Best place to see the Northern Lights?

Me (Tony) watching northern lights near Ivalo, Finland

Me (Tony) watching northern lights near Ivalo, Finland

We are frequently asked for our advice and recommendations on the best places to see the northern lights. There is no simple answer to this, because there are so many different places to see it and they can all be quite good, if the conditions are right.

Auroras occur near the magnetic poles of the earth. So the closer you can get to the poles, the more chances you have of seeing them. In the case of Europe, we are affected by auroras from the North (magnetic) Pole, so the further north you can get, the more likely the chances of aurora will be. So for this reason, Northern Scandinavia is usually the favourite spot for aurora viewers.

But that doesn’t narrow it down much does it? You are looking for towns/city names aren’t you? OK, but first, lets discuss what “best” means. Because it can be many different things…

Some places are good because they are further north than others (meaning they have auroras more often).
Some places are good because they are cheap.
Some places are good because they have less clouds than others.
Some places are good because they are easily accessible.
Some places are good because they have very dark skies and no light pollution.
Some places are good because they are very scenic, making very nice photos.

The first point is probably the main point. Because if the location doesn’t get much aurora activity, all the other points are kind of insignificant. The second point is probably the next important factor for most people.

But we’d be here all day discussing the pro’s and con’s of each northern lights town/city based on all the above factors. Some are better than others in some aspects, while some are better than others in other aspects. Is that a good enough answer, are you any clearer on which destination to choose now? No? What do you mean no?

Ok, the best place for northern lights is………a mixture of all those things. It is down to you as an individual what points you want to be more important than the others. But I am quite confident you want decent chances of auroras and you don’t want it to cost the earth. Why else would you have been googling about it and found this page. So regardless of all the above points, let’s get down to science.

Auroras come from the sun. Well auroras don’t, but the charged particles that create them do. The sun is more active at certain times than others. This called the solar cycle. It’s an 11 year cycle, in which time the sun ranges from dormant to active. Right now, 2019/2020, we are in the dormant phase, called Solar Minimum. When this happens, the sun doesn’t spew out as many charged particles as in the akake phase (aka Solar Maximum), so southern latitudes which require a strong solar wind to get decent aurora shows, don’t get as many (if any!). So what are the best places now we are in the Solar Minimum phase I hear you ask? Well, strictly scientifically speaking and only using geomagnetic readings, the northern parts of Norway and Finland are best. If your asking me what is the absolute best place in Europe for Northern Lights. Then I would say Nordkapp, the northern most part of mainland Europe. But it is a real pain to get to (you need to join a convoy that only goes a couple times per day), it is always foggy, it suffers horrendous winter storms and there is absolutely nothing there. So it doesn’t even get mentioned as an aurora location. So yes, on a clear night, you have the best chances of seeing auroras there, but clear nights are rare there! So would you want to travel there? No. My point being here, don’t just look at a map and say, that is very far north, lets head there, because there are other factors. I (Tony) chase Auroras for a living, all over Lapland, trust me when I say I have first hand experience. I’ve been up to Nordkapp in winter, and I have never seen winter storms quite like it (and I live in Arctic Finland, we get winter storms!).

But there are places not far from Nordkapp that ARE accessible and do have things there! Here are our top 5 places in the extreme north of Lapland that are reasonably easy to access (some easier than others). Ordered from most Northern first.

1) Hammerfest, Norway
2) Utsjoki, Finland
3) Alta, Norway
4) Ivalo, Finland
5) Tromsø, Norway

Auroras usually appear on the same latitude for many hundreds of kilometres east to west (what we call the auroral oval). The above towns all have a reasonably similar latitude at or around 70° North. So if auroras are appearing in one of those towns, they will likely be appearing in all them (disregarding weather conditions). So really, the choice is yours which destination you choose, they are all superb northern lights destinations and all pretty much as good as each other in terms of northern lights appearing. But do continue reading for information regarding weather!. So you have the answer to the first question. Further north is best. The second most important question is cost. You don’t want it to cost the Earth. Norway and Iceland are well known to be very expensive countries, Finland, having the Euro currency, is really quite cheap in comparison. If you are flying from a country that uses the Euro currency, you don’t even have to do a currency exchange!

people watching northern lights in lapland, finland

Is the difference between north, south and even middle of Lapland really that much? Is all the marketing hype accurate?

Let’s be honest, anyone can come and out and say something and then claim “it’s factual” or “statistically it is the best”. I have read many weird and wonderful claims from aurora companies over the years. I’ve had emails from northern lights companies saying we should advertise them because they are in “statistically the best place” for northern lights in Europe. When I asked for the statistics they replied “it just is” :). They were actually in quite a good place for northern lights, but it certainly wasn’t the best. So saying something doesn’t make it factual unless you can back it up with cold, hard FACTS. As in any line of business you should be very wary of marketing and sales pitches that seem too good to be true, and it is the same in the northern lights industry. In fact the northern lights tourism industry is growing so fast there seems to be a handful of new companies popping up every winter all claiming they are the best..etc.. So you should do a bit of research on any company you decide to go with. Check out their reviews on tripadvisor, do a Google search of the company name, web address etc. Check the reviews haven’t been written by their best mates. For instance, if the company is in Finland and most (if not all) of it’s reviews are written by people with Finnish names, alarm bells should ring. No-one in Finland books holidays with aurora companies, they just drive up north themselves! If they are getting their friends to leave reviews for them, I think this tells you what kind of company you would be handing over your hard earned cash to. So be wary, for every good honest aurora guide/company out there, there is one bad one (trust me, I get emails all the time from people who have been on aurora holidays and have been severely disappointed asking could we recommend a company for them next time).

As for whether the northern-ness makes a difference? Yes. Very much yes. This whole article we have been going on about you should go as far north as you can (within reason). But even though we are very honest and aren’t trying to sell anything, the fact we are just saying stuff doesn’t make it factual. So let’s have a look at some FACTS which will back up exactly what we are saying. So here is some hard data from our friends at the Geophysical Institute, one of, if not the best geophysical (aurora science) labs in the world.

Here is the geomagnetic data for the northern most part of Lapland for the month of January 2014 (spikes mean auroras, bigger the spike, bigger the show!):
Strong northern lights activityNordkapp, Norway

Here is the geomagnetic data for the southern part of Lapland for the month of January 2014:
Weak northern lights activityPello, Finland

Can you see a difference? Incredible isn’t it. Look at the top graph, at the end of January there was a spike of activity every single night, which means it was quite likely auroras were visible there every night, for 10 days straight (if the skies were clear)! The bottom graph is a place called Pello, which is slightly further north than Rovaniemi, which is considered a major northern lights destination. But look at that, compared to Nordkapp, it sucked. The facts don’t lie, and neither do we, you need to be north. Very north.

Some people who live in Lapland reading this would probably disagree, but that’s the problem, they live there, they have the time to wait for auroras to come. During a period of high activity, they probably could see auroras every night for a week, even in south Lapland. But this article is entirely written from the viewpoint of someone visiting. A visit is a temporary thing, they don’t have time to wait around. It is also planned many months in advance so they don’t have the luxury of being there when it is high activity, it’s a lottery of how the geomagnetic(aurora) activity is looking when they arrive. So it’s all well and good saying you’ve lived in South Lapland all your life and seen the northern lights 5 million times. If you only have a very short window of opportunity to see them, you must choose a place with the highest records of geomagnetic activity, and those places are the very far north. Many people don’t know this, and they have been suckered in by fancy marketing from northern lights companies in south Lapland thinking they will see the northern lights every night (or every other night). In fact there is a saying that has been going around for years that in Lapland there are auroras every other night. That is a silly statistic for a few reasons, 1) there is no cycle to auroras. They can come 5 nights in a row then nothing for 2 weeks. Saying they are visible every other night is vastly misleading. 2) Lapland is HUGE, and as I just pointed out above, there is a huge difference in geomagnetic (aurora) activity from north to south. So ignore that statistic.

The Weather

The weather is probably the single most important aspect of whether (no pun intended) you will see the northern lights. Winter is the cloudiest season in Scandinavia. Unfortunately it is also Aurora season, so there is little choice but to visit in winter. You cannot see northern lights through clouds. Clouds have been the scourge of aurora chasers/astronomers for many years. But there are a few things you can do to improve your chances of beating the clouds. In our experience, coastal areas are usually the cloudiest. But hang on a minute, didn’t I just say coastal Norway is the best place for northern lights because it is so north? Yes I did (I didn’t say it would be simple finding the best place for northern lights!). Many of the great aurora destinations I mentioned in the list above are great on paper, and they are great on crystal clear nights. But crystal clear nights are few and far between in the midst of winter on the coast. The warm sea mixed with mountains (rising and cooling air) really plays havoc with the weather. It snows. A lot.

So here is the important bit, and if you take anything away from this article (which I do apologise for being so long!) the best places for northern lights in mainland Europe, are places that are very far north, but not right on the coast. It is a fine balance and one we have been trying to perfect for many years now. Since I originally wrote this page many years ago, we started our own northern lights holidays. So I literally did put my money where my mouth is, and I adhered to everything I said on this page when we were looking for a location to base our business. We have been chasing northern lights every night, for 5 months straight, for many years now. So we really do have a good understanding of the weather in Lapland and where the most stable weather is. Everything I wrote on this page rings true. The most stable weather can almost always be found by heading inland. To get far away from the sea, and the effects the sea is having on the weather. This is further proved by the amount of Norwegian aurora chasers that often come over the border into Finland in the search of clear skies. Even they know it is inland you will find the most clear skies for most of the winter months.

So although it still stands true what I said about getting as far north as possible to improve your chances of seeing northern lights (and coastal Norway is as far north as it gets) you must also balance this out by not putting all your eggs in one basket and sitting right on the coast, because it is often cloudy on the coast and if there is a winter storm, it could be perpetual cloud for 2 weeks solid there. So we based our tours in the very far north of Finland. Am I Finnish? No. I could have chosen anywhere. I literally had a map and a pin and a stack full of historic weather reports and geomagnetic data (aurora logs basically..) that I sifted through to determine, where in fact are the best chances of seeing northern lights, on a regular basis. As I mentioned at the top, we have been caught in some crazy blizzards in Norway, that come out of nowhere, the weather is so hideously unpredictable there. Using all our knowledge of Lapland and the weather, when we started our own aurora chasing business, we really did back up what we say on here. All of our tour locations are in the far north of Finland, some are actually on the border with Norway and Finland, but we are based an hour away from the coast. Sometimes coastal weather has a large effect on the local area, even being an hour away from the coast might not be enough some nights, so we will drive further inland still. To emphasise my point here, last winter we were aurora chasing for a full 5 months and our aurora chasing bases in Finnish Lapland had 100% success rate finding the northern lights. In my personal opinion, having seen the weather change the past few years, it seems the winters are only getting more turbulent weather, so I am really happy we have all our bases in the least turbulent part of Lapland! I don’t want to push our northern lights tours here, because that is a separate entity to this site, but if you are interested in where I chose for our locations, you can see a map of our locations here: http://tours.aurora-service.eu 

Northern lights chasing in the bus

So now you know a little more what makes a good place in the real world. Do not read articles in newspapers that say “the best destinations for Northern Lights”, because they are written by reporters living in London or New York who have been handed a brown paper envelope with a bit of money in to write that. They’ve never even been to Lapland. I originally wrote this page as an aurora chaser, now I write it as a professional aurora chaser who actually put his money where his mouth. This page really does ring true. Choose any destination where I vaguely describe, stay there for a few nights at least, and I truly believe you will see the northern lights :) I have never and will never guarantee northern lights sightings. You are talking about something that travels 150 million kilometres to reach us and then illuminate above our head. It would be foolish to guarantee such a thing, and if you are looking at aurora companies that do, run away!

After all that reading you are probably just wanting a place name now? Oh ok then, after all that reading I think you deserve one…

The best place(s) for northern lights is…

Utsjoki, Finland

Utsjoki is much further inland, so it often offers clear skies (or partially clear skies) when the coastal towns are taking a battering from the weather. I specifically remember in winter 2014/15 there was serious winter storms battering the entire west coast of Norway, the worst winter storms in years they said. They had to batten down the hatches. At the exact same time we were near Utsjoki watching northern lights! True story! It is in quite a unique place for weather and is probably our favourite area in Lapland. Although I live in Utsjoki, I would quite often drive towards Karasjok most nights for northern lights watching. The night skies here are some of the absolute best in continental Europe. We are talking zero light pollution and incredible starry skies.

Alta, Norway

Despite everything I just mentioned about coastal weather I am putting a coastal town at no. 2. Alta. Bare with me here! Alta seems to suffer least from the coastal affects on the weather, much unlike the other coastal areas. It is surrounded and seems a bit protected from the weather due to mountains on all sides. So as it is fairly good weather wise (for a coastal city) matched with it’s very northern latitude, this is the first place I recommend to people when they ask me the best place for northern lights. I even recommend it to my own friends and family. It also has great accessibility having an airport and plenty of activities there.

Ivalo, Finland

Ivalo is quite bad for light pollution itself and I wouldn’t recommend standing in the town to watch auroras, but within a few kilometres from the town it offers great night skies. There is also quite a lot of undulating geography nearby, you can get reasonably elevated by heading to Saariselka, a mere 30 mins away, or head north to the treeless Arctic Tundra, about an hour away. Different geology can have positive effects on the weather, so it is nice to have this choice. Another thing that makes Ivalo good in our opinion, is that it is logistically very good, with many roads in and out, depending on the weather you can head north, east, west or south. Not many places in Lapland have this benefit, it is often one road in, one road out which can be a limitation for an aurora chaser. The bonus of Ivalo is that it barely suffers any detrimental affects from the sea as the towns further north do, so it offers clear nights when the coastal towns can be plagued with clouds. We also headed south towards Ivalo on many occasions last winter due to this fact. #Update, last winter we actually set up our own aurora chasing tours in Ivalo, we really do rate it that good.

Are there any bad places?

There isn’t really any bad place in Lapland for northern lights, they all get them at some point or another. If you actually moved there to live, you would definitely see northern lights at some point no matter part you were in. But as mentioned above (a lot), your odds rise significantly the further north you can get. So on a short visit or holiday, you must get north!

So while on paper some places look awesome for northern lights, in reality they can be a bit hit and miss. If you were to ask me what was the absolute best place for northern lights, I would say in the middle of the wilderness in a national park, probably a bit inland so quite likely a Finnish national park. Unfortunately there is no accommodation in such places, so we usually have to compromise and stay somewhere a bit nearer civilisation. My key advice, is get out of the towns/cities into the wilderness and the northern lights show is far superior. The clearer the skies, the better it is. So either book nights with aurora tour guides who will drive you into the wilderness, or rent a car. Watching northern lights from within a town really does take away from the moment. If it is once in a lifetime thing, you want it to be the best it possible can be right? Don’t skimp here, either rent a car, or hire a guide and head into the darkness :)

 

Which ever country you choose, and whichever town/city you choose. We wish you clear skies and hope you get the aurora show you are hoping for. Good luck. Tony.

 

Tony under northern lights

Tony


BREAKING NEWS

Aurora Tours

people watching northern lights
Well we are putting money where our mouth is. Since making this page in early 2013, we have since started our very own northern lights tours in the far north of Lapland. You are welcome to come and stay in our cottages in the very far north of Finnish Lapland and come out with us PERSONALLY chasing the auroras each night. We will drive you into the wilderness to some of the places mentioned above, far away from light pollution for the best possible northern lights experience.

We have a whole new website dedicated to the aurora tours. Visit: tours.aurora-service.eu

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