They’re magical, they’re otherworldly and they’re atop millions of people’s bucket lists - we’re talking, of course, about the illustrious and unquestionably stunning phenomenon that is the Aurora Borealis. Also known as the Northern Lights, this eccentric display of nature is best seen - yep, you guessed it - in the northern parts of the world. Unfortunately, this usually correlates with bitterly cold temperatures, and icy, often barren environments.
So rug up, grab your cameras (because as impressive as the lights are to the human eye, they can look even better when captured with long exposure settings), drag up a seat next to a polar bear and let’s take a look at the 10 best places to check out Mother Nature’s finest show.
The last decade has seen Iceland’s popularity as a tourist hub skyrocket and a major reason for that is its mostly untouched natural beauty. The island nation is abundant with impressive glaciers, geysers, black sand beaches, massive waterfalls, icy crevasses, and volcanoes, so the fact that it offers a stunning view of the Northern Lights is merely a bonus.
One of the best spots to take in Mother Nature’s dazzling performance is over on the west coast from atop Kirkjufell mountain. They’re also sometimes viewable from the nation’s capital, Reykjavík, however, with some light pollution the views aren’t as powerful as out in the less populated areas.
9 Fairbanks, Alaska
People often forget about Alaska, albeit to their own detriment. The biggest American state is overflowing with impressive national parks, serene flora and fauna, and is without a doubt one of the elite viewing locations in North America for anyone chasing the Northern Lights.
The tiny city of Fairbanks is relatively accessible (for Alaskan standards) and is the largest locale within the interior region of Alaska, sitting just two degrees below the Arctic. It’s also mighty close to Denali National Park, where there is plenty more to see and explore for avid nature enthusiasts.
8 Tromso, Norway
We’re hopping on a plane from North America over to Scandinavia in Europe for our next stop, with northern Norway’s largest urban area offering sublime views of Mother Nature’s glistening show. The middle of September through to the end of March is touted as the ideal viewing season, however, that’s also the dead of winter, so make sure to layer, prepare some hot cocoa, and do whatever you can to stay warm.
The little village of Ersfjordbotn just outside of Tromso is another spectacular viewing spot, as are the Lofoten Islands and the towns of Alta, Nordkapp, and Kirkenes further north.
7 Yellowknife, Canada
There are plenty of elite Aurora viewing spots up in the Great White North, one of which is the Northwest Territories capital city, Yellowknife. Not only does the space boast a surreal overhead light show but also a dazzling reflection off the Great Slave Lake.
Similar to locations in Norway, Alaska, and Iceland, the primetime for catching a glimpse of the Northern Lights is in the winter, from Mid-August to late April. Make sure you’ve got your hats, mittens, wool-lined boots and arctic wear, however, because temperatures can easily drop to 40 below (Celsius).
This might sound a little counter-intuitive, however, it’s actually possible to be too far north to see the Northern Lights. That’s why - if you’re heading to Greenland - the best viewing locations are further down toward the bottom of the giant landmass.
The nation’s largest city, Nuuk, is actually a tiny coastal town of 18,000, so there’s minimal light pollution meaning that you can often catch the vistas from the comfort of civilization. If you’re able to make the trek out to this remote country, August to mid-April is touted as the ideal season to visit in search of the Aurora.
Wait, but isn’t Scotland known for its endless cloudy, stormy, foggy weather? Well yes, ordinarily that is usually the case, although when the skies do open up during the winter months, the dancing array of colorful patterns come out to play.
There are actually a few places in the U.K.’s northernmost country to see the Northern Lights, and, of course, the further north you go the better your chances of a clear sighting will be. The Isle of Skye, Dunnet Head, Aberdeen, and the Northern Highlands are all safe bets when it comes to expecting a sighting (weather permitting).
4 Kiruna, Sweden
We’ve had our fun in the Great White North but we’re jetting back over to Scandinavia for our next stop. The Swedish town of Kiruna sits the nation’s northernmost region and is only about 400km south of Tromso in Norway.
While pretty much any small town that far north will offer splendid light shows, Kiruna has a little more to be proud about than just Mother Nature’s Aurora. It’s a gateway to the mountainous Abisko National Park, boasts a unique ice hotel, is abundant with reindeer and has a proud relationship with local Sami culture.
3 Rovaniemi, Finland
From one beautiful Scandinavian nation, we’re taking a hop, skip and jump over to its neighbor, Finland. There are almost infinite locations to view the mesmerizing Northern Lights up in the Finnish Lapland, however, the little town of Rovaniemi presents itself as an ideal home base - it’s close to a number of untouched national parks which dazzle in winter with Tykky sculptures (snow-covered trees) and endless white.
In case you’re after a new car or want to complete your Barbie collection, it’s also the "official" home town of Santa Claus, so don’t forget to write a wishlist.
2 Murmansk, Russia
You’ve got tickets to a dazzling display of Mother Nature’s best live performance and all you have to do is brave the bitter, freezing arctic cold. Can you handle it? Over in the northern part of Russia along the Kola Peninsula, the town of Murmansk is a popular home base for Aurora enthusiasts looking to witness the spectacular phenomenon.
Siberia has never rocked a reputation for sandy beaches or scorching days by the pool, with the temperatures in Murmansk, for example, routinely plunging well below −20 °C (−4 °F) during the winter.
1 Australia and New Zealand (Southern Lights)
The Aussies and the Kiwis have it bad enough being a 15-hour flight away from anything mildly interesting, so let’s throw them a bone and give them a chance to catch this mystical phenomenon as well. Just as the northern hemisphere boasts the Northern Lights, the southern hemisphere can witness the - any guesses? - southern lights, AKA Aurora Australis!
New Zealand's Stewart Island is a highly revered viewing spot, as are a few locations across Tasmania (the little southern island detached from Australia). The actual best viewing opportunity of the Australis is down in Antarctica, however, due to its difficult accessibility, Australia and New Zealand will have to do.