Seeing the Northern Lights in Europe

Train track and Nothern Lights

One of the best places to see the Northern Lights is Scandinavia, with trains taking you to remote regions where the Aurora Borealis can do their beautiful thing. The illustrious illuminations dance their way around the Northern skies in the most unpredictable ways, however. The train services are reliable, but the Lights have their own mercurial timetables.  

The Northern Lights also appear in Scotland, aptly called the Merrie Dancers. Having a Eurail Scandinavia or BritRail Spirit of Scotland Rail Pass during the winter months allows you to follow the troupe as they tease their ardent fans appearing here, there and everywhere. 

The best time to see the Northern Lights is between late September and late March, ideally avoiding full moons as you need the skies to be as dark and cloudless as possible. Here are some of our favourite natural stages for the Northern Lights which you can access by train. Northern Lights trips are big business in these places, so you will have plenty of guided tours to nearby remote spots in the hope of seeing the world’s greatest light show.

Northern Lights in Norway

Norway aurora borealis over mountains in fishing village

In Norway, you can take a sleeper train from Oslo to Trondheim, during which you may even be lucky enough to spot the Lights from the train window. In Trondheim itself, there are plenty of Aurora trips from the town centre, such as alongside the Nordic nirvana-esque landscape of Trondheim Fjord.

Head even further north on a train adventure between Trondheim and Bodø, a coastal town enveloped by mountains with low levels of light pollution. This is a journey that you definitely want to take by day, however, with some of the most extraordinary vistas en route up to beyond the Arctic Circle, such as Saltfjellet-Svartisen National Park and Skjerstad Fjord. Taking this journey in June also invites spectacular light phenomena, as you travel into the heart of the midnight sun.

 From Bodø you can take Northern Light trips out to stay in nearby cabins or Aurora ‘bubbles’, igloo style tents with views straight up to the skies. Expert guides follow the forecasts religiously, and even have ‘Aurora’ alarms to wake you and get you on the road when the Lights start to shimmer. Bodø’s port is also the embarkation point for Svolvær on the Lofoten Islands, on a 3-4 hour fast ferry which takes you to another world. The archipelago specialises in Northern Lights excursions, such as seeing the Northern Lights by sea kayak, in a RIB boat or even on horseback.

Northern Lights in Sweden

Aurora borealis. Northern lights in winter forest. Sky with polar lights and stars. Night winter landscape with aurora, green tent and pine tree forest.

Another magnificent train journey which takes you right across the Norwegian border and the Arctic Circle is between Stockholm in Sweden and Narvik in Norway. Known as the Arctic Circle Train, this 1500km journey is exquisitely epic. There are buses from Narvik across bridges and through tunnels to Svolvær on the Lofoten Islands as well, so you can combine this with the journey above. Head north through Sweden and then back down south through Norway or vice versa.

This epic train journey takes 20 hours and travels through the night, opening up chances for shimmering skies at sleepy time hopefully. While it is still daylight you can take in the massive snow-laden pine and birch forests, blankets of white wilderness where reindeer roam free, the mountains of Swedish Lapland and Abisko National Park, as well as a plethora of frozen lakes.

Another top place for seeing the Northern Lights in Sweden is Luleå which you can reach with a connection at Boden. A waterfront town, you can combine Northern Lights tours with some ice skating on the frozen sea and archipelago, or cross-country skiing on many trails. All in all, this is blissful slow travel through Swedish stillness.

Northern Lights in Finland

Discovering Northern lights over Lapland

As you travel north in Finland, you enter the ancestral lands of the Sámi people, for whom the Northern Lights have particular spiritual significance. Sightings of the Lights are treated with reverence in fact. The journey from Helsinki to Rovaniemi, the capital of Finnish Lapland, is another overnight affair, with opportunities to espy the Aurora as you speed north on their sleek, minimalistic trains. When you get to Rovaniemi, there are plenty of organised tours, as well as some places within the town itself such as at the Arctic Garden behind the Arktikum museum, or on a hike to the top of Ounasvaara fell. There are also guided tours to combine outdoor adventure snowmobiles or snowshoes, with reindeer or huskies.

Northern Lights in Scotland

Callanish Stones, Nothern Lights in the night sky of Lewis, Outer Hebridies, Scotland.

The best place to see the Northern Lights in Scotland is up in the Northern Highlands and Islands, with successful sightings most likely in December to February. There isn’t such an organised world of Northern Lights trips in Scotland, but that doesn’t mean that you won’t be able to see them from remote islands such as the Shetland archipelago, accessible by ferry from Aberdeen. Combine your winter adventure in Shetland with their annual fire festival, known as ‘Up Helly Aa’ which dates back to the 1880s. 

The Orkney Islands archipelago is another northern hotspot for the Lights, accessible by ferry from Aberdeen or Thurso. Or head to the Inner and Outer Hebrides by taking a train to the gateway port of Oban. The most famous of the Hebridean islands is Skye, which is easily accessed by train to Mallaig. 

Photo credits: All iStock: Aurora over mountains and fishing village in Norway ©Mumemories,  Hiker and Northern Lights ©Widewingsstudio, Aurora Borealis igloo ©Smitt, Standing stones in Scotland ©RichardALock.

For more inspiration, visit www.raileurope.com.

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