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Baltic Travel Blog

The Definitive Travellers Guide To The Northern Lights

Posted on April 4th, 2013.

The Northern Lights are caused by solar activity striking the earths atmosphere. These are electrical particles discharged by the sun. There are different displays and colours that are visible according to light conditions, cloud conditions and the country where you happen to be. The best place to see the Lights is north of the Arctic Circle where there is little civilisation and therefore no light pollution. This curve includes northern Scandinavia, Greenland and Iceland. The Aurora is strongest around the magnetic pole and there is a narrow belt where you are likely to get the best displays. The Lights take place 100 km above the earth and on a clear night they can be seen from a number of different places.

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Image Credit

General Advice

nDtnFThe best time to see the Aurora Borealis is between November and March in cloudless and clear conditions. You want as little light as possible to disturb the display so avoid a full moon. The best time to view the Lights is between 6 pm and 2 am when it is completely dark. Solar activity seems to rise and wane on an eleven year cycle. The winter of 2012-13 has been an excellent viewing season for the Aurora Borealis because there has been increased solar activity and this should continue for the next two or three winters.

When packing for a trip to view the Northern Lights, remember to include thermal underwear, a wind and waterproof jacket and wear plenty of layers as there are likely to be sub-zero temperatures. As well as taking a camera, remember to pack extra camera batteries as their life is reduced by the cold. You will also want a tripod to enable you to take long exposures, a long lens and a remote shutter release to enable you to take as clear a photo as possible.

Research your trip before you go, checking out personal blogs from travellers and the country’s tourist website. Other useful websites include Trip Advisor, Lonely Planet and Wikitravel.

Here are some of the best places to travel to and see the Aurora Borealis.

Tromso¸, Norway

Tromso, Norway is a great city to stay with many amenities for the traveller. The Tromso¸ Airport Langnes receives a number of daily flights from Oslo with a flying time of less than two hours. Although the city is too far north for the railway network, there are some long distance buses which run throughout the year. You can take the bus from Oslo to Tromso: the journey takes about the same amount of time that it would to drive: 30 hours.

Tromso can also be reached by four day ferry from Bergen with Hurtigruten, the Norwegian coastal cruise line during which journey you might also, if you’re lucky, see the Northern Lights in Norway. Some of our Norway trips are arranged as Aurora Borealis tours with an astronomer on board.

Travelling around Tromso can be done on foot as the city has an efficient bus network and is quite compact. A great attraction is to go up the cable car and enjoy the views at the cafe at the top. If you are looking for more adventure, then check out dog-sledding, fishing or midnight sun golf. There is hiking at a suitable level for everyone from gentle coastal mountain trails to the mountainous Lyngen Alps.

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The Northern Lights over Tromso

There is lots of fresh seafood served in Tromso¸. Places to eat include Skarven, a pub restaurant that serves fish, steak and reindeer; Lotus which offers Asian cuisine including sushi and Fiskekompaniet which offers a great atmosphere and delicious seafood and Norwegian dishes. It is recommended that you book at Fiskekompaniet to ensure you get a table and be aware that many restaurants are closed on a Sunday in Tromso¸ out of season.

Norway is quite an expensive place to visit, so you might prefer to stay in self-catering apartments at the City Living Hotel. The Clarion Collection Hotel is highly recommended as a place to stay. The AMI is a comfortable clean hotel that is more reasonable in price. You will also find a selection of Bed and Breakfast establishments if you are looking for budget accommodation.

Aurora 2012 from Christian Mülhauser on Vimeo.

Reykjavik, Iceland

Reykjavik is a good base from which to travel out to see the Northern Lights. The city lights will interfere with the view, so travel out from the city in either a hire car or take a tour to explore the experience the Northern Lights in Iceland can offer. Pack your swimwear and enjoy the delights of the geothermic pools and natural spas.

A number of different airlines offer flights to Iceland: the flight takes about three hours. There are no railways in Iceland but buses are plentiful. Hiring a car is a good way to get around, but if you want to hire a four wheel drive, then it is best to arrange the hire before you arrive because these cars are very popular. Two wheel drive cars are more plentiful, but driving in Iceland can be challenging due to the gravel roads. You should also check the exclusions on the insurance carefully as the more common things such as tyres, brakes and the undercarriage of the car may be excluded.

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The Northern lights over an abandoned Icelandic farm

Activities can include scuba diving in thermal pools, hiking and a riding tour on an Icelandic pony. The more adventurous might like to try river rafting. You can also go on whale watching tours and drive on the ice road as seen in “Ice Road Truckers™”. Be careful if walking in the mountains as there is some dangerous terrain including glaciers and volcanoes.

There is a choice of hotels in Iceland, from the Reykjavik Residence Hotel in the centre of Reykjavik which is a highly recommended boutique-style hotel, the Reykjavik Marina, which contrary to its name is not on a marina at all but next to a boatyard or the Hotel Holt which offers Nordic comfort at a reasonable price. It is worth checking out reviews of hotels, some of which may be a little too close to the street causing some night disturbance.

If you are an adventurous eater, then you will have the opportunity to try many different foods including whale meat and puffin! You will also find good choices of seafood restaurants such as Sjavargrillid, Fridrik V which offers a delicious set menu of either three or five dishes or Harry’s, a family friendly restaurant which offers a great mix of bistro, Asian fusion and fish and chips.

Abisko National Park, Sweden

Abisko in Sweden offers a great experience of the Aurora Borealis. Flights to Stockholm take place daily from London, Manchester and Edinburgh. You can either continue on a flight to Kiruna and book on a shuttle bus which will transfer you to Abisko or from Stockholm you can take a night train. It is best to book in advance especially in summer months as it is always busy and it is more comfortable to book a sleeper or a couchette. Leave the train at Abisko Turiststation which is the second Abisko station.

Here you will find a Youth Hostel which offers lodging and food to visitors to the park. The accommodation is basic with no in-room TV, telephone, mini bar or iron but you will find comfortable beds, a shared TV room, a self-catering kitchen, sauna, drying room and washing machine. There is rental of sports equipment, a restaurant and information about the area.

There are different standards of accommodation: private toilets and showers are attached to the rooms in the main building, the self-catering chalet offers rooms of two or four bunks with shared bathrooms and a sauna, the cabins suit 4-6 people and have self-catering facilities, and the Nuolja ski hut offers basic facilities, mostly used by skiers, with an outside toilet.

The restaurant offers breakfast, lunch and dinner, although you do have some facilities for self-catering if you wish.

There is a 425 km hiking trail known as Kungsleden which starts at the Abisko Turiststation following through the National Park. In August, the park takes part in the FjÓ“llrÓ“ven Classic which is a hiking competition organised by FjÓ“llrÓ“ven, an outdoor equipment specialist. The hikers start from Nikkaluokta and trek 110 km via checkpoints to Abisko which is the finish line. Medals are awarded to hikers who finish under a certain time. Around 2500 people take part. You need to book in October and there is no guarantee of the kind of accommodation that you will get at Abisko.

Other activities include cross country skiing, dog sledding, snowshoes and a visit to the Aurora Sky Station. The Sky Station is situated 900m above sea level and offers fantastic views by day. The atmosphere is almost always cloudless in Abisko which offers good conditions for Aurora watching. Visitors are offered extra clothing to put on and then go on a 20 minute chairlift ride. You will stop and start as people get on and off. The trip takes place earlier in the evening if you have booked a meal at the restaurant at the top, and there is a guide to chat to. Although not cheap, the experience can be well worth going on if you get a good view of the Lights.

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The Northern Lights and Milky Way

Anchorage, Alaska

Anchorage is located in South Central Alaska bordered by the Chugach Mountains in the east and the Cook Inlet to the north and southwest. Alaska has both coastal and mountainous regions.

Airlines flying into Ted Stevens Anchorage International airport, Alaska include Alaska Airlines and Era Aviation. You can also travel by ferry or arrive on a cruise. Cruise itineraries start or end in Whittier or Seward, Alaska which is about 90 miles away. Your cruise company will usually book you on a shuttle bus if you wish to transfer to Anchorage.

Anchorage is geared towards pedestrians with an easy-to-understand alpha-numerical organisation of the streets. Free shuttle buses are offered to several of the tourist attractions and you can rent a bike to explore the 135 miles of paved trails. There is a great selection of museums including a filmed Aurora Borealis display at Alaska Naturally on W Sixth Avenue and an earthquake museum at the Alaska Theatre Museum on W Fourth Avenue. There are also goldmine museums.

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Expect to enjoy the beautiful outdoors in Alaska – go fishing, hiking up the mountains, enjoy a scenic railway trip. Or go for a whale watching tour – you can expect to see humpbacked whales, Orcas and Beluga whales. Tours are run from Juneau, Hoonah, Seward and Homer. The best time to see the whales is between April and September. Choose between large, medium and small tours with the size of the tour indicating the size of the boat. A small boat with only 6 people is more likely to be a rough ride in stormy weather.

One of the recommended places to stay in Anchorage is the Embassy Suites Hotel, a well-kept modern hotel. If you are looking for something a little different, the Historic Anchorage Hotel is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Great places to eat in Anchorage include the Moose’s Tooth Pub and Pizzeria which offers pizza and beer. It is a very family friendly restaurant. Also recommended is the Great Harvest Bread Co Bakery on E Benson Boulevard which offers wonderful-smelling baked goods. Another great place to eat is the Marx Brothers’ Cafe which offers American food and seafood.

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Canada

Yellowknife National Park is a good place to go to try to see the Northern Lights. There is a small airport at Yellowknife which takes flights from Air Canada, Westjet and other smaller regional airlines. The airport is a gateway to smaller northern communities and offers transport to them. The airport is small, but there is an on-site restaurant and a small gift shop. There is a free shuttle between the airport and most hotels, but it is best to arrange this with your hotel before you arrive. It is also possible to drive to Yellowknife, but access can be limited in winter because of the ice road, so check the Ministry of Transportation website.

The city is small and there is a good bus system in operation. You can choose to rent a car, take a taxi or walk to get around. Be aware that some driving convictions can be enough to get you turned away from border control in Canada, so check out information about this before you book.

Attractions include the Northern Frontier Visitors Center, the Cameron River Falls Trail and the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Center. There are also companies that offer snow sports and adventures and Northern Lights tours. If you choose to hire a car and go on your own, you will find the locals very helpful.

Recommended places to stay in Yellowknife include the Super 8 Motel, a comfortable, basic hotel; Capital Suites Hotel which offers self-catering rooms and the Bathurst Inlet Lodge which is an eco lodge open for a few weeks during the summer.

To eat out, try Thornton’s Wine and Tapas Room which offers breakfast and brunch and after hours eating including fish, chicken and steak dishes. The Smokehouse Cafe offers buffet dining of a variety of dishes, although it may not be open at weekends. You can buy gluten free bread at Javaroma Gourmet Coffee and try French cuisine at Le Frolic Bistro Bar.

Ilulissat and Nuuk in Greenland

Greenland offers a more traditional way of life. Situated high up on the Arctic Circle, its position offers one of the best chances of viewing the Northern Lights. Sparsely populated with around 55000 people, many of whom still live as hunter-gatherers in small villages and towns, Greenland offers a unique experience.

You can travel to Greenland by air from Reykjavik or from Copenhagen in Denmark. Many tour operators charter their own flights to get their customers to their destination. The best way to travel in the country itself is also by air or by dog sled. Airlines include Air Iceland (domestic flights only) and Air Greenland. It is also worth noting that if you arrive by Icelandair from Europe, you will need to transfer between airports which could take up to four hours. It is possible to be based in Iceland and take a day trip to Greenland.

Accommodation in Greenland can vary from world class hotels, to inns and hostels which are more budget class. It is worth checking out reviews of hotels, as some customers have found their ways a little different. Recommended hotels include Hotel Icefiord, Ilulissa which offers fantastic views of the icebergs in the bay, and the Hotel Arctic, which offers igloo accommodation. If you are used to hiking and camping and have all the right equipment, you can camp. There is little land ownership and you are allowed to camp anywhere that is suitable.

Greenland food includes whale meat, musk ox, reindeer, European style food and seafood. One of the top recommended places to eat is Mamartut in Ilulissat which offers Scandinavian cuisine. The Icy Cafe offers American style food such as pizza as well as excellent Italian style coffee. Restaurant food portions are often generous and many of the eating places offer great views.

Towns are small in Greenland and many are just beginning to explore the possibility of tourism. Ilulissat on the west coast has all the facilities of a big town, offering hotels and restaurants. Nuuk is the biggest town. You can stay at the Hans Egede which is a modern hotel or the Seaman’s Home which is a comfortable place to stay. There is also a self-catering apartment complex, the Nordbo.

Places that are recommended to eat in Nuuk include modern cuisine at Nipisa especially brunch. There are also Thai (Cafe Chili), Japanese (Sushi Huset) and Steakhouse (Hereford Beefstouw).

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The Northern Lights taken from space

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Join our newsletter

Be the first to hear of Special Offers and travel news. To receive our monthly newsletters with more information, on the Northern Lights, the Midnight Sun and all the countries Baltic Travel can take you to, and special offers, please enter your email address and press the sign up button.

We never allow third parties to use your data and we do not keep financial information. We protect your data as if it was our own, because we're people too!


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