In wintertime, the days are short and the nights are long and dark in the Nordics. Along with the delicious food and steamy saunas, one of the biggest draws for winter travel is the northern lights. These beautiful, colourful dancing lights adorn the dark skies of Northern Europe at this time of year.
To help you make the most of the experience, we’ve compiled our best tips on how to see the northern lights. If this natural phenomenon is on your bucket list, read on to learn about where and when to go and what to bring along.
Quick intro to the northern lights
The northern lights are also called aurora borealis. They feel magical, but are, in fact, caused by solar storms and giant flares from the sun, which send blasts of charged particles towards our planet.
When they enter into our atmosphere, the result is the glowing colours we know as the northern lights. They can take on various shapes, movements, colour and even brightness. As you may see in many photos, the most common colour is green, followed by red and violet hues.
This all depends on the solar activity. Because of that, it requires a lot of luck to witness the auroras in the night sky. Generally, as you’ll read below, you’ll need to be in the right location, at the right time with good meteorological conditions. And you’ll need patience!
Always remember that the northern lights are truly a gift of nature and sightings cannot be guaranteed.
Here are our top northern lights viewing tips:
1. Visit in winter
One of the best northern lights tips you’ll get is definitely to visit during the wintertime. The northern lights are visible mainly during the northern hemisphere winter, which is between October and March.
During those months, Northern Europe experiences dark nights. As opposed to the summer when the days are long, at this time of year the sun will set early. This gives you plenty of time to go chasing the auroras in the dark.
The northernmost regions of Norway, Sweden and Iceland even experience polar nights around the winter solstice (late December). At that time, the sun does not rise at all.
2. Head north
The best way to see the northern lights is to head as north as possible.
The majority of molecular activity happens near the Earth’s magnetic poles. For that reason, the Arctic region is an ideal location.
In fact, some of the best light shows happen near or above the Arctic Circle. Located around the 65 and 72 degrees latitude, this region is also called the “northern lights belt” or “aurora zone”. It’s all in the name!
You’ll want to travel to the following destinations for the best viewing opportunities in Europe:
Iceland is a famous location for northern lights. During the winter, you could take dedicated tours to go hunting for them. Or you could take the wheel and travel around the country visiting the highlights and looking out for the lights.
We recommend basing yourself in Akureyri as it is the capital of the north. Located almost within the Arctic Circle, the region has slightly longer hours of darkness. This means a wider window of opportunity to see auroras.
North Iceland benefits from smaller populations and therefore less light pollution. While you’re visiting, make it a trip to remember with whale watching in Húsavík and dipping into hot springs in the Lake Mývatn area.
If you’re only in Iceland for a short visit, you may still get your chance. The northern lights can often be viewed from Reykjavík itself. Or you could book an excursion out of town on one of your free nights.
- For a fantastic winter trip, look up these specific northern lights tour in Iceland
Norway is generally a wonderful country to visit in the wintertime. From the enchanting Christmas markets to the sparkling fjords, it is spectacular. The south may be your first port of call, but you should head to Northern Norway.
Combine your travel dreams with your night gazing. See the stunning natural landscapes, learn about the Sami people, and go on fun Nordic adventures.
You could book a short getaway to the north or a longer trip to visit more of the country. See the capital Oslo, the “Gateway to the Fjords” Bergen, and the ancient capital of Norway, the historic Trondheim.
Combine all of these locations with a cruise along the west coast. You could head north and cross into the Arctic Circle from there and see the North Cape. Admire the northern lights dancing above you from the deck of the ship.
- Book a wintry adventure to Northern Norway with one of these northern lights tours
For a charming winter experience, consider heading to Swedish Lapland. While the south of Sweden is buzzing in the summer, the north is the place to be in winter.
Base yourself in the town of Kiruna, which is located in the very north near the Norwegian border. From there you could trips to fun locations such as the spectacular Ice Hotel. This was the first of its kind in the world and you could stay the night in one of its ice rooms if you fancy.
An hour away, you'll also find the Abisko National Park. This park is famous because of its Aurora Sky Station. Take the chairlift up the mountainside for an unspoilt view of the sky above. Guided tours are available to learn about the northern lights and how to see them.
This region is perfect for a short winter getaway to immerse yourself in Swedish culture and nature.
- Check out these Lapland winter tours with a northern lights twist for your next holiday
The northern lights are a truly unique experience in Svalbard as they can be seen during the day.
Svalbard is located at 78 degrees north and is steeped in darkness for more or less three months from November to mid-February. This far north the northern lights activity can occur between 6 AM and 6 PM.
Come in February to experience the long nights and short days. See the winter landscape, try to spot the elusive polar bear, and enjoy the darkness for northern lights spotting.
- For a trip like no other, visit this remote archipelago with one of these Svalbard tours
3. Get out of town
Light pollution is a big problem these days in regard to admiring the sky at night. It is also the case for aurora viewing. Make sure to step away from the big city and town lights to greatly improve your chances of seeing them.
You could head on a guided tour into the wilderness for the evening. This allows you to stay in more populated area to discover the cultural highlights during the day.
Or you could book a stay in the countryside. This way you could glance up from you accommodation straight into the dark sky.
4. Book fun activities
The northern lights will light up a clear sky whether you’re there waiting with your camera or not. So why not make the most of your time in Northern Europe?
Book a snowmobile tour, visit the Ice or Snow Hotel, or head off on a dog sledding excursion. These will allow you to get out of town, experience the wintry landscape of the Nordics, but also keep an eye out for the auroras.
5. Check the forecast
Location means nothing if you don't have the right combination of solar activity and cloudless skies.
Ahead of planning your trip, check for when the best weather may be in winter in the country you want to visit. Pick the driest month as a rainy cloudy sky will not be the best to see the northern lights.
If you’ve booked your tour months ahead, you may not be able to know the daily weather in advance. But while you’re at your destination, check the weather and aurora forecasts. The one we recommend for Iceland is the MET office. You'll easily find one for each country in Northern Europe.
These forecasts can alert you if chances of northern lights are high on the night. That way, you can know to stay out longer or whether to stay warm cuddled up inside.
6. Stay up late
In some parts of Northern Europe, the sun sets early in the winter. This is great as it gives you longer nights to take advantage of the dark skies. However, the northern lights are most likely to appear at the darkest and coldest time of night.
Peak time is between 11 PM and 2AM. Most guided tours will depart after 9 PM to give you the best chances. You may be lucky to see them earlier of course, but the best viewing are often late.
Some hotels even offer a special wake-up service if the lights come out. This way you don’t have to stay up all night on the lookout.
7. Be patient
If you’ve done all of these and you’re still wondering how to see aurora borealis, make sure to give yourself some time.
The lights do not appear on any kind of schedule. You may see them the moment the sun sets, or you may have to wait a few hours.
If you’ve booked a tour, the advantage is that most of them involve some kind of activity or refreshments to keep guests entertained and warm.
8. Book a guided tour
There are many ways to see the northern lights. You may even be lucky enough to see them from the city centre, or thanks to a wake-up call from your hotel.
If you want to be proactive and go out chasing the northern lights, a dedicated guided tour has many advantages:
- The local guides usually know all the best spots.
- They’ll take you out of town to areas that are darker and away from light pollution.
- You’ll get to see some amazing wintry sights you may not have discovered otherwise.
- They may even give you some tips for taking photos of the auroras.
- Visit one, or more, of the Nordic countries this winter with a northern lights tour
9. Book a winter cruise
Always wanted to see the Norwegian fjords? Want to visit the towns and cities while also enjoying the wintry landscapes?
Book a winter cruise to combine all those bucket list items with northern lights viewing. Sailing around Northern Norway is especially popular in wintertime for this reason. You’ll sail away from city lights, giving you a chance to admire the rugged coastline and maybe spot the colourful sky.
10. Dress for the weather
It is true that heading to Northern Europe in winter may not be as cold as you expect. If you’re coming from the southern hemisphere however, you’ll want to prepare yourself as you switch from summer to winter weather.
If you’re instead coming from North America or Asia, you may be better prepared. Depending on where you’re from, you may already be dressed for the occasion with winter jackets and warm boots.
Northern Europe winter weather can vary depending on the location and month. Usually speaking, the closer to the North Pole, the colder it is.
Svalbard’s average winter weather approaches -15 °C (5 °F). If you’re looking at Northern Norway or even Akureyri in North Iceland, the weather is likely to hover just below freezing.
What is true of any location however is that it’ll always be colder at night if you’re standing waiting for the lights. You’ll also find the wind adds another chill factor on the coast and on the decks of ships. Make sure to bundle up for this!
Here is an essential packing list:
- Insulated jacket and trousers (windproof and waterproof)
- Thermal underlayers (wool is your best friend)
- Warm hat, gloves and scarf
- Heat packs
Your Nordic Visitor travel consultant will provide you with a more detailed list depending on where you're heading.
11. Bring your camera
For all the bragging rights, you’ll want to capture the northern lights to show all your friends back home. They are famously difficult to catch on camera, but you can do it!
Here is the equipment you’ll need to capture the northern lights:
- Camera: for the best results use an SLR camera and a wide angle lens, which is ideal for landscape photography.
- Tripod: To keep a steady long exposure shot, a tripod is invaluable.
- Shutter release: For an even steadier shot, don’t touch the camera and instead remote shutter release.
- Spare batteries: In cold weather batteries deplete much faster than normal. Make sure to have extra so you don’t run out before the lights appear.
- Headlamp or flashlight: It’s likely your location will be very dark, so this will help while you’re setting up and to see what you’re doing.
The best tips for photographing the northern lights:
- Make sure to turn off the image stabilisation if your lens has this.
- Increase your ISO to at least 400 or 800 (or higher).
- Your shutter speed should be set up for a long exposure of 15 to 30 seconds. The longer the more lights you’ll capture.
- Turn your aperture (f-stop) as low as possible. Most cameras can go down to about 3.5. This means more light will come through the lens.
Above all, make sure you also look up yourself and enjoy the sights!
With plenty of destinations to choose from, Europe is ideal if you want to check the northern lights off your bucket list. Pick the country that fits you best.
Go to Iceland for epic scenery, Norway to admire the coastline and fjords, to Lapland for fun outdoor activities and Svalbard to get away from it all.
When you’re ready to start planning, get in touch and one of our travel consultants will assist you. Our travel packages aren’t set in stone. If you have your eye on a set itinerary but northern lights tours aren’t included, just ask. You're the master of your dream trip!