Stop at three different locations on a rail break from Winnipeg, splitting time between a sleeper cabin and a cosy hotel. Witness purple-streaked polar dawns and night scenes dazzling with emerald ribbons. Canadian Train Vacations (+1 604 332 3715; canadiantrainvacations.com) offers eight days from $5,170/ £4,552pp (two sharing), including most meals and activities. Excludes international flights. Departures in February.
One way to keep costs to a minimum is by purchasing a land-only package and booking budget airline tickets far enough in advance. PLAY (flyplay.com) have fares to Reykjavik from £39 one way, while Wizz Air (wizzair.com) fly to Tromso for around £25 one way. Some destinations are easier than others for fully DIY breaks. Cities like Tromso, Reykjavik and Akureyri have a decent selection of hotels at different price points, and there are plenty of Airbnb properties to book. Splitting the journey between train and plane travel is also a money-saving option, with train fares in Scandinavia much cheaper than the UK. An overnight train from Stockholm to Abisko, for example, costs around €66/£58.
In Iceland, booking a campervan saves a considerable cost from a trip. Year-round campgrounds with cooking facilities present a purse-friendly alternative to restaurants, and only cost around £10pp per night, and a small van sleeping two will set you back around £90 per day.
More savings can be made by swapping an expensive Northern Lights tour for weather charts and an aurora app which can be used to plan aurora hunts. Activities like dog sledding and snowmobiles will always be quite pricey, so factor that into costs.
Keeping trips short also saves money, but if you want to stay longer, cruises offer great value. Aggregators like Iglu Cruise (iglucruise.com) often advertise last-minute or early-bird deals.
A head torch is essential for walking safely through dark forests at night in areas where there are unlikely to be any streetlights. It’s also helpful to wear one when adjusting camera and tripod settings if you plan to photograph the northern lights.
In especially cold conditions, operators will provide thermal suits and boots. But it’s still worth having your own warm footwear. Sorel has a range of waterproof snow boots suited to lower temperatures. The Caribou boot with removable, washable liner is a good choice (£165; sorelfootwear.co.uk).
Photographing the northern lights is straightforward once you’ve mastered a few techniques, but the long exposures required mean a tripod is necessary to avoid any blur. Pick up a carbon fibre model to reduce weight in your luggage.
Keeping hands and feet warm on long nights is a challenge. Allowing air to circulate, mittens are the best option, but they can prove to be cumbersome for anyone planning to take photographs or pour mugs of tea. The Sealskinz waterproof sporting glove can be pinned back to expose the thumb and index finger for using touchscreens (from £42; amazon.co.uk).
Do I need a visa? Not if you plan to visit Scandinavia or the Nordics. Anyone entering Canada will need to apply for an Electronic Travel Authorization (eTA), which is only £5, via canada.ca.
Do I need cash? No, most places in Sweden, Norway, Finland and Iceland accept card payments.
What is the latest Foreign Office advice? There are currently no travel restrictions to Scandinavia, the Nordics or Canada.
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