A beautiful and elusive dance of nocturnal rainbows above an Arctic wilderness, catching the Northern Lights, or Aurora Borealis, is on every adventurous traveller’s bucket list. This twisting and swirling multi-coloured show, named after the Roman goddess of dawn, occurs when highly- charged electrons from the solar wind collide with different atmospheric elements in the ring surrounding the North Pole. With January being one of the months offering the longest hours of darkness, we couldn’t resist looking up the best places to watch that wondrous glow.
You can't get much higher than Svalvard. Up between the 74th and 81st parallel, this group of islands in the Barents Sea is well up into the Arctic, and generally, the higher the latitude, the better your chances of seeing the Lights. In fact, it’s so far north, in the winter months you can watch incredible Aurora shows at midday! Because the archipelago experiences polar night, or perpetual darkness, between mid-November and January, it offers visitors double the opportunity to see the Aurora. So Svalvard is probably the world’s best place for the Northern Lights, however geomagnetic activity has to be low to medium. The northern town of Tromsø also teems with Aurora Borealis activity as its location above the Arctic Circle makes it another top spot to view those shimmering green lights. While there, you can even catch the annual Northern Lights festival.
The Northern Lights make an appearance over Finland about 200 nights per year. At the Kakslauttanen Arctic Resort in Finnish Lapland, you can Lights-gaze from the comfort of your own glass igloo and drift off to sleep as emerald green, fuchsia, and indigo streaks light up the night sky. You also have the option of snowy activities such as a reindeer safari and renting some walking skis to explore the nearby Urho National Park. Situated in Luosto, northern Finland, the Hotel Aurora offers you an "Aurora Alarm" that beeps whenever the Lights appear thanks to the Northern Lights Research Center’s signal to the hotel. Otherwise, on a chilly, cloudless night, you’re bound to catch the lights glitter in the skies over the town of Nellim, close to Lake Inari, the country’s third-largest lake.
Jukkasjärvi, in the Kiruna region of Sweden, houses the country's first ice hotel and you can take night flights out to see the Northern Lights from there. If the Lights are feeling shy, you can visit the Swedish Esrange Space Center, where you can admire Sweden’s starry skies. What’s more, Bjorkliden, in northern Sweden, is situated in a weather shadow of the surrounding mountain range, creating perfect conditions for Aurora spotting. Swedish Lapland also offers some of the best opportunities for viewing the Northern Lights, especially at the world-renowned Abisko Sky Station. Actually, the Abisko area is scientifically proven to be an ideal viewing spot due to a unique microclimate. Close to Abisko National Park, Torneträsk Lake helps create the infamous "blue hole of Abisko," a patch of sky that remains clear regardless of the surrounding weather patterns.
Not far from Reykjavik, the Ion Hotel’s Northern Lights Bar is practically decorated with dimmed lighting and wraparound windows so guests can watch the Aurora inside, with drinks in hand. In the southern part of the country, Hotel Ranga allows you to tune into their webcam during the evening for a live stream of the sky filled with shades of vibrant green, pink and purple. As it is in the countryside, the hotel experiences minimal light pollution, making for optimal viewing conditions during the season. The country has other exciting things to offer like The Blue Lagoon, which stays hot all year round. If you’re a “Game of Thrones” fan, you can hunt out some of their locations, or you can head out into the wide-open plains of Þingvellir National Park.
The Lights are not just a northern European event. The 'Aurora Oval' covers the majority of Canada, including the provinces of Yukon, Northern Saskatchewan, Northwest Territories, Newfoundland, Nova Scotia and British Columbia. Churchill, in Manitoba, is one of the best places to witness an Aurora Borealis display. As a bonus, you can even watch the Lights dance over a family of polar bears from the comfort of your mobile sleeper car. Areas around pristine Lake Superior in Ontario and Northern Canada’s tundra backcountry are other prime viewing spots. Alternatively, head to the town of Whitehorse within the Yukon Territory to best see the swirling lights. Sometimes, the glowing sky can be seen as far south as the American border, but stick to Canada’s vast wilderness for your front-row seats.
The British Isles are known for stormy, foggy and cloudy weather, however if Aurora activity is forecast it's not far to do an on-spec Lights chase. Your best bet to watch the Merry Dancers, as they are called there, is to go to the northernmost parts of the Highlands or the Shetland Islands in January. One option is to book a room at Sumburgh Head, a restored Shetland lighthouse overlooking a puffin nesting area on the Atlantic. Or you can venture to the Isle of Lewis to see the display above the Callanish Standing Stones. This ancient man-made wonder is a circular formation of rocks, which was supposedly erected as early as 2900 B.C. If you don’t want to miss a sighting, AuroraWatch UK text alerts inform you about viewing conditions. For other winter adventures, the Cairngorms National Park is a good choice, as is Aviemore, which hosts the annual Aviemore Sleddog Rally in January.