Updated February 2020
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, as someone living in Northern Norway I’ve spent a lot of time watching the northern lights, so I’m here to help you avoid some of the most common mistakes I see people make when trying to see the northern lights in Norway.
I’ve also gathered even more tips for your northern lights trip into an in depth ebook here. This covers all the necessities for planning a northern lights trip, going into much more detail than my blog posts.
Staying too far south
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 northern lights 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 the local tourism board in my old town in the south loved to run an Instagram advert of a photo of the northern lights over Rauland, but the truth is I never saw them once in the three years I lived there. But now that I live in Northern Norway I usually see the northern lights at least once a week in the winter.
So head north! Because yes, if you want to see the northern lights, Norway is a good place to visit, but only if you’re far enough North. If you want a good chance of seeing the northern lights, you’ll want to go at least as far north as Bodø, and heading all the way up to Tromsø or Alta would give you even better chances.
Also, be aware that the Arctic Circle is quite a long journey from Oslo or Bergen – Bodø is a 16+ hour drive from Oslo or a 19-hour train ride. So if you’re on a tight schedule but have your heart set on seeing the aurora borealis in Norway 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).
Not choosing the best time to see the Northern Lights in Norway
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 believe it or not, the best time to see northern lights in Norway is not necessarily the darkest time of the year.
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, but if you want to optimize your chances I’d say that’s the best time to visit Norway for northern lights.
Also, with the way the aurora oval is positioned, generally you’ll have the highest chance of seeing the northern lights at night. I usually always see them after at least 7 pm. So visiting Norway in December when it’s dark all day won’t necessarily increase you’re chances, as it’s not that likely you’ll see the northern lights at 3 in the afternoon anyway.
Booking (or not booking) a Northern Lights 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 Norway aurora 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.
And it’s an added bonus if you can find a tour that lets you cancel up to 24 hours in advance, in case you just know the weather is going to be awful.
If you want some guidance with choosing a northern lights tour or figuring out how to chase the northern lights on your own, I discuss all of this in great detail in my northern lights ebook.
I’ve included my top northern lights tour recommendations for Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Iceland, depending on what sort of experience you’re looking for. And I’ve also laid out a guide for how to chase the northern lights independently, including my favorite weather app and my two favorite northern lights forecast apps, as well as exactly how I use them. You can buy the book here, and since you’re coming from my blog you can also get a 20% discount with the code 20below, which brings the total down to $5.
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 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.
Or if you can’t find good accommodation in Abisko, I absolutely LOVED my stay at this Airbnb in Kiruna, where you can stay with huskies! I’ve written more about my experience at the husky Airbnb 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.
I recently spent four days on Senja and Dyrøy, which are near Tromsø, and it was seriously one of the best trips of my life, regardless of the northern lights. But I was lucky and actually ended up seeing the northern lights every night!
I can highly recommend both places for a northern lights trip, especially as they’re away from city lights like Tromsø, and generally have better weather than Lofoten. Read about Senja here, and read about Dyrøy here.
Svalbard is also a great place to see the northern lights. It’s the only place in the world that you can watch the daytime northern lights. These are weaker than nighttime northern lights because they’re coming directly from the sun, but you can see them during polar night on Svalbard because it’s completely dark even during midday. It’s very special! I’ve written more about planning a Svalbard northern lights trip here.
Or you could visit both Sweden and Norway! You can get the train from Abisko to Narvik in Norway, and then get a bus from Narvik to Senja, Dyrøy, Lofoten or Tromsø if you want!
I recently did a trip like this that included Abisko, Kiruna, Narvik, Vesterålen, and Lofoten. You can see my exact one week itinerary for arctic Norway and Sweden here.
For where to stay in Abisko, check out Airbnb. There are plenty of places where you’ll be able to see the northern lights, such as this 4-bed apartment in Björkliden, this cosy mountain apartment in Riksgränsen, and this cottage with 360 views. And if this is your first time using Airbnb you can get a discount by signing up here.
I’ve gone into more detail about where to go to see the northern lights in Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Iceland in my northern lights ebook.
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!
Again, Viator and Get Your Guide both have tons of fun options for things to do in the Arctic.
I’ve written an article on fun things to do on a northern lights trip besides seeing the northern lights here and a guide on how to plan an amazing Lofoten trip here.
I’ve also written an in depth ebook covering all aspects of planning your northern lights trip, including the best places in the Nordics to see the northern lights, the best time to see the northern lights, my top accommodation choices, tour options, how to chase the northern lights, how to photograph and film the northern lights, what to pack for your trip, and other exciting Arctic activities to try on your trip up North.
If you want to ensure you have the best northern lights trip possible, you can purchase the ebook here. Get 20% off with the discount code 20below