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How to see the Northern Lights in Lapland

Lapland holidays are packed with interesting activities from meeting the elves at the official Santa Claus Village to spotting stunning wildlife including lynx, bears and wolverines, or skiing past dramatic landscapes of snow and ice. But for many visitors, one of the biggest thrills is the possibility of viewing a spectacular natural phenomenon – the Northern Lights.

What myth and legend says causes the Northern Lights

A number of myths have developed over time to explain the eerie, other-worldly quality of the Northern Lights.

In parts of Europe, where the phenomenon is rare, people regarded the lights as signs from the gods, and many believed they brought good or bad tidings. In Scotland, their shimmering streaks were referred to as 'the merry dancers'.

In Lapland and across the Arctic Circle the native Sami culture developed their own version of why the lights appeared. The local word for the Northern Lights – revontulet – means 'fox fires' and comes from a Sami folk-tale about a huge fox running over the mountains and sending sparks up into the sky by swishing its tail.

The lights were also believed to be the souls of the local people's ancestors. They were regarded as magical and observed reverently, and disrespectful behaviour towards them was thought to bring bad fortune.

What science says causes the Northern Lights

The scientific name for the Northern Lights is Aurora Borealis. These spectacular light effects are now known to be caused by high-speed electrons, oxygen and nitrogen from the sun and the earth's atmosphere colliding with each other. This collision results in bursts of light that leave ghostly dancing trails at altitudes between 60 and 200 miles above the earth's surface. Even though the scientific explanation is far less romantic than the myths, the effects are no less awe-inspiring.

Best times to see the Northern Lights

The Northern Lights are visible on roughly 150 nights a year, so you'll have many opportunities to see them. If you're planning to visit Rovaniemi, the best times of year to view the lights are from mid-August to early April. While visible at other times of the year, the conditions are optimum during this period.

Only visible on cloudless nights, the lights usually appear between 10pm and 2am, although they can appear as early as 7pm. As a naturally occurring event, their appearance can be difficult to predict, however, the Rovaniemi region has its own Aurora Alert Realtime messaging service. For a small fee you can sign up and get SMS messages straight to your phone to let you know precisely when the lights are appearing, so you won't miss a single amazing moment.

Best locations in Rovaniemi to see the Northern Lights

The easiest way to ensure you get the best views is to join a guided tour with a local expert. Guided options include snowmobile trips into the glittering starlit landscape or group sleigh rides on a huge sledge pulled by reindeer.

If you'd like to try and spot them on your own, several good viewing points exist in and around Rovaniemi city centre. The Arctic Garden is a 10-minute walk from the centre, or you could head further afield to the Ounasvaara Fell, which is about five kilometres from the city. Far away from any man-made light pollution, you will have an elevated view surrounded by pristine, sparkling terrain – ideal for such a stunning experience.

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