Seeing the Northern Lights is on many travellers’ bucket list. To make this dream a reality, I decided to search for the Northern Lights in Tromsø, Norway. Read my travel story below, or click here to find my Say Yes to a Northern Lights adventures: tips to make this bucketlist activity a reality.
“We’d better change our sneakers for snow boots.”
Our first glimpse of Norway when stepping out of the plane, is blurred by snow flakes. We have been checking the weather forecast feverishly in the last couple of weeks, hoping for clear skies instead. The reason we travelled all the way to the Arctic Circle is our long-held wish to see the spectacular Northern Lights. We have just arrived in Tromsø, one of the high-chance areas for seeing the Northern Lights. But instead of calm weather, we find ourselves in the middle of a snow storm. The search is on.
A thick blanket of snow
Chilly wind blows in our faces, our jackets are quickly covered in a layer of snow. The snow boots on our feet help us find some grip on the slippery walkways. It is hard to tell if we are walking on the pavement or on the street. The thick blanket of snow conceals any sight of height differences.
In our hotel, we add some more layers of clothing to our outfit before we head into town. For our first evening in this so-called ‘Paris of the North’ we have booked tickets for a midnight concert in the Cathedral of Tromsø.
Tromsø is beautifully positioned on mountain slopes. The Tromsøysundet strait divides the city in halves: mainland and island. A tall, white bridge connects the different parts of town.
While most tourists take a taxi or the bus to cross the strait, we decide to make our way to the other side of the city by foot. It is a slippery 15 minute evening walk that provides wonderful views of the city. All the way, the features of Arctic Cathedral stand out against the dark skies. While we halt to stare down in the glistening black waters of the river, snowploughs slowly pass us by. The shovels are much-needed but slow down the traffic. We are quicker to cross the bridge on foot than any of the tourists that stepped into a car.
The Arctic Cathedral in Tromsø
The Arctic Cathedral, also known as Ishavskatedralen, is a modern piece of architecture. The design is radically different from the traditional wooden houses we walked passed in Tromsøya. The church is made of white aluminium panels that form a line of triangles. The façade is entirely made from glass. Inside, a glass mosaic adorns the otherwise simplistic interior. It is the perfect atmosphere for tonight’s concert.
With her immaculate voice, the soprano creates an almost magical atmosphere. The cellist performs my favourite Bach composition (Prelude in G). The pianist is unable to keep his feet on the ground while plays classic Norwegian songs. I am carried away by this enchanting setting. Somehow, it increases the anticipation to see the Northern Lights.
Tromsø’s city center has a sleepy yet agreeable appearance thanks to the colourful wooden houses that line the streets. But like the Cathedral on the other side of the strait, Tromsøya also features some remarkable modern buildings. The white, arched Public Library in the city center for instance, and the arctic cinema Polaris further North.
For me, spending a day in town is primarily optimizing the waiting time until we get to it. I have travelled 350 kilometres above the pole circle to see the Northern Lights, not to stroll around in boutique shops. Luckily, Tromsø makes for he perfect waiting area.
In the morning, the smell of warm cinnamon buns lures us into a hip café for breakfast. Fuelled up, we take a cable car up to the mountain. The views of the smaller islands is marvellous but we can only enjoy it for a couple of minutes. The skies are filled with clouds.
Back in town, we enjoy an arctic taste platter with cravat lachs and king crab. We usher in the evening with a reindeer burger and a cold beer from the local brewer Mack (‘the northernmost beer brewery in the world’). And then finally, it is time to hit the road for a proper Northern Lights search.
The best conditions to search for the Northern Lights
From the moment the skies start to darken, we start checking the webcam of the Tromso skies. It is just one of the many websites and apps that we use to check the weather conditions. Clear skies are evidently a requirement to see the Northern Lights. Data on magnetic activity, providing Kp values, scores and percentages, help to indicate your chances of catching a glimpse of the Aurora Borealis.
To not leave everything up to mere luck, we had already booked an evening bus tour with Chasing Lights – one of the many tour companies in Tromsø offering northern lights tours. Getting on the bus after checking the webcam, we are not very hopeful though. The images showed only cloudy skies.
Our enthusiastic guide however tells us not to worry. We will drive as far as needed to get a clear view of the night skies. And the evening before they had caught a good show. Fingers crossed!
A professional Northern Lights search
Our guides – two international students – hop out of the bus every then and now to scan the skies for grey streaks. To check Northern Lights activity, they take a picture to see if any green lights are registered by their camera.
After some 30 minutes of driving, 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 is not the romantic spot in an open field that I had hoped for, but the Northern Lights shoot across the sky. The light flashes seem to originate from a jar that has opened somewhere on the horizon. Its intensity increases, decreases and then increases again. The lights move above our heads in a humble dance performance.
The Northern Lights in shades of grey
It is an amazing sight, but I have to admit there are no ‘ohs’ and ‘ahs’ coming from my mouth. I had read about the lights being brighter and more colourful on pictures than what you can see with the naked eye. But still I had expected my eyes to register at least some green colours. Instead it’s just grey and white.
Picture perfect Northern Lights
‘Ohs’ and ‘ ahs’ are however coming from the direction of my partner. He is standing some metres away from me, playing with his camera settings. The photographs showing on his camera display are incredible. The pictures are undoubtedly bucket list worthy for any photographer: straight out of a National Geographic Traveller or Lonely Planet Magazine.
Dancing Northern Lights
Some minutes after I have 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 minutes later we get off again as the lights have restarted dancing.
The dancing, less humble now, gives me the dazzling feeling I had been hoping for. I find myself talking to the skies: “yes beautiful, bring it on, you can do it”.
Romance and Aurora Borealis
The next destination on the tour provides a more romantic setting to enjoy the painted skies. We halt at a lake shore with beautiful mountains on one side, and a village as a backdrop on the other side. While the other tour participants enjoy a cup of tea besides a small fire, we walk away from the crowd.
Standing close to the lake on the snow-covered field, we behold the natural phenomenon in silence. My romantic soul wishes we would be spending the night here in a tent under the starry heavens. It is probably only good that this is a fantasy instead of reality. After an hour of star- and Northern Lights gazing I am frozen to the bone and happy to hop on the heated bus again.
Search completed: we found the Northern Ligths
Just before we arrive back in Tromsø (now 01:00) our ever excited guide wakes up the sleepy group. We have last chance to catch glimpse of the Aurora Borealis. It is more clouded now and thus harder for our own eyes to single out the Northern Lights. My partner’s camera is still going strong though and points us in all the right directions.
And so, for the third time today, we witness a wonder of nature that mobilizes millions of travellers to the Arctic territories of the globe.
I have to admit that I am not as impressed as I had expected to be. The images I conjured up when booking the trip, were those of intense light shows with popping colours of green and hints of purple. But I am satisfied nonetheless. We can only be grateful that the snow storm we landed in merely caused us trouble in the form of a flight delay. Snow flakes and shreds of cloud made way for clear skies. And the Northern Lights – we got what we came for.
Say yes to a Northern Lights adventures: tips to make this bucketlist activity a reality
What is the best time of the year to see the Northern Lights?
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!
What is the best place in Scandinavia to search for the Northern Lights?
The less light pollution, the better. From that perspective, the best place to see the Northern Lights would be somewhere in the wilderness. Getting around in the snow-covered wilderness is a lot more difficult than when heading out of a village though. Tromsø in Norway and Kiruna in Sweden are famous for their high chances of seeing the Northern Ligths. I have been to both places and was lucky to see the Northern Lights in both areas. Click here to read about my Swedish wilderness adventure in Kiruna.
Should I book a tour to see the Northern Lights?
If you want to be sure to get a glimpse of the Northern Lights during your stay in Tromsø, I 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 am 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.
What are the best camera settings to photograph the Northern Lights?
Against better knowlegde, I try 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 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 have 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.
What is the best Northern Lights app?
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.
Is Tromsø’s cable car worth it?
Tromsø is beautifully located amidst a landscape of fjords and islands. You can take the cable car up the mountain for magnificent views of the smaller islands, sea, and mountains surrounding the city.
Take your chances as soon as there are some sun rays shining through the often overclouded fjord. My advice is not to bother going up when it is cloudy. 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 to warm up. The chilly wind will simply have you freezing so much you cannot to 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 shows beautiful footage of the Svalbard area and the Northern Lights, and you can visit the botanical garden near the University of Tromsø.
Winter activities from 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. Snow might not fall for an entire week, which means not all snow activities are on offer. 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. Instead of in Tromso, we had a dog sledding experience in Abisko National Park, Sweden. Read here about that husky musher experience.