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The Best Places to See the Northern Lights

These are truly bucket-list Arctic destinations if you want to see the Northern Lights.

Of all the natural wonders on Earth, this might be one of the most spectacular.

The aurora borealis, also called the northern lights, has bewitched and delighted people close to the Arctic Circle for centuries. Ancient people tried to explain the magical waves of colored light as spirits playing ball in the sky, or light reflecting off the shields of Valkyrie maidens ushering Norse warriors into Valhalla.

This phenomenon wasn't scientifically explained until the 20th century, when researchers discovered solar wind. At any given moment, the sun is slamming particles into our atmosphere. The collision of these particles with atoms and molecules in Earth's magnetic field creates fluorescent colors that change depending on the atom's chemical makeup. The Earth's magnetic field is strongest at the poles, which is why they're not visible to folks in say, California.

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The northern lights are happening constantly, but to see them you have to be specifically in the right place at the right time. The best places to see them are in the "auroral zone," which is within a 1,550-mile radius of the North Pole, between September and April.

Let's see where in the world you can check out this heavenly kaleidoscope.

Fairbanks, Alaska

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This Alaska city is one of the easier places to get to on our list and you can even see the lights as early as August and as late as April. It's located right under an area called the Auroral Oval, a zone over Earth's geomagnetic North Pole, meaning visitors have the chance to see them four out of five nights as long as it's clear. There's other stuff to do here too: dog sledding, panning for gold, riverboat rides and visiting the Aurora Ice Museum.

Svalbard, Norway

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It should come as no surprise that some of the best aurora watching happens in Scandinavia, and Norway has its share of great vantage points. Svalbard is an archipelago midway between the mainland and the North Pole where the lights show up between October and February. Best of all, you can even see them during the day during polar winter. Here at 78 degrees north you can embark on a multi-day camping expedition by sled dog or take a snowcat expedition on an aurora hunt.

Lapland, Finland

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In Finland's most northern region the lights are visible 200 nights a year, so a visit here almost guarantees a good view every other night between September and March. There are no shortages of places to stay, from seaside villas to glass igloos at Santa's Igloos Arctic Circle in Luosto to Kakslauttanen Resort, which offers reindeer-drawn sleigh rides out to the dark wilderness.

Upper Peninsula, Michigan

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You don't need to travel 15 hours to see the northern lights - did you know you can see them right here in the continental U.S.? Michigan's Upper Peninsula is home to Headlands International Dark Sky Park, one of the first of 10 in the world established as a dark-sky park, a perfect place to watch the lights (even better, you can see them here in the warmer months of spring and fall). Visitors can stay at the Mission Point Resort on Mackinac Island, whose staff will make sure to alert guests at the first sighting of the aurora.

Orkney, Scotland

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The Orkney Islands at Scotland's very northern tip adds a bit of ancient mysticism to the whole affair - view the dancing ribbons of blue, green and purple behind huge Neolithic ritual stones and grave mounds from thousands of years ago. Here the northern lights are known as the decidedly more British "Mirrie Dancers" - not only can you enjoy the spectacular show at night, the coast offers breathtaking views, there is hiking galore and a visit to the remarkably well-preserved Neolithic village of well-preserved village of Skara Brae is a must.

Yellowknife, Canada

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The only city in the Northwest Territories is known as the Aurora Capital of North America, where you can view the light show from January to March. On the shore of Great Slave Lake, Yellowknife has plenty of outdoors activities like ice fishing and snowmobiling. For a bucket-list experience, stay in a teepee at Aurora Village, which also offers dogsledding and snowshoeing expeditions.

Reykjavík, Iceland

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September through April is the best light-chasing time of year and Iceland's capital is not far from optimal conditions. Grab a drink and enjoy the show at Ion Hotel's Northern Lights Bar, or head up the walkways and paths up ?-skjuhlið, a hill in the city's center at the top of which are the city's planetarium and observation deck. Splurge on a tour with Buubble.com, which will show you sights during the day, and offers private transparent "bubble" rooms in the middle of the forest to stay in at night.

Murmansk, Russia

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Not far from Russia's border with Norway is Murmansk, the largest city north of the Arctic Circle and an excellent point to start a hunt for the aurora. Here, aurora season lasts from late August until April, but the optimal time to see it is during polar night (December 1 to mid-January). Russia has many, many places to see the lights, but this one of the easier (and warmer) spots to get to. A tour company called Russia Discovery offers multi-day tours of the area that includes glamping, ice fishing, dogsledding and snowmobiling, promising that even if the lights evade there's still an amazing time to be had.

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The Best Places to See the Northern Lights