At long last: not long ago I took a trip to the beautiful Northern Norway, in the winter. It was actually a great time to visit. The many picturesque villages and the wild, untouched landscapes were already covered in powdery white snow. The trip began in the second largest city in the region: Tromsø. After exploring this area, we took domestic flights to Bodø and the Lofoten Islands.
Getting to Northern Norway
On a trip to Norway, most tourists usually head to Oslo, the Norwegian capital, which is located in the south of the country. However, instead, I opted for a flight to Tromsø, in Northern Norway. Huge fjords, traditional fishing villages and the notorious northern lights – these and many other factors enticed me into taking a journey to this beautiful part of the world in winter. What’s so special about it? In winter, at the time of the northern lights, it is not only cold, but the days here are also very short and quite dark. At 9:30 am it slowly begins to get light, and at 2 pm it begins to get dark again. This gives the region a very special charm, particularly at Christmas, when most places are romantically illuminated.
Whereas in summer, the days are long and bright. In the months between April and the end of August, depending on the region, the sun does not go down even at night. Yes, Northern Norway is a spectacle in itself. After a few exciting days, of which I will tell you about in a little more detail, I can only say one thing: this country is absolutely fantastic! You can get connecting flights from Oslo, and in fact the regional airline Widerøe offers a pass which grants you unlimited air travel within Norway within a certain period of time… Almost like interrailing!
Tromsø – Fascinating northern lights and lots of charm
After almost a 3-hour flight, it was finally time: it had already happened to me during the descent to Tromsø. The icy Norwegian Sea, shimmering in different shades of blue and turquoise, surrounded by snowy mountain landscapes, instantaneously enchanted me. The view from the plane was amazing. I was really looking forward to this new adventure. I was eager to see what this city and my next destinations had to offer. From the airport in Tromsø it was just a 10-minute drive to my accommodation, the centrally located Clarion The Edge. With almost 74,000 inhabitants, Tromsø is the largest city in the north. It is also the eighth largest city in the country. Every year it attracts tourists from all over the world, for one very special reason. They all want to see the great spectacle of nature with their own eyes: the northern lights. Previously there were only 5 providers offering 9 different tours in Tromsø. Today there is a total of 70 providers supplying more than 140 tours – which you can book if you’re visiting. From dog and reindeer sledge safaris to northern light tours – there’s a lot going on here.
The Northern Lights safari
My first day here was spent on an adventurous northern lights safari. I went to educate myself about this unique piece of nature, which is also called Aurora Borealis, in the Tromsø Museum beforehand. I then wrapped up in my warmest clothing, until it was finally time to start the tour.
We had an experienced guide called Karina, who was actually a German native, who has been living in Norway for more than 20 years. The journey took about 1 to 1.5 hours to get far out into nature, past fjords and small, snow-capped villages that were illuminated for the festive season. As I looked through the windows of the small wooden houses, I thought to myself how cosy it must be inside by the fireplace, in these icy temperatures. Would these residents be able to see the northern lights from here?
Using a special northern light app and the so-called KP value (scale 1-9), our guide always kept her eye on the probability of seeing the northern lights, and where the best place to see them was. As soon as Karina discovered a strange formation in the sky, we stopped at the side of the abandoned road. We quickly trudged through the snow with our thick suits, which we should have pulled over our clothes beforehand. And it was then, that I suddenly saw them! Light green sparkling streaks flashed through the sky, and partly turned into a light violet colour at some points. They grew stronger and stronger. Some of them looked almost like clouds, because they appear slightly grey to the naked eye – but even this had something special about it. This moment alone, as well as admiring the northern lights in Norway for the first time, was priceless.
If you are equipped with a good SLR camera and a corresponding tripod, you can see the colours on the pictures a whole lot better than you can with the naked eye. In all honesty, the sky needed to be a little clearer on the day, in order to fully appreciate this spectacle of nature. But for this reason, it is said that you should allow two weeks for this sublime experience. That way, you won’t miss the best moments. Nevertheless, I was gifted a beautiful sight on the first evening.
3 musts for an unforgettable northern lights adventure:
- Pack thick clothing!
- Clear sky: the more stars, the higher the probability of seeing the northern lights.
- Come equipped with an SLR camera and tripod, to capture this magical moment for eternity.
By the way: A supervised northern lights safari, such as this, cost me 1095 Norwegian kroner (approximately £110), with the provider, Scan Adventure. This price included snowsuit rental and a return trip to the best viewing spots, with a guide, snacks and warm drinks.
Experience the diversity of Tromsø
As already mentioned, Tromsø has developed significantly in terms of tourism. As well as the increase in tour providers from 5 to 70, the population is also increasing by about 1000 inhabitants per year. The latter can be recognised by the fact that a new construction project can be found at almost every corner of the city. Summer was initially the preferred travel time for tourists, due to the bright summer nights in the north of Norway. However, the city is now very popular with tourists in the winter as well. Winter tourism is actually on the rise. The range of excursions on offer at all times of the year is huge. There are no limits to a holidaymaker’s wishes: hiking-, climbing- and kayaking- tours, whale safaris, dog and reindeer sledging safaris, northern lights safaris and boat trips.
I decided to go for whale watching, because I have always found it pleasurable to observe these huge mammals in the wild. So from Tromsø, I booked a 4-hour trip and travelled out to sea on a large boat. First, an experienced guide gave us a few safety instructions. Then we were equipped with a thick snowsuit and told how to behave as soon as the first whales were in sight. “Only watching, not chasing!”, the guide emphasised over and over again! Captain Skrvhajg took this very seriously.
It is important to respect the free space of the whales and stand a sufficient distance away, so that they do not feel disturbed or threatened. During my tour, I was fortunate enough to observe several huge orcas, also known as killer whales. At first, we saw one, then we saw a second and suddenly a whole pod appeared. The moment when you initially catch a glimpse of a fin, and then, the orcas suddenly appear and show themselves in all their glory – a marvellous sight that will stay with you forever!
Between the excursions, you should also take a little time to explore the city itself. Because of the city’s size, you can stroll through the streets of Tromsø and visit the lovingly decorated shops and cafes. If you are interested in the history and culture of the city and the region, I’d recommend visiting the Tromsø Museum. Here, as already mentioned, you will be educated in depth about the fascinating northern lights. You can also create an aurora borealis with your own hands. Yep, everything works with the technical know-how. ;-)
There are also other exciting museums in Tromsø, such as the Polar Museum and Nordnorsk Kunstmuseum. Also worth a visit and architecturally impressive is the modern Arctic Cathedral and the Tromsø Cathedral. As you can see, the city has a lot to offer. However, as I wanted to look at some other places in the region, and thanks to cheap domestic flights, I went to explore elsewhere!
Impressions of Tromsø
Lofoten – Back to rural roots
My next, long-awaited destination was the Lofoten Islands. So often I had heard or read something about this group of islands north of the Arctic Circle. Now it was finally time to visit the place myself. It seems as if the clocks here tick a little slower. Everything here is quieter, more dignified, somehow more idyllic. Rugged rock faces rise from the Atlantic while the old red fishing huts complete the typical image of the Lofoten Islands. My journey began in the capital of Lofoten, in Svolvaer.
Svolvaer is a city with 4,500 inhabitants. The Lofoten Islands overall, have a total of 24,500 inhabitants. In the past, about 90 percent of the residents here were fishermen: up to 12 men usually lived in a fisherman’s hut, with just 6 beds. Johnny Kloften, a native of the island whom I met during my stay, explained to me how these times are long gone. He also told me about the fishing, which is still of great importance to the Lofoten Islands, particularly for Svolvaer. Stockfish and klipfish are the two most popular types of fish, which can be eaten in a restaurant here. Generally, this is a cod fish which is preserved through a special drying process. While I was there, I tried a buttered dry fish with red pesto, rocket salad, roasted almonds and potatoes. And I must say, I loved it! You definitely have to try this.
Even though fishing in Lofoten is still very much present today, a change has clearly taken place in the last 20 years. Tourism is becoming increasingly more important. The old fishermen’s huts were gradually turned into cosy holiday homes. Johnny told me that in winter, 90 percent of them are fully booked – there is a very specific reason for this. On the one hand, it attracts tourists from all over the world to admire the fascinating northern lights. On the other hand, they want to explore the untouched nature, climb the majestic mountains and go on fishing trips – or perhaps simply experience a bit of originality, amid the magical nature of Northern Norway.
It doesn’t matter what time of the year you decide to come here. Far above the Arctic circle, there is a lot to discover all year round. I was particularly concerned with the contrast between a modern and constantly growing city like Tromsø, and a traditional village in the Lofoten Islands. Even though tourism is already firmly rooted in both locations and is of great importance to the region, I can still notice somewhat more originality on the Lofoten Islands. If you would like to learn more about the history and development of the Lofoten Islands, you should visit the Galleri Lofoten Hus.
If you have a bit more time and would like to see more of the Lofoten Islands, then I’d also recommend visiting the famous Lofotr Viking Museum. Here you can learn more about the history of the Vikings, and thanks to authentic live shows, understand how these people lived. Other exciting destinations are, for example, the Kaviar Factory, a former caviar factory, which now exhibits abstract art, by artists from all over the world. In the gallery and handicrafts shop called Engelskmannsbrygga, you can watch the owner and ceramist Cecilie, ply her trade.
Tip for your stay: During my stay on the Lofoten Islands, I stayed in a small holiday home that belongs to Hattvika Lodge. This is a former, private holiday residence in the small fishing village of Ballstad, which has been lovingly restored by the owner. Little holiday huts have been built gradually, each of which can accommodate up to four people. The beautiful ambience here and the accompanying barrel saunas make for a real well-being experience on the Lofoten Islands. Numerous activities, which can be booked while you’re there, will perfectly round off your experience here.
Boat trip – Up close to the sea eagles
Want to discover the Lofoten Islands from the water? This sounded like an exciting excursion to me. It was exactly for this reason, that I insisted on taking a boat trip to see the sea eagles, despite the misty weather. Right from the off, our guide, Arnstein Larsen, showed how much he loves his job and these fascinating animals. As soon as we were all packed up, we set sail and headed out towards the unique winter scenery. Arnstein told us how the sea eagles would be just two metres away from us, nabbing the herring out of the water, which he was feeding to them. And indeed, as soon we found a quiet spot on the water and he reached for the feed, the first eagle was already hovering above the boat. Some were cautious and reserved, as it was not their regular hunting ground. Whereas one of them was very focused, and playfully seized his prey. Wow!
After this scenario was repeated at several different locations, the term ‘eagle eye’ suddenly became a lot clearer to me. Not only was I absolutely thrilled by it, but Arnstein, even after all these years, was absolutely fascinated: “I love it, this is my life!” he repeated over and over. As a child he and his father drove out to sea, to feed and admire the majestic sea eagles. But, despite years of experience, every day, and every little moment was always an entirely new, special experience for him.
Arnstein made sure that such an excursion was worthwhile in all seasons, but particularly during bad weather. If you don’t feel like doing anything special because of the unpleasant rain and the cold wind, such a tour is a welcome alternative. Thanks to the warm clothing, including a snow suit, goggles and warm gloves, you won’t even notice the cold or the rain. I speak from my own experience – I felt next to nothing.
Modern and youthful Bodø
One of the most attractive and fastest growing cities in Norway is Bodø, which has about 50,000 inhabitants. It could be described as either the beginning or the end of Northern Norway. If you travel north by train to the end of the line, then you’ll end up here in Bodø. During my stay in this city, which was by the way, my last stop, one thing has become clear to me. In Bodo, change is just as noticeable as in Tromsø, if not more. Many areas are being renovated and built up, and numerous buildings look very modern. This is in stark contrast to the traditional fishermen’s huts, which I have seen on the Lofoten Islands.
Particularly striking is the amount of shopping and entertainment opportunities. Quaint restaurants and bars tempt you inside, while the shopping centres and small shops also have a lot to offer. Also worth visiting is Bodø’s modern library, which is worth seeing because of its impressive architecture. The concert hall, which lies directly opposite, is also remarkable. The latter ensures that the city is visited by both young and old alike. Various artists perform here and create a lively atmosphere. The streets are buzzing after the concerts and the bars and restaurants are packed.
But of course, you can also be active in Bodø, by taking part in various kayak and fishing trips. The picturesque scenery of rugged mountain peaks can also be enjoyed on such trips. Also, a boat trip to see the sea eagles is definitely recommended here, as Bodø has the world’s densest population of white-tailed sea eagles. The city is also known as the capital of the sea eagles. After a varied day of sightseeing and adventure, I’d recommend visiting the recently opened brewery, ‘Hundholmen Brygghaus’. A variety of freshly tapped Norwegian beers await you here, as well as delicious homemade food. I must admit that this city, which is often used by many tourists only as a springboard to the Lofoten Islands, is definitely worth a visit.
As you will have noticed: I have fallen in love with this region! The fantastic natural landscape of Northern Norway with all its jagged mountain peaks and fjords, as well as the people, who love their country and welcome you so warmly – I’d definitely recommend this destination, no matter what time of year you’d like to visit. Long summer nights, the northern lights or simply an active holiday in spring or autumn time – a trip here is always worth it and this was definitely not my last visit. But I’d like to give you one final tip. Depending on your travel time and interests, make sure you’re well informed with regard to transportation beforehand. Domestic flights can cost between 400 and 500 Norwegian kroner, or up to 3,000 kroner, depending on the time of booking. The same applies for rental cars – the time of booking is crucial.
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