Only eight countries reach north above the Arctic Circle, but without a doubt, Russia reigns supreme. While this means freezing winters with uninterrupted nights that linger for weeks, it’s also the setting for one of the planet’s most awe-inspiring spectacles – the Aurora Borealis, or Northern Lights.
Here are 6 of the top unique destinations to view the northern lights in Russia:
Murmansk, in the extreme north-west near Finland, enjoys over 40 days of uninterrupted night, making it one of the world’s premier destinations for the Aurora Borealis, and with over 300,000 residents you can enjoy all the cosmopolitan comforts of civilisation amidst the serenity of the Arctic.
You can get to Murmansk by train (30h) or flight (2h) from Moscow, what makes this region is easiest to get in order to experience the Northern Lights from late August to May, with the condition that the night temperature is below +10 ° C, so plan your trip for January-February.
The Northern Lights is a poorly predicted phenomenon and depends on the magnetic activity of the Sun. In other words, you have to wait and literally “hunt” it, which means it’s worth a week or more to go. You can diversify your vacation in the Kola Peninsula by skiing in the Khibiny Mountains or dog sledding in Kirovsk.
There is a general rule for observing the Northern Lights in Arkhangelsk region – the heart of Russian North – the further from the large populated areas, the brighter the “dance of the sky” is. Severodvinsk city is where you’d like to go for the Aurora Borealis hunting from September to April. The radiance of the lights here is distinguished by a green shade and specific flicker. Aurora borealis lasts here from 10 minutes to several days. Well, while waiting for the sky to blossom, you may visit the open-air museum of wooden architecture “Malye Korely”.
The flight from Moscow to Arkhangelsk will take two hours, a journey by train – about 22 h.
This forgotten northern outpost lost prominence when easier routes across Siberia opened through the Ural mountains, leaving it a preserved vestige of Nenets culture. Enjoy learning myths, legends, and indigenous lore (like not whistling during the northern lights) in a truly unique journey through Russia’s heartland.
The Aurora Borealis in the polar Naryan-Mar is very beautiful, it consists of several colours and is accompanied by a flicker, that turns the night sky into a fairy tale. The best time for observation is the season from November to March. This natural phenomenon is observed usually with a sharp change of weather.
The flight to Naryan-Mar from Moscow takes slightly less than three hours.
Only reachable by special permit, this northern archipelago is one of the most extreme locations to view the northern lights. Watch the glow of lights bathe herds of reindeer in subtle greens as they stroll on islands stranded in a frozen sea during the polar night. Truly a once in a lifetime experience.
Taimyr is called “the edge of the cold”, because the duration of winter here is from 235 days in the south, up to 285 days in the north of the peninsula. The climate is extremely stiff: in winter it’s from -40 ° C and to -60 ° C. Taimyr is also known as the land of rare amazing northern lights.
You can get to the peninsula by plane from Moscow to Norilsk (4h), and then to Dixon, Igarka or Khatanga villages by car. These villages are actually renowned for its bright white light show seen only during summer. But don’t get too excited – the year-round high never gets above +5C (43 F), so don’t forget to pack your coat.
The only “city” in the world located north of Arctic Circle, Salekhard thrives on the northern lights. Known for a specific tint of green local Nenets people call “Nger Harp – the light of the dead,” Salekhard is a city with its own unique connection to the winter light show.
The Nenets are the native people of the Yamal, and one of the largest native communities in Russia also called ‘Samoyeds’ – a nomadic people who used to live by herding reindeer and are close to the Scandinavia’s Sami (or ‘Lapps’).
If you spend a week out in the tundra or taiga at a nomad camp of Nenets, then you are likely to see the Northern Lights. In general, they can be viewed from August until April, but are most common from November to March and best of all in January and February, when nights are long and dark and colder temperatures bring about multi-coloured Northern Lights, rather than the green ones that appear when it’s “warmer”.
To get to Salekhard you can by train from Moscow (45h) or by direct flight (2h).
In Russia, the Northern Lights can be seen even in the more southern areas – in, for example, Karelia, Valdai, Saint Petersburg and Yekaterinburg.
In order to get stunning pictures of northern lights, you will need a tripod, a wide-angle lens, high ISO, manual focus (extreme values), a long shutter speed, a charged camera battery, patience and warm clothes.
You must have a camera that can shoot at long exposures and that has an automatic shutter release function with the ability to set the time of the self-timer. The camera must be kept in a heat-insulated camera bag or under clothing. You will also need a tripod – it will be difficult to achieve the desired result without it, because the movement of the camera during shooting will cause the photographs to be blurred.
Finally, be sure to take the following with you: a thermos, boots and a great desire, because not everyone will agree to freeze in the cold night, and the night sky and frost do not care that you came to see a true masterpiece.
When you arrive at the photo shooting location, look around, adjust the tripod, and try to set the optical exposure in advance, especially if, by chance, the city lights are going to get in the way. The shutter should be rather long, because the Northern lights are not very bright, but do not forget that the night-time should be seen in the photo. If possible, increase the sensitivity, but be careful – you don’t want the noises to mess up your efforts. Do not forget to set the time of the shutter button, for example, every 2 seconds.
As soon as you notice the flaming aurora, take your camera out, set it on a tripod, point it at an infinite distance, remove the lens cap (if any), then direct it towards the aurora and shoot with the adjusted settings. By the way, you should change the latter during shooting, because the aurora will probably make you adjust the exposure setting (close the aperture by a half or whole level, lower the sensitivity matrix or reduce exposure). Make sure that your hands are nowhere near the object-lens, otherwise they will fog up and the photo session will end because the moisture condensation will freeze immediately and you won’t be able to get rid of it until the object lenses become room temperature.
See the Northern Lights in Russia, on a luxury train. This compelling 12-day itinerary offers a unique contrast between two of Russia’s most majestic cities and the remote, yet charming communities deep within the Russian and Norwegian Arctic Circle. Commencing in St. Petersburg, we visit some of the city’s most prominent historical and cultural sites before embarking on this remarkable arctic adventure.
Below are our small group and private tours in the region for hunting Northern Lights:
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