Best place to see the Northern Lights?

best place for northern lights

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 and Iceland are usually the favourite spots 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.

Scientifically speaking, the best place in Europe for northern lights is Svalbard, which is a group of islands in the Arctic Ocean about half way between continental Europe and the north pole. But there is actually a thing as too far north, and unfortunately Svalbard falls into that category. If the geomagnetic activity is very low and there are no auroras anywhere in continental Europe, chances are Svalbard are having a great show. The reason for this is because Svalbard is so hideously north, it registers aurora activity with the slightest whiff of geomagnetic activity. In fact in the winter months you can watch incredible aurora shows right over your head while having your lunch, at midday! That is Svalbard for you! The problem arises when the geomagnetic activity increases, the auroral oval starts expanding and the northern lights start heading south. They can go so far south they are not even visible from Svalbard. So the best thing about Svalbard is that it’s so far north, the worst thing about it….is that it’s so far north. So Svalbard is probably the worlds best place for northern lights, but only when geomagnetic activity is low to medium. Also it is not the easiest place to get to being in the Arctic Ocean. But if it is around the solar minimum time of the solar cycle (when geomagnetic can be very low), then that is the best time to choose Svalbard as your northern lights destination. So if you are reading this and we are near solar minimum (around the year 2020), then you have your answer! Chances are it is not anywhere near the year 2020 yet, so read on…

For any other times of the solar cycle, especially in years close to (and including) solar maximum, your best bet is mainland Europe. So what are the best places here? Well, again, 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 and there is absolutely nothing there. So it doesn’t even get mentioned as an aurora location because it’s just so remote. So yes, on a clear night, you have the best chances of seeing auroras there, but would you want to travel there? No. You would be in so much pain after the insanely long drive up there you wouldn’t even notice the northern lights.

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) Vardø, Norway
3) Alta, Norway
4) Tana Bru, Norway
5) Tromsø, Norway

Auroras usually appear on the same latitude for many hundreds of kilometers 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 are probably 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.

But let’s get back to the Northern Lights with what we now know. For the best chances (scientifically) we need to be as far north as possible.

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 FACTS. As in any line of business you should be very wary of marketing and sales pitches that seem to 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, 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 Tromsø 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:
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 where exactly does that statistic come from?

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. They 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. Many of the great aurora destinations I mentioned in the list above were 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. So we almost always head inland and try to get far away from the sea, and the effects the sea is having on the weather. It is inland you will find the most clear skies for most of the winter months. So although it still stands true what we said that you must get as far north as possible to improve your chances of seeing northern lights, you must also balance this out by not putting all your eggs in one basket and sitting right on the coast, because if there is a winter storm, it could be perpetual cloud for 2 weeks solid there.

So after all that reading you are probably just wanting a place name now? Ok, after reading all that I think you deserve one…

The best place(s) for northern lights is…

Alta, Norway

Despite everything I just mentioned about coastal weather I am putting a coastal town at no. 1. Alta seems to suffer least from the coastal affects on the weather, much unlike the other coastal areas. It 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.

Karasjok, Norway

karasjok 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 in years they said. At the same time we were near karasjok watching northern lights! 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.

Inari, Finland

Inari 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 and wonderful pine forests scenery. The bonus of Inari is that it barely suffers any detrimental affects from the sea as the towns further north do, so it offers clear nights when the towns above are plagued with clouds. We also headed south towards Inari on many occasions last winter due to this fact.

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!

FOLLOW UP – 31st March 2015
I thought I would write a little follow up to this page since I made it. I have been living and chasing auroras around the most northern towns in Finland this past winter, and while knowing so much about aurora science gets you so far, actually witnessing these places first hand gave us a much better idea of what makes a good place for auroras. I previously mentioned the most northern towns of Finland as the best place to see northern lights, and on paper they are VERY good, I found the sea has a profound effect on areas close to the coast. In other words, it is often cloudy on or near the coast in winter (which is also the most cloudiest time of the year in Scandinavia). So on paper these places might be great, but if it is perpetually cloudy, what use is it being great on paper?

So we found ourselves heading inland (specifically down towards Inari) on many nights. So much so, we decided to launch our additional aurora tours a little further south towards Inari, away from the coastal effects that the most northern towns in Finland (Nuorgam and Utsjoki) seem to suffer from. I think we headed to the coast of Norway maybe once all winter, yet headed south (inland) many, many times. We could literally see on many clear nights, that looking towards the coastal regions there would be cloud lingering above them. The sea has a profound affect on the weather and on the cloudiness of an area, much more than we anticipated. So our advice is to head inland. Our favourite spots last winter were the towns of Karigasniemi and Karasjok. Not very often we went to the most northern towns (Tana, Nuorgam, Utsjoki), they were cloudy very often. We always hit the road and usually always went east or south (away from the weather affect from the sea).

Another thing we noticed that in these far north locations the air temperature is quite often very cold, this leads to localized clouds formed by steam coming from any warm (above ambient temp) source, such as a nearby river or even the villages/houses themselves. For instance, in the coldest months, the village of Utsjoki would have a permanent cloud directly above it. I know this because I had a house there overlooking the village and found this phenomenon amazing and wondered why it was never mentioned ANYWHERE, in any marketing. If you stayed in the village and had no way of getting away from it, you wouldn’t see auroras whatsoever due to this cloud directly above it. Even on totally clear nights, there would be this cloud hanging over Utsjoki village, yet you could walk 2km outside of the village and you would have crystal clear skies, head back into the village and there would be a cloud directly above it!! This cloud is formed by warm air from the very slight heat escaping from the village or local lakes/rivers. It is not connected to the weather this cloud, it is difficult to describe it, but if you can imagine on a cold day the cloud of steam your breath makes, multiply this by a million and you have a good idea of what is happening above a village in very cold temperatures. So if you are heading to any cold place to chase auroras, certainly in the colder months (Dec, Jan and Feb) then you must have a means of escaping the town to get away from these artificial clouds caused by heat loss from the village itself. I suspect Utsjoki village suffers worse than most as it is slap bang in the middle of two large rivers, both of which steam like crazy in the cold air perpetuating this strange cloud phenomenon.

Light pollution
Having driven 25,000km around the top of Finland in the past winter chasing auroras in the middle of the night, I came to know which areas were good and which were bad in terms of light pollution. I previously recommended the town of Nuorgam (the northern most town in Finland and the EU) as a great northern lights destination. While on paper it is, it suffers from hideous amounts of light pollution. While only some of the light pollution is from Nuorgam itself, it is so close to Norwegian villages and a major Norwegian town that these also contribute to some pretty bad light pollution. If you just want to see auroras, it might be ok, but if you want to take pictures, they will be badly affected by the (quite severe some nights) light pollution. Also the village of Utsjoki is quite bad for light pollution, as above I mentioned the artificial cloud I witnessed that hangs over Utsjoki in very cold temps, so too the light pollution emanating from it makes that cloud bright orange. We actually run our flag ship aurora chasing tours from Utsjoki, but not once have we ever been in the village watching them! For such a small village, the light pollution is terrible. We ALWAYS head at least 30km away from the village until the glow from the village is none existent.

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 civilization. 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.

 

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.


BREAKING NEWS

Aurora Tours
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.

Northern Lights Tours

Northern Lights over Utsjoki, Finland

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

tours.aurora-service.eu

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