Credit: S.A Sheppard
Tromsø (pronounced Trom-sa) is a pretty little Norwegian city situated approximately 150 miles into the Arctic Circle and home to the world’s most northerly university, planetarium and botanical garden. Because of its location, it’s developed a reputation as one of the best places to see the Northern Lights, or Aurora Borealis.
With NASA predicting that 2013 will be the year the sun reaches solar-maximum - the peak of an 11 year cycle - meaning the Lights will be at their most frequent and clear, the next few years are likely to yield the best shows for a decade. If you’ve always dreamed of seeing the Aurora Borealis, it’s a good time to start planning a trip to Tromsø!
Referred to locally as the ‘Tricky Lady’, the Northern Lights are, however, a natural phenomenon and famously elusive. Aurora chasers can maximise their chances of seeing the Tricky Lady dance by being outside between 6pm and 2am and geographically as far north as possible, ideally within the Arctic Circle. Dark and clear skies are necessary (though they can still be seen when the moon is full) but the Lights will only be visible to the human eye if there is sufficient solar activity; there are therefore no guarantees, no matter what you do!
These travel tips, based on personal experience, will help you have the best possible chance of seeing the Aurora Borealis but even if the Lady is shy, you’ll still get to experience the breathtaking beauty of the Arctic North and have the holiday of a lifetime!
When To Go
Tromsø is so far north that the summer months are too light to be able to see the Northern Lights – the midnight sun is a sight in itself but Aurora chasers should visit between September and early April when hours of daylight are at their minimum. During the period of polar night, from November to January, there is no daylight at all; a few hours of twilight are all that distinguish night from day.
October and November are typically rainy months, and clouds are an Aurora chaser’s enemy, so the odds are better after Christmas; February and March are considered the best months by many and are also ‘peak season’ in northern Norway. Travelling to Tromsø from January onwards has the added benefit of pretty-much-guaranteed snow; snow is good as without it, the number of other activities you can enjoy are limited.
How to Get There
Norway is an expensive country to visit, so it’s worth shopping around for flights, accommodation and transfers. Depending on your home country (I’m based in the UK) it’s likely you’ll need to fly to Oslo and then take a second flight from Oslo to Tromsø.
It’s worth doing your research when it comes to flights; make full use of price comparison and ‘discount’ sites. I’d also recommend clicking through via a cashback site to keep your spending to a minimum so that you can have more to spend on Aurora hunting. I used Topcashback (this is an affiliate link – if you choose to click through then you have my thanks; other cashback sites are available) for my flights, hotel and airport transfers and earned over £100 in cashback!
Upon arrival at Tromsø airport, you’ll find a regular bus that stops right outside the terminal doors. Opt for this rather than the taxi and make sure you ask for a return as it will save you a LOT of money! I think the bus was 15 NOK return for two adults. The bus drops off at various hotels in Tromsø, culminating at the Rica Ishavshotel on the harbour – the Radisson and Clarion With are less than five minutes’ walk from the bus stop.
Where to Stay
There is no shortage of good quality accommodation in, and around, Tromsø. As with flights, it’s worth doing your research but whether you want a cosy cabin under the stars or a city centre suite you’ll be able to find something that suits your needs.
The Radisson Blu, Rica Ishavshotel and Viking Hotel all get rated highly by tourists and are conveniently located in the heart of the city.
If you’re on a budget, like we were, there are several budget hotels and hostels. We stayed at the Clarion Collection With which doesn’t have the cheapest room price but wins hands-down on value-for-money as included in the room price is a hearty breakfast, afternoon waffles, a three course buffet-style dinner AND unlimited drinks and fruit 24/7. Staying here meant we didn’t have to spend a single precious NOK on food or drink – we even packed rolls and fruit from the buffet for an Aurora chasing snack! Instead, all our spending money was invested in experiencing the Arctic North and seeing the Tricky Lady dance. It was money well spent.
We also upgraded to a harbour-facing view, giving us a spectacular view of the Arctic Cathedral (and the Northern Lights – as north is just to the left of the Cathedral, so on a clear night it’s possible to watch the Tricky Lady dance from bed!).
What to Do
Aside from Aurora chasing, there are lots of experiences to be had in and around Tromsø. The city itself is incredibly pretty, with a good selection of shops and museums to explore. Most places are in walking distance (bring studded grips for your shoes) and there’s also a good bus service. The local Tourist Office is a mine of information and its staff will help you to book suitable activities.
Some of the most popular activities are:
Staying in a traditional Sami hut overnight
None of these experiences come cheap, but a good way to get a deal is to combine experiences with a reputable company. The best we found was Lyngsfjord Adventures: they’re a professional operation offering day and evening activities and overnight stays in their Sami village. Best of all, the village is situated in the countryside, far from light pollution, and so on a clear night you could find yourself in the back of a sled gazing up at the Northern Lights!
Locals recommend staying in Tromsø for at least five nights and being outside from 6pm to 2am. Several base layers and thermal outerwear is essential for standing outside for long periods of time.
If the skies over Tromsø are clear, it’s possible to see the Northern Lights from anywhere in the city but for best results, head to the lake at the top of the island to get away from light pollution.
It’s also worth investing in a guided Aurora chase, though these can be incredibly expensive and come with no guarantees. The best – and most popular – guides, such as Kjetil Skogli and Guide Gunnar, get booked up months in advance and therefore it may be worth booking a trip with them at the same time, or even before, booking your flights. The reason these guides are so sought after is because they have the knowledge and expertise to track down gaps in the cloud and will travel over the Finnish border to hunt their prey. They only take a small number of chasers, on a minibus, and provide camera tripods, thermal clothing and refreshments.
An alternative are the big bus tours, such as Arctic Guide Service. The bonus of the big buses is that they can be booked up to the time the tour starts, have an on-board wc and are substantially cheaper. However, often the size of the bus means they can’t get to the same locations as the smaller tours and the larger number of other chasers can, for some, detract from the experience.
Another option is to hire a car and chase the Aurora yourself. This can work out cheaper and gives you complete freedom but it’s well worth checking the weather immediately before setting off (the forecasts change frequently) and perhaps speaking to one of the experienced guides for advice if you’re going to head out alone.
We spent two nights at the lake, one with Guide Gunnar and one on the big bus. We were fortunate to witness the Aurora several times, though only on one night did she truly dance. Mostly she resembled pale green vapour trails that slowly changed position in the sky but when she danced, she danced: the sky filled with towering curtains of multi-coloured light that rippled and undulated overhead. It was an awe-inspiring and humbling experience, one that I’ll never forget.
Whichever option you choose, take a camera and a tripod if you want to immortalise the moment the Tricky Lady danced for you: some memories are priceless.Credit: S.A.Sheppard
Tromso is situates in northern Norway.