Chasing the Northern Lights: The Norwegian city you really need to put on your bucket list
It's where I grew up.
It's funny how this thing you grew up never really thinking about, which was as normal to us as rain clouds are to children in Ireland, has suddenly become the #1 must-see phenomenon there is right now.
I am talking about the Northern Lights. Aurora Borealis. Those beautiful lights that twist and turn across the winter sky, sometimes green, other times almost pink and purple in their hue. And equally magnificent and mind-blowing no matter what colour.
On cold, clear winter evenings (and night), they are almost always there. Sometimes strong and powerful, almost dancing across the sky. Other times more subtle, just barely visible over the snow-capped mountain-tops that are all around you.
To the Vikings, the Northern Lights were a good omen. Odin, the most senior God in Nordic Mythology, saw the lights as a reflection of the armour his warriors would wear when Ragnarokk (Armageddon) came about.
However, to the indigenous Sami people (who live across the northernmost parts of Norway, Sweden and Finland) the Northern Lights were seen as a warning of bad things to come, and would tell you not to sing or whistle or wave beneath it – or it could come down and sweep you up to heaven. The lights, the Samis thought, were really the souls of dead people, and something that should not be spoken about. In fact, there are many Samis that even today will make sure to stay indoor when the Aurora Borealis light up the sky.
My own grandmother would have another warning – that one should never wear white clothing when the Northern Lights were out. And she would actually go as far as bringing my sister and myself in to change us into outwear in darker colours if we had been sent out to play in something she deemed too white.
Regardless of whether or not you believe in old stories and myths surrounding them, the Northern Lights are a sight you should allow yourself to see – at least once in your life. And no picture or Youtube video can even do them justice. No, to really see them, and experience the magic, you need to be there. You need to stand under those majestic mountains. Under that endless winter sky. You need to feel that freezing cold air on your cheeks. And when you see them, like that, you will get it.
The Northern Lights Oval
To really see the Northern Lights, or at least see them at their very most spectacular, you need to be far north. Ideally above the Arctic Circle.
The Norwegian city of Tromsø is located in the middle of the Northern Lights Oval, which is the area with the highest probability of seeing the lights. This means that there will always be good chances of Northern Lights, regardless of the sun’s cycles.
This Norwegian city lies 350 km north of the northern Arctic Circle (and, if you must know, just a measly 2200 km south of the actual North Pole!).
Yes, really – and you can even meet this guy:
Getting to Tromsø
Getting to Tromsø is neither hard, nor very expensive. You can fly Norwegian (or Scandinavian Airlines) straight from Dublin to Oslo (which is just a two-hour flight), and from Gardermoen, Oslo's main airport (where you will be landing) you can catch one of several a day domestic flights north to Tromsø (again, with either Norwegian Air or Scandinavian Airlines) – an hour and a half flight away.
Alternatively, for an even more spectacular trip to Tromsø, fly from Oslo to Bergen on the west coast, Norway's second-largest city, and board the Hurtigruten (Coastal Steamer) cruise ship, which will take you all along the coast of Norway, in and out of our most famous fjords, and eventually drop you off in Tromsø a few days later.
Life in the Arctic
Tromsø is a busy, bustling city with 80,000 inhabitants, and home to the world’s northernmost university, UIT (The Arctic University of Norway.) Many, many students, both from all over Norway and also from countries across the globe, come to Tromsø to study, and experience both the famous Tromsø atmosphere (the city, famous for its many cafées and restaurants, is known as 'The Paris of the North) and the spectacular nature that surrounds this little city.
The capital of the northern part of Norway has a rich cultural life, with several important events are held during the Northern Lights season such as Tromsø International Film Festival and the Polar Night Half Marathon, the Northern Lights Festival and the Sami Week. The New Year’s Eve Concert and the Northern Lights Concerts at the famous Arctic Cathedral are also popular among the visitors and the locals. You will also find many attractions from museums portraying polar and local history to aquarium and art galleries.
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And so while you could easily spend a weekend in Tromsø just sightseeing, eating and drinking your way around town (Tromsø is also home to the world’s northernmost brewery, Mack), you really cannot visit without seeing Aurora – the magical natural phenomenon which can be observed from September to April every year. In other words, you need to visit in the winter.
Tromsø is located in the heart of the Arctic, surrounded by steep mountains and beautiful fjords. In fact, the stunning nature is so close to the city centre that you can admire the Arctic landscape from Tromsø’s main street, Storgata. It is also possible to see sea eagles and seals just a few minute drive from downtown Tromsø. And many also opt to go on whaling safaris to see humpback whales and orcas that are often spotted near Tromsø island.
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How cold is it?
However, thanks to the Gulf Stream, the climate on the coast, where Tromsø is situated, is far milder than what to you might expect this far north. Summers are mild and warm, and temperatures can often reach well into the 20s C. And if you visit during the warmer months, make sure to visit some of the truly stunning beaches that can be found around the city.
And thanks to the midnight sun, you could even go swimming at midnight, as between May and August, the sun never sets this far north,
The winters are often snowy, and inland, temperatures can be as low as - 20 C in the colder months of the tear. In Tromsø, however, the average temperature in the winter months is just - 5 C, thanks to the Gulf Stream that runs along the coast of Norway.
To see the Northern Lights, you need sufficient darkness, so the evening time, between the hours of 6 pm to 2 am is your best bet.
If the sky is clear, you might be able to see the Northern Lights right above the city, but to increase your chances, experts often recommend going on a tour outside the city, away from the bright lights – and plenty of these depart the city every day during the season.
During the winter months, you can also complete your Arctic experience by going on a husky safari, feed reindeer and even go on a reindeer sledding ride underneath the Northern Lights. Sounds magical? It really, really is.
Eat, sleep, sat in Tromsø
Sleep: Clarion Hotel The Edge
Eat: Emma's Drømmekjøkken
Get your coffee: Kaffebønna
Grab a (locally made) beer: Blårock
Best pizza in town: Yonas
(Tip: Get the taco pizza with the super-secret house dressing – you'll thank me later!)
For more information on all the things to see and do in Tromsø, check out Visittromso.no