All Articles Where to see the aurora australis, the overlooked sibling of the Northern Lights

Where to see the aurora australis, the overlooked sibling of the Northern Lights

A consolation prize if they don’t appear? Penguins!

Nicholas DeRenzo
By Nicholas DeRenzo16 May 2023 3 minutes read
Aurora australis in New Zealand
Aurora australis in New Zealand
Image: Nicolas Vera-Ortiz/Getty Images

The Northern Lights may get all the attention, but way down on the other side of the planet, they have a counterpart in the southernmost stretches of the Southern Hemisphere, known as the aurora australis. The shimmering display can best be viewed when nights are at their longest and darkest, between March and September, but there are a few reasons why they’ll always remain a bit more under-the-radar than the lights up north.

For starters, the way the continents are arranged means that the Northern Hemisphere boasts far more populated areas within the auroral zone, while much of the Southern Hemisphere zone comprises rough oceans and Antarctica. Plus, many of the places that get the most dazzling displays are all but inaccessible for everyday travelers during the dark, icy winter months when they’re likeliest to appear. Finally, even at their brightest, the aurora australis tends to be subtler and less ostentatious than the multi-hued borealis, often appearing as a whitish blur to the naked eye.

But that doesn't mean they're completely inaccessible to view. These four spots are the best places to get away from light pollution, fix your gaze upon the skies, and try your luck at catching these elusive wonders.

Bruny Island, Australia

Adventure Bay Retreat on Bruny Island
Adventure Bay Retreat on Bruny Island
Image: Management/Tripadvisor

For your best chance of spotting the aurora australis, you’ll need to seek total darkness, and in Tasmania, that’s a surprisingly easy thing to do. Only about an hour-long journey south of the capital city of Hobart (including a brief ferry ride), Bruny Island is a popular weekend getaway retreat, and its South Bruny National Park is home to some of the continent’s highest sea cliffs, which make for an excellent vantage point for aurora-spotting.

If the aurora doesn’t prove cooperative during your stay, there are plenty of places to drown your sorrows on Bruny Island, which is a hot spot for food and beverage producers, including cheesemakers, oyster bars, honeybee farms, and Tasmanian single-malt tasting rooms.

Where to stay: Book a room at the Adventure Bay Retreat, a luxe lodge surrounded by coastal bushland that’s hopping with white wallabies.

Stewart Island, New Zealand

Aurora australis on Stewart Island, New Zealand
Aurora australis on Stewart Island, New Zealand
Image: Nicola M Mora/Getty Images

Located about 20 miles off the coast of New Zealand’s South Island, Stewart Island is known in Māori as Rakiura or “the land of glowing skies”—and it’s not hard to see why. About 85 percent of its 675 square miles is set aside as Rakiura National Park, meaning light pollution is at a minimum, and it was named the world’s fifth Dark Sky Sanctuary in 2019.

When you’re not looking up at the sky to see the Milky Way or the occasional shimmer of the aurora, the island is also an incredible place for birdwatching, but you’ll have to change your perspective to catch its most iconic species: Here, you’ll need to focus your gaze downward to spot flightless wonders like brown kiwis (which outnumber humans), blue penguins, and endangered yellow-eyed penguins.

Where to stay: Aurora hunters love Kaka Retreat, a complex of cottages surrounded by lush gardens in Oban Township, with decks that are perfect for taking in the night sky.

Ushuaia, Argentina

Arakur Ushuai in Argentina
Arakur Ushuai in Argentina
Image: Management/Tripadvisor

As a general rule of thumb, the farther south you go, the better chance you have of spotting the Southern Lights. So, head to Argentina's Tierra del Fuego and Ushuaia, the world’s southernmost city. A shockingly urban space of more than 80,000 citizens, the remote city has a robust array of hotels, souvenir shops (where you can pick up cute penguins carved from stone), and restaurants serving local specialties like king crab and barbecued lamb. Note that weather in these parts can be a bit fickle, and cloudy skies can make the aurora australis even trickier than usual to spot.

Where to stay: To improve your chances of seeing an aurora, you’ll want to seek out darkness, and there’s no more luxurious place to do so than at the Arakur Ushuaia, a resort inside the Cerro Alarkén Nature Reserve, which comprises 247 acres of forests, riverbanks, and mountains overlooking the Beagle Channel.

Punta Arenas, Chile

Magellanic Penguins on Isla Magdalena, Punta Arenas, Patagonia, Chile
Magellanic penguins on Isla Magdalena, Punta Arenas, Patagonia, Chile
Image: guenterguni/Getty Images

Across the border in Chilean Patagonia, Punta Arenas offers similarly unpredictable conditions as Ushuaia: Sure, you’re very far south, but the often-ferocious weather can work against you when it comes to gazing skyward. Still, even if you don’t catch the aurora australis, you’ll be happy to add the ornate Cementerio Municipal (with its elaborate and sometimes brightly painted tombs) and the Nao Victoria Museo (which includes full-size replicas of historic ships) to your list. Plus, as a consolation prize, there are penguins galore here, including the more than 100,000 Magellanic penguins on Isla Magdalena (accessible via public ferry or guided tour).

Where to stay: Make your home base at the La Yegua Loca Hotel Boutique, which occupies a 1929 heritage house and is filled with rustic decor.

Nicholas DeRenzo
Nicholas DeRenzo is a freelance travel and culture writer based in Brooklyn. A graduate of NYU's Cultural Reporting and Criticism program, he worked as an editor at Arthur Frommer's Budget Travel and, most recently, as executive editor at Hemispheres, the in-flight magazine of United Airlines. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, New York, Travel + Leisure, Condé Nast Traveler, Afar, BBC Travel, Wine Enthusiast, and more. Follow him on Instagram at @nderenzo to see his many, many pictures of birds.