Up there with the likes of Mount Everest, the Great Barrier Reef, the Victoria Falls and the Grand Canyon amongst the great natural wonders of the world, for thousands of years the Northern Lights have captivated those lucky enough to witness them.
Also referred to as Aurora Borealis or the polar lights, this beautiful naturally occurring phenomenon of bright dancing lights can be witnessed from September to March. On eerily dark nights in high-latitude regions around the Arctic the sky comes alive with explosions of enchanting colours.
Stunning Northern Norway
Northern Norway offers an array of destinations for viewing the Northern Lights, with plenty of additional Arctic adventures available along the way. Across the vast Northern Norwegian regions of Finnmark, Troms and Nordland and in the spectacular Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard, in the Arctic Ocean, there are numerous charming locations to visit.
The aurora are in fact collisions of particles entering the earth’s atmosphere carrying electrically charged energy from the sun. They appear in predominantly green and pink colours, whilst shades of blue, green, red, violet and yellow can also be witnessed. Although the scientific explanation for the Northern Lights is now known, for centuries they have been wrapped up in mythology and story-telling, which all good local tour guides can provide you with a decent grip on.
Getting there and getting around
Organising your trip to Northern Norway to observe the stunning Northern Lights need not be tricky. We offer a variety of tours with Globus that take care of transport, accommodation and additional activities, including fjord tours, ferry trips, local food tastings, and sightseeing.
Meanwhile, there are extensive choices of cruises from Hurtigruten, whose vast fleet sails up and down the Norwegian coast, calling at over 30 ports. Hurtigruten’s cruise ships are good platforms for viewing the Northern Lights, especially when they are sailing away from the light pollution of towns and cities, offering clearer views of the dark sky.
Tromsø – an Arctic gem
Known as the ‘the capital of the Arctic’ Tromsø is a busy city with a population of just over 70,000, making it the largest in Northern Norway. Even in downtown Tromsø you feel the immediate connection with nature, given its proximity to nearby fjords, mountains and islands.
Tromsø is a great base from which to observe the Northern Lights, with daily excursions out of the city to observation camps by snowmobile, dog sled and reindeer sled. It’s also located in the heart of the auroral oval, which boasts the highest probability of witnessing the Aurora Borealis.
Then in the city itself you can explore Arctic history and culture – call in at the Arctic Cathedral, Polar Museum and the arctic themed Polaria Visitor Centre – whilst sampling fine contemporary cuisine along the way.
Alta – the city of the aurora
Another great option is Alta, the largest settlement in the Finnmark region, with 20,000 inhabitants and close to the world’s very first Northern Lights observatory. Researcher Kristian Birkeland constructed the observatory on the top of Mount Haldde, the highest peak in the Altafjord, at the end of the nineteenth century.
There is now a museum there and this is a fine historical site from which to take in nature’s greatest night sky spectacle. You might want to stay at the nearby Sorrisniva Igloo Hotel and perhaps take a bus trip into the vast, sparsely populated Finnmark plateau where the most dedicated Aurora Borealis aficionados head for the best chance to see the lights in their full glory. Taste the Sami and Finnish influenced food, with dishes including Alta salmon, game and reindeer – all sourced locally.
The beautiful Svalbard archipelago
To take your northern adventure to the next level head to Svalbard, a wilderness of rugged islands in the Arctic Ocean en route to the North Pole, 900km from the Norwegian mainland. Here you will encounter vast glaciers, giant mountains and polar bears in their natural habitat, with the Northern Lights dazzling overhead.
There is no regular direct transport to Svalbard from Norway by boat, though a number of cruise companies will take you there on round trips without offering passage to the islands. The most common way to reach Svalbard is by plane, to the world’s most northern airport for scheduled flights: Svalbard lufthavn, Longyear. There are daily flights to and from Oslo and Tromsø throughout the year.
In the months of November, December, January and February, there is no daylight in Longyearbyen and its remoteness makes it a great place to enjoy the Northern Lights. For more information on exploring the area take a look at the ‘Visit Svalbard’ site, which provides details on how to make your way between the local settlements and the best activities the islands have to offer.
The clear skies of Narvik
Easier to access than Svalbard, the town of Narvik is another fine destination for aurora gazing and emerging oneself in Scandinavian winter culture. It is well connected to the rest of Norway by train, bus, car or boat and also has its’ own airport – Harstad/Narvik – nearby.
Located in the breathtaking Ofoten Region, Narvik is surrounded by mountains which jut strikingly out of the Ofotfjorden. The skies here are particularly clear, meaning there are often ideal conditions for viewing the Aurora Borealis. The Narvikfjellet mountain close to Narvik offers some of the best skiing in Norway and is also an excellent aurora observation point. At the nearby Polar Park Arctic Wildlife Centre you can encounter wolves, whilst there are wildlife safaris on offer throughout the winter.
Lofoten Islands – accessible wilderness
From Narvik you could also travel on to the Lofoten Islands by car or bus, enjoying stunning scenery along the way as you head to Svolvær. A good base for exploring the rest of Lofoten, Svolvær has its own small airport and the islands can also be reached by regular ferries.
The Lofoten Islands are known for great fishing, whale safaris, colourful fishermen’s cabins and a rich history which can be traced back to the Vikings. During the winter months the Northern Lights dance across the sky and are reflected in the sea.
A vast northern wilderness to explore
Given the vast scale of the north of Norway there are many more places which offer great viewing of the Northern Lights, including Andøya, Bodø, Hamn i Senja, Harstad, Kirkenes and Lakselv. Check out the excellent Norway Lights website for more information on those destinations.
For further ideas on fantastic winter experiences check out our piece on the best sites to see on Iceland's Southern Coast.