Native cultures tell stories of the northern lights reaching down and taking people away if they whistle at them. In Norse mythology, the lights represent the trails of gods and goddesses traversing the sky. Romans believed the aurora was the glow of mystical caves.
For thousands of years, humans have been fascinated by the northern lights and created myths and legends to explain its purpose and power. The earliest known record of the lights is from a Babylonian clay tablet dating back to about 568 B.C. Today, science mostly explains the northern lights, but some mystery remains. For example, scientists are still baffled by the light’s highly organized structure. And, its spellbinding beauty continues to lure travelers to its glowing arms.
Travelers can view the northern lights in different places around the world by various means, including by cruise ship. If you love to cruise and want to add the northern lights to your next itinerary, there are ways to make it happen.
About the Northern Lights
The northern lights, also called the aurora borealis, is the result of electrons colliding with the Earth’s atmosphere. The electrons transfer their energy to the molecules in the atmosphere, which eventually release the energy in the form of colorful light.
The northern lights appear in many shapes and colors, such as violets, reds, pinks and greens. Usually, the lights look like folds of cloth in the sky, while sometimes they can produce arcs that stretch as far as the eye can see. The lights might move like neon streamers blowing in the wind and eventually fill the entire sky with a bright, pulsating glow. In the early morning, the lights seem to be flickering clouds that fade away as the sun rises.
Best Time to See the Northern Lights
According to the National Centers for Environmental Information, the best time to see the northern lights is from September until April, or when the days are short and dark and the lights are at their brightest. Keep in mind that places close to auroral latitudes also experience the midnight sun during the summer, so the lights can’t be seen during warmer months.
The best time of day to view the northern lights is from late-night until the early morning. The northern lights occur all day, year-round, but you just can’t always see them. You need dark, clear skies, no matter where you are in the world.
The phenomena can also be hard to predict. However, you can use aurora forecasts, such as the one provided by the Space Weather Prediction Center, to help you catch the lights as you explore northern destinations.
Where to Watch the Northern Lights
You can see the northern lights from anywhere, but you’ll find them more frequently when you’re near the Arctic Circle. You also need to view them in more remote areas, or at least in places away from light pollution. Here are the best places in the world to see the northern lights, which also make fascinating cruise destinations:
With cold, dark skies and millions of acres of wilderness, just about all of Alaska is ideal for watching the aurora borealis. You’ll also find pleasurable ways to view the lights in Alaska, such as by soaking in a hot spring under a neon rainbow. And, when you’re not being hypnotized by the celestial light performance, you can experience everything else this great state has to offer, like observing wildlife as you hike through majestic mountains. Here are some of the best spots to catch the northern lights in the Last Frontier:
- Denali National Park and Preserve: As long as the aurora is happening, and the sky is dark and clear, you should have no problem seeing the northern lights around Denali National Park and Preserve, which is free from light pollution. While you’re there, enjoy viewing wildlife like bears, moose and Dall’s sheep, and take a scenic hike with unrivaled mountain views.
- White Mountains National Recreation Area: Located about an hour from Fairbanks, the White Mountains National Recreation Area offers breathtaking scenery and year-round recreation such as hiking, wildlife viewing and gold panning. The area is popular with outdoor lovers and northern light hunters who enjoy reserving the public-use cabins and spending the night.
- Fairbanks: Fairbanks is perfect for northern light seekers because auroras frequently occur there, and it’s accessible. You’ll find plenty of observation spots around Fairbanks, such as the Cleary Summit viewing area. If you enjoy hot springs, consider visiting a local resort where you can watch the lights as you pamper yourself.
Imagine watching waves of iridescent colors, swaying, flashing and expanding over massive cliffs and glassy waterways. Norway is an excellent place to visit on a cruise to witness the northern lights and take in the awe-inspiring beauty of the country’s landscapes. It’s where you can find and observe the aurora borealis, as well as fjords and colorful fishing villages, in comfort. Lastly, Norway is easy and safe to explore due to its great public transport system and friendly English-speaking guides.
There are many places to view the lights in Norway, but the closer you get to the Arctic Circle, the better. For example, Tromsø, which is situated above the Arctic Circle, is one of the best places in Norway to see the aurora borealis. Here, you can take a unique dog sledding northern lights tour or ride a Fjellheisen cable car up the mountain for viewing.
During the daylight hours, there’s plenty to keep you busy in Tromsø, from feeding seals at the Polaria aquarium, to visiting the iconic Arctic Cathedral. Other great spots in Norway include Svalbard, the Lofoten Islands, Bodø, Alta and Narvik.
Iceland has it all — from ice-blue hot springs to otherworldly volcanic landscapes. It’s also one of the top places to see the northern lights, which can be viewed anywhere in the county. Here are a few ideas:
- Seltjarnarnes: You can see the northern lights by taking a guided tour from Reykjavik, or you might head to Seltjarnarnes on your own. Seltjarnarnes is a small town situated on a peninsula, located just a short drive from the city. It’s where you’ll find a lighthouse, coastal walking trails and darker skies.
- Thingvellir National Park: The scenic Thingvellir National Park is a popular place for viewing the northern lights. Located far away from light pollution, you can watch the aurora reflect off the lake for an amplified experience.
- Seljavallalaug: Do you wish to view the northern lights from a heated mountainside pool? Consider taking a trip to Seljavallalaug, a free, 24-hour pool set in a picturesque location.
- Akureyri: Situated by Iceland’s longest fjord, Akureyri is a fishing town with a love for art. While you’re in Akureyri, enjoy browsing its shops and galleries as you wait for the sun to set. When it’s time to prepare for the sky’s light show, consider heading to Gásir, the site of a medieval trading post, or Krossanesborgir, a coastal nature reserve, for front row seats.
If Scotland’s on your cruise itinerary, you might have the chance to see the northern lights. As a general rule, you’ll want to head to remote spots on Scotland’s north coast to see the aurora. For example, Orkney is a group of remote islands located off the north coast and is one of the best areas to see the lights in the country.
Here, you can watch the “mirrie dancers” from Wideford Hill, the coast at Birsay or the beach at Dingieshowe. While you’re in Orkney, make sure to visit the Heart of Neolithic Orkney, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
If you can’t make it to Orkney, consider heading to Cairngorms National Park. Set in the Scottish Highlands, Cairngorms provides a chance to catch the lights and enjoy the stunning scenery at the same time.
Although the aurora borealis can be seen regularly in the dark, clear skies of Yukon, the Northwest Territories and Alberta, the lights can also be viewed near accessible cruise ports. Places such as Prince Edward Island National Park has low light pollution, and Tobeatic Wilderness Area and Kejimkujik National Park in Nova Scotia also have dark skies perfect for viewing the phenomenon.
Finland is another destination where you can see the aurora borealis just about anywhere as long as you’re away from city lights, and the further north you go, the better. For example, you can catch the aurora borealis just about every other night in Lapland – the country’s northernmost region. Kakslauttanen Resort is a popular spot for watching the lights and is where travelers go to stay in glass igloos and watch the show in comfort.
If you’re not able to journey to the Lapland region, you may be able to see the lights closer to Helsinki, Finland’s largest city. You can take an excursion to the Hankasalmi Observatory to watch the lights, located in central Finland, or try Observatory Hill Park or the Ursa Observatory in the city.
Sweden is another aurora borealis hotspot. On a clear night during an intense event, you can see the northern lights as far south as Stockholm. However, your best bet for seeing the lights is to travel north to the Swedish Lapland region, which is closer to the Arctic Circle.
Head up to Jukkasjärvi, a small village famous for its frozen Icehotel and the perfect place for viewing the lights, or visit the Aurora Sky Station in Abisko National Park, considered by many to be the best place on Earth to see the northern lights. If your cruise trip ends in Stockholm, why not extend your stay and head up north to catch the light show of a lifetime?
Just like Alaska, the northern lights may be seen any night of the year in Greenland, except when you face the midnight sun in the summer. Southern Greenland, in particular, is perfect for viewing the lights. The small fjord town of Kangerlussuaq, which is located right along the Arctic Circle, is known for being one of the best places in the world to watch the aurora.
Since Greenland does not have many roads, it’s also a great place to explore and see the aurora borealis by cruise ship. As a bonus, you can expect fewer tourists and more room to enjoy the northern lights all to yourself.
How to Catch the Northern Lights on a Cruise
So, how do you see the northern lights as a cruise traveler? Here are some tips:
- Take a cruise tour: One of the best ways to see the northern lights as part of a cruise is to take a cruise tour. A cruise tour combines ports with inland destinations, which means you’ll have more time to explore different regions. For example, Windstar’s Alaskan Exploration and Denali Cruise Tour stops at ports along the Alaskan coast, and it also anchors in Seward for several days. From Seward, you’ll journey inland to visit Denali National Park and Fairbanks, both prime viewing destinations for the northern lights.
- Choose your destination wisely: Cruise ships take travelers to a lot of magnificent places around the globe, from the powdery white beaches of the South Pacific to the ancient coasts of the Mediterranean. However, if your priority is to see the northern lights, you’ll want to head as far north as possible to increase your luck. Consider taking a cruise in Canada, Northern Europe or Alaska. Pay special attention to a journey that has Greenland on the itinerary.
- Go at the right time: Generally, the best time to see the northern lights is during the winter when the days are short, dark and clear. However, cruising during the frigid winter months is not always an option, or the best idea, so consider sailing in the fall or spring when you’ll still have good viewing conditions and more comfortable temperatures.
- Be patient: You might think of viewing the northern lights as seeking an elusive animal in its natural habitat. The conditions have to be just right to see them, meaning you might have to wait for cloudy weather to pass, and you may need to take a journey that lasts at least a week to be successful. For example, seven nights on a cruise to a northern lights destination would be better than taking a short weekend trip.
- Enjoy your days: Even if you take a cruise just to see the northern lights, you can make the journey worthwhile whether you catch the phenomenon or not. Choose destinations you’re interested in for other reasons too, and enjoy filling your days with enriching activities.
Let Windstar Cruises Bring You Closer
Watching the aurora borealis is a bucket list item for many travelers and the perfect excuse to get away and explore faraway places. At Windstar Cruises, we take our guests to some of the best regions in the world to view the northern lights, including Alaska, Greenland, Iceland and others.