Northern lights. Aurora sky. Polar lights. Whatever you call them, they are a beauty of nature worth seeing. Many people around the world travel north (and sometimes south) to the earth’s poles for a glimpse at these colorful lights that stretch across the sky.
But what are these strange light shows and how can you experience them for yourself? Finally understand what causes these beautiful natural lights in the sky, how you can see them, and the best Airbnbs to book for the occasion.
What Are the Northern Lights?
The northern lights are generally referred to as the polar lights, or aurora polaris. They are a natural phenomenon found in both the northern and southern hemispheres (though most tourists prefer the north for its accessibility and milder weather).
The scientific name for the northern lights is aurora borealis. The scientific name for the southern lights is aurora australis.
According to the Library of Congress Northern Lights page, it all starts with the sun, which periodically ejects clouds of gas that take two to three days to reach Earth. These gasses collide with the Earth’s magnetic field. This causes complex changes to happen that generate currents of charged particles.
These particles flow along the lines of magnetic force into the Polar Regions. In earth’s atmosphere, they collide with oxygen and nitrogen atoms, which produce the stunning lights known as the polar lights.
The colors of the lights form based on the types of ions or atoms being energized as they collide with the atmosphere. Different altitudes result in different colors of lights.
The patterns are created by the lines of the magnetic force. Common displays include rippling curtains, pulsating globes, traveling pulses, or steady glows.
Did You Know?
- Aurora’s flowing particles and magnetism can damage our electric power grid and satellites operating in space.
- On rare occasions, the lights have been seen as far south as Mexico!
- Japanese culture says children conceived during a northern lights display will be blessed with good looks, intellect, and good fortune.
- Since the lights are dictated by the magnetic poles which slowly move over time, the best places to see them change over time (though it often takes hundreds of years to see a significant change).
- The first known photograph of the northern lights was taken by physicist and astronomer Otto Rudolf Martin Brendel on January 5th, 1892.
The northern lights are most often seen at higher latitudes in places like Alaska, Canada, Greenland, and Antarctica. They are also more frequent and spectacular during high solar sunspot activity, which cycles over every 11 years.
According to NASA, the current solar cycle is expected to peak in 2025. However, the aurora sky continues to be visible every year in the higher latitude regions.
Best Cities for Viewing the Northern Lights (and When to Visit)
Many cities around the world are considered prime spots for seeing the aurora sky. It’s important to know the best time of year to visit since the lights tend to be more visible during certain seasons.
Here is a list of some of the top cities to visit for viewing the northern lights (and when to visit):
- Fairbanks, Alaska (August – April)
- Tromsø, Norway (September – April)
- Lapland, Finland (September – March)
- Orkney, Scotland (September – March)
- Yellowknife, Canada (November – April)
- Jukkasjärvi, Sweden (September – March)
- Reykjavik, Iceland (September – March)
- Kangerlussuaq, Greenland (September – March/April)
First time traveling abroad? Use this 11-step guide to help you plan you plan your international trip.
4 Tips for Spotting the Northern Lights
1. Look for lights for several nights. There is no guarantee you will see the lights, even if you are in a prime location. Sometimes they just don’t show up. Prepare for multiple nights of viewing to increase your chances of seeing them.
2. Travel to remote areas. City lights often lead to light pollution, which makes it more difficulty to see the northern lights. Venture outside of major cities for a better light show.
3. Follow the forecast. Lights are usually best seen during clear, dark nights. If you can, arrange your schedule around the weather.
4. Download an app. Download a helpful app like Aurora Forecast for expert information to help you determine when and how to see the lights.
Prefer a Guided Tour?
Travelers who prefer to follow expert guides during a northern lights adventure can book a guided tour. Many destinations feature tours specifically for those who want to see aurora.
- Iceland Northern Lights Tour – 4-hour jeep tour through the rugged Icelandic terrain (and away from light pollution) for the best views of the lights
- Canada Northern Lights Tour – 4-day tour through Whitehorse with an expert guide who has knowledge on the unique terrain and where to see the northern lights
- Finland Northern Lights Tour – 7-day adventure from Helsinki to Ivalo to see the northern lights, learn about Finnish history, and experience a night in a glass igloo
- Alaska Northern Lights Tour – 7-day tour from Anchorage to Fairbanks with an expert guide for an unforgettable adventure through the state
PRO TIP! Many of the best locations for viewing the northern lights also boast various outdoor activities. Consider purchasing a travel medical insurance plan like Atlas Travel to help cover costs in the event of an accidental injury while exploring abroad. Make sure you review your policy documents carefully and understand what is and isn’t covered.
Book These Airbnbs to Spot the Northern Lights
One way many tourists, honeymoon couples, and photographers like to experience the northern lights is from an Airbnb. Many of these rental homes and cabins feature stunning views of the lights from the Airbnb’s very own front porch.
Here are a few of the most popular rentals:
A Cabin in Luleå, Sweden (1 bedroom, 2 bathrooms – up to 3 guests)
This 157ft2 cabin is just five minutes from the town of Lulea in Sweden. Situated in a residential area, this is a popular spot for couples with nearby trails for running and skiing and a stunning view of the northern lights over the frozen lake.
The cabin is just 30 feet from the water and features a nearby sauna and options for renting bikes, fat bikes, a rowboat, fishing rods, snowshoes, and skates from the host.
A Home in Akureyri, Iceland (2 bedrooms, 1 bathroom – up to 8 guests)
Stay the night in this spacious home located just six minutes from Akureyri. Spend the day skiing in Hilidarfjall and explore the shops, galleries, restaurants, and museums in Akureyri. At night, relax in the hot tub and enjoy an excellent view of the northern lights.
A Log Cabin in Whitehorse, Canada (1 bedroom, 1 bathroom – up to 4 guests)
Those who want to spend a few nights in an off-the-grid tiny house (but with Wi-Fi) can stay in this quaint and secluded log cabin in Canada. The newly constructed house has heated electric baseboards and a log cabin aesthetic for a cozy hideaway.
The house sits in the Yukon Wilderness, snuggled between Lake Laberge and various walking trails. It is also a prime spot for aurora lights viewing since it is far away from any light pollution to disrupt your view.
A Cottage Near Búðardalur, Iceland (1 bedroom, 1 bathroom – up to 4 guests)
This Icelandic country-style cottage sits in the remote mountains of west Iceland. It’s a 15-minute drive from Buðardalur, a small village with shops and local restaurants. The cottage has modern features and amenities to keep you comfortable during a cold winter night.
The host recommends hiking, meditating, and other outdoor activities during your stay. The home also has a picturesque view of the northern lights above the water with surrounding mountains and valleys.
A Farmhouse in Grundarfjörður, Iceland (1-bathroom studio – up to 2 guests)
Embrace a classic rural Icelandic experience in this quaint studio house sitting at the edge of a farm. You’ll probably encounter the many sheep, goats, horses, and the owner’s other farm animals during your stay.
You can explore the water cave, lava fields, black beaches, bird life, mountain views, and sunsets all before taking in the beautiful northern lights at night.
The house was built with particularly large windows so you can enjoy the view of the lights over the ocean to the north from the comfort of the heated home.
A Luxury Villa in Vesturland, Iceland (4 bedrooms, 1 bathroom – up to 8 guests)
Those wanting a more luxury experience can spend the night at this luxury villa in Iceland. The house has plenty of space for a big group and features luxuries like a hot tub and a sauna for the cold Icelandic winters.
Guests are frequently impressed by the beautiful and modern amenities the house has to offer. Just take a look at the photos!
This very private home is near a national park and one of the tallest waterfalls in Iceland. At night, you can view aurora against the mountains with the whole family.
PRO TIP! Experienced Aurora viewers often remind travelers that the lights can only be seen at night, so make sure to make plans to fill your daytime. Explore local towns and venture through the beautiful landscape that many Aurora viewing locations have to offer. Use the best travel websites to help you prepare for an unforgettable trip.