The first time I saw the aurora borealis, or Northern Lights, it was by complete accident. We were camping on a windy cliff in rural Iceland, just a few hours from the capital city of Reykjavik. I was under the impression that you had to be far from the city (and light pollution) to see the sky light up, so we didn’t even try looking. After a successful BBQ dinner, my partner and I put on all of our warm attire and lay down on the cold rocks to admire the starry sky. He had recently bought a fancy camera and was experimenting with night photography but it was getting cloudy, making it difficult to capture the stars. Luckily, he didn’t stop shooting, and noticed a green tint in his photos. Turns out those clouds were actually our very first aurora sighting.
We spent the next few hours craning our necks and freezing our fingers in the hope of a better picture. Sure enough, the white streaks began to get brighter and soon the sky was filled with flashes of dim green lights. The colours weren’t spectacular that night but their movement was hypnotizing. The whites appeared and disappeared in flashes. Sometimes they moved like waves of a stormy ocean; a few times the yellows and greens chased each other playfully. Mostly, they looked like they were dancing to the rhythms of a celestial Electronic Dance Music (EDM) concert.
Just like a wild tiger, spotting the aurora borealis has a lot to do with luck. These lights are the spectacular result of collisions between charged particles from space with gases in our atmosphere. Your best bet is to brave the cold on clear winter nights near the Arctic region. And if you’re as lucky as we were, you might see the dancing lights paint the night sky in green, yellow, and red.
The aurora borealis occurs in a ring-shaped region around the North Pole. A winter trip to Greenland, Iceland, Alaska, Canada, Russia, or the Scandinavian countries of Norway, Finland, and Sweden is likely to yield sightings. Improve your chances by driving away from cities, signing up for SMS alerts, and staying awake through the night.
Where to go: Reykjavik
Best time: October to March
Iceland is a good choice because the Northern Lights are often seen in the city of Reykjavik. A short 20-minute drive in any direction from the capital will multiply your chances. There are several tours that promise sightings and even allow free repeats until you see the lights. For those who prefer to go the DIY route, hire a car and drive to the Thingvellir National Park after dark. It’s less than an hour away, has minimal light pollution, and the landscape is interesting enough to keep you occupied even if the lights don’t show up. If you’re doing a road trip around the country, as most visitors do, keep an eye out every night—your chances of being dazzled are very high.
Stay: Alda is located bang on the main street of downtown Reykjavik. The rooms are spacious and the deck for night-sky viewing is a convenient bonus (www.aldahotel.is; doubles ₹12,288). Stay at the Minna-Mosfell Guesthouse for a more rustic experience on the outskirts of the city. Its location is perfect for easy sightings, but a vehicle is necessary to get there (www.minnamosfell.net; doubles ₹8,209). If you’re doing a multi-day road trip, it’s useful to know that camping outside a city is free all over Iceland as long as you’re not on private property (which is usually marked by a wire fence).
Where to go: Kangerlussuaq
Best time: September to April
Kangerlussuaq is largely an airport town, from where people fly to other cities in Greenland like Nuuk or the Illusisat Icefjord. It’s among the most accessible destinations in the country for aurora-hopefuls. An air hostess with Air Greenland told me that their flights to Kangerlussuaq are filled with Japanese tourists nearly every weekend in winter. They come with the belief that conceiving under the aurora borealis will ensure good fortune for their child and don’t mind taking the 8,000km journey just to spend a night or two under the Greenlandic sky. This says a lot about how common, almost guaranteed, a sighting is in this remote town of 500 people. If you manage to get here, a peek out of your warm hotel room window is all you need to see the magic in the sky.
Stay: There are not a lot of options in this tiny town. Among the few, Polar Lodge is a good choice (email@example.com; doubles ₹10,000) as is Hotel Kangerlussuaq (www.hotelkangerlussuaq.gl; doubles ₹15,936). The rooms in both are functional enough for a few nights’ stay but save your meals for the airport café, which is surprisingly the most convenient, delicious, and affordable restaurant in town.
Where to go: Tromsø
Best time: January to March
Norway is a lot more accessible than Greenland, but there might be some hide-and-seek involved to see the lights. Go to Tromsø for its skiing, sledding, and other exciting winter activities and there’s a high chance you will come back with sightings. This is another place where the lights can be seen within city limits but anxious travellers might prefer to sign up for a specialised tour. Since the celestial show begins pretty early here, usually between 6pm to midnight, it’s easy to see them during a walk after dinner. To improve your chances, sign up for the Aurora alert service (www.aurora-service.eu) that sends constant text messages with pretty accurate predictions of the location and time of a possible sighting.
Stay: Make reservations well in advance since this small town is popular with tourists, especially during winter weekends. Tromsø Bed & Books is a cute family-run guesthouse close to the city centre. They don’t serve meals but accommodation comes with a fully equipped kitchen (www.bedandbooks.no; doubles ₹6,245). Try Scandic Ishavshotel for a more modern setting with lovely harbour views (firstname.lastname@example.org; doubles ₹10,000).
Where to go: Churchill
Best time: September to March
A tour is the best way to explore this remote subarctic city in the winter. Other than the convenience, the huge Tundra Buggy just looks so cool (www.frontiersnorth.com/the-tundra-buggy-adventure). Chances of a bright light show are very high and as a bonus, there are plenty of polar bear sightings to keep you busy during the day.
Stay: The Lazy Bear Lodge is a cosy log cabin with warm rooms, local food, and excellent tours (www.lazybearlodge.com; a complete five-day tour, including airfare from Winnipeg, accommodation, tours, and food begins at₹2,50,000 per person). The Tundra Inn is a good choice for budget travellers who would like a shared room and independently choose their tour company (www.tundrainn.com; doubles ₹7,800; ₹2,000 for a hostel bunk). The Seaport Hotel is another no-frills option in the centre of town (www.seaporthotel.ca; doubles ₹6,549).
Updated in March 2016.