Although I normally talk about Australia in my blog, I had to write about beautiful Norway and my Northern Lights/Aurora Borealis experience.
Where to go to see the Northern Lights
I’ve always wanted to stay in a glass igloo in Finland to see the Northern Lights. However, we decided to go to Tromso, which is right at the top of Norway, to discover the Norwegian culture and stay in a big-ish city. I was initially under the impression that Tromso was only a tourist town. But when I arrived, I found out it is actually a proper city with many activities and industries, in addition to tourism.
Where to stay
Yes, Tromso is a city but tourism is important. That gives you lots of options for accommodation. We stayed at Scandic Ishavshotel and enjoyed it very much. It’s in the centre of town, next to the sea and the rooms have views of both the city, the mountains and the sea. The buffet breakfast with included barista coffee was especially great.
When to go
Most of the information on the internet says March has the most ideal conditions for seeing the Northern Lights, since it has the best combination of clear skies and long, dark nights. But it’s possible to see the lights between September and March. We were in Tromso in December and were lucky enough to see them.
How long to stay
There is a huge luck factor in seeing the Northern Lights. But of course you can increase your chances by staying longer. One of our tour guides said that the longest amount of time he goes without seeing the Northern Lights is three consecutive nights. This matches our experience. We weren’t able to see the lights on the first three nights, but on the fourth night we had clear skies and lots of Northern Lights activity to see.
I’d say going on a tour to see the Northern Lights, especially in Tromso, makes huge sense for the following reasons:
1. You need to ‘chase’ the lights. This is because a clear sky is necessary to be able to see the lights. Tour companies know the weather conditions and the area in general. They take you to the places where you have the best chance to find a clear sky. The night we saw the Northern Lights, we started in the north of Tromso, then went to Finland and finally chased the clear skies all the way to the Swedish border.
2. Snow. Everywhere. If you’re not experienced in driving in snow, let someone experienced drive for you. The tour companies use ‘specialist’ drivers, whose only job is to drive the bus on the snowy roads.
3. Tour companies know where to go. The main aim is always to see the lights. However, nice scenery affects your experience a lot. And tour companies know where the most scenic locations are. Even if there is no Northern Lights activity, you enjoy beautiful Norway. If there are lights, you’ll have the best Northern Lights photos with the best scenery. Also, you need to know where to go as you need a secure spot to park the car. So some local knowledge is not bad.
4. Photography. Tour guides are also experienced photographers with Digital SLR cameras to take photos of the lights and yourself. Think about it. Photos… Professional photos…
These are the main reasons why a tour might be good and I can definitely recommend Chasing Lights, the tour company we went with. They have a few different options. We chose the 7-day pass enabling you to attend any nights during those seven days. The bus size is also a decision point. We traveled with their big buses. They were pretty comfortable.
The last information I’d like to give is what happens during the tour. It starts at 6 pm. They drive out of the city and out of the city lights. If there’s an area with a clear sky close by, the trip might be an hour. If not, they drive 2-3 hours until they find a clear sky. During the trip, you may stop a couple of times to look at the scenery and get some photos taken. When you actually find clear sky, you ‘camp’. Basically you spend time looking at the sky and drinking some hot chocolate by the fire. Depending on how the Aurora Borealis activity is going, you finish the tour and start driving back to Tromso around 1 am.
What to expect
Maybe it’s my ignorance, but I learnt the big truth when we were planning the trip. Apparently when you see the Northern Lights with the naked eye it looks very different to what you see in the photos. You generally see the lights as a white-gray cloud stretching across the sky. Only when you take a photo with a camera, using a longer exposure time, can you see the green, and sometimes pink, hues. Still, seeing white lights appearing in the night sky, dancing and changing shape every few minutes, is a pretty magical experience.
As I mentioned above, you need a camera that can take in the lights in a long exposure. And definitely a good tripod to stay stable during the exposure! I’m not an expert in camera settings but I learnt a trick from the tour guides. Use your phone’s flash to send extra light on your face just momentarily and you’ll have the nicest photos of yourself with the lights. Also I recommend using the brightness from the phone screen light to take some ghost photos. Very fun!
Baby it’s cold outside. Very cold. In Tromso centre, I was wearing thermals, thick jeans, thick jumper, a beanie, a scarf, gloves, boots and a down jacket that reached down to my knees. When on the tour, you need something better though. You can get inside the bus to get warm and spend quite a time inside. However, you still spend a lot of time outside. I wore my snowboard pants, snowboard gloves and a very -very- good fleece jacket on the tour. I also recommend chemical hand warmers, which can also be used to warm up your feet. Still, nothing can protect you from Arctic cold when it’s below -10 degrees. Just telling…
Oh yeah, it’s expensive. I think accommodation and tours are expensive, but reasonable. However food is extremely expensive. We paid 50 AUD per person per meal. And this was not even at fancy places. We were never brave enough to get steak.
Tromso is a city where you can take the time to explore and spend time in restaurants and cafes. There are also plenty of options for Arctic experiences like dog sledding, Arctic Spa, whale watching, reindeer farm visit etc. We spent a morning going dog sledding and it was amazing. Steering the sled yourself is a pretty good experience and riding with such excited dogs was extremely nice.
Tromso in general
I really loved Tromso and Norway. It was such a winter wonderland. Christmas, snow, lights, fjords and everything. It also felt a bit foreign. Normally, the global culture is everywhere and feels a little familiar everywhere you go. Tromso, however, felt different from anywhere else I had been and I loved it. Even if there were no Northern Lights, I would visit Tromso again for everything else it has to offer. I definitely recommend it!