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Chasing the Northern Lights (and Much More) in Tromsø, Gateway to the Arctic

Chasing the Northern Lights (and Much More) in Tromsø, Gateway to the Arctic

A million stars were suspended in the silent black cosmos, like the thoughts that evaded my consciousness amid everyday life. Even in the numbing, shin-deep snow I couldn’t take my eyes off the constellations – I had to make sure that each time a star blinked off it’d reappear.

But then, a pale, grey smudge formed in the distance.

For two nights I’d wandered the outskirts of town for hours, eyes peeled for just a glimpse of the aurora borealis. My visit to Tromsø seemed cursed with stormy weather and low auroral activity, even as online forums raved about last week’s spectacular sightings. Damn.

With only two more nights left, I got anxious and booked a guided “Northern Lights Chase” tour. The next night, after driving two hours out of Tromsø in search of clear skies, I found myself somewhere in Skibotn. With what seemed like a raincloud threatening to break my lonely, desperate heart.

If you’ve been yearning to catch a glimpse of the Northern Lights, you’re not alone – this was my main goal for my very first solo trip abroad. This in-depth guide will convince you why Tromsø is your best bet for seeing the aurora and experiencing Norway’s wintertime beauty!

Why see the northern lights in Norway?

Thanks to media hype in the past few years about “peaking” aurora sightings, as well as some savvy marketing, northern lights trips have become especially popular in that other expensive country…(Iceland). Yet, Norway has got plenty going for it: hip cities, mild seasons, friendly people, and immense natural beauty that will have you high on adventure adrenaline for weeks.

Where to see the northern lights: Tromsø

According to NorwayLights, there 10 main locations in Norway where you can reliably see the northern lights. These are mostly located within the Arctic Circle, that magic zone near the North Pole where aurora visibility is the highest.

However, I chose to chase the northern lights in Tromsø mainly due to its reputation as the “Gateway to the Arctic”. This video will show you just why it’s so amazing!

Tromsø is one of the biggest cities within the Arctic Circle; it’s historically been the launching point for research expeditions and is home to the world’s northernmost university (University of Tromsø). This means it’s more accessible, with more affordable options for budget travelers, as well as plenty of nightlife and other attractions to keep you entertained. If you’re lucky, you may even see the lights from the city center!

Should you book a northern lights tour?

I wasn’t lucky, of course, which was why I’d sought help from local tour operator Arctic Explorers at the last minute. There are plenty of excellent tour companies offering northern lights tours in Tromsø, so solo travelers should have no problem booking upon arrival. If you’re traveling in a group, book in advance!

My tour group chasing the northern lights in Tromsø

Tour types: I strongly suggest booking a small group tour to see the northern lights, rather than a bus tour. Although they’re more expensive, the small group tours often drive further and stay out longer – literally going the extra mile to help you witness this life-changing phenomenon. My group set off at 8pm and we watched the lights till 2-3am, only returning to Tromsø at 4am!

Tour costs: The average price for a small group northern lights tour in Tromsø is NOK 1500 ($190)/night. Browse tour operators and reviews.

What to expect: Your Tromsø aurora tour operator should provide you with a snow suit, hat, gloves/mittens, and snow boots to keep you warm while watching the northern lights. My tour also involved a nice supper of the best freeze-dried meal I’ve ever had, sitting around a little fire.

Can you chase the northern lights in Tromsø without a tour?

Good news! It is entirely possible to rent a car and go self-driving in Tromsø to chase the northern lights – if you have the time and skills to do so.

First and foremost, you should be a skilled driver with experience driving in heavy snow. Fellow blogger Karen of Wanderlustingk has a comprehensive guide to driving in Iceland in winter, and the same rules apply to arctic Norway/Finland/Sweden even though the roads are frequently cleared by snowplows. If you’re not experienced enough, this is what happens:

You don’t have to worry about crossing the land borders as there are no checkpoints or controls, though you should notify your car rental company and always have your travel documents with you just in case.

Secondly, you’ll need to check the weather and aurora forecast. The Aurora Service website provides highly detailed, real-time information about solar activity and aurora strength, but you’ll also need to make sure you choose a location with clear skies – clouds will obscure even the strongest lights.

Finally, as with any road trip, you need to be well-equipped with warm clothing, emergency rations, and basic survival gear. If you choose to wait for the lights outdoors/outside your vehicle, you must move around constantly to stay warm.


What’s the best time to see the northern lights?

Best time to see the northern lights: Aurora Visibility in Norway. Info from NorwayLights

The best time to see the northern lights applies to all locations in the northern hemisphere: while aurora activity occurs from September to March, late November to January are best avoided as this is the height of winter, with lots of clouds and snowstorms. I’ve had friends who have seen the aurora even in the light-polluted city, and also friends who saw nothing even on 10-day trips.

“That’s how unpredictable and elusive it is,” quipped my guide Thomas. “We never trust the meteorologists. Sometimes on a cloudy night like this, just when you’re about to give up and go home, the most amazing shows appear.” Here’s where the advantage of a tour comes in: tour operators typically have a few teams heading out in different directions, and when one team finds the aurora, they’ll let the others know (much like on safari!)

Tromsø is also popular as northern lights destination because of its mild weather: I was there in March, and it was roughly -10°C outside on a calm night. Of course, you’ll still need to have ample clothing to stay warm for hours. (Tip: wear quality base layers and windproof shells, and bring heat packs!)

What to do when you actually see the northern lights

Let’s jump back into where I was: somewhere in Skibotn, shivering and squinting hopefully at the sky.

As I stood observing that little smudge, it didn’t seem quite like a cloud. It seemed…ever-so-slightly green in color. Even though I felt like a fool, hope overcame uncertainty and I nudged Thomas.

“What’s that?” I whispered. “Is that it?”

“Yep,” he grins. “It’s beginning.”

Let yourself be mesmerized. The aurora starts out slow, soft. You may not even notice it’s there until a swath of emerald has unfurled across the sky. Unknowingly you’ll step forward, wanting to get closer. Then the striations start their slow, ethereal dance and no matter how you try to find words for this magnificence, the only word that will escape your lips is wow.

You will ignore the cold biting mercilessly at your fingers and toes. You will strain your neck following the path of the lights overhead, as one streak fades and another takes over – another size, another pattern, another movement. It may seem silly, but I stood there and listened, even though the aurora made no sound.

Not the most brilliant show, but it was enough. Image credit: Thomas Hunger

There’s plenty of time to take photos, so make sure you fully immerse yourself in the experience. Long exposures and accelerated frame rates paint a picture of shimmering, dancing green rivers in the sky, but the reality is that those come recording a decent show of at least an hour!

Even on nights where the lights “buzz” and “dance”, it’s like the world moves in slow motion – strong aurora displays can last for hours or even all night. For me, it was only about four hours later that the lights finally, slowly faded away, leaving the night sky to the stars once again.

Believe me, photos don’t tell you how indescribably beautiful it is to witness the Northern Lights in person, because you don’t just see it. You feel it resonating within your soul.

Other things to do in Tromsø

While seeing the northern lights in Tromsø (or anywhere) is a bucket-list dream for many travelers, it’s also heavily dependent on luck and if you travel somewhere solely for this, you’re setting yourself up for disappointment. That’s why Tromsø is such a great choice for a northern lights trip: there’s lots to see and do here!

The Arctic Cathedral in Tromsø, Norway. Photo: Claudia Regina

Attractions in Tromsø

  • The Arctic Cathedral: this architectural masterpiece is one of Tromsø’s iconic landmarks.
  • Tromsø University Museum: a conglomerate of four museums documenting the natural and cultural history of the Arctic region.
  • Bar-hopping:
  • Fresh seafood: Tromsø is a great place to enjoy freshly caught wild salmon and other seafood!

Activities in Tromsø

  • Dog sledding: learn how to mush and drive a team of huskies.
  • Cruise or hike the fjords: Norway’s majestic, ragged coastline is the birthplace of Viking lore.
  • Skiing and snowboarding: a Norwegian friend told me that “we are born with skis on our feet!” Get a workout and enjoy fantastic views on Tromsø’s snowy slopes.
  • Cultural tours: learn about the indigenous Sami people
  • Whale watching: from October to February, whale species such as the Humpback whale, Killer whale (Orca), Harbor porpoise and occasionally, the Fin whale visit the coasts of Tromsø.

Where to Stay in Tromsø

Despite the Airbnb accommodation boom, demand for places to stay in Tromsø remains high in both summer (thanks to the Midnight Sun Maration) and winter months. Do check far in advance to secure your ideal accommodation.

Find Airbnb accommodation in Tromso Norway

Budget Pick: Airbnb

Find affordable private rooms as a solo traveler, or entire apartments to share as a group.

CHECK AVAILABILITY

Downtown Hotels in Tromso, Norway

Unique Views: Tromsø Camping

Stay in cabins or park your mobile homes at this campground just across Tromsø Bridge in Tromsdalen; get panoramic views of Tromsøya island!

CHECK AVAILABILITY

Find Airbnb accommodation in Tromso Norway

Quiet Spot: Bjørn & Bibbi’s

Tastefully decorated boutique apartments on the southern tip of Tromsø. Rates start from $343 (NOK 2,800)/2 nights minimum.

CHECK AVAILABILITY

Downtown Hotels in Tromso, Norway

Best Downtown: Skansen Hotel

While cheaper than similar downtown hotels, stays at Skansen Hotel include breakfast + free WiFi! Rates start from $109 (NOK 890)/night.

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How to get to Tromsø

More on Norway

Check out these guides by Kristine, The Petite Wanderess:

Credits

Photos/videos: Sharon Ang (Pixabay), James Tan (Vimeo), Thomas Hunger

Chase the Northern Lights in Tromsø, Norway, and you'll discover even more bucket-list experiences in this extraordinary Arctic city.

Tromsø is served by direct flights from Oslo, Bergen, and several other Norwegian cities, as well as London and Stockholm. Check your flight options!

Plan for delays flying in and out during winter – my flight out was delayed by a snowstorm and I experienced my first plane de-icing (fun fact: according to the pilot, it cost $10,000!)

Would you see the Northern Lights in Tromsø or elsewhere in Norway? What else would you like to know?

26 Comments

  1. Just yesterday I was looking for a small trip in February to watch the Northern Lights… My initial idea was to go to Iceland, although now I am rethinking if maybe Norway would be a good alternative. It also seems to be cheaper than Iceland… I am starting to like this idea! Thanks for sharing!

    • Brooke
      2 years ago

      I won’t lie – Norway isn’t cheap either, though maybe slightly cheaper than Iceland. Hence I recommend choosing accommodation that includes breakfast (or buying groceries and cooking if you’re staying more than 5 days.) Guess it depends on where you can get cheap flights!

  2. 2 years ago

    I love your whole description of your experience. It’s like you transported me to that very point watching it happen. I have always wanted to see them. I’m just not a fan of cold countries. Great writing and photos.

    • Brooke
      2 years ago

      Thank you! The cold was an ordeal for me too (coming from near the Equator), guess I can only say it’s worth it…

  3. 2 years ago

    It looks so lovely! Glad you explained it in details 🙂 And I’m sure I would be soooo mesmerized there, looks amazing 🙂

  4. 2 years ago

    I absolutely adore this post! I went to Iceland to chase the Northern Lights and I was equally unlucky with the weather throughout most of my time there (although I went in March which is supposed to be one of the better months for sightings). On our last night we were lucky enough to see them really faintly but nothing like the photo you got! So, for this reason I’m desperate to go again and give it another shot. And, yes, next time I’m thinking somewhere like Tromsø or somewhere in Finnish Lapland 🙂

    • Brooke
      2 years ago

      Haha that’s the thing – photos lie! My guide said what we saw only scored of 1 out of 10 in terms of awesomeness 🙁 But I only had the one night. Let’s hope we both get better sightings in future!

  5. 2 years ago

    What an incredible experience, beautifully conveyed. I loved what you said about listening to the silent lights, and how they command the attention with every sense.

    • Brooke
      2 years ago

      Thank you! The locals I’ve chatted with will probably disagree though 😉

  6. upsidedowntral
    2 years ago

    loved your article! I did see the aurora in iceland, and while the experience was amazing, I do agree that going on one of those big 60 people bus tours was not ideal.. But it was the only thing on offer so of course we did it. Also, aurora season peaking in March and oct-nov?! i had no idea!I shall be looking at tromso in the veeeeery near future 😉

  7. 2 years ago

    The northern lights has been top of my husband’s bucket list (and that of many friends as well) for years – I’ve always been a bit hesitant, due to their unpredictability as you mentioned, but I must say your description almost has me sold! I’m really grateful for your guides to other things to see and do in the area, so at least it won’t all be for naught if the weather doesn’t co-operate. Thank you for sharing! Better pack my mittens… 😉

    • Brooke
      2 years ago

      That reminds me – I should add that while Iceland is an island, in Norway/Sweden/Finland one can drive inland/across the border as needed to escape any clouds and find clear skies. Granted there must be a good aurora forecast that night 😉

  8. 2 years ago

    Ahhh I’m dying to go see the northern lights! They look incredible, and sounds like it was such an experience. Thanks for Sharing your experience, looks like you got some amazing photos too!

  9. 2 years ago

    Yay this is awesome! I am going to be here in a couple of weeks and I really hope the Northern Lights come out to play!

  10. 2 years ago

    Sounds like a great trip. I think the tour would be nice to take rather than have it be self-guided. Thanks for sharing <3

  11. 2 years ago

    I have been to quite a few places in Norway but not Tromsø yet. Would very much go one day. Although if there is one place where I’d die to see the aurora that’s the Lofoten! I love theLofoten and I’d love to visit them in the winter. The dancing green lights there would be a nice bonus!

  12. 2 years ago

    I’d love to see the Northern Lights one day soon! Norway looks so gorgeous and less hyped up than Iceland truly. I like the idea of small group tours, even though its more expensive. Thanks for the insight!

  13. 2 years ago

    Excellent post! Answers all my questions I always asked myself. This is on my bucket list for a while. 🙂

  14. 2 years ago

    That’s such an informative and useful article. Northern light tour is surely in my bucket list. Thanks for sharing

  15. Sarah
    2 years ago

    Beautiful story of a breathtaking experience I’m sure. I would love to see the Northern Lights one day, but am concerned I wouldn’t withstand the cold. I guess I have to save all my money to get one of those glass hotels! 🙂

  16. 2 years ago

    Top of my bucket list (the next is in your post too –– dog-sledding)! Except I haven’t decide if I’ll head to Norway or Iceland or Finland to catch them, leaning towards Norway my love, of course! And till I have the funds for them. You know, I would be listening out for the sounds too whahaha, the scene really feels too cinematic to be just visual expressions in the sky. Omg, seeing this post reminded me again to remember my dreams and work towards them.

    Now just one question, do you remember how cold the temperature dipped? I thought I needed to be warned/mentally-warmed ahead.. ;p

    • Brooke
      2 years ago

      It was -10°C during the chase (calm night) but even with the snow suit and boots, we were all freezing (my group was all Asians with another 2 SG ladies). Our guide made a campfire and we actually took off our boots to warm our feet. You have to keep moving around, dancing, etc. while waiting to stay warm, and eat A LOT of carbs throughout the day. You’ll burn them don’t worry 😉

      • Kristine
        2 years ago

        -10! Oh gosh. But honestly I’d heard worse – and the campfires will help, and I think hard liquor too? Thank you!

  17. William Chua
    5 years ago

    hey .. that shot is not too bad already..cheers

    • Brooke
      5 years ago

      Haha it was taken by the guide. Next time I’ll be sure to ask for your expert advice when I’m going to hunt for the lights again!

  18. Ava
    6 years ago

    So glad for you that you manage to catch it, I look forward to my experience with the iights!

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