The aurora borealis is one of the most incredible natural phenomena in the world. Sporadically visible in the winter skies above the magnetic poles of the northern hemisphere, this dancing display of electric colours is a sight everyone should have on their bucket list. Here’s our pick of six top spots to see it.
Cairngorms National Park, Scotland
Scotland might not immediately spring to mind, but the Highlands actually sit at the same latitude as some prime Northern Lights-spotting zones in Norway and Alaska. The Cairngorms National Park – which is the largest park in Britain – is one of the best places, thanks to low light pollution. The clear skies of the Glenlivet Estate, which sits in the north of the park, have been awarded Dark Sky Discovery Site status for their high visibility, and you can attend Dark Sky events at the Glenlivet Estate to learn all about astronomy and the Northern Lights (and hopefully see them too!).
Where to stay: Glentorets B&B offers a simple budget base in nearby Tomintoul. Or find secluded luxury at the four-star Dava School House, which sits between the Cairngorms and Inverness, with its impressive castle and cathedral.
Orkney Islands, Scotland
It’s not just the Highlands of Scotland that offer good aurora-hunting potential – it’s her islands too. Locals in Orkney are so used to seeing the Lights that they have their own name for them – ‘the Merry Dancers’ – and the island boasts some fantastically atmospheric locations for settling down to watch the skies. Try Ness Beach, the ancient Standing Stones of Stenness or the Loch of Kirbister.
Where to stay: Island capital Kirkwall is a popular place to stay on the mainland – the Albert Hotel and the Orkney Hotel are both centrally located and close to key sights like the St Magnus Cathedral and Orkney Museum.
Alaska is well known for being one of the best places to experience the Northern Lights, although you’ll want to pack plenty of layers. Sprawling city Fairbanks is one of the most reliable bases, sitting directly under the Aurora Oval – the sweet spot for Lights sightings. And you’ll find plenty of Northern Lights tours being touted, including ones combining Lights-spotting with a warming dip in the Chena Hot Springs and a visit to the Aurora Ice Museum –the ultimate hot/cold combo.
Where to stay: The traditional log cabin-style Mount Aurora Lodge sits in a fantastic viewing position on a hill just outside the city. Or, for novelty value, the North Pole Hotel on Santa Claus Lane, the North Pole, will give you a dinner party story to tell.
Jasper National Park, Canada
Jasper National Park in the Canadian Rockies has one of the largest expanses of designated Dark Sky in the world. Besides star-gazing and aurora-watching, this enormous wilderness offers endless opportunities to get active in nature – during the day go hiking in the Columbia Icefield, then take a swim in the Miette Hot Springs to warm up.
Sitting in the middle of the Aurora Oval, Tromsø offers an excellent opportunity to see the Lights, although a tour away from the city will increase your chances. As you’d expect for the Northern Lights capital of Norway, there are plenty on offer, including sky-watching from a secluded Sami lavvo (a traditional tent) and small group off-road tours. Tromsø’s position between towering mountains and glassy fjords also makes it a great base for Arctic Circle adventures, so there’s no wasted trip if the Lights are elusive.
Where to stay: The Scandic Ishavshotel sits on Tromsø’s waterfront, steps from its charming wooden cathedral and across the water from the landmark Arctic Cathedral. The contemporary Thon Hotel Polar is another nearby alternative.
Iceland’s capital Reykjavik holds its own as an exciting city break destination, even taking the Northern Lights out of the equation. Must-sees include the sleek Hallgrimskirkja cathedral that dominates the skyline and pretty Lake Tjörnin (where the brave go skating in the winter). Look outside the city, however, and the real adventure begins, from swimming in the famous Blue Lagoon to Golden Circle tours taking in waterfalls, hot springs and dramatic snow-covered countryside. Northern Lights tours will whisk you to a remote location, or you can take a boat out from the Old Harbour to watch from the ocean. There’s also an exhibition in the city where you can become an expert on all things Aurora.
Where to stay: The Reykjavik Residence offers centrally located studios, suites and apartments, while the ultra-modern CenterHotel Thingholt has a full-service spa – welcome after a night of Aurora-hunting in the cold.