While we once (ahem, college) thought nothing of staying up past midnight, these days it takes something truly special to keep us awake past our bedtime. And nature’s light show definitely fits the bill. Quick astronomy lesson: The northern lights are actually solar particles blown into the earth’s magnetic field, creating an awe-inspiring colorful display of emerald green, magenta, turquoise and more swirling through the sky. Although they’re present all year round, the best time to see them is from late September to late March. Here are six spots around the world where you can check viewing the magical aurora borealis off your bucket list.
Fairbanks, Alaska, United States
Located 150 miles south of the Arctic Circle, Fairbanks is one of the more accessible spots to glimpse the aurora borealis in Alaska thanks to its international airport and array of hotels. And at the Chena Hot Springs Resort, you can catch the action while soaking in mineral-rich hot springs. The resort also offers aurora snow coach tours and the option for (sleepy) guests to request a phone call when the lights appear in the sky.
In Finnish Lapland, the aurora season lasts eight whole months, from late August until the end of April. And the coolest spot to experience this shimmery curtain of colors is Kakslauttanen Arctic Resort, where you can stay in your own glass igloo or log cabin complete with a sauna and fireplace. Off-site there are plenty of ways to stay busy while you wait for the show, including a reindeer safari or visit to Santa’s house.
For the indigenous Sámi people of northern Scandinavia, the aurora borealis were thought to be the energy from the souls of ancestors. Catch this otherworldly sight in the northern village of Jukkasjärvi, where you can channel your inner Elsa and stay in a real-life ice hotel (don’t worry—guests are given sleeping bags and reindeer pelts for warmth). Sleeping in the cold not your thing? There are also warm rooms available. At night, bundle up for a Northern Lights Safari, complete with a traditional Swedish fika served around a campfire.
The northern lights can be unpredictable, but at the Aurora Village in northern Canada, you’re practically guaranteed a sighting. “When you stay with us for three nights of aurora-viewing, you have a 95 percent chance of seeing the aurora at least once,” boasts its website. Stay in a cozy wooden cabin or a heated teepee. Camping enthusiast? The outdoor bathrooms are heated, and there’s even heated viewing seats so that you can stare up at the sky all night long.
Cairngorms National Park, Scotland
The U.K. isn’t exactly known for its clear skies, but if you’re lucky, you might catch a glimpse of the aurora (or “the Merry Dancers,” as they’re known in this part of the world) at the largest national park in Britain. Camp beneath the stars in your own caravan or stay in a B&B, chalet or hotel. And if the lights don’t feel like playing ball, then the wildlife, castles and distilleries will still make your trip worthwhile. Whiskey, anyone?
The whole country offers plenty of opportunity for glimpsing the aurora (as long as the weather cooperates), but for a truly magical experience, get out of the capital and explore the northern part of the island—home to dramatic landscapes, roaring waterfalls and geothermal hot springs. If you’re not into camping out in the wild, stay in Akureyri, Iceland's second most populous town with a thriving art scene and low light pollution (which makes it ideal for spotting the northern lights).