Encouraging the Northern Lights in Tromsø

Chasing Lights“We’d better change our Nikes for snow boots,” we said to each other while departing our plane and catching a first glimpse of Norway. After weeks of anticipation and feverishly checking the weather forecast hoping for clear skies to catch a glimpse of the Aurora Borealis – better known as the Northern Lights – my partner and I arrive in Tromsø in the middle of a snow storm.

Snow flakes fall all around us, the chilly wind blows in our faces and the snow boots on our feet help us to find some grip on the white walkways. Or are we walking on the street? We can’t really tell the difference as the thick blanket of snow conceals any sight of height differences.

For our first evening in this so-called ‘Paris of the North’ we’d booked tickets for a midnight concert (at 23:00 though) in the white, modern, triangle-shaped Cathedral of Tromsø.

A slippery 15 minute evening walk over a high bridge brings us from the Island Tromsøya (city centre) to Tromsdalen on the mainland. The walk to the other side of the glistening black water provides us with wonderful views of the city lights. On the road next to us snowplows slowly pass by, causing such slow traffic that we are quicker on foot to cross the bridge than any of the car drivers.

With her immaculate voice the soprano brings the magical anticipated feel of the Northern Lights to life. The cellist plays my favourite Bach composition (Prelude in G) and the pianist is unable to keep his feet on the ground while bringing to us in full devotion classic Norwegian songs. I am carried away by this enchanting setting of those three wonderful musicians in a picturesque Norwegian town 350 km north of the pole circle, playing in a simple and modern Cathedral. Carried away at least until the Chinese tourist behind us starts snoring.

Tromsø is beautifully positioned on mountain slopes, divided by the Tromsøysundet strait. Cute wooden houses share the streets with modern and white architecture such as the just mentioned Cathedral, the Public Library and Polaris (the arctic cinema). Cosy and hip cafe’s make you get that Paris feel, and although there’s some nice shops I do not see any further comparison with the city of love. Although I must say that in terms of the amount of tourists and touristy restaurants, the comparison is also spot on. For me, the latter diminishes that enchanting picturesque feel of the town, but despite the tourist loads it is still fairly easy to get bored in Tromsø.

A lovely stroll around town, a comforting cinnamon bun for breakfast, an arctic taste platter with cravat lachs and whale or a delicious king crab lunch, and a reindeer burger or stew for dinner. Perhaps a cold beer from the local brewer Mack (‘the northernmost beer brewery in the world’) in the afternoon, or rather a hot chocolate with whipped cream to warm up your hands. Take your chances as soon as there’s some sun rays shining through the often overclouded fjord town to take the cable car up the mountain for a magnificent view over the smaller islands, sea, and mountains surrounding Tromsø. I emphasise here to do so whenever the sky opens up a bit, since standing up there in the snow is also an interesting experience, but primarily has you sitting inside the canteen-like cafe with a hot chocolate and a Norwegian waffle simply because it’s too cold to follow the walking paths and enjoy the view – that is: if you have a view.

There are other activities in town such as the Polar museum with displays of the polar expeditions undertaken from this Northern part of Norway in the 1800 to 1950’s, cinema Polaris that shows you beautiful footage of the Svalbard area, and a botanical garden near the University of Tromsø. Out of town, tours can bring you cross-country skiing, dog sledding and humpback and killer whale sighting boat trips (if in the right season of course, which is from late October to mid January). Mind you that even when you arrive in winter and expect everything to be covered in snow, the weather can surprise you even in such a way that there’s not enough snow for dog sledding. Our idea for sleepy Sunday in Tromsø was to find some thrill in a musher experience, but due to the lack of snow in the entire week before we arrived in the snow storm, all was fully booked. So if you’re short on time, be sure to book your tours in advance.

Having described the activities to get everything out of your Tromsø visit, let’s cut to the case. Back to the weeks of anticipation: it was time to hit the road for a proper Northern Lights hunt. Seeing the magical green light show is on many people’s bucket list nowadays. There are websites and apps to check weather conditions (evidently, clear skies are a requirement to take in the spectacular nature phenomenon) and magnetic activity, providing you with Kp values, scores and percentages to indicate your chances of catching a glimpse of the Aurora Borealis. For us, the reason to venture out to the cold winter of Northern Norway and Sweden was to see the Northern Lights in their full glory. To not leave everything up to mere luck, we had booked an evening bus tour with Chasing Lights – one of the many tour companies in Tromsø offering northern lights tours. Checking the webcam of the Tromsø skies with our app before getting on the bus made us a bit wary (clouded skies), but when our enthusiastic guide told us not to worry since we would drive as far as needed to get a clear view of the night skies and they had caught a good show the night before, we had high hopes again. Although I must say, I find it’s always tricky when someone tells you that views has been amazing the day or night before, because disappointment of being so close yet seeing nothing increases when you know that if you would have just been there one day earlier you would have witnessed something amazing.

Our guides – a student from Estonia and another from the Netherlands – hop out of the bus every then and now to scan the skies for grey streaks and take a picture to see if any green lights are registered by their camera. And then the bus comes to a halt… Overexcited but not so quickly (it takes some time to put on all our layers of clothing again) we get out of the bus near a relatively busy road. It’s not the romantic spot on an open field I’d hoped for, but the Northern Lights shoot across the sky from a lid that seems to have opened somewhere on the horizon. Its intensity increases, decreases and then increases again – shooting over our heads and showing us a humble dance performance. It’s an amazing sight, but I have to admit there’s no ‘ohs’ and ‘ahs’ coming from my mouth. I’d read about the lights being brighter and more colourful on pictures than what you can see with the naked eye, but I had expected my eyes to register at least some green colours. Instead it’s just grey and white. ‘Ohs’ and ‘ ahs’ are however coming from the direction of my partner, who is standing some metres away from me, playing with his camera settings and amazed by the results his camera display is showing him. The pictures are undoubtedly bucket list worthy for any photographer: straight out of a National Geographic Traveller or Lonely Planet Magazine.

Some minutes after I’ve lost all feeling in my toes despite the two pairs of woolen socks and snow boots, we hop on the bus again to look for another scenery – only to get out a minute later as the lights have started dancing again. The dancing, less humble now, does give me that amazed feeling and I find myself talking to the skies: “yes beautiful, bring it on, you can do it” and trying to make some pictures and a movie with my compact camera. I can tell you now, that will not work. Please bring an SLR camera AND a tripod with you (if you don’t have it, borrow one – it’s really worth it!). This might seem a very obvious remark (who would spent this money and travel all the way to Northern Norway and not bring a good quality camera along?) but you would not be the first not to do so, nor the last to regret that.

Our second stop on the tour provides a more romantic experience of the painted skies. We halt at a lake shore with beautiful mountains on one side, and a lighted village as a backdrop on the other side. Standing on the snow-covered field next to the water gives us the opportunity to walk away from the group that’s heating up their hands over a small fire, and enjoy the light display in silence. My romantic soul wishes we would be spending the night here in a tent under the starry heavens, but fortunately we’re on a tour which means I cannot make this image a reality – I’m completely frozen after an hour and extremely thankful to be hopping on heated bus again.

Northern Lights_2

Just before we arrive back in Tromsø (now 01:00) our ever excited guide wakes up the sleepy group for a last glimpse of the lights that are visible again. As it’s more clouded now it’s harder for our own eyes to single out the Northern Lights from the overcast, but my partner’s camera is still going strong and points us in all the right directions.

And so we witness for the third time today a wonder of nature that has millions of people cross the globe to catch a glimpse of its beauty. Although I don’t feel fully satisfied as I had hoped for a more colourful, spectacular light show, we can only be grateful that the snow storm has only caused a delay in our flight and not in our wish to see the Northern Lights – we got what we came for.

Our recommendations for the best camera settings to photograph the Northern Lights:

  • As mentioned, use a SLR camera and a tripod.
  • Change from Automatic to Manual (M).
  • Use ISO 1600. Start from here, adjust accordingly.
  • Lengthen your shutter speed to 20 seconds. Start from here, adjust accordingly.
  • Set your aperture as low as possible (like 2.8). Start from here, adjust accordingly.
  • Set your focus on infinity to focus on a far away object, for instance a star.
  • Use the self-timer or a remote control. This will prevent a blurry image from the movement of you clicking the button.
We’ve also had some fun making pictures of people in front of the Northern Lights. A special tip for those pics:
  • After pressing the button, shine a flashlight on the people posing for you and ensure they stand still.

Create your own travel story!

Timing your visit is incredibly important if you travel all the way north for the Aurora Borealis. The best time to visit is from September to March for the simple reason that the night gets dark which enables you to see the Northern Lights. All you need basically is clear skies, darkness (so leave the city) and a portion of luck. Full moon can reduce the brightness with which you observe the Northern Lights, but on the other hand can create an even more special sight – so that’s up to you!

If you want to be sure to get a glimpse of the Northern Lights during your stay in Tromsø, I’d recommend to book a bus tour with one of the many tour operators in Tromsø. We chose Chasing Lights as they promise to drive you out for hours, if needed even to Finland, to find a patch of clear skies. They also offer multi-day tours.

I would advise you not to be swayed by the husky and snow scooter ‘Northern Lights’ tours if you haven’t caught a glimpse of the Aurora Borealis yet. I’m pretty sure it feels like pure magic to venture through winter wonderland and to look up at streaks of lights across the skies, but I wouldn’t bet on the odds of having clear skies at precisely the spot where you’ll be driving/sledding.

My favourite Northern Lights App to check the chances of seeing them was a Dutch one – Voigt Noorderlicht App. There are lots of similar Apps so you can easily find one in English or any other language, but you might still like this particular one as you can check the view of the skies from webcams installed throughout Lapland.

If you want to experience a Northern Lights concert in Tromsø’s Arctic Cathedral you’ll have to travel between February and March. You can pre-book tickets at Visit Tromsø.


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