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Europe's best places to see the Northern Lights

Seeing the Northern Lights, aka Aurora Borealis, is something that often appears on our bucket lists. 

With anything nature related there's a degree of good fortune that you need in order to see it but there are also things that you can do to maximise your chances of seeing one of our planet's most spectacular sites. 

In this guide, we'll tell you more about what auroras are, how they work, where in Europe are you most likely to see them and how you can protect yourself and your possessions whilst your aurora hunting!

Auroras are one of the Earth’s most beautiful natural phenomena. They are light shows that are more visible the nearer to the poles you get.

Our planet has two auroras. Aurora Borealis is the light show that appears in the northern hemisphere, whist the Aurora Australis appears in the southern hemisphere.

Auroras are not only something that we see on Earth but other planets in our solar system also have them including Jupiter and Saturn.

Auroras occur on Earth when solar winds – which are charged particles flowing from the Sun – meet and travel down the magnetic fields lines and into the atmosphere. When they reach our atmosphere these particles interact with atmospheric gases. This interaction determines the strength and color of the auroras that we see.

The strength of an aurora and how far South it can be seen depends upon the amount of charged particles that reach the atmosphere. Solar activity peaks such as solar flares or coronal mass ejections are events that really boost your likelihood seeing these light shows.

The colours that appear in the aurora are determined by the gases that are in the Earth’s atmosphere at the height where the interactions occur. If you’ve been lucky enough to see an aurora, or have seen photographs, then they would most likely show shades of green.

  • Green colours are caused by interactions with oxygen in the atmosphere at lower altitudes. 
  • Oxygen interactions at very high altitudes show rarer red auroras.
  • Nitrogen interactions usually happen at low altitudes and release red light that appears on the lower sections of the aurora.

Other gases in our atmosphere also interact – such as hydrogen and helium - and give different colours blues and purples but these are not always ones that are visible to us in the night sky.

In the northern hemisphere the best times to see the aurora borealis is between September and April when the nights are longer. More specifically, the months of March and September are particularly good as the Spring and Autumn equinox are associated with higher solar activity.

The Northern Lights are visible more regularly the more northerly you venture, the best places to see the northern lights are:

  • Tromso, Norway: Located at the very top of Norway, Tromso is an incredibly popular aurora hunting destination. Here you’ll find a number of services and tours all focused around seeing the Northern Lights. 
  • Rovaniemi, Finland: Although Rovaniemi is probably most famous as the home of Santa Claus and capital of Lapland, it is also a great place to enjoy the Northern Lights. The aurora is visible for around half the year and there are a number of excellent places just 10 mins outside of the town where you can enjoy this amazing spectacle.
  • Kiruna, Sweden: A trip to a mining town might not seem like the most likely or picturesque place to see the Northern Lights but it is the northernmost town in Sweden and as such enjoys views of the Northern Lights from as early as late August. Basing yourself in Kiruna you can take an hour’s trip to the Aurora Sky Station in Abisko is widely considered one of the best places in the world to see the Northern Lights.
  • Jokulsarlon, Iceland: Thanks to Game of Thrones, Iceland’s tourism industry has grown hugely in recent years. Whilst many visit the Land of Fire and Ice for its stunning tectonic activity - the Northern Lights offer another attraction. Once of the most spectacular places in Iceland to visit (both in the day and at night) is the Jokulsarlon Glacial Lagoon. Situated on the south coast, around 90 mins from Vik you’ll see stunning Icebergs that have broken free from the nearby glacier, perfectly dark night skies and fantastically clear reflections of the aurora in Iceland’s deepest lake. Find out more about travelling to Iceland.

To stand the best chance of seeing an aurora you need 3 things:

  • As much solar activity as possible: The Kp index is the scale of solar activity. If you’re away and hoping to see the northern lights then check these each day to see when the times of high solar activity are.
  • A clear sky with no light pollution: As with stargazing, the best chance of seeing the northern lights is by going to dark sky sites away from towns and cities. It is always worth tracking to see if the cloud cover will impact your ability to see the northern lights.
  • Patience: Whilst you can research the best nights to see the northern lights, like anything, there’s an element of good luck and patience needed for you to get the best view possible. The northern lights usually appear in the early hours between midnight and 2am, so you could be in a for a long wait. They do tend to appear as if from nowhere so keep your eyes peeled.

Getting a permanent reminder of the best natural light show on the planet can be tricky, but happily there are a few things to remember which can help you capture that moment perfectly.

  • Bring a tripod: Because you’ll be using longer exposure times when taking photos of the Northern Lights you’ll want to ensure that things stay as sharp as possible. To help with stability a tripod is a must.
  • Focus on something before the light goes entirely: Depending on what the composition of your photo is you’ll want to ensure that you focus on something whilst you still have some light. This could be setting up during the day time, or using the moon as an object to focus on.
  • Camera settings: Use a low f-stop/aperture, the lowest aperture on a digital SLR is normally f2.8 – this allows more light to enter the lens. Set the ISO setting to 800 or even 1600. The higher the number the more sensitivity to light there is and therefore the brighter the resulting photo will be. Finally, set the shutter speed to around 25 seconds.

It is worth experimenting with these settings a little based on the results you achieve, perhaps by increasing or reducing the shutter speed or changing the ISO to increase/reduce light sensitivity. By taking a number of photos with slightly tweaked settings you should find the perfect fit.

Whilst most trips to see the Northern Lights are trouble free, it is important to be prepared should the worst happen.

If you’re choosing to go aurora hunting in Iceland or Norway then, since leaving the EU in January 2021, UK residents no longer have access to the Norwegian or Icelandic state provided healthcare, via the EHIC scheme. This is also the case with the EHIC replacement, the Global Health Insurance Card (GHIC), both of which only apply within EU countries.

This makes it even more important to take out suitable travel insurance for your trip.

Also, if you’re travelling with valuables such as photographic equipment then you can rest assured that our Single Trip, Annual Multi-Trip and Backpacker policies are designed to help protect them.

Across our Single trip and Annual policies, we offer three levels of cover: Bronze, Silver and Gold. Depending on the level of cover you choose, you’ll be protected against:

  • Cancelling or curtailing your trip
  • Emergency medical and associated expenses
  • Loss of passport*
  • Delayed personal possessions
  • Lost, stolen or damaged personal possessions*
  • Loss of personal money*
  • Personal accident cover
  • Missed departures
  • Delayed departures
  • Personal liability
  • Legal expenses
  • End-supplier failure**

*Not available with Bronze level cover

**Only available with Gold level cover

Terms and Conditions apply.

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