The aurora borealis, better known as the northern or polar lights, usually appears around the Arctic Circle. It forms what’s known as an “auroral oval” around earth’s magnetic north pole, a visible band that varies based on solar activity (i.e. sun storms that emit charged particles around 18 hours prior to their arrival in our atmosphere).
Timing is everything with the lights, which are best seen from August through April along the oval (not necessarily inside of it). Clear weather is key, and it helps to be in a dark location, though the right small city can work just fine.
For many, seeing the northern lights dance across the night sky is a dream come true. But, there’s a magic formula to catch them — and it starts with finding a prime location.
Here are five top towns well worth a visit, while still keeping an eye skyward to glimpse the greatest show on earth.
1. Tromso, Norway
Perched way up, at a latitude of 69 degrees north, Tromso represents some of Norway’s best Arctic culture. While its nickname “Paris of the North” may be an overstatement, the city is strong on history and attractions, including an array of art museums, Polaria aquarium (which happens to be the world’s most northerly aquarium), and Arctic Cathedral. Tromso also features notable restaurants such as Bardus and Emma’s Drommekjokken (dinner entrées average about $35 at each establishment). What's more, the town center and waterfront are always busy, as they're home to properties including Scandic Ishavshotel (peak rooms at $125/night) and Clarion Hotel The Edge (peak rates about $130/night). Both hotels offer picturesque city and bay views, and also include breakfast.
Tromso at night — while well-illuminated at street level — still leaves the sky dark enough to see the northern lights. On a recent visit there, a storm cleared out just in time for a magnificent show of multicolored aurora ribbons that left both spectators and photographers breathless. Travelers angling for a deeper experience can join Tromso Safari for a night tour chasing the lights along the coast or up in the mountains; parked at its dark base camp or touring with a photographer (prices start around $125).
2. Jukkasjärvi, Sweden
This Arctic village in northern Sweden was made famous back in 1990, when it first became home to the very first Icehotel (cold rooms during peak season start at about $500/night; warm rooms about $250/night). Parked just outside the larger town of Kiruna, Jukkasjärvi and its iconic hotel offer fun cold-weather recreation from dog and/or reindeer sledding, to ice sculpting, to experiencing Sami culture and traditions (the Sami are a group of indigenous people who live in northern Europe). However, it’s Jukkasjärvi’s latitude of 67 degrees, 51 minutes north that makes the tiny town a grand destination for aurora borealis sightings, thanks to minimal city-light pollution (plus the famed hotel nearby for periodic warm-ups).
Alaska is America’s top spot for aurora-spotting, and while it’s home to many great peaks and dark parks, Fairbanks offers stellar views of its own. The town bookends the Alaskan Highway at about 64 degrees north (less than 200 miles south of the Arctic Circle), in a zone with high odds for auroral action on clear nights. Plus, Fairbanks claims some interesting history, thanks to its old frontier and gold rush days. The destination also offers a variety of seasonal sports, wildlife viewing, hot springs, and local arts and culture.
From its locale along the Chena and Tanana Rivers, there are wooded viewpoints away from city lights, and companies — including Northern Alaska Tour Company — are ready to take spectators on full-, half-, or multi-day adventures and aurora-spotting tours (peak half-day tours start around $475; less for night-only tours). Additionally, you can also bunk in a “dome” at Borealis Basecamp just outside Fairbanks, where big skylights will keep you gazing upward all night long (rates start around $600/night during peak season).
4. Reykjavik, Iceland
In Iceland, you can find aurora views virtually anywhere across its rugged landscape. The island nation is only about the size of Ohio, and with great tourism infrastructure and few big towns, visitors needn’t travel far beyond its capital city (64 degrees north) to spy northern lights. There are many expert tour companies, such as Extreme Iceland, that are keen to show eager visitors prime vantage points; they also offer an assortment of one-off or combo tours (lights-only peak tours start at $80). For strategic lodging near both the Reykjavik airport and the picturesque Blue Lagoon, reserve a room at the Northern Light Inn (peak rates start around $190/night), where guests have the option to add on a variety of excursions, from whale watching to lava-tunnel walks.
5. Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, Canada
Yellowknife is the capital and sole “city” in Canada’s Northwest Territories (which are technically just that — or rather a province). However, there is an airport that provides access to this outpost, which located right on the shore of Great Slave Lake, where nothing but forests and waters surround its low-rise skyline at 62 degrees north.
By day, visitors can take part in winter-themed activities such as snowshoeing, dogsledding, or ice fishing. By night, however, clear skies will unleash auroral grandeur best seen with the aid of a seasoned tour company like Arctic Tours Canada (night trips start at $90, and daytime add-ons are also available). Aurora Village is another dependable local company that offers full-service packages or a-la-carte tours (about $450 or 125, respectively). At Aurora Village's base camp (30 minutes outside Yellowknife), customers can linger in heated viewing chairs while beholding the breathtaking skyward sights.