I have read many articles answering where is the best place to see the Northern Lights?Each article has a slightly different answer, which to me means there is no definite answer to this question.
I have been lucky to see the Northern Lights on a number of occasions. Some displays have been breathtaking, looking like the photos that fill travel brochures or feature on TV.
Others not so much, one particular story comes to mind involves a camera, a wispy ‘cloud’ and an hour conversation about whether the said wispy cloud was actually just a cloud or the Aurora. Many evenings have ended without seeing even a hint of the Aurora. Twice I have been away coming back having seen nothing at all.
Therefore I think we should be asking a different question.
Instead we should be asking what place interests us the most and would we enjoy visiting regardless of the chance of seeing the Aurora. Travelling just for the Aurora can lead to some disappointing holidays with a lot of money being spent.
This blog post is nothing more than a short summary of the places I have visited and may or may not have been fortunately enough to see the Aurora.
1. Ivalo, Finland
Ivalo is a small town in northern Finnish Lapland, it is very cold and very snowy.
The town itself is a little bland and is located on the Ivalo River, which is frozen over in the winter. Ivalo is surrounded by miles of snowy wilderness, giving a proper winter feel to the area – it is quintessential Lapland.
There is plenty to do out in this wilderness during the day. Snowmobiling, husky sledding and snow-shoeing are among many other activities and trips available from Hotel Ivalo. I have been snowmobiling and husky sledding many times now and still cannot get bored of them.
Photos: Husky sledding and snowmobiling in Ivalo (2013)
One of the best things about Ivalo is that you really do not have to venture far to get away from the little light pollution.
Just borrow some snow shoes (from Hotel Ivalo), make sure you are wrapped up, take a thermal flask with hot tea and take a wander across the river into one of snowy clearings.
Despite three clear nights and many hours laying on our backs in the snow on the frozen river looking up into the stars, we never saw the Northern Lights. That is just the nature of the Aurora and should not be a reason why Ivalo should be discounted.
Of the places I have visited, I would recommend Ivalo above the others if what you are wanting is a quintessential Lapland holiday in a small town surrounded by miles of snowy wilderness. It is small, there is little else to do beyond winter activities, but that is just what some people want.
2. Kiruna, Sweden
Kiruna is a mining town in northern Swedish Lapland. Like Ivalo, Kiruna is also very cold and very snowy.
Like Ivalo there are plenty of winter activities to do including dog sledding, snowmobiling and cross country skiing. The famous Ice Hotel in Jukkasjärvi is also a short bus ride from Kiruna. I did not stay overnight, but it is well worth visiting the Ice Hotel and its accompanying Ice Bar.
Photos: Kiruna and Ice Hotel, Jukkasjärvi (2012)
The popular place to visit for the Northern Lights is the Aurora Sky Station near Abisko, which makes the claim to be the best place in the world to see the Northern Lights. The Sky Station is about 90km away from Kiruna.
I am not sure why to consider my visit to the Sky Station lucky or unlucky. Despite clear weather and a sea of stars in the night sky, I had no such luck with the Aurora and after several hours started to make the journey back to Kiruna. Somewhere on the journey back the Aurora finally showed herself and we were treated to an amazing hour long show on the side of the road, no other people or buses around.
Photo: Lapland, Sweden (2012) – taken from the road side with cheap camera and broken tripod.
Unlike Ivalo, there are fewer places to escape light pollution within the town itself meaning there is more reliance on tours to be able to see the Aurora. Many of the tours to visit the Sky Station but some stay more local to the area.
The other night attempting to view the Aurora was a nighttime husky sledding trip. This in itself was a brilliant evening but the Aurora eluded us again, only this time with no such luck on the way back to Kiruna.
Kiruna has a different feel to it than Ivalo, despite the obvious similarities of the landscape and the type of experiences they both offer. If I had to try and identify the difference, Ivalo feels like a town in the wilderness whereas Kiruna feel a town surrounded by the wilderness.
Would I personally recommend Kiruna above Ivalo? Probably not, but there is more to do in Kiruna with the Ice Hotel being nearby and more to choose from in terms of places to stay and eat. Kiruna may be more suited to people who still want the quintessential Lapland holiday, but want alternatives to traditional winter activities in a slightly bigger location.
3. Tromso, Norway
I have visited Tromso three times and love the city.
Despite being a similar latitude to Ivalo and Kiruna, it is a lot warmer with less snow. But being a city, there is a lot more to it than just the Aurora and winter activities. This blog post isn’t intended to be all about Tromso and I could write so much about it, so I will be brief.
A visit to the Cathedral, going up the cable car, the Mack Brewery, or just walking the streets makes you appreciate Tromso for being more than a Northern Lights destination. The vibe of the city is reason enough to stay in the pubs, bars and restaurants into the evening, rather than leaving the city to hunt for the Aurora.
Photos: Arctic Cathedral and Tromso Harbour, Tromso
To see the Aurora you need to travel outside the city. The key to getting this right is choosing the right tour operator, which can be difficult as there are so many.
The starting point should be an operator that uses smaller vehicles rather than coaches, the 12 seater minivans can go where the 52 seater coaches cannot, usually this is where the light pollution is less. We can’t change the weather or Aurora activity, but from experience the smaller vehicles (and smaller tour operators) are usually be more flexible and able to improvise and travel to other nearby ‘weather zones’ if need be.
Tromso is also on the coast. Evening dinner ‘cruises’ will leave the harbour and weather dependent, offer a different experience to view the Aurora.
Tromso is very different to Ivalo and Kiruna and doesn’t offer the same winter experience. There isn’t a guarantee of snow, especially early in the winter season and the city itself is the reason for choosing Tromso over other destinations. Tromso is my personal favourite on this list, I would especially recommend it for anybody unsure of quieter and more isolated destinations.
On a side note, Tromso is the most expensive place to appear on the list. By expensive, I mean very expensive.
4. Reykjavik, Iceland
Iceland needs no introduction and the country is at the front of many minds when deciding where to visit to see the Northern Lights. It was also the first place I visited where I had the opportunity to see the Aurora.
Reykjavik is the largest place to appear on this list and offers day trips to some of the most spectacular places in Iceland. The city itself with it’s museums and other attractions can take at least one day to fully explore, the Blue Lagoon is worth a visit and too many ‘unmissable’ places to visit in one short break away.
Photos: Reykjavik and the Blue Lagoon (2010)
Like Tromso, Reykjavik itself has too much light pollution to be able to see the Aurora without leaving the city.
Without a car, the only practical alternative is to book onto a tour. Getting the right tour operator is again key, although the two tours I went on were booked direct through Icelandair so I have no firsthand experience here.
The first evening was completely cloudy, nothing that can be done about that.
The second evening was more promising, the sky was clear and I was going to see the Northern Lights. What followed was interesting enough to write an entire blog post on, but to summarise we spend a good part of the evening standing next to an operational lighthouse. I didn’t see the Aurora.
You live and learn, and I have spoken to many people who have seen the Aurora in Reykjavik.
Why visit Reykjavik for the Aurora?
It doesn’t offer the same winter experience as Ivalo or Kiruna and I personally prefer Tromso if I had to choose a city. You can however visit the Blue Lagoon, Gullfoss waterfall, Strokkur, Thingvellir National Park, whale watching and so on. So visit Reykjavik, enjoy Iceland and if you see the Aurora, think of it is as a bonus.
5. Longyearbyen, Svalbard
I have already written a blog post about my winter trip to Longyearbyen. My reason for visiting was to experience the polar night and not to see the Aurora. Take a read of my blog post, but the weather can be more extreme and I believe Longyearbyen is actually too far north for prime viewing of the Aurora.
That said, a visit in the winter is a truly unique experience but probably not one just to see the Northern Lights.
This was amazing. And luck.
I was on a G Adventures trip travelling from Svalbard to Greenland, down the coast of East Greenland and ending in Iceland.
We were treated to fantastic and unexpected shows of the Aurora from the boat on at least three nights. I were in the right place at the right time, I like to think this somewhat compensates for the unsuccessful attempts to view the Northern Lights I have had over the years.
This photo is not mine but taken and sent to me by a travel companion on the same trip I was on.
Photo by Yvette Ius: taken off the coast of East Greenland on the MS Expedition (2013)