Whether you’re enchanted by legends, curious about the science or simply wish to witness the Northern Lights for yourself, here are seven places from east to west where you can experience that Aurora magic with the family.
Named for the Roman goddess of dawn, the Aurora Borealis (commonly known as the Northern Lights) happens when highly charged electrons from the solar dust rings that form around the polar regions create gas molecules that glow. It works in an 11-year cycle, and the current one peaked in 2014, which is known as ‘solar maximum’. This usually means that the lights stay active for two or three years after, so this year could be your last chance to see them before the next ‘solar minimum’ sets in.
While the Northern Lights typically attracts avid shutterbugs who wish to capture its beauty and couples celebrating romance under its magical dance, it also makes for an amazing once-in-a-lifetime experience to be shared by families. Both adults and children will discover that there are endless fun adventures to be found wherever the Auroras dance.
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1. Rovaniemi, Finland
View the Northern Lights through a heated glass igloo (Credit: Golden Crown – Levin Iglut Facebook page)
In Sami folklore, a fox running over the fells of Lapland, whipping up snow with its tail and sending sparks into the sky, is what causes the Northern Lights. The foxes must be busy in Finnish Lapland, as the Auroras appear on more than 200 nights a year there. Perhaps the most enjoyable way to watch the light show is from a warm bed in one of the glass-ceilinged Levi Igloos located on the Utsuvaara fell. It’s located about two hours from Rovaniemi, the capital city of Lapland.
Ride through the forest on a reindeer sleigh, just like Santa Claus!
Rovaniemi is also the Official Hometown of Santa Claus, and no kid young or old should leave the city without paying him a visit. Santa greets visitors all year round at his office in Santa Claus Village. A must-do while you’re there is to go on a reindeer sleigh ride. Experience the magic of this ancient Sami mode of transportation as you glide though a snowy forest on a wooden sleigh led by this Lappish iconic animal.
Santa himself introduces the highlights (Northern Lights included!) of his homeland in this video:
2. Abisko, Sweden
A small Swedish village about 195 km north of the Arctic Circle, Abisko is home to around 150 residents and famed for its proximity to the snow-topped wilderness of Abisko National Park, just 4 km away. The unique topography here in the Swedish Lapland makes it so that cloud cover is usually rare. This is known as the Blue Hole of Abisko which results in high chances of seeing the Northern Lights.
While you’re there, take a chair-lift to the Aurora Sky Station atop Mount Nuolja to learn more about the Aurora Borealis. From the lookout tower, let your eyes get used to the completely dark skies above the Abisko National Park and see more stars than you can imagine. Another must-visit is the world-renowned ICEHOTEL in nearby Jukkasjarvi. Join a guided tour of the premises and have a meal at the heated restaurants. For a complete experience, stay in one of the spectacular ice suites that are sculpted by craftsmen each season – they melt and return to the river Torne when summer arrives!
3. Svalbard, Norway
You can’t get much further north than Svalbard, a Norwegian archipelago located between mainland Norway and the North Pole. At a latitude of 78 degrees north, Longyearbyen, Svalbard’s micro-capital, is where visitors go to experience the Polar Night, 155 days of perpetual darkness from mid-November to the end of January. The constant eerie blue twilight will also reward you with dancing Northern Lights even in the ‘daytime’!
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Longyearbyen’s location just 1300km south of the North Pole makes it an ideal base for exploring the land of the polar bear. The Arctic tundra is stark yet stunning, and you might find yourself up close and personal with short-legged reindeer unique to Svalbard. Explore the wilderness via dog sledding tours, snowmobile safaris or snowcat adventures. Drop by the well-curated Svalbard Museum to learn more about the archipelago’s natural and cultural history. Kids will love the interactive exhibits and getting their photo taken with the ‘polar bear’.
4. Kangerlussuaq, Greenland
Greenland is arguably the most ideal place to be for Northern Lights viewing, due to its lack of light pollution. From September to early April, you can see the light show from just about anywhere in the Danish territory on a clear, dark night. Kangerlussuaq, in particular, has more than 300 days of clear skies a year, which means the Northern Lights are visible almost nightly during that period.
Known as the Gateway to Greenland, Kangerlussuaq also offers unique adventures on the inland ice. You can fly, sail, drive or trek all the way up to the Ice Cap, a magnificent 1.8 million sq km ice sheet boasting a deafening silence and otherworldly beauty. Go dog sledding, gape at herds of musk oxen and reindeer, and discover the Inuit culture. The Inuit people have many legends about the Auroras. In fact, some groups still believe that children conceived in the magical glow of the Northern Lights will be unusually intelligent!
5. Reykjanes, Iceland
Chase those lights on a cruise around Faxafloi Bay
Land at Keflavik airport in Reykjanes and see the Northern Lights by boat. Cruise operators will take you around Faxafloi Bay after night falls to see the natural phenomenon beyond the city lights of Iceland’s capital Reykavik. You can also book a boat tour to go whale-spotting earlier in the day. Or visit the highly Instagrammable Blue Lagoon for a therapeutic dip in the geothermal seawater.
The bridge between two continents at Sandvak, on the Reykjanes peninsula
The Reykjanes peninsula is a UNESCO Global Geopark known for its dramatic lava-scarred landscape. It is home to volcanic craters and lava fields, and sits on the Mid Atlantic Ridge where the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates meet. A must-do is to cross Leif the Lucky’s Bridge, a small footbridge built to symbolise the connection between Europe and North America, and take home a personalised certificate of the achievement. Other things you can do during the day include visiting Reykjanes’ numerous lighthouses and shipwrecks, and spotting wildlife like Arctic foxes, seals and rare seabirds.
Just to whet your appetite, catch a glimpse of the Aurora Borealis taken by a drone over the Reykjanes peninsula in this video:
6. Yukon, Canada
Night sky, stars, clouds and Northern Lights mirrored on a calm lake in Yukon
Otherwise known as The Wilderness City, Whitehorse is the capital city of Yukon, and the place to bask in the beauty of the Aurora Borealis. About 25 minutes from downtown Whitehorse are the Takhini Hot Springs, where you can soak in the hot water on a chilly winter night as the magical lights dance above.
Beautiful white powder slopes at the Kluane National Park
Another location to witness, as well as learn more about the lights, is the Northern Lights Space and Science Centre located in Watson Lake. Other things you can do in Yukon include driving on the Arctic ice road, dog sledding along frozen rivers and skiing in Kluane National Park. The kids will also love trying their hands (and feet) at snowshoeing and ice fishing.
7. Alaska, USA
Chena Hot Springs in Fairbanks is one of the best places in Alaska to view the Northern Lights. The hot springs are located at the centre of a 40-square-mile geothermal area and the onsite resort boasts several indoor and outdoor tubs, Jacuzzis and an indoor family swimming pool. The place to be, however, is in and around the outdoor Rock Lake, which provides a relaxing vantage point for watching the Auroras. The resort is also home to the Aurora Ice Museum, the world’s largest ice museum.
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The Alaska Railroad’s Aurora Winter Train rounds the curve with the snow-covered Alaska Range off in the distance
While in Fairbanks, visit the magical Ice Alaska, a park of amazing ice sculptures, where you can also go on a dog sled excursion. One of the best ways to get to Fairbanks is to fly to Anchorage, then take a four-hour scenic Aurora Winter Train that winds around the foothills of the Alaska Range. You’ll pass by Denali National Park, where you can spot caribou, moose and Arctic foxes along the way!