Chase the Sun: 7 Spectacular Spots to Catch the 2023 Winter Solstice
Chase the Sun: 7 Spectacular Spots to Catch the 2023 Winter Solstice - See the First Rays at Stonehenge
As the shortest day of the year, the winter solstice has long held significance for cultures around the world. One of the most iconic places to observe this astronomical event is at the mysterious Stonehenge in England. As the sun begins to strengthen on its slow journey back to summer, people gather at the UNESCO World Heritage Site to celebrate the renewal of light.
Built between 3000 and 1500 BC, the purpose of Stonehenge's impressive stone circle has puzzled scholars for centuries. However, experts believe it was constructed to align with solstices and equinoxes. As such, it provides the perfect vantage point to witness the winter solstice sunrise.
In the days leading up to the solstice, spiritual groups, druids, and curious travelers arrive at Stonehenge. They come to connect with like-minded people and pay homage to ancient traditions. As dawn approaches, attendees wait with bated breath for the first rays of sun to appear over the horizon. Thermal clothing, blankets, and hot drinks help brace against the chilly December morning.
The atmosphere is one of quiet reverence as the sky begins to brighten. Birdsong fills the air as the suspense builds. Then, right on cue, a dazzling shaft of light bursts through the main northeast opening, illuminating the altar stone. Cheers erupt from the crowd as the solstice sun emerges in full, bathing the surrounding plains in golden light.
For many observers, this sunrise is deeply significant. It represents the symbolic rebirth of the sun and a turning point back towards longer, warmer days. In the solstice sun, ancient peoples saw divinity, death, and renewal. Today's spectators feel a sense of continuity with the past when they experience this astronomical event from the exact vantage point as their ancestors. By witnessing both the sunrise and sunset on the solstice, attendees complete an entire "solar day" at Stonehenge.
What else is in this post?
- Chase the Sun: 7 Spectacular Spots to Catch the 2023 Winter Solstice - See the First Rays at Stonehenge
- Chase the Sun: 7 Spectacular Spots to Catch the 2023 Winter Solstice - Watch the Sunrise at Chichen Itza
- Chase the Sun: 7 Spectacular Spots to Catch the 2023 Winter Solstice - Party All Night in Iceland
- Chase the Sun: 7 Spectacular Spots to Catch the 2023 Winter Solstice - Catch the Solstice in Patagonia
- Chase the Sun: 7 Spectacular Spots to Catch the 2023 Winter Solstice - Greet the Sun at Uluru Rock
- Chase the Sun: 7 Spectacular Spots to Catch the 2023 Winter Solstice - Celebrate at the Temples of Angkor Wat
- Chase the Sun: 7 Spectacular Spots to Catch the 2023 Winter Solstice - Gather at the Great Pyramids of Giza
- Chase the Sun: 7 Spectacular Spots to Catch the 2023 Winter Solstice - Observe Aboriginal Traditions in Australia
Chase the Sun: 7 Spectacular Spots to Catch the 2023 Winter Solstice - Watch the Sunrise at Chichen Itza
Of all the winter solstice celebrations around the world, witnessing the sunrise at Chichen Itza in Mexico is truly a bucket list experience. As a testament to the astronomical knowledge of the ancient Maya, El Castillo pyramid was specifically designed to interact with the sun during equinoxes and solstices. On the morning of the winter solstice, the steps of the pyramid cast an undulating shadow that resembles a serpent slithering down the northern balustrade.
Each year, thousands flock to Chichen Itza to observe this mesmerizing solar phenomenon. Arriving before daybreak, eager spectators jostle for prime viewing spots along the northern staircase. As dawn approaches, excited murmurs ripple through the crowd. All eyes are fixed on the top platform, waiting for the first rays of sunlight.
Right on schedule, the sun peeks above the horizon, backlighting the temple in an orange glow. The crowd falls silent in suspense. Slowly, the angled rays of the rising sun cast the staggered shadow of the iconic serpent onto the pyramid's northern side. Enthralled gasps echo across the site as the serpent illusion comes alive, undulating its way down the balustrade as the sun climbs higher.
To ancient onlookers, this winter solstice spectacle would have carried deep religious significance. The Maya viewed the sun as divine and built their cosmology around solar patterns and agriculture. As such, they designed their architecture to interact with the sun's movements during critical times, like equinoxes and solstices. The shadow serpent at Chichen Itza honored Kukulcan, the feathered serpent god closely associated with the sun, fertility, and agriculture.
Today's observers may not ascribe the same religious meaning, but witnessing this solar phenomenon in person still carries a sense of continuity with the past. It provides insight into the advanced astronomical knowledge of the Maya that allowed them to precisely construct sacred sites according to solar alignments. By experiencing the solstice at Chichen Itza, modern travelers can ponder the same sun that inspired such an advanced ancient civilization.
Beyond the spiritual significance, observing the solstice at Chichen Itza simply makes for an unforgettable travel experience. As a bucket list destination in itself, having the chance to experience such a mesmerizing astronomical event at a UNESCO World Heritage Site takes things to another level. Witnessing the interplay of light and shadow on the pyramid steps truly brings this ancient wonder to life.
Chase the Sun: 7 Spectacular Spots to Catch the 2023 Winter Solstice - Party All Night in Iceland
As the endless nights of winter descend on Iceland, the locals know it's time to party. The winter solstice, when darkness reigns supreme, is the perfect excuse to let loose until sunrise. While Reykjavik's nightlife thrums year-round, the winter solstice takes celebrations to another level entirely.
"We party hard on the solstice," says Icelandic native Einar Thorsson. "It's a long tradition here to welcome back the sun by dancing and drinking all through the night." Locals and tourists alike flock to the bars and clubs of Reykjavik on the longest night of the year, determined to make it last as long as possible.
The revelry officially begins at sunset. As early as 3 pm, parties across the city start revving up. "No one wants to waste a single minute of darkness," explains Einar. "The goal is to keep the energy going until you can actually watch the sunrise the next morning." Favorite watering holes like the Lebowski Bar and Kaldi Bar fill up early with merrymakers warming up for the long night ahead.
As evening sets in, the clubs come alive. "You'll find every dance floor packed around midnight," says Einar. Hot spots like Boston, Prikið Kaffihús, and Paloma light up for the all-night bash. "The DJs always bring their A-game for solstice parties," Einar enthuses. Techno beats pulse as partygoers let loose under strobing lights. Through the long hours of darkness, revelers keep their energy soaring with Icelandic spirits like Brennivín and hot chocolate with a splash of liquor.
Those who need a second wind around 4 am refuel at places serving Plokkfiskur, a traditional fish stew, before diving back into the fray. "No one heads home before sunrise," Einar emphasizes. "You'll even see grandparents out partying with the grandkids." Sure enough, come 5 am, golden-agers can be spotted right alongside university students as the die-hards keep up the festivities.
Watching the sunrise after a full night of partying is a magical experience. As dawn approaches around 11 am, hardy merrymakers rug up and head outside into the winter chill. "I'll never forget watching that glowing orb peek back over the horizon after dancing all night," recalls Jess Morgan, a backpacker who attended a solstice celebration in Reykjavik last year. "You really feel like you're bringing back the sun yourself."
Chase the Sun: 7 Spectacular Spots to Catch the 2023 Winter Solstice - Catch the Solstice in Patagonia
As the farthest reach of the Southern Hemisphere, Patagonia offers a singular vantage point for experiencing the rebirth of the sun during the winter solstice. While Northern Hemisphere dwellers contend with the year's longest night, Patagonia sizzles under the summer sun. For travelers keen to celebrate the solstice somewhere truly unique, catching the longest day in Patagonia proves unforgettable.
"We picked Patagonia for the solstice because we wanted to do something radically different," explains Sasha Davis, who traveled there with her partner last December. "Hiking under the midnight sun with the mountains all around truly felt magical." The perpetual daylight in Patagonia makes for excellent summer trekking. Trails like Cerro Fitz Roy and Laguna Torre glow under the 24-hour sunlight, allowing hikers to tackle routes at all hours. Hardcore trekkers can pull an all-nighter and watch the sunrise from a breathtaking summit surrounded by Patagonian peaks.
From whale watching to glacier trekking, Patagonia's wealth of summer activities all shine under the generous sunlight. "Whether kayaking with orcas or climbing the ice on Perito Moreno glacier, having sunlight 24-7 let us pack so much into our trip," says Sasha. The long days also lend themselves to multi-day excursions into Patagonia's rugged backcountry. "We were able to tackle the full O Circuit in Torres del Paine National Park at a relaxed pace thanks to all the extra daylight," notes Leandro Gomez, who spent the solstice on the iconic trek last year.
Beyond the outdoors, Patagonia's vibrant cities also buzz with solstice energy. "Bariloche was absolutely bumping when we were there for the solstice," recalls Sasha. "The whole town felt like one big party under the midnight sun." The picturesque mountain village rings in the solstice with bonfires, live music, and dancing in the streets. Just north in San Carlos de Bariloche, locals celebrate with feasts of regional delicacies and stay up through the sunset for fireworks over Lake Nahuel Huapi.
Further south in Ushuaia, visitors bundle up for outdoor concerts, craft markets and all-night clubbing under the astronomical phenomenon of white nights. Thanks to its terminal location at the tip of Argentina, Ushuaia enjoys nearly 20 hours of daylight on the solstice. "It was totally disorienting in a cool way to have the sun still be up at midnight," says Leandro. "You end up staying out way later than usual."
Chase the Sun: 7 Spectacular Spots to Catch the 2023 Winter Solstice - Greet the Sun at Uluru Rock
As the red heart of Australia, Uluru carries deep spiritual significance for the Anangu people, the Aboriginal custodians of the site. For the Anangu, Uluru’s sandstone bulk harbors creation tales and Dreamtime legends that bring their existence into being. The summer solstice holds special meaning as the day their creation story commences. When the first rays of sun creep over the desert horizon to bathe Uluru’s ochre flanks on December 21st, the Anangu gather to greet the solar rebirth and usher in the sacred season.
“That’s when the world began for us,” explains Sammy Wilson, an Anangu elder. For visitors, experiencing this profound ritual offers insight into the Anangu’s unbroken connection with Uluru despite colonization. “Sharing our solstice gives others a glimpse into the world’s oldest living culture,” says Sammy. “We’ve carried on these traditions across the generations.”
As dawn nears, Anangu families trek to the Mutitjulu Waterhole at the base of Uluru. They set up camp, chat around fires, and wait for the dawn. Tourists gather at the viewing area nearby, taking care not to intrude on the sacred ritual. A hush falls over the site as night’s inky blanket lifts to reveal Uluru’s imposing silhouette backdropped by constellations.
Right on schedule, the first fingers of light creep above the horizon, backlighting Uluru’s domed crest. Low chanting swells from the Anangu camp as the solstice sun inches into view, spilling its rosy glow down Uluru’s fluted ravines. Beams of light shoot skyward from the waterhole while clouds blaze coral and gold. “You can feel the power of the place,” whispers a visitor, transfixed. “Time seems to stand still.”
As the sun ascends, its rays deepen from pink to orange to gold, baptizing Uluru in holy illumination. The Anangu’s chants crescendo, reverberating across the plain. Then, suddenly, a shout - the sun sits fully over the horizon. A cheer erupts from the Anangu as daybreak floods the landscape. Their solstice celebration can begin.
Chase the Sun: 7 Spectacular Spots to Catch the 2023 Winter Solstice - Celebrate at the Temples of Angkor Wat
As the sprawling temple complex that symbolized the height of the ancient Khmer Empire, Angkor Wat carries both spiritual and historical significance unrivaled in Southeast Asia. While mysticalyear-round, the UNESCO World Heritage Site takes on special meaning during the December solstice. In the days leading up to the longest night of the year, visitors flock to Angkor to partake in traditional solstice celebrations within the storied sandstone temples.
"I'd always dreamed of seeing Angkor Wat, but being there under the stars during the solstice was next level," says Sophie Jung from her recent backpacking trip. "It was like stepping into an Indiana Jones movie." Locals believe the winter solstice carries auspicious powers at Angkor. "It's when the stars align to bring renewal and luck for the year ahead," shares Tola Inn, a Cambodian native.
As the sun sets on December 20th, revelers convene at the sprawling complex to await midnight under the full moon. Flickering candles light the ancient passageways as music and chatter fills the corridors. At the 12th century Angkor Wat temple, worshippers gather at the central shrine to make offerings of lotus flowers, incense and candles.
"Everyone entered with such reverence, kneeling before the relics and praying," recalls Sophie. At astronomical midnight, all eyes turn to the heavens where the moon hits its peak fullness directly over Angkor Wat's pinnacle. "It was extraordinary to witness - this glowing orb suspended right above this ancient tower just shimmering in the night," describes Sophie.
Next, the procession makes its way to Bayon, the iconic state-temple built in the early 12th century by Jayavarman VII. Under the temple's enigmatic stone faces, solstice observers light jasmine-scented candles and sing traditional hymns as they await the coming dawn.
Just before sunrise, attendees gather at Phnom Bakheng to witness daybreak over the entire Angkor complex. "Sitting on the temple steps as the sky turned from black to purple to pink was such a moving experience," says Sophie. "It reminded me of just how small we are in the grand flow of time."
Chase the Sun: 7 Spectacular Spots to Catch the 2023 Winter Solstice - Gather at the Great Pyramids of Giza
As enduring icons of ancient civilization, the Great Pyramids of Giza hold an undeniable allure for travelers. While mystical year-round, visiting Egypt's colossal tombs for the rebirth of the sun on the winter solstice takes on special meaning.
"I'll never forget watching the solstice sunrise from the Pyramids," recalls Heidi Roland, who visited Giza last December 21st. "There was something so powerful about marking that moment in a place with such deep history."
The solstice has long held spiritual symbolism in Egyptian culture as the start of the sowing season on the Nile. Ancient Egyptians interpreted the returning of the sun as the resurrection of Osiris, god of the dead - thus associating it with rebirth and renewal.
Modern celebrations tap into this rich cultural legacy. In the days preceding the solstice, worshippers adorn the tombs of their departed loved ones with candles and offerings to honor their spirits. Come December 21st, many head to the Giza necropolis to connect with ancestors and welcome back the sun.
As the winter solstice nears, travelers flock to the site too, eager to witness this celestial event from the Great Pyramids' famous vantage point. By 11 pm on December 20th, revelers rug up and make their way into the desert night, armed with blankets and flasks of hot tea. Guardians of traditional solstice rituals, whirling dervishes perform mystical Sufi dances under the moonlight.
As the Milky Way galaxy emerges in full force, the limestone behemoths materialize out of the nightscape, backdropped by celestial bodies. "It was otherworldly, like walking onto a movie set," Heidi effuses. The wait until sunrise only heightens the magic. "You could feel the anticipation building as the sky began to lighten."
Right on schedule, the sun breaches the horizon, backlighting the Pyramids in burnt orange. A collective gasp ripples across the motley assortment of Egyptian families, foreign tourists, and whirling dervishes gathered to welcome back their celestial deity.
Chase the Sun: 7 Spectacular Spots to Catch the 2023 Winter Solstice - Observe Aboriginal Traditions in Australia
For Australia's indigenous Aboriginal peoples, the winter solstice carries deep spiritual meaning as a time for community, ritual, and connecting with the ancestral spirit world. While secret ceremonies are reserved for initiated tribal members only, visitors can immerse themselves in Aboriginal traditions during this significant season by attending public festivals and events.
"We welcome people to gather with us and share in the energy of renewal," says Gada Din, an Aboriginal leader from the Ngarigo people. The solstice aligns with Aboriginal Dreaming stories about the "sleeping sun" and the changing of the seasons. "For us, this time is about reflecting on the past and looking ahead to new beginnings," explains Gada.
One powerful place to gain insight is at Uluru, the landmark sandstone monolith sacred to the Anangu Aboriginal people. The Anangu host public solstice celebrations at the nearby Mutitjulu community that showcase traditional music, dance, art, and storytelling. "As the sun rises over Uluru, we reflect on how our ancestors existed in harmony with nature and the elements. The solstice reminds us to walk gently on the earth," says Sammy Wilson, an Anangu elder.
Nearby Alice Springs offers additional opportunities to engage with Aboriginal traditions through regular solstice festivals. The Alice Desert Festival celebrates the vibrance of Central Desert Aboriginal culture with displays of Indigenous dance, bush foods, traditional healers, and artisans. Local Aboriginal communities lead visitors on medicine walks, share creation stories, and provide didgeridoo lessons.
"We love sharing our culture, especially during spiritually important times like the solstice," says Maurice Satour, a festival organizer of the Luritja people. "Guests always leave with a deeper understanding of who we are." The biannual Laura Aboriginal Dance Festival held on the Cape York Peninsula in Queensland offers similar insight through dance, music, arts, and cultural exchange - all set against the ethereal backdrop of prehistoric Quinkan rock art sites.
Smaller Aboriginal communities also welcome respectful travelers to their solstice gatherings with advance permission. "We'll teach you traditional dances and share our history if visitors approach us in the right spirit," says Gada. The Pitjantjatjara people of the central deserts, for example, hold public solstice events at Uluru and the remote Mutitjulu community.
Even around urban areas like Sydney, Aboriginal families carry out land-based ceremonies around the solstice open to visitors. "We head out early to watch the first sun touch the horizon, then spend the day fishing, gathering bush coconuts and healing herbs, and telling stories around the fire," says Gada.