Beautiful countryside, delicious fika and coffee breaks, and the chance to see the world’s best aurora from an ice hotel… Who’s in? Canada, Norway, and Iceland may get all the limelight, but Sweden is a great destination for seeing the northern lights.
If you’re looking for a winter destination and want to see the northern lights at the same time, consider planning your trip to Sweden. You can base your travels in Stockholm then venture north into Lapland to the Ice Hotel in Jukkasjärvi or the Aurora Sky Station in Abisko National Park; if you’re visiting Sweden as part of a wider tour of Europe, you can even see the aurora from the Swedish capital on a good night.
Read on to learn everything you need to know about seeing the northern lights in Sweden.
What are the Northern Lights?
If you’ve made it to this post, you likely already know what the northern lights, also called the aurora borealis, are. In case you’re not familiar with the science behind this amazing astronomical phenomenon, here’s a quick explanation.
In short, the sun is constantly emitting particles. When electrically charged particles from the sun collide with gases in the earth’s atmosphere. As these collisions occur in different gases, light is produced in a variety of colors, depending on the altitude of these collisions. For example, at a certain altitude, oxygen produces the common red color seen in the aurora; lower, it produces the green most commonly seen in the night sky.
In the northern hemisphere, the northern lights are called aurora borealis. This name came from none other than Galileo, who named them after the Greek word for the north wind. If you’ve ever seen a picture of the aurora, you can understand why he thought they looked like the wind!
Photo credit: Béatrice Karjalainen via Flickr
The Best Time of Year to See the Northern Lights in Sweden
While the aurora occurs year round, it’s not always easy or possible to see them throughout the year. In countries like Sweden which are high on the globe, long (seemingly endless) summer days prevent the sky from getting dark enough to see the aurora.
Winter (December to February)
Being in the northern hemisphere, winter is the best time of year to see the aurora borealis in Sweden. Between December and March each year, there is more darkness than light each day, giving you ample opportunity each day to try and see the northern lights.
If you’re looking to minimize your exposure the cold winter weather that comes during this season, opt for December or March. If you’re unafraid of the chill, the darkest days in December will be ideal, and you can experience Christmas in Lapland!
Spring (March to May)
If you’re looking to see the aurora when it’s not quite as cold or snowy, it is typically possible to see the northern lights in parts of northern Sweden through mid-April. Theoretically, as long as it gets dark at night and there is solar activity, you can see the aurora on any given night in the spring season.
Summer (June to August)
In summer, it is virtually impossible to see the northern lights in Sweden. Because the sun is visible for so much of each day (and darkness is replaced by twilight or dusk in the middle of summer), the sky simply isn’t dark enough for your eyes to see the aurora in the atmosphere if they are happening.
Autumn (September to November)
Similar to the spring season, it’s possible to start seeing the aurora in Sweden as early as mid-October – depending on solar activity and how dark it gets at night. If you go far north into Lapland, you may get lucky on a dark autumn night and see a light show!
Photo credit: Thomas Fabian via Flickr
The Best Places in Sweden to See the Northern Lights
Sweden is one of the best places to see the aurora in the northern hemisphere, with settlements and towns throughout the northern part of the country. This region, called Lappland (or more commonly Lapland, which can be confused with a similarly named region in Finland), is ideally placed on the globe for fantastic aurora viewing. Check out the map below and read on to learn more about the top spots to see the northern lights.
Abisko National Park
With its clear skies and mountainous landscape, Abisko National Park provides a very good opportunity to see the Northern Lights. This is especially true during the winter months. The park is located far away from any city lights which might interfere with your view. Its dark skies also make the Aurora Borealis especially vivid at night.
Although you’re likely to see them anywhere in the park, you can increase your odds by visiting the Aurora Sky Station. Not only is their observation tower in a prime location for viewing the lights, they also have experts on hand who can answer any questions you might have. In fact, this is considered to be one of the best places on the planet to see the Northern Lights. If you really want the best chance of experiencing the Aurora Borealis in all its glory, then this is where you want to go.
Kiruna is the northernmost town in the province of Lapland. As such, the city is separated from much of the light pollution that would block your view of the Northern Lights. The city offers a number of different tours for seeing the natural phenomenon. These include snowmobile tours and husky tours. It also has the Esrange Space Center, which is a major center for studying the Aurora Borealis.
Jokkmokk is another northern town in Lapland where you have a good chance of seeing the Northern Lights. The town is well-known for being close to nature and for its long history with the Sámi people. Additionally, it’s home to the annual Winter Market, a tradition of the Sámi people that’s been going on for 400 years. It’s a great place to do some shopping and experience some culture while waiting for the Northern Lights to appear.
Photo credit: imagea.org via Flickr
The small, northern town of Jukkasjärvi is famous for being the location of the world’s first Ice Hotel. This is a hotel that’s built entirely out of ice and snow every year. Needless to say, this is unlike any other accommodation you’ve ever seen. The hotel has a few different tours available for seeing the Northern Lights such as a safari and photography tour. It’s a truly fascinating place to stay while you wait for the Northern Lights to appear.
Luleå is a coastal city in Lapland and one of the largest cities in the province. It also has an archipelago of over 1300 islands, all of which are good for viewing the Northern Lights in the winter or fall. All of these islands can be reached by snowmobile or dog sled, and the further north you go, the better chance you have of seeing them. Overall, Luleå is a good spot if you prefer the comforts of a big city when trying to see the Aurora Borealis.
Porjus is a small town that’s just north of Jokkmokk. While you’re there, you have the option of staying in a mountain cabin or lodge. Both of these are situated in areas where you’re likely to see the Northern Lights. It’s a great way to reconnect with nature while waiting to see one of the greatest natural phenomena. The town also has live webcams of the sky, so you’ll know when the Aurora Borealis is making an appearance.
Tärendö is a very old, small town in Norrbotten County that dates back to 1620. Its sparse population means you won’t have to worry about any light pollution interfering with your view. Its geography is also relatively flat, which gives you a very clear view of the sky. There’s also a forest hotel you can stay in while you’re there, which features a sauna and a hot tub.
Photo credit: Nick Leppänen Larsson via Flickr
Can You See the Northern Lights in Stockholm?
Admittedly, most travelers who visit Sweden in the winter months are there to see the northern lights. But maybe you don’t have enough time or funds to travel north to Lapland, and still want to see the aurora.
It is possible to see the northern lights in Stockholm, based on the intensity of the aurora as well as how clear the skies are. As Stockholm is a major city, there’s a lot of light pollution, and even a little bit of cloud cover will make it much harder to see any of the lights. You can even see the aurora as far south as Gothenburg on a clear night of intense solar activity in the atmosphere.
How to See the Aurora in Sweden
1. Plan Your Trip at the Right Time of Year
As mentioned above, it’s important to plan your trip during the right season if you want to see the aurora. If you think you’ll be able to hang out in Stockholm during a summer month like July then head north the next week to see the aurora in Lapland, you’ll be sadly disappointed!
2. Check the Forecast – But Be Flexible
Like many natural phenomena, the northern lights are never guaranteed. Even on a night where you should be able to see them based on forecasts and predictions, you still might not be able to!
To increase your chances, try checking a website like Service Aurora, which has a cool flash animation and hourly predictions of aurora strength, or the University of Alaska Fairbanks website, which has a page specific to predicting the aurora in northern Europe (including Sweden).
In the end, it’s best to try and plan for a few nights to see the aurora – a window of two or three nights will increase the opportunities that the skies will be clear and the aurora will be visible.
3. Bring the Right Gear
In Sweden’s ‘aurora season’ between mid-October and mid-April, average daytime temperatures range from 27º-41ºF (-3º-5ºC); at night, temps average even lower: 23º-34ºF (-5º-1ºC)! In short, prepare for cold weather if you want to see the northern lights.
Pack extra layers and don’t be afraid to put them on. Don’t forget hats, gloves, and scarves to protect your extremities. If you’re bringing camera gear or other equipment to capture your aurora experience, consider how the cold affects batteries and technology – you may need to invest in extra batteries and insulation to protect your equipment from the frigid Swedish winter weather.
4. Be Patient
In the end, all of your best-laid plans depend on having patience. Maybe the aurora is predicted will be visible from 11pm, but aren’t actually seen until 2am; scientists may think you’ll see them on Thursday night but they aren’t spotted until Saturday. Patience is key when waiting on the northern lights, and it’s best to temper your expectations. If you see them sooner, that’s a bonus!
5. Experience Awe
Once you do see the aurora in Sweden, the last thing you need to do is sit back and enjoy the show. The northern lights are one of the most impressive astronomical phenomena we can experience on earth, and you should let it take your breath away. If you feel inspired or deeply moved by this experience, it’s totally normal!
Popular Day Trips & Tours to See the Northern Lights
Sweden is a popular destination to see the northern lights. This is great because there are lots of tour providers to help visitors have this experience. Here’s where you can start your research:
- The Swedish Lapland tourism site has a variety of tour options, including snowshoe walks, an aurora dinner option at the Arctic Sky Station in Abisko National Park, and a photography tour.
- Authentic Scandinavia offers aurora tours, some of which include a stay at the Ice Hotel.
- Nordic Visitor offers partially guide tours to see the aurora throughout Lapland.
- The Aurora Zone has tours throughout Scandinavia (including some in Norway) including custom-tailor tours, and also offers an autumn tour option.
- Lastly, Aurora Service (the same company that provides aurora predictions mentioned above), has two main tours, Asgard & Valhalla, that are highly rated.
Tips on Photographing Aurora
If you want pictures like the ones in this post from your own trip to Sweden, here are some tips.
- Set your camera in manual mode. You’ll need to control the technical aspects of your camera to get the right exposure in your photo.
- Set your ISO to 1600-3200. You’ll need a high sensitivity (high ISO) to be able to capture the colors of the aurora.
- Set your aperture to 1.8-3.0. A low F-stop will ensure you capture enough light in your photo.
- Set your shutter speed at 15-20 seconds. If you set your shutter to be open between 15 and 20 seconds, you’ll be able to see the stars and northern lights in your photo, but still see clear stars in the night sky without star trails.
- Use a tripod, remote, and have extra batteries on hand. Similar to our tips for astrophotography, you’ll need to bring some extra gear to ensure your camera is stable and has enough power in the cold winter air.
Featured photo by Béatrice Karjalainen via Flickr