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The best coastal destinations for stargazing and the northern lights

Northern Lights over Alta, Norway

Astro tourism is set to be a major travel trend in 2024, offering everything from Northern Lights cruises to guided stargazing at sea. And with such an impressive lineup of celestial events this year, there’s never been a better time to look upwards. 

The total solar eclipse on 8th April plunged parts of North America into darkness, the annual Perseid meteor shower will illuminate the skies in August, and a partial lunar eclipse is expected on 18th September. Experts are also predicting that 2024 will offer the best Northern Lights viewing in over two decades.

However, with light pollution affecting 80% of the globe—and increasing by about 10% each year—selecting the right spot to gaze at the skies is more important than ever. 

So, we did some digging. At Fred. Olsen, we analysed hundreds of data points on locations, weather conditions, and TripAdvisor reviews to pinpoint the best stargazing and Northern Lights destinations in the world which are all accessible by sea.

In this article, we unveil the top scorers in our industry-first index, alongside expert astronomy insights from Neill Sanders, Astronomer and Go Stargazing Founder. These coastal gems are not only spectacular for their celestial displays but are also essential additions to your travel bucket list for 2024. 

Before we explore why these locations deserve a starring role in your upcoming holiday plans, Neill shines a spotlight on why “there is so much to look up for” in 2024. 

Northern lights in Alta, Norway

Why is 2024 the year of Astrotourism?

There is evidence of a growing interest in astronomy year on year, especially during and since the pandemic," shares Neill. “Observatories, of which there are over 100 public locations in the UK, are seeing record visitor numbers, and more locations than ever are hosting stargazing events. The total solar eclipse in April 2024 is estimated to have attracted over 4 million visitors to the USA and has sparked lots of interest in forthcoming eclipses in 2026 and 2027.”

With a rise in astronomy interest across the globe, Neil shares his expertise on why 2024 is a significant year for celestial spectacles and the unmissable moments to look out for:

  • The Northern Lights: “2024 into 2025 is a fantastic time to see the Northern Lights. During this period, the Sun will reach its peak of activity in an 11-year solar cycle, resulting in an increased number of sunspots on its surface. These sunspots harbour the energy that ultimately gives rise to incredible displays of the Northern Lights. The more of them, the better your chances!”
  • Night-Shining Clouds: “Even during the longer summer days and shorter nights, astronomers in more northern latitudes will look out for noctilucent "night-shining" clouds. These high-atmosphere clouds reflect light at a specific angle, meaning they appear electric blue against the darkness of night. They are best seen an hour or so after sunset and an hour before sunrise. Look towards the north around these times!”
  • The Annual Perseid Meteor Shower: “The annual Perseid meteor shower peaks on 12th and 13th of August. This reliable shower often results in as many as 100 shooting stars per hour being seen in the early hours of the morning from a dark sky location. On September 8th, Saturn will reach opposition, a time in its orbit when it appears at its brightest, therefore the best time to see its ring system.”
  • Comet C/2023 A3 Tsuchinshan/Atlas: “Also, in 2024, astronomers eagerly anticipate the arrival of Comet C/2023 A3 Tsuchinshan/Atlas into the inner solar system around the end of September. Estimations suggest this could become one of the brightest comets in our sky for several decades. It's a bit early to say, but watch this space, especially in mid-October!”

Top five coastal destinations for stargazing

From the awe-inspiring sight of the Milky Way to the dazzling display of a meteor shower, stargazing is undeniably a magical experience. 

However, not all skies are created equal. 

“Apart from good weather, the optimal conditions for stargazing are locations away from light pollution.” Neill explains. 

“The growing issue of Artificial Light at Night (ALAN) means our night skies are becoming increasingly illuminated. Poorly designed and incorrectly utilised lights that shine carelessly into the sky not only adversely affect our views of the stars but also our sleep patterns, our health, and nocturnal wildlife.”

To be in with a chance of a good viewing, you need the right kind of environment—skies free from light pollution, paired with optimal weather conditions. Factors like elevation, low cloud cover, high air pressure, and low humidity all play a part. 

With that in mind, here are the top five coastal destinations that—according to our research— offer the best conditions for stargazing enthusiasts.

Rhodes, Greece

Rhodes harbour town - Greece

Rhodes, the largest of the Dodecanese Islands, tops our list for stellar stargazing spots. What sets Rhodes apart are its exceptionally low light pollution levels and an average cloud cover of just 20%, making it a prime location for observing the night sky. It’s also home to a popular Astronomy Cafe.

Beyond the cosmos, Rhodes offers a wealth of activities to fill your days and nights. The island was once home to the Colossus of Rhodes, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. And with one of Europe’s best-preserved mediaeval towns, it continues to be rich in history today. As you wander through the citadel, it’s easy to imagine knights on horseback patrolling the battlements long ago.

Rhodes’ landscape is also incredibly diverse, encompassing everything from spectacular beaches and sandy coves to alpine forests. Don’t miss the breathtaking views of the Aegean Sea from the hilltop Acropolis in Lindos, and make time to explore the myriad of villages, perhaps stopping for a cold Mythos beer along the way. 

Hvar, Croatia

Boudicca docked in Hvar

Despite being the sunniest spot in Croatia—with 2,724 sunny hours each year— Hvar also enjoys remarkably low light levels at night, creating perfect conditions for stargazing. In fact, Hvar proudly hosts southern Europe's first International Dark Sky Community.

The charming harbour town of Jelsa, the second-largest on the island, has earned a spot among more than 195 places worldwide designated as prime stargazing spots by the International Dark Sky Association. 

Over two years, Jelsa transformed itself into a stargazing haven. In collaboration with the Croatian Astronomical Union, the town upgraded 82% of its public lighting to be environmentally friendly, as well as hosting educational talks and events to raise awareness about light pollution.

Today, Jelsa is a sanctuary of darkness at night. This transformation not only benefits the environment and wildlife but also offers residents and visitors a front-row seat to the dazzling Milky Way.

Beyond its celestial delights, Hvar is a hotspot for glamorous nightlife. Known for attracting celebrities and tourists alike, Hvar Town features a sheltered harbour filled with yachts, upscale restaurants, and lively cocktail bars. 

Stroll along the palm-lined seafront promenade, visit the historic Franciscan Monastery with its grand rendition of The Last Supper, and don’t miss the iconic lavender fields and vineyards, where traditional and modern winemakers tempt thirsty travellers.

Korčula, Croatia

Korcula, Croatia

Next on the list is Korčula. This gem on the Dalmatian coast is celebrated not only for its beauty but also for its excellent stargazing conditions, thanks to very low light pollution and elevation.

Between viewing sessions, make the most of the rest that the island has to offer. Unlike its more frequented neighbours, Korčula remains a fairly peaceful escape, preserving its rustic charm and natural beauty.

The heart of the island is Korčula Town, a picturesque collection of stone stairways and enticing restaurants. Right in the centre you’ll find St Mark’s cathedral—a fine example of Dalmatian church architecture featuring Gothic, Romanesque, and Baroque styles. 

For beach lovers, Korčula offers some rare sandy stretches on the Croatian coast, such as those found in Lumbarda. It’s also a haven for the active traveller, with numerous hiking and biking trails crisscrossing its landscape. 

Whether you're sipping local wine, lazing on sandy beaches, or cycling through lush trails, Korčula offers a blend of relaxation and adventure, making it a perfect spot for those looking to balance daytime activities with tranquil nights under the stars.

Kuşadası, Turkey

Pirate Castle and Pigeon Island, Kusadasi, Turkey

While perhaps better known as a popular beach resort town, Kuşadası is also an exceptional spot for stargazing, thanks to its low light pollution, high elevation, and relatively low humidity. The town's sandy beaches and crystal-clear waters make it perfect for daytime swimming and sunbathing—but once night falls, they transform into prime spots for observing the glittering stars above.

Kuşadası is also ideal for history enthusiasts, lying close to iconic ancient sites such as the Temple of Artemis, Didyma, and Miletus. Nearby Ephesus, one of the best-preserved ancient cities in the world, allows visitors to step back in time among its well-maintained Roman and Greek ruins.

Shoppers will delight in the Grand Bazaar, one of Turkey’s largest markets, while adventure seekers can enjoy everything from boat trips and water parks to jeep safaris and horseback riding. Just 19 miles south, the beautifully preserved Milli Park offers a natural escape with its pine forests, waterfalls, and valleys, serving as a sanctuary for local wildlife.

Agadir, Morocco

Agadir main beach in Agadir city

Agadir, located southwest of Marrakesh on the southern Atlantic coast of Morocco, offers a unique stargazing experience. Despite its urban setting, which contributes to higher light levels, Agadir boasts very low cloud cover and the highest surface pressure among our top-ranking destinations, ensuring exceptionally clear night skies.

Agadir is a vibrant blend of traditional and modern Morocco. It's home to Souk El Had, the largest souk in the country, where you can explore over 6,000 stalls brimming with a variety of goods from traditional clothing to fresh fruits, vegetables, and aromatic spices.

Located at the foothills of the Anti-Atlas Mountains, Agadir also attracts trekkers and adventurers. The city’s extensive beach, spanning over seven miles, provides ample opportunities for activities like surfing, snorkelling, or simply basking in the sun.

More than just a gateway to the stars, Agadir is an ideal base for exploring nearby locations such as Taghazout, Essaouira, and Paradise Valley. For those eager to delve deeper into the landscape, the surrounding desert offers adventures like thrilling 4x4 rides or panoramic hot air balloon flights.

Top five coastal destinations for Northern Lights

This year, experts anticipate some of the most stunning Northern Lights displays in two decades. The forthcoming "solar maximum," the peak of the sun's 11-year cycle, is set to illuminate the skies with auroras more vivid than we've seen in recent years.

Of course, certain conditions enhance the visibility of the Northern Lights. The best vantage points boast high elevation, low cloud cover, high air pressure, and low humidity, and are usually closer to Earth’s magnetic poles. The optimal viewing period spans from November to February, during the darkest skies and longest nights, with peak activity around 11pm to midnight. 

In the UK, the Northern Lights can occasionally appear as a faint glow low towards the Northern horizon; their colour and detail are only visible in camera photos unless there are exceptional circumstances.” Neill explains. 

“The further north you travel, the higher they appear in the sky, and at locations such as Iceland and Northern Norway, the lights appear right above you. From here, you can witness their true majesty; the colours become visible to the naked eye and their magnificent structure is revealed in a "corona" above your head.”

Based on this criteria, it's no surprise that the top five destinations for viewing the Northern Lights, identified through our research, are all in Norway. Below, we delve into these prime locations and why you need to see the Northern Lights, each of which also offer stunning natural beauty and unique local charm.

Molde, Norway

Atlantic Road, Molde, Norway

Molde, nestled on the west coast of Norway, comes out top in our list of coastal locations to view the Northern Lights. This is largely thanks to its exceptionally low light pollution and favourable atmospheric conditions. 

With an average cloud cover of just 20% and the lowest relative humidity among our surveyed destinations, coupled with its slightly higher elevation, Molde offers nearly perfect conditions for viewing the aurora borealis.

Often referred to as the "town of roses" for its numerous lush rose gardens, Molde is a gateway to the natural wonders of the region, including Moldemarka, a vast recreational area that transforms into a winter sports haven. Tusten Ski Lifts and the Climbing Park Høyt og Lavt offer snowy adventures for all ages.

For breathtaking panoramic views, the Varden viewpoint reveals the extraordinary sight of 222 mountain peaks, one of Norway's most spectacular natural panoramas. Those seeking a more serene experience can take a boat trip to the idyllic island of Hjertøya, perfect for fishing, picnicking, or swimming in the sea.

And while the Northern Lights dominate the winter skies, summer visitors can immerse themselves in the vibrant atmosphere of the Molde International Jazz Festival— the world's oldest jazz festival in continuous operation, attracting thousands of music lovers annually.

Bodø, Norway

Borealis in Bodo, Norway

Bodø, located 1,200 km north of Oslo, is often referred to as Northern Norway’s “mini metropole.” With a vibrant population of 50,000, this city is the bustling hub of Salten and is brimming with quirky shops, delicious restaurants, and major cultural events. 

Bodø also offers a fantastic location for viewing the Northern Lights due to its very low light pollution, high surface pressure, and favourable humidity levels, placing it in second place on our list. 

For an optimal Northern Lights experience, venture just outside the city to the Norwegian countryside. Excellent viewing spots include the plateau near Mount Rønvik or the remote beaches of Løpsstranden, Mjelle, or Geitvågen.

Beyond the aurora, Bodø offers a rich mix of both urban and natural attractions. The city is poised to become one of the European Capitals of Culture in 2024, a first for the Arctic region. As such, the city will host over 1,000 cultural events throughout the year, showcasing Bodø's vibrant arts scene.

Adventurers can also enjoy a wide range of activities, from hiking and climbing in the Børvasstindan mountain range to glacier trekking on Svartisen and skiing in Bodømarka. For thrill-seekers, RIB trips to Saltstraumen, the world’s strongest maelstrom, provide an exhilarating experience unique to this part of the world.

Narvik, Norway

Narvik, Winter views, Norway

Narvik, set in the high latitudes of Northern Norway, is another extraordinary location for viewing the Northern Lights. The town is renowned for its low light pollution and advantageous geographic position, boasting both high latitude and elevation. This combination ensures that Narvik offers some of the clearest, most breathtaking auroral displays.

Alongside the celestial spectacle, Narvik is perfect for outdoor enthusiasts. The towering mountains above the blue waters of the Ofotfjord are ideal for a range of winter sports, from alpine skiing to freeriding. 

Polar Park, the world’s northernmost zoo, allows visitors to get up close with Arctic wildlife such as lynx, bears, and Arctic foxes. For history buffs, the Narvik War Museum offers insights into Northern Norway’s dramatic World War II history.

Narvik is also home to the local Sámi community, which represents one of the oldest cultures in Northern Norway. Sámi culture is renowned for its folk music, traditional handicraft and a deep relationship with nature, whilst the livelihoods of the Sámi people include reindeer herding and fishing. Visitors can immerse themselves in the Sámi way of life, including hearing stories of their rich culture from the comfort of a lavvu, complete with a cup of mushroom tea by the firepit. 

For those looking to explore the stunning landscapes even further, the Ofotbanen railway from Narvik to the Swedish border is not to be missed. This route travels through incredible fjord landscapes and offers glimpses of the region's rugged beauty.

Alta, Norway

Borealis in Alta, Norway

Alta, located the furthest north on our list, has a long-standing connection with the Northern Lights, having hosted some of the first modern scientific studies of the phenomenon. 

Atop Haldde mountain, visitors can find the remains of the world's first permanent Northern Lights observatory, established in 1899. Although the original observatory no longer exists, Alta's legacy continues, earning it the nickname "the city of the Northern Lights." The town is now home to the striking Nordlyskatedralen, or "The Northern Lights Cathedral”.

Alongside the Northern Lights, Alta is the ultimate destination for an Arctic adventure, offering activities that make the most of its long, cold winters. Popular attractions include husky sledding and reindeer husbandry, providing visitors with a deeper understanding of traditional Arctic lifestyles. Visitors can also go whale watching in the Altafjord, where whales are a common sight between November and January. 

One of the city's most unique attractions is the Sorrisniva Igloo Hotel, entirely made of ice. This architectural wonder is rebuilt every year with new designs and sculptures, only to melt each spring. For a more traditional experience, stay in a cabin or a lavvu, a tent used by the indigenous Sámi people for over 2,000 years.

Kristiansund, Norway

View of Kristiansund, Norway

Last but not least on our list is Kristiansund. Despite its southern location, increased solar activity this year significantly enhances the chances of spotting auroras, even in regions where they are typically rare. Favourable conditions such as low light pollution and optimal pressure and humidity make Kristiansund well-placed for viewing this natural phenomenon further south than usual.

Kristiansund is also one of Norway’s most beloved cities, renowned for its vibrant community, cultural offerings and its iconic coastal drive, The Atlantic Road. A great starting point for visitors is Posebyen old town, the historical heart of Kristiansund, known for its charming wooden houses that are quintessential of Southern Norway’s architectural style.

Recognised as a cultural hub within northwestern Norway, Kristiansund is home to Norway’s oldest opera house, which has been hosting musical performances every year since The Roaring Twenties. For photography enthusiasts, the Nordic Light Festival of Photography offers an enriching artistic experience, including offering the chance to view exhibits and meet globally-renowned photography stars and emerging artists. One of the most popular attractions to note is visiting the historic archipelago of Grip, which is steeped in cod-fishing history and famed for its stave church, which was built in 1470.

Planning your stargazing and Northern Lights cruise adventure

Northern lights in Tromso, Norway

Viewing the night sky, whether to admire the stars or witness the aurora, is a truly remarkable experience. And what better place to enjoy the night skies than from the peaceful expanse of the sea, far removed from the hustle and bustle of city life? 

One way to do so is by embarking on a stargazing cruise with Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines, where we’ve partnered with Go Stargazing to ensure our guests get the most out of the night skies. 

On selected itineraries, you can enjoy informal yet informative on-deck experiences, complete with laser-guided tours of the constellations, lessons on identifying planets, and opportunities to view galaxies and nebulae using binoculars. 

As the Founder of Go Stargazing, Neill shares what makes stargazing from the sea a once-in-a-lifetime experience: 

Away from the glare of city lights, the darkness at sea allows for unparalleled clarity in observing the night sky. This lack of light pollution enhances the visibility of stars, constellations, and celestial phenomena and is what excites Go Stargazing astronomers the most; it enables us to share with passengers incredible views of the skies in all of their glory, how our ancestors saw them.” 

“In addition, being at sea means an unobstructed view of the sky in all directions and it can also evoke feelings of solitude and tranquillity. It enhances the sense of connection to the cosmos, enabling us to fully engage with the celestial wonders above and, in turn, foster a deeper appreciation for the Universe.

“In the few months that Go Stargazing astronomers have been working with Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines, passengers flock to our informal presentations and stargazing sessions are fully booked. We believe this is a sign of things to come; stargazing at sea offers so many opportunities for our team to share their passion and enthusiasm for the night skies.”

If you’re particularly keen on experiencing the aurora, Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines also offers a range of specially timed Northern Lights cruises. These cruises depart from both southern and northern UK ports, including Liverpool, Southampton and Newcastle, with each cruise being timed to increase your chances of witnessing the aurora borealis. 

By day, you can explore all that our fantastic destinations have to offer and enjoy the extensive facilities on our ships. By night, prepare to be awed by the spectacle of the aurora, free from the light pollution on land.

From the decks of our ships, you’ll also enjoy a unique perspective on Arctic Norway's stunning landscapes, from remote islands and breathtaking fjords to majestic glaciers. 

Data is correct as of May 2024.

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