Autumn is officially here, which means that everyone thinking about visiting Norway is obsessing over one thing: seeing the Northern Lights!
Okay, maybe not everyone planning a visit to Norway this autumn/winter is thinking about the Northern Lights, but I think it’s safe to say that most people have hopes to see them here.
And that’s for good reason too – I can’t think of many experiences I’ve had that have been more magical than watching the Northern Lights dance above me. They’re definitely worth the time, expense, and cold to see them at least once in a lifetime.
That said, I know there can be a bit of confusion surrounding the Northern Lights and how to set off in search of them. Now, I’m not a Northern Lights expert by any means, but I hope I can at least help you avoid some of the most common mistakes I see people make when trying to see the Northern Lights in Norway.
Staying too far south
I can’t tell you how many emails I’ve gotten from people telling me they’ve planned a trip to Oslo and/or Bergen this winter to see the fjords and Northern Lights.
I think because Norway has a small population people can forget that the country is actually huge! Or rather, really, really long. So all the gorgeous Northern Lights photos you see from Norway do not mean that you can see those views from anywhere in the country – you’re going to need to at least head north of the Arctic Circle for a good chance of seeing them.
And no, Trondheim is not far enough north. I feel like that misconception is partially my fault, as I wrote about seeing an amazing display of Northern Lights shortly after moving to Trondheim, but it’s actually quite rare to get to see the aurora in Trondheim.
And I’m not the only one who’s excitedly shared Northern Lights photos from places that rarely get glimpses of them – you’ll see plenty of photos out there of the Northern Lights dancing over famous locations in southern Norway, but know that that is not the norm. Even my local tourism board here in the south loves to run an Instagram advert of a photo of the Northern Lights over Rauland, but I have never seen them in the nearly two years I’ve been living here.
So head north! If you want a good chance of seeing the Northern Lights, you’ll want to go at least as far north as Bodø.
Also, be aware that the Arctic Circle is quite a long journey from Oslo or Bergen – it’s a 16+ hour drive from Oslo, or a 19 hour train ride. So if you’re on a tight schedule it might be best to fly!
Visiting for too short a time
As I already mentioned, the Arctic Circle is really far from Oslo and Bergen, so make sure to factor time in your trip to actually get up there. There are plenty of cheap flights north, or you could take the train to Bodø (or through Sweden to Narvik), but the train line doesn’t go all the way up to Tromsø.
And you’ll also want to stay as long as possible in the north so that you actually get a chance to see the Northern Lights! The lights themselves are unpredictable, but the biggest challenge you’ll face when trying to see them is probably the weather.
Ideally you’ll want to have time to either wait out bad weather or get away from it. I would try to at least have 4 days in the north (though I spent 7 days in Lofoten and never saw them).
Not packing the right clothing
Hanging out outside on a dark winter’s night is not always the most pleasant experience, but you just know that as soon as you go inside to warm up the aurora will make a quick appearance!
So it’s best to be prepared to wait out in the cold. I’ve written a guide to what to pack for winter in Norway, but basically I would say the most important thing of all is to have warm footwear (I personally love my Sorel boots).
Choosing the wrong time of year
Okay, so most people know that they shouldn’t plan their Northern Lights trip for the middle of summer when the sun never sets, but it turns out visiting northern Norway during the darkest time of the year might not be the best plan either.
The weather in November, December and January can be brutal, so a lot of people say that the best months to see the Northern Lights in Norway are late September, October, February, and March. Of course that’s just a suggestion, as the weather here will always be unpredictable.
Booking (or not booking) a tour
Oh my goodness, I’ve heard so much confusion over whether or not to book a Northern Lights tour!
Do you need to take a tour to see the Northern Lights?
Should you book a tour for every night you’re in the north?
What kind of tour should you book?
And the questions go on.
First of all, if the aurora is dancing brightly you’ll be able to see it even from a city center (plus you’ll always be able to get away from bright lights in Norwegian cities by heading to the parks). So if the weather and aurora forecast are good, you won’t need to take a tour to see the Northern lights.
But it can still be worth signing up for a tour.
Look for a tour with a really good success rate, where the guides will do everything in their ability to help you get a glimpse of the aurora. You’ll want a tour where if the weather isn’t cooperating, they’ll drive you somewhere where it is.
Some tours will also teach you how to photograph the lights (some will even lend you fancy camera equipment!), and usually guides will do their best to entertain you, so the tour will be a fun experience even if you’re really unlucky and don’t see the Northern Lights.
on my Northern Lights photography tour with Lights Over Lapland
Staying in Norway
Please don’t tell any Norwegians that I’m betraying my country like this, but when people ask me for the best place to to see the Northern Lights in Norway I always end up sending them to Sweden instead!
Like I said earlier, the biggest obstacle in seeing the Northern Lights will be the weather, so if you really want the best chance of seeing them you’ll want to go somewhere where the weather pretty much always cooperates. And that place is Abisko, Sweden.
I’ve written an entire blog post about why Abisko is the best place in Europe to see the Northern Lights, but basically due to its location between a lake and mountains, the clouds have a tendency of pulling apart, if perhaps just briefly, even during the worst of weather.
I saw this lights display in the middle of a snowstorm in Abisko (which is why I wasn’t waiting somewhere more photogenic than the bus depot where my friend’s camper was parked):
So if your main aim is to see the Northern Lights, go to Abisko.
Abisko is also a really good budget option for seeing the lights. You can get either a sleeping berth on a train or a flight from Stockholm for around $100 one-way, there are hostel options in Abisko, and there are so few lights in Abisko that you won’t need to take a tour to see the aurora. Plus Sweden is just generally cheaper than Norway.
I’ve written a complete post on how to plan a Northern Lights trip to Abisko on a budget here.
Of course the downside of planning a Northern Lights trip to Sweden instead of Norway is that Sweden is simply not as lovely as Norway. Places like Tromsø and Lofoten are going to blow your mind regardless of whether you see the Northern Lights.
But you can get the train from Abisko to Narvik in Norway, and then get a bus from Narvik to Lofoten or Tromsø, if you want!
Not planning other activities and excursions
If you don’t want to set yourself up for disappointment, please, please don’t make your trip solely about seeing the Northern Lights!
Instead try to fill your days with other fun activities so that even if you have terrible luck with the Northern Lights you’ll still have had an amazing time.
The Arctic has so much more to offer than the aurora, so take advantage of being up there!
I’ve written an article on fun things to do on a Northern Lights trip besides seeing the Northern Lights here, a guide to how to plan an amazing Lofoten trip here, and if you’re heading to Tromsø Van’s blog Snow in Tromsø has everything you could possibly want to know about the city and surrounding areas.
Anyone have any tips to add? Please share in the comments!