As a native Southern Californian whose family trips usually consisted of beach and sand, I’m not sure I would have believed you if you told me that one day I’d consider northern Norway my favorite winter vacation. Yet one week, three aurora sightings, 1,000 km of driving, endless islands scattered with picturesque rorbu fishing houses and countless bowls of fish soup later, here we are.
I don’t have enough good things to say about our trip to Norway. Everything was perfect. The countryside was among the most beautiful I had ever seen as we drove through (the only place that comes close to comparing in my mind is Banff National Park), and we constantly pulled over to take photos. We may have only gotten a few hours of daylight each day, but every moment was beautiful and worthwhile—like an eternal sunrise-sunset-golden hour that never waned until it faded into tranquil blue. We were astonished by how safe we felt (doors left unlocked, honor system at gas station, open box in which to return car keys with no accountability, etc.), and everything was fabulously clean.
But of course, a huge reason why we enjoyed our time is all the preparation that went into our trip. While our itinerary was a little ambitious, it was still one of the most relaxing trips I have ever experienced, and I’m excited to share our strategy with all of you!
We’re in the Arctic Circle, so you obviously already know it’s going to be cold. But what you may not know is that Tromsø is actually much warmer than other places on the same latitude due to the warming effect of the Gulf Stream! I received countless messages from people when we went commenting how cold it looked and how we must be freezing, but most of the time, this was far from the case. In addition to Tromsø being one of the best places to see northern lights, we chose this location because it was also one of the warmest. When we visited in the last week of November, it ranged from -4 to 6 C (25 to 43 F).
I’ll put together a more detailed arctic packing list in a different post, but in a nutshell, the things I’d recommend bringing include:
- Winter Outerwear: Jacket, Snow Pants, Snow Boots, Gloves, Hats/Earmuffs, Scarf
- Layers: Thermals, Wool Sweaters, Wool Socks, etc.
- Extras: Hand Warmers, Ice Grips, Chapstick/Lotion
- Technology: Extra Batteries (cold weather drains battery more quickly!)
If you’re visiting Norway during the winter, I’m assuming this is the main reason you’re going! In our week in northern Norway (three nights in Tromsø, one night in Hinnøya, two nights in Sakrisøy and one night in Harstad), we saw the aurora borealis three times. I would strongly advise you stay a full week so you can maximize your chances of seeing the lights! There’s a lot of factors that play into the visibility—from solar storms to cloud coverage. A clear night does not necessarily mean you will for sure see the lights, and a cloudy night does not mean that they won’t perhaps break through. So you’ve always got to be on the lookout!
In our experience, the lights didn’t usually come out until sometime after 9:00pm (our strongest sightings happened between 11:00pm-12:30am). In addition to checking weather, I downloaded and frequently checked five different Aurora Forecast apps on my phone as we hunted. Listing them below here, ranking what I found most to least helpful:
- Aurora Forecast
- AuroraBorealis Forecast
Each camera will be a little different, but below are the general settings that I found worked well for my Sony A7iii mirrorless camera:
- MODE: Manual
- Very important to be in Manual mode so you can dictate shutter speed/ISO/etc.!
- LENS: 15mm
- The wider the lens, the better to capture more of the lights!
- FOCUS: Set to Infinity
- Everyone has a slightly different “infinity” focal point, so play around with your camera bit to find yours. Mine is toward the verryyyyy end of the focus spectrum.
- APERTURE: 2.8
- You’ll want your aperture to be the maximum (lowest number) possible, as this means it’s the largest opening to let light into the camera (think of your pupils dilating in the dark). My particular 15mm lens went down to 2.8, but even better if you have a lens that goes down to 1.8!
- ISO: 1600 – 4000
- This measures your sensor’s sensitivity to light (higher number lets in more light, but makes the image grainer). I put my camera on “Auto,” but enforced the above range so that my camera could choose the optimal ISO within the range I specified!
- SHUTTER SPEED: 4” (four seconds)
- The longer the shutter speed, the more light that reaches the image sensor in your camera. This also means that a longer shutter makes for a blurrier image, so if you yourself are standing in the photo, you must be verrryyyy very still. I varied my images between a 2” shutter and an 8” shutter speed.
- TRIPOD: AN ABSOLUTE MUST.
- Last but not least—this is very important! Seriously, bring your tripod with you.
As stated earlier, we drove nearly 1,000 km (that’s roughly 620 miles!) over the course of our week in Norway. I’ve had people inquire whether a car is a necessity for Norway, and while it’s not needed for Tromsø, it certainly is important in Lofoten for exploring. Especially in the wintertime, when you’re trying to get from place to place in freezing weather quickly before daylight runs out.
We rented a car at Tromsø Airport, Langnes (where we flew into at the start of our trip) and returned the same car to Harstad/Narvik Airport, Evenes (where we flew out of at the end). This definitely made the rental significantly more expensive (more on that below), but it was 100% worthwhile for us because we didn’t have the time to drive our rental car all the way back up to Tromsø.
The great thing about cars in Norway is that they’re all pre-equipped with studded tires. This means no need for chains! We rented some hybrid variation of a RAV-4, and had a lovely trip and only felt concern a handful of times driving through snowstorms on 2-lane highways (again—as Angelenos who don’t see much snow).
In Norway, if you have an EU/EEA driver’s license, you can use them interchangeably to drive for as long as your license is valid. If you are NOT from an EU/EEA country, you can drive without an international driver’s license for up to three months if your license is from the USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Greenland, Switzerland, South Korea, Monaco, Israel, San Marino or Hong Kong. As Americans, we didn’t need to get an international driver’s license ahead of our trip, which made things easier for us as well. More information here.
TROMSO OR LOFOTEN?
I’ve also had people ask me what we preferred—Tromsø or Lofoten? This is an impossible question to answer. We actually LOVED our time in Tromsø. It’s a good access point to other spots where you might see northern lights (we booked a tour with Wandering Owl the first night, which took us into Lapland, Finland in pursuit of the aurora), and winter is peak season, so it’s easy to find open restaurants. We also booked a super fun dog sledding experience (my husband’s favorite part of the trip!). There were other fun tour options if we had stayed longer (e.g. whale watching, meeting arctic reindeer, etc.). Tromsø is also fairly easy to get around without a car—we walked or took the bus everywhere.
Lofoten, meanwhile, is a stunning region filled with natural beauty. My friend once described it as, “If the Maldives and Iceland had a baby,” and while I’ve never been to either, I think it’s an accurate assessment. I’ve never wanted to pull over to take photos more than I did in Lofoten. That said, winter is NOT peak season for Lofoten. You won’t have many hours of daylight to go on any of their famous hikes, and open restaurants will be more difficult to find (truly—I think 3/4 places we attempted visiting were “closed for the winter”). You’ll need a car to get around, and there’s LOTS of driving. But it is so, so stunning.
IS NORWAY EXPENSIVE?
This is one of the questions I get most often. The quick answer is, yes, it can be pricey. But you can also make economic choices and not burn too much of a hole in your wallet. Convenience and experience were more important to us this trip than choosing the most affordable options, so it’s absolutely possible to get by without spending as much as we did. Here’s a brief breakdown of our main expenses:
We found that lodging wasn’t terribly expensive. On the cheaper side, we booked a full 4-bed 2-bath house for $90/night (think what a great deal that is if you’re traveling with 4-7 other people and can split the cost!). On the pricier side, we stayed at a nice hotel in Tromsø with a lovely breakfast buffet for $175/night.
These were not terribly cheap, but they were absolutely worth the money. We booked a dogsledding activity with huskies that included a brief mushing lesson, the opportunity for each of us to drive our own dogsled, a meet & greet with the dogs (and PUPPIES!) and lunch. This was $225.50/person for roughly four hours. We also booked an aurora hunt tour, which was $200/person. There are absolutely cheaper tour options, but we decided to splurge on this one because it was a small group tour (I think there were 10-12 people) for eight hours that included a brief review of northern lights, a professional photographer to show you how to photograph them and a delicious fireside meal. The tour was eight hours long—we departed from Tromsø around 6:00pm, and didn’t get dropped off at our hotel until after 3:00am. Our tour guides were so dedicated to the chase that they drove us into Lapland, Finland!
We tried to cook when we could, but for eating out, prices would vary. Here are some examples listed in USD:
$51: Mama Rosa (Lødingen) – Two pizzas and two glasses of red wine
$60: Henningsvær Lysstøperi and Café (Henningsvær) – Pizza, soup, shrimp sandwich, cinnamon roll and cappuccino
$85: Anitas Sjømat (Sakrisøya) – Salmon sashimi, fish soup, crab sandwich and cappuccino
$141: Fiskekompaniet (Tromsø) – Fish soup, Chef’s 3-Course (split between two people), two glasses of wine and dessert
$185: Chez Colin (Olso) – Two appetizers, one soup, one main, one dessert and four glasses of wine
We also spent a good amount of money on our rental car, mainly due to the fact that we picked it up in one location and dropped it off in another. You will definitely save a LOT if you pick up and return to the same spot, but if you’re pressed for time like us, it’s nice to have the option of flying into and out of different airports to cover as much new ground as possible. Our rental breakdown for a Toyota Rav4 Hybrid, below:
- $670 – Car rental for 5 Days, Pick-Up at Tromsø Airport, Drop-Off at Evenes Airport
- $112 – Fuel (two separate top-offs in Reine and Harstad)
*NOTE – About a month after we returned from our trip, we got an invoice email for an additional 395.25 NOK ($44.62 USD). When we asked what this charge was for, they informed us it was the cost of tolls. When we picked up our car in Tromsø, we were under the impression that tolls were included in the price of our rental, so this was a bit frustrating.
The rough outline of what we did during our Norway week is below. Note that we only had a few hours of daylight each day, and that we also made many impromptu stops to take photos on the road. Also note that we attempted to chase northern lights every evening (except in Oslo).
*NOTE – Especially in the winter, be cognizant of where you’re stopping and make sure it’s an actual pullout/designated parking area.
- Saturday 11/23 – Arrive in Tromsø in evening, explore a bit
- Sunday 11/24 – Dogsledding Tour (9:45am) and Northern Lights Tour (6:00pm)
- Monday 11/25 – Explore Tromsø, visit Arctic Cathedral, take cable car (Fjellheisen) up to Storsteinen
- Tuesday 11/26 – Pick up rental car, drive to and explore Lødingen (5 hours including time pulling over for photos!)
- Wednesday 11/27 – Drive to southern Lofoten (Sakrisøya), stopping in Svolvær, Henningsvær, Leknes, Haukland Beach, Nusfjord
- Thursday 11/28 – Explore southern Lofoten (Flakstadøya, Reine, Sakrisøy, Hamnøy, Å)
- Friday 11/29 – Drive to Harstad, stop along way taking photos
- Saturday 11/30 – Return rental car and fly to Oslo, explore Oslo (Vigeland Sculpture Park, Oslo Opera House, Damstredet og Telthusbakken) briefly before returning to airport
NORWAY TRAVEL INFORMATION
Currency: NOK (Norwegian Krone) – We never actually saw a Norwegian Krone, because it was very easy to pay with credit card everywhere we went!
Languages: Norwegian & Sami (official). Many people also speak English, Swedish, German and French
Safety: As stated before, VERY safe. The only place I’ve ever felt safer is probably Japan.
Weather: During the winter (November – March), ranges from a low of 22°F (-5.5°C) to a high of 43°F (6°C)
Airports: We found airport travel to be extremely easy and stress-free in Norway. I can’t speak for peak summer season, but in the winter, it never took us more than 15 minutes to get through airport security (and we didn’t even need to talk to any TSA agents!).
Norway has quickly become one of my favorite countries ever. I hope to go back during the summer someday and cover more ground, and I hope I’ve convinced you that a trip to Norway is worth your while!