Many people plan a trip to Rovaniemi in winter with one main thing on their mind… spotting Finnish Lapland’s fickle but phenomenal Northern lights!
This guide will go over when and how you can see the Northern lights in Rovaniemi.
This includes tips for spotting them independently as well as my own personal experience seeing the Northern lights on a tour.
This post also goes over all the ideal conditions for seeing the Northern lights so you have a baseline understanding of what to expect.
Plus, I’ll give you some recommendations for Northern lights hotels outside the Rovaniemi city center, and explain how to use aurora apps to have the best chance of spotting the Northern lights.
|This post goes over all my tips for spotting the Northern lights while you’re visiting Rovaniemi, but if you’re in a hurry, I recommend booking this tour — I did the Northern lights tour with them and it was the only time I saw the Northern lights in Rovaniemi in nearly two weeks!
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When Can You See the Northern Lights in Rovaniemi?
Note: I’m going to geek out a bit on science of the Arctic Circle for a bit — but if you just want a quick and easy answer, you can generally see the Northern lights in Rovaniemi from the end of August to the beginning of April.
While that is the general band of when you can see the aurora, my friend who lives part-time in Finland has let me know that the best months are generally September, October, and March, as this is when there is the least likelihood of clouds impeding your view.
Any time there are enough nighttime hours to have true darkness, you have a chance of seeing the Northern lights in Rovaniemi!
Keep in mind that Rovaniemi is juuuust below the Arctic Circle. In fact, Santa Claus Village, 8 kilometers north of the city center, actually runs right through it!
What does that mean? Well, the Arctic Circle is essentially the latitude line on the map above which the sun does not completely set, but rather hovers just above the horizon, on the longest day of the year (aka the summer solstice).
That means that if you visit any point north of the Arctic Circle on June 20th or 21st (depending on the year), you won’t experience a true night at all!
The inverse of that is that during the winter, the sun won’t rise, either…. meaning lots of hours to try to spot the aurora!
In Rovaniemi, this period of polar night is quite short — just two days — but in places further north in Finland, it can last up to two months!
So, as you can imagine, the length of days varies quite a bit in Rovaniemi; the sunrise and sunset hours change dramatically throughout the course of a year.
In general, you can see the aurora borealis starting about two hours after sunset and two hours before sunrise. Otherwise, it is a little too bright to properly see any aurora.
Tips for Spotting Rovaniemi’s Northern Lights
While the Northern lights are theoretically visible at any point there is darkness in Rovaniemi, in actuality, there are several other factors to consider.
The main thing that you need to think about when trying to spot the Northern lights during your visit to Rovaniemi is cloud cover: it’s the biggest enemy to seeing the aurora.
This is because the aurora borealis occurs 100 to 300 kilometers above the ground.
If you have clouds just a few kilometers above the ground blocking the night sky, you simply won’t see the lights, even if the most magical display in the world is actually happening above the clouds!
So, you need a clear night to actually see the Northern lights in Rovaniemi. Unfortunately, this is somewhat harder than it sounds!
While Rovaniemi is inland and thus not quite as cloudy as coastal spots like Tromso, it can still get quite cloudy in the winter and that can impact your ability to see the aurora.
I’m writing this post during my January 2024 visit to Rovaniemi. As of today, I’ve been here for one week and it’s only been possible to see the aurora twice due to the cloud cover, despite quite a bit of solar activity.
Oh, yeah. The other thing you need besides a dark night and a cloudless sky is solar activity.
The aurora borealis is caused by solar activity, when solar flares and coronal mass ejections (CMEs) emit particles that make their way towards Earth.
They’re then pulled towards the Earth’s poles through electromagnetism, which is why you have a much better chance of seeing the Northern lights around the Arctic regions than anywhere else in the world.
When the solar particles interact with the atmosphere as they are pulled towards Earth, they create bursts of color: typically green, but other colors vary depending on what gas they’re interacting with and how high in the atmosphere the interaction is occuring.
Later in the post, I’ll explain aurora forecasting apps and let you know tips for using them that I learned from trial and error as well as expert tips from my Northern lights tour guide.
Seeing the Northern Lights Without a Tour
It is definitely not required to take a Northern lights tour in order to see the Northern lights in Rovaniemi.
… But it certainly helps, as you are a lot more mobile and your guides will work their hardest to find the aurora.
That said, taking Northern lights tours can get expensive: at at least 100 euros a pop, they can add up, especially if you take multiple excursions to try to see the lights.
Luckily, if the Northern lights are strong enough, you might be able to see them in Rovaniemi so long as you get away from some of the light pollution of the city center.
In the city center, I’d recommend the area around the Arktikum Museum if you are trying to spot the Northern lights.
Not only is the architecture of the museum really cool to capture in aurora photos as it provides a really cool tonal and visual contrast to the lights, but the museum area has a pretty clear view to the northern horizon, where you’ll see the majority of the lights’ activity.
It’s also on the edge of the city center bordering the river, so you won’t have a ton of light pollution in that direction.
That said, this isn’t the ideal spot to see the Northern lights because there is still a good deal of light pollution which will impact your eye’s ability to perceive the aurora (and your camera’s ability to capture it).
There are some other cool spots to try to see the lights in Rovaniemi but outside the city center, like Ounasvaara Hill (about an hour’s walk to the top from Rovaniemi city center or accessible by a 10-minute taxi).
There’s also he observation tower at the top of Syväsenvaara Hill (which is tricky to reach, but it does have epic views).
I really love the observation tower at the top of Syväsenvaara Hill!
I walked there several times, as it was close to where I was staying at my friend’s house in Rovaniemi (and it’s right next to Arctic Treehouse Hotel).
However, it is a bit difficult to find the path leading up to the observation tower when everything is covered in snow.
There is a not insignificant risk that you could get lost or turned around while trying to find it, which is potentially extremely hazardous in winter temperatures. Do so at your own risk!
There are some other ideas for where to see the Northern lights around Rovaniemi here; keep in mind you will need to rent a car to get to the majority of these spots.
If it’s in the middle of winter and a lot of snow has accumulated, you should only rent a car if you are familiar with how to drive in the snow.
The road conditions can get quite hazardous for the inexperienced (seriously, my friend who lives in Rovaniemi tells me about tourist accidents all the time!).
Seeing the Northern Lights With a Tour
The easiest way to (almost) ensure you see the Northern lights in Rovaniemi is by taking a Northern lights tour.
Depending on the tour you take, you’ll spend 4 to 8 hours chasing the Northern lights as far as reasonably necessary within the time limits of your tour to try to see the lights.
I took this exact tour and can recommend it highly: our guide, Genis, was really kind and helpful and we even stayed a little longer than planned because there was a ton of cloud cover and we had to go a little further than we planned.
However, once we got to our final spot at a frozen lake, we were able to see the lights and all was worth it!
Even better, on our way home the Northern lights went absolutely crazy to the point where we were even able to see it out the window.
Even though at this point we were running a half hour behind, our guide stopped quickly to let us out to admire the lights dancing overhead.
This is the exact tour that I took and that I recommend to others visiting Rovaniemi.
It’s affordable but excellent, and its small group focus makes it a really enjoyable experience.
A small group is extra important if you want photos of you with the Northern lights overhead, because they can be fickle and fleeting.
The more of you there are on the tour, the less your guide can help you take photos in that (potentially) short time span!
On my tour, our group was 8, which was not too many and we were easily able to get as many photos with the Northern lights as we wanted.
Northern Lights Hotels Near Rovaniemi
While not the cheapest option, another way to have a better chance of spotting the Northern lights in Rovaniemi is by staying at a Northern lights hotel.
Staying at one of the hotels outside the city center, especially that offers glass igloos, aurora cabins, or other similar accommodations that have settings out in nature with panoramic views, means that heading outside to try to see the aurora doesn’t take much effort at all!
Here are a few recommendations near Rovaniemi:
- Arctic Treehouse Hotel: Not far from Santa Claus Village or the Rovaniemi city center, this is a great compromise between being close to the city’s attractions yet out in nature. The treehouses are on a hill that offers a great, unobstructed northerly view. There’s a designated shelter point for warming up while you’re waiting for the aurora! You can also walk about 10 minutes uphill to the observation tower for another viewpoint.
- Apukka Resort: One of the best Northern lights hotels options in Finland, Apukka is about 30 minutes from the city center which makes it the perfect place to see the Northern lights away from the city’s light pollution. There’s a variety of room types including glass igloos with panoramic windows! It hosts activities like dog sledding (which I did with Apukka – it was great!) and reindeer sledding on-site as well.
- Santa’s Igloos Arctic Circle: Close to Santa Claus Village, this igloo hotel isn’t particularly remote but it does offer an escape from the worst of the light pollution of the city while still being close to the amenities of Santa Claus Village like its souvenir shops and restaurants. There are also dog-sledding and reindeer tours you can do here but the tours at Apukka are much nicer.
Note: While these accommodations are an amazing experience, keep in mind that a lot of what you see are marketing materials where everything is portrayed in the best light possible.
Photos of the aurora borealis use long exposure to make the colors more vivid than you would see with your naked eye; don’t expect to see neon squiggles overhead, bright as Tokyo city lights!
More often, the aurora borealis looks like a faint-colored, fast-moving, odd-shaped cloud. It’s more likely that you’ll spot it because of its movement than because of its colors.
While you can see the Northern lights from out of a window in exceptional conditions (like the below photo I took from a car window!), more likely, you’ll have to go out for a walk to properly see and photograph the aurora.
The panoramic windows of a glass igloo can give you a good indicator of if the lights are out or not.
That said, don’t expect to have a rave-like show in your room.
This isn’t to dissuade you from staying in one; I just want to give you accurate expectations, especially as the price tag is so high!
Using Aurora Forecasting Apps
Whether you’re trying to see the Northern lights with a tour or independently, checking out an aurora forecasting app is a good way to have an idea of what the lights will be like.
The app will calculate a percentage chance of seeing the aurora and alert you if your percent chance is above their 30% chance threshold or if other people nearby using the app have checked in and reported sightings.
But the app is also useful for digging into the numbers and analyzing the data that’s given to you, including a few key factors.
- Kp-index: This is perhaps the most poorly understood part of seeing the aurora, as many people simply think high number = you will definitely see the lights and think no further than that. The Kp-index solely measures the geomagnetic storm’s intensity and does not factor in cloud cover, wind direction (Bz), or other factors that may impact your ability to see the aurora. It also gives a reference for how far south the aurora may stretch, but that doesn’t necessarily correlate to a much more dramatic view at higher latitudes like Rovaniemi.
- Solar winds: The higher the number, the stronger the chance of aurora activity. As a rule of thumb, numbers above 400 km per hour are good, and even better as it approaches 500.
- Bz: The more negative this number is, the stronger the chance of aurora activity, because it means that solar particles are being pulled towards the earth and creating the Northern lights.
These apps won’t guarantee you seeing the Northern lights but they will help you understand the factors that go into the phenomenon of the aurora borealis.
This will hopefully give you more insight as to when is a good time to take a hike somewhere dark to see the lights or book a Northern lights tour.
In general, I would book a Northern lights tour based on forecasted clouds as opposed to anything else like Kp-index or geomagnetic storms.
Like I mentioned above, you can have the most spectacular aurora in the world… and see nothing if there’s low clouds overhead, blocking out your entire view.
Tip: Rather than booking direct with a company offering Northern lights tours in Rovaniemi, I book through GetYourGuide which gives you a free 24-hour cancellation option.
This way, you can book a tour and reschedule it with 24 hours or more notice if the forecast isn’t looking favorable.
Lately, I’ve noticed that GetYourGuide offers a 1-hour cancellation policy at a surcharge; this may be worth it if you want extreme flexibility.
Honestly, generally, 24 hours should be enough notice to decide whether or not the forecast is worth a Northern lights attempt, since tours do give you the option to branch out quite a bit and attempt to snag a hole in the cloud cover.
That said, it is an option I just wanted to make you aware of!
Allison Green is a former teacher who has been travel blogging since 2016. She has a Masters in Teaching and a B.A. in English and Creative Writing. Her blog posts merge her background as an educator with her experience traveling to 70+ countries to encourage ethical, meaningful travel. She has been a speaker at the World Travel Writers Conference and her writing, photography, and podcasting work has appeared in National Geographic, CNN Arabic, CBC Canada, and Forbes, amongst others. Now a full-time traveler, she has lived in Prague, Sofia, New York City, and the San Francisco Bay Area.